Lockdown economy Nepal in a Design House with Tulja Kedia

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Anna Lucia

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet Tulja Kedia, the Co-founder of Né Nepal, which is a design house that creates lifestyle products that are handmade in Nepal. They currently work with 28 artisan groups to create a range of products in Wellness, Jewellery, Home Decor, and Tableware. We talked about how Né Nepal was able to turn the lockdown into a very productive period for them. They were able to work on their website. They took the time to work on a lot of creative areas like designing and working on new collections, talking to artists and also do research for upcoming products. They were very active on social media which helped them keep their customers engaged and connect with them on a different level. With a physical store on the horizon, Né Nepal is very positive about the future.

Watch the video version of the interview.

Today my guess is Tulja Kedia, who is a co-founder of Né Nepal. Hello Tulja, how are you?

Tulja: Hello Sujan, I’m good. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

And thank you for being here, I’m very excited to have you on. The last conversation we had was fabulous, you had some very interesting stories to tell me about Né Nepal, which I can’t wait for our audience to hear.

But before that, please introduce us to Né Nepal and its products.

Tulja: Né Nepal is a design house. We create lifestyle products.

When I say lifestyle, I mean everything that surrounds you in your home or workplace, from the time you wake up to the time you sleep. All the products that you see around you are the lifestyle products that we create at Né Nepal.

We work with four different product lines at Né Nepal. All of these lines are 100% made in Nepal. That’s the USP of the brand. We try to create, design and produce everything in Nepal.

These 4 product lines start with tableware. Tableware consists of everything that you do to set up your table. We work with ceramics, including plates, stoneware, pots, glasses, cups. Everything that you need or require at a dining set up.

We also work with a lot of metal. We do some lovely designs with brass and copper glasses, plates and trays. We’ve also started with a lot of woodwork, such as cheese platters, spoons and wooden bowls. That’s essentially our tableware collection.

Our 2nd product line jewellery, with accessories made of brass and copper. All the designs that are inspired in our jewellery collection are from nooks and corners of the country, inspired by architecture, nature, people and paintings. We derive inspiration from a lot of things that are in our country, to deliver what we have in the jewellery section.

Thirdly, we have a section called ‘wellness’. We say wellness because we work with a skincare and body care line, which is fully natural. We like to use ingredients that are rooted in the Nepalese culture. For example, timur and jatamansi, which also can be consumed.

So we work with these very deep-rooted ingredients of the culture in terms of our body and skincare routine. We also work with soaps, body scrubs bath salts and lip balms. And we are coming up with really exciting new product ranges under the wellness section.

Our 4th section is home decor. We work with a lot of different fabrics and fibres. Home decor means table runners, cushion covers, table mats, different things. And we’ve also have incorporated different techniques in the home décor, such as embroidery, printing, screen printing, all different techniques to incorporate the home decor line.

That’s pretty much what we do at Né Nepal.

That is very unique. When we spoke last time as well, I said that I was browsing through your social media and reading a caption and saying that reading your captions is very soothing, the way you describe your products like you are describing nature like you just said is one of the components. To couple it with the picture you have, it feels like every post has a story to tell.

It feels like a running team theme in your entire product line as something you want to communicate with your audience as well. Even before the lockdown.

So tell us Tulja, what was the bit your business like before the lockdown?

Tulja: Before the lockdown, the business was actually very new. In our first year, we were just trying to understand the market.

Having said that, our business has been very good and the appreciation and response that we have heard from our customers and other competitive brands have been brilliant.

We’ve done a couple of international exhibitions as well and got a good response internationally. So we are very happy that we are getting the kind of response we were looking for.

I think in terms of business and numbers, it’s too early to say. It’s only been 2 years and in those 2 years, 8 months include being in lockdown. But we’ve been very happy with where we’ve come so far.

It’s very good to hear that even in such a short term you’ve been able to gain so much recognition, even internationally.

The other day we were also talking about your team and how one of the objectives of Né Nepal is to preserve local craftsmanship. And for that, you provide a platform to artisans. So how does that work in a team?

Tulja: I was talking to my partner very recently and we were discussing this. When we work with our artisans, everything is based on relationship. That is first and foremost.

We don’t think of ourselves as designers, we think of ourselves as co-creators.

We work close to about 20 artisan groups. These are the people who are designing and creating products for us. We don’t have the know-how or the technical skills as they have.

So we meet at a place where we call ourselves co-creators, and our artisans have been mentors for us. Throughout the way, they had been mentoring us, trying new designs, try new techniques.

It’s so difficult for them to come out of their comfort zone and do something new. So that’s been really brilliant. And we share a great relationship with each of our artisans, from all over Nepal.

So I think it’s very relationship-based for us.

It’s very nice that you use the word co-creator because a lot of times when you talk about businesses, you talk about competition. But when you co-create with someone else or collaborate with other people, sometimes come up with the best results.

And like you said you’re working with over 20 artisans groups. But when these artists and groups are scattered in different areas and the pandemic hits, and you go to lockdown. What was a response to that? What did you do on the business front?

Tulja: I think we were very fortunate firstly on a personal level to have everything around us.

Lockdown has been difficult for everybody, but it was a very productive time for us. It was a time that I think our brand needed and I think it was a great time to zoom out and really see as a brand, where we were aspiring to go, and where we are going. It was a great time to really understand that.

During the lockdown, we took a lot of interest in our managerial aspects, which was lagging. Our website has been pending for a long time but we managed to finish it. So you will soon see in our website rolling out.

And I don’t know how much you have seen the social media page, but we were highly active on social media as well, so we were very lucky to collaborate with multiple artists and skilled people and mentors on our social media page, to give something fresh and fun to our customers.

So during these 3 or 4 months of lockdown, you constantly saw something new coming up at Né Nepal — Workshops, stories, lots of very lifestyle-based content.

We really understand how important it is to engage with our customers online and I think the lockdown really gave us the opportunity to do that. That was a big takeaway for us from lockdown.

And also, in terms of design elements. As creators and co-creators and designers, you have to take time out to sit back and think about what you want to do next in terms of designs. So we got an opportunity to talk to lots of artists. A lot of research is needed because doing things also already in the market doesn’t make sense, so we need to think about how can create something that is different and how to offer a different experience than what already exists.

These are a few points that we did and the lockdown that was very important to us and I think we were glad that we got that time out. We could really zoom out and see where we were going as a brand in as a whole.

That’s great. I think your approach to lockdown was so positive. A lot of times when we listen to the news and talk about businesses going into lockdown, we talk about how their revenue might have taken a hit, they might not have as many customers. But when you began this answer to by saying that the lockdown was very productive, that you were able to take a step back and evaluate yourself and add things that you thought your brand needed. That is very good to hear that you approached lockdown that way.

While answering this question you also touched on your customers. The last time we had a chat, we also talked about your customers and you said that you have a very niche consumer base.

You thought people might not be willing to spend as much during the pandemic. But the result was different.

So, please tell us how you kept your customers engaged.

Tulja: As I mentioned earlier, social media played a very big role in getting business during the lockdown. Of course, the business did take a hit for everybody. But were doing other activities during the lockdown.

We sat back one day and my partner suggested that we do a flash sale. We had 2500 followers on Instagram and she said ‘Let's do a flash sale and see… as it’s quite slow, let’s just go for it’. So I decided let’s try, how bad could it be? Honestly, we weren’t expecting the response we got.

From the time we put up the post of the flash sale, to the last entry we made. And the last delivery. I don’t think we slept those 2 nights. We had an amazing response.

I mentioned our product lines. Our top 2 product lines that did very well were tableware, firstly. We knew that people were spending a lot of time at home, but not sure how much time they were spending on products yet.

From this particular sale, we really understood that people were willing to spend that extra amount to feel happier at the dining table, to add that extra element so that they can eat a very appetising meal and add some new crockery, cutlery or glass or plates to the table to make them a bit happier. So that we then understood. Tableware did really well for us.

The 2nd category that did well we thought would be home decor, but it was actually jewellery. We were very surprised because during the lockdown, who are these people buying jewellery? We’ve still not been able to decode that and we are just assuming that people wanted to gift things. That’s about it.

But these 2 things did really well for us, and we got an opportunity to connect with our customers online, really understand what they enjoy and what their interests are, what is the feedback and decide what kind of brand language content that will use and that they like.

We did a lot of varied lifestyle-based content, from things like mindfulness to art therapy to sleep rituals. You may wonder, why our brand is doing these kinds of activities, as they aren’t even related to products. But as a brand, we really wanted to create an experience for our customers. It’s not only about the products for us. As a whole we want them to experience as a sense of Né Nepal, that we can give through online content, so we tried to do that over the lockdown. Which were a blessing for us and the whole brand.

I’m so happy that you were able to engage with the customers on a different level. I’m going to flip it for you for a second and ask you about your competitors. Did you see your competitors have a similar response to the lockdown?

Tulja: To be honest we are too new to say anything about the competitors. It has just been a year of purely functioning for the brand. We are very small as a brand in terms of competing.

But I thought they are doing really fun things online, and after the lockdown, there were some really exciting products that came into the market. So I guess this was a by-product of having so much time that they spent during the lockdown. New colours and new designs were coming out. That was very interesting to see.

I think everybody has got more creative which with the time that we got in hand during the pandemic.

Like you said earlier, you are working on a website and then you did a lot on your social media as well. With those strategies in place, now the lockdown has been eased in Nepal, how is your business performing?

Tulja: It’s not been too bad. I wouldn’t say it’s the best because of course, we had a 360° turn in terms of sales and things that happened that we couldn’t have foreseen. But we have been quite fortunate that at least the people who have been working with us, and our relationships, have been not affected by it. Even in terms of operations and all of that.

The holiday season is very big for us again and we expect to do well then, so we’re just crossing our fingers and waiting for that to happen now. Let’s see.

Great, and like you said now that the lockdown has been eased, you have these strategies in place. But nobody knows is going to happen in the future with the pandemic and with the lockdown.

What is the outlook for Né Nepal for the next 3 to 4 months?

Tulja: During the pandemic like I said, we did the website. So that is a milestone that we are very happy to achieve and that’s one big place that people can really see our products in their real form.

There will be some music on the website, so you feel more connected when it’s our website, compared to a directory. That’s one place we are hoping to garner and a lot of attention.

Secondly, we are very happy to announce that we are coming up with our physical store and we are hoping people will come there and experience our products and feel and try the products there. That’s another big milestone for us.

Thirdly, we started our exports very recently.

So these are the three sectors that are big points for us that we are hoping does really well for us. I mean we are seeing it as very positive steps in the future or the next 3 or 4 months or so, given the holiday season and new things at Né Nepal. So we are hoping for only positive things come out of this.

I am very excited about Né Nepal’s future. The last time we had a conversation I was talking about how good your social media page was and how organised it looked. Now that you said that it’s going to have a physical store as well, I’m very excited to see what you do with that.

Now my final question for you. Could you point out 3 things in your business that you need help with?

Tulja: As a brand, we look at community-driven work first. This has been more of a challenge to us considering we are very fresh and the pandemic has hit us. So as a brand we really wanted to go to different parts of the country and engage with the communities who can help us grow.

That’s one thing that we really want to look for our brand strategy. So community work and social impact as well. We are trying to really reach people.

The 2nd would be that we really want our products to go international. I’m looking for a network and international alliances. So finding out the best way to do that and really learn about exporting and finding the right kind of people who understand these products.

It’s very difficult to find people who understand these products. A lot of people are into fast fashion and fast-moving products at the moment and over the last 15–30 years. But I think it’s also going back. Especially as lockdown has reintroduced the concept of slower living. So very specifically I want to find the right kind of people internationally and alliance with them.

And third, I think any business that is a start-up does require some sort of finance backup. Not that we aren’t comfortable right now, but in terms of the future, we want to take it to a broader spectrum. So for that, micro-financing would also really help.

So these are the 3 areas I think I can pinpoint that we are facing challenges in.

About the Guest

Ms. Tulja Kedia is the Co-founder of Né Nepal. She completed her Masters in Luxury Brand Management from Paris and Shanghai where she learnt the intricacies of creating a brand. She worked in the brand communications sector in Mumbai where she got an opportunity to work with some prominent brands. She returned to her hometown to start Né Nepal with a dear friend. Né Nepal literally translates to Born in Nepal. Né Nepal is a dialogue about Nepali culture which meets at the cusp of tradition, community, and craftsmanship. It started in August 2018. It is a design house that creates lifestyle products which are handmade in Nepal. Né Nepal strives to conserve local crafts, provide a platform for artists and overall nudge the conversation that delves deeper into cultural intricacies.

https://www.instagram.com/ne_nepal/

https://www.facebook.com/nenepalbrand/

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