S1E02: Vijay Venugopal, Founder, Fast & Up on the art and science of content and communities.

In this episode we talk to Vijayaraghavan Venugopal, the founder and CEO of Fast & Up on the art and science of anticipating demand, creating natural content, developing marquee partnerships and more!

S1E02: Vijay Venugopal, Founder, Fast & Up on the art and science of content and communities.

In this episode we talk to Vijayaraghavan Venugopal, the founder and CEO of Fast & Up.

Content to commerce is a new trend for many of us. But for Vijay and the team at Fast&Up India it was the most obvious way to grow their business from the beginning in 2015.

Watch this new episode on the art and science of anticipating demand, creating natural content, developing marquee partnerships and more!

In this episode Vijay talks about:

  • Category creation and product innovation as a moat.
  • How communities and content can thrive organically.
  • Frameworks to decide when it's time to expand beyond the perceivable market.

Listen Now

Welcome to today's episode of the Vizury podcast. It's a pleasure to have you on!

Vijay

Hello Sujoy thank you for inviting me a pleasure to be with the team here and Vizury.

Sujoy

I've been a Fast and Up customer for about a year and a half now, started with trying out something post the pandemic, but for those who are not familiar with the brand, could you tell us a little more about Fast and Up?

Vijay

So Fast and up has been around since 2015 - 16 in India. We are into nutrition and more into what makes people active, keeps people active. So have a range of products from products which help in performance sports, daily nutrition, like the multivitamins minerals, etc.

We also have a range which is into proteins both the plant protein, as well as, whey protein. We also have a few products into the kids' nutrition range. So in a way we have you covered with the entire range as we progressed. We were one of the first players in the country to launch this delivery format, which is into effervescence.

And effervescence was a unique format, five years back where it was easy to carry a tablet. You put it into water, drop fizz and drink. Today have the capability to do most of the products in a effervescence format, which helps people use it very easily. Going back Fast and Up, had its origins in Switzerland in the year 2008-09.

As happens with any business journey, it was dormant and, and we launched it in India in 2015-16, and has had a reasonable, good growth. And a pandemic obviously, brought a lot of focus in the nutrition space. We were one of the beneficiaries, but, I was the only started years back.

So possibly we got a little bit of a push, but I think even with or without the pandemic our journey was still to reach out to as many Indians as possible.

Sujoy

When you started Vijay a few years ago why did you choose the nutrition space?

Vijay

Interesting question. So I'm not a young, uh, typical entrepreneur that you would find. By the time I started, I was already 40. For me, I was always a professional into the health care sector worked at pharmaceuticals and was always interested in sports, fitness and active life. And also obviously over the last 13, 14 years I had developed a sense of business acumen, because having worked with large companies globally.

So when I moved out of corporate life in the year 2013, I had taken up a couple of years of sabbatical and, 2015 was when Fast and Up. And it was a fantastic aggregation I would say of fitness sports on one hand, business knowledge and acumen on data and the third was, obviously healthcare and nutrition has to do a lot with health care.

So when these three got together and had an opportunity to participate as a part of the team, we co-found something unique. I just jumped in and that was also a period when, you know, a lot of things were happening in India, running was taking off and, it was a good time to be in and it was a journey which started, obviously took a larger shape as years progressed.

So that in a nutshell, I would say, it was basically more, a little bit of destiny, a little bit of what I believed in a little bit of the people I got connected. So I would say it's a mix of multiple things.

Sujoy

And I think, yes, like with most other things and with multiple things, falling in place, wonderful things emerge.

I'm also very interested that you decided to create a brand in the space Vijay not to say, okay, I want to resell maybe global brands in this space. Or I just want to create an e-commerce marketplace. Why think about creating a brand?

Vijay

Sujoy, again, an interesting question. So again, there is no format to it.

I was never into a B2C. I've never created a consumer brand, always. Even on the pharmaceutical side, healthcare side, I was always into business to business verticals. So never probably dreamt of building a brand, but as I said going back to the conversation when there are three forces at work, there was passionate work, building a brand was just incidental.

You just get in and then you start your day with Fast and Up, end your day with Fast and Up and, and it keeps going on every day for years. And then you learn on the ground. So I think, we knew that there is a lot of scope for nutrition out there and, we had a great product.

We had a great potential brand, I would say. And now the work had to be done. And so when we went on, we enjoyed doing it and then it grew from a power to power, strength to strength rather. Many times when people tell me that they have used Fast and Up it's a lot of satisfaction. So there have been occasions when I have repeated this multiple times. Two years back there was one gentleman one athlete who went to Tokyo Olympics, table tennis.

I started and I went up to him and started introducing Fast and Up. And he said you don't need to introduce Fast and Up I already know about it. I've been using it for the last two years.

Vijay

These were moments which gives a lot of happiness, knowing that the brand has reached areas where you have not even imagined or where you have not drawn a line that keeps driving things and then it becomes a passion. So that's been the journey. So fast and up obviously took shape or a period of time. And now it just goes on.

Sujoy

Talking about a lot of the work that, Fast and Up has done in this space Vijay what stands out is your approach towards a customer education, content and community.

In fact, the last time I was going through the Fast and Up website. There's so much on the website, including diets, recipes that are running cycling communities look like, you know, a lot of work that has gone into it. In fact, I was also talking to my team and we'll say, Hey, the store seems to be like a small part of the entire Fast and Up website and there's so much else, tell us more about what you've, how are you thinking about this, content and community space?

Vijay

So, Sujoy when we started, we had nowhere else to go, right? We didn't have possibly the money nor the expertise to go into television or to holdings or the print media.

The only way we knew how to go around was to connect with grassroot and grassroot meant communities, grassroot meant people. Grassroot meant education and nutrition. This is a specific area where education is very important and that is something that we learned early on, in our journey. So fundamentally right from start, we have been building this brand on the basis of communities.

So initially we started with running communities. Obviously we are very strong we are number one out there, but then, then we moved into multiple communities. Today we have almost 8 to 10 communities, all strong and developing, every day and education has become a nature has become a part of the entire story.

So for us, I think this will stay fundamental because we believe that even if you go mass, you still have to keep doing this to make those changes to the grassroot. I believe has also differentiated us to a large extent. People still respect us, thank us for what we have done on the grassroots and the community side.

I really hope I keep telling my team we might grow bigger. We might, you know, do a lot more on the digital media and we might do a lot more on the mass medium, but still the connect with the communities and the people in terms of education in terms of engagement should always be there.

And that will be a fundamental thing for us in the years to come as well.

Sujoy

So how does your team approach this? So I'm sure they have a lot of competing priorities. And have you ever thought about measuring ROI of all of these efforts versus a lot of the growth that you're trying to drive in terms of revenue?

Vijay

Interesting question. So when needed starting out and in the initial period of the company, people obviously used to multitask? You had people who'd activate who connect, who would engage with communities, etc and who also used to drive revenue. So it was a smaller team, etc but what a period of time we have tried to segregate where we said there would be few people, who have only the task of activations. I mean, activations could be in many forms, including communities, including KOL, including influencers, categories like running could be one click it could be one, a person who is going to be a normal job could one.

So we have tried to build in separate focus teams, which is only responsible for activations and taken out the sales element, from them because what we realized was, as we grew mixing this, becomes a problem. Now that poses another challenge, right? Because then you have the two operating in silos. One would be only be activating and you talked about the ROI aspect, right? So what we have tried to do is as much as possible, try to connect the dots and see, what are the returns, how the revenues are happening right. In some places it's easier. Some places is difficult. But having said that there are certain areas where we are very sure that we are strong.

We want to grow. This is a place that we will have to be putting in our efforts. And  there is a correlation. At some level we have done data analysis, etc and then found that there is a correlation to the revenues and the sales grow that we are achieving also because you will do a lot of surveys, you do a lot of studies, you have some data.

Sujoy

Does intuition play a part here. So you know that you have to do certain things, right? Intuitively and if you consistently do this over time, you will build a community. You will build a brand and yes. ROI will come. Maybe not immediately is that also how you've been approaching it?

Vijay

Yeah, it's a valid point. So intuition will and should play a role, right? I mean you can't rely on in a category like nutrition where nothing has been written five years back you don't have data to rely on, right?

So intuition will play a role. But once intuition plays a role, at some point in time, you will have to do a check as to see how are things. Whether out of 10 items that you are doing,  does the eighth and the ninth and 10th item also makes sense, or you want to kind of tweak it or drop it.

So that's where I think a little bit of analysis that plays a role because even in our own journey we have seen that we have gotten into a lot of things but then after that point of time the utility or the marginal utility, concept comes in right. So, that's where I think you will have to take some calls.

So there will be on one hand, you will be driven by intuition, passion. On the other hand, you need to be a little bit more pragmatic and look at stuff like ROI, etc. So it's a fine balance that you have to draw.

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Sujoy

You briefly mentioned the effervescent format, Vijay and what stands out also about Fast and Up products are its innovative, both formats as well as a really attractive packaging in a space where consumers were used to pills, powders. Was this a conscious call or did it just happen because this was the best format you came across?

Vijay

So it's again a mix of multiple things. I am a firm believer that it's never one thing. It's multiple things in everything that we talk about.  So in this case we had acquired a company in Switzerland in 2010 - 11 which also had the technology of Effervescence.

And ever since it's a big multi-billion dollar business or brands which have been built it in Europe, etc, but not there in India and as we were having it for the last few years until 2015 - 16 where we said we will get into this. In fact it is not the effervescent products that were going initially, it was energy gels.

I mean, in Switzerland, we also used to have energy gels and energy gels were not common in India at that point of time. So every time in Mumbai a marathon that happens in January, there always used to be a shortage of gels, energy, gels, and runners used to import it through their friends etc.

So when we saw, or I saw that there was a gap of energy gels that got us thinking, why don't we start doing energy gels? Because we had that too in the portfolio plus these effervescent products which also had potential, which we have seen blossoming in Europe and US etc.

So that was the genesis. So then we said, we'll have a portfolio. We had hardly a few products. So we launched effervescent products and energy gels came in a few months later. So we had a portfolio of around four products at that time, at that time, what we had was a belief? We strongly believe that effervescence had a future in India.

Because a lot of things which happen in US, in Europe take some time to be successful here. So first and foremost, is a belief that we had because we were experimenting and we were using, it felt really good. That was a belief which took us here and it took some time to build that category.

But today Fast and up is a brand. So it doesn't stand only for effervescence. It stands for nutrition. And so today we have gone beyond because today a brand is built. There's a lot of power behind the brand. So anything that we give to the consumers people feel it is coming from a house which stands for quality. Quality stands for efficacies, stands for safety, etc.

I think if we didn't have the belief on day one then effervescence would never have taken off because we had to convince, we had to talk to the consumers having believed first in the concept.

Sujoy

And not just your product format Vijay the packaging design stands out. How important do you personally believe that design is important for the consumer brand?

Vijay

It's very important, Sujoy, I mean, I can't overstress this point. Packaging is an important thing and we have learned it over a period of time.

Sujoy

So I have to admit that's interesting. I think we've all come across brands or founders who are natural from get-go they first focused on design and then everything else is secondary. I'm very interested to hear about. You're learning in this space because it doesn't seem like you started out like that.

Vijay

So it's interesting. So for example, I mentioned early in the conversation that I'm not a B2C guy. I mean, when I started out I've never done online, never done e-commerce prior to 2015. And most of us in the team also for us, it's a new beginning we have not been into nutrition.

So there have been people who have been into nutrition for the last 15 years telling where protein, etc. So we have not been into it. So 2015, we enter without any baggage into the consumer space. So in one way it is good, in another way it could be a disadvantage as well.

So we came rather five, six years from the house of products, house of research and development, house of fitness and sports, the consumer packaging element was something which happened right from day one and it evolved. So if you look at the packaging of Fast and Up today and what it was five years back, you would see different.

Alright because it was also a learning curve and also when you go through this journey, you will have to see what are areas you would want to attack first. So we felt at that point of time, it was very important that we get a quality product out. We get the acceptance first from the customers, we engage with communities, we engage with stakeholders. That is great up to a certain point. But beyond that, when the scale increases, that's when packaging and the consumer element becomes much more critical because it goes beyond your imagination. So today I think we have reached the stage where people love our packaging.

I mean there'll always be reviews of for any product but I think we have reached a stage where there's generally a great acceptance of our packaging and what we, come out with etc. So we have reached that stage. So for us, it's an evolution and everything that you see today across is all done in house. So we haven't really gone outside. So it's all been built with a lot of sweat whatever creativity that you see is all from within. And then not that we are averse, but now we possibly would like to take the outset in input and then grow this beyond.

Sujoy

You have taken your next big steps in consumer marketing by bringing on board brand ambassadors and celebrity endorsers.

What was the thinking behind that? And how did you decide that out of the multiple ways to grow the brand?

Vijay

So there is bottom-up approach and a top-down approach. So the first four or five years we've always been going from bottom up approach. As we discuss, engage with communities, educate them, talk to stakeholders and they don't use whatever digital media, outreach could be there and build a brand. So while doing this we have been very successful  in targeting our target communities and that has been a step-by-step process.

What we also saw was nutrition specifically is an area where there is a lot of education needed. It's not I mean, normally not an impulse purchase. Normally you would want to consult your peers. Maybe if you can get some expert guidance, you will do that. So there's some decision period out there.

Until COVID came in, COVID disrupted a few things, but I think we wanted to make it a little bit more modest because we were seeing that the brand has had acceptance beyond, and we are sensing that. When we talk to people beyond perceivable communities, we felt that there are users of the brand even beyond the top four or five cities.

So how do we make it bigger? How do we expedite the process? There are multiple ways. Luckily for us, I mean the last four or five years you don't believe that every athlete that we support every, influencer that we are engaged with inherently there have been users of our products.

It's never been that we have gone out and had to coax them or whatever. Somehow they have been bought into the concept of Fast and Up, the concept of the nutrition that we provide and then the relationship got extended.  So with the current set of people, I mean, we have got Varun Dhawan and Shilpa Shetty and both of them stand for, an active lifestyle, having their own audience connected, etc in a great manner so they in fact new Fast and up also vouch for the quality of Fast and Up as a user, even prior to becoming connected to Fast and Up so for us, it was an easy connect and then we thought it may not be a bad idea to go through them also to expand the journey that we were already in at the end of the day we would want Fast and Up to be in as many consumer hands as possible.

So for us associating with two celebrities was one of the methodologies and having said that we as any brand, as any company, I firmly believe that we will still have to do a lot of other things and that will be a process which will continue but some of everything put together will lead us to the destination that we are all going towards.

Sujoy

Thanks for the perspective. Going back to performance marketing and if we can retrace back to your early days at Fast and Up for the DTC brand performance marketing is very importantly where to acquire your first set of customers or early sets of customers or in your case where you organically had a certain base performance marketing becomes important to scale. When did you hire your first marketer and how have you built a team from thereon?

Vijay

Performance marketing is very important to the development of any brand. I would say, especially in today's age. So for us we have always led on internal talent.

So I think we were one of the few companies who believe that this could be, or this would be the future of brand building in the country. So right from 2015 -16 in some way, or other we have got talent internally to build this process. So early on, I think we did realize that performance marketing is going to be one of the pillars of our growth.

Okay so over a period of time, we have worked with external stakeholders but having a core internal team which has driven performance marketing. So that's the approach that we've we have done.

Sujoy

So did you start with an agency and later bring this in-house?

Vijay

No, so right from day one, we have had some persons internally.

So external dependence was limited for us. Okay so it has always been that approach now again if somebody had to ask me. I would not sit over judgment and tell them this is the only way to go. There are multiple ways and it depends on what works best for you and what takes you to the destination that you want to be?

So our own journey has been an internal team and we would believe that we would want to make it as strong as possible, but always work with external stakeholders. Okay, because I believe that even at this stage fifth or sixth year of our existence, even though we have a fantastic internal team, it's always good to work with external agencies, external stakeholders, because external stakeholders also bring a lot of fresh new perspective and a lot of skills to the table.

So the ideal match should be to have a mix. I mean, at least according to what our thought process is. So the only change that over the last five, six years, which has happened possibly is that as a company grows bigger your spends also keeps going up which also means that you have to get better and better at performance marketing. So that's always is a challenge for any brand, I would say how to make it more effective with all the stakeholders that you have internal, external yet get the revenues going, keep the brand growing and I have to point out that different categories are different.

So when it comes to nutrition I've seen that some of the metrics which may be applicable to some other category may not be applicable here. Like we talked about education. So there's a process involved and I think there's a lot of inherent skillsets, which would be more important when it comes to nutrition.

One has to learn from what is happening elsewhere and then derive and building those advantages into the sector or segment that you are operating.

Sujoy

Does the same apply with the performance marketing team. For example, where, this is a team given that it's an emerging category and the team is constantly learning how to market this as opposed to coming inbuilt we'll say with fashion or apparel marketing skills.

Vijay

So I think no one I've seen prior to 2016 I don't think any brand had built anything substantial in the area of nutrition in the online space. So whatever has happened, has happened in the last five-six years.

You know thinking how the consumers would react, etc. So I think that's been the evolution, so you will not get everything a hundred percent, so you will have to mix and match. But I think one has to. And I really tell our team and even myself to learn from what's happening around.

It's always good to see what other brands are doing so that we can take some you know, examples from them. We keep talking to, I mean, great guys, like in your team we keep talking to other agencies and there's so much of things happening, so it's always good to imbibe. What happens is you wouldn't be making the same mistakes for the next three months and the cost of making the mistakes for us has gone up because when you really grow bigger, the stakes are higher. It's not the same when you were a smaller brand for four or five years back

Sujoy

Beyond the rapid change that the nutrition category  had over the last year and a half where do you see the category evolving in the next three years or so?

Vijay

Sujoy, I think irrespective of the COVID coming in or not the health wellness, nutrition space was bound to grow. I mean, that was a trajectory which would have taken India to a far bigger position by 2025 - 2030. So there were statistics to have that out, COVID kind of expedited it by at least three, four years.

So you have used Fast and Up the last one and half year. So there have been many, many customers, not just using Fast and Up, but multiple brands in the last one year. So their acceptance of nutrition has gone up. At the same time there's also a lot of buzz happening with a lot of brands coming in.

A lot of technology companies you know, using technology to further the cause of nutrition, further, the most of health right in the country. It just happened. So there's a huge ecosystem, which is getting built. The only set back, which has happened in the last one and a half years is the face-to-face activity. A lot of events have taken a backseat, etc but directionally I think there's a huge surge in terms of nutrition. And I also feel that a lot of new products are coming into existence. I mean, the rate of introduction of new products has increased multifold. The other thing which has also happened in the last one and a half years the shift to online purchasing behavior, right?

I mean, this is not just a nutrition. This is across. If you look at data 40 million people getting added, etc in the last, uh, one year or six months it's tremendous and every company where a large company, like the Tata's, the Reliance's of the world that are now talking about the online shift.

So with all this happening, I think nutrition is only a click away today if you have to do a diagnostic test you don't need to now take an appointment and go to a diagnostic center or to a hospital and get your tests done today the click, you get the person in, get the blood sample out and you have a test report by evening and you send it to your nutritionist or doctor he, or she will tell you what is to be taken.

Then you start taking your vitamin D again through online buying and then you get into that mode right? So I think the acceptance has increased. People are more aware. There are a lot of technologies in place. There are more brands today, more options today for people to choose and also I think this all helps people who are into the online digital space to kind of come out with innovative options to kind of make things more efficient, in terms of marketing, in terms of getting the business going.

So there's an interesting ecosystem, I would say getting built so very hopeful and very happy to be a part of it

Sujoy

Certainly a very exciting category, whichever taking an even more exciting and special company that you're building good luck to you and the team and as a consumer brand I'm sure that it is so many consumers waiting and watching and, and buying the products that you have today and everything that you'll introduce, in the years ahead.

Good luck Vijay. Thanks for your time. It was, it was a pleasure speaking to you.

Vijay

Thank you Sujoy, and all the best to you too. Thank you.

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