The Pivots That Helped Chamena Find Its Game

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The Pivots That Helped Chamena Find Its Game

 

Almost every other day, new eateries and food establishments seem to sprout up in Kathmandu. Around seven months ago, yet another food establishment, Chamena, joined the burgeoning food industry—looking to cater to office-goers. Chamena, as of now, delivers packed lunches at reasonable prices. But the fast-food startup is looking to soon start an outlet so that they can serve more customers for longer hours. In just about half a year of operation, Chamena and its founder Suman Poudel have lived through plenty of ups and downs. And this week’s startup story is an attempt to explore those very peaks and troughs experienced by Chamena and its founder.

 

Before Chamena: Learning the tricks of the trade at college

Poudel’s entrepreneurial journey started back in April 2012—while he was pursuing his undergraduate degree at Kathmandu University School of Management (KUSOM)—with a student-run-and-managed venture called Dé Sweet Beans. Poudel, with some friends, started the venture by taking a loan from the University itself. Dé Sweet Beans established itself as an alternative outlet for students to eat at, instead of the college canteen. “Running Dé Sweet Beans probably shaped the foundations of my entrepreneurial career. I learned a lot about food, taste, customer preferences and employee management during the four years I ran the eatery,” says Poudel.

 

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Dé Sweet Beans’ journey came to an end during late 2016, as a result of the ongoing college expansion. But Poudel wanted to pursue his love for food and entrepreneurship, and decided to start Chamena. 

 

The Transition: From the safe confines of college to the real world

Although Poudel had already started thinking of starting a venture outside the institution, he was not prepared for the sudden closure of Dé Sweet Beans. But this sudden closure of his first business only further inspired him to perform better in his future ventures. So, he collaborated with some of his friends to start a fast-food outlet, Chamena, at Kamaladi. They rented a small space and renovated it. 

But things did not go as planned. Even before the venture could find its legs, some of the partners had already left. Poudel himself did not have complete faith in the product or the business model he would employ. Even a lot of brainstorming and daily experimentation with the space proved futile. And even after almost six months of renting the space, Poudel and his partners seemed to be getting nowhere. Thus, Poudel decided to go solo, without the hassle of having to reach a unanimous conclusion with his partners. This way, he felt he would be able to work more effectively.

 

Going Solo: Struggling to find a business model 

The initial struggle for Poudel after deciding to work alone was to find the right business model. The dilemma surrounding the product and its placement seemed endlessly complicated. Poudel had read all about finding the need gap and had experimented with food quite well at Dé Sweet Beans, but Chamena was a whole new ball game. He first tried selling momos, then chowmein, then burgers, followed by coffee. But the odds seemed to be against him. 

Then one day, it hit him. The sheer number of daily office-goers in the Kamaladi area was immense, and there were ways in which he could capitalise on them. To validate his concept, he conducted surveys at some of the offices in Kamaladi. He and his team made their way to offices to ask office-goers about their food preferences, the prices they were willing to pay and whether they would subscribe to a weekly or a monthly package.

 

Slow and steady to instant rush hour

His idea was well received by some of the potential customers. Most of the customers, however, wanted to try the service out for a day before subscribing to a package. Chamena agreed. For the first day, his team prepared the now-famous Chicken Biryani and Veg Biryani, available for Rs 120 and Rs 90 respectively. The orders kept coming, but the sales wasn’t growing as expected even after weeks of operation. Poudel then decided to try promoting his venture through Facebook. 

After just one post on Facebook, Chamena started having a hard time managing orders. The queries, orders and feedback were so overwhelming that Chamena had to turn down many of their customers while many others had to wait for more than an hour to receive their orders.

 

Overcoming employee turnover

After a few months of operation, Poudel better understood his customer base, their preferences and expectations. He also learned the basic tricks behind timely deliveries, and streamlined operations as the days passed. Chamena finally seemed to be running smoothly, but the space they’d rented was far too small to further scale up operations of the growing food-deliverer. Chamena then moved to a flat opposite Teach for Nepal, at Setogate, Durbarmarg. 

While the relocation itself was a stressful task, Chamena’s cook suddenly decided to leave the country. Chamena, by then, already had regular customers who depended on them for their lunch. Poudel and the rest of the team had to learn to prepare the food themselves while being on the lookout for new cooks. New problems and complaints started to arise. People did not like the sudden change in taste in their food. The Chamena team practised cooking for hours on end, watching YouTube tutorials for a number of days. This effort paid off and Chamena was once again able to produce quality, consistent food. “Every day at Chamena has been a great learning experience for us. We shall continue to learn further and innovate as we grow,” says Poudel. 

 

Future plans

Chamena’s tagline, ‘Foonavation for you,’ clearly demonstrates their will  to come up with innovative food options for their customers. Chamena plan to strengthen their operations and serve their existing customers great food, while actively searching for new customers and markets in the days to come. They further plan to streamline their services and establish a full-fledged restaurant within a month to meet the demand for reasonably priced restaurants in the Durbarmarg area. 

 

First published in M&S VMAG

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Guest Monday, 23 October 2017