Ashish Chopra, Vishesh Chopra and the duo’s mother Simmi Nanda, are the founders of BeUnic, an E-commerce marketplace where they sell products made by their own brand and LGBTQIA+ owned businesses.
Ashish Chopra, Vishesh Chopra and the duo’s mother Simmi Nanda, have set out on a journey of building a safe space for queer owned businesses, through their company BeUnic, an E-commerce marketplace which sells products made by their own brand and LGBTQIA+ owned businesses. When the trio came on a recent episode of Shark Tank India, they touched viewers’ hearts with their inspiring story, one which many Indians from the LGBTQIA community can relate to. Despite not landing a deal, their noble cause definitely struck a chord with audiences.
OTTplay caught up with Ashish and Simmi for a chat, where the duo talked about their journey of acceptance and education, and what they are trying to do for the queer community through BeUnic.
Excerpts from the interview…
I was one of those people who had a hard time finding good pride themed clothing in retail stores, and since seeing your pitch on Shark Tank India, I visited your website, and found that it had exactly the kind of pieces I was looking for. Like me, I'm sure that there were many other people who were introduced to your brand via Shark Tank. So how has coming on the show affected your sales?
Simmi: Thinking back to the days when we started, we were actually struggling in reaching out to people. Ashish actually has good connections, and a network within the queer community. But me as a mother, I was not initially at the forefront of things. I was not a person at the front of things, back then. But then recently from November or December(2021) I started talking to customers directly. Earlier, I used to take care of the backend operations, and Ashish was the face of the community we were trying to build. He used to communicate, and then convey the message to us. That was the criteria we had fixed. He was taking care of marketing, he was the face of the community, and I was taking care of the operations part.
But from December onwards, I started talking to customers, and I wanted to actually understand what my role should be for the community. Could I really make a substantial difference in their lives if I tried? Through Shark Tank, my voice has gone to so many people that they have started relating to my voice, especially in the families, and among mothers. And there are so many messages which I've been getting. Because of this, there are some conversations actually being started between the families.
Ashish: And more than the sales, I think this is what was more important for us. That people will start having these conversations, people start talking about the LGBTQ community. Bringing the community to the mainstream was more important, sales tho ho rahi hai. I mean, sales have increased after Shark Tank for sure. But the amount of love and the amount of messages that we are getting, I think that was major for us. Even my friends are like, ‘I saw it with my family and my mom was crying. I was crying’. So that was more important, I would say.
Could you give me a rundown of your team, and how it operates?
Ashish: It's just me, my mom and my brother, as of now. Then Gaurav, the fourth co-founder. He takes care of all the backend operations. I take care of all the front end, talking to customers, trying to get more vendors on board, trying to interact with customers trying to understand what do they want. What are we not doing enough or what do they want more of? etc And Vishesh does all the creative bits, all the graphics, all the social media and the marketing. That's how we divide our work.
BeUnic is an E-commerce marketplace. Do you guys have any plans to make it into a physical marketplace some time?
Ashish: Funding mil jaathi toh haan. Laughs.
There have been times when people have told us, ‘I want to buy something, but I want to wear it tomorrow’. And for us that gets difficult because we ship and shipping probably takes two or three days, and sometimes the product is not even ready. So making that takes a few days. In these cases, having a physical store definitely would have helped. We would want to have a physical store, or maybe form a partnership with any other physical stores, where could just keep some of our inventory there. That's something we're still discussing. We have not finalised that yet. But hopefully soon.
Simmi: For instance, we could maybe open a small rainbow window, in one store so that it attracts the people, who are curious about the concept. Now some people are aware of all the colours, colour combinations etc, and they know that the rainbow signifies something. So we can have a small window in one of the leading brand stores, and maybe showcase our rainbow collection there. We had some plans, but then it involves a lot of inventory and a lot of management behind it.
The sharks made a few comments when you pitched the brand. For instance, Aman said that it seemed like it was not your focus project. So how would you respond to the comments the sharks made?
Simmi: So Aman said that BeUnic did not seemed to be our focus. But our focus is community building through BeUnic. The main focus of the company is community building and all our actions are directed towards that. Now we are doing hiring, entrepreneurship, events, as well as a host of other activities for achieving that purpose.
Even Peyush Bansal said that this should just become a D2C brand. We refused his offer only because we wanted to build a community. If it was a D2C brand right from the beginning, we could have stuck on to BeUnic as a brand. But we saw the pains of the community endured in trying to come out and showcasing their products, and they make such beautiful products too. But they don't have the resources to showcase that. So when we say community building, I think that this is the bigger umbrella and any activity which we do comes under that community building. But if you say that focus nahi hai I mean, we could not actually explain that our focus itself is community. I don't know from which angle they thought while saying it. Our focus is on community building. If I can be of help to even one person, then it's enough. I have a huge emotional touch to what we are doing.
It's such a refreshing stance you have Simmi ji. But ultimately, BeUnic is a business. So how do you balance the commercial side of it, while trying to make it a safe space for the community? Would it be difficult juggling the two?
Ashish: I think thoda difficult hoga because at one time if we are saying that we are trying to build a safe place for the LGBT community, people who are not a part of the LGBT community might just assume that okay, this brand is probably only LGBTQ specific and it's not for us. But we want to tell them that the fact is that all the products are just made by LGBTQ people, but they are for everyone. So it's sometimes difficult to tell the world that These products are for everyone. They are just made by queer people. So you're empowering the LGBTQ community by buying from them.
Simmi: Like for instance even you told me that you were looking for rainbow tees. Some people prefer vibrant colours, rainbow shoes etc. It can be anyone, a queer person or a straight person. Anyone can like buy our collections.
Ashish: When you look at heels for that matter. When you go back in history, heels were started so that kings could wear them. If you see Ranveer Singh, he wears heels sometimes. So people with that kind of fashion sense, these shoes are for them all, not just men from the LGBTQ community. So we had to come up with such messaging that yeh sab ke liye hai, not just the LGBTQ community. All the products are made by them but it's to empower the queer community.
Do you have any other investors lined up as well?
Ashish: We are talking to a few people. We wouldn't say we are in the final stages of the talks, but we are talking to a few people.
Could you talk to me a bit about the way you do your marketing? You talked about finding a community, but could you give me a rundown of the marketing techniques that you guys use?
Ashish: So I am already in touch with about 2000-3000 LGBTQ people. So we firstly talk to them through WhatsApp, emails, whatever. All the customers that have bought from us, the 1000-1500 customers that we have, we reach out to them, via a lot of Facebook groups, a lot of WhatsApp groups, where there are 1000s of LGBTQ community members. So we reach out to them. If there's like a new collection, we run a lot of Facebook and Instagram ads. We are also running Google ads for our website. We do a lot of content on our social media, not just related to our products, even something like talking about the LGBTQ community. What should parents do, or should parents not do? etc . So we get a lot of engagement there.
Simmi: Since I started making reels, I get a lot of interaction through the comments. Like for instance, sometimes I ask people if they have seen Maja Maa, and what they think about it. It really is a very bold step by Madhuri Dixit. I mean, I could not even imagine that Madhuri Dixit would come into this kind of role. But it was amazing to see her. So that is one. This is the kind of engagement we are doing with customers now.
Ashish: Also, a lot of events, we sponsor some events, we become like a gifting partner for any of the events that are happening, especially for the LGBT community, but even other ones.
Did you guys also play a huge role in the pride parades that have recently taken place?
Ashish: Yes, definitely. A lot of people keep sending us pictures saying hey, I saw this t-shirt of yours at the Pride Parade. I saw these shoes of yours at the pride parade. That really fills us with so much joy. It's just amazing to see that people are recognizing us. People now know that our brand has everything related to the LGBT community. They need T shirts and tote bags and stickers, they can get it from us.
I also wanted to talk to you a bit about your journey as well Ashish. I'm sure that initially like every LGBTQ person, there must have been a lot of fear. So what were the steps you took to finding your community? Only if you feel comfortable sharing your story, of course.
Ashish: Sure, Sure. I used to blame myself. I felt guilty, that it was my fault that I like men. And it all started with Hrithik Roshan by the way, mujhe Hrithik se sacha wala pyar dha. Laughs.
I felt that there was something wrong with me. I don't know why this is happening to me and that maybe I should try harder to fall in love with Priyanka Chopra, and not Hrithik. When I grew up and I got to 17,18 years of age, I told three girls in school, and the three of them told me that it's all pretty normal, and that Ricky Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, etc were from the LGBTQ community. Tim Cook,who is running Apple is also LGBTQ. So I understood that it's pretty normal and that there wasn't anything wrong with me. It's all the people around me who were making fun of me, and I needed to teach and educate them. Since then, we've been doing a lot of sensitization and a lot of education to people who dont know what LGBTQ is.
So initially, obviously I was blaming myself and I did not even speak to a lot of people. The first person in my family I told my truth to was my elder brother, and his reaction was quite boring actually. He was like ‘Cool bro, I know’. I thought there would be a lot of drama, and I would be kicked out of the house. But he was like, no problem, just be a bit careful. He was there for me when I needed any kind of help. He and my mom's young elder sister and niece, the three of them told my mom. I did not want to tell her as I was afraid that she would kick me out of the house. My mom was always talking about how she was waiting for me to get married and bring her a daughter-in-law. Knowing that I could not fulfil her wishes, I was prepared for a lot of drama.Laughs.
And it did happen. We did not talk for months, and she insisted that I give it a chance with women. But now she has become the biggest ally that I have.
How did the community building start? Was it through social media or through meeting people in real life?
just meeting people in real life I would say that really helped. I attended lots of LGBTQ events where I met a lot of people. I even started to organise small house parties at my home to meet community members. It started from five people, to twelve and then it started to grow slowly. So the community I found slowly started to get bigger and bigger. So just meeting people, attending house parties, events, all that really helped.