06/10/2011

By Hatty Stafford Charles, AngelNews

Life as a management consultant for firms like Deloittes, SAP and UBS was all very well for Mitesh Soma, but by 2007 a yearning to set up his own company turned into a conviction when, on a visit to his wife Krishna’s independent Pharmacy shop in Westmister, he realised that the mark-up in the High Street chemist provided an opportunity too good to be missed. His extensive experience of big system implementation and his degree in Business Computer Science were the jumping-off point to build a team able to implement Mitesh’s vision.

An ability to offer “better value to a wider audience” was the key to the idea. Amazon and Google were paving the way during Mitesh’s university years and, since then online retail had grown hugely, so that by 2008, when ChemistDirect was set up, consumers’ experience of online shopping was well established. “The web gives the opportunity for a small idea to get massive. It’s a vehicle to get to a huge amount of people, without enormous cost,” Mitesh explains. This philosophy was to drive everything he has done to date.

Although Mitesh had considerable experience in computing, his first step was to build a good team to make his vision a reality. He had saved some money and, in the early days, his and Krishna’s salaries along with those savings comprised the initial investment. As the project grew, Krishna sold her Westminster Pharmacy, providing a further injection of capital. Word of mouth and online marketing delivered customers from day one and Mitesh’s determination to offer a genuinely wide range of products ensured that customers were not disappointed upon visiting the website. The pharmacy side — highly regulated for obvious reasons — was dealt with by Krishna and ChemistDirect works closely with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and other regulatory bodies to ensure an appropriate degree of compliance.

In 2009, Mitesh met with Atomico, the VC firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström which specialises in technology investments. Atomico was impressed with the ChemistDirect model and Mitesh’s achievements so far — the company was already turning over “a few” million pounds — and his clear idea of where to go next. Atomico’s £3m investment allowed Mitesh to strengthen the team and further develop the product offering, and thus grow the business. He found the entrepreneurial experience on the Atomico team he worked with to be a great asset. Mitesh had not actively been seeking investment, but the experience and support he gained was as useful as the money — if not more so.

ChemistDirect continues to grow, it is the UK’s number one online pharmacy and the team and range is constantly increasing. Turnover is now ”double digit” millions of pounds. Boots and other High Street pharmacists are playing catch-up but Mitesh believes that the ChemistDirect mantra of “great service, great value and great product range” keeps him ahead of the game and the lesson seems to be that it can be more effective to create a concept than try to replicate it from a High Street tradition. Certainly he feels no fear of his rivals; his ambition is for “everyone in the country to know ChemistDirect and be using it”.

Mitesh launched a Pet division eighteen months ago. Anyone who has ever visited a Vet will know how expensive even simple products for fleas and worms can be, as well as specialist food and general treatment products. This is surely an area with huge potential to offer savings, although it was Mitesh’s Royal Mail Account Manager who gave him the idea when he asked if pet treatments were available. Mitesh realised at once that this was worth looking at, not least so that he could offer products “for your whole family” on one website.

Another innovation last year was an online Doctor able to deal with STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and travel requirements such as anti-malaria treatment. The online Doctor also covers hair loss, smoking cessation, impotence and contraception; all areas in which consumers will feel less embarrassed in an anonymous, online context. Tests, where appropriate, can be sent directly to the lab by the customer and the online Doctor then prescribes as appropriate. Mitesh is now looking at a “Facebook Pharmacist” where customers can ask questions and get answers on one of the largest social media websites in the world.

Growth continues to be at the front of Mitesh’s strategy and he uses established methods to capture the impulse buyer so well-beloved in the High Street. Familiar strategies such as ‘customers who bought this also bought...’ and last minute buys at the checkout fills the virtual shopping basket and the reinforcement of the value he is offering is on every product with a ‘you save...%’ sticker and comparative prices, taking the customer to the checkout well laden with extra items. As people use the site more often, they buy more and more products and, thus, growth is by no means exclusively from new customers.

Mitesh has had no difficulty in persuading the mega-brands to sell through his website and is also aware that an online shop is an excellent place to launch and promote new products so is working with suppliers on developing this strand of the business. As he says, “brands don’t have that relationship with consumers and we can provide that missing link for them.” As a general rule, he feels that part of the innovation is in offering more and more products and services online. The timing is perfect for internet shopping as it becomes increasingly routine in the vast majority of households and as people have more ways to shop with smartphones and other devices. Value during a recession also cannot be understated as a growth factor for ChemistDirect and similar websites.

Mitesh is firmly of the view that there is still plenty of room to develop his business, both in range and customer service. Healthcare is a huge industry and, as he has already demonstrated, there appear to be no limits to what can be offered online. His view of the future goes further, though, not least with “more of a push towards consumer-led demand” as opposed to the limits on customers of what a shop chooses to stock. If ChemistDirect customers want a product, then ChemistDirect will try to find it and stock it. The ability to keep products in a warehouse, rather than stocking thousands of individual shops, gives websites like ChemistDirect considerable flexibility in response to consumer demand and they can gauge that demand exactly through the reviews and comments they get on the website.

The growth of ChemistDirect has not been entirely smooth, although Mitesh’s enthusiasm for growing and developing the company appear undiminished. His most pressing problems have been the inevitable “operational headaches” and team building and recruitment have been, at times, “a challenge”, but he believes that, as an entrepreneur, you just have to see beyond the immediate problems and keep your eye on the main goal. Working with his wife Krishna has also been an interesting experience and they are careful to keep to their roles within the business (she is Superintendent Pharmacist) and try to avoid talking about work at home, though not always successfully.

Ultimately, Mitesh is in no doubt that he made the right decision to leave the corporate world and establish his own company.

“It’s nice to see the service that I’ve launched working, people using it and giving positive feedback and that really spurs you on.” He ends by saying, “you can have an idea and you can implement it and make it happen and that’s really satisfying, whereas in corporate life you may have ideas but there is too much red tape and bureaucracy and you are not really in control.” He has certainly made the right decision — the interesting part will be to see just how far it goes.

To find out more about Chemist Direct, visit www.chemistdirect.co.uk

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