In January 2017, while Donald Trump was getting inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, Devita Saraf became the talk of the town in Mumbai. The 38-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of Vu Technologies, which sells TVs under the brand name Vu, brought out a full-page advertisement in The Times of India congratulating Trump. It featured a photo of her with the real estate baron from a couple of years ago when they had met during his visit to India.
In her own words, half of her father’s friends from the business community “fell off their chairs” the morning the ad was published, and she got massively trolled on social media. The head of a competing brand asked a common friend, a hotelier, to check how much she had paid to make this photo op possible. Her friend called her at 7.30 a.m. and put the competitor’s query to her. “I asked my friend to tell this gentleman that I didn’t charge Donald Trump anything!” Mumbai-based Saraf says with a laugh.
This feistiness is an essential trait Saraf has put to good use while taking on the big global daddies of the consumer durables world to carve out a large niche for her brand in one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for almost everything money can buy.
The ad might have seemed an impulsive decision to outsiders but served a larger purpose. It helped put brand Vu “in the right place”, says Saraf, since Vu’s products were getting designed at a lab in California, and therefore had an American connect. “My channel dealers loved the ad and some of them even framed and kept it.”
Vu Technologies’ mantra to offer premium, technology-packed products at relatively affordable price points to the educated and upwardly mobile Indian consumer has paid off handsomely for the company. It became the first brand in India to offer an integrated Netflix app with its TV as well as the first to run an Android 7.0 operating system. In 2018, Vu launched the world’s first 100-inch 4K TV, which sells for ₹20 lakh.
Founded in 2006, Vu is the fourth largest brand of TVs sold in the country after Samsung, LG, and Sony (in that order). It is the largest selling TV brand online and sells more 4K smart TVs in India than Sony despite competition from a bevy of Chinese players in the market. The debt-free company’s turnover stood at ₹960 crore in FY19, more than double the figure two years ago. According to the latest Registrar of Companies data, the entirely bootstrapped Vu reported a net profit of ₹50.11 crore in FY18, up from ₹20.77 crore in the previous year. Hardly surprising then that Saraf returns to Fortune India’s 2019 Most Powerful Women in business list at No. 45, after a hiatus of two years.
Around 15 million TV panels were sold in India in FY18 and the market is growing 20% annually. But competition has ensured that margins remain wafer-thin. To counter this and remain profitable, Vu focusses on only high-end TVs that command better pricing, rapidly culls products that don’t sell well, keeps business operations frugal, and takes a cautious approach to marketing (its marketing expense is at a mere 3% of sales). The need for aggressive marketing is also curtailed by ensuring repeat customers. “Around 86% of customers who have bought a Vu TV have bought another TV from us,” Saraf says. “We try and retain customers as opposed to scavenging for new markets all the time.”
The hallmark of any good consumer durables brand is the after-sales service that it provides. Saraf knows this and so her glass cabin in the company’s spartan headquarters directly overlooks the customer support team, which includes a tech concierge who can help you download an exercise app on your TV even at midnight.
Saraf, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California, began her career by joining her father Rajkumar Saraf’s business, Zenith Computers—a well-known maker of personal computers—in 1997. “The motivation at that time was to be a woman in business. At most affluent business families, women aren’t necessarily the scion, especially if there is a male heir,” Saraf reminisces. While shadowing her father, she met leading executives from global technology companies, including Intel and Microsoft. Her time at Zenith helped her understand the psyche of the Indian consumer and the direction in which it was headed, while the time spent in Silicon Valley gave her insights into how businesses are built, she says. “It is sad I say this now, but the inspiration for Vu, in a way, came when I came back to India and saw coffee being sold at ₹50 at a place called Café Coffee Day [the café chain’s founder V.G. Siddhartha committed suicide on July 29],” says Saraf. “I thought to myself that these Indians seem to be very different from the Indians I grew up with in a more socialist era. With Vu, I made a bet on consumers growing up in a more liberalised economy who would be inclined towards a more high-end product that matches their lifestyle and aspiration.”
The idea of starting a lab in California to help design high-end products for India came during a meeting with Jason Chen, then a senior vice president with Intel (and current chairman and chief executive officer of Acer). The first product conceptualised at this lab that Vu commercially sold in India was a ‘digital home’ comprising an integrated high-end computer and TV. It retailed through Vu’s first showroom in Nariman Point in Mumbai at what was then a staggering sum of ₹3.5 lakh. While the product won appreciation, the price point made it hard to sell. But the display quality was appreciated by one and all, and to clear inventory, Vu decided to first sell displays to institutional customers including hotels under the Oberoi, Taj, and Hyatt brands; banks such as State Bank of India and ICICI Bank; and out-of-home media solutions companies.
With her products selling like hot cakes, Saraf decided to venture into making and selling TVs for households. She visited leading consumer tech shows around the world to zero in on the best panel manufacturers in the world who would be able to supply a steady stream of A+ grade panels for high-resolution TVs. At present, a majority of Vu’s research and development efforts are based out of India (though the lab in California is still used on a project basis, Saraf says). Different components of Vu’s TVs are made across South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, and China, which is also where the final product is assembled.
A large chunk of Vu’s growth has come from e-commerce. Around five years ago, when e-commerce was still synonymous with mobile phone sales, Flipkart seeded a new category of electronic products by selling Vu TVs on its platform. Flipkart co-founder Sachin Bansal, who has since exited the company now owned by Walmart, says the partnership with Vu came at a time when Flipkart was seeking to diversify the portfolio of brands it sold, as it felt that the bigger multinationals were not innovating enough for the Indian consumer. “We had some apprehensions initially, but through a continuous understanding of the evolving Indian consumer, they managed to challenge the monopoly of the big three global brands in the TV space,” says Bansal, who has since turned serial investor and made investments in companies including Ola, Altico Capital, and Ather Energy.
Saraf’s father, who knows a thing or two about building a consumer brand ground up, says her biggest achievement has been to build customer loyalty and stitch partnerships to bring the latest technology to Indian consumers. “You may have a great brand, but what matters at the end of the day is whether a customer is willing to buy your product over the years because the market for TVs will only grow,” says Rajkumar Saraf. “You may be on your mobile all day long when out of home. But the moment you come back you want to switch to a larger screen.”
So what’s the future for Vu as its founder envisages it? For starters, she wants to break into the top three TV brands in India over the next three to four years.
At Reliance Industries Ltd’s last annual general meeting, chairman Mukesh Ambani said that “television was still at the heart of the Indian home”. The reference was in connection with Reliance Jio’s ambitious plans for offering Indians high-speed broadband services, integrated with content across devices, including content on TV. This so-called ‘Jiofication’ opens up new opportunities for entrepreneurs like Saraf.
“Serendipitously, what I see us doing in the future is what we were doing 13 years back, which is the whole digital home media centre,” Saraf says. “The TV will bring together family members to collectively consume content across entertainment, healthcare, education and even connect people across geographies through video conferencing. All this means that a family’s budget for a larger and more advanced TV will go from being a lifestyle choice to a necessity.”
And when that happens, Saraf wants to be ready to offer her customers a ‘Vu’ to the world.
This story was originally published in the September 15-December 14 special issue of the magazine.