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How to start a value-based business

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A business is made up of hundreds of decisions everyday. Who to work with,what to produce, what message to put out, when to launch a certain product or service? Where do you start looking if you want to create a business that does good alongside doing well? 


How do you make decisions? Since MATTER kicked off a little over 8 months ago, a question I often get is, how did you start? In the big world of production, sourcing and distribution, being a newbie with a mission beyond profit adds on another layer of consideration that can be somewhat intimidating. I had no relevant experience in retail, production, fashion, design, or any area relevant to creating a travel wear brand around artisan production. I had a fuzzy idea of what I imagined, and a strong conviction that it could work. So where did I start? 

Start with one thing

The initial grand idea was to work with artisan production, with women focused cooperatives, and a BOGO (buy one give one) model where one pair of pants sold funded one school uniform for a child for a year. This came from a passion for education, women and children, and wanting to tie it into the cultural heritage of artisan work. The problem was tying it all together – conceptually I could not reconcile so many purposes and business processes, and even from a messaging point of view, was it about women, or children, or artisan work, or the pants themselves? Ultimately I chose to focus on artisan work, and to build impact into the supply chain itself through employment instead of the BOGO charity model. Start with one thing, and then layer on other objectives as you learn how to work your business model. 

The other thing we wanted to do was start with multiple artisan processes –embroidery lace from Sri Lanka, indigo handloom from Thailand, and so on. With the relative complexity of artisan production however, we soon found this to be over ambitious for the resources we had. In the end we focused on one technique – block printing – and are now layering on other techniques such as tie and dye ikat, and jamdani embroidery. Developing a singular brand aesthetic takes time and testing, and working with a technique that we could easily understand the process of and manipulate to a certain degree was a lower barrier to entry for us. Its easier to create your own unique selling point and design aesthetic with just one variable. 

Our last one thing – the pants only production model, was in part because wewanted to focus on innovating within the fabric and therefore relying on a production model that was simple, scalable and repetitive. The other reason was that we had identified this core product that we really believed was missing from the market and necessary; it exposed us to a certain customer segment and allowed us to get to know them better for future development of product categories. Many well-known companies start with one thing first – Ralph Lauren started with bow ties, Diane von Furstenberg, the wrap dress, and Alice + Olivia started with just pants. Being good in one thing and being known for that pays off over time. 

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Know your non-negotiables

When we first started we were idealistic, wanting to create the pants from start to finish with artisan organizations. When the first pair came back, the quality unfortunately was terrible – one pants leg would be shorter than the other, the stitching was uneven… the list goes on. We had to make a choice to let artisans focus on what they were good at (fabric construction), and use a professional unit to develop the final garment. We didn’t want to make pillowcases or just scarves and the tailoring of the pants mattered to us, and for this we had to make the choice to hybridise our production model. This was a difficult decision, made because we looked at what our non-negotiable was, and that was artisan production, and also, high quality pants as our main product. Purity is overrated – hybrid models survive and evolve, and knowing what your non-negotiables are in the beginning will help guide the myriad compromising decisions that you’ll have to make when developing your own supply chain. 

Knowing your non-negotiables essentially means knowing your own theory ofchange for your organization. What impact do you want to achieve? What business processes must be in place to achieve that impact? What quantitative metric will you use to keep you on track? For us, that metric is for now, the days of employment generated for artisans, alongside the number of designers we work with to produce it, and the cultural stories and techniques we work with over time. Our theory of change is that textile artisanship will become sustainable when more designers want to work with it, and more consumers see the value in its processes. Our work is make buying and designing an artisan product as easy and attractive as possible. 

Create frameworks for decisions

When you’re guided by purpose besides profit, there’s often no right answer for how to choose. If profit maximization were the main goal, then it would be an easy one of ensuring lowest cost with highest quality. But our goal is supply chain impact and long term production partner relationships – with that in mind, we created our own criteria for how to choose who to work with. This criteria spans four main categories – product integrity, social and environmental impact, business imperatives, and management robustness – each with criteria within it. For example, in product integrity we also look for willingness to innovate, and in management robustness we look for artisan companies that are locally founded and are family businesses. You have to decide which parameters are most important to you, guided by the impact you want to achieve as well as your available resources. Once created, these frameworks save a lot of time and energy of choosing who to work with, and keeps you aligned to your why. Boundaries make life easier. 

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Hustle the right people around you

Having a key community is fundamental to success. I have a co-founder with a separate full time job, so many times I act and feel like a solo founder. With that, one of the things that saved me in the rollercoaster first year was having a core group of people who I went to for different means. Usually, I find that these people fell into specific categories: first, the skeptical naysayer who tells you things are not possible but is invested in your success. Proving them wrong can be a great motivator. Second, an unconditional cheerleader who will pat you on the back and tell you you’re doing great because you’re your worst critic – these people will keep you going in times of doubt and worry. Third, inspirational peers who are also doing their own thing and have surmounted the same obstacles you face will provide timely advice and a sense of camaderie. Lastly, domain mentors who are industry experts and who can guide you in areas where you lack expertise. 

Timing is also important, as you’ll need different people depending on what stageof the business you’re in, and also the kind of person you are and what you need. This year for example, brand building is key, and so I’m working on building in design-driven team members who can help shape aesthetic discipline into our brand culture. 

Know what you’re selling, really

I can’t stress this one enough – knowing the value of the product you’re selling, and who you’re selling it to. It sounds like common sense and it is, but there are so many instances in social businesses where the end product is simply a byproduct of the socially impactful process the founder wants to put in place. I strongly believe that a product should stand on its own two feet first, valued and considered on its own, and its social impact is a secondary, bonus result. We started with a lot of user interviews and market research (through pants parties!) to understand first, the viability of simply selling pants online, and second, the type of pants and brand that people would want to wear. From our customer surveys now, I realize that ultimately what we’re selling is connection, not clothing. Our customers wear the pants because they want to feel connected to a larger cause, be part of a community, and know where and why their product was made. Knowing this guides all of our communications and also validates our starting hypothesis that people will make the better consumption choice when armed with the right information. Hence, we focus on provenance – where something comes from – and transparency as fundamental brand values. 

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One big thing I’ve learnt in starting my own business is that the journey is anongoing negotiation of personal values. In creating your business and nurturing it from idea to operating concept to business model, you are actively materialising something that is an extension of your being and the experiences that have brought you to today. Whether you are practical and focused on making profit from someone else’s need, or idealistic and seeking to change the status quo through transforming an existing process - whatever you create is and will be a statement of who you are, and who you are is laid bare by what you value. Start by asking what’s important to you and why, and the answers will pave the way.