SupportBiz spoke to Neha. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What is your background?
I am a graduate from the J.J.School of Fine Arts, Mumbai, and have over 11 years of work experience in the craft industry.
How did Matsya come about?
I have always loved the rich diversity of Indian culture, our arts and crafts. So, when I wanted to start a business venture of my own, arts and crafts was a natural choice. It was during the course of my work, at the time of the earthquake in Kutch, Gujarat, in 2001 that I was exposed to the rich culture and handicrafts of the region, and I fell in love with them. I started working with a number of NGOs and fair-trade organisations to help preserve these crafts. I worked with the artisans in Kutch for about five years, and gained a deep understanding of the life and culture there, as well as the challenges faced by them. I realised that there were not enough measures being taken to help these artisans, due to which many were finding it difficult to persevere in their traditional professions. I decided that I simply had to do something to help artisans deal with their challenges, and that is how Matsya came about.
I started Matsya with the intention of being a bridge between artisans and urban markets.
What was the initial investment needed to start Matsya? How did you arrange for it?
I started Matsya with an initial investment of Rs.10,000. I bootstrapped.
What is your business model?
We are a retail store in the arts and crafts domain. We source handicrafts from artisans across India, using ethical and fair means, and retail them to urban customers. Sometimes, we also get the artisans to craft us certain products, based on our exclusive designs created after extensive research. Most of our business is online, through our website. We also sell our merchandise through a few other e-commerce portals, which have been carefully studied and chosen by us. Our products are available all over India and at some places outside the country, too, in retail shops that we have tie-ups with.
That said, I would like to stress that Matsya is more than just an arts-and-crafts store. We are concerned with the entire process of helping artisans survive, get fair prices for their handicrafts, and helping sustain dying handicrafts. We aim to help make our Indian handicrafts more popular in the world at large, and to spread awareness about them among people.
Apart from this, we also offer craft tours to interested people, as well as consulting services. We also work with a number of NGOs to help support artisans in India.
How do you market yourself?
We have a very strong website, which perfectly depicts all that we do. We post regular updates on our Facebook page. Also, we participate in several exhibitions and fairs across India; we have been doing so right from our initial days. All of these are ways which have helped us market ourselves, and create global recognition for ourselves.
How do you deal with competition?
I think we are very different from the numerous regular arts-and-crafts stores in India. We operate on an entirely different level. Competition is something that will always be there, but that does not really affect us. We strive to do our best and make a real difference.
What were the challenges that you faced in the initial stages?
In the initial stages, identifying the right markets and setting up distribution channels were the biggest challenges that we faced.
What are the major hurdles that you face at this stage?
One of the biggest obstacles that we face is the mindset of the people. We find customers who are ready to spend Rs.5000 on a dinner or on a pair of shoes, but are unwilling to spend a similar amount on handicrafts from our own country. People purchase mass-produced products made in China, but are not ready to spend on a hand-crafted products from their own country! This is shameful, because our handicrafts are our pride and glory, and deserve to be promoted. A lot of effort goes into making them, and that, coupled with the rising input costs, affect the cost of these products. It is very difficult to convince customers of the same.
Then, there are the hurdles from the red-tapeism that is so prevalent in India. It makes things very complicated and time-consuming and puts off even those who genuinely want to make a difference.
There is also the challenge of obtaining manpower, of finding staff whose business philosophy matches ours, training them, and retaining them.
What are the sector-specific challenges?
Artisans continue to practice traditional processes, and are not very open to change. They lack innovation, and do not understand the demands of urban customers. It is difficult to communicate with artisans, educate them, and convince them to make certain products or use certain methods. Moreover, there are many crafts that are dying in India, and the younger generations in such cases are not ready to do intricate work. It is difficult to find the right craftsmen in case we want something produced by them.
There are several NGOs in India which are helping artisans sell their products, but most of them do not carry out extensive market research on the exact requirements of customers. As a result, many of them are left with excess stock, which is, ultimately, a loss to the artisans.
How has it been, being a woman entrepreneur in India?
Being a woman entrepreneur in India is not an easy job. India has moved on, become modern, in a lot of respects, but acceptance for a woman entrepreneur is still not something that comes easily. The society creates hurdles for women entrepreneurs in various ways, and they are asked several questions, sometimes very unfair. In fact, I faced a lot of difficulties in securing an office space for Matsya, because I was a single woman who wanted to set up a business venture of my own.
There are several woman entrepreneurs in India who have been doing brilliant work, but have not really been recognised. Their path is difficult.
I wish the mindset of the society in this regard would change soon. That said, I have seen women entrepreneurs being accepted once they have proved their mettle, shown that they are worth reckoning.
What measures would you suggest for the betterment of the handicrafts industry in India?
I have seen this concept of co-operation among entrepreneurs working in similar businesses in the US – they try and find ways to work together, so that none of them is inconvenienced. They share information, exchange ideas, sell their products under a common umbrella, and do not indulge in unnecessary competition amongst themselves. They work for a higher, a bigger, a better goal – making a difference in the world in which they operate. This kind of entrepreneurial attitude is highly limited in India. I wish entrepreneurs working in the field of arts and crafts in India would operate this way – it would make such a huge difference to the lives of artisans across the country.
Also, NGOs working for the betterment of the artisans should get out of their traditional mindset and their hierarchical issues and direct all their efforts towards the goal they set out to achieve – the betterment of the artisans.
What are your expansion plans?
I am considering setting up a full-fledged offline store, where we can stock many more products by many more artisans than we currently do.
We are also in talks with some researchers on the subject of integrating science and technology with handicrafts, and using arts and crafts as an interactive medium to educate people about science and technology. We have not officially signed a deal as yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to development on this front. I think it is a great idea.
Apart from that, in the near future, I hope to work towards the salvaging of certain Indian crafts that are fast dying. I am afraid that these beautiful crafts might no longer be existent in a few years down the line. I do not want them to die. I hope to find some sort of solution to help these ancient crafts alive and sustain our age-old traditions.