Most of us love animals. But is it easy to live in balance with other living beings without harming them?
Founder Thesis brings you the journey of a bureaucrat who has taken his love for animals to the next level.
In a candid conversation with Akshay Datt, Abhishek Sinha, Co-founder and CEO, GoodDot, takes us through his journey. He has served the Indian Revenue Service before exploring the entrepreneurial route.
Since his earlier days, Abhishek has always faced an existential crisis and has tried to discover his purpose in life. This led to him quitting his cushy government job and starting GoodDot in 2016, with a primary goal of developing ethical, sustainable, and cruelty-free substitutes for animal meat.
Tune in to this episode to hear Abhishek speak about how GoodDot is aggressively working towards making Veganism a reality in India.
What you must not miss!
- Your passion is your true calling.
- Veganism: An ancient tradition.
- How to scale a business from a Tier 3 city?
- What is GoodDO?
Abhishek Sinha 01:47
Especially Vivekanand, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, primarily those two and then maybe some other people out there, but yeah, I was most impacted by the learnings of Swami Vivekanand. So here you are someone talking about the cosmic level of your existence and you’re not even out there in the day to day lives. So for me, I didn’t know what I’m supposed to do, or what I will make out of life, so I joined ISKCON. I was there for two years. I was thinking about leaving…
Akshay Datt 02:22
During your B.Tech?
Yeah, during my B.Tech. So I was thinking of leaving the family and joining ISKCON and becoming a Brahmachari. But somehow, one thing led to another, I didn’t go on that track. So that was a seed of frustration or lack of clarity. First, I was in the Indian Defence Accounts. Gave the examination again and got into Indian Revenue Services. So in 2008, I went for training before the 2007 examination again, for two years, I was in training, the foundation course and I were posted in Patna as Assistant Comptroller (Defence). And then during that year, when I gave an examination, I got Indian Revenue Service (Income Tax). So I went to the Nagpur Academy to get training.
So what was it like working in the government? You know, considering you grew up in that kind of environment was it like, pretty easy to adjust?
Yeah, it was, it was quite easy to adjust. Because we had seen something of that sort. And, in fact, I would say it was one of the major landmarks of my life. Because then what happened was suddenly from a person who was not like really confident, you go to being very confident and you realize being in such kind of service that I’ll give an anecdote for example, when I was in my chemical engineering days, we would organize some seminars where we would invite CEOs and you know, top shot corporate guys, and when they would come they would appear to be coming from different planets. You would never think that you could reach those levels but when you were in the civil services and sitting across the other side of the table, the same big winners who were unreachable suddenly started serving you. So you realize that they are also normal guys who have worked hard to reach that level. I might have been somewhere and I too have a will to succeed, just like them. So I think that was the biggest revealing factor where I can do whatever we want, just like any other person. I’m not saying we are better than them, but we are not worse than anyone, even the winners out there. That was the biggest takeaway from the Civil Services.
So why didn’t you be a lifelong government servant? Well typically, Indian Revenue Services is a pretty prestigious and desirable posting. If someone gets it once, they don’t leave it. Why did you leave it?
It goes back to the depression of college days, existentially. What did you do in your life?. I can see this is a great job with a lot of positive contributions that one makes to society and to the nation. But everyone’s flow is different. Probably I was not meant for an enforcement agency and I wanted to do something which is more creative. Secondly, during this time, I got clarity about who I am. I can say I’m an animal lover. So that was my comfort zone and my identity. So I was not doing anything remotely close to fulfilling my identity. I come from Patna from a community where people eat meat. I would consume meat, but since my childhood, I would help animals. In fact, I learned to make roti in my childhood, just so that I could feed crows and squirrels. So, when I used to give roti to the animals, my mother used to point out that it is made with an effort to feed the family. So I asked her to teach me how to make them. I learned that and I knew this was my comfort zone. This was me. But there was a moral dilemma. On one hand, you like the taste of meat but you are also helping animals. I was not strong enough to get away from the sensory pleasure of meat. When I was in engineering, I finally came across a research paper by the Dutch Government about tissue culture-based meat. Tissue culture-based meat is basically not killing animals but extracting a single tissue and growing it in the labs to make meat. So animals are not harmed, and you can make meat. So that was an amazing moment for me. Another portal opened up and I thought, one can actually enjoy meat without harming animals, which is great. So I thought more from a consumer perspective. I have kept a tab on the space since 2003. So, initially, we had some flavouring experts. We formed the team and decided that it will be an equal company. This project sounds phenomenal and looks phenomenal. But after 6-7 months, I realized that the driving passion is missing as we were creating a new category and there were a lot of challenges and scary unknowns. A lot of people also wanted to have some safety nets. We were doing this but we were not all in as this space is not validated yet. For me, it was either forget that you want to do something for animals and live your IAS life, or face your dream and live up to it. So when the merit list came in, I left Delhi. I didn’t get my posting in Jaipur as it was for ladies and the toppers of the batch. So I was thrown in Udaipur, so to say. Udaipur is a lovely, fantastic place, you fall in love with the natural beauty of the place, one of the best places to live in India by far. I was happy. So, once I was at a Crossword store and I picked up a guidebook for the city of Udaipur. I came to know that soy protein, which is one of the key ingredients, is either in the Kota (Rajasthan) belt or in Indore (MP), which is very close to Udaipur. So this was serendipity, and I ended up here. And of course, Deepak, who was my partner and co-founder, was settled in Udaipur. So we were quite comfortable in the city.
So you and your wife were settled in Udaipur and you were in the IRS when you decided to quit and do this full time. So initially, what did you do? Did you take an office or a factory? Tell me the journey after you put down your papers.
It’s a very interesting journey. So, there was an apartment in our building. We took that for rent. There was one room. We recruited a person and set up our office there. We had technical people for the factory setup but the office was the single staff. And that person left in 2-3 months because he thought nothing would come out of this. So initially, we started just with a factory.
Did you set up the factory by investing money or as a third party?
Third-party. There were a couple of HNIs who we could call friends and family. There’s a company here that has an 1800 crore turnover or RCM, the owner is a good friend of Deepak. He understood the project from an ethical, ahimsa perspective that something like this should come so he was the main investor. Apart from him, there were other investors. We constructed a factory on that because we wanted to have stability of tenure. So now our internal investors have bought it so we are much more on the certain ground so to say.
And how much did you raise in the seed round initially?
There are restrictions, so I cannot say much, but yeah, it went for a few million dollars.
So then when did you start manufacturing? In 2016 you quit, so after that how long did it take for production?
Our first pilot was rolled out in August-September of 2017 and our first commercial rollout was in November of 2017.
So what product did you design? Can you tell me technically what the product is?
Technically, our first product was GoodDot Vegetarian Meat. Basically, it was like chunks of mutton which are shelf-stable at ambient. They don’t need refrigeration. Cut it up in squares and you make it as mutton curry or whatever you use mutton for so that was the first product.
And this was soya based?
There are many ingredients. Soya, pea protein, wheat protein, quinoa flour, sago flour. So, it all depends on what texture we need. Basically, the science behind plant-based meat is quite ancient, your plant-based meat as space is very old unlike what people think today. There’s a 2000 plus years old history when China’s royal families got converted to Buddhism. So they wanted to have a taste of meat without himsa. So they asked the royal cooks to use vegetable ingredients to create something meat. So the earliest form of plant-based meat was tofu, tempeh and seitan. So these were developed by the Chinese 2000 years ago, but after that nothing, much happened. It has only been 20-30 odd years where now new technologies are coming in where they’re using plant proteins to make something, where you have to finalize a particular formulation which might get close to different textured meat. Once you do that after mixing you fibrate the dough-based upon different technologies. Every company has their own way to fibrate the dough. There’s no plug and play format.
Without revealing your proprietary information can you paint a picture of the process in your factory?
What I mentioned just now. It is great that this novel form of plant-based meats started in the Western world, US and Europe, so that people can believe that you can really create credible meat products with plant-based alternatives. In India, if you would have been the first, they would say you are selling meat only. Now even in India, there are a lot of companies that are coming up, entering the space. Nestles, Unilevers are also waking up, they’re also trying to enter the space. So it’s a great space to be but on the whole, the good thing is that this may help smaller players like us to hold our own against the big giants out there that there is no plug and play formats in the plant-based meat category. My product when compared to the rest across the globe is different even though the equipment we all use may be similar. There’s a process that caramelises and adds a flavour to the product. We can even break that process into different parts. So again, every part of it is an industry on its own and is on its own. So there’s a lot of scope for growth and experimentation.
Okay, so your first product was mutton, like a goat meat replacement?
Yeah, yeah, that’s correct. Then one of our distributors asked us to cook it up to have different recipes. So it is a product that can be used in multiple recipes. It can make excellent chilli chicken or your oriental style chicken or you can make excellent egg bhurji.
But this product is more for institutional businesses like hotels.
No, a lot of our consumers are also buying this product, institutional also because it is much more affordable than vegetarian meats so that a lot of people are buying this product. Interestingly, our distributors RCM, income penetration is into a lot of rural areas of India all across.
Tell me about this RCM relationship. What is RCM and basically was the challenge of selling was sold by RCM? You only had to produce and they handled the sales?
Initially, yes. Now we have started channel diversification.
What is RCM? What is the history of RCM?
RCM, the company is Fashion Suits Private Limited, a Bhilwara based company. It’s a direct selling company with its own stores. So something like Amway. They have stores but they also manufacture most of their products. So, they have big industrial facilities in Haridwar, Guwahati, Bhilwara. So, they make everything from your staples to some clothes or something related to home needs and so on. So, right now, last year they had 7500 stores all across India. Now there are around 11,000 stores. Their presence is pan-India and a lot of presence is in tier two, tier three cities, even small towns. Because of them, we got an advantage. Initially, we went to Mr Chabbra, the owner of RCM, from an investment perspective. So the first time we had a meeting he asked why vegetarians eat plant-based meat? That was his first question. So between me and Deepak, we realized that he’s even open to distribution so we didn’t even discuss investment because someone is giving distribution I think that’s the biggest strength you can get. So we discussed that and we said this is meant for meat-eaters, not for vegetarians, and he agreed to that. And then we entered into the partnership. So that became an advantage. The second was that RCM was at scale right from day zero. See we committed a lot of mistakes in production and other places because in our case, all products had to go to all 7500 stores of RCM at once. So production couldn’t be small scale. We understood the scale and we set up facilities and processes accordingly. So now for us to scale is much easier than many other players in the space.
Okay, so RCM is like Amway but Amway has stores, more like distributors. Basically, small entrepreneurs can open an RCM store?
There are different categorizations of RCM stores. It can range from one room pickup centre, up to two or three-storied RCM WonderWorld. So, it depends.
These are all franchises.
Yes, RCM WonderWorld, a company owned I believe, but the others are franchisees only.
Okay, so your product lines after these first two products were largely ready to eat?
Yes. Yeah, because we also set up another subsidiary company called GoodDot Foods, which is rolling out fast food outlets, vegan fast food outlets. So right now we are around 10 outlets across three or four cities. But now the plan is to expand it aggressively. The mascot is GoodDO, a goat rescued from a slaughterhouse. And interesting enough, we didn’t want to enter into the QSR space. So, 70% of the reviews for our ready to cook segment were positive. The remaining 30% were negative in the non-RCM channels because we weren’t able to educate them enough. So when we checked the reason behind bad reviews, they explained that it was not cooked the way it should have been done. So we set up a food truck in Udaipur with finished meals, biryani, wraps, burgers, nuggets with mock meats. So what happened was we received in a matter of three to four months, we received 17 franchise requests within India and 4 requests outside India. So we said hang on, we are on to something serious. So we found out and asked Abhinav when he was working with Novartis at that moment of time QRS was a different beast altogether. We are a product company. So if we are able to lead it, then we will set something individually. Or else it is just a pilot. That’s just about it. So he concurred. And we formed a separate company. We made it a subsidiary recently, where we are moving to fast food outlets.
So when did you start going beyond RCM in terms of your distribution?
So I think since probably 2020 onwards, this past one and a half odd years we have started looking out, of course, COVID, you know, it decreased the speed of diversification of setups, but it started with B2B. So a lot of five-star properties were not recorded or plant-based meat, they started approaching us. And in some cases, we approached some of the five stars, and we got on board. They liked the product and they took the product. So that was the first part. Secondly, a lot of internal inquiries were coming from exports. Then we opened up I think four or five countries we have started exporting now. So it has diversified our channel. And now we are also looking to enter into modern trade and direct to consumers through our own website and Amazon, and Flipkart is our focus area as of now.
Have you launched on Amazon, Flipkart?
Okay. So 2020 is when the diversification of distribution started.
Yes, yes, diversification of distribution started and I think we have not even scratched the surface. There’s so much opportunity out there.
Yeah. Was there a hit in terms of your monthly revenue during COVID?
Not in the COVID first, in fact, you know, just before COVID first maybe we went up month on month, about 1.5 times some previous year two times. So that really helped us.
Because people didn’t want to eat out.
That plus they were scared of meat a little bit. Simultaneously a bird flu scare was also there. So suddenly a lot of people were looking for some other alternatives. And our production was stable at ambient temperature. Frozen space is limited in freezers, but here you can stock in your pantry however much you can. So people were in the house. So we got that advantage. So that really helped us and that sustained us. In COVID 2, two to three months were quite tough for us in the sense that even at the factory level, office-level people were impacted.
How much percentage is RCM, how much is institutional, how much is modern trade and online and how much is online?
That is futuristic but I don’t know, maybe just maybe estimate 60-65% would be RCM, 20-25% export etc.
Okay. So, what is your plan to scale it up?
Now for the first time, we will start focusing on branding, we will start focusing on modern trade, we will start focusing on influencer marketing. So, that is the first time we are going to go for that and also very aggressive on scaling food outlets because we have formed a very small thelawala concept. It is a very low investment with just a single person operation, where you are getting a breakeven and profitability, right from the first month. This is what we have witnessed. So, I think in the next one, one and a half years, you will see a phenomenal increase in that number. So, those are you know primary things, we are also building up our team and recently, we closed a funding round with Sixth Sense ventures. So, you know, that is the first proper institutional round that we have done. So, that is giving us some liquidity to work with and increase our brand presence. Going ahead, we will raise funds, it will give us a nitro boost. Right now we are cash positive, we are data positive and build a very good cultural foundation. So, now, we won’t be committing errors with someone who has not gotten these things sorted. So with fundraising and a clear track record, I think we know where to deploy.
Fundraisers are largely for brand building because your cash positive so you don’t need money for operations
That is mainly but apart from that going ahead to the future fundraisers will also go for capital expansion.
Will you continue to build more plants in Udaipur or would you look at other regions?
For the time being, yes, Udaipur, that’s the plan. More plants because I think it’s easier to control. Of course, we can have offices of marketing and sales and BD in the bigger cities. For example, the GoodDot team has moved to Mumbai. So they are based out of Mumbai. They are taking care from there but the base production in the foreseeable future will remain from Udaipur. I know about the profitability of someone investing this much money. So now we are ready so I think on its own that will be something to be watching out on its own forget about plant-based meat.
Yeah, you know just small-format food outlets, one person one operator, I haven’t seen it scale up in India. In big cities probably. In Delhi there’s BTW I don’t know if you know
Because there’s no factory at the back, there’s a kitchen which has a limitation. So this is what we are: we are giving you a good format, we are giving a packed format, shelf table format with clear instructions. It is so easy for people and I understand where you’re coming from because we face the same problem. It is a pain to scale from say 12 outlets to 500 outlets. So you have to come with a simpler format. The interesting point is Lonely Planet has ranked our food truck as the world’s number two weekend food truck. That is sensational. You know, that’s such a great achievement for the team. But having said that there was a local small thela beside us, so the team asked them to use our product. So they went to try but obviously a new product no one knows. That didn’t happen. From there we got a GoodDO food thela right beside. For example, mutton keema pav is being sold at Carter road, we are selling at 29 bucks. Now can you beat that? It’s very affordable. We use dabeli pav which is not used on the next day, every day it is fresh, we are not adding anything extra.
This thela can be very disruptive, it actually sounds so.
This is what I had written on LinkedIn, Beware restaurants, cloud kitchens disrupted us. Now the streets are going to disrupt the cloud kitchen. India eats on its street and if that is organized, cloud kitchens will take a hit majorly. I’m giving it for 29 bucks, how can cloud kitchens beat that?
But in the long term, what do you think will be a bigger business, the QSR business or the product business?
I think the product business will be bigger for sure. But the QSR business can be a massive brand. Massive brand, and not just in India. But can you beat that, you know, we have had requests for opening GoodDO outside the University of California, Los Angeles, we have had requests to open GoodDO in Amsterdam, and not from regular touristy types but from serious business people who are like billionaires if I can call them so. So I mean to say the versatility is so much that you can just play around.
Because the thing is, vegetarian options are not that many in the West. It is a struggle to find vegetarian food.
And Indian food is expensive, extremely expensive.
So having a vegan option is definitely… vegan as a trend is increasing in the West. Obviously, the West is inspiring India’s even though India, like more than half the population, is probably vegetarian.
Yeah, 28% are vegetarian, 72% are meat-eaters. But yeah, but interestingly even those who eat once a week will be counted as vegetarians in foreign countries. There they have all three meals with meat. Here, people consume meat once a week. But yeah, it is an exciting space, it is a meaningful space for us. It gives us a lot of reasons to get up very early in the morning and work very hard. Because the metrics of sales, metrics of our expansion are linked to saving lives. On a personal level, we are feeding 70-80 stray animals on a daily basis for years. In India, apart from cotton. GMO crops are not allowed. Will it be allowed when it comes to lab-grown meat? So there are so many open-ended questions. But then again, you never know how science sometimes goes ahead from the regulatory people and eventually they catch up. So why not?
Alternative companies are all doing something similar to what you’re doing like they’re creating a dough and a treatment for that?
Yes. In Amsterdam, Beyond Meat was supposed to be the showpiece event, but in fact, somehow, customs were stuck up and our product was used to make vegan sushi. And that became a showpiece event. So that was a good thing. Secondly, there was an event called Parliament of World Religion, the first one was held in Chicago in 1893 where Swami Vivekananda gave his famous speech. The seventh Parliament happened in Toronto, Canada. So for the first time in 125 years, the parliament had a vegan banquet called The Charter for Compassion. So only one company was to be selected among all the lower chairs to be served there. And fortunately, we were selected. And we even went to the Parliament, addressed them to try our products. Everything was made out of GoodDot products. We had stir-fries, we had pot pies, we had Thai curries from meat products. So that was a great thing. It was a vegan banquet.
So in India how is the competition? Which other company is there and are they as big or bigger than you or smaller than you?
I think there are some earlier companies who had worked earlier than us. Ahimsa Foods and Vezlay. They are Delhi-based and then newer companies are coming in like Mr Wage and other Delhi based companies. Then we have Imagine Meat. They shortlisted seven alternate protein companies, including Impossible Foods, Just, Perfect Day, Like Meat from Germany, GoodDot are from India, and we were showcased at Grand Hyatt in Singapore. And our station was the largest station there. And we performed well and even SATs which is country food signed LOI for distribution in Southeast Asia. So we know that the fact that we are from India does not mean that we can’t hold out. So we are benchmarking, we are not looking at the local competition, because we are the whole flag bearers. So we have to look to the bigger players out there, and where we can, you know, make products, which can give them a competition. Interestingly enough, I’ll share another development, that there are two decacorns in plant-based alternative space one is Oatly, which is a non-dairy company based out of Sweden. Then second is Beyond Meat, again, you know, plant-based meat of the US. So there is a company called Infinite Foods, which is formed by a former managing director of Accenture, Michele Adelman. She’s an American, so they are the master distributor of Beyond Meat and only for Africa. And she tried our products in India. And they have also become our distributor for Africa. So our product is sold alongside on the shelves of Beyond Meat and Oatly in Mauritius and South Africa, and we are doing well.
And you must be more affordable than them?
Anyday. So that gives us you know, it’s not by design, I think it’s by chance that we didn’t raise institutional money, significant institutional money earlier. So that’s why we had to be bootstrapped and try to make each penny count. So because of that good habits crept into the system, and we didn’t splurge where it is not needed. So we tried and as your cash positive now but now I think it’s time to build and of course there will be some burn, but our foundation is a very credible foundation.
So the next round that you’re planning to raise, what do you think will be your valuation? Like a rough estimate?
Well, I wish it was a unicorn. But how would I know but yeah, we will be a unicorn in a few years for sure.
That would be we’ll just say between 100 to 200 million or like 200 to 500?
I would say the first one probably.
You as a founder, has it been a challenge to switch from a government job, government culture to a startup culture?
No, not really. No. Because you know, I never looked at it as a profession. The work I’m doing I’m looking at more as a passion. It needs to be done. I need not be at the command. I need not be at the centre of this company. But this work needs to be done. So the work was driving me so I never felt you know, for the first time I worked hard I must say for the past few years since I started this but I never felt that I was working hard. There is no, I never even when there are stressful periods you won’t feel down. You feel more energized because you feel that you know billions of animals are counting on you if you give up, they give up. So there’s no way but to succeed and you know succeed well
Your essential drive is that this needs to exist, it doesn’t matter. Okay, you are the one who’s driving or who is driving?
No. I said I hated business. I never wanted to be a business person. Because you never saw it, your dream was never about money. You’re grounded in middle-class values, you are happy being you know wherever you are, you take the success I’m not saying I’m denying the success but success does not define me neither I need that monetary success. As long as my house is running I’m okay with it. But it means it is fulfilling and meaningful. If I close my eyes today, I’m a happy person. My wife has been quite supportive for sure. Otherwise, I would not have been able to leave the service. She had married a bureaucrat, not a struggling entrepreneur. I was talking like we are quite enthusiastic about you know three products we are going to launch and we feel that you know this is at par with the very best in the world and Beyond Meat, I’ll share an interesting experience. Their first product was beyond chicken right, there is significant money on chicken and consumers are basically beyond chicken so you know that was a good product but not really a very strong chicken alternative. Then they made their beast burger, the beef burger was one that was sensational. That really fooled a lot of people into believing that this is red meat, so what they did was they discontinued the already flagship product. Then they focussed their entire advertisement and messaging on the basis of a beef burger. So now we are launching our keema right now, we are going to launch a plant-based Keema which comes in a kit format and for a few reasons that are even better than a mutton keema so we will own the keema. If we did it properly, they’ll say yes this is good but if it isn’t they’ll say I’m not enjoying it. But whoever eats this will say this is meat for sure. So, this is going to be our ‘Beyond Beef’ and we will focus on this strongly.
Because dehydration means it will be easier to…
Yes, transport. Another thing is it looks less but the finished curry will come to 600g. Four people can eat easily. For one family it is good. The biggest problem with non-veg is the preparation. The day there’s non-veg being cooked, it’s a full event. Masala, marination, cooking time, etc. here is being done just like Maggi. We are giving it at our thelas where there is no mess, same taste just like McDonald Tikki anywhere tastes the same. A standardised one. We are learning along the way too. You know how you try things for a long time and see a pattern working for you? I think we are reaching a stage where we are seeing those patterns.
So basically, there is no need to put ginger garlic separately?
Okay, then I’ll wait for it to get launched in Japan.
You don’t have to wait, send me your address, I will send it across.
If this conversation convinced you to give up meat, then do check out the great product range of GoodDot on Amazon or www.gooddot.in