Krittika Khandelwal didn’t find purpose in her marketing work at a big corporation, so she decided to take a chance and create her own path.
The most recent stop on that journey is Soothi, her direct-to-consumer brand of sustainable journals and stationery that works with artisans in developing countries and plants a tree for every journal purchased.
Never afraid to ask questions, Khandelwal has supplemented her extensive marketing background with a fearless approach to networking. But she says no conversation prepared her for the reality of running a business while having her first child. “Looking back, I wish there was a network of women who have gone through that who could have prepared me a little bit more,” she says.
Hello Alice recently spoke with Khandelwal about how she found her way to entrepreneurship, what it’s really like to care for an 8-week-old baby while running a business, and why she believes that communication can solve most problems. What follows are highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
On her path from the corporate world to entrepreneurship:
“I’m a child of immigrant parents, and the expectation is that you go to college, you work hard, and that’s what you do. When I graduated, I was lucky enough to have a paid internship to full-time position lined up. This was in 2009 during the financial crisis, so I was really grateful that I had a job and spent a couple of years working for major corporations all across Atlanta. But eventually, it occurred to me that no matter how hard I work and how great my work was, the rewards were not the same as in college. Like, in corporate America, you’re not necessarily graded for the work that you’re doing. The only thing I controlled was the output of my work, and I was doing the best that I can — but that didn’t seem to always matter.
That’s when it occurred to me that I need to forge my own path and try something different. So I took the risk. Starting in 2014, I spent an entire year just saving as much money as I could because obviously, I’m going to need resources to start whatever business that I wanted to start. And during that time I started asking myself questions: What is it that I’m good at? What are my skills? What is something that I can do differently that I’m passionate about?
I understood marketing, branding, and e-commerce. Based on this, I wanted to go build a brand, and I wanted to go find a product. I started looking into my network and decided I should go to Southeast Asia, because I can speak the language and have a huge network of friends and family members who can introduce me to various different sectors where I could possibly get something manufactured. In 2015, I took the leap, quit my job, and launched my first set of products.”
On not being afraid to change directions:
“I actually first started out making coconut jewelry. I wanted to introduce a sustainable product line that didn’t exist, so I started searching everywhere and came across an artisan community that was making jewelry out of coconut shells. I thought it was coolest thing and felt like I landed on my big idea. We started production, but it quickly became a struggle because that artisan community was not used to large-scale manufacturing. The learning curve was so high that I actually got to a point where I had to assess my business. Do I move forward in this and get funding for research and development? Or do I stop and completely pivot? It was a very, very difficult decision, but I stopped the product line.
That’s when I found the paper product side. I’ve always been the type of person to collect notebooks and pens and all this stuff. So I decided to try paper products. I wanted to build a really great brand that had a focus on sustainability, that was unique, and this was that product. That’s how Soothi became what it is today.”
On learning how to be an entrepreneur:
“One of the great things that my dad taught me was to always have a great network of people. Since college, I’ve always put myself out there. Whenever I saw someone that I thought was doing something really great, I would message them to ask a question. For the most part, everybody was more than happy to help and have a quick conversation with me and answer a few questions. That’s how I built my network.”
On why she chose the direct-to-consumer model:
“I actually tried going into retail with the coconut jewelry, and it was very difficult. You have to do trade shows, and trade shows are incredibly expensive. On average, it was costing $10,000. You can go in and you might get no orders, but either way you’re out 10 grand, you’re exhausted, and you’re standing in a booth trying to sell your stock and competing with everybody else. I knew upfront I didn’t have the funding for that, so my decision to go direct-to-consumer had to do with the fact that I saw the amount of money I had. I know for a fact that if I run Facebook campaigns and Instagram campaigns, I can get sales. In the end, I had to do the thing that’s going to give me the return on my investment so I can keep the business going.”
On running a business and becoming a mother:
“I would say it wasn’t so challenging while I was pregnant. Running my own business allowed me the flexibility to go to my doctor’s appointments whenever I needed to go. I didn’t have to ask for permission, and I didn’t have to schedule time off like I would have had to if I was in a corporate environment. The challenge for me really came once I had my baby, because the baby needs you 24/7. Within seconds, you have this child. Now you’re a mother, you have to take care of this child, and your business is still there and needs your attention. For me it was very hard, despite the fact that I put a lot of measures into place. I hired people. I delegated responsibilities. I gave logins to my husband for financial stuff. Despite all of that, there were things that I just couldn’t plan for.
There is no maternity leave at all for us. I had my baby, and within three hours, I had to open my laptop and answer a couple of emails that were coming in about a large order. I knew I couldn’t miss this opportunity, but I remember being so exhausted. It was the most difficult email I’ve ever written and it took every little ounce of energy I had to just write that message and send it out the door.
Looking back, I wish there was a network of women who have gone through that who could have prepared me a little bit more. It was really challenging to find people who have their own business and go through this journey. What do you need to be ready for? How do you mentally adjust to being this entrepreneur who’s working around the clock with all this energy to all of the sudden having to slow down?”
On what she would do differently if she has another child:
“Next time I would be more mentally prepared for the slowdown that happens. The fact is that no matter how hard you try, you have new limits. Everyone talks about how babies are demanding, but until you experience it, you don’t fully understand what the process is going to be — and it’s so different for every single woman. You don’t know how you’re physically going to heal or how your emotions work now. So having gone through this experience once, I can prepare for that understanding that these are all the things that could possibly happen to me again.”
On handling production delays during a pandemic:
“This year we’ve been experiencing an international supply chain issue. Whereas it used to be a 30- to 45-day turnaround from when you put in a purchase order to delivery, now it might take two, three months. But having that conversation with my manufacturers allows me to plan. They can manufacture at their own pace, and we can prepare to get it shipped. We’ve also communicated the reality on the ground to our customers through email, social media, blog posts, and on our website. Most of the time, people get it — everybody’s having issues during the pandemic.
The other thing that I have communicated with my customers is that the safety of the artisans is very important. We’re not going to compromise their safety just to get the product out the door. If there’s a local lockdown, we’re going to adhere to those practices. I don’t care if there’s a delay — it comes down to the philosophy that I have with the business, which is to prioritize people and prioritize kindness above everything.”