Back in 2006, when working from home wasn’t even a thing for most people, a young second-generation tech entrepreneur had come up with an interesting product. The Mumbai-based businesswoman had on offer a high-end multimedia PC with a large-screen TV as its display. While everyone appreciated the TV, not many were ready to fork out ₹3.5 lakh for the full setup.
Reading the signs, she quickly pivoted her business to sell high-end TVs, and hasn’t looked back since. Today, Vu Technologies is one of the top television brands in India, with a revenue of ₹960 crore in FY19, and says it has sold a million 4K TVs across India. And Devita Saraf, who founded the company at 24 and is currently chairperson and CEO (and was at No. 45 on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in business list in 2019) is giving the big global brands a run for their money in India.
In all these years since she set up Vu, a television is much more than something on which you consume content—one can connect it to a computer for work; use it to work out; or game on it, she says. In fact, the TV has become “a constant companion” for people during the lockdown, Saraf says. No wonder Vu sold 50,000 4K TV sets in May, while it serviced 10,000 customers during the lockdown. Last week, Vu also launched a new line of televisions to cater to the needs of people who are stuck at home.
In a freewheeling chat with Fortune India, Saraf discusses the television market after the Covid-19 pandemic, what worked for Vu during the lockdown, sustainability, and the secret of the brand’s success, among other things. Edited excerpts:
These are interesting times. Television/OTT viewing is going up but discretionary spends are going down. As a television maker, how do you react to such a scenario?
You know customers will spend, but there’s a change in the segment where they are spending. For example, people are reducing their spends on hospitality, travel, luxury world, movie theatres. And online learning, home appliances, entertainment—anything to do with the home—are the areas where people are starting to spend…. People have the budget; say money saved up for a vacation or going to watch a movie.
And a television gives you so many options: you can connect it to your computer for syncing; you can use it for working from home; you can use it for gaming; you can use it to work out. So, the TV was a constant companion for people during the lockdown.
Earlier, people would go to a movie theatre with family. And it would cost ₹2,000-₹3,000 to book a movie, including the popcorn, and parking, and the rest. And then there’s the new concept of binge-watching television shows. That culture of going every weekend to see a movie—an expensive ordeal—has been replaced by a change in habits.
So, I think discretionary spending [going down] doesn’t mean that people don’t have money; it is because people are spending in different areas.
You recently said that you have sold 50,000 4K TVs in May. How did you do it despite the lockdown?
The demand for TVs has been high because people have been stuck at home; and television is something that people want—not just one but multiple TVs… because all family members want to watch different content. The second thing is that people have realised that they cannot go on holidays or for a movie. So, all the entertainment expenses are now being put into home entertainment.
Also, in terms of televisions—the kind of products we make, that are smart, intelligent TVs—you can do a lot more than just watch TV: you can connect it to your computer for syncing; you can use it for working from home; you can use it for gaming; you can use it to work out. So, the TV was a constant companion for people during the lockdown.
There definitely was a lot of demand for the product. And as a brand, we continued to give customer service during this entire time; and when people needed repairs and we couldn’t do it [due to the lockdown], we gave a replacement TV.
I think [the reason why we could sell all those TVs was] one, people could use the TVs; two, Vu gave fantastic service; and the third is I guess there was a bit of anti-China sentiment—not only the political point of view, but also the fact that Chinese apps like TikTok and UC Browser had serious privacy issues. So, I guess that people have changed their mind about the kind of brands they buy.
Last year in May, we sold 15,000 4K TVs, and this year we sold 50,000 of them. We sold a total of 90,000 TVs in May.
You have said that you also managed to provide 10,000 customers with service during the lockdown. How did you do it?
As a company, we are incredibly digital in the way we give our customers service. If you call us, our customer service executive would run diagnostics over phone or over WhatsApp to service your TV. The second thing we were able to do is in terms of logistics because we have our own offices and call centres (which are ISO 9001 certified) from which we could centrally do all that management.
Before the lockdown, my classmates from Harvard Business School, who are entrepreneurs from across the world, were sharing resources on how to work from home, and for a possible contingency plan in case of a lockdown. So, a week before the lockdown was enforced, I called my whole team and said that let us have a plan in case a lockdown is enforced…. And we made a contingency plan as part of which we made sure that all our customer service agents had broadband and devices at home where they can continue to service our clients.
And I must add that Vu is one of the few companies which have paid 100% of salaries… we have not allowed any pay cuts or layoffs. So that also gave the team the enthusiasm to give it their best. I would not have been able to do this without each person working over and above [their call of duty].
What changes have had to be made in the manufacturing process considering the pandemic?
We use contract manufacturers. But we make sure that they are using not only safety measures in terms of using gloves and sanitisers and masks, but also the fact that we use a lot of more sustainable materials. For example, our televisions are RoHS compliant; we have an e-waste programme; and we minimise packaging costs.
It’s not only the one time about making sure that the product is sanitised, but also it has a lot to do with the fact that we have to make sure that we reduce the damage to the environment. And sometimes my product manufacturing cost goes up, which is why our price is sometimes higher than some of these cheap Chinese guys. But that is because we want to make sure that our systems and practices are eco-friendly.
The other thing that the new line of TVs is untouched by hand because it has a robotic assembly.
What are your sustainability measures? How important is it for you to be sustainable?
We have an e-waste programme. What generally happens is when people are done with their TVs, they have a choice of where and how they want to get rid of it. We do not recommend that people give their TVs to a kabadi or the unorganised sector… because they use harmful processes to dispose of a TV. So, we have tied up with different e-waste companies. If someone has a TV, they can coordinate with the e-waste programme and see what they are offering and get their TV disposed of.
For us as a company, especially during the lockdown, ‘values’ are more important than ‘value’. Whether we care for the environment, whether we care for our employees, whether we care for our customers, you make sure that you build a company that is good from a long-term perspective—good for the economy, good for the country, good for the environment.
For me, as a young businessperson, I have to live on this planet I and I don’t want to choke to death; or I don’t want to see this Corona happening every summer. It is a question of leadership, and your perspective of how you look at business and your role on the planet, rather than be some professional CEO who just sets targets. Value is not values.
What will be the next big thing for televisions? Can we look at a fully cordless future in India?
I can’t remember the last time I turned on Tata Sky. I think it is a generational habit. Today’s generation finds a TV with Internet as an integral part of it. They don’t need to have a dish connection. So most of the people I know who have Tata Sky and all keep it for the elders in their family.
When it comes to the future of the TV, it will certainly be driven by the form of content; and it will also be driven by what all people can do with their TV—which is everything from work from home, gaming, etc. It is endless.
When I started this company, the vision was really to move with the fact that screens would be the new paper; people are just used to screens—let me call them ‘screenagers’. The whole generation and the whole world is shifting to screens; even elders are now using Zoom calls or ordering online. For me, we don’t print any brochure; I also don’t have any printouts in my office. This is also good for the environment that people are using screens rather than cutting trees for paper.
Televisions, more than screens, are the centre of the family. It can become the interactive way for the person to consume information—whether they do it alone, whether they do it with their family, whether they do it with their team members—it doesn’t matter.
What is the secret of Vu’s (and your) success?
I am a second-generation tech entrepreneur and have been fortunate to see a tech business from a young age. What happens with a lot of startup entrepreneurs is that when they start their companies, they suddenly see a whole new world, suddenly see a lot of money, and sometimes grappling with that becomes a big challenge. The second thing is that most of these entrepreneurs have this rags-to-riches story... and in that perspective, a lot of market brands that have flown fast.
I come from a very educated and affluent family and so I realised that my personal strength may not be in creating a rural product or a low-end product. But I know how young, aspirational Indians think. And I was able to create a product and a brand which appealed to me as a buyer; and someone like me who has studied in California, who has studied at Harvard, and has travelled the world; who has as much exposure to the world of business as any global CEO. I think that lead has given me the opportunity to create something so unique.
I would say that if I were not born in this family, not had this kind of exposure, opportunities, and education, I would not have been able to create something new.
Another thing which I believe is—and I am not someone who likes to pull the gender card—but I think being a woman in business gives you a much more different perspective. Like personally, I am not a very competitive person… I am more of a creative person. I am interested always in how I create a brand or a business that is competing with itself and which is getting better each day. And be very empathetic to our customers, our employees, everyone… And I think that perspective has built the brand that stands on these values, which are showing today.
I think maybe a more feminine power approach of building a business is a very different way of looking at the industry. When people are asked who their role models are, they generally say Steve Jobs, Bill gates, or someone similar. I always say that my role models are Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Durga. Because they are looking at finance, knowledge and education, and defence. And Indian women are very smart; they have always for some reason played a back-end role. And if Indian women were to bring the feminine power to the world of business—we would build a business that is more compassionate, than being destructive and being overtly competitive.
And Vu is not any run-of-the-mill company. The way my team has worked during the lockdown, I don’t think that many bosses can say that their team has the passion that they do. When you build that kind of culture, people are very passionate about their jobs. No matter what your product is, the company and its culture keep it afloat.