After 15 years in the apparel industry, Monali Shah Saraiya took a detour for sex. Not just the kind you have with your partner in your bedroom (though she’ll admit there was a bonus there too), but the kind that can spice up the lives of thousands of other couples around India. Couples in small and big towns who otherwise have little or no way of getting their hands on interesting sexual goods and high-quality personal products to liven up their bedroom stories. In fact, not only did Monali take a break from a corporate career to launch Thatspersonal.com, an e-commerce site for adult goods, but she also gave up a cushy expat life in Singapore, moving back to Mumbai to set up the site with her husband.
Born to a Gujarati family here, Monali studied law after completing her B.Com. At 32, she married Samir Saraiya, who worked with Yahoo! in Mumbai then. Samir moved to Microsoft in 2006 and two years later, just after the birth of their first child, Riana, the family moved to Singapore. “We had a great life there, and lived in a beautiful condominium overlooking the ocean,” Monali reminisces. “We had a fantastic circle of friends, and enjoyed the public infrastructure – especially the open spaces where children play. We travelled a lot, visiting interesting places in Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and China.” While in Singapore, Monali worked with an art house and at an NGO, but at the end of three years, she itched to get back to a real job.
She was almost 40 (do women get naughty at 40?), when Samir decided to give up his high-flying job and take a risk in risque pleasures. “We timed it so that I could deliver my second child in Mumbai,” says Monali. Alina is now 10 months old.
Samir believed that Indian e-com companies were playing on one of three pillars: ‘convenience’, ‘price’ and ‘choice’. He wanted to launch a fourth pillar, ‘privacy’, with the aim of being the leader in discreet purchase and delivery. “So we researched a lot of products that would fit well under the ‘privacy pillar’ and shortlisted a few categories. We grouped various categories to deliver width and aligned the focus to ‘personal products’ under the brand Thatspersonal.com,” Monali explains.
The couple, along with other investors including an Internet lawyer, launched with ‘sexual wellness’ as their category opener, due to the business model advantage: There was huge demand with practically no supply; there was product exclusivity along with high margins, repeat purchases, low customer acquisition cost and solving a genuine customer purchase issue – in short, good business from better sex. “What amazes me is the level of technology that these products carry and how well they have researched sexual behaviour and fantasies,” Monali says.
The company could not sell all global sexual wellness products due to Indian laws, and decided to launch products that are legal for sale in India. Despite the limitations, customers can find plenty of choices in women’s erotic lingerie, erotic costumes, men’s erotic innerwear, condoms, lotions, lubricants, select adult games and literature, erotic candles, body powder, body paint, arousal gels and other items that are acceptable to the Indian government. “We work directly with international brands in US, Canada, Germany, France, Spain and Netherlands. We are looking to add more categories soon, especially health and nutrition, herbal and Ayurveda as well as bath, body and beauty,” explains Monali.
It wasn’t just her new life in all things sexual, the move back was a shocker in other ways too. “Despite having lived 37 years in Mumbai and just three years in Singapore, it took me almost six months to readjust to Indian life. I really missed Singapore. But by then, our e-com venture was going full steam and I was handling category management including merchandising and supplier relationships,” says Monali. While still nursing the baby, she used her previous retail experience for the new venture.
Monali isn’t bashful about her work. “To me, this is a business like any other business, and as long as it is legal, I have no issues telling friends and family about what we are doing. In fact, I enjoy being cheeky and making others uncomfortable when we say our website has ‘adult products’! My parents and in-laws are comfortable with the business idea and gave us their support.” The only time she got trapped was when an old “Gujarati masi” said she was bored of surfing other websites and wanted to check theirs out!
“My kids are young so I don’t need to give them an explanation of what our site is about, though I know I’ll have to do it some day,” says Monali, adding, “I am confident of crossing that bridge when I reach there.”
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