SupportBiz presents an exclusive conversation with Aruna Hatti, founder of Gnaana, about the unique nature of their business, entrepreneurship, the market for educational toys in India, and more.
What are the kinds of educational toys that you largely offer?
We offer high-quality, eco-friendly toys for kids aged zero to six. Our toys are inspired by and developed in accordance with the Montessori educational method - which emphasizes learning through hands-on interactive tools, which cultivate kids' natural curiosity for knowledge. We carry simple basics like wooden alphabet blocks in Indian languages, cultural puzzles, books and posters with high-style art graphics, and recipe cards which emphasize math and reading skills through cooking. Children are insatiable sponges - and they have an amazing capacity to process whatever you teach them. Our toys recognize that.
Since when has Gnaana been in operation?
Gnaana was launched in 2009, after 2 years of product development and testing.
Are most of your sales driven through your website, or do you have retail outlets?
Right now, 90 percent of our sales come directly from our website, although we work with a distributor in the US for the education sector in schools. We are looking for a distributor in India, but it has to be the right kind of partnership. We ship worldwide and have a few retailers of select products in the UK and Australia.
What is your background? What were you doing prior to launching Gnaana?
I am an attorney by background, practicing in environmental and transactional commercial real estate law.
How did the idea of starting Gnaana come about?
My husband and I were living in Bangalore during my first pregnancy. That was when I searched for several months for hands-on educational products about Indian culture to take back with us to the US. Sadly, apart from some books and DVDs, which were mainly appropriate for ages eight and above, I could not find a single toy for kids aged zero to six. I could not believe that this age segment was totally ignored, as it is the most critical for kids – it is when language and values are best absorbed and learned - so why were there no tools to teach kids in this segment about Indian languages, culture and values? I saw this void, and made it my mission to make fun, educational, high-quality toys for kids to learn about their heritage.
Which are your most popular toys?
Our wooden Alphabet Blocks are a popular bestseller – it is hard to even keep them in stock. They are such classic educational toys. We do notice a consistent trend that customers tend to purchase a trio of products, which includes our Das Avatar Puzzle and our Chota Chef Recipe Cards along with the blocks, presumably because of their unique educational value.
Educational toys are not very popular in India; it is still an emerging field. What do you think about the scope of this industry in the near future?
It is surprising to me that the educational toy industry is still in its infancy in India, but there are probably a variety of sociological reasons for this. The idea of homeschooling or of parents taking charge of what their children are learning is perhaps more of a Western notion. In the US, most kids recognize all the letters of the English alphabet by the age of two - and this is largely due to parents teaching their kids.However, I do think that more and more Indian families are recognizing that education really starts at birth, and they are starting to seek out tools to help give their kids an edge, even during the critical sensitive periods/ages of zero to three years and three to six years. It is a basic human desire to prepare your children as best you can for the future, so I think educational toys in India will be one of the hottest sectors in the near future.
What are the major trends that you have been noticing in the field of toy-making in India of late?
There is definitely a shift to producing more high-quality and homegrown (Made in India) toys. For so long, Chinese and Western imports have dominated the shelves, but it is encouraging that this is slowly changing. India has so much knowledge and wisdom to offer - and I would love to see more Indian toys in the market - both in India itself and worldwide.
What are the major challenges that you face in your line of business?
This business is capital-intensive, especially when you factor-in product development and safety testing. We focus on using quality, sustainable, wood - and not cardboard – toys. So, to put out new products every year is expensive. That said, it is important for parents to understand that when kids feel and play with high-quality, durable toys, it elevates the importance of what they are learning to them. They learn to treat precious toys with care, and begin to realize that all knowledge is precious and should be revered.
What are the trends in India, as far as eco-friendly toys are concerned?
I definitely notice a shift in consumer behaviour in India - towards a more value-based consumerism. It is not just about price these days. The environmental consciousness movement is really just mobilizing in India right now, so ‘eco-friendly’ toys are riding the wave of the future.
Tell us something about your proudest moments as an entrepreneur…
I remember a phone call I received from a gentleman who had ordered several of our products for his grandchildren. He requested to speak to me, and when I did, he stated that he was 71 years old and he wanted to thank me for starting this company to preserve Indian culture. That was certainly one of my proudest moments.
How do you cope with competition from other toy-making firms?
Right now, there is a lot of room in the industry and not a lot of players - so we all have unique products which do not overlap for the most part. However, at Gnaana, we do not just sell products for profit - we have a very popular blog and monthly newsletter which consistently offer tips and advice for parents on how to connect culture with their kids - with crafts, book recommendations, etc. So, in that sense, we are more of a complete lifestyle company with a holistic goal that goes beyond just the products we offer.
What advice would you give to a prospective entrepreneur?
Plan, plan, plan! Write down a solid business plan, and then plan some more. It is a critical step that most budding entrepreneurs, caught up in their enthusiastic optimism, skip. It is important to project and track how much you are investing and what it will take to get a return on that investment. If you do not know what goal you are working towards, the company (and the investment made) will get lost.
Corporate Website: Gnaana