People say ‘women can’t do business’. There is a saying ‘Bengalis can’t do business’. Many left Kolkata saying ‘You can’t run a Startup in Kolkata’. Stop, stop, stop! Who cares what people say? Rather let me introduce you to a person, who has dispelled all these myths, and growing a Startup in Kolkata, inspite of being a Bengali woman. Meet Somrwita Guha, the coolest boss and young owner of Papercup.
Somrwita Guha – How I Know Her
Hello there, This is Rupsha, a first year undergrad student studying in Jadavpur University. During Pujo 2014, I quite by chance, met Somwrita Guha through a mutual friend. Little did I know that this 24 year old had a fantastic and vibrant company to call her own. This company, which I started working for soon afterwards is called “Papercup”. It makes very cool merchandise like ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Beatles’ and ‘Sherlock’ themed notepads and mugs, and also hand painted lampshades and quilled cards to name a few.
Working for this, is more of fun. She has allowed me to take some time off with my friends in college fests in between managing the stall. She throws awesome parties and takes us for photoshoots once in a while. The team is like a small close knit family.
So when Sourav da asked me to interview her to share her story for #IconsAround series, I was really excited. Here’s her interview. I do hope you enjoy reading it.
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Somrwita di, tell me a little about your childhood and family.
Childhood was not troubled, thankfully. I used to live in a joint family till I was 15. It was a lot of fun growing up with my sister and cousins. We have an enormous extended family which has over the years managed to be really close. For that matter it is also quick with updating itself with the latest mode of communication. What I mean to say is we have a group with over 30 members in Facebook and Whatsapp and the ones who are more active in these groups are mostly above 40 😛
How was school life?
I went to a rather interesting school which I believe shaped half of who I am. School is still the best thing that could happen to me. My Principal Sister Cyril is my living Icon. Did a lot of social work in school and enjoyed it to the core. Was also largely into extra-curricular activities. After my 10th I went to a school which was like attending/not attending classes in Jadavpur University in a uniform.
Considering “Papercup” was born during your college times, tell us about your college days.
University brings back a lot of walking on the wild side. I was a really good student. I majored in two subjects called Patience and Diplomacy, both outside class; Two extremely crucial things. There is a vague memory of another subject called Economics which I used to flunk. But I think I am still quite in love with it except that we need to work on our relationship. Though there are occasional sparks when I chance upon interesting articles related to the subject even today. I remember The Young Economist Students’ Meet days in my 2nd and 3rd year of college; for that matter even after I passed out, though the roles kept changing: MC, Debater, Chief Editor, and Moderator.
How did the idea of Papercup came to your mind and when did you decide to take this to the next level and continue with it even after Economics Hons.?
I was 19 when it came to my mind. It was the night before our first year first semester Statistics exam. I’d try and describe the scene in my mind before most exams: It was like a non-tech Silicon Valley. A huge number of ideas used to come to my mind which used to take me quite far away from Correlation and Regression. Papercup was one such idea. I called a friend up and shared it with her. This was November 2009. In February 2010 Papercup gave its first stall in Jadavpur University (two friends of mine and me). People liked us for some reason. Over the next one year we gave a couple of stalls in colleges.
In my final year of college I didn’t want to let go of it. It was like parting with your child. At the same time I was not eager to keep it as an auxiliary element. It was perhaps not a decision that was liked by most people in the beginning. I decided to do a short course in Entrepreneurship Management from XLRI. During the same time I agreed to partner with a friend of mine from University who was eager to invest in the business. My course got over in April 2013. In July the same year we got our trade license done. And I chose to live a life which keeps me on my toes all the time.
Lot of youngsters nowadays lose focus in their studies. Did you ever have too many distractions?
I don’t know about youngsters these days. I mean I am not too old myself so probably you could consider me to be one too. But I am in awe with most of them. The people I see around me are extremely bright and focused. As for me the only thing that distracted me was awesome students who turned out to be lousy teachers. During such times one should do a lot of self-study. I had friends, a rather happening social life, my brainchild Papercup, Debate society to name a few. But I would hate to say that these were distractions. They helped me grow the way I wanted to. My mantra in college was simple: If you suck at teaching, nothing can bring me to your class. If you are good, nothing can take me out of it. I stuck to it till the end but I will advise you not to because it did not help me academically.
What were the main hurdles you faced while developing this company?
It has just begun. It has been less than a year that I am running it full-time. Every day is a challenge. You set your own very short term goals keeping the longer ones in mind.
Apart from that there is a dearth of big money. If we had all the money in the world: we’d have a chain of stores across the world which sells our merchandise, has an attached Papercup Café and some really great live music. We have so much to offer. I think we have just shown one-tenth of our potential so far.
Why the name “Papercup”?
I’m a big fan of The Beatles. “Words are flowing on like endless rain into a Papercup”: the opening line of the song “Across the Universe”. I liked that word for some reason. Probably, it seemed like that light container which could hold all my creative energies. It was the place where creativity could flow in like endless river.
Can you please share what kind of products we create at Papercup?
There are two kinds of products at Papercup.
Under this head we have
- cool Coffee Mugs Journals/notebooks,
- Fridge Magnets cum Bottle Openers,
- Coffee/Beer Coasters et cetera.
We have different kinds of
- handmade table lamps,
- flower holders,
- greeting cards.
Each product in this category are exclusive and unique. No matter how hard we try we can not replicate the exact same piece again. We guess that’s the beauty of these products
Here is a link to our Facebook page where you’ll get all the updates about products, events and more. You can purchase from this too. All you need to do, is send a message to the page about which product, and we’d get back to you.
Here is a link to the official website. You can have to look at the team and know more about the company.
Did you at any point of time consider giving it all up?
When I took the decision of doing this full time there were a lot of raised eyebrows, ridicule, apprehension. But for all of those there was enough encouragement from other corners. It will be false to say the negativity did not affect me because it did. But I had little choice. It was like being a monomaniac. I could not program my system to do anything else. So, I decided to see the end or beginning of it in success or in failure. But what was important was to give it a shot: not a half-hearted one, not the safe one; the one where you can lose a lot of things and yet you choose to walk that path. But there were and are days when I wish to give it up because I have to admit that even running a small business like mine is rather hectic and stressful. But thankfully none of those days could take the better of me and I know none of those days ever will.
What is your daily routine like?
Good question. Unlike what it looks like in social networking sites, regular days are really regular. I wake up in the morning, make a to do list, plan in my shower, eat a heavy breakfast (any normal person’s lunch would be my breakfast). If I have some work to be done within 5 kilometers I drive to those places to get them done. It is a major relaxation: Good music and driving. On other days I straight take a bus to The Papercup Workstation which is the house I grew up in. It has been lying empty for several years till we decided to create some ruckus by turning it into our workplace. I work 7 days a week. If you see me in a coffee shop or a bar on a Monday, know that it is for business. This does not mean that I don’t give time to family and friends. I make it a point to attend social gatherings after work if there is an invitation. I ace at camouflaging my social awkwardness.
Where do you see this company 5 years from now?
In really great form. A thriving e-commerce business for the global market selling apparel, stationery, home décor and fashion accessories under the brand Papercup. We should be capturing the global market by then through online selling. Nationally, I hope to see three Papercup retail outlets. It should be a brand which makes people unimaginably happy for no rhyme or reason.
What would be your advice to youngsters of today?
To take advices from everyone but to filter them before putting them to use, including this one. It will be a pity if you are doing a business because you were born in a business family and given a choice you would actually become something else. Do not take life decisions like education, profession, marriage, divorce based on other people’s choices. Make your own. You will make mistakes: terrible ones but they will still be your own. Be shameless. And fail fast and often.
I’ve known you personally, and been a part of your team. Everyone loves you as their boss. Plus you throw these occasional awesome parties too. How important is it to keep your team happy?
This thing about being loved as a Boss is tricky. No one really loves a real Boss. Have you heard a boy or a girl working for an MNC say ‘I love my Boss’? Less likely. I get to hear the exact contrary. I don’t think I have ever really been one. I have a particular way of functioning; not saying it’s a good or bad one. I see the best in people. Everyone can be of use. And here, we are talking about a team of extremely bright and creative people so it not a tough thing to see good things in them. I treat the human resource problem of Papercup as a zigzag puzzle and I have fit each one of you into it. And there is space for more. When you genuinely love and appreciate the true potential that one holds, it is easy to be loved back.
Yes, all of us wait for those parties! See, technically the company should be paying people good money but as a start-up we are perennially broke. We spend all our money in building inventory and organizing events. Some of my friends look at me as if I am some shrewd business woman when they hear we pay people peanuts and sometimes nothing at all. And yet we have an amazing team which rarely lets me down. I think what make people really happy is good association, genuine appreciation, a lot of colors and crazy parties.
Any message in particular to the Bengali community?
Interesting question. I love Bengalis and I love being a Bengali. I love tea and books, music and hidden poetry. As for a message to the Bengali Community,
I remember this blog post of mine. Will redirect you to it: Answering my beloved Bengali Society
Any message in particular for the youngsters today who are interested in start ups?
If you are really eager and have a good plan don’t think, just start. Make mistakes and rectify them on your way. Otherwise you will be waiting there forever for the perfect plan. Just start with what you have and where you are. And one thing you must stop doing is to complain. For everyone who thinks Calcutta does not have opportunities, I am glad you thought so and you thought correctly. For people who see the dearth of opportunities as a potential area to bridge the gap are the ones who will make this place The Bangalore or The Bombay you left for (though I hope it does not). Calcutta is still not saturated. It is still virgin. Make your move and win her. Start-up right here and make the change people complained and did nothing about.
She is also one of the warmest people you come across.
Do you have any message for Somrwitadi? Want to ask her some questions? Feel free to drop a comment below. And if you find her story inspiring, don’t forget to share this interview with others.