“There has been no greater marketer than the loin cloth weaver who said, ‘Oh no, we are naked!” goes the caption on one of the posts on Small Town’s Facebook page, the only medium the startup uses to parlay with buyers and patrons. “We read it on the net and found it so satirically and philosophically deep. Just like Calvin and Hobbes. So we shared it on our wall. It’s meaningful for every sector,” shares Neha Prakash, one of the three cofounders of the charming handloom startup Small Town. It is especially meaningful for them, given that Small Town is wholly dependent on indigenous weavers and artisans from around the country.
The completely self-funded Small Town describes itself as ‘A team of ideas, creating seasons on handloom, painting surfaces that nature has abandoned and writing for the like-minded. The weavers/artisans of Bihar, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and us - that's our entire team. You will see us creating happiness on handloom, clothing, interiors, paintings, graphics, logos, pebbles, writings, art, and advertising (ah! that's where we come from).” If you demanded a strict definition then Small Town can be labelled a fashion brand. But their distaste of mainstream commercial fashion, that is more about stylized aesthetics than actual style, is evident. “The wannabes unfortunately have become more popular then the believers,” writes Neha on another Facebook post, reflecting this sentiment.
Giving up to starting up
The tiny Small Town team is composed of three highly motivated individuals who gave up terrific careers to pursue a passion they felt strongly, but knew little about. Neha Prakash and Biswajit Das were the creative directors of premier ad agency Leo Burnett. Manjeet Singh was the director of Helpage India. “I quit my job as a creative director at Leo Burnett last year in February to search for sanity, leave behind the world of business-class travel and important designations to work with handlooms,” Neha said in an earlier interview where she also emphasized that the team’s knowledge of textiles, handlooms and weaves was non-existent. “We inherited the love for textiles from our mother’s Godrej Almirahs. We travelled and lived in weavers’ villages for almost a year to learn the craft,” she explains. “All three of us are hard core creative people. But right now, we all do everything – right from the clerical job to being the creative directors,” she says.
“But,” she continues, “Having come from advertising, we were clear from the beginning that we will be an ideas company and not just a textile brand. For example, we are still negotiating the turning around a weavers’ / artisans’ village with a stunning interpretation of their ancient craft. Every kilometre of the village will be worth a photograph and, of course, a memory. When tourists will start visiting an artisans’ village which has been turned into a heritage destination, there’s no looking back for them. Making good hotel alone cannot do this job. There are a lot of our ideas which are at the gaping mouth of a pipeline. Let’s see when they see the sunshine.”
Small Town is thus named because all three team members hail from small towns in India. “And because when we started with our coveted hand loom, it was in the smallest of the towns and villages of Bengal, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh,” she twinkles.
In the two years that Small Town has been in operation, the startup has witnessed a steady rise in client base and appreciation has flown in from all quarters. But their way of doing business has not changed. Instead of displaying their wares on a website, like most e-commerce companies, they remain adamantly devoted to their Facebook page. “We work with freedom in our hearts. We don’t follow trends or fashion in our hand loom or our art. So far, we use social networking platforms to chat with the like-minded. That’s our shop. That’s our big, airy French window to the world,” says Neha.
“The simple reason for not having our website is paucity of time. One of us at Small Town is still with a full time job. We have limited hands. And, having worked on digital platform, we want to design our own. Just the way we did our logo, our paper bag, our styling, our shoot etc. Yes, we intend not to have a payment getaway right away.We haven’t tied up with Jaypore.com and Tadpolestore.com so far because we want to understand our customers, get their feedback and know them first hand during our inceptive months. We have always believed in relationships.
Yes, eventually we are open to as many discerning online and offline windows for sale.
Our entire work is on our FB page which we keep posting on our timeline every now and then. That’s how we have sold so far,” she says.
Small Town is rooted in founder centric, rather than customer centric, sentiments. That is not to say that customers come second to the Small Town team. Rather, if their interactions on the FB page is anything to go by, the team thrives on forming close bonds with buyers and forming a personal relationship based on good taste and mutual respect. But they are also careful to remember why they are doing what they are doing and nothing should undermine the integrity of that. Neha puts it aptly, “When you are a start-up with limited capital, we think, things stay difficult for a few years. Here, it’s been just a few months since we published our page. The only joy as a creative person is to be able to create, without unnecessary feedback. We still have more than our fair share of sleepless nights, tears, and restlessness. But we chose this life.”
Ups and downs: Mostly downs
The life they chose gave them an intensely tough time to begin with. The weavers failed to deliver on their first order, a consignment worth 60,000 INR. A pittance in the daily transactions of the fashion industry, but a serious blow in the gut for newly minted entrepreneurs working entirely off their savings. Yet they chose not to recover the amount from the weavers, or prosecute them further, citing the generations of abuse and exploitation such people have been going through. But it was a crucial lesson learnt.
“All three of us at Small Town are a little tight on luck. The weavers at Bhagalpur gave us a tough time. Making ugly interpretations of our sketches, mixing Chinese nylon with tussar etc. This helped us learn faster and so we can vouch today why Tussar in the market is available so cheap. The same applies to impure Chanderis and Maheshwaris that have flooded the market. But we have also met weavers who have been such good friends,” shares Neha.
An entrepreneur out of every weaver
Small Town’s latest venture aims to make an entrepreneur out of every weaver based in remote corners of the country. Starting on April 1st, they began conducting workshops among illiterate women weavers-teaching them to use smart phones to photograph and upload their wares. This was done using colour codes and symbols, to make comprehension as easy as possible. “Post that, they are on their own to connect with the clients of the whole wide world; while sitting comfortably in their cosy little village,” they declare.
The need for believers
Small Town is forcefully idealistic about their scaling and expanding plans. “Our ideas are our plans. And the kind of ideas we are sitting and negotiating upon are all about scale. Like say a novel on-ground activation that has a new way of looking at Swacch Bharat. Or a technology training for our illiterate weavers that will connect them with the market. Sometimes, it requires the likes of mega decision makers of mega institutions. So we need believers to walk alongside with us,” Neha emphatically declares.
This is how we roll
Even given their unusual and unorthodox business ways, the Small Town team is confident about their plans for two reasons. First, the way the industry is evolving: “As Sabyasachi puts it, modesty is back in fashion. Thank god. Sometimes, it takes fashion to bring back the basics of life. Globally, people love handmade. Thankfully the discerning Indian is also transcending towards it. Handmade will never have a scale. And, rarity, we all know will always have its place.”
Second, the lovely market reactions they have received within a few months of their FB page going live. “The market has been warm, evocative and extremely affectionate. Most people who have picked our stuff are our virtual friends. One of our clients in Baltimore endearingly shares opportunities and platforms with us, whenever she finds any, and we have never met. We aren’t great business people but we have always made great relationships. And that, we believe will take us a long way,” smiles Neha.
The work also brings its own unique joys. “We have a great Maheshwari master weaver friend. He’s idiosyncratic, has a lot of questions, gets sad when we give him pastel shades to work on (he likes only bright colours) and chews our brains out. Still he’s the closest to our hearts,” relays Neha. For the team, the hardest part about starting up was letting go of monthly financial security. “We never knew money is an emotional anchor too. Failures were many. From weaver to the yarn to the colour of the print. Everything backfired. No plan or calculation worked,” muses Neha. But the pros outweighed the cons. On what has been the best part about starting up, Neha has one word to give, “Freedom.”
Exciting times ahead
For now exciting things are in the kitty. They have been commissioned by the government of Rajasthan to art direct a documentary about the blue potters of Kot Jewar. “Kot Jewar is Small Town’s innovative plan to art directing an artisan village and convert it into a tourist destination so that the destiny of the artisans is changed forever. We met the Rajasthan Chief Minister regarding this and she loved the idea. We are still at it. We don’t have to incorporate it into Small Town. It is one of things that Small Town is doing apart from handloom,” says Neha. On what the future holds for Small Town, Neha says objectively, “We are heading towards the end of the tunnel steadily.”
Her advice for struggling entrepreneurs is fierce. “Be yourself. You can’t find a more convincing brand positioning for your start-up than who you are.”