When Gourav Jaswal, founder of Goa-based incubator Prototyze, started work on a plan for a fitness startup, he knew he needed a co-founder and brand ambassador who embodied the product. His friend Gul Panag — known largely as an actor and social activist until she turned entrepreneur — seemed the perfect fit.
“She comes with fitness credentials. She also represents an intellectual and ethical position in society, which is important to us,” says Jaswal, who started MobieFit in 2015 with Panag. The actor is the personal running coach on the startup’s app, demonstrating stretches and dispensing running and diet tips.
Celebrities no longer just endorse products or brands, they’re jumping right into the business, making angel investments or taking sweat equity. Most work with professionals, relying on the latter’s business acumen and experience to make a go of it.
India cricket captain — and the country’s most valuable celebrity brand with endorsements worth $144 million — Virat Kohli launched his clothing line WROGN with online celebrity fashion business Universal Sportsbiz (USPL), which also owns Collectabillia and Imara, a few years ago. USPL, founded in 2012, is backed by cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar and recently raised Rs 100 crore from Accel Partners. Though stars in India often rise to the status of demigods, they haven’t fully exploited their brand value, feel experts. Globally, even celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who don’t have the fan following of many Indian stars, have gone on to build hugely successful celebrity fashion lines.
It’s this gap that people like K Ganesh, serial entrepreneur and partner at Growth-Story, plan to exploit. He’s set to have his celebrity e-commerce business up and running in six months though he’s not ready to share details. He’s convinced that customers are no longer swayed by traditional advertising. “Millennials are looking for a cause, a community and a narrative. They are happy with micro brands that address a specific cause or need, such as cruelty-free products. They research and buy online, relying on influencers,” he says.
While the younger crop of stars tends to establish their own brands and work with startups, older celebrities seem to prefer investing. Actor Suniel Shetty has invested in men’s grooming startup Beardo (in which Marico took a 45% stake last year), while his contemporary Madhuri Dixit has a stake in fitness tech startup GOQii.
Cricketer Yuvraj Singh set up YouWeCan Ventures and has invested in startups like Healthians, EduKart and Startup Buddy.
Anirban Das Blah, founder of celebrity management firm Kwan Entertainment, says celebs have realised the need to plan for the future and build a business that continues beyond their acting or sporting careers. Kwan has tied up with marketing firm Dream Theatre to start Mojostar, a company that promotes celebrity brand merchandising. The firm recently finalised deals with actors Jacqueline Fernandez and Tiger Shroff. “Today’s celebs are more careful with their investments. They look at this as a true business opportunity and put in the time and effort required to build the company,” says Blah.
Actor Hrithik Roshan, whose HRX line of clothing and accessories retails on Myntra, is one of the celebs who is deeply involved in the startups he is associated with. Roshan’s HRX has inked a deal with fitness startup Curefit, co-founded by former Flipkart executive Ankit Nagori and Myntra founder Mukesh Bansal, and has stake in the company.
Nagori says Roshan has been involved in every move the startup has made, and designed the HRX workout offered at the startup’s gyms. “We have co-created the format with Hrithik, who is a benchmark in fitness and health. With his backing, the format gets more credibility,” he explains. Roshan does a Facebook live session with gym-goers every month.
Tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi teamed up with Hemchandra Javeri, former Nike country head, to start sports apparel brand Zeven in 2016. Javeri says it was Bhupathi’s idea to create an affordable sportswear brand in India. “Mahesh is actively involved. Being a sportsperson, he understands what’s needed and gives feedback,” says Javeri. The co-founders have invested Rs 50 crore in the company.
Much of Zeven’s brand-building and deals came through Bhupathi’s network, Javeri says. Zeven is the kit partner for IPL team Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). Ravindra Jadeja and Rohan Bopanna are among the sportspersons endorsing the brand, which has sold products worth close to Rs 2 lakh. The company recently acquired rights for International Cricket Council (ICC) merchandise in 23 markets, including India.
Being associated with a celebrity can bring risks too, says Aviral Jain, director at consultancy Duff & Phelps India. “The product is correlated to fame. Negative publicity for the celeb can impact the brand, instances of which we have seen in the global market,” he says. When news of Tiger Woods’ infidelity got out, it reportedly led to a $12 billion loss in the market value of his sponsors in 10 trading days. In 2016, Snapdeal dropped actor Aamir Khan as brand ambassador following the actor’s comments on intolerance raising a storm.
Not every star’s success in the real world has translated into good business. Cricketer Robin Uthappa launched an early-stage venture capital firm Caffeine Ventures in 2015, and invested in iTiffin, a food-tech startup, which soon shut shop. A person connected with the venture who did not wish to be named said the fund has halted operations. “Uthappa was passionate about a few ideas but his fund didn’t have a great experience with investments,” the source says.
Tapan Kumar Das, founder of iTiffin who now runs a consulting firm, says having a celebrity investor helped but a big name doesn’t guarantee success. “When a celebrity is part of the ecosystem, the recall value of the brand is high. We were quite small so having him back us helped,” says Das, who shut iTiffin due to lack of funds.
Industry observers say celebs are yet to make large bets on startups. “They prefer a royalty-based model. Sometimes, there is ownership at the brand level but they refrain from investing capital. Their preferred route is low-risk with mid-sized rewards,” says Blah of Kwan Entertainment.