Why BeUnic went from a shoe brand to an online marketplace for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs

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Indians are experts in DIY (DIY), our version of jugaad.

Most jugaad ends with the task at hand, but when Ashish Chopra’s mom decided to DIY her son’s shoes for a drag performance, it led him to launch a startup.

“It is very difficult to find heels in a size 8 or 9. When we go to a store, we are told that heels are made for women; they don’t cross size 6 or 7. I wanted to wear heels, and couldn’t find anything in my size. One day my mom said to me, ‘Let me worry about it at home’, and that’s how we started our journey,” Ashish says. Your story.

Founded in July 2019 by brothers Ashish and Vishesh Chopra and Simmi Nanda, BeUnic started as a shoe brand in 2019 “to meet the needs of men who want to wear heels”.

A year later, it has evolved into a marketplace, a community-driven e-commerce platform that allows LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, artists, and designers to offer their products and services.

Ashish says the startup recorded just Rs 20,000 in sales as a footwear brand in the first six months of operation.

“That’s when we realized we needed more products. We met other LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs at a conference and asked them how they sell their products, if they face the same challenges as us. Many said they weren’t getting enough sales and it was hard to sign up on Amazon and Flipkart. So we decided to become a platform where LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs can list their products and sell them,” says Ashish.

The founders started the business with an initial investment of Rs 2.5 lakh.

How it works

Every year, Pride Month sees businesses go “inclusive and global”. However, a closer look at the reality on the ground reveals that queer people and LGBTQ+ businesses need more cohesive and holistic support.

BeUnic aims to be that support system for the community, all year round.

Planning to be “like an Amazon” for queer designers and artists, the startup employs 27 entrepreneurs and offers their products and services on its platform. Products include clothing, shoes, accessories, self-care products, books and BeUnic NFTs.

An entrepreneur must register on the BeUnic platform and list the products. Each time a purchase is made, the entrepreneur receives an email with the details. BeUnic takes care of shipping the products to the customers to make the whole process hassle-free.

The online market deals with independent business owners who do not maintain a large inventory. It has partnered with logistics companies to help with deliveries.

BeUnic receives a commission on the sale of each product listed on the marketplace. The startup, which has 10,000 unique monthly visitors, achieved revenue of Rs 50 lakh last year.

Besides e-commerce, BeUnic also has a resource center where it partners with gay spaces, NGOs, and other gay-owned businesses. Queer people can apply for jobs in these gay-friendly organizations and businesses.

“The Q Family is rooted in the belief that families and allies should join queer people in their fight for rights and visibility. In India, unlike Western countries, families are an important part of our coming-out journeys. LGBTIA+ people cannot be fully themselves without some form of open and proud support,” says Varun Abraham, Quucciberry, who makes lifestyle products listed on the BeUnic platform.

“The brand aims to build that in addition to encouraging the community to be proud and loud. Being part of BeUnic aligns us with this vision of an independent, self-sufficient and proud community,” says Varun.

Ashish says most entrepreneurs sold through Instagram or small stores in their towns before signing up with BeUnic.

“It has a limited reach,” he says, adding that BeUnic has helped expand its customer base. “An entrepreneur whose products were bought by customers in Norway came to us and said, ‘I never thought my products would go to Norway’.”

The gay-focused startup also helps small businesses discover themselves by running ads for products listed by sellers for free.

“If someone is making rainbow keychains at home, they’ll probably be the only one doing it on my website. If you search for the same thing on Amazon, there will be 100 other sellers, so the seller’s products could be lost,” says Ashish.

Currently, the startup is operational in India, UK, USA, Australia, Canada, and Norway. The startup has more than 1,000 customers and nearly 40% of sales come from customers in other countries.

The platform has also partnered with a health and wellness organization with a team of gay-friendly clinical psychologists and psychiatrists offering free professional mental health support in English, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi.

The e-commerce startup faces challenges as a startup supporting and promoting minority groups.

“The current challenge we face is that people think that because the products on our website are made by queer people, they are only for queer people. But the clothes or the stationery don’t really have a genre and we like to promote that,” says Vishesh.

The path to follow

A 2018 estimate from the Hong Kong-based LGBT Foundation said the global LGBT community is worth around $4.6 trillion. A 2009 study by Forbes India estimated the number of LGBTQ+ communities at 4% of the total population (around 30 million), which rose to around 6% in 2014 (Out Now Consulting).

No official figures are available for current numbers, but this segment translates to a market potential of over $200 billion.

BeUnic aims to tap into this growing market. The startup is looking to raise funds to scale its operations, as well as for hiring and marketing.

Going forward, it also aims to increase its spending on advertising and SEO for customer acquisition.

BeUnic faces competition from startups like Queer Made, Rainbow Bazaar and Gay India.

“Our mature market is currently outside of India. The US, UK and Australia are some of our biggest markets. We want to capture the Indian market, but also focus on slowly expanding in outside of India,” says Vishesh.

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