Giridhar Soundarajan’s Startup 'Barrel Exhaust' Gives Heartbeat To Bullets
After getting his MBA in Finance & Marketing from RVIM Bangalore, Giridhar Soundarajan went on to work at various companies including ISGN, AOL and Hewlett-Packard (HP) for more than 7 years. Entrepreneur at heart and Engineer by passion, Giridhar quit his job in 2013 and went through two unsuccessful startups, only to start his third one called ‘Barrel Exhaust’ around 10 months back from now.
Barrel Exhaust converts exhaust pipes into designer pieces. They've created two products called Ghost and Canon and recently launched their own store at shop.barrelexhaust.com. Born out of the love for bikes, Barrel Exhaust team treats every customer as their biker brother and hope to make every customer fall in love with their products at first sight.
In an exclusive interview with us, we got Giridhar to talk about his journey from being an employee to a startup owner, the ups and downs along the way and how he is sailing his ship to bigger shores. Read on!
Giridhar Soundarajan, Founder and CEO - Barrel Exhaust
CE: Tell us about your growing up years. Are you a first generation entrepreneur?
Giridhar: My childhood was entirely in a small house and a big joint family. I studied in St Paul’s English School in Bangalore and was every year branded as a below average kid at school.
I was more interested in things outside the class than the one taught within the walls.
At the age of 12, my fascination towards growing aquarium fishes led me to run a small pet consultancy in my locality and I started selling/consulting to my neighbors for pets.
I soon was able to convince a lot of kids in the area to persuade their parents to buy them aquariums and in the meanwhile had struck a deal with the local pet store for a commission against the sale I bought him. I made decent money and also hired few friends to help me run the business. Instead of salaries, I bought them ice creams and sport goods. It was after a year my mother found out I was selling fishes and being born in a Brahmin family my parents didn’t like the idea of selling fishes or pets and stopped me from continuing.
Right from my childhood, I was fascinated with engineering stuff and mainly machines. I was dreaming every night of becoming a fighter pilot and due to lower grades in my 10th class, I did not getting admission for science group in college. Thus, I graduated in Commerce and went on to do Masters in Business Administration.
Though I am not an engineer by education, I am one by heart. I would always be the guy at home to repair (mostly open up and dismantle everything) from fans to wrist watch.
During Masters I competed against engineering college folks and won the competition for building a crane with ice cream sticks that could life the maximum weight.
Some of my early innovation projects were:
- I built a “Turn assist light” system for cars wherein the lights aligns its axis with the tyre direction.
- I built a car windshield viper system that has water sprayer on them to avoid scratches on the glass.
- I also designed a safety wearable gadget for infants and kids with autism that could alert parents when kids are in potential danger. This was soon after I heard about the 6 year old kid being raped in the school campus.
- I went ahead and shared an idea to avoid credit card fraud with VISA and MASTER CARD but to my surprise none responded.
- Worked on an idea to generate electricity using commercial Air Conditioning Compressors on buildings and shared with Godrej limited R&D team.
CE: How would you describe your journey from being a sales analyst to being a startup owner?
Giridhar: According to me Employee v/s Entrepreneur is just a difference of mindset. One can be an entrepreneur even while being employed at some organization. I always knew I am not an employee even while I was working with some MNC giants. I always look for solving problems. I never like monotonous work and didn’t care about the appraisal or promotions in my role. What I could learn and what I could do better than the last time was my only goal.
I’d say being employed is not a sin but feeling comfortable being employed is.
The comfort of having a salary credit at the last day of the month by the company is what stops many from pushing themselves to do more.
The thought of job security and fear of social status keeps millions to sit on their hands and continue doing what is safe.
I was neither interested in job security nor did I care about what people will think of me. My brother inspired me and my wife was as always very supportive. So, I called it a day for my corporate career.
CE: When your first two startups failed, how did you keep yourself motivated? What made you venture into an automobile accessories territory?
Giridhar: I was out of job for the first time in 9 years and having no clue what I would do but a heart filled with determination to follow my passion, I stepped out. One of my senior managers threatened me that if he found me working with the competitor, he would make sure I lose my job. I smiled back and said, you would never get that opportunity.
Leaving the job was heroic but the days that followed weren’t as rosy at it seemed. I started building a social app and mid way failed and burnt my savings. I was wounded but still hungry for more and went on building another one and this time a B2B app that was promising. Again history repeated and I was bankrupt.
I had a unfinished home for which I was paying EMI and I decided to let go of it and sold the home so I could support my family and my child’s education.
While being almost broken I even thought of getting back to work. One day during Aug 2014 out of the blue I received a call from a chairman from a MNC who said he looked at my LinkedIn profile and learnt about my failures and was interested who then offered me a senior position with a very good pay package. So tempted I was to take it up while I had no money in my bank account and many bills to pay for. I did not take up for a reason that I wanted to try once more because I wanted to prove to myself my worth.
From that day I used to make a list each morning and made a note of things that made me happy and one week in a row “automobiles” topped the list. I guess I was then successful in finding what my heart was telling me all these years and started Barrel Exhaust.
CE: Tell us about your family's reaction when you turned down a lucrative job offer.
Giridhar: The decision to turn down the job offer while being bankrupt was very tough one and seemed illogical. With a lot of pending bills and empty pockets the best thing to happen to me was the job offer. On my way back to home from the interview, I sat in my car for a long time alone confused about the decision to make. Then after talking to my brother, I decided to turn down the offer and proceed with my next startup plan. I had a very supportive family so it was not tough for me to convince my family.
Till the time I got the job offer fear was residing in me but the moment I turned it down to try again with a new idea, all fear vanished and confidence grew in me because I came to know that someone is seeing a value in me after two failures that I have been missing to spot. That was an eye opening thing for me. I found my strength and started to work harder on it.
CE: Who are the other people behind building Barrel Exhaust? How did you meet them? Tell us the behind-the-scenes story.
Giridhar: When I decided to start something in the automobile industry I started to review some some old ideas I had shelf’d or kept aside for future use. Then I also started to look out for a co-founder or a teammate who could compliment the skills that I may be lacking.
During this phase I was attending weekend startup meetups and coffee meetups in Bangalore and one such event happened in a pub in Koramangla, Bangalore. There were lot of strangers in the meetup out of which some looked like they had successful businesses and few tech geeks. A small bunch of young guys were also present who came to seek advice to build a startup and feed their inquisitiveness.
While I had been mostly silent observing people and listening to what they had to tell, I saw a young guy in a stylish tee and a torn denim talking to people passionately discussing some things that kept his eyebrow stretched upwards most of the time.
I wanted to know what this lad was discussing and took the seat across the table where he sat. In sometime I introduced myself and then we started discussing the innovative projects each has worked on in the past. In a short span, we both were excited about each other’s ideas and decided to meet later in the week for a coffee.
At the Coffee shop meeting that happened the following day, I found that Roopak was an aerospace engineer and a gold medalist in design. I shared with him my ideas of starting up with automobile accessories and he readily agreed to join hands with me. Roopak is the Chief of Design at Barrel Exhaust and the one responsible to make our customers fall in love with our products at first sight.
While I had Roopak who is young, creative and smart at design, I wanted someone who is experienced, passionate about biking and understands the language of the vehicle. A guy who can have trust in my vision and whom I can also trust blindly is what I needed. I found Marshal who had also quit his corporate career in the US (Mortgage industry) a year back and was looking for ways to get into the field of his choice (automobiles). Marshal is also the admin of the Bangalore Chapter of our riding club “Wolfe Pack India Motorcycle Club” the first registered PAN INDIA riding group for Royal Enfields.
Marshal used to spend most of his day in some workshop or garage learning about the bikes and performance and fixes from experienced mechanics and by night would take care of his mother who needed medical attention.
His passion towards motorcycles was very strong and I could sense this whenever I spoke to him about motorcycles. One evening Marshal and I met for dinner and had a long conversation about our first product that we had launched a month ago. Marshal who was then not a part of our team used to help us test our exhaust and provide feedback and correction tips. In between the conversation, I told Marshal that I would love to have a person like him in my team and without hesitation or a second thought Marshal said “Yes Sir, I would love to be a part of team Barrel Exhaust”.
Marshal is the Chief of Production at Barrel Exhaust and the guy to go to for all technical queries, product performance, Quality, Testing and Rider Connections. He is honest and believes in the vision of Barrel Exhaust as much as I do.
Our latest addition to the team is Anantha Mohan who volunteered to help us until he leaves to Germany for his higher education in Production Engineering.
CE: We would like to hear about your love for bikes. How do you keep yourself up-to-date with latest trends in this industry?
Giridhar: Motorcycles have always been very dear to me from childhood. I always dreamt of becoming an automobile collector and have all the best motorcycles and supercars in my garage. I am a part of a Enfield riding club called Wolfe Pack India Motorcycle Club which is the first registered PAN India Motorcycle club. We are a bunch of riders who are closely knit in brotherhood and ride across various destinations.
We are also connected with lot of other riding clubs virtually and follow each other. This helps us to keep ourselves on toes about the latest developments in the Indian Automobile Industry across various brands. Moreover, we attend many Auto Expo’s and bikers meet organized at different locations and dates that helps us know what’s happening around us.
CE: What is Barrel Exhaust's revenue model? Are you profitable?
Barrel Exhaust started with the 50,000 rupees that I had in my hand and no external investments. We didn’t have an office nor did I have funds to have big stocks. I was travelling with the limited stocks in my car boot and used Facebook for sales.
Slowly in about three months, I borrowed some funds from my dad and from three other friends.
After about 6-7 months our Brand gained some popularity and orders started to increase from across the country. We slowly started becoming positive and the pace is still on. I am expecting break even and profits by the end of the second quarter of 2015.
As far as our revenue model is concerned, it’s pretty same as any lifestyle brand, increase sales volume and increase revenue. We have slowly started opening up dealership of our products across India and hope to cover a substantial number of cities by the FY 15 end.
CE: What were the initial days of running your startup like? Where did you operate from?
Giridhar: Just like most other startups in their early, we were not organized and there was lot of confusion. We were very sure of our target customers so we were at least happy to know our efforts were moving in the right direction. I only had the last part of the funds that I had from selling my house to invest in the company. I had to manage my family also with the same chunk.
I was bankrupt but my hopes didn’t have the slightest dent. We didn’t have an office space so we were standing in the corner of bakery shops and operating.
We didn’t have place to store the small stock so I used to carry the exhausts in my car boot. We could not afford to spend for marketing so we only depended on our customer word of mouth. I had the weight of two failures on my back that I was carrying but this time I was confident that we will do good.
We used to meet once a month in a coffee shop for team meeting because we could not afford to spend more without any sale.
Our initial vendor was not that skilled and resulted in defects of manufacturing. I could just not give my customer any defects so I scrapped an entire lot of 25 exhausts. For us, that was a big blow and pulled us down further financially.
I was struggling within to pay for few bills until things started to change for good after 6 months. The journey was very tough but that has disciplined me a lot in how I operate Barrel Exhaust.
CE: How big is the market that you are targeting? What are the expansion plans for Barrel Exhaust?
Giridhar: The two wheeler market in India is growing rapidly in the past 5 years and that is a good sign for us. We are currently serving only the Royal Enfield bikers and by the end of fourth quarter of 2015, we plan to go beyond Royal Enfields and serve other bikers too (both premium and otherwise)
CE: Who are your competitors and what measures do you take to set yourself apart?
Giridhar: If I want to see who my competitors are then any other manufacturers of motorcycle accessories are one. However, we at Barrel Exhaust play the game differently. We don’t compete with our so called “competitors”. We just compete with our past months performance to make sure we are better today than yesterday. Be it with our products or our sales numbers, we believe in continuous improvement and learning is the best way to walk ahead.
We at Barrel Exhaust believe in “Let's care for our customers and let them care for our business”. We try to hold the highest level of ethics in business and stand by our promise made to our customers.
No Marketing is greater than the happy customer referring more customers! Almost all our sales till now have happened through our happy customers sending us new customers.
Barrel Exhaust is a Brand that bikers trust blindly because we do not cheat anyone either with quality or warranty promise!
CE: What measures do you take for customer satisfaction? Could you share any experience of dealing with a happy customer?
Giridhar: We have always made sure that every customer or Dealer of Barrel Exhaust is happy and delighted with our products and our service. Biking unlike other community is very closely knit and the brotherhood is very strong. We at Barrel Exhaust are ourselves hardcore bikers who believe a lot in the biker brotherhood. So treating our customers (who happen to be our biker brother) is not a tough task for us. They are already our family and caring for our family members is no burden!
Every customer experience that we have had till now is memorable as they have become a part of our family and team. The people who got Barreled (“the term we use when someone buys our products”) have expressed their happiness for buying from us many times.
One such customer from Mumbai and another from Hubli went to the extent of telling us, “Consider me as your unpaid marketing team member and I will spread the joy of getting Barreled to every biker I see.”
CE: On what front are the team's efforts currently focused on?
Giridhar: My team is on their toes to get the supply meet the increasing demand and also simultaneously work on new product designs that will be jaw dropping in appearance and mind boggling in performance. We have recently received additional pair of hands to assist us in Daily Operations and Marketing activities.
CE: If you have a chance to go back in time and rectify the mistakes you did in the initial days of Barrel Exhaust, what would you do differently and why?
Giridhar: Yes! If that was an option I had, I would have gone back 3 years and started Barrel Exhaust much earlier when I had the idea first came up in my mind. ☺
CE: How is the startup life treating you? What is the best and worst part of being entrepreneur? Do you miss any part of the time when you were not an entrepreneur?
Every night I hit the bed, I am already expecting it to be dawn so I can go to my office, it’s that fun to be building a startup that is everything about your passion.
Being an entrepreneur and a one who failed twice before jumping into the third one gave me a lot of life lessons that is so important to learn.
- Startup life eradicated the fear of failure in my life and I am no longer afraid to try anything new fearing chances of failure.
- It increases self confidence and self esteem.
- Prepares one to face odds in life and teaches how to go head on and solve problems.
- Keeps you away from crumbling under societal pressure and worrying about what people will think of us.
- Teaches you how to handle people and finances (mostly by letting you screw up at least once)
- There are no more weekdays and weekends like when being employed, its only weak days or strong days for an entrepreneur.
While there is tons of good stuff to write about my entrepreneurial lessons, there is a flip side too.
- I rarely find time to take my family out and spend quality time with them.
- After my startup life began, I get to see my daughter sleeping more than being awake (I reach home late when she is already asleep and I wake up early morning with her good bye kiss when her school bus arrives)
- I no longer get time to sit with my daughter for her homework
- I no longer worry only about my family and my life but also about my team and their families like wise.
CE: Any message for young engineers and aspiring entrepreneurs?
Giridhar: After completing my Masters I took a decade to start working in the line of my passion, and I feel I wasted a lot of time working for money and small dreams. I’m yet not a great achiever to advise people but with my experience and lessons in life so far below is what I would like to share.
For Young Engineers -
- Following one's heart and working in the field where one's passion lies may not give high returns early but is the best on a long run.
- We spend most of our day working and so choosing something we like to do can bring happiness that is worth more than a high pay package doing something you hate.
- Never compete with anyone or compare yourself with anyone, doing so will be like judging an elephant and a monkey in a competition to climb the tree.
- Always try to be or make yourself better than your immediate past. There are lot of problems around us everywhere, keep looking to improve or build a solution in the hope to better the world and not just making money!
For Entrepreneurs -
- I would say please fall in love with your customers' needs (i.e your product), this will help you make the best of the products or service and you may never need to worry about your competition.
- One of my mentors told me a couple of years back, “try new stuff and fail faster and move on to the next thing. As an entrepreneur, your time is too short to stick to one failing business for long”
- Most of all, Believe in yourself and Dream big!
Do take a look at the promotional video put together by the Barrel Exhaust team: