Ashwin Bhadri is a Mumbai-based serial entrepreneur, international speaker, and pioneer in Food Safety and Compliance. After graduating from the University of Austin, Texas, he came back to India to start his own entrepreneurial journey. He is the Founder and CEO of Equinox Labs, one of India’s Leading Food, Water, and Air Testing Laboratories and Asia’s Largest Food Safety Auditing Company.
Equinox Labs is one of India’s Top FSSAI-certified Food, Water, and Air Testing Laboratory and also the country’s largest Auditing Agency. It has been providing testing and auditing services for a total of 16 years now, serving the industry’s top brands.
1. How did your journey start as a founder? What was that thing that triggered that you start
Before I started Equinox Labs, I used to work in a water treatment company. I used to send water samples across the country to multiple labs and I realized that the quality of work, the amount of follow-up I had to do was tremendous and I knew I could do a better job than others. That was one of the reasons why I started. The second reason is that I always wanted to work on improving water, food, and air quality in India. I was already working on water and I thought focusing on food and air would be a good addition.
2. Did you work anywhere in the company or institution before starting your own thing? How
I studied in the US. I did my computer science over there followed by MBA in marketing. I had job opportunities in the US. However, I was a good son and I came back to India to join my family business. My family business was in water treatment and I joined them. I started and scaled the customer care department there. But everywhere I went, due to my very unique last name, everyone used to just talk about my dad and how he has helped them in times of need. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t probably form my own identity in that organization. Amid all this, I realized that there is a huge opportunity in the testing space and that’s how I started Equinox.
3. So without wasting much time, let us know about your dream and how you are making it a reality as a start-up?
My dream or my passion has always been to make water, food, and air quality in India safer. And that is something that my team at Equinox and I are heavily focused on. We are very driven by it and that’s the difference that we want to make in the world. Once we achieve that, we can also look to grow internationally. So the dream would be that the kind of food you get anywhere in the country, whether it’s in a restaurant or on the street, the kind of water or air you have access to, should be safe. They should not be causing any kind of harm. That’s the world I want to live in.
4. How did you realize that you should start this thing? Was there a specific pain point you recognized?
So obviously water was always very close to my heart. And very soon I realized that food and air quality also need to be worked on. One of my close friends had worms in his brain, suffered seizures, and almost collapsed on the street once. This was all because of worms in vegetables. That’s when I realized that food safety is a necessity for human survival. It should be safe and nutritious at all times. I realized that there is no work happening on that front. The first part of fixing the problems in accessing the problem; understanding the scale at which there is a problem. And that’s when I thought Equinox Labs would be the perfect thing to start. I also spend a lot of my time with FSSAI, which is the apex regulatory body for food safety. I try to contribute as much as I can by making sure the laws of the country are pushing food safety forward on the national as well as the international front.
5. Did you start it on your own or are there other co-founders working with you?
I was on my own when In started out but very soon my wife, who is a doctor, realized the mission and passion I have. She did something that is unthinkable in India especially. She left medicine and she joined my start up, which I think was a very courageous move. Because I think she saw the good that we were able to do in this world.
6. How, do you think, your startup is making the world a better place to live?
At Equinox we believe that if you want to do something, it needs to be measured. So if you want to improve water, food, and air quality, we first need to measure it and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We ensure that water, food, and air in homes, hospitals, schools, and colleges are safe. We ensure that the food products which are being sold across the country comply with the norms of the country and are not causing any harm. So we do work with food manufacturers directly, we work with corporate companies, housing societies, etc. to ensure that all the three basic necessities of life are safe. And if there’s a problem, we have a very large team that assists them to improve their quality of life.
7. What is your vision regarding your startup? What is the end game here?
When Equinox was formed, our vision was very clear and I don’t think it has changed much in the last 15 years. I mean sure, the route has changed over time. Initially, FSSAI wasn’t there. Once it came into the picture, we realized that this is the tool we can use to reach our goals faster, and with utmost credibility. We can drive the agenda of safe food, water & air on a much larger scale. FSSAI has been our perfect partner in this journey. The endgame here is to keep working until water, food & air are clean and safe no matter where we go in the country.
8. Have you been funded?
So for the first 12 years of our existence, we did not seek any funding. After 12 years, the funding came from a very unusual place, which is not a VC firm or a known investor so to speak. It actually came from Dr Velumani from ThyroCare. I had actually gone there to acquire one of his subsidiaries called Waters. I was exploring when I had a meeting with him. Once he realized what we were up to and that there’s no dominant player in the market, he said, “Ashwin, I will take you to IPO, I will take you to a larger scale”. So we actually got him on board and that’s how the funding came about.
9. What are things to be kept in mind to land a potential investor??
So the first thing when looking for an investor is to find out what value that investor is adding. If it’s only money, then I don’t think that’s a very good deal for you because nowadays, there are plenty of people who throw money at you. You want an investor who is there to guide you. Not force you into something, but guide you. You want an investor who has done that before, who has “helped” a company scale. That’s what I was looking for and that’s what I got.
10. What is the best marketing and customer acquisition strategy according to you?
I think the best marketing and customer acquisition strategy is phenomenal service. If you are able to deliver world-class service or “the Delta 4 service”, where the difference between you and your competitors on a ten-point scale is 4, then you have cracked it. I learned this concept from Kunal Shah from Cred. If you are a delta 4 service, customers will come by themselves. Yes, we do have a large sales team, we have the best-in-class marketing team, but nothing works like word-of-mouth from our customers. Any metric that you use to track customer success or growth; nothing delivers as much ROI as word-of-mouth. So I think that would be the best one.
11. One piece of advice you would like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship, the word startup is now becoming so commonplace, and that is good. I am very excited about that, very excited to see so many startups coming up. One piece of advice I would want to give to every entrepreneur is – do not worry if your first idea fails. Do not worry if your second idea fails, do not worry even if your third idea fails. Your biggest asset is going to be your grit, which is your ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. I say “grit” and not just “persistence”. Grit means you are trying new things. It means you have failed in a few or maybe all of them, but you’ve not lost your passion for what you’re doing. If you’re not passionate about what you’re working on, it is almost next to impossible that you would survive entrepreneurship. Because when you’re an entrepreneur, when you’re a startup founder, you are pushed beyond your comfort zone, you’re pushed to grow, your push to succeed. As a matter of fact, you have to push yourself to do all these things. It’s you pushing yourself to go make new customers. You pushing yourself to learn new skills. You pushing yourself to hire amazing people. You pushing yourself to create a kickass work culture, which allows people to thrive. So the one piece of advice would be to have grit, which means persistence and passion.
12. What is leadership according to you?
Leadership means so many different things. But I think leadership is when you are empathetic towards your team, where you are pushing them to grow beyond what they see themselves capable of doing, where you teach them new things. You are there to guide them whenever they stumble, you are there to boost them up or motivate them when they are feeling low. I think it’s just being a nice person. Being a good leader doesn’t mean you’ll go easy on your people. It doesn’t mean that you don’t scold them or you don’t penalize them. You do whatever it takes to motivate them because different people have different motivations. Part of being a good leader is being a good listener, and listening to what motivates people, listening to what makes them tick, listening to what they are passionate about. So, a good leader will always help his employees align their passion and their profession. At Equinox, we let so many people change departments. We let them move around within the company, where their passion and profession align. And that’s where we saw the Magic happen.
13. How much percentage of the targeted user have you been able to achieve?
That’s a very interesting question because our targeted user group is growing every day. So I would say we have achieved around 10 percent of the addressable market so far and there’s still a long way to go.
14. What is your next strategy to attract more traction?
At any given time, we are working on multiple things to attract new customers, to solve bigger problems. At the moment I think our next big strategy is just to innovate faster than other people.
15. Will you be broadening your target audience or the customer segments any time soon?
Yes, we are broadening our target audience, expanding our geography. We will be available in 5x more cities. We are looking to expand our audience pool by 100x.
16. How will you put your startup journey in a metaphor?
I think it’s like learning to sail a boat which slowly but steadily becomes a large ship and very soon you lose sight of land. Now you’re piloting the ship and you require your team and your team requires you. It goes both ways. The sailors aboard need to have faith in their captain and the captain needs to understand and have faith in the sailors. Your company is your ship and you’re headed to find new lands (sectors) to explore. And you do come across a lot of new challenges on the way but then you are able to overcome those challenges because you and your team are ready to face those challenges. So I think that’s the metaphor I’ll go with.
17. What were the high and the low points of this journey?
The high point of this journey has been whenever we hit a Landmark event – 100 customers, 1000 customers, 10,000 customers, 50,000 customers. Being able to close national accounts, international size accounts, our partnerships with the large conglomerates. We opened new labs, and we onboarded thousand plus people. These are some of the highlights. The low points would be whenever we had to part ways with some of our teammates for multiple reasons. Sometimes a person outgrows the company, and sometimes the company outgrows a person. Yes, it’s sad but I look at it as a positive thing. The way I see it, if a person has outgrown the company, it’s the company’s job to let them know that they can do bigger and better things. If a person is not performing in your organization, it may not be because the person is bad, it may be because the environment that they are put in may not be the best for them. So letting the person find the environment where they can thrive is important as well.
18. Do you think there is an employment crisis in the country?
There is definitely an employment crisis in the country right now and across multiple sectors because of the pandemic. It’s going to keep affecting the economy; it’s going to cause a lot of hardships for a lot of people. We are doing whatever we can to relieve the stress. We have created a fantastic referral program that allows people to earn money passively or actively. So yeah, that’s how we are kind of helping with the crisis.
19. What can be done to remove these skill and employment gaps?
So I think the employment gap right now is also because of certain skills which may or may not be present in a few people. Educating them in things which are required to acquire different kinds of jobs is key. Schools and colleges impart a great deal of knowledge but unfortunately, they don’t teach enough skills. When I look at people, I’m always looking beyond educational qualifications. So, have you done internships? Have you worked on any projects? I think that’s where you find a lot of good people who have taken the extra effort. I think the way to solve this problem is whenever you have free time, always find something productive to do. Find an internship; paid or unpaid doesn’t matter. Work on a project with a friend. Learn a new skill. That is what will make you stand out. Most people are content in doing the bare minimum and then they cry about not getting a job or something they badly wanted. Instead of procrastinating, you could have learned coding, you could have started a new podcast, you could have done so many different things that will evolve you as a person. And when people realize that this is in their own hands, that’s when they will be able to change their lives.
20. How entrepreneurship can benefit the employment situation in India?
Every time a company is formed, there’s an opportunity for people to walk in and work. So I am very passionate about startups. I support them in every capacity I can because they are also able to create employment and sometimes a lot of employment.
21. Do you need to be the special one to launch your start-up?
So I don’t think anyone needs to be “special” to launch a start-up. They need to be passionate enough, they need to be courageous enough. They need to be willing to take risks. Sometimes the risk doesn’t pay off, sometimes it pays off really well. Sometimes you have to take another risk to cover up the risk you have already taken. I think you just need to have passion for the idea that you want to base your startup on.
22. When should one go for funding and capital investors?
You should be able to go for ways of raising money when you actually don’t have enough money to grow fast enough. Figure out your little black box, which is your company, your process, your people, your culture, your product. You have created a box and let’s just say you can only put in one rupee every day because that’s what your budget is. But you have figured it out, right? Now, you can go to an investor and say, “Hey, I’m going to keep doing this but can you come in and put in a hundred bucks? Can you come up with a thousand bucks?
And we will make money together and we’ll grow together. Timing is everything. I have seen many company’s dive in too early, and if their next round of funding does not come, they go belly up. I have seen this pattern so many times. Figure out your secret sauce and t