In Conversation with Tarun Sharma, co-founder, MCaffeine
It’s a made-in-India brand that aims to go global. It’s a personal care product that is infused with an all-natural coffee oil that promises to make you glow. And it’s a brand that comes with a strong message of accepting yourself as you are.
We are talking about MCaffeine, a company that sells hair care and skincare products that are infused with caffeine which is carving its own niche space. This is no mean task in India’s $49 billion FMCG space, half of which accounts for the personal care business.  
MCaffeine, founded by Tarun Sharma and Vikas Lachhwani, has raised $300k from ace investors including Kaushal Agarwal, MD of Avendus Capital, Harminder Sahani, MD of Wazir Advisors, KK Mehra, Ex-CTO of Capillary Technologies, Pranay Jivrajka, COO at Ola Cabs and Amit Raj & Anshul Gupta, co-founders at Box8.
So what makes this brand an investor’s bet and a changemaker? We caught up with 28-year-old Tarun Sharma, founder, and CEO of MCaffeine to find out.
OF: What inspired you to set up MCaffeine?
TS: Both, Vikas and I, had a theory about the FMCG space. We realized commercial products in the personal care space were seen through a lens that was very clinical in nature. It was more about anti-dandruff, anti-hair loss, and so on. Today, a single individual can have multiple lifestyles all at once. We found that nobody is really catering to the needs of such a person. Twenty years earlier, we all watched top Bollywood stars endorsing a shampoo brand and we bought it. But now, it’s not only about buying products which are endorsed by celebrities.
It’s about making decisions based on my choice and my personality. You could be Superman, I could be Batman. Our choices would be very different and we both need to be catered to.
That’s when Vikas and I understood that we had to look at the personal care space through a different lens.
OF: And that’s when MCaffeine happened?
TS: Yes, by chance. I met with an accident and had a sore eye. In India, everybody is a doctor (laughs).
Somebody suggested that I put a brewed but lukewarm green tea bag on my eyes to reduce the puffiness. To my surprise, the puffiness actually went away. I did a bit of research and found out that the caffeine in the green tea had an amazing effect on my swollen eye.
We thought why not start doing R&D on caffeine to find out its benefits for personal care. And what we found was amazing – caffeine is truly a superfood for hair care. It penetrates into hair follicles and makes the hair strong and lustrous. Also, most men experience hair loss due to a hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) which damages hair follicles. But when our hair is treated with caffeine, it stimulates the follicles. This can help prevent baldness and hair loss. We knew we had hit something big with caffeine.
OF: So is it all just about the caffeine?
TS: If you follow cricket, you know it’s all about partnership. You can have Sachin Tendulkar but you need a great team too. While caffeine is the star ingredient, our products have several anchor ingredients that have benefits to the skin like hibiscus, Shea butter, calendula, and sea ferns extract.
OF: The FMCG space in India is filled with big players. Did you not have fears when you took the plunge to become an entrepreneur?
TS: Everybody said you need to have deep pockets to be in the FMCG space, maybe have 10 crore rupees. But in the era of the internet and 4G, launching a brand has been easy. Carving out innovations and disrupting the way things are done in this sector are the two important things that give us (small players) a right to exist along with the big boys of FMCG. We are riding the internet wave and using data as a core tool for decision-making. Right now, we are present on approximately 34 online channels in India and we plan to sell internationally too.
My personal motto is that you need to be excited and scared at the same time when you want to pursue something. I believe that excitement keeps you on your toes and fear helps you to keep moving forward.
OF: What kind of audience are you reaching out to, through the internet?
TS: Our target audience is people between 20 to 30 years of age, who are achievers, who travel a lot and are active in all areas of life.
You have to selectively choose your audience. We decided to focus on selling one product to the customer, instead of trying to sell them all our products. Our focus is more on mapping the customers who have a higher intent of buying differentiating products.
OF: What kind of customer feedback do you get and how does it help you?
TS: What worked for us is we decided to stay freakishly close to the customers. Each and every customer who calls on our helpline talks to the founder directly. I remember when customers called to say that we needed to launch a sunscreen. That’s when we realized we needed to offer more than shower gels. Or the time when we offered two shampoos but no conditioners. Customers called saying we love your shampoo but we always buy a shampoo and conditioner together.
Almost 70% of our work is done because our customers tell us what they want next – it is what drives our product line.
One of our success stories is our Neem Caffeine Facewash. We stocked 10x the product anticipating customer response. But we were surprised because the demand was way more than that. Word-of-mouth is what drives a majority of our sales.
OF: What is the MCaffeine team like?
TS: We are a lean team of 6 people who work like we are a 12-member team! I believe that you have to have, what I call, “hopeless optimism” for the brand and an achiever’s mindset. It’s stored in the DNA of the MCaffeine team.
OF: Was it tough to pitch a wellness product based on a unique ingredient to investors?
TS: We were very clear that we wanted investors who wanted to be with us for a longer term of 20 years; not just 5-6 years. And we are lucky that our current investors are in for the long haul and have guided us to build a global brand.
Our pitch was simple – we wanted to build an iconic brand in India which could travel all over the world.
OF: As a changemaker, how does your business attempt to change the world?
TS: There is a lot of insecurity that is being promoted in the personal care world. We have promised ourselves not to ride on this phenomenon. We will never promote insecurities and will never make fairness creams. We want people to choose confidence over color.
In a world which is offering fairness creams and skin-whitening products, we want to promote confidence in skin care. Our campaign is “Burn the shade card” where we are teaching the people to be comfortable in their own skin and choose confidence over color. We aim to educate 25 million people in the next one year.