On a beautiful day, in a quaint café, from my warm-toned seating I could clearly see he was a familiar face in the haunt; everyone greets him as he walks in. As Nikhil Joseph takes his seat, he claims it’s his favorite cafe because they know how he likes his coffee!
The waiter steps in with his coffee and complements his new hairstyle. Without further ado, I begin the interview.
Tell us a little about yourself; I’m the only person around here who doesn’t seem to know you yet!
[laughs] So, after I finished my Mechanical Engineering in Anna University, I took a sabbatical for about four months and went to the Himalayas. The next three years I worked at Facebook in Hyderabad and California HQ. The next move was either to Singapore or US, but I wanted to stay in India. So, I quit Facebook in September of 2014 and started The Postbox the same month. The idea, though, was seeded in August 2014 when I met my Co-founder Madhu, at a gathering of people with similar ideas. We bounced off from there, essentially because there was a massive scope of upcoming artists and this could be a platform to showcase their work.
What were your inspirations for The Postbox?
I used to be a Photojournalist during my days at Facebook and college, I have exhibited my series. I realized there’s a massive gap between amateur photographers and professionals. There’s not enough exposure given to amateur artists, even considering the number of art schools coming up. There’s an upsurge of students who want to pursue design in India, which is why initiating The Postbox was a good idea, to give an amateur artist a platform to showcase his/her work.
A ceramic product from The Postbox
How did you transition from engineering to the product design/art domain?
Madhu comes from a design background. In October 2014, she pushed off to Milan to pursue her Masters from Marangoni, and I took over for a year till she came back. I traveled across the country to do research; Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Bangalore, Bombay. I stayed in different places, interviewed artists trying to figure out what India wants with art. I came back in December and was still laying out the plan. What we honestly believe is you never get a perfect product, you constantly keep evolving. That’s why though we launched the Postbox in September, we spent one year consciously developing and learning what people want.
How did you and your co-founder initially work despite the distance?
Credits go to Madhu. She would wake up at 4:30 in the morning and make sure everything is going well here. Before her classes start, she would be on call with me till 7:30/8:00 and then come back after class again and work till 3:30! She didn’t have the typical European life. It was college and then The Postbox!
And how did your parents take this jump – from Facebook to The Postbox?
Working at Facebook was incredible, and I was one among the 1500 employees worldwide. I kept traveling around the world! When I shifted, I had to reason it out to my parents. Say, if I am 29 and want to start something new, it would be too late for me, and I wouldn’t be able to run the company the way I want to. My parents were well-receiving. My father has been running his own business for 26years. The funds were coming from Madhu’s and my father initially.It was not blind trust; he spent a considerable amount of time to understand what I was doing. They wanted to see what the money is being used for. Until recently we were a bootstrapped organization; we only recently got funded.
The Postbox being a start-up venture, there would have been a lot of challenges initially, right?
There has been a lot. Madhu and I are very different people, and our working styles are extremely different. It is very tough for a designer and an engineer to work in the same room. The ability to respect each other’s decision and move forward is vital,otherwise, there will be fireworks. Both of us got our work cut out clearly, so we don’t jump into the other person’s space unless we need some feedback or suggestions. Otherwise, we’re very independent in the way we work.
The roll up wallet, from The Postbox Travel collection
There’s a fine line between e-commerce and creating a platform for artists. How do you achieve balance?
In May2015, we pivoted into product design. It was a conscious decision. We evolved over time and moved away from the idea of creating a thorough platform for artists. India is not ready to accept anything like that yet. Like you said, there is a fine line between an Art website and an E-commerce platform. At the end of the day you need to earn money to fund your team, your artisans and your livelihood which is why we took a conscious decision, and my market research team supported it. We wanted to expose design through affordability, sensibility and material usage without compromising on quality.
“One of the main mottos of The Postbox is to make design accessible and not constricted.”
In September 2015, we launched our first line of Laptop bags in collaboration with an artist from Andhra Pradesh. That was our turning point. We grew 150% every month till today. We decided we will launch fewer products of greater quality.
The Urban Spaces Laptop bag is part of the “Inside-out” series, inspired by the colors and tones of San-Francisco and symmetrical spaces from everyday life.
Could you tell us a little more about this product launch strategy?
Every product for us is a story, and we don’t want to put too much information into someone’s head.They need time to process the information. otherwise, it does not make sense.
Is it to create anticipation, so that your customers look forward to your next launch?
It’s not about the customers as much as it is about our operations, how we want to promote a product, for example. Whichever product we want to launch, the finer details are taken care of. That is very crucial to us.
Product design often involves rigorous testing before launch; how does The Postbox handle testing and prototyping?
We do at least 3-4 rounds of prototyping with different materials and design forms. We keep iterating the design until the final output. Me or another team member test the product before it goes out.
For example, a wallet I had tested needed a few alterations- we added a coin pouch and card slots on the inner sleeve.Testing is very important but nobody understands that you have to keep using a product to know about it well.
What we consciously don’t do, or rather what we restrict, is too much market research. It will cloud your brain.Most of our growth is planned well in advance. All the products we intend to launch for the next three months are already prototyped, tested and ready for launch. So, around 80% is planned and 20% is organic. You have to leave a little space to allow for spontaneity.
How do you curate artists?
We do collaborations when we’re sure people would like the product and buy it from The Postbox. But these products are made by small product designers who haven’t scaled up. They make, say, ten pieces. We are very clear and strict about our curation; to give a rough estimate, for every 70 applications that come in, we take a look at one.
An artist working on soon-to-be-launched terracotta ware!
Who are these artists? How do you choose them?
To me, art is a massive way to communicate a lot of important issues to the next generations. We don’t watch the news or read newspapers. So, an artist who spends all his time ideating, creating and working on a piece of product needs recognition. That is the sort of art we want to expose.For instance, one of the teams we selected for product designs is Arture. They are amazing people, who make products out of cork imported from Europe. The products they come up with and the materials they use are extremely challenging.
You mentioned a quote from your father “To go where you need to go, you need to do things you don’t like.” Did you ever do things you didn’t like or approve of?
For instance, my life was extremely fancy at 22 when I was with Facebook; I lived in a condo, traveled only in business class. I quit everything and was walking down in streets of Parry’s corner, carrying boxes and negotiating with vendors for plastic covers, paper bags and packaging materials. If you ask me would I love doing that in the long run, I would not. But you have to do it, to get where you want to go.
You wrote a blog titled “NO PLAN B”. Was that before or after realizing that this is what you want to do?
The title was inspired from my ex-boss. It takes a lot of time to understand the importance of all the things you do. If you have plan B, you become lackadaisical with plan A and you lose your focus.
We focus quite a lot on every single aspect of the business. Mistakes are bound to happen, but the frequency of the errors should be taken care. Out of 1000 orders, if ten are mugged up, it’s fine. It’s 0.1%. But if 100 are screwed up, then I’m screwed.
We had a problem with a manufacturer (something went wrong with sourcing) of the belt clips used for the laptop bag straps. Out of 40 bags, we had given out,10 bags have been returned because the belt clip had snapped. I can’t sit here and sulk, that I have lost ten customers. I have to move to the next level and plan out what has to be done. But that is not Plan B, that is improvising on Plan A. If you buckle under pressure, there is absolutely no point starting something new.
What’s next in store for The Postbox?
I see Madhu and myself hosting an ART summit in 3-4 years where we will call global art entrepreneurs, product designers to talk about art and design in Chennai. This platform is up and running. Inspired by Steve Jobs and how he launches his products, it will be a live stream event where we will introduce 3-4 products. If I envision where I want to be, that is where I want to be. There is enough cultural and traditional influence in Tamil Nadu to spearhead this.
This all started with photography; do you continue photography as a hobby?
In a way, I do. It takes a lot of my time. I do a lot of photography, and I travel for work, though not as much as for photography as it used to be. I haven’t posted in about two years. I have also done a photography series on Architecture!
One of our lamps is inspired by the interestingly shaped Skyscrapers from Hong Kong. It overlooked a market called Stanley. The name of the lamp is Stanley; it takes accents of red because Stanley at night is RED. It’s a simple organic design and handmade.
Skyscrapers of Hongkong, from Nikhil Joseph, Photographer
These are amazing. Can we expect to see products or maybe even a collection inspired by architecture?
I love architecture, and I follow Jeffrey Bawa very closely. In fact, when I go to Sri Lanka, I go to all his houses. Also, our new ceramic ware collection is inspired by the cultural influence of Kerala and probably soon I might launch a few clutch bags inspired by Geoffrey Bawa’s architecture.
Bawa’s design is clean, minimalist, uses light and symmetry to the maximum. If we can translate what Bawa does to houses to ceramic ware, that would be incredible. I’m just saying that everything has a takeaway to some other medium. If you see Bawa’s property in Galle, the influence of the colours he’s used is brilliant. Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle has a balcony door with teak wood frame and Sri Lankan prints on the door- that aesthetic can be used for laptop bags. If I can come up with symmetry like Bawa and create dark tan leather to give a Shibori print or block print on canvas, it would be incredible. We need to seek inspiration not from what we already do but open your mind and seek inspiration from external sources. We actually do a lot of prototyping but don’t launch all of it.
Ceramic-ware inspired from fishing boats of Kerala and Chinese fishing nets.
Are those unlaunched prototypes The Postbox’s little secrets?
We have so many products at the office which are not launched because it will not cater to a larger audience and probably it’s too early. We keep designing and prototyping materials, it’s great fun! We have an industrial plumbing lamp, which is about 6ft high. We haven’t launched it online yet.
Do you plan on launching them soon?
We’ll launch it when we have an offline store. But essentially, that product is going to be made-to-order, because it’s made of MS and it varies with demand. You can customize it to however you want, that is how it’s made. (It’s inspired by the roof of Plan B. Think of that from the floor)
You’ll hear about it in the news very soon, keep a lookout for it. It’s a collaborative effort so it’s even better. It’s where multiple beautiful things are coming together, and it’s coming up in Chennai.
Chennai? That is exciting!
Yes! Chennai, because when I went to design conclave in Delhi last year, we were talking to Vogue India, Elle décor, Garcia India. We were talking to all of the great artists, great designers and publications. Every single person we met were like “Are you from Bombay or Bangalore?” So, Madhu and I have this huge responsibility on our shoulder to make sure Chennai gets on to the map as quickly as possible.
Designer Products from The Postbox.
With all the pressure, do get time to relax?
I just took a 10 days’ solo trip to the Himalayas. I cut myself off from social media, and switched off my phone. It’s important to take these breaks, it teaches quite a lot about yourself. I learned paragliding, I rode a bike from one hill to another, went trekking over two mountains. Read poetry for the first time. Shaved my head. Essentially you have to explore yourself. It’s always great when you have time for yourself.
What is a typical day at The Postbox like?
It’s usually a 12-hour day. But I take a break at 6/7 for a swim, because you need something to calm yourself. I begin my day discussing with Madhu about design, operations and then any legal or finance structures. We have a team meeting every day for about ten minutes.
Our team consists of about six people. We have two designers, one customer experience, one auditor, one accountant, one marketing head, and then Madhu and me. We hustle for ten minutes, just to know what work everyone is doing for the day, to get a sense of clarity.
What are the ups and downs about The Postbox?
We have a lot of creative freedom to create exciting products without any pressure, that’s our model. We have a lot of time to think, to make the storyboard, get an idea and come up with a great collection.
The unfortunate part is the public adoption of the concept of The Postbox, and it takes time. We are still young and people have to understand that we develop the products. Trust cannot come overnight, it happens gradually.
What does success look like for The Postbox?
When we become a cult like an Apple product. If somebody holds a Postbox bag, it is a cult, and if someone carries a ceramic ware, it is a cult. We have to substantially develop a brand in India which is not made in China or anywhere else. Made in India, supporting Indian entrepreneurs, the local entrepreneurs, like our terracotta artist, weaver and many others. Creating high value. Once you see value for it, you will pay for it.
One piece of advice for someone starting up?
Personally, entrepreneurship is toxic on your health and also on personal space, and there is little time. Know what you have signed up for, sacrifice now, for tomorrow. Like I said, to go where you want to go you have to do things you don’t like.
When can we expect your next pop-up?
We are going to have a pop-up in different cities. Towards the end of the year, we are going to have a pop-up in Jaipur, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Bangalore.
Nikhil Joseph is co-founder of The Postbox, a platform created for artists and designers to showcase their products. The Postbox supports artists to narrate stories of the products, developed from Indian cultural and traditional influence. Nikhil and Madhu design, prototype, manufacture and sell products that are carefully created on different mediums. If you want to find affordable niche products which are great in design sensibility and material for your travel collection, stationery and ceramic-ware, lamps for home decor, etc. Visit their Facebook page or website and also keep an eye out for their offline store!