Do you hate wearing t-shirts that are stuffed with unnecessary branding and logos? Whenever you see a plain t-shirt with some ridiculous design, do you feel like punching the designer in the face? If you are a sucker for basic t-shirts, you gonna love this post.
Bear Appeal is a Sri Lankan clothing startup founded by Pavithra Perera and Thamara Kandabada. Their offering is simple. You get to buy a continuous supply of basic clothing from their online store.
Since starting Bear Appeal in 2017 they have served more than 3000+ customers. They are also one of the leading fashion brands on Daraz.lk. That’s no surprise because whenever you talk to one of their customers, all you hear is raving comments about Bear Appeal.
If you’ve ever bought something from them, you know that they don’t compromise on the product or their service. If you haven’t bought anything from them, just check out their reviews on Social media and you‘ll be convinced.
But this post isn’t about their success. This post is about the work that came before success. Pavithra and Thamara very generously shared their story without holding anything back.
This is how they started Bear Appeal.
How did you come up with the idea to sell basic t-shirts online?
We were playing around with different ideas for a while. But selling t-shirts online was the most practical idea out of all. Sri Lanka already manufactures clothes for so many international brands. The infrastructure is already here and it made sense to start a t-shirt business in Sri Lanka.
Also, there was no place to buy basic t-shirts in Sri Lanka which doesn’t have any branding or crazy logos. Of course, you could find the odd t-shirt here and there but you couldn’t get a consistent supply of basic t-shirts. We thought that there must be people just like us who are looking for basic clothing. Basically, we scratched our own itch.
Did the idea come first or did you always want to start a business?
Pavithra: I really wanted to start a business. I feel like it’s impossible for me to do a corporate job from 9-5. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I end up working more than 9-5 at Bear Appeal. But I don’t like that rigidity in a corporate job. I like the flexibility of running my own business.
Thamara: I was the complete opposite. I never imagined that I would run a business. I was working at a company for a while but I quit my job because I felt bored. Then we started bouncing ideas off each other. First, we wanted to print superhero t-shirts. Pavithra had so many ideas but I was waiting for the perfect idea. But it all came to a point where we needed to start “something.” That something was Bear Appeal.
How did you find t-shirt suppliers when you started?
Even though you feel like finding suppliers is difficult, it’s really not that hard. We just Googled. Made some calls and got some samples done.
The only problem is finding a good supplier. We have been switching suppliers to improve the product. We still do that.
Did you know anything about t-shirts or fashion designing in the beginning?
Our brand is not for people who are looking for the latest fashion in the market. We sell basic clothing for people who don’t really care about fashion.
When we started, we had no idea about fashion or materials or anything. We don’t have much technical knowledge even now! We are still learning.
Were you doubtful in the beginning?
We knew that there was some market for basic t-shirts. Before starting, we sent a questionnaire asking people questions like “do you prefer wearing t-shirts without any branding?” We got more than 200 responses and about 70% agreed that they prefer basic t-shirts. But most of them were our friends and it was not the perfect sample at all!
We got a very small stock done in the beginning. Pavithra created the website and we were in business (Pavithra had experience as a freelance WordPress web developer before creating Bearappeal.com).
How did you fund the business in the beginning?
Bearappeal is self-funded. It’s still bootstrapped.
How did you divide the work when you started?
We were in this full time since the beginning. We registered the business as a private limited in the start. We did what we were good at. Pavithra takes care of the website and marketing. Thamara is in-charge of the day to day operations and supply chain.
How did you take the product to your customers in the beginning?
Basically, we stalked people who posted pictures wearing basic t-shirts on Instagram. Then we introduced our company as a clothing startup and started connecting with them. Some of them ended up converting as customers. That’s how we started. It was mostly word-of-mouth in the beginning.
Another hack is our Instagram page. If you look at our Instagram page, we don’t have any photos from models. All you will see is our customers wearing Bear Appeal t-shirts. Most of our customers send us their pictures to get featured on our Instagram profile. That’s mainly because of the experience they get when purchasing something from us.
How did you do your accounting in the beginning?
Both of us are CIMA graduates so we had a little idea about accounting. So in the beginning, we kept accounts. But now we have outsourced it to a third party.
What tools do you use in operations?
Trello – To manage work in the beginning
Tawk.to – Chat app that we use on the website
MailChimp – This is an email marketing tool that we use to send product updates and birthday wishes to customers.
Mr.Notify – SMS tool to send order updates to our customers
What are some of the problems you have when running an e-commerce business in Sri Lanka?
Delivery is one of our biggest challenges. Currently, we are using Grasshoppers.lk and our own delivery within Colombo. For any order which is outside Colombo, we use the Sri Lankan postal service.
Another obvious problem we encounter when running an online clothing store is exchanges. Exchanges mostly happen because of the size. Choosing a size sometimes is aspirational right? If the t-shirt doesn’t fit, we do free exchanges. This only happens once. Once you know your size, you don’t have to worry about the next order.
How did you price your products in the beginning?
We looked at the market to see how similar products were priced. That’s how we did it. One of the main advantages of Bear Appeal is our bundled products. For example, our Crew Neck 3 Pack is just Rs.2999. That’s Rs.1000 per t-shirt including free shipping. In fact, bundles are our best sellers.
But we didn’t get our pricing right from the very beginning. We made a mistake when pricing our boxers. We think we overpriced our boxers in the beginning. We priced them looking at the international market rather than considering the Sri Lankan context. That was a big mistake we made. Then we brought down the price.
How do you market your products now?
We don’t spend much money on Social Media. It’s not zero but it’s really low compared to other clothing brands.
We do this thing called Bear Stories. It’s a series of videos where we feature some of our customers who do amazing things. We wanted to share their stories with our audience. There are still people in Sri Lanka who don’t trust e-commerce. But when they see that someone they know has bought something online, it eventually will create trust. Building trust in the entire e-commerce ecosystem is the bigger vision of Bear Stories.
What advice do you have for upcoming young entrepreneurs?
Don’t wait for the perfect idea. If you have a partner who is ready to jump in and if you also have something to fall back to, just go ahead and start.
We are not asking anyone to take risks. It’s not like Bear Appeal was the only option we had. Both of us do freelance work. We were making enough money freelancing so that even if we failed, we had something to fall back to.
Quitting your job is not the only path. You need to be practical also.
If you have rich parents, that’s another baseline to jump and start something. Both of us come from middle-class families so we had to make money from other means.
Where can someone reach out to you?
You can visit Bearappeal.com to learn more about our store.
Check out Bear Appeal Social Media below
If you want to learn more about the founders and connect with them, check below.
Pavithra regularly vlogs at YouTube.com/pavithraperera
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If you want to start an online business in Sri Lanka, we have a practical workshop for you. It’s called E-Commerce Essentials. To learn more and join the next workshop, click here.
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