Weaving Worldwide Connections
Weavesmart helps weavers and artisans sell their handloom products directly to customers around the world through its website.
Nishita Manne is a qualified chartered accountant, but she always knew she would do well as an entrepreneur. In 2015, she co-founded Weavesmart, an online aggregator platform for weavers and artisans to make handloom products like sarees and accessories available to customers around the world. Unlike other online stores selling handloom products, Weavesmart ensures that the very people who make the products are at the forefront of the sales process. The makers display and sell their wares through the Weavesmart website (www.weavesmart.com), setting the prices for their products themselves. It has been one of the highest-selling handloom e-commerce websites for the last two years.
Starting with just one handloom cluster, the company now works in 10 clusters in five states, and more than 25,000 different handloom products are advertised on the website. Each cluster has a group of weavers working on one kind of weave; for example, Pochampally handloom.
Weavesmart is the e-marketing partner for the Government of India’s Ministry of Textiles for promoting India Handloom Brand and handloom products. Manne, who also participated in the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), organized by the governments of the United States and India in Hyderabad, says such meets are a great opportunity for networking, expanding the site, as well as getting business insights.
Manne realized at the initial stage of her foray into the world of textiles that while artisans knew the craft and had the expertise to make world-class products, they lacked marketing skills. Also, they had no one to turn to for advice. “It’s hard for them to move from the traditional channels of displaying and selling their work,” she says. “That’s where I thought I could help.”
Manne wanted her project to have a social angle as well. “I could see that people love handlooms, and hand-woven and handmade products,” she says. “But a lack of time makes them shop online, and they don’t always get the best deals. Besides, weavers, too, need to get the best deals for their products.”
Weavesmart does not work on an inventory model. Each weaver who displays his or her products on the website is visited either by Manne or her trained staff members, who check the items and help put them online. “We provide an alternative selling platform,” explains Manne. “The weavers put their products online. We only provide support.”
The products remain with the weavers. When an order is placed through the website, they send the products directly to the customers. Weavesmart charges weavers a small margin to recover its expenses. In the process, it eliminates middlemen and helps artisans make a rightful profit; often, 40 percent more. Since the products are produced in small batches and remain with the makers, few items on the website are ever repeated.
“Each product is unique,” says Manne. “We sell only what the weaver has at that point.” There are many weavers on the website and a similar product might be priced differently because each maker sets the price for his or her product.
Weavers registered with Weavesmart are free to sell their products outside the portal as well. This makes Manne’s work complex. “We need to constantly check if the product advertised is still available with the weaver,” she says. “The inventory model is an easier one to work with since it’s a one-time investment. You buy the product in bulk and store it.”
Getting weavers accustomed to the idea of selling their products online under their own name is another challenge. “The weavers are extremely skilled, but they are mostly uneducated and the industry is very unorganized,” says Manne. “Explaining how the website and customer support work is extremely labor-intensive.” For instance, Weavesmart teaches the craftspeople how to take photos of their products to be uploaded on the website, and how to keep track of the products, when they are done and ready to be shipped.
Future plans involve expanding Weavesmart’s product range and ensuring wider reach, among weavers as well as customers. Running this business involves a lot of travel, but Manne enjoys it. “Women are a natural part of the ecosystem of weaving,” she says. “Being a woman has no particular advantage in business, in general. But in this particular field, I think, our critical eye for and sense of fashion are a great help.”
Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.