Kakoli Das, Founder, “The Red River” Red River Trading Company Pvt Ltd.
“Potential in Handicrafts”
Handicrafts are often dismissed as a state owned or rural cottage industry. The latent potential has often been recognized by individuals who believed that they could make a difference with not just the product but also the people who made them. Kakoli Das in an Entrepreneur who believes that “The Red River” is not just a brilliant business idea but also a social vehicle for progress.We spoke to Kakoli Das the entrepreneur behind The Red River” and learnt more about handicrafts and the potential she sees in them.
What is "The Red River" business idea that you have begun?
"The Red River" is a mission based organization which has a simple model - bridge skills of North East to sustainable markets, through intervention of design, quality, thereby improving their lives by increasing sustainable incomes. Currently the skill sets we work with are weaving - hand loom, cane & bamboo. We work with home based producers in the North Eastern states. About 60-70% of the people in North east India depend on hand loom & handicrafts for their secondary if not primary source of earning, the primary in those cases being agriculture. But they do not get their dues because products are consumed locally and there are several layers of middle-men. The Red River works directly with the artisans and weavers and makes their products global market ready by interventions in design, quality and standardization. We work continuously to aggregate market demands to ensure increased number of days of employment for our weavers and artisans.
We use social media to create awareness about the work done by artisans and weavers, and to get engage them with the weaving and crafting process. The response has been encouraging.
Who are the primary and secondary benefiters from your services?
On the supply side, currently our producers are in the 8 states of the North East. We first want to create our impacts in the region, validate the business model and then expand.
On the demand side, we ship anywhere.
Ever since our incorporation in June, 2009 and beginning of operation in September, 2009,we have been able to scale up to support 50 weavers on a sustainable basis, and have the structure in place to engage up to 200 of them based on orders. We have been able to strike store partnerships with some domestic organized retailers (Mother Earth, Bombay Stores etc, have started our online business (eBay store http://stores.shop.ebay.in/The-Red-River and www.theredriver.in - which is undergoing some refresh) and are currently exploring export opportunities and partnerships with corporates for their conference & corporate gifting needs, and also collaboration with their CSR initiatives. Right at this moment, we are exploring more - and based on feedback and needs, we are moving towards creating an involved community – an ecosystem of sorts - of independent designers who always wanted to work on crafts based designs. We are exploring opening up our” lab” (!! Well our weavers and looms and finishing unit!!) for production of concepts of designers we partner with. We believe this will be beneficial for all – the crafts industry, the designers, and the customer will have more smart hand crafted option. I believe its all good news for everybody, and I’m excited at the possibilities.
What sets you apart from all the other “handicraft emporiums” in the market?
Commitment to quality and design. We constantly take feedback and work on products that are suitable for our customers, and their homes. Our products are hand made no doubt, but are smart, trend right and blend into contemporary homes and lifestyles, while still rooted in traditional techniques.
We are committed to our weavers and artisans – it reflects in our designs and in our culture.“We continuously work on ensuring our weavers and artisans get paid “fairly”. We use published research and tools to determine fair wages, and to design products that help us pay fair wages, while staying competitive in the market..
What made you choose entrepreneurship over a corporate career?
I had nurtured the dream of “creating”/”building” something on my own for as long as I remember. I was very clear that I will get happiness/fulfillment only when I follow this calling to build/create something on my own. Also, I was very clear about working in the developmental sector and in crafts – so, everything fell in place with “The Red River”
Perhaps it would be good to add that I’m very restless – I have several brain waves at one go(!) and I’m restless till the time I’m able to implement them. The corporate sector didn’t give me the opportunities to implement those ideas, and I felt limited in scope in the corporate set up. However, I value my experience at Target and the organization has influenced me in many ways – the way I think in terms of brand creation, right customer experience in the retail scenario and most importantly, sensitivity towards people – at work, and in the community.
What do you feel is a strategic move that you need to perform consistently?
The ability to look at the business analytically, objectively and to consistently look at opportunities in context of whats happening around and, the changing trends. To be able to discipline self in doing the above consistently, effective delegation is the next thing that’s required. Its important to separate myself from the addictive process of creation[ creation of the product], and focus on building the business.
What is the most important lesson that you have learnt about the handicraft business?
Started a weaving studio in Bangalore with the assumption that weaving skill remains same across geographies. The intention was to do design development in Bangalore. We chose Bangalore because of the proximity to target market which we thought would help our design process. The assumption that the weaving skills were same was a big mistake. The decision cost us a lot in terms of money and time. We struggled for 4 months to make it work, and the mistake was very expensive in terms of opportunities lost, time lost and money lost.
Has your venture found any recognition from industry experts?
Yes. I was invited as a speaker by RTBI of IIT-M for their conference, “Opportunities in Rural Business and Sustainability” held in the month of March, 2009
What factors should an Indian entrepreneur watch out for?
The challenge of acceptance is one the most critical ones. There are many other challenges – funding, finding customers etc, but the emotional, mental toll of the challenge of acceptance is so much that a lot of energy is wasted in earning credibility. Till very recent times, I had been written off. The fact that I had quit my stable career in an organization admired by many to work with people who have never been a part of formal education system, and that too in remote rural areas was almost a social stigma. But the support of family and encouragement of friends helped me overlook it and focus on the crux of the matter.
Its not to say that I’ve not had other challenges – funding, market acquisition. Banks, institutes in India are not friendly to young organizations like ours. Managing working capital is very, very difficult and time consuming. Documentation required to apply often disqualifies our very chances of applying! I am continuously finding it difficult to find resources for order fulfillment. If an entrepreneur has been able to demonstrate ability to create business by order acquisition, there should be some help available in the ecosystem by which the second part of the equation – order fulfillment – is possible. Every enterprise with some potential needs some runway – some seed capital. I’ve not found any I could approach to fund an enterprise like ours and at the stage that we are in. Yes, an entrepreneur should be resourceful enough to manage funds, but it would have been easier to focus on the core business if access to money was a little less difficult. I wish securing funds was less difficult for an Indian entrepreneur.
So, an entrepreneur in India should plan ventures being aware of the fact that securing funds is not easy. And that there will be several factors to discourage you and tire you mentally and emotionally – so being objective about what one wants to achieve, and staying focused is essential.
What keeps you going on your entrepreneurial journey?
First of all, I enjoy the ride. It was a conscious decision to do what I’m doing. The aspiration to be able to bring in positive changes to the families of the weavers and artisans is a big motivating factor. I believe in the journey, and I’ve closely followed entrepreneurs and organizations which have validated that there is a huge opportunity in the sector of crafts, design, and things hand made – the internet has only magnified the potential. Examples of Rob Kalin of Etsy, and well of course Anita Roddick of The Body Shop constantly remind me I’m thinking right, heading in the right direction. The fact that The Red River is a combination of all values I personally admire – creativity, the culture of community, impacting the world around us positively – and has a potential to contribute to “inclusive growth” is in many ways actualization of my life goals – that is reason enough to keep walking, or rather running!!And my immediate family and circle of friends have taught me what to ignore, and what to take to heart to realize my goals – yes, I’m lucky.
What should an entrepreneur do in order to understand the market?
Start backwards from the market needs. It requires time and effort to “create” a new market need. It’s ok if one chooses to create a market need, and create a product accordingly. But for the rest, active involvement with the market is necessary; feedback loop with the market should be strong. Even to sustain creating social good, money is critical – so work towards a strong cash flow. And of course, do what you love, know what you love doing – no one will tell you the next thing to do, so you got to really enjoy what you are doing.
Yourstory wishes Kakoli Das and “The Red River” success with realizing the immense potential in Indian Handicrafts.