INTERVIEW

Interview: Shibani Jain, CEO, Craftsbridge India

December 21, 2006
Intrepid

Shibani Jain is the CEO of Craftsbridge India Pvt. Ltd. A first generation woman entrepreneur, she has stuck through a lot of ups and downs to build a very unique and inspiring business - bringing India's traditional crafts and arts to a wider market, using the Internet and direct marketing as tools to ensure the craftsmen get their right recognition and dues. I interviewed her online a few weeks ago, and gained some significant insights into a woman's entrepreneurial journey.

1. Could you brief us about your company's main offerings?

Shibani: We offer designer and special skill products which map current corporate requirements. We work with special skill groups across the country and our sales help these small rural urban groups to generate income.

We offer corporate promotional and motivational products like desktop products and office accessories.

We arrived at this focus after a lot of trial and error. We tried many other things at first - home textiles which we were exporting; retail sales for domestic markets (garment apparels, etc). We even had our own stitching unit. But then, we realized it's not possible to do so much; especially since they were all virtually different businesses - with separate infrastructure requirements, different markets and different production bases. We decided to cut down and we focused on the business where we had the strongest market traction.

2. Since your website is one of the primary marketing channels, what strategies would you advise to promote one's website and make it more productive in terms of customers and revenues?

Shibani: Our website is only 7% of our total business today. I would advise the following for similar ventures:

  1. Unique offerings
  2. Decent strategic tie-ups/partner sites to ensure you get the eyeballs
  3. Constant renewal of offerings and content

The web site is more a promotional tool for us, today than bringing in real business. But we find it useful to refer our customers to our site.

3. What prompted you to begin your current venture? What thought process led to this idea, and what initial challenges did you have to face?

Shibani: I was a web and multimedia designer and always interested in handicrafts. We thought that we could make a difference to this business (even if it was done in a small way to start with) with our ability to understand current market norms, design and bring in professional inputs.

We were also excited by the concept of "customized crafts". Being handmade product, it is relatively easier to customize a product with a special message or specification or color, even in small quantities. We thought of how a "grain of rice" can be packaged nicely with a hand written message and magnifying glass and sent off anywhere in the world.

And we were excited about the fact that we could be the one middle point between the end buyer and the end producer. It was exciting to visualize a situation where we could be the bridge between the rural/grass roots producer who has no market access and the end buyer who has no idea about the craft producer and their stories. It was interesting from a social and creative perspective.

We felt this was possible with a dot com model - with producers on one end and buyers on the other. In fact, we were incubated as a dot com. We made it through incubation funding, but were late in the dot com boom. The bust ensured that no one even heard us out as a dot come investment. The choice before us was either to shut down or change the model. We changed the model and started selling directly to corporate buyers.

4. When the chips are down, how do you deal with those kinds of situations?

Shibani: We have had many times when the chips were down. And we persevered. I did not give up. We evolved and sharpened our model in terms of cutting costs, reducing overheads, sharpening our focus, building systems and processes. We had to go through really tough transitions, like when I closed down the home textiles exports business - it was a harrowing time. We had to let go of trained staff, say no to customers who had started initiatives with us and manage all excess raw material fabric stock which was left over. At this time we simply stuck to our guns, gave ourselves a time line and swallowed our losses on this.

Another transition happened when my partner who headed the corporate business suddenly decided to quit after five years of managing this business. We then had to transition and learn many things afresh. The knowledge of the business went with him. We had a huge struggle just to re-educate ourselves about our customer requirements, vendor capabilities and issues and so many other things. But this transition actually resulted in us moving from a one man show into a 'team' approach. We built a team and dependence on one person is much reduced today. We also focused on more documentation, systems and processes at this stage.

5. What plans do you have for the future for your company?

Shibani: We have many dreams - of them one is that of having our brand recognized in the form of retail stores of our own. The other picture is to take our gifts offerings to foreign shores.

6. If you had to do it all over again, what would you differently?

Shibani:
We had very high costs when we started up - manpower, office, etc. I would now start like a garage operation if I had to restart. I would also focus, focus and focus from day one.

7. What drives you to work everyday?

Shibani: The thought that there is so much more to do, that we have only scratched the surface. The fact that I have something new to learn every day some new idea to pursue.

8. What three things would you advise aspiring women entrepreneurs?

Shibani:

  1. Be courageous. Do not worry about the fact that you are a woman and chances are that others will not worry about it either. Very often the problem is not external if it's not internal.

  2. Find and use external support. Today women entrepreneurs have a lot of external support- special funds, working capital loans, network groups- find them & use them well. Am not exactly aware of which ones, but banks like SIDBI, women's cooperative banks are women friendly. To be honest I have not had to find one myself- but they are there- on the net/banking community/funding groups.

  3. Manage your guilt well. If you also have a family to look after. Guilt is not good for you/your family/your business. You might as well realize that this is what you love to do and your family might as well realize this too! Honesty is the best policy here in more ways than one!
  • 9. What books or events have inspired you the most?
    Shibani:
    So many books! From Ayn Rand (We the living, The Fountainhead) at 16, to Herman Miller (Siddhart) at 20 to Celestine Prophecy (colin wilson?) to Conversations with God recently.

    I was also influenced by books like All Paths Lead To Gold and Winning by Jack Welch.

    On events - I did a course in Vipassana meditation in the mountains of Igatpuri- this is a 10 day silent course- and it changed my life. It taught me to view life in perspective- and the fact that mind control is the most important control to have. The mind must not dictate you, you must control your mind.

    Also every time I see street children in India, I feel compelled to do something. Anything to alleviate the suffering that so much of mankind seems to have. I feel outraged that so little is done and about the unfairness of it all.

    I feel sad when I see beautiful, skilled products, sold in a shabby way, at shabby prices and in a shabby manner. I feel bad that the artist who created such a beautiful product is not getting his/her due- neither price nor recognition. I just feel that it's all a criminal waste.

    10. What advice would you have for aspiring entrepreneurs in general, and women entrepreneurs specifically?

    Shibani:

    1. Out of 10 start up businesses only 3/4 survive. The trick is to persevere and to believe in your picture.

    2. Being at the right time and at the right place is important when you start- a good idea is not enough- a hard look at viability is a must.

    3. Being an entrepreneur is very tough- it's even tougher if you are trying to do something different/not done before/charting a different path. I would advise all young people trying to start a business to go in with their eyes open, but also with dreams in their mind.

    4. For women I would say- your job is even tougher- like it or not, the family looks at you to keep the home fires running-but the flip side is that you may not have to be the bread earner! Enjoy this freedom and do something that you truly want to do. This is not to say that your success is not important- it is just as important, but you may have the option to choose!

    5. For women I would also say, that consider the logistics of your life as a serious matter - like how far is your office from home? How much support do you have (family and otherwise), good help at home!!! These are small, practical and according to me imperative tips for the women entrepreneur. I could never have run Craftsbridge, if these logistics were not in my favor.
  • KK: Thank you so much for all the time and effort you put into answering this long list of questions! Would it be OK, if readers of this blog wanted to get in touch with you?

    Shibani: Sure, they can email me at shibani@craftsbridge.net

    Intrepid is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur and runs an information security consulting firm. He blogs about entrepreneurship, venture capital, marketing ideas, taxation and legal issues at http://everydayentrepreneurs.blogspot.com
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    #1
    Jackie
    URL
    December 30, 2006
    04:51 AM

    This is an article I would recommend to any entrepreneur, but especially women entreprneurs. I especially liked the realistic perspective about starting a business, being realistic, thinking about what it takes financially to raise money and capital - all while maintaining the household. Very inspirational.

    Jackie from www.myspace.com/cashfit

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