She left her corporate job and started a health food startup

Shilpa Phadke has an interesting profile – she worked in the telecom sector for 20+ years before she quit her corporate job in 2012 to explore opportunities to be on her own . Her journey after that has been an interesting story. This is one more MyZenPath exclusive feature that explores her career transition from a corporate employee to a passionate health food startup founder.

Looking back

Shilpa completed her schooling in Balco, Korba district in MP (now Chhattisgarh) where her father was employed at that time.

Shilpa Phadke
Shilpa Phadke

She was always interested in outdoor sports and fitness; she even represented her school in basketball. She moved to Pune and stayed with her grandmother for further education. After her engineering she took up a job with Department Of Telecommunication (DoT) back in 1991 when telecom sector was yet to witness its stupendous growth. After spending few years in that government job, she moved on to take up other corporate jobs which were exciting and demanding. One of her jobs needed her to travel to Mumbai daily, she would send her kids to school by 6.45 AM, drive and reach office by 9 AM, do her  workout for 45-50 minutes and start her work by 10 AM. She continued it for couple of years but decided to take up a job in Pune since this daily travel was quite hectic for her. She has worked with broad spectrum of infrastructure, services, products, software in the telecom domain and when she decided to quit in 2012, she was a VP in her well-paying corporate job.

Explorations

When Shilpa left her corporate job 2012, she didn’t have a clear idea what she wanted to do next. She just wanted to establish herself on her own and didn’t want a corporate job. She had done landscaping for few of her friends and liked that work. She decided to give it a try – she completed a short course in horticulture in Kamshet, near Pune. However while working on couple of assignments she realized that she didn’t want to put up with the demands that work needed. She decided not to pursue that further – but I find it worth mentioning because such experiments, and few deviations are inevitable once you venture out to explore your own path.

Meanwhile, even before quitting her job she had started running when she turned 40 – she in fact celebrated her 40th Birthday with a Sinhgad race. She had also started cycling by then. During all these outdoor activities, she realized that there were not many healthy options that could nourish the athletes adequately, replenishing their depleted energy quickly. She sensed the need of the athletes to eat something that was easy to carry and yet gave lasting energy.

There were protein bars, powders, energy drinks available at that time that she used during her long workouts. However, when she consumed some of these during her first marathon, she was not happy with the way her stomach felt after the marathon. She didn’t like those chemical sugars much and realized that most other athletes didn’t like them as well.

Understanding Nutrition

Along with fitness, Shilpa has always been interested in food and nutrition. She believes that it is possible to get good nutrition from natural foods without supplements and additives which have some side effects. Though she didn’t have a formal qualification in nutrition, she studied it seriously from books and few online courses. She discussed nutritional requirements for various activities with various doctors, nutritionists, and of course athletes.  When she talks about nutrition now, her knowledge in this area really shows.

In fact there is an interesting story and testimonial of her knowledge in nutrition. Shusanah Pillinger is an ultra athlete and first British woman to complete RAAM Solo in 2015.  Shilpa supported Shusanah Pillinger as a crew member in early 2014 during Deccan Cliffhanger race and had also helped her with her nutrition plan.  Later in 2014, during RAAM Solo Shusanah fell off her bicycle and broke her collarbone. In 2015, Shusanah wanted to finish her unfinished job – she was determined to Race Across America (RAAM) and it took her 12 days and 9 hours to cover 5000 KMs of world’s toughest cycle race. During this race, Shilpa was instrumental in executing her nutritional plan. Shusanah appreciated Shilpa’s work in her interview with the BBC. This not only validated Shilpa’s deep understanding of an athlete’s nutrition, but this also gave her enough confidence to venture into health food on her own.

Starting up

Shilpa Phadke #OnTheRun
Shilpa Phadke #OnTheRun

Shilpa decided to launch her own energy bars and she had her prototypes ready in 2013. Almost a year was spent on trials and testing the prototype – I was also one of the friends who tried it early and loved those tasty & healthy bars. All the initial reviews were positive and encouraging but the journey was not smooth as such. There are tons of interesting stories of this journey from an idea, prototype to an established product. #OnTheRun energy bar is available in six flavours today in several outlets across the country.

Obviously food startup needs significant investments for the big equipments as well. Shilpa invested her own savings that she had from her 20+ years’ career and then she approached a well-known nationalized bank for loan. However, as per the bank’s policies they needed a no-objection certificate (NOC) from Pollution Control Board (PCB) if she needed more than ₹25,00,000 loan, although her business didn’t fall under PCB’s purview. Due to many hurdles associated with getting that NOC, she finally decided to borrow ₹24,99,000 from the bank and managed to raise the remaining amount with friends and family. It took her 5-6 months to get the required food license.

One of the house-helps working in the society approached  Shilpa during that time. Her daughter had completed 12th standard and that lady wanted her to learn and do some better work instead of cleaning utensils. Shilpa employed that girl and trained her while developing the initial bar prototypes. That girl is still a part of Shilpa’s team today.

Shilpa also made some mistakes, some bad hires – someone who took salary from her but worked elsewhere. She had to fire some bad employees. As she recollects, all that was a part of the inevitable learning curve.

In 2014, Shilpa formally incorporated her startup Stayfit Enterprize along with fellow runner, cyclist friend Hrushikesh Sabnis and by Oct 2014, their machinery started producing OnTheRun energy bars.

On The Run

When Shilpa started, she had just two flavours of OnTheRun bars that were wrapped in simple butter paper and packed in a brown coloured zip pouch. Initially those bars were made available in only two stores in Pune city. Nevertheless, all those who tasted these bars loved the taste and quality ingredients that went into making it.

One such day she received a call from a well-established industrialist manufacturing agricultural products. He had tried her bars and liked its quality. He appreciated that it is indeed rare to see such a high quality Indian product that was not only nutritious, but also delicious. In their conversation, he expressed his wish to help Shilpa and ordered bars worth ₹ 3,00,000 that he could distribute through his own distribution network. Her usual orders were of few thousands at that time and she was supplying to only a couple of stores in Pune. Though she had the manufacturing machines, the packaging was manual and there was no one to actually ship the product. Given all this, it was a herculean task to deliver that order in time, but she took the challenge, worked hard with her small team and delivered the order.

However, as she experienced later, this industrialist had completely different business and products. He didn’t have much knowledge of healthy snacks or energy bars. Thus he was not able to distribute her products successfully to the target customers. Shilpa realized this and worked on improving her own distribution. She also hired a professional marketing person to handle business development and acknowledges honestly that it works out much better when you delegate it to someone who excels in it.

Despite the distribution problem, this experience gave her strong confidence boost since an unknown person was willing to give her a substantial business. This also validated that product was excellent.

Another such appreciation and support came from a celebrity athlete, model Milind Soman. Shilpa met him in one of the exhibitions where she had a stall for OnTheRun, he tried the bars and appreciated them for quality and taste. He occasionally visited their office and saw how those bars were made, the friendship continued. Milind Soman loved the product and became its brand ambassador. Earlier this year, he went a step further and invested in Shilpa’s brand OnTheRun.

After all these years of hard work, making mistakes and learning from them, the future looks bright for Shilpa and her venture OnTheRun.

Shilpa Phadke with Milind Soman
Shilpa Phadke with brand ambassador & investor Milind Soman

Connecting The Dots

When Shilpa was narrating her experiences during her own startup journey, I could see how much she had explored and learnt in relatively shorter span of 3-4 years. When she left her corporate job in the telecom sector, she didn’t know much about starting up on her own. She is a first generation entrepreneur and had her own share of naive assumptions and associated problems. But she was prepared to learn from her mistakes and was never afraid of approaching people for advice and try whatever she could. Shilpa is an ISTJ – they are practical, logical, organized and devoted to their chosen work. When working towards a goal, ISTJs wholeheartedly pursue it with all their time and energy completing each relevant task with accuracy and patience. I think Shilpa’s OnTheRun startup journey exemplifies this. Her relentless work is instrumental in her successful career transition in such a short span of time.

She has always been passionate about fitness and nutrition, she has found her own purpose in creating products that are close to her heart, lifestyle and reflect the values that she holds dearly.  The early struggle of building her startup kept her away for some time from running and cycling tours, but she hasn’t compromised on her daily fitness routine. Moreover, now that OnTheRun is more or less on a predictable growth track, she is also giving time for these passions. She completed her cycling tour to Spiti valley earlier this year.

After all, when your work is closely related to you passion, something magical is bound to happen.  🙂

Running Ahead

OnTheRun has been growing quite impressively in the last 3 years since its launch. It is not solely based on the quality of the product. As any successful entrepreneur would tell, there is lot more to a successful product beyond its quality. Shilpa is no exception – she has picked up nuances of this business quickly. As she herself mentioned, hiring a good, professional marketing person helped her grow her brand more effectively. She has hired some excellent consultants including a nutritionist for her products. Likewise, she is associated with a big national distributor now – she knows that she is spending more money there, but it is more important for her to reach customers at national level and this distributor allows her to expand to that market now, which otherwise would have taken another year. She started three years ago with two outlets in Pune, today OnTheRun bars are available at 400 stores across India. These bars are also available for online purchase at Amazon. There are several athletes ordering her bars for international marathons, treks, cycling and other adventure sports.  The large volume of  production has also allowed her to engage best people in the industry for packaging. Stayfit will now work with one of the best design agencies in the country, which was inaccessible when they had just started with lower volumes. July this year, Shilpa moved her production from Pune to New Mumbai in a manufacturing unit that has excellent infrastructure and compliance procedures that would allow her to focus on scaling up production without worrying about peripheral activities. Moving closer to wholesale hub has also improved her supply chain logistics and she is ready conquer more markets now.

Shilpa mentions that she had her own share of doubts in the early days of her startup and even thought of back-up plan at that time. However, she is growing in confidence with the success of OnTheRun. She can now clearly see a predictable growth path ahead. She has expansion plans, but not looking for loans anymore. Instead, she is confident that she could get investments now but she would choose investors who could bring something valuable to the table beyond money. Just like her friend, brand ambassador and investor Milind Soman did!

OnTheRun is targeting revenues of ₹ 2 Cr this year and aiming at ₹ 50 Cr in the next 5 years. Shilpa is also planning to launch few more interesting products under this brand. Shilpa’s  journey has been inspirational – many magazines, media have covered her startup and personal journey. Recently she won a star award in the early stage business category in the #MadeByHer conclave. She misses her late father and wished he was here to see her startup succeeding. Understandably, he was a bit concerned when she left her corporate job. And then she has a twinkle in her eyes when she smiles and says that her son’s friend is interested in joining her as an intern.

There are more milestones to reach, the road ahead looks promising and Shilpa is already on the run!

Shilpa has shared an exclusive insight from her own Journey for My Zen Path readers – you can listen to her in the short video added here.