Entrepreneur Spotlight: Swapna Chandamuri (Kellogg ’10), Luxemi

by on July 7th, 2011

Swapna Chandamuri is a person who goes after what she wants – and what she wanted was to bring to the world a new way of shopping for Indian fashion.

Luxemi Co-Founder, Swapna Chandamuri

Last month, she and her business partner (and best friend!) Swathi Narra launched Luxemi.com, an e-commerce site where customers can borrow or buy the latest luxury Indian apparel and accessories. From sarees  and salwars to traditional and modern Indian jewelry, the two fashion-forward ladies curate a collection of exclusive fashions that make it easy and fun to pick out an outfit for the next big event.

“Luxemi is not just for the South Asian fashionista. Whether they borrow a saree straight off the runway to wow at an Indian wedding or buy an exotic pair of earrings to breathe new life into a favorite LBD (‘little black dress’), Luxemi allows women everywhere to infuse a little ethnic luxury into their personal collections.”

Why did she get started on this idea, and what has she learned along the way? Hear Luxemi’s story as told by Swapna to MBAsocial, just a month after launching, and a week after being featured in Daily Candy’s Everywhere newsletter.

How did you get the idea to start Luxemi?

It started with five wedding invitations in a span of three months. My co-founder (and best friend!) and I had an immediate reaction: “What do we wear?”

We did the math: one wedding equaled at least four distinct outfits (complete with matching accessories, of course). With no trip to India planned, we faced some fashion hurdles: 1) Are our sarees still in fashion? 2) Do they still fit? 3) Can we still wear the salwar that was posted on Facebook for the world to see?

With so few shops stateside that sell Indian clothing and accessories and without the time or funds to book a last minute trip to India to replenish our lehengha stockpile, we knew we had a fashion emergency on our hands.

We both felt there HAD to be a better way. So we created one.  Now we can save those airline miles for a trip to Paris!

Did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur when you started business school?

Yes.  I came from strategy consulting at Bain & Company, where I learned a ton from super smart and kind colleagues…but knew my heart lay with entrepreneurship.  I looked at my father’s lifelong career as a serial entrepreneur and while I recognized the constant challenges he faced, I also saw the satisfaction he derived from controlling his own destiny.  I decided to pursue a Kellogg MBA to help make the transition to entrepreneurship.

In the middle of my second year at Kellogg, I was debating two paths: start my own business or join a start up.  After much soul-searching it really came down to this: I had a few solid ideas to pursue, a fantastic business partner if I wanted one, limited personal obligations, a solid business background built from work and school experiences and a lot of momentum to help me on my way.

My business partner and I had talked about starting a business together for a while but we wanted it to be the right time and the right opportunity. We were batting around a few ideas but kept coming back to this one because we lived the problem!  We conducted extensive market research, which revealed that the need was as great or greater than we had thought. It was time to put my money (and my time) where my mouth was.

And let’s be honest, how often do people get to build a business in a field they are super excited by with their best friend? I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.

What are the resources you used while at school?

I used several classes to develop specific aspects of the Luxemi business plan but the best resource, by far, was the people: both professors and classmates.  The professors were extremely helpful in informing specific strategies.  Whether it was Professor Razeghi focusing the idea to go-to-market; or Professor Wilson helping me think about differentiation through channel structure; or Professor Rogers emphasizing how to raise the money I need while retaining ownership of my company and vision – the professors were invaluable in providing the most current thinking in their fields.

My classmates were and are the resource I use most frequently.  Simply put, they are awesome.  They have extended their support and their smarts on everything from the company name to PR strategy to valuations to site testing – and they have done all of this enthusiastically.  It never ceases to amaze me the time and energy that people will devote to helping build your business if you just ask.

What’s the best advice you received?

There are no new ideas. Don’t get discouraged if you start to evaluate your idea and you find that someone somewhere is doing something similar.  There are no truly new ideas.  But if you can execute better than anyone else, adapt the product and service to best meet an unfulfilled need for your target customer and continue to innovate, you can win and create a sustainable business.

Make smart decisions but don’t over analyze.  Conduct the research, evaluate the opportunity, build a great team, and make a plan.  But you could plan forever if you wanted to – sometimes you just have to jump!

Don’t do it. Don’t do it unless there is nothing else in the world you could imagine doing.  Starting your own business is an all consuming endeavor that affects all areas of your life but even on most disastrous day (and there will be a few!), I remind myself that I would rather be building Luxemi.com than doing anything else.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs pursuing or thinking about pursuing their MBAs now?

People rock. Take advantage of all the brilliant people around you.  Whether it’s asking them a quick opinion over coffee or forming a group with them for the business plan competition, you will never again have that quantity of smart (and free!) resources who are thrilled to help build your business.

Say yes to everything. Go to every relevant (or tangentially relevant) speaker series or networking event, join the groups, take the classes, and participate in the competitions.  You never know where you are going to find the right business partner, board member, or funding.  And don’t worry, you’ll still have time for that theme party on Tuesday night.

Keep a book of lessons. After each case, lecture, speaker series or great lunch chat, write down the 1-2 lessons learned as they could apply to you as an entrepreneur or to your venture.  File the high impact cases or assignments for easy reference.  You better believe I stole (err, borrowed) the best DCF model from my Fin-D group-mate for future reference.  You won’t look through the volumes of notes, but you might look through a chapter.

Find a business partner. There are two opposing schools of thoughts on this but I think a co-founder or a founding team is essential.  The reality is, you can’t excel at everything (and if you really truly do, Luxemi.com is hiring!) and building a team with a complementary skill set, yet similar vision and work ethic will always will yield a better product and service.

Beyond that, everyone will tell you that starting a business is a roller coaster.  It’s true.  To have someone in the trenches with you, to bounce ideas off of, to talk you off the ledge on the hardest day, to celebrate the successes with, and most importantly to share a vision with will transform ‘just an idea’ into a livelihood.  It certainly has for me.

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