A walk down Amsterdam’s shopping district led to this ecommerce & social impact startup
Akshai Sarin remembers the day his life shifted course. And just why he decided to launch BlessdBuy, an omnichannel platform that showcases products made by rural artisans, people in need, sustainable producers and makers, and NGOs.
It was March 10, 2018, and he was set for the final presentation on a concept he had developed during his fellowship at THNK School of Leadership, Amsterdam. That day, he would deliver his presentation to the THNK community across 60 countries.
“However, as the day went on, my mind was filled with doubt. I started asking questions like ‘Why am I really doing this? What are my subconscious motives? Does the world really need this? ’ I had an hour to rehash a concept that I had spent one year developing,” Akshai says.
He decided to step out for a walk. Akshai recalls turning the corner and walking down Amsterdam’s main shopping district, and seeing the people milling outside stores like Primark, Adidas, and others.
“I was instantly reminded of a sad but undeniable truth observed by the Dalai Lama. ‘People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used’,” Akshai quotes.
He wondered if it was possible to reframe the existing paradigm, to “get people to move from their love of things, to loving each other again.”
He returned and jotted down what went on to become BlessdBuy’s mission statement: “to create a community of one billion conscious consumers and then transform them into active participants in the developmental sector.”
And BlessdBuy was born.
How does it work?
The Bengaluru-based startup focuses on bringing products made by rural artisans, those in need, and NGOs, to the forefront.
“From supporting the differently-abled to survivors of human trafficking, we deliver on our promise with a business model that ensures that 70 percent of our revenue goes to verified non-profits and social enterprises,” Akshai says.
The team works with a range of non-profits and social enterprise partners to develop and sell their products, handcrafted and eco-friendly products for home, gifting, hotels, and offices, online on BlessdBuy. The startup also follows a B2B model, supplying to retail partners and corporate houses looking for an alternate supply chain for corporate gifts.
“We have also initiated BlessdBuy shop-in-shop concepts in different segments of retail, ranging from luxury to supermarket formats. Our belief is that most things consumers buy today can be taught to, and made by an alternative supply chain,” Akshai says.
The team takes a 10 to 30 percent, commission from the partners for all revenue that comes in. The commission varies from partner to partner.
The idea was developed through Akshai's fellowship at the THNK School of Creative Leadership in Amsterdam, with additional financial support from Tata Educational and Development Trust.
“At the end of the year we ensure that 70 percent of the revenue coming into our bank account from product sales has gone to our vendors. Further, we don’t just sell products – we often handhold the creation of these products, providing design inputs, packaging, sales support, taking it to market and communication,” Akshai explains.
BlessdBuy’s advisory board includes Heba El-Kholy, former Country Head of the United Nations Development Programme and also the first woman Director of UNDP's Global Governance Centre; and Laura Ann Edwards, who is on the US State Department’s Innovation and Technology Subcommittee for Public/Private Partnerships, has founded Data Oasis, and is a NASA Datanaut. Laura is also advisor to Google Launchpad, XPRIZE Foundation, Crowdfunder.com, LA CleanTech Incubator, and many more.
Other members include Anuraag Trikha, former Global Brand Director at Heineken; Michel Koch, currently Managing Director at Institute of Connected Commerce; and Marta Salgado, Executive Director Merck Sharp & Dohme, Europe Region Operational Excellence.
The team has two full-time and three part-time employees.
BlessdBuy also partners with festivals and organisations to conduct DIY workshops, where there is more engagement with the makers.
“We commenced operations in April 2018 and have focused on demonstrating the potential impact of our concept. We have on-boarded over 30 non-profits from India, Kenya, Palestine, and Brazil. From our first flea market event till the most recent one, we have demonstrated value to some of our early NGO partners – an 800 percent increase in revenue through design intervention and better market connect,” Akshai says.
The startup is also keen to extend a helping hand where it can. “Our Chief Community Officer reached out to the community and raised Rs 3,50,000 for flood relief in Kodagu (Coorg) within 24 hours. Similar efforts were rolled out in the aftermath of Cyclone Fani in Odisha,” he says.
Akshai explains that BlessdBuy’s partners understand the platform’s value proposition, the impact on business, and customer perception.
“Our corporate gifting options are increasingly gaining traction because of the powerful story embedded in each product. Some of our early supporters include organisations such as Tirun, who represent Royal Caribbean Cruises and Celebrity Cruises in India. Similarly, functional, eco-friendly and decorative items for the hotel industry are a key driver of volumes,” he says.
BlessdBuy works closely with Taj Hotels because of their dual commitment to communities and sustainability. The platform is also working with large FMCGs to source and develop sustainable daily-use products ranging from oral care to toiletries. The team however, was unable to share numbers of sales and other details.
In November 2018, BlessdBuy’s business and impact model was presented at a leading retail conference in France by Michel Koch.
The platform recently received funding from well-wishers, including the Head of Operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Merck & Co; and from a former Managing Director at Tata Group. This will be used to recruit committed specialists in sales to build B2B revenue.
Currently, there are organisations like Samhita, which has built a CSR Marketplace to connect people and companies to NGOs and social enterprises. But BlessdBuy is aiming bigger.
“Our next step is to get serious funding to scale up on the retail, ecommerce, B2B, and community initiatives being rolled out. Our long-term vision is ‘doing good made easier’. That needs partnering with like-minded organisations to offer our users easier access to experiences, volunteering opportunities, community and outreach services, skill development, quality and transparency certification, CSR funding, HNI, and bridge financing,” Akshai says.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)