If small businesses don’t help each other, who will?

Recorded and edited by Julia Skupchenko

In this interview (recorded in August), we meet Shayonti Chatterji, the founder of Urban Medley, a Sustainable Fashion Brand that supports the Indian handicrafts and artisans by bringing it to conscious consumers of the global market. We learn how to engage with your customers in a meaningful way, what is happening in the community of sustainable entrepreneurs and how artisans in India are surviving the prolonged pressure of the pandemic.

In June we recorded a Lockdown Economy interview with Shayonti where she told us the story of the business being founded in January just before the lockdown happened. We spoke about her suppliers in India, the artisans that she felt responsible for. We spoke about being relevant to your customers and finding new ways to approach them, to be useful to them. Let’s find out what happened in those two months.

The Lockdown Economy Interview with Shayonti Chatterji. Recorded on 25 August

Let’s start with a small introduction to your brand.

Shayonti: Yes, it was a very strange timing when we launched. As we had discussed before, we literally launched on the eve of coronavirus so it was extremely challenging. As far as the brand is concerned, we are trying to curate products made by artisans. Mainly out of India for now, who are working only with sustainable fabrics and who are following a sustainable ethical mode of production. In addition to this, the products represent weaving and printing techniques which are centuries old. Thanks to the young designers we are working with, these old-world techniques are now given a global appeal. So we really have two aspects to the business. One is we are working with sustainable fabrics and sustainable methods of production. But more than that, we are promoting the artisans whose art and crafting technology that we feel would have been literally lost to the world if it is not supported by consumers.

So what happened in the last two months that lockdown has been lifted in Amsterdam? Have you managed to reach out to your customers?

Shayonti: During the lockdown itself the sales were very low. Especially because we were just a new brand. We tried to stay relevant to the consumers, to stay in front of their eyes. Whether it was through social media, through blog posts — in whichever way possible so that we were able to reach out to the consumers or people who could be our prospect clients. There was a lot of traction. People had more time on their hands for social media. We had a lot of interaction which was very encouraging because it was validating our entire business concept. People were asking us questions, they were appreciating the product, the work we are doing.

Courtesy of Urban Medley

After the lockdown, we are slowly reaching out and slowly converting. Though it is not that we are seeing a huge spike in sales. Our product is not an essential good hence I think it will take time for the sales to pick up because it is not something people really must-have. Activities are getting more and more confined to homes, work is remote, and there are not as many social events, parties, etc. People are not going to the theatres or clubs. That is impacting our sales because they are now more concerned as to what will the future bring, what will happen. So they’re not really in a mindset to buy luxury or fashion items.

Yes, I think we all have very few opportunities where to wear them. You mentioned that during the lockdown you tried a lot of different ways to be noticed by your customers. What specific methods did you use for that?

Shayonti: I have to say honestly, I feel very reluctant to show my face, I want the products to do the talking. My tool was mainly social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram. I think that worked very well because my goal during these two months was more to get the message out. I was not really looking at sales because somewhere in the back of my mind I felt that we have to wait with the sales, we have to first reach the people and engage them.

I think what really worked is I wrote on various forums about my work, about myself, about the product, how we make it, people who I’m working with, people who we are acquiring the products from. And, of course, bring the product in front of the consumers to you know let them see it, let them get a feel of what it is, let them try and understand the story behind it. I changed the style of communication depending on which platform I’m in and I think that did give a lot of traction. In each platform, you have different kinds of people and you have to have the tone and voice to engage with the audience. That was mainly what I was doing to get the message out.

What was the response of the potential customers, of the conscious community?

Shayonti: The response was very positive. What I noticed during the lockdown period was that small to medium-sized businesses were feeling this tremendous urge to help one another. Whether it was a repost, a share or a comment. As if everybody was feeling the same pain. There was the camaraderie among the SMEs and conscious consumers.

For example, you know I got into various groups where you have people who are conscious about sustainability and who are working with sustainable fabrics or products. They were out there trying to help one another. I found myself doing that too because I felt that we are all in it together. Yes, the sales are sluggish. But let’s try to help each other and multiply our voice.

I think the response was very encouraging and supportive. It was a wonderful feeling as if I could open my heart to them and ask for their support. Everybody was trying to give a helping hand to the other and that was really an amazing feeling. And you know how it is on social, you’re connecting with people from all over the world. So I’m based in Amsterdam, and there I was talking to somebody from Africa or Asia. We were all sharing notes telling each other what we are doing. It was really a brilliant learning curve.

Courtesy of Urban Medley

I guess with the “helping hand” you refer mostly to the lockdown time. But in the last two months, a lot of people were let out of their houses. There was less screen time, more holidays. So what was the change for your business?

Shayonti: It is definitely slowing down. Lifting the lockdown was like a breath of fresh air, though I don’t know how fresh the air really is. At last, people had a chance to go out. As you rightly said, some people are taking vacations or going back to work. In spite of all the support that we see around, everybody has a kind of fear, I would say, or a concern of what is going to happen in the future. That again brings us back to the question of what people are ready to spend on.

There is one group of people who didn’t have a vacation, didn’t go out, so they might spend some money. Whereas the other group is uncertain as to what may happen, what the job scenario is going to be, whether they’re going to be layoffs, whether the economy is going to slow down. These people are apprehensive about making purchases. So it’s a mixed atmosphere. It’s a bit of odd time and none of us was prepared to handle this.

In the first talk we had, you mentioned a lot about your suppliers in India. What is the status there now? Do they still depend on you?

Shayonti: Of course, they depend. But the problem is that since I’m working with India, we are having a major issue getting the products out of there. There are a lot of restrictions on flights, a lot of restrictions otherwise. Things are sluggish and that is definitely the bad side of it. Unless we get back on track and start selling, we cannot source more products. And it becomes a vicious cycle. If we can’t source more products then the people back in India don’t have the job, the earnings. Besides we are again seeing the spike of the coronavirus. So we are trying to make it look normal and we have to live with it. But still, people are scared. Unless the economy really picks up, unless people are ready to spend money, it will be difficult to support these artisans. Especially for smaller businesses like us because we don’t have too much of a cushion to keep buying unless we are selling. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Is there anyone helping you on this journey? Do you get the governmental subsidies or maybe somebody on the Indian side helping those artisans? Is there anything any support that is given to the small business and those artisans?

Shayonti: In the Netherlands, there is no specific support given to small businesses. Even if the terms of the bank loans are slightly easier, the hurdles are still huge. Think of the time it takes to have a perfect business plan ready and to pitch it to the banks, the time it takes the bank to approve it if it does. There is no conscious attempt made to help SMEs.

As regards to the artisans, in India, unfortunately, there is no safety net around them. So unless brands and businesses are ready to buy the products irrespective of whether they’re making sales, there is no financial net available for these people. That is really a very frightening situation because some of them are just moving away, trying to earn whatever wages they can. They’re pulling the children out of schools and doing various other things. I am getting to hear real horror stories coming out of India. The condition is very dire.

Are you preparing any contingency plan in case there is the second wave of the lockdown?

Shayonti: As I had mentioned the beginning, we are not yet an established brand. That is we do not really have the established consumers and it is a very big concern. I am trying to do two things now. If the lockdown is going to be even more severe, my feeling is that slowly we will see people in a very serious way pushing towards online shopping. That is precisely what is happening, we see many high street shops closing down or scaling down. That is a good point.

If you talk of a contingency plan, there is not really something that I can do to insulate myself. However, I think this is the time when the drive towards marketing has to be done. We need to market with the aim to reach out to the consumer. So that going towards Christmas and New Year we would be able to convert. We cannot lose our focus. As a business person, my aim would be not to get bogged down by the fact that sales are not happening. Market, talk, try and reach out — is my plan to overcome this hurdle or this strange kind of environment we are all in. There is absolutely no formula to tell us what we should be doing. But I have faith. People are trying to help each other, they’d rather buy from small businesses than go to the big brands.

People are getting very conscious because they feel that they need to make a difference in the environment. Somewhere they feel that we have exploited nature it is nature’s way of saying “give me some time to rest”. That’s what keeps me going that people will think about sustainability, about helping small businesses, about buying something which has a value and a story behind it. Not just to pick up something for two days and dump it.

There is no foolproof contingency plan for SMEs like ourselves. However I would like to share my thought with other SMEs: don’t let the eyes go off your marketing ball, reach out to people, talk to people, get to your tribe, hold hands with them and hope for the best.

Could you name a few things that you need help with now?

Shayonti: I am looking for a specialist to help me increase organic traffic. I’m very proud of my products and I am aware that they make a difference and have important social impacts. I am looking for people who can help me with marketing to get traffic to the site that can convert. In other words, a digital marketeer. I’m also looking for artisans to propose new products for me. We are focusing on accessories: scarves, capes, shawls, bags and belts. So there’s the marketing on one side and there’s sourcing on the other

I know people are having issues with jobs. So I hope freelancers out there reach out to small businesses like ourselves because it’s going to be a win-win often. Small businesses cannot hire or work with established companies, marketing companies. But it would be very nice to work one-on-one with a freelancer. It would be beneficial for both. They keep their business going and for small businesses like ourselves, it will be more affordable.

About the Guest

Shayonti Chatterji is passionate about Entrepreneurship and New Business Development. She believes in harnessing the power of storytelling and understands the strength of a good story and how it can impact lives. She has the ability to see the bigger picture in most cases. She is a team player, motivator and always open to new ideas and initiatives. Causes she supports: Education for girls, Economic Empowerment of the marginalized, End to Hunger. She believes in dreams.

Urban Medley is a platform curating exclusive artisan made sustainable fashion accessories. As a brand, we promote, help and support, ethical production methods in addition to being sustainable. Mainly we are promoting traditional forms of weaving and printing customizing them for a global audience. www.urbanmedley.com

Watch the original interview with Shayonti Chatterji recorded in June 2020: https://youtu.be/KEeV07txsZk

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.