--BY REBATI ADHIKARI
After working in the field of IT for a couple of years, Suraj Raj Pandey had never thought of venturing into the apparel business. But in 2017, when he was in Bangladesh for the Nepal-Bangladesh Youth Convention, he suddenly got inspired to explore the opportunities in the production of readymade garments.One of the attendees of the five-day programme invited Pandey for a tour of his family-run RMG company located in Dhaka.
According to Pandey, the RMG plant was so large that it took him an entire day to complete the tour. He then came up with the idea of starting an RMG business in Nepal. After returning, he studied the contemporary history of the Nepali RMG industry and came to know the sector had gone from boom to bust within a span of three decades. He found that home-grown apparel brands have become popular among Nepali consumers in the last couple of years. Pandey saw a big business opportunity in producing quality clothing at competitive prices in the domestic market and established FiBRO with his friend Oscar Shrestha at the end of 2018.
In the beginning, the apparel business was an unfamiliar area. But with a circle of friends to guide them along the way they managed to kickstart the company. Due to their acquaintances with fashion designer friends and RMG entrepreneurs, it became easier to move forward. Initially, FiBRO produced 35 jackets with an investment of Rs 10,000. Pandey sold the clothes within a month to his friends and relatives. Before the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit Nepal, the company’s monthly transaction was around Rs 700,000 generated solely through online sales, according to Pandey.
But expanding the business beyond family and friends put FiBRO to test. After selling the first lot of apparels, Pandey says that he was not able to sell even a single item for more than a month despite all his efforts. “I became frustrated and began to question what did I get myself into,” he says, adding, “However, deep down I knew I was doing the right thing.” Gradually, the situation started to improve with rising demand and sales and FiBRO became a popular brand among the urban youth in a short period of time.
Challenges in Execution
For many startups, business plans that may seem flawless during the ideation period but might fail in the execution process. The owners of FiBRO faced the realities in this respect. As FiBRO doesn’t own a factory, the startup outsources production to other apparel companies, and the outsourcing has been problematic for the company. According to Pandey, there are instances where they have faced delays in the delivery of products, sometimes by up to three months even after paying in advance to the manufacturers. “Many of them only care about money and do not value meeting deadlines and other business ethics. We are still dealing with this problem,” he shares.
There were other challenges related to sales. In the beginning, many distributors and retailers hesitated to sell FiBRO apparels as the brand was new in the market. “It is really difficult for made-in-Nepal brands trying to get into the market in a small scale,” Pandey expresses.
In the past three years, FiBRO’s growth has been as ‘organic’ as Pandey has expected. Informative and creative contents were designed to market the product in social media platforms. Pandey claims that it is the quality of the products that helped to propel the popularity of FiBRO and the brand mostly grew with word-of-mouth publicity. He says that it is encouraging to see youngsters becoming aware to support local brands which is also important for the country’s economy in the long run.
FiBRO, which is basically known for summer and winter jackets, has a product portfolio of 16 different types of clothing items which includes t-shirts, sweat shirts, cotton shirts and pullovers. The price of the products starts from Rs 1,150 and goes up to Rs 5,500. “Customers are concerned about factors such as quality, affordability, comfort and durability when it comes to buying clothing items,” says Pandey, adding, “We target the people of the age group 19-35 years who are conscious about comfort, style and price of products.”
While the majority (60 percent) of orders and sales of FiBRO takes place in Kathmandu, the company has customers from cities like Pokhara, Dhangadhi, Birguj, Chitwan and Butwal.
The company works with freelance designers who design the outfits keeping up with latest fashion trends. After the designs are prepared, prototypes are made and reviewed by a team with the help of some of FiBRO’s loyal customers who are invited by the company for product testing. After the apparel design is approved, it is sent to the manufacturer for production. The company’s team conducts factory visits for quality control from the stage of the procurement of raw materials to production and makes sure that the designs, stitching, cutting guidelines are strictly followed.
Before starting FiBRO, Pandey was involved with a software company Tatva Inc and the business accelerator Clock b Business Innovations, and he also worked in different startups in managerial and advisory roles. He is still associated with Tatva Inc. However, he has given FiBRO the utmost priority at the moment. His says that his current focus is on automating production and integrating technology in sales marketing and business management.
Impact of Covid-19
Like other startups, FiBRO suffered a lot last year as the raging Covid-19 pandemic distorted all aspects of business from production to the delivery of products. “Currently, the demand for apparel is low and there is also a shortage of raw materials as well as workers to produce clothes,” shares Pandey. According to him, the second wave of the pandemic has halted the company's business plans to open physical stores, diversifying the product range and establishing its own factory.
Pandey says that there are plans to develop a centralised operation system where all tasks related to production, logistics and product dispatch will be carried out from a single place. Similarly, once the situation normalises, the company will work to produce new types of apparel for specific occasions and open physical stores in major cities of the country.