After finishing his schooling at DPS Noida, Sushant Gaur enrolled in an engineering college a year later but dropped out of the course midway.
Sushant Gaur, hailing from Delhi, had a passion for music and was skilled in playing several musical instruments while he was in college. He was a drummer in his college band but later decided to channel his creativity towards manufacturing eco-friendly packaging material to contribute towards a greener planet. With a starting capital of just Rs 15 lakh, he founded Urja Packaging in 2012. Later in 2019, he co-founded Adeera Packaging Pvt Limited with Ashish Agarwal and Atulya Bhatia. The company witnessed a successful revenue of Rs 60 crore in the last financial year.
After completing his schooling at DPS Noida, Sushant Gaur joined an engineering college a year later but dropped out of the course midway. Instead, he pursued a degree in mass communications, and during college, he met Samar Puri who later became a member of the Sanam band. Samar taught Gaur how to play drums and they played together in the college band. However, after college, Samar decided to pursue music while Gaur found his passion in business management.
After completing his MBA, he joined his father’s business. However, within a couple of years, he decided to venture out on his own and launched Urja Packaging.
During a visit to the Ministry of Environment to obtain a license, Sushant Gaur observed that many were discussing the government’s plan to ban plastic. This sparked his interest in creating environmentally friendly packaging material, leading him to co-found Urja Packaging with Ashish Agarwal and Atulya Bhatia. In an interview with DNA, they shared their journey.
What’s the story behind Adheera?
Sushant: A decade ago, after completing my MBA, we launched a company called Urja Packaging, which was a newer version of Uja Packaging. My visit to the Ministry of Environment to obtain a license for a renewable energy electricity generator brought to my attention the government’s plan to ban plastic bags due to the lack of available alternative packaging materials. During my school days, I and Ashish were an active participants in various campaigns advocating against the use of plastic bags, making bags out of newspaper, and recycling paper at home.
However, the officers at the Ministry of Environment informed me that there were no alternatives to plastic. Hence, I delved into researching the paper bag industry, which was not thriving due to the introduction of plastic bags in India in 1990, causing the industry to contract and become fragmented. With this knowledge, we saw an opportunity in the market, where plastic bags would be banned, leading to an underserved market with inadequate players.
And how did you guys meet?
Sushant: Ashish and I were classmates in school, but we didn’t reconnect until 2020. Atulya and I had a business relationship where he supplied paper bags to various brands, including Big Basket. We worked together as a supplier-manufacturer team for three years until we realized that the paper bag industry was rapidly growing. So, we decided to merge our efforts and create a new company called Adheera Packaging, which replaced the previous company, Urja Packaging. Atulya closed his other business ventures, and Ashish later joined us as an investor. After six months, we became co-founders and continued working together.
So all of you come from corporate backgrounds. How did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Ashish: Every business must have a larger cause behind it. As a child, I always believed that both the planet and profit were important. I was sensitive to issues such as pollution caused by crackers or plastics, possibly due to the values instilled in me during my time at DPS. Both Sushant and I were raised to be aware of the impact that our generation has on the planet, and this sensitivity has been with me since childhood. Sushant mentioned that he saw an opportunity at the Ministry of Environment, and I believe that this is because we have always been conscious of the impact of our actions on the environment.
The market was lacking players who could offer sustainable solutions, and there was a demand for such solutions. This is the gap that Sushan recognized and sought to fill. Additionally, he had the desire to be his own boss.
I have a diverse work background, having worked with Agri commodity companies and Fortune 100 companies. I was also fortunate to work in Indonesia for four years, where I was involved in purchasing large quantities of coffee and cocoa, and closely interacting with the farmers. This gave me an understanding that whatever waste we produce in cities ultimately ends up in the trenches or the ocean. In 2018, I returned to India for family reasons and had the chance to work with Duplex, which is the largest plastic film manufacturer in India.
During my time at Duplex, it became apparent to me that plastic was losing its prominence and there would be a growing demand for sustainable packaging. Sushant’s journey caught my attention, and I was closely monitoring his progress. I was eager to begin my own entrepreneurial journey, and Sushant recognized the value and experience I could contribute.
What was the central idea behind the startup? I mean, did you want to make a difference or you wanted to make a successful business?
Sushant: The intersection of profit and the environment happens to be advantageous for our business. The paper bag industry remains underserved, providing us with favorable profit margins. We prioritize the purchase of paper that is approved by the Forest Stewardship Council and is either recycled or sustainably sourced. We ensure that the chain of custody is properly tracked and monitored, from the paper mill to the recycling facility and the dealer, before reaching our go-down. This holds true whether we’re supplying to large customers in India or exporting to eight different countries, or even selling to small corner shops.
We have the option to import and use higher-quality Virgin Craft paper. However, we choose to prioritize recycled paper due to its availability. Additionally, we are conducting research on developing paper made from agricultural waste, which is the most sustainable and circular method of manufacturing. While this may not provide us with significant financial benefits in the short term, it aligns with our environmental goals. We understand that we need to grow the company and cannot solely focus on the environment, but we believe that being environmentally conscious and profitable can go hand in hand.
We specialize in producing paper bags rather than the paper itself, and our paper is sourced from paper mills. As an industry, the paper bag market is relatively small and not as popular as the printing industry. Therefore, it is essential for our company to exist to fund experiments on manufacturing agro-waste-based paper with low GSM, high BF, no odor, and high quality. Without our company, such paper cannot be produced, even if we don’t make it ourselves. We have conducted five trials of agro-waste-based paper, and the responses have been mixed. Our focus is on developing this paper, while the recycled paper is readily available everywhere.
To clarify, there are more paper recycling facilities in India compared to Virgin Craft paper mills. Although agro-waste-based paper is also available widely, it is usually thicker and more suitable for corrugated products than paper bags. Therefore, we have taken a leading role in developing an agro-waste-based paper of a quality that is suitable for paper bags.
You have a really good retention rate. Does your company profile say 90% of your employees have been with the firm since inception?
Atulya: I prioritize taking care of my co-workers, which includes making time to speak with every employee, even if they are helpers. We spend 15-20 minutes, sometimes even half an hour, every few days to understand their problems and resolve any issues they have. During family emergencies or tough times, we support them by providing loans from the company. Trust is a crucial aspect, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown when everyone was facing challenges. We helped all our employees and continue to do small things for them so that they feel a sense of belonging to the company. As a result, we have almost zero attrition, and our employees often approach us with job offers, which we discuss and see if something can be done. This openness and environment we’ve created for employees have resulted in almost zero attrition.
What’s the quality that makes a good entrepreneur?
Ashish: The corporation I came from has its own positives, especially when it comes to the security and stability it offers. There is a set path for growth, and one can quickly get comfortable in that environment. However, entrepreneurship is a journey, and it comes with its own set of risks and challenges. It’s a personal choice that one needs to make. For me, I saw an opportunity in sustainable packaging and decided to take the leap. There’s no right or wrong answer, and many of my friends are leading a happy life in the corporate sector.
Looking back, I am grateful for where I am today. However, at the time when I decided to take the leap, there were risks and concerns involved as I was leaving behind my corporate career. Taking such a risk and seeing the bigger picture can only lead to a fruitful journey. But it is also a reality that 90% of businesses fail. Therefore, there is no right or wrong choice between corporate and entrepreneurship, it is just a personal decision. To answer your question, the quality that I find crucial is the ability to learn.
As an entrepreneur, you have to be versatile and fulfill multiple roles, and personally, I had to acquire a lot of new skills when I joined Adheera. It’s essential to have an open mind and be receptive to learning and unlearning old ways, as businesses are constantly evolving. Therefore, I would rank the willingness and ability to learn new things as crucial qualities for entrepreneurs.
Atulya: To put it in perspective, my previous experience was in marketing vocational education to peers in the education sector. It was a challenging role, involving below-the-line marketing techniques such as setting up canopies and interacting with potential customers. Comparatively, my current journey as an entrepreneur at Adheera has had its own set of challenges and obstacles. We have had our fair share of struggles, even during meetings where the three of us have had to stay up all night to plan and discuss the way forward.
In my opinion, a crucial aspect of building a successful business is understanding the pain that your customers experience when they don’t receive their products on time. If you can empathize with their situation and provide timely and high-quality service, you will be unbeatable. This can enable you to charge higher prices, demand higher standards of quality, and gain greater respect as a supplier.
What is the upside to being an entrepreneur?
Atulya: Allow me to rephrase that. Working a strict schedule from Monday to Saturday, nine to six doesn’t work for me. I prefer to have the flexibility to work on the go, when I feel motivated, or when I am relaxed. The advantage of being an entrepreneur is that I can count on my partners, Ashish and Sushant, to cover for me when needed. I can take a day off without feeling guilty or worrying about work piling up. This kind of freedom is something that I couldn’t have had if I worked for someone else.
Sushant: During the first six years of my entrepreneurial journey, I was a sole proprietor, and I was responsible for managing everything including operations. It was during this time that I observed the way some small business owners treated their employees, especially the younger and less experienced ones. As an employer, you have a lot of power over your employees, who may not have many other opportunities, and you can use this power either to generate profits or to help and empower your employees. Currently, our company employs around 350 people, including myself and my two partners.
And we are having an impact on their lives, the lives of their families, and their children. We are enabling their children to attend better schools and receive better healthcare. They feel supported by us. It’s an amazing feeling. When we started with just five employees, none of them knew where their next meal would come from if the business failed. But now, many of them are still with us, and nothing touches us more than that. This is one of the first times I’ve reflected on this.
Ashish: My understanding of what you said is that as an entrepreneur, you aim to create an impact that lasts beyond your time and build a legacy that can be felt by future generations. In contrast, when you work for a company, you trade your time for a salary, and even if you are crucial to the company’s operations, the show will go on without you. Although it’s not impossible for a corporate job to have a lasting impact, it’s more challenging to achieve that. With entrepreneurship, you have more opportunities to leave a lasting impression and build companies that can outlast you.