Q. A brief description of yourself and your career journey
When I graduated from University in 1999 with a B.Sc. (Hons) Business, frankly I had no or little intention of actually getting down to running a business. My passion at the time was in advertising, media relations and corporate communications and I spent a good fifteen plus years working on other brands in different capacities from Brand Strategy to Corporate Reporting. Sometime in between, in order to add further value to the brands I worked on, I read for a Master in Business Administration.
Q. Tell us the story behind Vitawell and how it was initiated
After I became a mom and my existential “reason for being” became my kids, I started viewing the marketplace with a very different lens. In 2014, Vitawell was conceived as a business idea inspired by a very personal need – the requirement for quality-assured, origin assured multivitamins for my two boys. By then I had been relying on purchasing when travelling abroad but this was unsustainable and cumbersome. I realized that a market gap existed for premium, quality supplements for the entire family. Vitawell was born from this realistic consumer issue.
A more thorough market and trend analysis validated the opportunity. We used a few indicators as the ballmarks for strategising. One was that Sri Lanka’s healthcare spending had shifted sharply from communicable disease to non-communicable disease (NCDs). That meant that lifestyle triggered diseases were on the rise – obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease. Demographics were transitioning to reflect those of a developed country – modern lifestyles and an ageing population meant that dietary trends were shifting dramatically. These key market insights served as the strategic foundation for the business.
Q. What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey?
Of course, whilst the idea held water in theory translating this into a realistic, practical business took an enormous amount of thinking through and it was essentially a process of persuasion on all fronts.
First of all, in procuring global brand partners, my intention was to partner with brands that we as a family had a personal affinity. The thinking was that we would offer through Vitawell, the best in the breed of global brands, brands that we used personally and could vouch for as consumers. That’s how we approached Pharmacare Labs in Australia, to become the exclusive distributors in Sri Lanka for Nature’s Way, Naturopathica, Redwin, Ease-a-Cold, Skin Doctors and Promensil. Similarly, we signed up to exclusively represent Balance Sports Nutrition from New Zealand – one of the most reputed natural sports nutrition brands in the world. From the USA, we partnered with Bronson Labs and Futurebiotics, two long-standing, well-reputed nutraceutical brands. Persuasion was key in this process as none of these global brands had Sri Lanka in their consideration set and so we needed to pitch the business viability and assure to maintain the reputation of their brands in how we operate, adhering to their operational best practices. This meant that we had to invest in processes and practices to ensure that both product efficacy and the brand image of these global brands are maintained at stipulated standards.
Secondly, as we implemented the “go to market strategy”, we entered into somewhat unchartered waters. Daily supplementation was a new concept to Sri Lankans; they didn’t see a reason for taking a multivitamin or an omega-3 fish oil capsule on a daily basis. Additionally, the market was essentially one driven by advertising with promises of overnight visible results. Our strategy was very different. We wanted to change the category from quick fix supplementation to long-term daily supplementation with the promise of well-being. Of course, it was a strategy that would yield long-term results and that meant we had to be ready to bite the bit and hang on for a few years to yield results.
Thirdly, we went against the grain in distribution. We were the first omnichannel distributor of nutraceuticals in Sri Lanka. In a market that depended heavily on third party distribution, we decided to set up our own retail network dedicated to our brands. Simultaneously, we launched Sri Lanka’s first online store dedicated to nutraceuticals. The site, built on a trusted global e-commerce platform was integrated to a payment gateway and offered a fully functional online experience. Building a site of this magnitude in 2014 was time and capital intensive and there were a lot of challenges in getting a bank to offer an Internet payment gateway facility to this product category. Of course, it is pretty much commonplace now.
Q. What has changed in your priorities since you initially started?
I wouldn’t say that our priorities have changed. We are still very focused on the fundamentals that were the core of our business. We go back and revisit them often and I always remind the Vitawell team that how we do business does not have to be how everybody else in the category does business. I am a firm believer that we must chart our own course. Doing things differently is definitely how we can add value to the operational model and at the end of it all, provide exceptional service.
Q. What is unique about Vitawell?
Vitawell is all about living life consciously. “We believe it’s a collective project, taking care of ourselves”. This mantra runs through the entire gamut of how we operate. Vitawell is based around people and nurturing collaborative, supportive and genuine relationships. Innovation plays a critical role in how we redefine the space we operate in.
Vitawell has a unique business model. We operate a multi-channel distribution that enables us to interact with the customer in multiple ways. The Vitawell retail network is a network of specialist stores that are dedicated to the global brands that Vitawell exclusively represents. These stores are the face of the Vitawell brand and they provide a space for customers to interact with and forge long-standing relationships with our products and people. Our stores essentially serve an advisory role with in-house nutritionists and speciality pharmacists on hand. All our staff, across all functions, participate in on-going product training that are intensive to the level of module specific assessments, vivas and role-plays.
We go to extremes to ensure that product quality is maintained to highest standards so that any product bought from a Vitawell store or reseller point will offer the highest efficacy. Temperature maintained storage, temperature maintained shipping, shipping via air freight to ensure retention of product consistency are a few of these initiatives, especially as supplements lose their efficacy if exposed to light and heat. In short, we don’t take short cuts; we make conscious decisions that ultimately add value to the customer experience.
Q. What have you enjoyed most about starting your own company?
Seeing Vitawell evolve from an idea to become a reality and grow to benefit so many others – from our customers to our Vitawell family – is definitely the most satisfying part.
Q. What would your inspiring advice be to someone who is trying to become an entrepreneur?
Find a market gap and see how relevant that market gap is to your target audience. Building a business that can be sustained over time is key. Don’t start a business just because that category is trending. Get into it for the long-term and be patient.
Q. An inspiring quote from you.
Grow your business slowly. Work patiently. Believe.