Zymrat is a story of strength, resilience and perseverance, and Ujjawal Asthana, its founder, is determined on bringing innovation to Indians to promote their fitness schedules, no matter how far he has to travel around the globe.
Athleisure is a type of hybrid apparel that is typically worn during athletic activities. The worldwide athleisure market is competitive, innovative, and closely tied to fitness, with an anticipated value of approximately US$ 411.02 billion in 2021. From 2021 to 2028, it is expected to increase at a CAGR of 9.9%. The most successful Athleisure businesses have identified micro and macro developments, resulting in new business segments and innovative approaches. As a result, it’s no surprise that the athleisure sector is among the most lucrative in the world. But it is the ongoing evolution of the business around the needs of the customers that forces businesses to become more innovative in their approach. Ujjawal Asthana is the entrepreneur who is widely credited with pioneering the retail category of technology-driven athleisure. He is likely best known as the founder of Zymrat, a technical sporting apparel brand based entirely on an invention that he founded in 2018. Zymrat is challenging the existing quo across numerous categories such as intensive performance, activewear, and athleisure, and plans to launch 30 new SKUs in the coming months. In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Ujjawal about the Zymrat journey, building a robust a D2C performance wear brand, and what it takes to be an innovative athleisure entrepreneur.
How a fascinating ‘spiritual’ backstory led to the establishment of Zymrat
Something very interesting about Ujjawal Asthana is that he doesn’t come from a fashion or textile background. Before Zymrat, he was running a technology consulting firm wherein he used to develop software and servers for some of the Fortune 500 companies and YC-funded startups in the world, and he managed to build many successful businesses in 5-6 years while clocking a great MRR. He was always engrossed in work, eating mindlessly, drinking out, and everything else while doing all of this. He ended up gaining a lot of weight that was not looking good physically, but of course, was not good for his health as well. So one fine day, he consulted a doctor and figured that he was suffering from hypothyroidism, pre-diabetic symptoms and high blood pressure. So he took up to the gym, and never looked back from there! This journey transformed him physically, mentally, emotionally, and most importantly, spiritually! In this process, he connected to the industry so deeply that he wanted to do something about it. He discovered that a set of his ordeals resonated with the community as well, prompting him to start Zymrat.
Q: What are the challenges that set the stage for Zymrat? What prompted you to want to start an athleisure company focused on innovation?
Ujjawal Asthana: During the process of fitness evolution, I also became a very active member of the community across Bangalore and Mumbai and met a lot of people who had a background in fitness. Since we were resonating same problems, it set a ground for me to explore the stage for solutions. Zymrat is that! The major challenge that led to the start of Zymrat is the standard pricing problem of the products as the top-of-the-shelf products are usually expensive. However, as I spent more time in the community, and the industry, what I realised of the fact was that pricing was not that big of a problem because people in fitness are not apprehensive about spending money on fitness apparel that enhances their performance. But the larger problem was the fact that more than 80-90% of international brands occupy the market and only 8 – 10% of them saw the face of India much later.
This was a problem I was facing a lot personally, as I used to import goods like t-shirts, protein powders, shoes, snack bars and so on. I saw a lot of other members also doing the same. So by and large the service that was being given to the community across the world was not the same as what was given to India. And that is when I decided that this is the problem that can be solved. Like, why are companies like Nike able to do so successfully in India, but we, as Indians, are unable to do so?
Q: How challenging was it to curate an innovation-driven brand, and how do you anticipate consumer trends for high-performance athleisure market?
Ujjawal Asthana: We knew we had to find a solution when we identified the problem, which was that in India, despite the fact that worldwide brand products were either too expensive or unavailable, so people were inclined to import. So we (me and Ankita, Zymrat’s co-founder) spent about a year travelling around India and a few other countries to find out what the fundamental distinctions are between a product from an international brand and a product from a domestic brand. Some of the key distinctions we discovered were, of course, the fabric itself in the raw material, but others were also technology and treatment used in the garment manufacturing process.
What we discovered was that the kinds of products that international brands were bringing to the table required a high-end level of innovation, some of which may not be doable locally in India, a country that excels in cotton blends. We wanted to create high-performance apparel which meets the need to travel across the world. The more time we spent in the industry, the more we realised that this type of product would be impossible to manufacture in India alone, therefore we had to activate some of our centres across the world and in various geographies around India to achieve the level that international brands meet.
Finally, what we were able to create is outstanding, something that can compete and give any brand on this earth a run for its money. In terms of consumer trends, our trends first come from within the team; the majority of us have a long fitness experience, but as we’ve developed as a brand, we’ve started bringing in the top trainers and experts from throughout the country to serve as our product advisers. We identify with these people who are affecting a large-scale community in terms of what fitness items are missing from their arsenal. As a result, we’ve evolved into a performance-driven brand to project consumer performance. Style and fashion are two of the company’s strongest pillars, but instead of taking a conventional approach, our primary trend analysis goes into the performance.
Q: How did you helm the pandemic so far, and what impact did the epidemic play in the advent of digital purchasing options?
Ujjawal Asthana: For us, the pandemic has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provided us with a leg up and aided our growth since, as soon as the pandemic struck, consumer preferences shifted from offline to online buying in a matter of months. As a result, what was expected to take 2-3 years was accelerated as consumers plunged into internet purchasing right away. As a result, we are now in a position where 50% of our orders travel to the top 30 cities in India, with the remainder going to the rest of the country. As more people migrated to internet purchasing, they began to explore new businesses, and more people learnt about fitness, which is how they discovered our brand. It was a soul-crushing event for the entire world, but it brought us new business that we hadn’t expected from a pandemic. What we have understood is that this kind of trend does not get reversed, especially once you’ve experienced the convenience of online shopping. With refund options and guarantees, everything is just a click away. Supply chain management, on the other hand, became a great challenge for us. When we witnessed a significant increase in demand, we knew the warehouse was getting empty faster than we anticipated. However, as customer behaviour altered, our supply chain became congested, as we have manufacturing units in three to four locations across the world and shipping prices rose and lead times lengthened during the quarantine period. That was the obstacle we had to overcome but, because of our foresight, we were able to successfully meet the challenge.
Q: How D2C apparel brands are shaping the future of e-commerce?
Ujjawal Asthana: I think D2C apparel brands ARE the future! What we essentially see is that the comfort of buying behaviour is increasing, not that offline is disappearing, but that the e-commerce industry has grown significantly in the previous several years. Firstly, direct-to-consumer brands provide a great deal of freedom in terms of personalization, size exchange, and adapting the product to meet specific demands. As a result, many are increasingly considering D2C as the first option rather than the second.
Q: What drives the super-durable SuperVent technology, which combines 3D Knitted Vents with a feather-light sweat-wicking layer?
Ujjawal Asthana: Most of the innovation we do at Zymrat is driven by validation from the community members who are experts in their disciplines, thus one of the problems we’ve found is that individuals sweat a lot while working out. When a fabric with no texture comes into contact with sweat, it begins to stick to the skin, and it can also get stuck between your butt cheeks and other places. So we thought out what type of knitting structures we could use so that the fabric would keep away from your skin no matter how much you sweated. While we were figuring this out, we created two unique fabrics: one is called The Ball Cooling shorts, and it is one of our most popular products on the website, and the other is called SuperVent. The unique feature of SuperVent is its trademark structure, designed to maximise ventilation – and thereby aid in unlocking peak performance. Due to its breathability, there’s no restriction on movement anymore.
Q: What are the pros and cons of providing such a transparent market that now has an endless underpass to product videos, images, 360-degree views, and user feedback?
Ujjawal Asthana: There is only a PRO for direct-to-consumer brands like us! The days of defrauding a customer are long gone. You approach the market with the mindset that customers are smart, and you apply your own personal experience to the products. If I don’t want to be duped as a consumer, I wouldn’t dupe a customer either. The better the storyline and the more transparency there is in terms of communication, the longer the customer stays. We take a lot of pride in the fact that we have the highest retention rate in the athleisure category, which speaks volumes about the quality of our products. People believe what we say because we communicate sincerely, and when they use the features, they return to our website and leave favourable feedback.
Q: Do you have any plans to expand your innovation to women’s activewear now that we have such outstanding products on the shelf?
Ujjawal Asthana: Oh, absolutely, right! exclaims Asthana. I’m ecstatic to share that we’re currently working on women’s products, intending to launch innovative and technology-driven apparel before the end of the year. The reason we started with a men’s collection is not that we don’t believe women don’t confront the same issues as both genders train in the same way, with hard effort, hustle, and perseverance. The only reason we didn’t introduce a women’s line sooner was that we didn’t want to overextend ourselves. When it comes to Zymrat, it requires nearly four countries to collaborate in various roles to produce a single product. So, before we started expanding, we wanted to nail at least one category right.
Q: What drives you as an entrepreneur?
Ujjawal Asthana: I’d say that fitness has changed me in several ways – physically, emotionally, and spiritually and has taught me a great deal. I believe that, similar to how the number of seconds spent beneath a barbell determines lifetime tenacity, I am constantly peppered with emotions. It’s all a bit of a roller coaster. You go through so many highs and lows in 24 hours that you are always learning something new. On a personal level, the kind of learning I’ve been getting while building Zymrat has nearly become a habit. If I get too comfortable, I worry that we’re moving too slowly or accomplishing too little, so what motivates me as a business owner is the amount of sheer learning and the ability to create an impact.
Written by Veidehi Gite.
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