Varun and Rohn started out with a simple dream. But when it turned true, Alma Mater grew really big, they tell Catherine Rhea Roy
I remember thinking that school was the worst thing to happen to me after my shellfish allergy. The wiser (read older) people said: “Those were the best days of my life.” Actually that was Bryan Adams, but the point being now I am wiser (read older) and those were in fact some of the best days of my life. And I shamelessly cling onto my alma mater in petty my school-your-school arguments, which one had a bigger playground, better uniform, won more trophies.
Lately, I have been wearing it on my sleeve, my car, my cup and anything else Alma Mater will allow me to show off with. Alma Mater was set up by Varun Agarwal and Rohn Malhotra. Initially all they wanted was a sweatshirt with their school's name on it and a job that would allow them to sleep till 11.30 a.m.“Rohn and I met after he had completed his GMAT and I bounced this idea off him. Both of us were working at the time. The thing with Rohn is that I knew that if he was interested he would not just sit back on it, he would definitely do something about it,” says Varun Agarwal, co-founder of Alma Mater.
So literally ‘hungover' on high school, the two spent the next week making phone calls, travelling to Tirupur and getting their act together. Rohn Malhotra, also co-founder of Alma Mater continues, “We were always clear about what we wanted and the numbers didn't matter to us. A week later we had our samples and exhibited it at our school reunion and from then on our initial investment paid for everything that followed.”
Since that first shirt they made in November 2009, the company has expanded from schools to now include any institution that wants memorabilia to help them remember the good ol' days and this is across the country, and not confined just to the city.
“It was Rohn came up with the name. We kept throwing names around and he said we need to find something like Alma Mater. We had decided to call ourselves Backbenchers Inc. and were on our way to getting the cards printed and in the final moment decided to call ourselves Alma Mater. The name is simple, and easily relates to everyone,” explains Varun.
A month after they made their first sweatshirt, the boys went national with an order from a Chennai-based school, “Even now we aren't really big, we still have a long way to go. Our growth has been quite consistent, but it is too early to say we have made it and sit back now. But coming on ‘Young Turks' was a really big deal for us, a shoot and being aired on television – it sort of became official after that,” says Rohn, who handles the operations and the numbers.
The boys always had their core products in mind, mugs, stickers, hoodies and tees, “But it is the hoodies and tees that are still the most popular. The market for our products is out there, people love the varsity look and there was nothing available. We just took an idea that has potential but no product and built it up from there,” explains Varun.
Alma Mater first made its presence felt on the internet and social media networks, “It was our marketing strategy,” explains Varun, who handles marketing and the responsibility of putting the company out there, “We are just two regular guys and that's the message we needed people to get. Even our promotional pictures are of regular people and that is what helps people relate to our brand instantly, the familiarity of it all.” In an effort to drive home the point of accessibility Varun authors the notes that he puts up on the Alma Mater Facebook page.
The two schooled together and have been similarly influenced by popular culture and share a common creative subtext. “It was obvious; something just had to work out. We do have our creative differences, but that works really well for us, our conflict helps clarify our thought and some of our best ideas are born this way. Besides, our strengths are different and our contributions are focussed in different areas,” explains Rohn, before he continues in a mock matter of fact manner, “And if we ever do have a fall out as big as the one over Facebook, both of us make enough money,” and Varun agrees.