Early morning on New Year's Day last year, Goonjan Mall, 24, was on a bus from Gurgaon to Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan. He was on his way to Rani Sati Temple to offer sweets (prasad). Later, he would deliver prasad-edibles which devotees offer to their favorite gods-from this temple to his first customer at Online Prasad, his startup venture in the e-commerce sector.
On a similar trip to Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan, (the famous rat temple) in September 2011, where Mall waited patiently in the queue to offer prasad to the deity, it struck him that in reality visiting temples is an arduous task for many. He realized that if the process of getting prasad became easier, there would be several takers. Returning home, he talked to his friends about it. The response he got was positive and he decided to start an online business of delivering prasad.
"I thought of easing the temple visit experience. I cannot bring a temple to people but I can bring blessings from temples in the form of sweets," says Mall, Founder, Online Prasad. Since business was just at the initial planning level, he visited a few religious congresses to talk to people about the idea to get a first-hand understanding of people's willingness and interest to source it online. "People got so excited that a few placed orders immediately. The company had not even started. I had not thought about the price points."
In January 2012, he launched Online Prasad, self-funded through personal savings, which he believed would thrive on the back of religious sentiment. All this while Mall still held a job as a senior analyst at Bain & Company which he left in April last year, after starting Online Prasad.
When Online Prasad started taking orders, they had one temple (Rani Sati Temple) in their catalog. However, Mall's frequent visits to temples across India brought four more to his venture by April 2012. "We have a tie-up with sweet vendors at each temple, who offer prasad to the deity and then send it by courier to the client," Mall explains.
Currently they have a network of 16 temples across seven states in their ambit. Online Prasad also has a couple of persons posted at each temple (which are in their catalog) who, when an order is confirmed by the front team, deliver the prasad through courier after offering it to the deity. Apart from this, at a few temples, they also have a tie-up with priests to offer the sweet to the deity and then send it to the devotee who has placed the order.
Online Prasad uses the service of GharPay-another startup, which handles payment collections on behalf of the company they service before delivery of goods-to collect money from customers who confirm orders. "Ghar Pay has a transparent working style and we needed a service like this as many customers were not comfortable paying through debit card," Mall says. Each delivery of prasad from any temple listed on their website, costs `501 for 500 grams.
In the first couple of months, delivering prasad was a challenge for the venture owing to the perishable nature of sweets. "With a little tweaking here and there in the packaging, we manage to keep sweets fresh for a longer time," Mall explains. Uttam Dadhich, a priest at Balaji Temple in Salasar, Rajasthan and owner of a sweet shop, offers prasad at the temple once he gets an order confirmation from Online Prasad. He says sweets are packaged in a manner that they remain fresh for 15-20 days.
More than divine grace
In August 2012, Online Prasad joined The Morpheus, a Chandigarh-based accelerator that works with startups. Morpheus infused additional capital of `5 lakh of equity stake in the company. "We joined hands with Goonjan as we liked his idea and realized he was executing his plans well. The business idea made sense for The Morpheus as we thought religion is the most viral business in India," says Sameer Guglani, Co-Founder, The Morpheus.
Guglani says he had advised Mall to go on a pilgrimage and visit as many temples, which he affirms Mall does consistently. "This resulted in gradually expanding his network of temples."
Mall divulges little about his growth plan for Online Prasad. "This is a new business and not many people have done anything like this. So there is no road map yet and we are learning while experimenting," he confesses.
Mall believes plans do not work in a startup and are prone to spontaneous changes given the nature of a nascent company. As of now he is happy with the customer response and the repeat orders he gets.
"We are getting known by word of mouth as this is an interesting service we are providing. People love to tell others that they ordered prasad of a particular temple from home." Sanjay Agarwal, a resident from Bihar, has ordered prasad from seven to nine temples through Online Prasad. He says that barring the first delivery, his transactions were smooth and satisfactory.
"I placed an order after seeing their banner at one of the temples in Kodarma, Jharkhand. The order came in 10 days time but the box was open and it had only two sweets," Agarwal remembers. However, when he informed them about the delivery, he got another package of sweets, in a couple of days.
"I can say it was from the temple I had ordered from as I have been there earlier and the sweets tasted just the same,"
The website sees daily traffic of 1,500-2,000 unique visitors, says Mall, and this figure goes down on some days. According to web information company Alexa, a California-based subsidiary of US-based e-commerce giant Amazon, which tracks traffic of websites globally, the portal ranks 222,176 globally and 25,219 in India.
Inevitably, the number of orders climb during festivals like Navratri, Janmashtami and New Year. "During Basant Panchami, the number of orders increase from 40 a month to more than 70," Dadhich says.
Mall looks content when he tells us he has delivered prasad to almost all corners of India, except the Andaman and Lakshadweep islands. He has also received orders to gift prasad to relatives of customers living in Dubai and Singapore.
"This is a business which will always work in India given the number of temples we have and the opportunity it creates for us," says Mall. Not surprising, as India is a land of religious fervor.
This article was first published in Entrepreneur India