A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Hemu Ramaiah, the founder of the Landmark Bookstore Chain, about her entrepreneurial journey with Landmark. This was part of the Entrevista series of Entrepreneur Podcasts by Venture Intelligence. The interview seemed almost like a history of the last 30 years of bookselling in India. Download / listen to the interview (77 minutes, 35 MB, mp3).
During the conversation, Hemu Ramaiah talks at length about
- how the idea for Landmark came to her sometime in her 5th year of her eight a half year term as the manager of a chain of hotel bookstores in Chennai and was developed (all in her head) over a 2-3 year period before launch.
- her thinking in breaking away from a 250 square feet hotel bookstore format to the first Landmark store which was a 5,000 square feet sprawling store
- her belief in computerised inventory and billing from day one and how she went about the process of developing the software.
- dealing with a supplier (IBD, the book distribution house) who turned competitor by setting up Fountainhead, a bookstore in Chennai and began to short change Landmark by offering preferential pricing and supplies to Fountainhead compared to Landmark. This is was the spark for her to backward integrate into book distribution by setting up Westland.
- her struggles with foreign publishers who refused to deal with a small player like Westland, how she persuaded, one of them (Random House) to help her out. This required her to take one of the biggest decisions of her life overnight at New York - deciding to supply books to all her competitors, thereby growing the book market in India and her business as well, without worrying about the growth of her competitors.
- how she took a huge gamble during the foreign exchange crisis in 1991 and turned what was seen by everyone in the book retail trade as a showstopper into an opportunity and ended up building the Landmark brand across India and growing sales by leaps and bounds.
- the experience of expanding the Landmark brand through franchising (in Coimbatore) and a joint venture (in Calcutta) - which didn't work out well
- the thinking in setting up the second Landmark store at Spencer Plaza in Chennai and how she went about negotiating the lease, doing up the store and ended up buying the place.
- her bad experience with a private equity investor, why she became dead set against private equity investors and ended up looking only for a strategic investor
- her thinking on when to sell out - which was led by more by timing rather than how much she would make by selling her stake.
- how she got completely new readers into the store and turned them into regular customers. When she learns that her daughter’s schoolmate has never visited a bookshop in her life, she decides to turn the problem (of parents not exposing their children to books), by “taking the bookstore to the school”. Listen to this bit which is not part of the main podcast.
- her views on the future of online retailing versus physical retailing - physical book retailing has been taken over by accountants
- balancing home and work, and,
- opportunities for entrepreneurs today.