Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. No one knew about them when they were in college. But they had a dream – a desire to start a venture. And it was that dream that shaped our world today.
Somrwita Guha is a regular Kolkata girl who studied from Jadavpur University. What sets her apart from thousand others is her dream. It was this dream that led her to establish the brand Papercup.
It is not an easy task to start a brand through scratch and it is more difficult to stand the test of time. But Somrwita’s Papercup is strongly anchored in passion and originality. Today, Papercup is going strong and thanks to her grit, we have a story of inspiration for every budding entrepreneur.
Here is the interview of Half Samosa with Somrwita Guha, Chief Happiness Officer at Papercup.
Half Samosa: What is Papercup and what are you offering?
Somrwita: Papercup taps in a fine blend of the west and the east, the traditional and the quirk. We have a lot of Kolkata based merchandise which work as the best souvenirs for someone arriving or leaving the city.
Papercup has a wide range of home decor accessories, theme stationery and fashion accessories. In home decor accessories we have hand-painted kettles, coffee mugs, table lamps, candles, wall arts, coffee coasters etc. We have a wide range of notebooks and bookmarks in the stationery section.
We believe strongly in our roots and wish to take over the world with our base in Calcutta. Difficult as it may seem, that’s what we are aiming for.
Half Samosa: It is great to know that you call Papercup the happiest start-up ever.
Somrwita: We call Papercup to be the happiest start-up ever not because we are always happy, but because we choose to be happy in the most trying times. And we believe in spreading that joy through our merchandise, our Poetry Slams, our Phenomenal Woman Campaign, our social activities etc. So, we are way more than just an e-commerce website selling happy merchandise.
Half Samosa: How did you come up with the idea of starting Papercup?
Somrwita: The inception of Papercup happened in the campus of Jadavpur University. I was 19 year old and was brimming with creative ideas and wanted to give them some form. So I she shared my idea with my classmates, Suranjana Endow and Mahasweta Mitra. We three girls put some money and time together. We made and sold handmade products at the JU college fest, Sanskriti.
Half Samosa: What kind of response did you get?
Somrwita: The initial response was encouraging. But it was far from being the potential livelihood option at that point. In the next couple of years it remained more of a hobby project than anything else with Papercup appearing at different college fests and exhibitions.
Half Samosa: When did you decide to turn it into a full time project?
Somrwita: Towards the final year of college, I was bit by the entrepreneurial bug and the urge to turn Papercup into a potential brand came into the picture. I decided to work on it full-time all by myself.
In 2013, I joined XLRI Jamshedpur for a Post-Graduate Programme in Entrepreneurship Management. This acted as a springboard to formally launch Papercup as a start-up. The rich culture, esteemed faculty and alumnus of the institute helped me build the desired network I was looking forward to.
A lot has changed since I started in JU but one thing that remained constant. It was that intangible feeling of happiness we received from the myriad people who have come across our brand virtually or in person.
Half Samosa: Are you leading Papercup all by yourself?
Somrwita: In 2014 I completed my course and came back to Kolkata to formally launch Papercup. At this point, Papercup was registered as a Partnership Firm between Somrwita and Subhajit Panja. Subhajit is an alumnus of Jadavpur University. However in 2016 Panja had to discontinue from Papercup as he had joined The Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.
Since then I have been leading Papercup as a Sole Proprietorship.
Half Samosa: And you also call yourself the Chief Happiness Officer instead of the stereotypical terms! That’s cool.
Half Samosa: How large is your core team?
Somrwita: The Core team currently comprises of six people. And we have a bunch of extremely talented freelancers and interns who have worked and are still working for us.
Half Samosa: Where is your office and store?
Somrwita: Our office is in Paikpara, North Calcutta. We have physical buying points at Oxford Bookstore in Park Street, The Chaiwala in Tollygunge and at Terminal 11, Salt Lake.
We also have a pan India reach through our e-commerce website www.papercuponline.com.
Half Samosa: What kind of challenges do you face in your business and how do you overcome those?
Somrwita: The biggest challenge in the initial phase of the start- up was risk-aversion and apprehension from the family. Not just that, there was subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ridicule. The start-up buzz was yet to hit the city when Papercup was founded. The best way to tackle such things is to work hard enough to prove them wrong.
Another challenge is, very sad to say, the bureaucracy. We hear too many big words and opportunities for start-ups but when it really comes to getting one of them, you’d need to go through fire before they do the simplest of jobs for you. The only way of dealing with this is to be persistent as hell and the most important thing is “always follow-up”.
Half Samosa: Tell us some of your successful and difficult moments at Papercup.
Somrwita: Success and difficulty are both a matter of perspective. I have had the most amazing newspaper reports and interviews coming out when my business is in doldrums. And people are congratulating me for it. While there are moments when people do not have Papercup at the top of their mind and we are developing new merchandise in our workstation that will blow their mind in the days to come. So, there is nothing in entrepreneurship which is like complete success or absolute failure. It is an absolutely roller-coaster journey that is strictly not advised for the weak-hearted.
Success to me is that moment of absolute happiness. And I get that every day when I work with these young girls. Success is people remembering you for the value you are trying to create day in and day out. And at Papercup we celebrate that every moment.
Half Samosa: What is your motivation of running Papercup instead of choosing a 9-to-5 job?
Somrwita: Waking up every morning to do what you truly love is the biggest motivation for any entrepreneur. My school played a large part in shaping most of who I am. We believed in shared value, creating something with everyone, making a difference (no matter how small).
It’s been over 17 years that I have studied and mixed with people from less fortunate backgrounds. We usually tend to club a group of people according to their income. Even though it is one of the ways for market segmentation, what is truly required is to understand individual circumstances and thereby guide them to achieve their very best.
Half Samosa: How has been the support from your family in this venture?
Somrwita: My family continues to be the biggest motivation that I could ever find. I have forever thanked my dad for always letting me do what I wanted to and my mother for not letting me do what I wanted to. When you have your biggest admirer and your biggest critic living with you in the same house, even if the world stamps on you and walks past you will always stand right back up almost unhurt; And even if the world puts you on a pedestal and worships you as God you will still have your feet firmly on the ground. Because you already know the best and the worst that you can be from the ones you owe precious life to.
Half Samosa: How is Papercup different from others?
Somrwita: Our handmade products are made by young girls from North Calcutta Slums. They are being trained in creative skills and eventually employed with us. Unlike an NGO, Papercup is a for-profit organization that believes in sustainable development. We sometimes do our philanthropy as well but we are more keen on empowering a certain section of young women.
Half Samosa: What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs?
Somrwita: It’s great to move fast and break things. That’s how start-ups grow. But in the process of doing that, if we lose the very essence of why we started in the first place or lose the quality of our products or thoughts or values, then all of it is probably a waste.
Entrepreneurship is more like Buddhahood. It’s like that swan which looks so calm and serene moving across a lake but under the water, it is flapping its way vigorously to make that gracious move you see above the water. So, one must work hard enough to achieve that state within not without. And whenever possible, invest in yourself. It could be a book, a new skill, a course, a holiday, a new hobby. But invest. And slow-cook your soul. Looking back you would know how every investment paid off.
Half Samosa: Thank you Somrwita. We appreciate your vision and positive attitude towards work and life. We wish that Papercup reaches dizzying heights of success and continues to make a happier world.