Q&A with CEO and Entrepreneur, Charu Swaminathan
Charu Swaminathan is the CEO and Co-Founder of Mishkalo, a Chicago based Tech Start-Up which is wedding registry for original art.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I have both an art and technical background. I am a professional Indian Classical Singer and a Jewelry Artist and I have a Masters in Computer Information Systems. I teach music and I’ve worked full-time as a database administrator.
What inspired you to start your business?
The idea for Mishkalo started, interestingly, with a "Thank You" note I received from a couple. The note thanked me profusely for the thoughtful blender I had given them as a wedding gift. However, a few days later, I found the gift receipt. I had bought them a set of wine glasses, not a blender. That struck me as a double irony – neither the couple nor I remembered what the gift was. Perhaps because the couple did not need a blender or wine glasses; and I probably did not spend a second to think what would be an appropriate wedding gift for them.
This made me wonder what makes a good wedding gift. From my own experience and talking to a few couples, I came to the conclusion that a wedding gift should be meaningful, memorable and establish a connection between the giver and the wedding couple.
I had my 'Aha' moment when I visited the Art Institute of Chicago. I was so inspired that I came home and started sketching out my business plan. Mishkalo was born!
Where is your business based?
Since we are an online business, we cater to a nationwide audience. Our artists are from all over the world.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
Since this is a two-sided business, I started by first recruiting artists who created artwork that was aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for wedding gifts. Once I had a reasonable number of artists and artwork, I started a marketing campaign geared towards newly engaged couples who are our main customers.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
Social media and networking with other wedding industry professionals have been very effective in raising awareness for Mishkalo and the unique registry that we offer.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
My original idea was to sell art online targeting wedding guests. The first roadblock was the objection that people raised ' What if the couple does not like the art I buy for them? ' A second roadblock was that the price of an original artwork is typically outside the price range of a wedding gift. Then I realized that I was looking at the business from the wrong end. I needed to look at it from the perspective of the wedding couple.
This change in perspective enabled me to go over both my roadblocks at once. Having a wedding registry where the couple chooses the art that they like and wedding guests pool together their contributions to collectively buy an artwork of the couple's choice.
How do you stay focused?
I am a planner and I try to divide my time between marketing, artist recruitment and customer acquisition based on the current business needs. I need to always look at the big picture and prioritize accordingly.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
Our differentiation from other online art galleries are:
A: Carefully chosen artwork that is appropriate for wedding gifts.
B: Making the art buying experience accessible and enjoyable to wedding couples who are not necessarily art collectors. Specifically, we help the wedding couples in choosing the artwork based on their taste, budget, and home decor.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
We are trying to focus on offline marketing to introduce our customers to our new registry. We have participated in some unique wedding vendor’s shows and have displays in some local bridal stores. We believe that online marketing can generate interest but offline promotions can build trust and credibility for the business.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
Stay focused and think a bit out of the box. You also have to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and walk through the whole process of buying your product to understand what they want.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
I like to read some of the marketing blogs such as Jeff Bullas’s Blog. He has some great insights into social media marketing. My favorite book is Gone with the Wind.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
I think Canva is one of my favorite resource for creating great social media graphics and images. It is easy to use and you can create some pretty cool images to post.
Who is your business role model? Why?
I admire Sara Blakely who is the founder of Spanx. Her story about how she started and built her company is amazing and very inspiring. She was persistent, totally believed in her product and was willing to even embrace an embarrassing moment and turn it into an opportunity.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
In the next six months, I have plans to enhance our customer experience even more in using our website. I want to make this a truly enjoyable and memorable process for the wedding couples to create a registry, to be able to pick an artwork that they like with help from decorators and curators based on their tastes and home décor.
How can our readers connect with you?
Twitter : @mishkalowedding,
Instagram : @mishkaloregistry
Pinterest : @Mishkaloregistr
Facebook : @Mishkaloweddingregistry