Written by Lahari Nanda
India is the world’s second largest tea producer, yet there are only a handful of Indian brands that provide tea to the world. In 2015, Bala Sarda saw this as an opportunity to take India global with VAHDAM.
Bala’s father belongs to Darjeeling, India, and “VAHDAM” is the reverse anagram of his father’s name, Madhav. Darjeeling is known for hills that carry the sweet aroma of world-renowned tea. Bala recalls waking up to this scent and walking through miles of tea gardens, watching farmers gently pick leaves from the tea crop.
After completing college and working in his family’s 85-year old tea export business, Bala found himself asking, “How do you build a global brand from India?”
“That’s where online came in. For us, the internet was not only [the] democratization of consumer brand-building, but also global consumer brand-building. Today, we don’t need to be in the US to build a global brand,” Bala said.
Bala founded VAHDAM in India, but the United States has been the company’s primary market.
Bala had envisioned a digital-first brand so Indian wellness could be accessed worldwide. He had been using Shopify since 2011, when he launched two startups while still in college. Although his startups don’t exist anymore, to him, Shopify was the obvious choice to host VAHDAM’s website.
“When Shopify didn’t even have an INR currency, I was using Shopify. For me, any other platform just seemed impossible to use. It’s always been Shopify for VAHDAM,” Bala says.
But the journey to becoming a brand with $21.5 million in revenue, two million consumers, and significant socio-environmental impact was not straightforward.
“The founder’s belief in their idea is above everything. Disruption will always take time,” says Nupur Sarda, director of public relations at VAHDAM.
VAHDAM was one of the first of its kind in the industry, so securing trust from investors was difficult. Bala’s vision was “audacious” to investors, and they struggled to believe that he could create a global brand based in India, says Nupur.
But Bala persevered.
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life” is Bala’s motto, so he sees every day as an opportunity to begin again. Till date, VAHDAM has raised over $17 million in venture funding.
“Very early on, I realized that tea-growing was not the problem. We’ve got amazing artists in the [form] of farmers growing these products but there was nobody taking care of the products [after harvesting them],” says Bala.
Bala found the conventional supply of tea in India is impaired by the involvement of middlemen like auctioneers, wholesalers, retailers and suppliers. By the time the tea reaches its consumers, it loses freshness and quality.
For VAHDAM, this meant sourcing its teas and superfoods directly from its partner estates across India within days of harvest. These are transported to a packaging facility in the national capital region in India, where they are tested for quality and flavour, and blends are prepared. After packaging, the products are shipped to VAHDAM’s fulfilment centres worldwide.
A customer receives their product from these centres, but after having a great digital experience.
VAHDAM goes global
When a customer first visits VAHDAM’s online store, they feel at home.
“With Shopify, you can put automatic redirection to put a custom currency for people to feel as if it's a localized version of the website, which is critical when somebody from a foreign land is buying from a young company,” Bala said.
Where the ability to taste a product for quality was unavailable to the consumer, VAHDAM integrated Shopify’s localized web pages and themes into its store to create sensory appeal.
“Shopify was a catalyst for brand building,” says Nupur.
VAHDAM found a soft spot with its customers by making the brand into what they wanted. To Bala, that was an ethical, sustainable, and socially responsible company.
Every product contains a message from Bala explaining VAHDAM’s journey into such a brand.
“A customer being able to reach out to Bala puts a face to the brand, which the customers absolutely, absolutely love!” says Nupur.
As VAHDAM’s popularity grew, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen de Generes also discovered VAHDAM teas and superfoods. The company earned many organic endorsements, making it on Oprah’s list of her favourite things for two consecutive years.
The brand promise of “Native Indian Wellness Wisdom” has connected strongly with VAHDAM’s customers. This, combined with the pandemic, has accelerated the company’s growth, says Bala.
But Bala’s dedication to his community meant there was still more to do.
How VAHDAM nurtures its CommuniTEA
VAHDAM’s motto is “do good by doing good.”
The startup is one of Asia’s first certified carbon and plastic neutral companies. The company aims to completely stop using plastic in the next few years.
“We’re a very socially conscious brand and even though we’re a young startup, we do whatever is in our capacity,” says Nupur.
The company’s business model and home-grown name gives farmers a fair price for their produce as its revenue is retained in India. VAHDAM has more than 100 partnerships with estates across India, creating a significant social impact.
VAHDAM has committed 1% of its revenue to the ‘TEAch Me’ campaign, to send farmers’ children to school. The children receive access to online courses funded by VAHDAM and provided by BYJU’S, an education technology giant.
From India to the world—where to next?
VAHDAM is a “homegrown, ethical, sustainable brand,” says Bala.
From difficult seed funding rounds to treading on unfamiliar ground, Bala and his team have done it all. The company ended the fiscal year of 2020-21 with $21.5 million in revenue, up 110% from the previous fiscal year and set to surpass $70 million in the next three years. It is changing lives worldwide, but especially in India.
The young company plans to go deeper in its current markets, grow its omni-channel distribution, create a strong presence in new markets, and diversify their product range in the future.
“The best part about working at VAHDAM is the larger cause—we’re trying to take a homegrown brand and put India on the map,” says Nupur.
About the author
Lahari Nanda studies journalism and communications. She spends her day writing content for her blog, LinkedIn, or just poetry for herself. With a cup of tea by her side, she writes so that she can spark ideation and conversations amongst people through her work. She is the author of ‘the 45 faces of my soul,’ a poetry collection. When she’s not writing, she’s exercising, dancing, or playing with her dog, Caesar. She is an unapologetic lover of fictional books and TED talks about mythology. Lahari has chronic kidney disease. While it forms a significant part of her identity, it drives her creative vision to amplify the voices of those with chronic illness.