It started three years ago after a casual conversation about ethnic fashion between former technology executives.
Now sisters Aparna and Ambika Thyagarajan are leading a fast-growing direct-to-consumer online platform called Shobitam to democratize ethnic fashion globally and make a difference for the weavers and artisans involved.
The entrepreneurs initially started selling products on Etsy as a proof of concept. Early success encouraged them to launch the Seattle-based startup, building upon their past experience at Microsoft and Cisco.
A big challenge was navigating through a highly fragmented industry that uses archaic methods for online sales of ethnic wear, Aparna said. The startup focused on developing an engaging online shopping experience for more than 1,200 products by leveraging the latest software.
“Technology is the core pillar of what we are,” Aparna said.
Unlike many businesses that were forced to shut down when the pandemic arrived, Shobitam saw huge growth in its customer base due to the influx of people turning to online shopping.
With greater sales, Shobitam found more opportunities to advance its corporate social responsibility plan.
“It’s not just about making people look good through our products, but we want to do good to our community of weavers and artisans, who we work with directly,” Aparna said.
The second-largest employment sector in India after agriculture is the handloom industry. Most of the traditional handloom weavers and artisans Shobitam works with struggle along the poverty line.
So the company launched a program called “Shobitam Cares” that gives back half its profits to families in India affected by the pandemic lockdown.
Shobitam recently raised $1.5 million in a seed funding round from Hearth Ventures and angel investors. With $1.1 million in sales in 2021, revenue has tripled compared to 2019.
The company employs close to 30 people and has plans to grow. It aims to expand the product catalog by adding Indo-Western designs to appeal to the younger generation.
We caught up with Aparna Thyagarajan for this Startup Spotlight. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
We are different from our competitors because: We cover the length and breadth of India. We have the finest hand-sewn embroidery to the tie dye art of Gujarati, to the rich gold and silver woven Kanjivaram sarees. I don’t think anyone else really brings the length and breadth of India like we do. It’s also our technology, our collection of 1,200-plus products, convenience, and five-star service.
What we value most in the design of our products is: When we work with our weavers, the first thing that we care about is quality. The second thing is very unique designs. We’re not just in the process of buying and selling, but we want to make sure that our designs are very unique. Whether it’s the motifs, the fabrics, or the weave, we work closely with them to produce things that you would not find elsewhere. That’s one thing that makes customers come back to us.
Our customer distribution is: 60% of our customers are U.S.-based. Our next top five markets: Australia, Canada, U.K., Singapore, and New Zealand.
The most popular fabric on our website is: Banarasi silk.
The way we ensure fair trade practices for our weavers is: By working with them directly and avoiding middle people. What happens in the process of middle people is they make most of the money — the weavers and artisans don’t.
We list new sellers if: They are offering something that we currently don’t have, something new and high quality. Also, they should adhere to our standards. We have a few criteria that we look for in terms of delivery timelines, weaves, etc., but most of them are quality-based.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Passion and a sense of ownership is something innate that we look for. It’s passion that can take you through the craziest day. The second thing is ownership and responsibility. Every individual that’s part of our team knows exactly what they’re supposed to report on. Even if they’re not equipped with the right skills, it’s okay because that is something they learn through the process.
Working as sisters: We have very complementary qualities. I focus on the design part and she’s very good at negotiating, so we bring the best of both. That’s the strength. Sometimes we can have our differences, but we are able to get past that. Eventually, it’s a sisterly bond that takes over and helps us get past any hurdles that we may have.