Pop Quiz, Monday with Roshni Govindaraj

Roshni Govindaraj

The Pop Quiz, Monday is a fun little exam that we love to give to savvy business owners. The examination is not a surprise after all since the interviewee already knew about the questions in advance. However, we can always pretend and have fun with the scenario of a young entrepreneur sitting in class nervously biting on their pencil. They are ready to take a pop quiz on a chapter that they were supposed to read the night before. Instead, they played Metroid all night on their SNES (Oops, this was me in high school). The real purpose of the pop quiz is that this is a fun way to introduce business tips from real-world experiences that you can not learn in a classroom. We want to thank our entrepreneur for being a good sport and volunteering their time to answer a few questions to help our community grow from their knowledge.

I want to introduce you to our guest today who will be taking our Pop Quiz Monday.

Can you please tell everyone your name?
Roshni Govindaraj

Roshni Govindaraj
Photo credit: Roshni Govindaraj

What is your job role?
Founder & Designer

Tell us about your company?
At Issara we create minimalist, luxury leather goods that are fairly priced and ethically made. Our pieces can be personalised with your initials and embedded with a bluetooth tracker for peace of mind when traveling.

What do you love most about your job?
Seeing my sketches come to life, receiving glowing emails from delighted customers and getting to work with passionate and talented craftspeople. I’m surrounded by art and noise (hammering, stitching, etc) all day long and it is just perfect.

What motivates you to get up every day and go to work?
Knowing that we are overturning an industry of mass production and planned obsolescence while bringing our skilled artisans’ work to the world stage. We believe that happy people make quality products, and commerce can result in significant positive impact for communities. Issara is living proof of that.

How do your co-workers inspire you?
They are incredibly skilled and committed to their craft. Each Issara piece is hand drafted, cut, sewn and burnished by artisans with decades of experience. Witnessing the delicate care and attention to detail put into each product is incredibly inspiring.

How do you have fun at work (team building, pranks, etc..)?
We’re all huge chai drinkers – consuming 4-6 small cups a day. The time taken to enjoy a cup of sweet, spiced tea is cherished each day. Having grown up in Australia, I love hearing the diversity of India in our little workshop. Each of us are from a different state or country (we represent Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Nepal and Australia at current count) and hearing the artisans riling each other up throughout the day in their own languages is fantastic.

What are some of the challenges of your job?
Each piece is handcrafted to order, which comes with challenges of producing on a small scale, ensuring we have the correct amount of raw materials on hand and dealing with logistics (customs in some countries is a nightmare). We also have the occasional difficult customer, but 99% of them are amazing and love our product and values.

What are some lessons learned from a past project that you can share with us?

  1. Mentors – go find people with skills that you lack. Organise a coffee or Skype chat and school yourself. This has saved me so many times. I’ve got some fantastic mentors (from c-suite at McDonalds, Zalora, World Vision, Shoes of Prey) and most of them I either met at conferences or I’ve cold-emailed via LinkedIn with a personalised, genuine message. Most of these people, despite being very busy want to give back and help the newbie. You just need to ask for what you want and be respectful of their time (i.e. have questions ready, take notes during meetings, be authentic). If any of my lovely mentors are reading this – thank you so so much for giving your time and advice generously. I promise to pass it on to anyone who approaches me.
  2. Business in Asia – is entirely different from doing business in the west. I thought that because I had worked in Indonesia and have Indian heritage that I would have no cultural issues. Not true. Indonesia, in particular, Java, was a challenge as messaging is nuanced and subliminal. What is said is not necessarily what people mean, and you really need to read between the lines. Also, personal relationships are crucial. Take the time to ask them about their family, their kids. It’s not a matter of fly in, sign contract, fly out. You need to spend time with them and show that you respect the culture and traditions (e.g. pay attention to dress codes, read up on local culture and customs). Be understanding when things go wrong ( things always go wrong). Saving face is a fundamental concept in Asia. When things go wrong, getting visibly upset/emotional won’t help and enforcing accountability won’t work. You need to remain calm, get your best poker face on and deploy the criticism sandwich. For example, when I received orders that were 80% wrong (wrong colour, dimensions, type of leather used), instead of flipping out (tried this, didn’t work), I had to point out the good things first and then gently suggest the changes to be made.
  3. Things take 3x longer than expected – plan accordingly then just go with the flow. Follow up frequently and in writing (while still being respectful and not too annoying). Also, remember that just because you work every day, doesn’t mean your partners do – Sundays are family days so save the messages for week days.
  4. Have a bias toward action – Apply Pareto’s law to pretty much everything, i.e. 80% of gains come from 20% of the effort. The remainder will work out through sheer will and hard work. I’m my own worst critic, and it’s in my nature to perfect everything. This won’t serve you in a fast-paced environment where a bias toward action is key. It’s a constant battle to push things out before they’re “perfect”. You’re never going to be “ready,” and if you feel that you are, it’s likely you are too late to the game.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting in your industry?
Few things are irreversible. Just go for it – do your research, seek mentoring, and get plugged into the startup scene. But ultimately, just start. If it doesn’t work, you’ve learnt a lot, and can always go back to your “safe” option.

Thank you for taking our pop quiz today. You get an A+ for effort. You can learn more about our interviewee and their business by visiting them on the web:


Author: Ricky Singh, MBA

Editor of The Startup Growth.

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