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Annahmol: Working with 100s of Small Makers Across India

August 12, 2021 19 min read

ARTISANS ADVENTURES FROM OCELOT MARKET
EPISODE 1: Annahmol: Working with 100s of Small Makers Across India

 

 

EPISODE 1 TRANSCRIPT:
OM Interviewer Michaela:

Thank you for joining me today, Annah, my inaugural podcast interview. I did want to just ask you for a general introduction. Today, I'm here with Annah who has a brand that works with a lot of different artisans in India, but I would prefer to throw it to you and see how you would sort of describe your setup and your business.

Annah:

I’m Annah. I have a small boutique label called Annahmol, which really engages with artisans across India. Actually, I started off doing jewelry. I was doing like natural stone jewelry, just because I loved jewelry at one point when I was very young, but I knew that I wanted to work with natural stones. I love the organic nature of things and I used to travel with my mom because she used to have a textile store. She used to travel around India sourcing and from a very young age I traveled with her understanding the whole sourcing business, but not necessarily in her field, but I would kind of veer off. I did it for a very long time with her on my holidays. And when I decided to want to start my own business, I actually took three months off and started traveling around India. I traveled around Asia--actually Thailand and Vietnam as well, trying to understand how I can possibly work with artisans across Asia.

And this is starting off not knowing a thing about business, just a dream that I wanted to maybe start a boutique, get into hang out, have people come by buy my things, no business model in mind. I slowly started that way—just engaging with one artisan, the son of a fruit vendor. His family had been in the fruit business for like 10 generations and he was just not wanting to get into it. And he got into jewelry. So I met him where he was working in the back of his house, slowly handcrafting jewelry with two other people. And that's how it kind of evolved. We grew up together and now I'm working with a few other people, but he's still my core team.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

When you think of an artisan or look for new production possibilities, how would you define an "artisan"? I feel like this word keeps getting thrown around that I'm seeing "artisan beer" in America, which I'm not even sure what that means, artisan-crafted—do you have a definition in mind?

Annah:

Artisan, sustainable. There are all these catchwords that are used. And being in this field where I feel like my production is very grassroots for the most part, those words I don't use them lightly just because it's “how is this a sustainable whatever?”—I’ve seen sustainable soap and I'm like “tell me what that means, I’m confused.”

An artisan is somebody who is a really skilled person in a particular trade. It's like skilled work with their hands really and with craft. That is somebody I would call an artisan. I'm doing some shawls right now with weavers in this desert region in India and they're working out of their house with traditional looms. And they're weaving these shawls. That is an artisan. It takes a type of skill to be able to do this.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

With that in mind, how do you know when you've found something that will work in a larger market? Do you sort of work with producers and sort of work with them to find something that'll sell in the US, or how do you sort of know when you've found something that will work?

Annah:

I feel like I have a bit of an eye with what I feel will immediately catch on and whatnot. I'm from India, but I've lived in and I've traveled all over the world. And so I do have a pulse on the colors and the kind of things that work for a global audience, which is what is a challenge sometimes when you are working with people on a very grassroots level, there's a certain way of working. They work with a whole host of colors that might not necessarily work for the global market. I have to work very intimately to create samples and help them with that process the first time around. There are very few people that I can work from the get-go I see something I'm like, “okay, this is going to work, we just have to do some minimal changes in it.” You kind of have to have an eye because these are people also who might not necessarily have a global exposure, but they have this incredible talent and this skill. And I go in there trying to see how I can work with them if it's a short-term project or a long-term project and we start small and then kind of expand from there.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

Do you regularly go and travel and see a lot of the artisans you work with across India and see their production in person? What does that typically look like in a, I guess more in a non-pandemic circumstance?

Annah:

In a non-pandemic circumstance, I'm always traveling. I think a big part of my business also translates into it started off from my core of who I am. I enjoyed that and then how do I translate that into making it into a business. I've been in business now for close to 10 years, which is a long time of learning. And now I feel like I finally can say I kind of get it. It’s still a journey, as you well know, every day is a new learning curve. So not counting the pandemic, I'm always traveling. I'm always going to craft fairs where I might meet one or two people where I'm like, ‘they have interesting work.’ And then every once in a while, I'll see something that has potential for real magic and that could be an “it” product, but that will take some vision on my part to help cultivate it into something beyond what it is right there. A lot of what I see in Indian craft I really feel like in India there's so much amazing skill in our textiles, in our decorative items and everything, but a lot of times we compromise on things here and there because there isn't general instruction on how to perhaps evolve the craft.

In my little way, when I work with people, especially because I'm doing it on a small scale with people, I go in there trying to be like, “okay, every piece of hardware counts. You can’t compromise on the zipper. You cannot compromise on this and that.” So yes, I'm in there. I'm in the little villages. 

You meet a lot of fair trade organizations. That's another thing, right? But these are larger organizations that have had the funds to go to certify themselves as being fair trade and whatnot that get a lot of global exposure from companies across because they get to do the large trade fairs. I feel like I really prefer to really go in there, which means I have to travel a little bit going into these villages and finding these people and sitting with them and trying out some new work based on what they are already doing, but getting a little bit more creative with it. So it's a challenge, honestly, because you know, it can seem like a fantasy world. I'm working with these artisans in all these villages and everything, which is really beautiful, but it's almost extra work because firstly there's a huge language gap. And secondly, a lot of these people are used to a certain way of working, deadlines aren’t typically a thing.

So there's a lot of this. So I'm there, I cultivate relationships, and really cultivating those relationships is what builds trust for people to want to do that. So working in India has all these caveats that come in and then you have to learn how to do that. And that takes some time.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

I sort of picture that a lot of your production is done via mobile, that you do a lot of back and forth via WhatsApp type applications. Would you say that's probably accurate?

Annah:

Yeah. So like now, now obviously pandemic times, I'm on FaceTime calls with people who I do not understand on top of that. I get my friend who does understand as a third person in that call and it's really interesting. So yeah, there's a lot when we’re sampling, I'm getting images all the time. My iPhone storage is just full of images.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

When you go traveling to meet artisans and working via WhatsApp with such a network, how do you kind of ensure that what's being produced is still being produced in a fair way in terms of with your ethos in terms of ethical production?

Annah:

I would say like 90% of these people I meet directly. I’m there. I'm not going through a middleman to work anything and that's how I started it. So that's how I continue. So establishing trust is one thing. And when you go into a place now in a country like Asia, there's a lot of things that people can cover up when a buyer is coming into town, you know, I see it with large-scale. As you know, a lot of like the big stores across the world come to India and the things that are done. I don't work with these large establishments. It's almost like a personal thing. Now I can tell you in a handful, in my little Rolodex, I don't have this wide range. It's all through connections and through networking from one person I've worked with to another person, to another person. So I've built this kind of web and that's been a personal web that I've built over the past decade. I don't feel like I take time out to really think about what has been created because I do try to stay in the moment because the moment has a lot that it asks of you.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

How have you seen sort of the work you've done with the artisans impact their lives and how has that changed with the pandemic? Which I recognize is really a two-part question.

Annah:

A big story that I can tell you about is this fruit vendor’s son who I work with, when I go even now to his little studio, now he has a studio outside of his house where he employs about 10 other people. It's actually inside the fruit market. And I did the hustle for like a decade doing the music festivals, traveling cross countries, setting up whatever the heck it is in the hot blistering sun—I’ve done it all. This was a gentleman, who I created things with and he would let me do like, “yeah, you can do 10 pieces, whatever.” Everyone else has these big quantities. For me to see that we actually became true partners, cause I started doing some work with larger companies. Actually, I did some work for Whole Foods in their Southwest region where I was one of the only, I think I'm the only Indian vendor in accessories, definitely the only woman vendor from India. And he was my first person that I worked with. We went from me doing 10 pieces of one design to like thousands. And that was definitely a moment.

I'm also like 5' 1” and look like I'm probably maybe a little bit younger than I am, so when I go to certain places people are like, “what has this girl got?” And now seeing that there are people who are connecting me to other people to be like, “hey, there's this person who does this work. Do you want to see if you can do some stuff together?” That's been exciting. Sorry, what was that second part of your question?

OM Interviewer Michaela:

The pandemic, but what have you seen the impact on that man's life in terms of the impact on the artisans from providing that thousands [of products to produce]?

Annah:

It's given us, it's given them, a regular paycheck over the past decade. We've worked together in the past decade and it's not like we went from 10 pieces to a thousand just like that. He's able to employ more people. And these are also people from other villages coming in to work. I can just see from his structure of what he’s got going on now. I'm not his only person. I was one of his handful of people that he was working with. Now he's gotten busy. I think you never forget the people that you start with. He always has time for me, so when I need to sample something, he'll put stuff aside to sample with me. I send him random inspirational images in the middle of the night because I come up with something. He doesn't necessarily respond then. He's grown as a company. I met him as a single young man. Now he's married with a child. He's got a business partner and they're doing all sorts of stuff trying to expand their business.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

Interesting. In terms of the different artisans you work with, how have you seen the pandemic impact their businesses?

Annah:

Obviously in India, I can only speak for India, everything came to a halt. So these were people who, a lot of these people rely on orders for them to be able to pay their bills. So one of the things that I had to fight for, because I was working with a rep who got me all these orders for this one couple of stores that then I didn't hear back from them after March 2020. And I'm like, this is not about just me anymore. This is about a whole lot of people I'm working with and you have to reply to my emails. I just need to know what's going on so that I can kind of keep these people in the loop. So a lot of it was almost energetically we had to encourage each other to stay the course. I can't be suddenly canceling orders.

There was one where I had a canceled order, but I committed to buying this. I have to buy it and try to figure out where else I can sell it. So those were the little things that I feel like I did stick to the kind of ethos of like holding onto my integrity and making sure that my staff was paid fully through the entire pandemic, even though we had no money coming in because that's just stuff that will ultimately help you flow later on. Now I'm seeing kind of like the fruits of that, like sticking to my guns and being like, we have to help each other through this. My employees here, if I can't pay them, they're not going to be able to eat. A lot of them are the sole breadwinners in their families. It affected things a lot because it delayed the process and people are sitting—the logistics were cut. Delays in orders and then people getting upset because someone's not getting an order in time. I'm like, “come on guys.”

OM Interviewer Michaela:

And the sheer amount of just cash, I just mean when retailers started canceling their orders, it's like, well, we've already put down the deposit with the artisans and we've got to pay the other half of it. It's like, you can cancel the order, but this is already in production. I guess I'll have to scramble together that money that's not going to come in.

Annah:

I don't understand because they're like official POs, and you can’t just suddenly say “sorry, we’re not doing it.” 

OM Interviewer Michaela:

You would think.

Annah:

You would think, I really did think that that was legally binding. Now I'm so scared when I get a larger order.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

I'm very adamant about the no delay on the deposit too at this point. Yeah. For the large orders. It's like, I need at least the 50%, otherwise, I can't go down this road. It's too much money. 

Is the current situation in India, do you think is getting at all more back to normal with production? We're talking at the end of June, just before the beginning of July. What do you sort of see as the current state, in terms of the pandemic and production? Do you see it as getting back to normal? Do you have any predictions for the future?

Annah:

I don't know what normal is anymore, to be honest. 

OM Interviewer Michaela:

OK, that’s fair.

Annah:

Whatever this new normal is, production is still not at full capacity. And it can’t be because you're hearing talks of this new variant and then we're struggling to get vaccines for the first vaccine of everybody. I had to figure it out, going from A to Z to try and get my office vaccinated for the first vaccine for the first one. You know? 

So I don't know. I don't know how to answer that fully, because the only thing that I've learned this year is that you just need to flow through the unpredictability of life right now. So no, to answer your question in short. No, it has not gone back to normal. And I don't know when that will be. I'm just trying to, like I said, kind of alter and kind of go with it with my business rather than wait for some normalcy.

OM Interviewer Michaela: 

As a consumer or retailer brand, do you think the best way we can support is just to continually put in orders? Does that help with predictability or is it more that you need wholesale orders? Like the quantity, the higher quantity?

Annah:

No, I don't think it's really about quantity. I just think it's about—there’s morale, there's all of these things that go into factor here to keep people's spirits up to just keep going right now.

We have a life where there are certain backups that we potentially have that we’ve been able to create for ourselves, but these people really rely 100% on this. Even like the smallest of orders, you know, I've learned a long time ago, whether it's a $1 order or $1,000 order, to me, it's the same thing. So yeah, it's just keeping those orders coming in. 

And for me particularly, I'm now reaching out to so many people I've connected with over the years of my travel to these craft fairs and through these villages, but not necessarily been able to work with. I literally sat down a few months ago called these people, got on the WhatsApp, and I'm like, “what do you have in stock?” And then I'd be like, “what can I help you sell?” And they'd send me pictures. I'm like, “okay, these will work. I know these will work for my customers. I need to buy a sample of these, do a photoshoot, and this or that.” So that's kind of another model that I've worked with right now, which I've just started this now with two different weavers that I'm working with, but that seems to be working. It has its challenges, but I mean, these are people who've never been able to get to the forefront otherwise.

There are all these NGOs that go into villages and they work with a certain group of people and they'll highlight the craft there, but then there's a whole other sector that isn't, and the people that these NGOs go in that's the ones who go into the big grocery stores or the organic markets because that's where the buyers come.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

Very interesting points, sort of pivoting a bit to what we were talking about before we sort of started the call, how do you sort of work with these artisans in determining the right price point that will work in the US? I'm guessing it varies sort of by each product. And I think when I first started out working with some production operations, they said that there was the classic three times or something like that for how to price something, but I’ve really found that it really doesn't work and it's really product specific. And what will work in which category really depends and wondering, do you sort of run into the same thing in terms of when you see something and you'd say it costs $10 to produce, but then you go and run the math and you're seeing that they're really selling for $15 in America so it's really not going to work. Or how do you sort of walk through how to price things for the US market?

Annah:

Well, there are a few constants that you have to add to a price like your shipping, packaging, all of this stuff. When I work with these artisans, a big part of their story is that most don't know how to really package their beautiful craft. And so a big chunk of what I do is market, which means it's an additional cost for me to design and create beautiful packaging because that's really everything. So pricing like it is very product-specific. Like when you go into it or these like retail webinars and this and that, and you’re like “it’s three times and there’s formulas for everything,” there is no formula, not in the 10 years that I’ve been in business.

I’m still learning, but I've been doing it for so long that it's become a little intuitive as to what I feel from when I see a product, what people will be willing to pay for it, keeping in mind the story, all of these factors that go into it. But I have learned that sometimes you'll make mistakes in the pricing. Then after you sell some stuff, you're like, “I priced that way too low” or whatever it was. So I think it's a constant learning product, especially in my business because you have so many different accessories, you know, if I was just focusing in on jewelry, then I'd probably have a more streamlined pricing kind of formula, but I don't because I’m very varied.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

No, I think that's perfect. I think it's sort of comforting to know that one size does not fit all. It's comforting to know that it's variable really. I find it more comforting at least cause sometimes that three times formula never works. Often it does not. I wish I could say it did, especially competing in an ever lowered price world for some things.

Annah:

At the end of the day, everyone’s looking for a deal so I do go into that keeping in mind that obviously, I'm purchasing this at a fair price, I need to make my money. I might not necessarily make this, but if I can price it at this where I'm not making 300%, but maybe a hundred percent, or maybe even sometimes 75%, but I'm selling a thousand of them, that matters.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

And providing the work is, you know, a huge part of that is more so important necessarily than making a million dollars.

Annah:

Absolutely. And it's not, I mean, we, at the end, I don't want to be like "it’s about this. It's about the artisans and their story and everything is about the story." But I also have to be able to create a system where I can understand the right price point and bring in the money so that I can give them more work. And then their story will be heard more. When I come with it with the music playing and “it's about the artisan” and all of that stuff, it already is about that. Let's also be professional because we're a business at the end of the day as well.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

So pivoting again…I did have one last question for you. We've tried working with made to order and we still have a few brands that kind of work like that, but that has been really hard for Ocelot Market from being okay with the waiting aspect, like in terms of the consumers don't necessarily love it. And what has happened with definitely more than one of the vendors is that they've gotten so many orders that the normal timeline has been extended by weeks or even just another month. And was more wondering if you've ever forayed into that work. Have you ever tried to market to the US market in made to order? This is something that I've found very challenging and I feel like there's a way to crack this, but haven't quite gotten to it yet.

Annah:

So what was the product that your vendor that had a lot of orders that came in?

OM Interviewer Michaela:

Primarily shoes. But I do have another example recently of a producer in India who was making jewelry and they do made to order as well. And it seems like a great thing that would fit well with our ethos in terms of not making products just to make products, you know, making products as the order comes in and providing more work that is ready to go and get shipped out for these artisans or for these producers around the world. But shoes is definitely our biggest seller for made to order.

Annah:

So it's like an individual retail customer comes in and he can customize his. Is it like, can they customize as a piece?

OM Interviewer Michaela:

It depends. For the two major brands that I'm thinking of, one of them, they have a set, these are the shoes we make, you order your size, but they can make like 40 different types of shoes. You just have to pick it. So from a production vantage point, there's a lot of different SKUs to have on hand in all these different sizes. So I totally understand why they would go with this sort of model where people buy it, they buy it based on their size. And then we have another one where it's exactly what you just said, where they customize.

Annah:

Yeah. It's hard for me to be able to do like made to order on a retail level because I can't source materials just for a single product and then or predict that I'll sell this much of something. I do a pre-order system, like right now with my apparel I'm doing, which has really taken off, I do clothing with vintage antique saris and we do apparel. And somehow the past few months it really took off and I sold out of them. So I started a pre-order thing and it was like, all these stores that have bought from me before. I'm like, "I'm doing this production run one more production run for this summer. Would you like to place an order?" Keeping in mind pandemic and all of this, there's a 60-day window. I have to be upfront about all of this stuff.

The unfortunate thing that happens a lot of times when you work in countries like India and everything is like, they want the order so badly. And of course, they want to give it to you like yesterday, but they're unable to, but they'll still tell you that they're going to give it to you within that short timeframe. So I try to be as realistic. In fact, I overshoot, if I know it'll be four weeks, I'll say six weeks. So it's challenging. The made to order on a retail front for me personally, would be challenging.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

Do you find that your vendors have been sympathetic to the time windows? I mean, in terms of when you go back and you say "we're probably going to need about 60 days. Thank you so much for, you know, supporting the work we're doing." Do you find that they've been amenable to the longer time?

Annah:

It's funny, it's in pandemic times that I've started the pre-order system. In the past, I used to make and keep a bunch of stock. But like with your shoemakers, since they are shoemakers, they probably don't want to keep all this stock, but they probably have the raw materials. So I'm contracting out, which means I don't have my own studio to do it. So I have to buy raw materials ahead of time. And I'm scared to do that if you send me an order for one product and I'm like, I have to buy a minimum of a hundred in order for me to get a good price. If I make one, it won't be worth it for me to sell it to you. It'll be too expensive. But most have been quite receptive. Like with the clothing, when I sent out the catalog to do it, [the timeline is] highlighted. This is how long it's going to take.

OM Interviewer Michaela:

Thank you so much, Annah for braving being my first guest!

 

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