Vedant Lamba, the Founder of Mainstreet Marketplace, Gives Us a Low-down on the Sneaker Business in India
Vedant Lamba’s energy and enthusiasm are palpable even through a phone call. He’s on a natural high from the roaring success of Mainstreet Marketplace, one of India’s few multi-brand hype sneaker outlets, and a business idea that seeded from a friend’s Snapchat story. But don’t be quick to assume that he’s a sneakerhead as he candidly admits to being here for the big bucks in the business. This Gen-Z “self-made visionary change-maker” (as he mockingly calls himself) is blessed with an insane amount of innate business prowess.
With undeterred faith and dedication, he managed to turn the economic freezer that is the lockdown into an opportunity to open a brick and mortar store in Mumbai. Counting the likes of Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor and Anand Ahuja as his friends and mentors, his is a story of uphill struggle that begs to be told, and he is all of 21. I caught up with this ‘merchant of cool’ to know about his journey in the business, the relaunch of Mainstreet Marketplace, the business of sneakers in India, and more.
1. Can you tell me a little about where you’re from, what did you study, and your background?
I was born and brought up in Pune and I studied there until the 12th grade. I didn’t pass 12th grade though. After my board exams, I decided to take a gap year since I had been working on a couple of businesses for a while at that point. I moved to Bombay and it was cool, but it was a struggle. I feel like the way you act in adversity really defines you as a person and helps you just realise who you are. Self-awareness was a big goal of mine. I come from a fair amount of privilege, so when I moved to Bombay, I was very ambitious about not taking any kind of money from my parents. That was what the struggle was about. There would be days when I would look at the Uber app and realise I don’t have the money. That year was spent in understanding and learning more about the businesses I was working on.
The following year, things started looking up, the businesses were doing better, I could take more Ubers! I also shut down two of my businesses to double down on my strengths and focus on the one that had more potential.
2. So were you passionate about sneakers growing up?
No, I am not a sneakerhead, I am not passionate about sneakers. It is purely opportunity-based, it’s a business to me. I like sneakers because of how they play in the financial market. That’s what it is.
“I believed so wholly in the business that we had built with Mainstreet. I thought, ‘there is so much potential, I gotta do this!’ I had blind faith that it has to be huge.”
3. It has been just two years since you started Mainstreet but you’ve built such a big community. What was that journey like?
On my 20th birthday last March, I was still building Mainstreet at the time. I was just hanging out with my dad and he casually asked “What’s the plan?” when we were talking about venture capital and funding. So he said, “if you want money, don’t hesitate to ask.” In my head, I was calculating that with a certain amount, I could buy some products, get our YouTube and our store running. I told myself that I should stop being so stuck up on this idea of building this self-made, entrepreneur, visionary change-maker image for the sake of the business. So, last year, we relaunched the business as Mainstreet 2.0 with everything that I had learnt in the previous one year. It was a reiteration, which I think is key to building a business.
Yesterday on our Instagram a throwback picture from one year ago popped up; it was the picture of one shoe on a bed, which probably didn’t belong to us since it was an expensive shoe and we couldn’t buy it. And the day before yesterday, we had just assembled a bunch of Jordan 1s in the store which was not even 1/4th of our inventory. I saw the difference and I just went “WOW!” I can actually look back and say that we have done something. I was also really lucky that a lot of people I looked up to thought what we were doing was really cool. So we could get some advice, think of ideas and execute them. This year January is when it started growing and we started plotting the store. We were supposed to launch on 20th March on my 21st birthday. We were looking to have a couple of hundred people lining up at the store. This moment was the culmination of the past three years, it was a dream come true. But I ended up going back to Pune and staying there for 6 months. At this point, we focused on sales and we went six times over in our revenue, we sold more than we ever had, and in that time, I made more money than in my entire two years in Bombay. That’s when we started making a high impact. It was phenomenal.
4. What was your business agenda for Marketplace like?
We’re known to be expensive and over-priced. But the product in India is worth this much because it’s a hassle to bring it here. So when everybody focuses on finding new deals so they can sell cheaper and at a comparative international price, I’m thinking, an iPhone doesn’t cost the same in India as it does abroad. And if someone is going to get their relatives to bring it for them, they can do it. I’m not trying to sell to them. In my head, I’m thinking what is more scalable: to spend more time finding good deals at cheaper prices, or you spend more time convincing the audience and shaping their behaviour to pay more. And it was the latter for me.
5. Over the last few years, we’ve noticed that people are increasingly being drawn to street fashion in general, and especially sneakers. One aspect you described is the financial part of it which has inspired very young people to get into it. But what do you think inspires it, especially in India? Because let’s admit it, the buying power people have in India is lower than that in the US, UK, Europe, or elsewhere.
I think what you meant by buying power is ‘expense power’. These people are more comfortable in their expenses on things like luxury and travel. India’s trends on expense are low. The behaviour and the patterns of their expenditure is different because our cost of living is so low. But when it comes to sneakers, these are not expensive. They’re all assets which makes them an easier investment to enable. So sneaker culture is a harder entity to understand: the story, the culture, the style that drives it, etc. But what’s easy to digest is making money. So you see a shoe that is selling for INR 22,000, but it’s clear that you walk up to the store and somebody will pay you 50. On your balance sheet, you lose this much cash, but it pops back up in your assets. You don’t lose any wealth. In fact, when you buy cheap shoes, the cost is higher. With these expensive shoes, everytime a brand new product is sold, another’s value rises. So even after you wear it a bit, they can sell for more. And that’s how it grew. It made a whole nation’s youth financially literate for the most part. I have seen so many kids making financially intelligent investment decisions without even knowing it.
6. In your interview with Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor, he said something along the lines of “sometimes the culture that is associated with a sneaker overshadows the aesthetic of it” while talking about the Red Octobers. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s not sometimes, that is 90% of the time. This culture thrives on stories. Like I said, the money takes over, but it starts mostly with the story. And that unites people. It started as a form of identity; friends wanted to dress the same way. It was a form of associating yourself with something that you cared about. That’s how it started. And then technology managed to monetize and communicate it better. Even if you get into it for the money, you eventually reach the culture behind it and its story. And we’ve seen it first hand.
7. What is the general demographic of Mainstreet Marketplace loyalists?
To give you a bigger picture, we sell from everyone between a 14 year old to a 55 year old. There are working women, mothers, fathers and their kids. We’ve formed a community and a lot of them are friends with each other. We’re very big on relationships.
“This culture thrives on stories. Like I said, the money takes over, but it starts mostly with the story. And that unites people. It started as a form of identity; friends wanted to dress the same way. It was a form of associating yourself with something that you cared about.”
8. How do you determine what to sell and buy? What’s the selection process like?
We don’t just buy, we also consign. And I’m open to it because sneakers are very subjective. When I look at a shoe, I can tell how it’ll perform at the marketplace and how much it’s worth in different parts of the world. So, we don’t say no to any shoe. With our money, we know what will work and what will have good returns. That is based on the demand and supply we see in the market, how much other people are selling for, how it is performing around the world, and by monitoring the market very closely. We’ve got relationships with buyers and sellers across the world and people working in different markets around the globe. Currently it’s also based on a lot of rough intuition, but we’re working on converting that to structured data analysis.
9. During the lockdown when people were shutting their physical stores and moving to e-commerce, you decided to open a store. How did that come to be?
For us, the store was never about creating sales. The store was about an extension of our brand, it was about legitimacy, and to show that this industry is big enough in India for a brick and mortar investment. It was also for people to come and feel the energy we wanted to create. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to engage with Anand Ahuja who is like a friend and a mentor to me and I was asking him about what the location of the store should be. He said, “what you’re creating here is a community. You can get a store anywhere, but it’s really hard to recreate energy. You’ve got to be there and run it for a while, and the energy is what defines the brand.” And that really sat with me. The store has performed incredibly for us, and the biggest value that it got was a physical space for the community to come together in.
10. Lastly, what does the future for Mainstreet Marketplace look like?
We’re starting a membership program in the coming month and launching our own line of products which is a range of sneaker care products. The membership program gives us predictable, recurring income which is not just to create engagement but also an opportunity to give back to the community with drops at ridiculously cheap prices every week. We’re getting a mobile app and another store in another city soon.
Interview with Shubhanjana Das