How Karma Bhutia’s iShippo is putting local handicrafts online

Bengaluru: Karma Bhutia, founder and chief executive of online handicrafts retailer iShippo, hails from the hilly terrains of Sikkim in north-eastern India. He has memories of a childhood spent with schoolmates who helped their families earn a living by herding cattle. Since herding involved much standing or sitting around, the boys would while away time by cutting down bamboo to make crude flutes.

Forty-one-year-old Bhutia remembers many other instances from his childhood where the creativity of people in far-flung areas like his village in Khamdong shone through. “They used to make tokris (baskets), mudahs (low stools) and madhal or mridangams (drums) at home in my village,” he says.

“In the last couple of years there’s a resurgence, or a re-understanding if you like, of our own Indianess. This, globally, has invigorated a curiosity for brand India,” said Bhutia, who has always taken a keen interest in technology, and loves football and music. This resurgence was the impetus behind the launch of iShippo in 2015.

Bhutia’s first entrepreneurial venture, though, was a tech firm called Sourcen that he co-founded. That company was acquired in 2015, but it gave Bhutia the experience he needed to take forward his idea of transforming his village’s creativity into a business. Investment in iShippo so far has been $150,000, mostly raised by Bhutia—the sole founder of the bootstrapped business—from his family and friends.

The firm launched its retail website in February 2016 with technology that was developed in-house, given Bhutia’s background. The venture won the Mbillionth Award in 2016 for the early stage category.

Apart from being a destination where end consumers place orders, the iShippo website also functions as a place where buyers and sellers can interact. The website aims to support local artisans, weavers and other communities from villages. The company also has a mobile application that consumers can download. It sells everything from home décor—such as cushion covers, trays, mugs, artwork, lamps and candles—to jewellery and even personal care products.

“There is a sizeable market now that says ‘I want to buy ethically sourced products’, ‘I want to wear something that is organic’, ‘I want clothes made from dyes that are not chemical and don’t harm my skin’,  etc. There is much awareness now,” says Bhutia, explaining who and where his customer base is.

It is not just start-ups like iShippo that have recognized the importance of handmade traditional products. A simple search for “handicrafts” on online retailing giant Amazon.com Inc.’s website yields more than 200,000 results. And only last month, Ananya Birla, Kumar Mangalam Birla’s daughter, launched a website called Curocarte.com which sells luxury handmade products sourced from around the world.

“I guess how we are different is we’ve created a whole ecosystem by trying to tie-in the artisans and the designers. Our target is more about getting the curation of products right. We have partnered with the Union textile ministry and have a huge responsibility. So when we talk about our products, it has to be genuine,” says Bhutia.

The company has around 6,000-7,000 artisans on board right now and also works with self-help groups and non-governmental organizations. iShippo, which employs around 20 people currently, ships only within India. But the focus next is to ship globally, starting with the US, by tying up with exporters. 

The path towards that goal is not going to be easy though. “When someone places an order, the artisan should have the bandwidth and resources to meet it. This is not like an Amazon, or a Flipkart, for instance where it doesn’t matter if one person is (unwell or on holiday), you will still get your smartphone delivered. Here every artisan matters when it comes to satisfying customers,” he says.

A major final hurdle is connectivity. Far-flung areas in India are still poorly connected. “Most of these artisans are not even in tier II cities. They are in really isolated areas. There is a gap between the end consumers who have an app at their fingertips and the artisans at far-flung areas who have no use for computers. But that’s a challenge for another day,” adds Bhutia. 

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.

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