A washing machine for Mars
When Atul Vir relaunched the all-in-one clothes washer and dryer seven years ago, many people thought he was crazy. Who on earth would buy such a machine today, they asked.
But Vir knew exactly what he was doing. And he must have felt vindicated two years ago, when NASA contacted his company, Equator, about using his machines on a manned mission to Mars, and when his product was displayed at Disney World's Innoventions.
Today, among other things, the Houston-based entrepreneur is busy designing the world's most perfect washing machine. "We recently started working with a team of business school students from the University of Houston who are studying the project," he says.
Equator Corp is one of Houston's fastest growing private businesses. By combining innovative products with creative marketing, Vireo has kept Equator on the top 100 of the fastest growing businesses in Houston for three consecutive years. For Atul Vir, the journey has been an unscripted tale of courage, chance, and commitment.
Yet, 10 years ago, when Atul and his wife Arti decided to move to the United States, owning a business was the last thing on his mind. The move was essentially motivated by the thought that Arti, an US-educated environmental scientist, would have better career prospects. At the time, Vir was quite confident of finding a place in corporate America.
"With a CA from Pune and eight plus years of experience in England and Africa, I thought it would be easy," he says. The cold response from American corporations thus came as a rude shock. But instead of giving up, he decided to fight back. Using his love for innovation and his experience heading international finance departments, he started his own company.
"Houston became my first choice," he says, "when I saw that the city has major international transportation facilities and a great climate. "In addition it would be an ideal place for Atria's career growth and the proximity of family added to the attraction.
But though Vir quickly set up shop, he had no clue about what exactly he would be marketing. So without a specific product in mind, he started importing and exporting a wide range of products from cup holders to decorative things. "It was successful, but I was looking for something major, something unique," he recalls.
Hitting on a winning product happened almost accidentally, and again Arti had a big role in it.
She used to haul their laundry from their apartment to her parents's home each week. "I couldn't understand why it took her all day to get the laundry done. And when I asked her why we couldn't get a combo washer-dryer unit like the one we had in England, she told me that she had never seen one of those in the United States," says Vir.
He looked around, and discovered that a machine that does both washing and drying was off the US appliance market since the sixties. "So why hadn't someone considered reintroducing it?" he wondered. After all, American lifestyles had become diverse, yet even major companies like Maytag had not considered reintroducing combo units for over three decades.
Convinced that the time was right, Vir began looking for a manufacturer. "I contacted major appliance manufacturers around the nation only to be told that no one was willing to manufacturer the combo unit," he says. Finally, a manufacturer in Italy came to Vir's rescue by agreeing to make his product.
But just when he thought he had won the battle, Vir came up against the vagaries of the US marketing system. "We needed a niche market for people who did not have large loads of laundry," he says. Yet before he could find a suitable outlet, the first 54 units arrived in Houston. With all his credit cards overdrawn and the retailers refusing to buy the product until there were signs of people interested in buying it, Vir had to wait impatiently for motivated buyers.
Five years after the launch, Equator Corp surfaced as the fifth fastest growing private company in Houston and also the highest ranked of the 22 minority-owned businesses in the Houston 100. (The Houston 100 is an annual listing by the Houston Business Journal of the top 100 private companies in the city.) By 1995 Equator's sales had reached $ 861,768 and was climbing by about $ 250,000 every month. Last year, revenues reached $ 3.8 million.
By keeping his overheads low through outsourcing and maintaining a lean staff of five employees, Vir kept his profits high. Appliance Manufacturer magazine, the Bible of the trade industry, awarded Equator the Excellence in Design Award in 1997. Past winners of the award include companies like Hewlett-Packard, Black & Decker, and Microsoft Corp.
Encouraged by the US market's response to his clothes-processor, Vir decided to market other appliances like a tabletop dishwasher and a cylindrical refrigerator with rotating shelves. "The creative part is important to me. I have to launch at least two new products each year," he explains. The company's products might not fit everyone's lifestyle or wallet, with prices for the round refrigerator ranging from $ 3,000 to $ 4,000, but Vir says his customers seldom complain about the quality or service.
In the last three years, Equator, which started off with 20 representatives, has started working with major distributors in US and Canada. About 20 per cent of the company's sales is through mail order and the Internet. Vir believes that the emphasis on ensuring that the products are delivered, unpacked and the packing materials removed quickly has stepped up sales.
But this phenomenal growth in his staff and business has not made Vir a free man yet. "I work up to eight o'clock most days and I'm usually at my office on Saturdays," he says "but it has not all been bad, I listen to western classical music as I work and I know that my Sundays are for my family." Time at home can be work and fun for Vir.
"I often bring home products to test...to see if my daughter can break it," he says with a chuckle. "Cooking is a hobby of mine and I often experiment...one time I bought some salmon which I seasoned, wrapped in a foil and ran through the wash cycle and it was steamed."
Vir shares his wife's interest in keeping the environment healthy. "Ecology is a great passion of mine- we are a green company and are always looking for ways to grow environmentally sound products." He is saddened that there is neither much awareness nor care to keep the environment healthy in Houston.
What is ahead for Equator Corp and Atul Vir? Expansion of his business to Taiwan and India, for one, he says. He also believes that they are entering into the most exciting year, being just four months away from the launch of a product they have been working on for the past three years. "I felt that having our own production team of world class designers and researchers would be the way to go."
Taking a risk in choosing to market a unique appliance has obviously paid off for Vir. But his advice to anyone planning on finding success in their own business is: "Remember that everything takes longer than you expect and that everything costs more than you expect. As long as a product's cost proves to be worthy in value, people will come back and not mind the cost."