I’m Vineeta Singh, co-founder of Fab Bag, and this is how I Lead from Within
Vineeta Singh is the co-founder of Fab Bag, India’s largest beauty subscription service. At 23, she was featured on the cover of the WEEK for being the first and youngest B-school graduate to decline an INR 1 Crore placement offer from a global investment bank to start up her own HR services company. Seven years later and now on to her 2nd venture – Fab Bag, this IIT Madras/IIM Ahmedabad graduate keeps pushing her limits with every endeavor, including running, becoming only the 3rd Indian woman to complete the 89km Comrades Ultra-marathon, two years in a row.
My Professional Journey
After I finished my engineering at IIT-Madras, I was quite clueless about what to do so I decided to do an MBA. You think you’ll figure out what to do during your MBA but you’re really just delaying the decision by two more years. By the time I got done with my MBA at IIM- Ahmadabad in 2007, I was quite clear about one thing and that is that I did not want to take up an investment banking job and do the same thing that everybody else was doing just because there was a lot more money in it.
I wanted to start up; in fact, I always had this thing that I wanted to start something in the women’s consumer space and at that point of time, I thought there was a huge need for an online lingerie store in India because I was very disappointed by the whole lingerie shopping experience in India. Online, of course, didn’t exist, but even the offline experience was very painful. So, that’s when three of my batch mates and I got together and we worked on a business plan to sell lingerie online. It turned out it was too early for that and most venture capitalists whom we approached with our plan said that it would not work. But, by then we had all given up our investment banking jobs and we had to start up something.
We figured why not do something low risk which does not involve raising any funding so we decided to start up a services company. We started with making content for educational institutes and then over a period of time got into HR outsourcing. For most of 2007 till 2012, I was running an HR outsourcing business where we would do background verification, hiring and training for large companies like FedEx, Mahindras, ITC etc. It was a healthy services company doing about 2 to 3 Crores INR in revenue, very high margins, but it wasn’t really scaling up.
Right around then, I had the chance to travel abroad and I came across the whole subscription space. I thought it was just the right fit for what I was really passionate about in the women’s consumer space. That’s when I decided to exit my previous company and start up Fab Bag in 2012 – a subscription-based cosmetics company.
On Excellence and Success
I think it starts with a very deep passion for whatever I am doing, whether it’s running or it’s my business or if I take up a project that I am really passionate about, it starts with me taking a decision that I am going to do this really well. Of course, things may not always pan out that way.
There are things that I am not passionate about like engineering. I realized that it wasn’t something that excited me so I didn’t score very high grades in engineering. If I I’m not excited about something then it never goes very well for me. I think it really just boils down to passion and persistence.
I’ve had startups fail. Even in my races, I’ve had issues with not doing my personal best, but then the persistent side of me kicks in and if I have decided that I am passionate about something, then I am going to give it my all, no matter what. That does not mean I can not fail, it just means that every time there is failure, you look beyond it and keep trying, and things have a way of finally working out in the end.
On Running and Persistence
I think I will give a lot of credit to running because once you start training for marathons and then ultra-marathons, the whole game is actually about persistence. When you are doing a race beyond 40 kilometers or 60 kilometers, in most cases, your legs will give way under you. The only thing that can get you to the finish line is sheer will power.
I have seen that over a period of time things have always worked out for me mostly because of this idea of mind over matter and using my willpower to push through the really hard times. All those runs have actually helped me be more persistent in everything else that I was doing in my career as well. Fortunately, for me, this hobby or passion that I have on the side actually helps me fuel my career as well because it helps me be that persistent person who wouldn’t give up because fundamentally to become an ultra marathoner you have to be just that little bit more persistent as compared to everybody else.
My parents have also been a great influence. Both my parents are PhDs and have done very well for themselves in medical research. They would never let me come home with a bad grade. While I was growing up until about the age of 23, I almost had no option but to do well academically. That sense of hard work and persistence also comes from my upbringing.
Being absolutely honest and transparent are values that have been instilled in me since my childhood. That can sometimes come in the way of running your own business, especially in India where there are a lot of systemic issues, from never paying a bribe to a traffic cop to making sure, like we did, with my first company, that all of our taxes and all our filings etc. were absolutely clean. But, for me, being able to sleep well at night and not have anything on my conscience is very important to me. It’s actually even more important than succeeding.
In the short term, your value system could make things difficult. For instance, as part of doing background verification we also do criminal checks, which involves dealing with the police station and we realized there was no clear way of doing it. So, we found out a way of outsourcing it to another agency and paying them more so that we could keep our company from having to bribe anyone just to get a police verification record. That ate into our margins by about 10% to 20%, but every single employee in the company really appreciated knowing that there was something that we stood for. That united us, kept our attrition rates low and inspired our team to do better, to always be honest and transparent. I think in the long run having a clear value system does pay off and personally, that’s been one of the biggest driving forces for me.
Until I was about 23, I always took decisions that were risk-free. I would only participate in things I knew I could be good at, like badminton for instance. I knew that I’d always get a gold medal because there wasn’t that much competition. But, if somebody told me to take up basketball in college, I wouldn’t do it because I knew that’s a game I would have to learn from scratch and I probably wouldn’t be as good at it. I would only take courses that I knew I could do well in. Somehow, I actually managed to avoid failure in a big way because I felt that I couldn’t deal with it.
And then, at age 23, I finally gave up my job offer and decided for the first time to take the biggest risk of my life by starting up without any background in entrepreneurship or business whatsoever. I realized that it actually felt quite liberating to take a few risks.
Once I started up, I realized there were hundreds of things that could fail. A lot of our projects didn’t work out. When we tried raising money for the first time, we weren’t able to. When that started happening, initially it was tough for me to cope with. But, once you have taken a risk and followed your heart into doing something, then it is very difficult for you to go back. That’s when I realized that the only thing that’s inevitable is probably failure, so there is no other option but to get comfortable failing at a lot of things if you want to follow your heart and do something that you are deeply passionate about.
I am, by nature, also very competitive so I realized that I could fail by design by taking up a lot more chances. For instance, instead of treating only professional races as races, I would look at most of my long training runs as timed races. I would fail, but I realized there was a lot that I could learn by failing more often. Once you get comfortable failing a lot, you stop being afraid of doing something that’s risky. I think that has really helped me grow as a person, from someone who was very risk averse to actually taking a lot of risky decisions, and it has also made me happier at the end of the day.
My Biggest Entrepreneurial Lessons
There are two points that I feel quite strongly about especially when it comes to women entrepreneurs. One is the fact that, I think, we tend to undervalue and underrate ourselves, and that’s true not just for women entrepreneurs but for women in various other professions as well.
From my own experience, I realized when it came down to setting goals, targets, or even how much I thought I deserve to pay myself based on the size of the deal, all of those numbers would fall far short of the numbers my male co-founder would have set. I found that to be true of many of my female team members as well, all of whom are amazingly talented women, just as good as their male counterparts, yet their expectations in terms of salaries would always be much lower. As women, I believe, we grow up valuing humility and modesty, and that gets in the way of setting really high goals or a high bar for ourselves. But by setting low goals not only are you being unfair to yourself, but also, if you don’t set goals that are high enough, you can have no hope of achieving them. So, the first entrepreneurial lesson I have learnt is that, no matter what, you must value yourself, value your abilities and your skills, and believe that you are absolutely equal to or better than your male counterparts and set high goals for yourself, be it personal or professional, accordingly.
The second thing that I’ve observed is that, as women, we need to get comfortable with the idea of selling. Whenever we have tried to hire for sales positions, the ratio of male to female applicants has been 8:2. Interestingly, it’s not an issue of women not having the right skills for it, but more to do with not being comfortable with pitching something to someone and then getting rejected for it, and we like to avoid rejection at all costs. But, as a woman entrepreneur, you have no option but to sell all the time, whether it’s to your employees, your investors or your customers. If you don’t, you accomplish much less than you would by being the brand ambassador of your company. As women entrepreneurs, we need to get comfortable with selling right from the first day we start up – reach out to as many people as possible and pitch your idea, your product or service, whatever it may be.
These are two things that, over a period of time, I have learnt I really needed to change about myself and have helped me a lot during my entrepreneurship journey.
On leading as a woman
I’ve had different experiences managing or leading men versus women. About two-thirds of my team comprises of women. It’s been easier establishing a personal connection with them, since it’s easier relating to their ambitions, their constraints as well as personal issues like work-life balance. And, there’s a greater tendency for them to look up to you as a role model.
When you are managing men, I’ve realized you have to work harder at earning the trust of a male team member and that it might take a while because he is not like you, and so is not likely to open up and share his problems, where he is getting stuck and generally, open up and confide in you. That said, as long as you are able to mentor them, invest in their career, and really think about their career plan and how they can do better, I think they will always end up respecting you in the long run. That’s been my experience.
There are definitely a lot of advantages to being a woman entrepreneur. One, as I mentioned earlier is that it’s easier for you to connect with your team and to empathize with them and relate to their problems. If you have a male and a female cofounder, the female cofounder is more likely to be confided in. I think that definitely helps. Secondly, I think women fundamentally can be a lot more passionate about something because we are more emotional compared to men. In other words, I think it’s easier for us to talk about our work and talk about what we are building more passionately, which is great when you are trying to inspire a whole team.
On a life well lived
I don’t have particular milestones in mind, but I would say there are a few key things that add up to making my life as happy as it is. One of them is being able to do meaningful work that I am passionate about every day. Apart from that, having a team to work with that inspires me, a great connect with my family and enough time to pursue my passion for running. If I can do these 4 things, for me that’s a life well-lived and it makes me happy.
Recommendations for other women
I’m a sucker for biographies and I read a lot of memoirs. You can solve so many of your problems by just reading about what others have gone through. It’s motivating and you get to understand a lot of tactical strategies that other entrepreneurs have used. There are 3 types of biographies that really excite me. One is books on inspirational women in general, from someone like Sheryl Sandberg to a Sophia Amoruso. I love reading about women who started with a huge disadvantage and accomplished something great in their lives, or business women who have generally done well for themselves. Second, I love reading biographies of sports people, from Agassi to Nadal to Lance Armstrong, because they have a very hard career and have to be really passionate to succeed. And finally, I love reading about successful entrepreneurs, everybody from Steve Jobs to Richard Branson to Howard Shultz. For me, reading books works much better than just reading articles because they give you a chance to get more involved in the person’s life and you get to see both sides of the coin, the parts where they did well as well as the parts that they really struggled through.
My top 3 recommendations would be the Steve Jobs’ biography, Howard Shultz’ Pour Your Heart Into It, and the biography of a Latin American singer called Jenni Rivera. She was a really strong woman. Thinking about her has helped me in a lot of my races.