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may the artisan reign supreme


It is September 14. I’ve been in Goa, India for six days. I flew Air India from Paris so the second I stepped onto the plane I was slapped in the face with the smell of India which made me so giddy and happy that I was like, cheesily smiling with my eyes at the other passengers as if to say, I know, isn’t this the best!?!? We made it! We’re going to INDIA!

In 2015 I was in Goa for a month. I loved it enough to stay for a month but it still wasn’t my favorite. I’d have to give that title to the hill stations of the Himalayas up north. But this time, it’s creeping into my soul in a totally different way. It’s low season, so although Goa can be pretty “full power” as we say here in India, there are almost no tourists here now and 80% of the shops and cafes aren’t even open.  I’m making a huge effort to learn Hindi (thank you Ashish for being my teacher!) and I’m picking it up quickly. And this time, I’ve returned with a purpose. A purpose that has led me specifically to Goa. A purpose that has been three years in the making. (Wait, is purpose a really weird word or did I just say it too many times so it turned into one?)

The purpose is this: 

To create a more sustainable artisanal economy that helps the local artisan reign supreme.

may the local artisan reign supreme

To do this, I am partnering with local artisans in underdeveloped countries to bring their handmade and custom goods to customers who can and will pay a more fair price than the artisans can command in their home countries. To truly foster sustainability, and to demonstrate my commitment to the artisans themselves, I will be sharing profits with the artisans when goods are sold.

Why am I doing this?

There are artisans all over the world making the most beautiful and thoughtful things with their own two hands. They spend hours upon hours making. Their handiwork is their livelihood. But particularly in underdeveloped countries like India, these artisans are at the mercy of the bargain-hungry tourists who, when in India – even if they can afford to pay more, and would pay more back ‘home’ – want to pay India prices. They negotiate like crazy, suggesting they’ll walk away from the sale if the artisan doesn’t reduce the price by another dollar. And we’re talking about the difference between like, three dollars and four dollars here. On the flip side we have the big retailers of the world, who send scouts around the globe searching for trends and unique techniques frequently found in artisanal shops. They’ll spot something in India, have it mass-produced in a factory in Asia for even cheaper than the Indian shop price, and then sell it in a US store at a 1000% markup. Customers appreciate and even fawn over the novelty (duh, because the designs are usually awesome!), so they’re happy to pay the price retailers command. Artisanal trends make their way onto the wrists and shoulders of customers around the world… but unfortunately, you know who sees no benefit from this system? The artisan. 

And I, myself was guilty of relentless bargaining during my first India trip. Early in my trip I remember one time I was buying something from a shop and I was haggling to no end. We got to a point where the seller wanted 300 INR (Indian Rupees) and I wanted to pay 250 INR. At the time, and on my budget, saving 50 rupees seemed significant. And while in India, I’m living on INR (not USD) and it’s natural to want the best price. In my mind, she would be lucky to make the sale. Well, I knew if I threatened to walk away, she would cave. So I started to walk away and sure enough, she did cave. But in the moment of transaction, as I handed her the 250, I caught a look in her eyes that made my stomach drop. She was not happy to have made the sale. She was instead sad to have had to make the sale. She had no choice but to agree to my price. If she hadn’t, she’d have been left with nothing. She couldn’t afford to be left with nothing. So she agreed to a price that undervalued her hard work so that she could at least gain something. Meanwhile I would have paid ten times the price for the same thing back home in New York without batting an eyelash. Here I had ‘won’ the negotiation but the equation was all wrong. In such a transaction, shouldn’t everyone win? We don’t want to be ripped off, but we also don’t want to rip someone else off, do we? From then on, my goal when negotiating with artisans would be for both parties to be happy. I wanted to walk away from every negotiation feeling great about the price I’d paid and I wanted the artisan to feel great about what he or she had earned for his or her work. That’s why profit-sharing with the artisans is such a critical part of this idea. Everyone wins!

You may be wondering, ‘can’t the artisans just sell by themselves on Etsy or eBay so they can reach customers in the US?’ and the answer is, sadly, not really. As I’ve asked those same questions I’ve learned there are significant barriers to getting artisans online. Some of these barriers include: lack of computer, lack of reliable internet access, frequent lack of electricity/power, lack of business savvy and perhaps most critically, inability to read and/or write in English. 

For example, Sunny, the first artisan I’ll be working with, can speak English relatively well but he cannot read or write. He does not know the letters of the alphabet or the written symbols we use to represent those letters (like Aa, Bb, Cc). Sunny and I communicate using voice notes on WhatsApp. Even that can sometimes be difficult because we can’t see each others’ hand or face expressions which play a HUGE role in our ability to understand each other. Mostly I try to just go sit in the shop with him to do planning stuff.

Here are some pics to give you a break from reading:

cooking bhati for dinner in sunny’s apartment last night. (sunny is actually not in this photo, he had to make a quick trip to Rajasthan where he is originally from.)

beachside shacks temporarily abandoned during low season in goa.

view from a restaurant on the main beach in arambol. the only strip of proper restaurants open right now. in high season it will be POPPIN (“full power”).

my friend brad getting a beard trim, an edge and a scalp massage “like the best one i’ve had in a long time, it was completely awesome” (brad dictated that to me)

on the wall at the hostel where i’m staying until my other room is ready. mayyyjah shout-out to kartik and sourabh who run this place and are the most sound human beings! (jessie & patrice did i use it right?)

So, we haven’t built the sustainable artisanal economy yet and it’s time! We all know I’m quite the shopper and consumer myself and I am in no way blaming consumers for the status quo. And business is business. I understand that we all need to make a living so I’m not hating on the big retailers either.  In fact I’m acknowledging that customers have great taste and the scouts at places like Anthropologie have a great eye. I just feel really passionately about finding a way to help everybody win. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about solving this problem and I definitely won’t be the last. But it is officially my mission to try.

And for real… as scared as I am to be taking this leap… I am so, SO pumped!!! I so believe this model can work and when I think about the long-term impact of its success – the quality of life and the opportunities it can create for local artisans everywhere – I just want to jump up and down with joy.

And it’s fun for me as well because I’m so passionate about handicrafts. I have ALWAYS loved spending time in markets. I don’t go anywhere without spending time in the respective local market. I’m kinda tooting my own horn here but it’s true: I have developed a really sharp eye for techniques, textiles, patterns and provenances. I can walk into a market almost anywhere in the world and tell you where each of the products came from and how they were made. It’s kinda my superpower. This will be imperative both for sharing product stories and also for qualifying that each piece is 100% handmade.

So, Sunny is the first artisan I’ll be working with. Sunny and I met in 2015 in Manali, India which is in the Himalayas. But like many Indians, Sunny spends half his time in the north and half in the south, so now he is in Goa preparing for high season here. Sunny’s specialty is handmade macrame jewelry – in particular, anklets, headbands and hair lulu’s (kinda like hair wraps) – and I absolutely love his pieces. They are so well made, so thoughtfully designed and surprisingly durable! They’re bohemian, but not too out-there. They’re feminine, easy to wear and they just feel special. I’ve been wearing one bracelet for 3 years through oceans, showers, weddings and more and it’s still in excellent condition. I’ve searched many places both IRL and URL and I’ve never found anything like Sunny’s pieces. Similar, yes – but not exactly the same and definitely not as great. And I am so excited to bring to life the experience of Sunny’s shop. It is covered in macrame and other handmade jewelry from floor to ceiling. The energy is so lovely – shoes off at the door, sitting on the floor, drinking chai tea, with incense burning, hindi music playing and Sunny making. I bought 10 things from him during my last visit to India and regretted not buying 100. We’ve stayed in touch and it has been truly surreal to be reunited with him here.

Don’t even get me started on all of the questions that need to be answered in order to make this work. Where will the products be sold IRL and online? Do I need to partner with local retailers or is direct-to-consumer better? What should be the price of each product? How will I find customers? What’s the deal with shipping internationally? Can Sunny make enough pieces? How long will each piece take? And about a thousand other questions related to product development, marketing, sales, legal, budget and more. The good news is that I’ve identified the questions and am busting ass to answer them.

One thing I do know is that this thing will have to launch in phases, as I won’t have the perfect e-commerce site or beautiful product photography for quite some time. Phase One aka Soft Launch will be mostly for friends and family, and will most likely rely on connecting a payments processor to an existing platform like Instagram. Items will be made to order until there is enough demand for me take on inventory at quantity. The first items for sale will be macrame anklets, macrame headbands (they double as chokers or double-wrapped bracelets) and hair sticks. These hair sticks have changed my life… I swear to G they make ANY hair day a good (or at least MUCH better) hair day!! I’ll share photos ASAP.

And guys… I am willing to do anything to make this work. It is super important to me that prices are fair for customers. I am investing all of my own money. I’m here during off season (it picks up in November) and I’m not even staying in a guest house. I’m in a hostel for the next week until I move into a room which is part of a Goan family’s home. I will have no hot water and no WiFi. Guys, no hot water. For at least a month. I will sleep on a wooden bed with a mat laid on top. I will stay in Goa for as much of my visa validity (six months) as I can afford. Lucky for me I embrace this kind of experience but for what it’s worth, I am making these choices in order redirect that money (which would otherwise be spent on myself) to the business.

Okay a few more pics to give you another break from reading:

my dear friend Ashish at Paradise Beach, about 10km north of Arambol where I live. Ashish and I met in Rishikesh in 2015 (same place we both met Mike, who I stayed with in Australia when I first left NY a couple of months ago). I also stayed with Ashish for a couple of days in New Delhi at some point during my last trip. I was boarding my flight to India when I texted Ashish that I was en route to Goa and next thing I know he’s on a train here. He got to Arambol like 4 hours after I did. What a way to land, seeing old friends immediately!!

Post-breakfast church chillin

Scoping out some of the techniques at another shop in Arambol (this one is not Sunny’s shop)

When you go to change the settings on your friend’s phone but get this from the drop-down menu…

Finally, the name! This endeavor is called reign_wala.

reign_wala

Wala is a Hindi word, kind of an informal slang word, that means “the guy/girl who makes/sells the [fill in the blank].” It’s kinda like ‘smith,’ as in locksmith or silversmith. In India we have the fruit wala up the road selling apples and the chai wala making ten cups of chai. Sometimes Sunny calls himself a “malawala” because “mala” means necklace and he makes lots of macrame necklaces. For all intents and purposes it’s interchangeable with “artisan.” Sunny says that wala also means “famous,” as in, the guy who’s famous for the thing. The concept behind this name is of course that with this model, we help the wala – the artisan, the maker – reign supreme.

So, thank you in advance for sharing this journey with me, from wherever you are in the world. I have shared this idea with so many of you over the past three years and I can’t believe I’m now in building mode. Starting a business is really, really frightening and anxiety-producing. I mean for one thing, I don’t have an income right now. Imagine you have a pile of money from which cash only goes out, it does not come in. Ever. And I’m staring at a Google Spreadsheet with 110 (literally) action items and questions to answer and I am responsible for every single one of them. I’m embarrassed about self-promotion which is necessary for exposure. Awkward things are gonna happen on social media, like changing my Instagram handle to represent the name of the business. I’m scared to fail both practically because it would cost me my entire savings and emotionally it would be embarrassing and shameful. But deep down, the thing I am most scared of is not giving this a real shot and wishing that I had. Some of my friends whom I admire tremendously have started businesses and have been coaching me all along (Hi Laura <3). I’ll take all the help I can get so if you’re a founder and want to share pointers I’m all ears! Another silver lining: as I’m posting this, it happens to be the first day of Ganesha Chaturthi, an Indian festival honoring Ganesha, son of Shiva and Paravati and God of Abundance and Prosperity. Everyone in Goa is making celebrations in the home. I think it’s a wonderful day to “launch” this business. :) So at the risk of inducing the dreaded eye-roll… if you’re down for the cause, help a sister out and follow on Instagram (@alz5) for updates and soft launch. And puh-lease share this site and idea with anyone you think will appreciate! THANK YOU.

Much much love, respect and prosperity to all, and may the artisan reign supreme!

PS: Deleted scenes from Portugal and France leading up to India, coming soon. :)