Episode 168 / May 8, 2022

Shashank Mehta, Founder, The Whole Truth on secrets of building a brand and his learnings & insights from his experience with Hindustan Unilever

01 hr 02 min

Episode 168 / May 8, 2022

Shashank Mehta, Founder, The Whole Truth on secrets of building a brand and his learnings & insights from his experience with Hindustan Unilever

01 hr 02 min
Listen on


Why is HUL considered a Leadership factory?

“Every great brand is built on a fundamental human insights.” Do you agree that people come before revenue?

“Invest in Brand, even as little as possible, and not just Performance Marketing from Day 1.”

Listen to Shashank Mehta, Founder of The Whole Truth Foods and a passionate HUL Ex-employee in today’s episode to know his perspective about everything mentioned above.

Notes –

03:43 – Definition of D2C market in India context

07:11 – His early career prior to starting his entrepreneurial journey

09:40 – Post-MBA why he chose Marketing over Finance?

11:30 – Why HUL is considered a leadership factory?

14:30 – Learnings from his stint at HUL

18:48 – Why he joined Faasos (now REBEL Foods) a lesser known startup leaving HUL in 2012?

23:40 – Scale of Faaso’s when he joined and left the company

24:30 – Why he left Faasos and joined HUL again?

28:22 – Learnings from setting up an Ayurveda-brand within HUL

34:09 – Consumer insight which HUL was trying to solve with its AYUSH proposition

34:54 – His blog about food and fitness – FIT SHIT

41:54 – Raising around 5 Cr+ initial funding during his Notice Period

45:10 – Zero to One Phase of The Whole Truth Foods

50:02 – Realizing the ‘Aha Moment’ of brand’s journey

52:32 – Sales & Revenue Milestones during their journey

54:05 – Being a Truth company rather than being a food company

57:00 – Key learnings while scaling a brand


Read the full transcript here:


Shashank 0:00

A piece of trivia for anyone listening to the podcast who’s reached this point, the full form of FAASOS is Fanatical Activism Against Substandard Occidentalship. FAASOS has this acronym not many people notice. Why did I join them? See as you can tell from how I’m speaking, I love Unilever, I think it’s the best company in the world. But at the same time, I realized from the very beginning that I am a creator. There’s this theory that in every human there is either Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva, which means you’re either a creator or a manager or a destroyer, and all three are needed to run the world. We should recognise who you are. And I was very clear at that time that I am a creator. I enjoy creating and not managing. And by definition, a management job is managing not creation, creation has been done by someone, he has made a car which is running at 40 and you have to make it run at 45.


So I was clear that I would get max happiness when I’d get into a place where I get to create and that seems to be the domain of entrepreneurs. So I wanted to start up, but I didn’t know how to start up. I didn’t have any idea, money or wherewithal, balls. So at the same time, Jaydeep who’s the founder of FAASOS, he had just started up and this is 2012, nobody used to talk about startups at that time in our country, he had just started up and he raised his first series A check from Sequoia and he put out an email saying, looking for entrepreneurs in residence and that’s the first time I’d heard this word. And I was sold that this is what I want, that under someone else’s guidance and money, I would learn entrepreneurship. So that was so lucrative to me that I told my boss and I was doing exceedingly well actually. He was also shocked, just like my parents were shocked that he has gone crazy. But that’s why I left and went to FAASOS.


Siddhartha 2:20

Dear listeners, This is Siddhartha Ahluwalia, your host and founder of 100x Entrepreneur podcast. Welcome to today’s episode of 100x Entrepreneur podcast. I have a very special guest with me. He is redefining the food for 1.4 billion Indians. Today we have with us Shashank Mehta, founder of The Whole Truth, and a genius content creator. Everyone including me loves The Whole Truth products as much as we love the content that Shashank shares. The Whole Truth is a 100% Clean label healthy food snack brand, and it’s truly living its mission statement that is rebuilding the world’s trust in its food. For more HUL marketing executive Shashank founded The Whole Truth in 2019 to offer 100% healthy alternatives in packaged food. Apart from The Whole Truth products and the branding strategies, I also love the fact that there are 120 plus women working in the kitchen of The Whole Truth. Welcome to the podcast Shashank.


Shashank 3:25

Thank you so much Siddhartha for having me and for the kindest introduction. I don’t know what we did to deserve it but it made me very happy.


Siddhartha 3:32

It’s completely my pleasure to host you and share with our listeners your journey of The Whole Truth and the Indian D2C landscape along with you. So Shashank, before we begin to dive into your journey, can you share from your lens as a founder, the Indian D2C market and then the India D2C food market?


Shashank 3:52

Sure. So I’ve actually always found this definition of a market as d2c to be quite funny because d2c is actually direct to the consumer as a channel. It’s a way of selling to your consumers. Of course, a lot of brands nowadays are using that as their primary channel and in only a very few cases by the way as their only channel. Yeah, so the definition of d2c is very murky. Most of the brands that you see nowadays are, I would say, digitally native, but largely omni-channel. And second, it’s a channel and not a type of brand, because brands are brands, they are not d2c brands or retail brands or any other brands. Now, having said that, in terms of market size, if you look at a country like the US, for example, has about broadly speaking 18 to 20% of their CPG commerce and CPG is consumer products or FMCG, as we call it in India, fast moving consumer goods companies.


In the US 18 to 20% happens online, in India barely 7 to 8% currently happens online and within that, online by the way includes Amazon and Flipkart and all the marketplaces of the world. Within that today, d2c would be less than 5% of that pie also, so d2c brands put together would be less than one to 2% of the overall FMCG market. And within that, as you rightly said, I’m so happy someone asked me this question that d2c For personal care and d2c for foods are two completely different things. Why because the personal care d2c market still has some depth whereas the food market is really shallow. And the reason for that is consumer behavior, the way we purchase personal care and the way we purchase foods are very different. And the simple way to understand it is when you buy a bottle of shampoo or cream online, you’re not dying to get it right now, you can see that you’re getting empty you can squeeze it, use it for three extra days and then the delivery will be there, but food is actually like you’re having tea and your packet of biscuits is over, you go downstairs and quickly get a packet of food.


So, said in VC terms, food has a high frequency of purchase and low AOV. Personal Care is low frequency of purchase and high AOV, AOV is average order value. And hence, the use case for buying personal care online is a lot better than the use case for buying food online and hence the depth of market in food. Again, if I compare the same numbers in the US for example, if e-commerce is 18 to 20% of the market, e-commerce for food is 1/3 of that. And it’s the same in India by the way, if d2c is 2% of the market, d2c of food and e-commerce of food is 1/3 of that. So that’s the way that I look at d2c, it’s a channel, it’s not a type of brand, and it is less relevant for food as it is for personal care.


Siddhartha 7:11

And Shashank let’s dive straight into your journey. You did your engineering from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University in Delhi then went to IIM Lucknow for your MBA and then joined HUL. So was it a campus placement that you joined HUL?


Shashank 7:29

Yeah, right off campus, I did engineering and realised that I won’t be able to do engineering. This is not what I meant to do. So without working experience I quickly figured out that I have to crack CAT, cracked CAT got into IIM Lucknow, there i found out that I won’t be able to do finance so I’ll do marketing . And the typical Middle Class topper behavior that which is the best marketing company, it’s HUL so okay I have to crack HUL and got into it.


Siddhartha 7:55

So that was a day zero placement for you?


Shashank 7:57

Yeah, day point five although the Placement committee will never agree there is a point five, but there is


Siddhartha 8:05

And were there a set of companies that you had prepared that if you didn’t get into HUL, you’ll get into X and X plus one.


Shashank 8:12

The funny thing is my CV has always looked even in those days, it was full of extra curriculars. So I was a topper fat kid in school. So a typical student who studies and tops but by the time of engineering I realized that this is not what I’m meant to do. And all through school life also I used to do a lot of extracurriculars, debating, etc. So when my seniors saw my CV, they said you’re a marketing person, you’ll get a marketing shortlist. But at the time of summer I got a day one HSBC shortlist and I cracked it. So I went and did my internship at HSBC. And that clarified for me that I’ll do anything in life but not a banking job, whether investment banking or private equity, I won’t do it.


And 2009 is when I passed out, which was the year of the recession, so as it is the number of companies had become very less, but I had applied only to marketing companies. I didn’t apply to anyone. I had applied to McKinsey, BCG, and then only marketing companies, no finance companies. At that time, along with my HUL interview, McKinsey’s process was going parallely. So that was also proceeding very well. So hopefully McKinsey would have been a success, but if it would have been a success then that would have been a disaster because I would have hated consulting. I can see in hindsight, I would have died. And if that wouldn’t have happened then some other company,FMCG, Marico, Asian Paints, Cadbury etc would have been there.


Siddhartha 9:41

And how did you realize your strengths that you are suited for marketing and not another set of skill sets?


Shashank 9:49

I think during my MBA both signals were very strong, till then life was proceeding through elimination, that I don’t want to do this, do that. But it became very clear during my MBA. By the way, I’m not going to be humble when I say this, but I’m very, very good at math. My mom is a math teacher, so I used to get scolded even when I would score 98. But I realized that finance is not math and more importantly, I realized that I love marketing because I love studying human behavior. And I love storytelling. And I realized very early on that marketing is nothing but these two things combined with understanding how human beings think and having the ability to communicate effectively with them through storytelling, both of which I felt were my strengths. So, if you pick up my IIM Lucknow scorecard, my average was seven, but if you cut it up my marketing average was nine and my finance average and economics average was five. So, it was very, very clear. Both the signals were very clear that I don’t have to do this and there is strength in this. So it became quite obvious.


Siddhartha 11:00

And you come from a business family or a service family.


Shashank 11:04

Absolutely, completely service family, nobody in my family ever did a business. So like we are the typical middle class, my dad has worked in ONGC for 40 years, joined ONGC, retired from ONGC. Mom, government school math and science teacher, 9th and 10th standard for 30 years. That’s it. So yeah, absolutely no business background.


Siddhartha 11:29

Your parents must be very happy when you joined the largest FMCG company in India.


Shashank 11:34

I’d imagine when I left twice. I still remember the scene. When you join HUL, they make you an area sales manager as the first role, they’ll make you ASM. And it’s a very powerful role. It’s a very tough role because you are a 23 year old with no experience and they’ve thrown you into some geography. Like my sales team, I was an East Branch modern trade head. This is my first role, for A 23 year old like me. My team had 15 people. The average age of my 15 People team was 40 when I was 23, so it was a very tough road deep into the pool. This is why HUL is a leadership factory because they give you such big challenges to work on. But it’s a very powerful role. That’s the one role where a car comes for you with a uniformed driver. I had a secretary in my first job who used to book flights for me etc.


So I remember the first time I came home, it was a business trip to Delhi so I had come home. My dad had come out of the house to receive me and this suited driver came out of the car to open the door for me and greet me. So my mom cried, like this is and that salary and that status is what my dad had retired at and this was my first job. So she was like Finally you’ve made me proud in life. And I was like wait for 2 years, I’ll make everything even.


Siddhartha 13:18

Dear listeners, before we dive further into the podcast, I would like to thank our sponsors Prime Ventures Partners. Prime is the first institutional investor in the category creating tech startups like Niyo, Dozee, Planet Spark and Mfine. Prime is now investing out of its fourth fund of $120 million. Today I have Amit Somani managing partner, Prime Venture Partners. Amit, how does Prime help its portfolio post investment?


Amit 13:49

Thank you Siddhartha. So at Prime, all of the three partners Sanjay, Shripati and myself have been in the trenches. We were operators and entrepreneurs before we were VCs. So we work with the founders in many different ways, largely depending on the company and their needs. So we can help them with products, brainstorming about business strategy, about go to market about partnerships, etc. all the way to really sort of helping get the company both the product market fit, and perhaps even find escape velocity to grow beyond that. Last but not the least, we help the company prepare and get access to subsequent rounds of financing.


Siddhartha 14:28

Now moving a little forward, what are the few things that you learned in the first three years of HUL?


Shashank 14:35

See the first three years of HUL were all sales. The first year was effectively a leadership training programme where they send you across geographies, across roles so tonnes of learning. For the first time in my life, in my first job I got to see such a big business so I got overwhelmed like everyone does. And then the next two years were sales. So the biggest learning was Sales, just like everything in life is about people. It’s not about the product. It’s not about price. It’s not about the market. All of that is secondary, sales is about people. And as you grow up in life, you realize actually everything in life is about people. Everything else is secondary. So I would say that was my biggest learning.


Second big learning was responsibility and leadership. And why I say these together is you are responsible for your people. I realized that it’s my job to make sure that my team earns incentives, and it’s my job to make sure that I leave the team and the area better than I found it, which is for people to feel that this person came into our lives for two years and left and we feel like we are better versions of ourselves, that is leadership. And that is there in HUL.


So you have so much inspiration around you to learn leadership lessons from. I would say that was the second big thing. And the third big thing was P&L management, because HUL gives you a full, P&L of geography to manage. And that’s a huge responsibility. Initially you don’t even understand what’s going on, but then and it’s by the way, a very complex business like my business was some 1000 SKUs being sold across 50,000 Retail TouchPoints through some 50-60 distributors, so you can imagine the size of that Excel sheet where we strapped sales forget about the 10 other metrics that we use to track. So you learn A, how to manage a P&L and B manage a complex business which you can slice and dice the data in a crore ways and find insights and grow it. So I’d say these three things: life is about people and sales is about people, B leadership and C P&L management.


Siddhartha 17:08

And if you have to pass it on to an entrepreneur, your learning of HUL, what would you do? Would you recommend some books? What would your sources be if you had to do that?


Shashank 17:19

You can’t find HUL learning in a book. I keep telling all the young kids that I meet and that tells you I see myself as an old guy now, the analysts in our VCs who invested in us or any other kids in consulting etc. Whoever I meet who is MBA plus two or three years sitting in a desk job of high intellect, my only submission to them is to go work in HUL, P&G, Marico IDC sort of company for two or three years. Do a sales role, manage a geography, manage a team of people.


The life skills that that teaches you, you can do whatever you want after that. You can do VC or anything but this skill, you won’t do this post 30 because then you want some rest in life. And if you don’t do this, you will always have a lot of knowledge which is secondary and second hand, but never felt and lived the business, you will never feel it in your bones. So I don’t think of any book, I haven’t yet found any book nor did MBA teach me any such thing as the starting years of HUL. So I don’t think it’s replicable, you just have to go and do that job.


Siddhartha 18:47

At the end of your three years in HUL, why did you join an unknown startup at that point in time called Rebel Foods?


Shashank 18:56

At that time it was called FAASOS and piece of trivia for anyone listening to the podcast who’s reached this point, the full form of FAASOS is Fanatical Activism Against Substandard Occidentalship. FAASOS has this acronym not many people notice. Why did I join them? See as you can tell from how I’m speaking, I love Unilever, I think it’s the best company in the world. But at the same time, I realized from the very beginning that I am a creator. There’s this theory that in every human there is either Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva, which means you’re either a creator or a manager or a destroyer, and all three are needed to run the world. We should recognise who you are. And I was very clear at that time that I am a creator. I enjoy creating and not managing. And by definition, a management job is managing not creation, creation has been done by someone, he has made a car which is running at 40 and you have to make it run at 45.


So I was clear that I would get max happiness when I’d get into a place where I get to create and that seems to be the domain of entrepreneurs. So I wanted to start up, but I didn’t know how to start up. I didn’t have any idea, money or wherewithal, balls. So at the same time, Jaydeep who’s the founder of FAASOS, he had just started up and this is 2012, nobody used to talk about startups at that time in our country, he had just started up and he raised his first series A check from Sequoia and he put out an email saying, looking for entrepreneurs in residence and that’s the first time I’d heard this word. And I was sold that this is what I want, that under someone else’s guidance and money, I would learn entrepreneurship. So that was so lucrative to me that I told my boss and I was doing exceedingly well actually. He was also shocked, just like my parents were shocked that he has gone crazy. But that’s why I left and went to FAASOS.


Siddhartha 21:13

And can you share more about those two years at FAASOS?


Shashank 21:17

Sure. So I was an EIR which I figured out in a company, and I love it. This is one of the great things that Jaydeep has taught me: there are 10 problems in the company right now and there are 5 people, match the following. Doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, what is your skill set. It’s been 2 years since you’ve completed your MBA, you don’t have any skill sets. You only have intent and enthusiasm which can be applied to any problem. So we would sit down and draw up a list of problems/opportunities, not just problems, and we already know we have 5people and everyone who would raise their hands saying I’ll do these two things, I’ll do those two things. So literally in those two years I did four roles. Like when I joined it was the time when FAASOS had 5 shops and this was a time when FAASOS was still a brick and mortar restaurant chain and not a cloud kitchen model.


And in two years, we went from five to 80 stores. The context here is, in every shop there are 20 people including riders and cooks. 5 to 80 shops means from 100 to 1600 people. And we realize the fact we are not in the restaurant business, we are actually in the people and training business. Because people are representing our brand at the store day in and day out. And we are not training them, and the problem is that in this don’t keep training. I’m currently in person. The problem is the key industry. My attrition is so high a key monthly attrition from Robbie’s percent of that. So imagine her chiming in me your entire workforce turns out.


So as it is, training is not even a one time job. It is a forever job. So I said, okay, sounds like an interesting problem. Let me crack it. So I set up a training academy within FAASOS In the first six months, then I set up the new store opening team. We were opening cities at such a fast rate. That each city’s store looked different from the other. So I created a new store opening team. We would go to the city, set up the store then hand it over to the ops team there and get out. And then in the last 8-10 months, I was doing operations because the business wasn’t going well so everyone got into operation. So I also got into operation so that’s what an EIR looks like.


Siddhartha 23:40

So when you joined what was the strength of the people and any cumulative numbers on the business and when you left what was the number of people?


Shashank 23:50

As I said, I don’t remember the revenue clearly and I don’t even think it’s my place to share it now but there were 5 shops that became 80, went from 2 cities to 7 cities in 2 years. And I think when I joined HO, the combined strength of finance and accounts was literally 13-14 which became around 100-125 within 2 years.


Siddhartha 24:16

So you saw like one to 10 journeys in that period.


Shashank 24:21

And the struggle of it where the business model wasn’t figured out, but we did massive inorganic growth. Opened a lot of new shops but the old shops weren’t doing well etc. so huge learning.


Siddhartha 24:35

It was the ideal place for an entrepreneur like a creator, the Brahma in you, why did you come back to HUL?


Shashank 24:45

Because I realized that the restaurant world is not for me, the restaurant operations especially are very, very tough. It is a 16 hours a day grind job, and this is evolution. You keep understanding in more depth what your strengths and weaknesses are. I realized that my strength in creation is when I sit back, think, strategize, and then do something great. If you leave me on the floor 16 hours a day, seven days a week, I will not do well because I don’t get time to step back and think and observe and reflect and introspect. And we all like sitting in cafes and restaurants but I don’t think we ever think of the guy behind the counter. When it’s your holiday, that is his busiest day. Your 15th August, 26th january holiday is his busiest day.


When you have to party then he has to work, if you go to eat a roll after drinking then he is there making the roll at 12 in the night. So it was an unforgiving job and attrition was so high that literally all of us EIRs were in some store or the other every night. Sometimes serving Paranthas, sometimes doing delivery because people will just not turn up etc. And I realized that I am not made this way. I will just set myself up for failure if I stay here and as I said I always loved Unilever, the question is always big company, or startup.And then I thought let’s go back to the thing that I know I already love. And then let’s take some time to figure out what I have to do ahead.


Siddhartha 26:33

And you went back as the area sales manager in the same role at Unilever?


Shashank 26:36

No, I came back as a trade Category Manager, which is the guy who has control over a full category’s below the line budget, so all the trade schemes, trade activations, etc. So this is a head office role in Bombay. I did that for two years. And then for the next three years, I was a brand manager. I launched this brand called Lever Ayush, which was our Ayurvedic brand at HUL.


Siddhartha 27:03

And how did you choose these two roles, because you had more self awareness, working in HUL and a startup, what you wanted to experiment with?


Shashank 27:13

First role was like, Beggars can’t be choosers. I wanted to come back and I couldn’t. Like I had preferences but I was very clear that if you take me back then according to you whatever is the right role, I’ll do it. And they were kind enough to take, the next one I was very clear that I have to do brand, and there too I was doing very, very well. In Unilever the rule of thumb is send the good guy to the big brand. So send the best performer to Lifebuoy, Fair & Lovely, Surf etc. And I told them don’t do this with me. I will hate it if you give me a 1000 Crore brand and tell me to take it to 1050 crores. Give me something absolutely small. And by chance at that time, because Patanjali was doing so well. We had huge pressure to create an Ayurveda brand of our own. And this team was just being set up. So I raised my hand for it. And it was amazing for me like I got to build a brand from scratch in comfort and with the money of Unilever.


Siddhartha 28:22

And if you can summarize your learnings from setting up a brand what would they be from that period in Unilever.


Shashank 28:29

The biggest learning is that, so there is one learning which is a Unilever wide learning which has nothing to do with Ayush, there is one which was a huge specific learning. Unilever wide learning is, every great brand is built on a fundamental human insight. If your brand is not built on any specific insight, then it’s not a brand it’s just a collection of products, which are two different things. Products with labels are not equal to brands. So for example, what do I mean by human insight? Surf’s insight is dirt is good, “Daag achhe hain” you have surf to clean these stains, so you just stay happy with the kids, so dirt is good was the Insight. Nike’s insight is inspiration, Starbucks insight is the third place, like every person wants a third place, home, office and a third place. So Starbucks is making the third place. Insight of Dove is “real beauty” that real women are really beautiful, you don’t need makeup, you don’t need anything big, real women are beautiful.


So all these iconic brands are built on a very simply understandable fundamental insight, if you’re making a brand without that, then it’s a fight. So this was the first big one and the biggest learning on Ayush, we spent upwards of 200 crores in two years of marketing money to build barely a 90-100 Crore ARR brand which is very bad return on money. We thought that given HUL’s reach of distribution etc, we can power our way through word of mouth. If we build a new brand and spend a lot of money on it then it will scale very quickly. But what I learned was eventually people buy new brands because of word of mouth and you cannot short circuit that journey beyond the point. Because if I show you an ad 5 times and you’re not buying it then you won’t buy it even if I show it to you 15 times. In fact you’ll get angry that why are you showing this multiple times when I’ve already said no. So that was a big learning for me which has really helped me later on also, that brands don’t need billions of dollars to be built, brands need time. It’s built Brick by Brick only. If you try to make it quickly by throwing money at the problem, it’ll just burn your eyes.


Siddhartha 31:23

And break the word of mouth which you said, into some first principles what are those?


Shashank 31:32

So, a brand is made up of two simple things, trial and repeat. Marketing has a impact on trial, and product has an impact on repeat. These are simple first principles. Through marketing, by saying good things you can make me try it once. After that if I don’t like it, I won’t take it no matter how many times you ask me to. So let’s first of all separate these two things. So now when we’ll talk about marketing, we won’t talk about repeat. Word of mouth kicks in, both word of mouth is important for trial. Repeat can’t even make you do word of mouth. If I eat it and don’t like it, I won’t take it no matter how much my friends call it good.


So the question is, how will someone try it for the first time? There are two three answers only, do bruteforce sampling, make people eat it for free. Make marketing so clear and concise that it feels like yes what you’re saying I completely agree with and hence I will give you a shot. Only these two ways are there, either say something so that I try it or make me try it forcefully. Third way which people think is there, but initially it is very less, is distribution. Just because it’s available, I will pick it up. True for highly impulse categories. But chances are that if you’re building a brand, by the way, that’s the third immutable law of brand building, that you can only build a premium brand and make it go mass, you can never build a mass brand and make it go premium.


There is not even one example in the world where someone built a brand, which was first adopted by rural India and then started selling in Bandra and Colaba. It’s always the other way round. And hence, distribution cannot be an advantage early on because for someone from Bandra or Colaba, it’s not a problem to go online and buy. And everyone’s distribution online is 100%, you could buy my brand by any pincode through delivery since day one. So, these are the first principles of brand building and word of mouth.


Siddhartha 34:08

And coming back to consumer insight, what was that consumer insight that Unilever was solving with the Ayush product?


Shashank 34:16

I think it was weak in hindsight, but the Insight was, Indians believe in the Vedas. Indians believe in the old books of wisdom and hence the Ayush proposition was based on 5000 years old Granths. The source of expertise of this brand comes from, like we’ve used the recipes as they are written in the Vedas, we’ve picked them directly from the Granths.


Siddhartha 34:53

So now after your five year stint at Unilever, how did you think that you Ready for your own startup?


Shashank 35:03

No, it didn’t happen that way. It wasn’t as if I ws getting ready for a startup. To be honest, when I’d come back from FAASOS, anyone I’d speak to I would say, I’ll do anything in life but a startup, I mean it’s a tough task, I won’t be able to do it. I’m happy staying here. But then as life would have it, and this is the point where I always say, I feel that my life was leading up to The Whole Truth, but I couldn’t see it at that time. So, let me take a slight detour here. So my personal journey with food and fitness has been a lot. So I was 110 kg teenager, then I lost 40 kgs when I was 19 years old, in 10 months I lost 40 kgs but I did it stupidly. I started running, stopped eating and the weight loss happened. Then in three years all of it came back, then I lost it again. Then it came back again, then I lost all of it again. So I did this plus minus 30-40 kg cycle three times before I was 26, by the time I would come back. So I started working again, my weekends were free again, this time it was like I’ve come back to from 16 hours into & days a week time and now it’s like a weekday ends in 10 hours and the entire weekend is free, what should I do with my time?


So I was like, I’ve learnt so much from my weight gain loss cycle, let me write about it and I love writing and I love speaking. So I started writing a blog on the weekends called FITSHIT and that blog is still live, so the listeners should check it out. It’s This was my weekend hustle. For three years at Unilever, I wrote FITSHIT every weekend. There are 100 articles over two two and a half years that I wrote. And I used to do this at FITSHIT. I would share my learnings from food and fitness and by that time I had started understanding how big a role is played by food and within food packaged food. And how badly people are lying about packaged food. Because I was a marketeer I could see that the work I’m doing in personal care, I was in personal care all the way, this is what is happening in food as well. They would write lowfat, put a start mark, would write low added sugar but the sugar level is the same as normal etc. So I used to expose these things in FITSHIT.


And while I’m doing this, it’s still not clear to me that I’ll do a startup again. This is just that I’m doing a job and writing along with that. A, the blog took off like everyone. A lot of people started reading the blog and started writing in etc and then suddenly, I gradually started realizing that this is telling me that a lot of people resonate with the same problem that I’m seeing. Like everyone has this problem and they know that the brands aren’t telling them the truth, but they don’t know how. They need someone to tell them how they are being lied to. Which is what FITSHIT was doing which is why people were loving it. Then I had this idea that why isn’t there a food brand which, unlike all the other food brands which are just putting a good looking woman with some drippy chocolate on the front of the bag and saying no added sugar, eat this and have fun type shit. Why isn’t there a food brand which is saying you know what the food you’re about to eat has ABCDE and nothing else. These are the ingredients and nothing else, and we don’t have to tell anything else because food should just be about ingredients.


I was like okay, there’s no such thing maye be because any such thing can’t be made, packaged food needs shelf life, stability etc. So I was like okay let’s try this. So at my home I started tinkering with a protein bar because I wrote an article on protein bars, which is when I figured out that it doesn’t take a lot to make a protein bar just an oven and a mixture and that was there at my home. So I thought let’s try this if I’m able to make a protein bar from 4,5 ingredients. IT took 5,6 months. I used to take it to my office and give it to my friends, and after that if I didn’t take it my friends would ask why I didn’t bring it. Then it suddenly came together. I have an insight, which seems to be very strong, which is, and the way we articulate our insight is no one likes being lied to. Be it an old person, a child, rich, poor, no one likes being lied to.


I seem to have an understanding of the topic which resonates with people, I come from a marketing background and hence I am better equipped than the average to create a brand and this is an area of such deep passion for me that if I could positively change this part of the world it would make me feel very fulfilled. When all this came together, I was like, now I have no reason to not do this, but then this will be a huge regret in life if I don’t do this. Sorry I took a long route to give the full answer, but this is how I was not looking to start up when I was in HUL. I was very happy doing my job. But suddenly life just started converging towards this point.


Siddhartha 40:47

So when did you leave HUL? When the product was ready, the problem was solved or you figured it out after it that now that people are liking the product, you can start working on it.


Shashank 40:59

Let me go back to where I come from, I come from a middle class service oriented family. So my risk taking capability is very low. So I was going to repeat for most people including my parents I was going to repeat a mistake like you’ve already gone and returned once.


Siddhartha 41:19

HUL won’t take you for the third time.


Shashank 41:20

HR would have a photograph of me, they’ll be like we won’t let him in. He has come twice and left. People are dying to get into HUL and he has left twice. So I had an 80% ready product which I made people eat and they seemed to like it. That was one.


Siddhartha 41:42

How much sampling was done, how many people had already tried it?


Shashank 41:44

Around 100-125 people had tried it in HUL and everyone would want it again. Second, in HUL you had something called a brand key which is you put the entire thought of the brand in a certain structure on one page and if you can’t write it then you don’t know your brand. So I had created that brand key. And I went to my boss and super boss with these two things, as stupid as I am that see, you are the people I owe it to most to tell that this is going through my mind and I truly respect both of them as great marketers. I was like this is the product, this is the brand and the brand key. Tell me what you think. And both of them said see, don’t leave the job, but if you leave then we’ll invest money.


So that was a huge validation. And by the way, they became my first angels. My boss and my super boss were my first angels. And by chance one of the readers of FITSHIT was Manu of Sauce.VC Manu Chandra, he was a reader of FITSHIT. So he got to know that I’m thinking and he reached out saying meet me if you’re thinking. So, these two angels and Manu said we will put money, the total commitment was about 1.5 crores. So when these three things happened, which was product, brand on a page and a commitment of 1.5 crores is when I put in.


Siddhartha 43:25

And now once you had quit HUL you receive this 1.5 CR in the company which you newly incorporated I believe.


Shashank 43:35

I hadn’t even started till then and that too has increased. So HUL has a three months notice period. So I said okay, there’s no one to buy my notice so I’ll serve my notice. I was serving my notice and I was on my trip to Israel in Tel Aviv, like I don’t know when will
I get the next leave. And I got a phone call from Manu saying that I’m sitting with the folks at Matrix and they want to meet you. So I said okay let’s meet when I’m back. He said no, they want to meet right now. So I arranged wifi from somewhere, did a phone call, we liked talking to each other, I came back and within two weeks Matrix put in another three and a half crore. So during the notice period itself my fundraise went from 1.5 crores to 5 crores. And till now the company hasn’t been incorporated. And I could incorporate the company only after I was out of HUL. So yeah, that was there.


Siddhartha 44:37

And you evaluated what like traditionally what 20% on equity for the first round.


Shashank 44:42

I can’t go into too much detail, but effectively there were two rounds, there were two separate rounds and combined there were 20-25 spaces.


Siddhartha 44:52

And now you had quit HUL, received these five crores in your newly incorporated company. And it was initially called “and nothing else”. I remember because I bought the product two years, two and a half years back. Tell us about the evolution like the zero to one phase.


Shashank 45:13

There’s a lot to say. So I’ll try to shorten it. So my last day in HUL was 7th July 2019. And we started operations on 19th October 2019. Effectively took me about three months to start the company. And I started with basically me, and by the way at the time when I was making the bar and when I had gotten serious about it that this is happening, I had gotten in touch with a friend who connected me to a chef friend of his, because I needed some help that where should I buy these dates from and buy this Mixture from. So her name was Rachna who by the way is now our head of product and like a co-founder to me. She had started helping me at that time and she was so amazing that I was like you also leave what you’re doing and join me in doing this.


She also started to get very enthusiastic about this so it was me , Rachna and two of my juniors from HUL also, in my notice period, came up to me and said that if you’re doing something then we will do it along with you. So they also put in their papers. So it was the four of us plus 2, 3 people whom we hired for staff who started the company in November. And it was a small team we started as purely d2c. We made a website and decided that we’ll sell it from the website because we wanted to control the entire brand experience and if you’ve seen the way our box arrives, etc, we don’t just send you protein bars thrown into a brown box. We were very clear that we were building such a mission oriented brand, we’re building such a purpose driven brand that we want consumers to discover the brand in its full glory. We want consumers to discover the brand with the full brand story not just as a dusty pack on a retail chain. And hence we said first we’ll do d2c, the team is small, d2c requires less money. You don’t have to give credit to any retailer, the cash cycle is better.


So everything was working for d2c. And we used to do a lot of things as in we started in November 2019 and Covid started in March 2020. But in those four months we used to do a lot of events, that was our hack to, getting noticed and given some good sampling, that we were so sure of our product that whoever eats it is converted. So we didn’t have the money to do the marketing so we decided to go to the events where we’ll give people samples and also sell it there only. joke holiday converter. So long story short is these are the two things that we used to do in the zero to one phase that create pure d2c, create experiences around the product don’t just sell the product, use every consumer touchpoint to vow the consumer and events to get discovered by the right TG and sample the right TG.


Siddhartha 48:47

And who’s your right TG, you would have categorized in terms of city, age, facts.


Shashank 48:55

So three things that we look at, age which is 25 to 40 year is our core TG not as a 40s plus. A lot of our consumers are 50-60 year olds etc. Also, a lot of people who love the brand are 15 year old also, but the core TG was 25 to 40 male and female Metro residents who live in the top 10-12 cities of the country. And the biggest checkmark which makes someone a consumer of The Whole Truth is that he has traveled outside the country at least once. If there’s even a single international exposure and you’ve been to a retail market and seen a supermarket, your entire view point is changed. The Indian shelf is stuck in the 80s even when the life of an Indian in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore is exactly like the life of a San Francisco, London guy. But the options we get on our supermarket shelf are stuck in the 80s. So if these three things tick marked then you are definitely our Consumers.


Siddhartha 50:02

And when did you realize that now you can put money on the pedestal to scale the company. What was the aha moment of product market fit?


Shashank 50:13

very early on. And to be honest CPG brands have two PMF, one is PMF and another is BMF, 95% of people think the brand is equal to summation of products. It’s not, and if it were then blind tests wouldn’t have existed in the world right? If you were made to drink coke and Pepsi without a label then you liked coke more but after drinking it with a label you start liking Pepsi more.Because that’s the value of the brand. So both things happened very very early on. We were like we were sitting on a goldmine but our repeat rates, if I talk pure data till today on d2c our repeat rates are upwards of 50% it is unheard of in the industry. When we started,in the initial 4,5 months there was 75% repeat rate. Every person used to buy food every month from us. And then thankfully we have great investors who are institutions.


We got a comparative data key with love. They had never seen these cohorts internally ever. And on brand, we were on fire on Instagram. We went from zero to 10k followers in three months. We went from 10k to 200k in the next three months. So anything was happening, all organic. And the amount of love is one of our biggest regrets. We didn’t make a repository of the lovely messages that we used to get, we were so busy building. But have you ever written a long email for a brand, that you liked a brand so much that you would write a long email for them. We get 5 of them daily. Email, LinkedIn messages, LinkedIn post, in the third month a professor from SPJain wrote a case study on us,it was beyond our wildest dreams. So this question was answered even before being asked, just close your eyes and start executing


Siddhartha 52:31

And can you share some revenue milestones or sales milestones which have been there, when did the first 50 lakhs a month hit, when did you hit one crore a month in gross sales?


Shashank 52:46

Sure so when COVID hit which was the fourth month of operations that month we did 30 lakh, somewhere between 25 to 30 lakhs and we raised our Series A which was say April ,May last year we were at a 1.2, 1.3 Crore sort of MRR so we had quadrupled in that one year. And hopefully by the exit of this year will be at 100 crore.


Siddhartha 53:26

Around eight crores of ARR, and your series A was with over $12 million led by sequoia last year.


Shashank 53:37

No, not 12 million dollars, it was 42 crores so $6 million led by Sequoia.


Siddhartha 53:46

Got it. And you don’t plan to raise any money sooner for any, like, next round?


Shashank 53:55

I think by the end of the year once we start getting close to the number I mentioned. We’ll move into the market for our series B.


Siddhartha 54:04

So the scale that you talk about is about 30 lakhs, one crore and now like about to touch eight crores, what is the difference, because the product evolved, you started with bars then you started with muesli then kept on innovating in products for consumers. So what was the thinking behind that, what product to launch next. For bars it was evident that people like bars on a daily basis and the second thing was the distribution levers that you guys kept opening.


Shashank 54:38

got it. So see we were from day minus one very clear that we are not a bar company. We are a truth company. We are here to say and sell the truth. So wherever we see that the incumbents are lying and the people lack trust in the incumbents we will enter. So that’s the same philosophy, from day one we know that we will apply this philosophy in every category. And hence first we had Bazra, then nut butter, then dark chocolates. Every 4-5 months we will keep entering a new category with the same lens that can we create a product which lives up to the Whole Truth promise where we are so proud of the ingredients that we can declare each and every ingredient on the front of the pack not hidden at the back, not some random chemicals etc.


And is it tasty? The moment we get these two things, we launch that product. And that’s this multiple of more and more categories into more and more channels slash geographies is our growth engine. And it’s a force multiplier in one thing that multiplies the other. So, from a distribution lens we started with d2c as I said for brand reasons. For the first year we were purely d2c. Then we opened up marketplaces like Amazon, Flipkart, etc. For the next year, we were purely d2c Plus marketplaces so purely online. And since the last four months, we started going to retail also. So now as of today, we are present in 1000 stores across the country in 20 cities already.


So I’m very clear that once you achieve product and brand market fit, everything else d2c marketplaces, retail is just distribution. And why would you want your consumer to suffer? Now wherever Siddhartha buys some food from, he should have access to details. The way it’s easy for me to get a junk packet, similarly he should get a 100% clean level access with that packet. Why should it be difficult for you to buy a better product? So will we distribute it everywhere.


Siddhartha 57:00

And what has been your key learning scaling? Let’s say if you want to start another company today by packing the learning of these three years.


Shashank 57:10

Yeah, so I think there are 2-3 things, and you will find a lot of similarity from my answer of what I learned from HUL. I think the first thing that we did was this principle that I now call, people come before revenue, not the other way around. A lot of companies wait for revenue to happen to then put good people into the business as a startup founder with limited resource people and hiring good people is where I put the first resource. It doesn’t matter if anything else won’t happen. But I want to build a brilliant team. So I think that was one big and underneath that was the entire EIR philosophy that we are not hiring for skill, we are not hiring people with 20 years of experience, who will come and say it happens this way, I’ve done this. We are hiring for intent. So one of our core values is intent greater than skill.


So and that has built a culture of such entrepreneurialism in the system. People ask me single founder, how do you do so many things? I have a 10 person team reporting to me, which is my core team. I have 10 co-founders like they are all owners of the business in all the senses of the word. So investing in people ahead of revenue is learning number one.


Second, invest in the brand as little as possible but invest in the brand, not just performance from day one. Because performance marketing is a commodity. It gets equalized quickly, you can’t do anything there. There are short term gains in the starting if someone who’s really good they will operate at 150 and you will operate at 80 but very soon everyone catches up. And by the way, we are all puppets of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos of the world. The strings are in their hands. So you’re thinking you are winning that game, but you are not winning, the house is winning.


So you have to do it. But the only thing that you will in the long term own is your brand and your brand’s pool. So whatever little you can do, of course, no one has budgets to do much brand building in the beginning but Start. Because that too is a muscle that you build over time. It doesn’t happen immediately that you think after 4 years that you think let’s make a brand, you’ll have to do it from the start. And the third one which was tough for me coming from a big corporate where a big support structure both systems and processes, everything used to happen. In Unilever, you made a few big decisions in a year because you had to move the needle which is a very large needle. You have to take 1000 crores to 1100 crores. So you’ll think a lot before one big activity like let’s sponsor IPL.


Startups are absolutely the opposite. You make 2030 small decisions every day. And if you do any overthinking, or are not able to move ahead, you will get stuck and you will die. So in HUL, I used to make a few big decisions every year. But in the startup life I realized I had to make 20 decisions every day and those decisions are as small as which table to keep in the first office , how much to spend on a chair table, from where to bring lunch. And you can spend all day debating these small things: go to Amazon search for 15 things, there one table is of 2500 one is of 2200, you’re trying to save 300 rupees, you can spend your day doing this. But having the ability to move things ahead in this highly unstructured low resource environment is something I had to learn. You can’t come back home and feel like you’ve done a great thing because you’ve ticked off 30 things on a to-do list but the 30 things were: get chair, table, pen, get book. You have to move the company forward.


And that’s what I call bias for action now that you need action oriented ness to life will be super unstructured and it’s not getting structured anytime soon, you will not have full data you will always have a lack of data. So if you keep waiting for the perfect data to appear for you to make a decision, they will never make a decision. And by the way, you have to make 30 decisions every day, ranging from small to big. How do you keep moving the boat forward and not get stuck? Is the third big.




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