When you are out shopping, you often spot something you like but your heart sinks as there's almost always one tiny detail amiss - one thing that you wished could be altered or modified for it to be perfect - a colour here, a vintage touch there, a size here or a shape there. One might imagine think that it gets even more difficult to get what you want when shopping online, because there are no avenues to communicate with the maker or manufacturer for tweaks.
Zwende is turning that notion on its head. It has made shopping online easier and more seamless than offline shopping, by providing fully customisable, hand-crafted products at almost the same cost as the original designs.
The indigenous Indian artisans behind these creations, the gamification of the process, the pleasing interface of the website and the sheer aesthetic of its products makes the platform special.
The couple behind Zwende
Software engineer and ISB alumnus Innu Nevatia always looked up to her father, who has been running a petroleum logistics company since 1977. Eventually, her influences and interactions with seniors and colleagues at InMobi – where she was one of the first employees and came to serve as VP - gave flight to her inherent entrepreneurial spirit. Sujay Suresh is also a Mechanical Engineer and ISB alumnus. Here’s a fun fact – he is also the son of Solar Suresh, the man who creates his own food, air, water, and electricity from scratch.
For Innu, her passion for the artisan community is what drove her to start Zwende, rather than just become an entrepreneur. Prior to Zwende, Sujay was running his own venture in the education, skill development & corporate training and development space.
The idea took shape when the couple was setting up their home in Bengaluru. “Every time we went shopping (online or offline), we realised that the choices on offer, were not exactly what we wanted. We didn’t want something made from scratch - after all, we are not designers. It just needed that slight tweak, one magical touch up,” he explains.
Frustrated, he went on to speak to over 75 different makers – ranging from boutique designers to artisans – and their conversations revealed that they were, in fact, happy to make the minor changes customers wanted. Their issue was just making and holding inventory of all the variations, but working on a special request basis was acceptable.
It was thus established that the problem lay with the intent of the makers as well as the buyers getting lost in translation. A discussion with a family friend, when he mentioned that he made his own shoes on nikeid.com, because the market just didn’t have what he wanted, became the couple’s eureka moment.
“We looked up Nike ID and instantly fell in love with the concept,” he recounts. On NIKEID, Nike makes its entire product, material and design repository available online. Customers can play around with these options to create a shoe of their choice. They can visualise their creations in real-time and they are made on-order, and delivered in just two weeks.
This was all the validation the duo needed before diving into the space.
They decided to replicate this concept in India, but for makers who focus on handcrafted products across fashion and home decor - bags, travel accessories, lampshades, stationery, etc. The proof of concept took about one year to build, with the modularisation, digitisation and customisation on offer – and went live in April 2017.
The entire portfolio of makers across India - products, designs and materials – is digitised and made available online. Nothing is manufactured upfront or held as inventory. Users can choose a product, its materials, designs and colours and visualise their creation in real time with a 360 degree live preview. All orders are manufactured on demand. The products are handcrafted and delivered in 3-15 days and are priced the same as off-the-shelf products, at times maybe marginally higher (3-5 percent).
There is also a ‘discover’ feed of pre-customised products for customers, populated based on demand preferences collected over time. One can even get their names or initials embossed or hand-written by the artist on many products.
“Zwende is the only “Guided Customisation” platform in the world with a Smart Customizer - depending on the designs and colours selected for the first part, only relevant or compatible designs are shown for the other parts. All possible combinations are pre-approved by the designer. This helps the designer retain his design style/brand ethos,” explains Sujay.
Sellers, on the other hand, simply need to provide a sample or two of their products, and the inventory available for choices - example leather swatches, material colours, artworks and a colour palette for customisation. “Such a platform allows designers to do product and design innovation at scale. It also enables them to launch limited edition collections and fast fashion very easily. We also empower our suppliers with data to stock raw inventory - we provide far more data and metrics to these suppliers compared to other marketplaces - product feedback, new product requests from customers,” he says.
The time and cost to onboard a product, like a hand-painted lampshade, with 350 million combinations, is under seven working days and under Rs 10,000. “That said, we have even launched topical or festive collections with over 10,000 combinations to millions of combinations in one to three days at a total cost of just Rs 1500-2000,” he notes.
Through the various permutations and combinations – it has a total of four billion SKUs - for example, its cuboid lampshade alone has over 2.5 million options. It is soon to be the largest repository of digitised designs of Madhubani and Tholu Bommalata, possibly in the world. The other art forms it houses include Decoupage, Ajrakh, Kalamkari, Hand-crafted luxury, Cork Art, Kashmiri Embroidery
Its average ticket size is 2000 – 2500, and claim to have been unit economics positive since day one. Their gross margins are around 35-45 percent of our GMV.
“Our load times for the 2.5 million options on the lampshade, in the US, was about nine to eleven minutes! But once, a customer said he is willing to wait, because he really wanted to order it. This motivated us further. Over the next three days, we had multiple test sessions for the load time with the customer himself, and slashed it under three seconds.
The customer even had trouble with payment with his specific Amex card – another glitch we resolved. Always remember, your best learning, and innovation comes from your extreme users (or non-users). Since then we have serviced over 20 international orders and several big customised corporate orders,” he states.
Zwende is completely bootstrapped. It has seen some great traction with corporate gifting as well, and a client base that includes names such as Google USA, Toyota Insurance and startups such as Mech Mocha, Rizort, and Global Adjustments based in India.
Zwende focused on organic growth for almost six months before it started spending money to acquire traffic. It leveraged social media, emailers, as well as offline avenues like exhibitions and pop-ups, and eventually, even opened its own store in Bengaluru.
“We have an extremely data driven approach. So, while reach and conversion is important, so is engagement – we thus evaluate time spent within the customizer, and hashtags of events within the customizer or on the website are strong indicators for us, matter to us more than maybe other ecommerce website. That is our secret sauce,” says Sujay, signing off.