Meet the oldest e-commerce founder, who started up at a whopping 73: The amma from Amma ki Almaari

30th Dec 2017
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She had been knitting crochet masterpieces for her family all her life - and at 73, she realised they were good enough to sell to the world. With Amma ki Almaari, she is now helping other 'ammas' realise their dreams, too!

The vintage Rosemary cupboard stands as tall and resilient as its owner; and both these entities house within them, rather beautiful ways to travel time.

Amma has painstakingly deposited in it labours of love day after day for more than fifty years. The almaari has weathered her love for crochet and knitting right from when she was a six-year-old looking starry-eyed at the colourful spools and yarn.

As for amma herself, who took the plunge at 73, her spunk and ambition turn the very concept of age and time as we know it, on its head.

And as she takes other grandmas like her under the wings of her ecommerce portal Amma Ki Almaari that turns life-long hobbies into pay cheques, she tells us how it all began.

(L) Chatty Janaki in front of the "crochet wall" at her home. (R) Chatty Janaki knitting one of her classic products

A hobby honed over a lifetime

Chatty Janaki hails from a humble Andhra Pradesh town called Qasimkota. She studied only up to tenth grade, and was later married off, at the age of 19. However, since she was all of six, she had been nursing a passion for stitching, crochet and knitting. In fact, she even completed a government-recognised course in these art forms, and kept at it all her life.

For at least a few decades, the only outlet this ingenuous talent found was the gifts she would handcraft for her loved ones, and the other utility articles she would create for her family. "I knitted all crochet worn by my children. No piece of winter clothing was ever purchased from a shop," she informs us.

Chatty's family would eagerly look forward to her creations, but didn't think much else of it, until one day, her daughter Chatty Girija - an advertising professional who runs a digital marketing agency called Version Next Digital - realised that the quality of her products was actually good enough to centre a retail venture around.

Together, the duo got cracking on the idea.

Chatty Janaki's international travels, coupled with Chatty Girija's research helped the former develop new crochet product lines like crochet art on bottles, crochet wall-frames, crochet printed on crockery, etc. "My biggest worry was to retain the authentic appeal of my products, but at the same time, make sure it's not just perceived as a “grandma’s” art," she recounts.

The leap

Around March 2014, Chatty Girija christened the venture - helmed by possibly the oldest newcomer in the startup ecosystem - Amma ki Almaari. "My children fondly call me Amma and all my crochet threads, tools and creations are neatly stacked in a rosewood vintage almaari in my home," she tells us, of the origin of that name.

That very home is where it all began.

They started hosting exhibitions in their house, which mainly saw people from their social circles coming over and picking up her products. Simultaneously, they photographed some of these products and uploaded them on Amma ki Almaari's Facebook page.

Almost instantly, the story of the lady starting her business at 73 went viral. She kept adding to her array of products as the response was sweepingly positive.

"As all my creations have a story, we decided to go big offline and participate in exhibitions, flea markets, exclusive shows in corporates, and home exhibitions in high-end residential societies like Rahejas, etc. Our offline presence gave us word of mouth publicity," she says.

Thus, striking the iron while it was hot, Chatty Girija and her business partner, Uday Salvi created an e-commerce platform, Amma ki Almaari (dotcom). They have continued to support Janaki by managing the brand and its marketing and scaled it to add more products and achieve economies of scale.

However, the team soon noticed that it was onto something bigger here. Chatty Janaki's success story was a proof of concept of sorts - that a good product transcends every socio-economic barrier, be it age, class or caste, to receive its due. And Chatty Janaki, in turn, slowly realised that there were many more Ammas out there, whose art and crafts only travel from their own almaaris to that of their loved ones, as mere gifts and gestures. But in reality, they were treasure chests waiting to be unlocked. "I decided to embark on yet another journey of giving fellow ammas' talents its due respect and remuneration," says Janaki.

Doing even more

The Version Next Digital (VND) started reaching out to ammas from all walks of life - right from those residing in urban high rises, to protected smaller towns, rural women struggling for their basic needs, and even new generation mums dabbling in their own, original quirky art to onboard them as sellers on their e-commerce portal, and reworked their model to become an online and offline meetup community of ammas who create good quality items.

They have roped in more than 50 women from all over India, and now house a range of products like spiritual stones, gadget garments, cushion covers, tableware, festive gifts, wood art, handmade jewellery, handmade office accessories, customised creations, etc.

"The biggest challenge has been funding as the business is till date self-funded. We overcome this challenge by making our products scaleable to increase inventory, reduce manufacturing costs and rolling the same to create more," she says.

Amma ki Almaari is now actively looking to add more women makers on to their platform, to truly breathe life into every almaari teeming with talent and potential.

As for the first Amma, who started it all, she will be found in action next at the Maker's Mela 2018, from January 11 to 13, at Mumbai’s Somaiya Vidyavihar.

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