We Bootstrapped A $1.2M/Year Ethnic Fashion Brand [Top 1% Etsy Store]

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello everyone, I am Aparna Thyagarajan. I Co-Founded Shobitam, one of the fastest-growing ethnic fashion brands with my sister Ambika in 2019. We work with our talented weavers, and award-winning artists to design, curate, and deliver beautiful ethnic weaves. Through our brand, we aim to make traditional Indian handlooms accessible across the globe.

We operate with a grand vision of “democratizing ethnic fashion globally” and our mission is to make people “Look good, Feel good, and Do good.” We proudly follow a “Weavers First and Customers First” approach. Driven by our deep understanding of technology, we are building a digital-first company. Within 2 years, Shobitam has gained over 40,000+ social media followers, tens of thousands of customers, and shipped to over 30 countries.

Currently, the brand houses 1000+ Products like Sarees, Blouses, Gowns, Dupattas, Jewelry, etc. Most of our products are handwoven using intricate heirloom weaving techniques that are centuries old. We are also busting the myth that only luxury silk fabrics are popular amongst the South Asian community outside the subcontinent. From our experience, we now know that any weave that is authentic and priced appropriately finds its audience.

With technology-enabled solutions, we have been able to provide our customers with a hassle-free buying experience. We have been able to bank on the dramatic acceptance of e-commerce during the Pandemic. Even during these tough COVID times, the brand is seeing an explosive growth of 300 percent YOY.

 

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Both Ambika and I have an engineering and technology background. Before Shobitam I was part of an amazing work environment at Microsoft. As my kids were young, I decided to take a career break to be with them. It was during this time I thought of pursuing my passion for fashion. In 2018, when our parents were visiting us in Seattle, I tossed the idea during a casual dinner conversation. The entire family welcomed my line of thought with my sister Ambika leading the pack. Together we decided to take the plunge and Co-Found Shobitam.

Both of us have creative minds and we had several hobby projects in the past. The women of the family like our mother and aunts designed and stitched clothes for us. Due to this, we had early exposure to various fabrics, textures, and colors from a very young age. We were always appreciated for the looks we came up with during our school and college days. Our friends and family often checked with us for fashion advice.

There is no better teacher than experience. So if you have an idea that you feel confident about, don't wait for a perfect moment.

Our days spent across several cities in India (Delhi, Chennai, Kashmir, etc) also had a part to play. These are the respective shopping hubs of North and South India. Apart from this, we also had family living in Europe and the USA. This gave us ample exposure to all the latest trends across the board. It also gave us a good idea about the ethnic fashion preferences of people globally.

In many ways, Shobitam is an extension of our personalities. I moved to the US in the early 2000s. My love affair with sarees started after I moved here. It was more than a piece of garment. For me, it is a mood lifter as it instantly opens up a reservoir of memories. For millions of people living outside the subcontinent, it is a medium that connects them back to their roots. It is the easiest way they can get their friends to experience a slice of their culture.

However, shopping for ethnic fashion here in the US has never been a pleasant experience. It is not easy to find anything beyond the usual that too at an exorbitant price. I have often found friends and family echoing the thought. The absence of a well-organized south Asian tailoring system adds to the trouble. It is not always possible to dedicate time for shopping during visits to your native country. All this got us thinking, ideating, and developing a persona for Shobitam.

During our research, we found out that the size of the Indian ethnic wear market is 23 billion dollars. If we were to focus on sarees and allied products we would be looking at 70 percent of the Total Addressable Market(TAM).

After several rounds of research, and strategic discussions, we decided to start small and listed our brand on Etsy. Our first order came from France within days of our launch. The stocks that we thought would last for a few months were over in a matter of days. Our first set of customers had lovely things to say about their experience with us. They not only came back for more, but they also spread the word and brought in more customers. It was during the festive season of 2019 (Sept-Oct) we saw a massive demand. The entire family had to chime in and help with the growing orders and shipments. We were shipping to Australia, Singapore, UK, and all over North America. It was during this time we realized that our ideas were resonating with like-minded people. This gave us all the confidence to double down as a full-fledged start-up!

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Ambika and I are completely self-taught. We always shopped from hidden gems in the nooks and corners of the heritage cities we lived in. Due to this, we have a rough idea of the costs involved depending on the fabric and work done on it. We finalized the products for the brand based on current trends, style, and comfort. From the beginning, our goal was to cater to anyone who is looking to buy authentic pieces.

Our aim was also to recreate the experience one would have while buying fashion from their native land. The handloom sector of India is the second-largest employer of the country. India has 28 states with each state having several original weaves. This meant we had to work on a wide variety of collections that were trendy, unique, and best in class.

We built a repertoire that had an interesting mix. It included the luxury silks like Kanchipuram, Banarasi, Pochampally, and Gadwal. The classic silk cotton variety like Venkatagiri and Mangalagiri. Cotton sarees like Madurai sungudi, and breezy drapes like the Linens. Most of these are fuss-free drapes and are perfect for any weather. The versatility of fabrics like linen allows all sorts of design possibilities.

One need not dig deep into their pockets to buy them either. Apart from these, we were looking to offer something different. We introduced cruelty-free Vegan silks, a fabric that was not used much even in India. The yarn for these sarees is derived from Banana fibers. They are quite tricky to craft but the end product, though not from silkworms, has a similar sheen to that of luxury silk.

Once we zeroed in on the product categories, we reached out to more weavers through known sources. These conversations were an eye-opener for us. We now had more clarity on the art and science that goes into weaving a handloom saree. We learned that no two pieces are the same. The minor irregularities due to human touch only made each piece more valuable.

We trained ourselves to distinguish a defect from a weaving inconsistency. After testing products from several vendors, we were able to develop a blueprint for quality control. Some of the sarees were very delicate and needed a lot of care. Our next step was to find out packaging options that will help in the safe delivery of products. We also had the herculean task of building a solid system for logistics as we were sourcing products from the length and breadth of India.

The stringent quality control process that we put in place helped us to filter through and get the best from each lot. To maintain exclusivity, we decided to restrict the number of products under each style. However, we had to bring back a few styles quickly due to popular demand.

As mentioned earlier we were looking to give our customers an experience and not just a product. We felt the need to pass some important information to our potential customers. It was decided that each product that we list will carry information on the type of fabric, the style of weaving, and the place of origin. Packaging plays a key role in delivering a premium experience.

After mulling over many options we decided on designed cloth bags that were both functional and attractive. To make it more personal, we also slid in personalized notes that gave more background to the purchase. Though we placed a lot of thrust on the packaging, we didn't know then that it was soon going to become a talking point and a part of our identity.

Once we designed a customer experience strategy, we did rigorous tests for quality, pricing consistency, and logistics. We decided to launch Shobitam on Etsy first as it was a good way to check product viability and scalability. 

Describe the process of launching the business.

Shobitam started as a self-funded enterprise. We listed Shobitam on Etsy during Women’s day, March 8th, 2019. After a dream run on Etsy, by early 2020 we were ready to scale and launched our website (Shobitam.com). We did this by leveraging Shopify and its ecosystem of e-commerce solutions.

Everything at Shobitam revolves around this mantra 'Look good, feel good and do good.' This was the approach we adhered to even during the launch days. More than doubling the volumes, our focus was to obsess on each customer who did business with us. We spent time designing an experience they would cherish. So our strategy was to have a strong lineup of fine quality products at fair prices (look good). Match this with impeccable customer service (feel good). Partner with world-class organizations that champion the cause of education and children (Do good).

  • We worked on three major customer pain points. We believe each of the below-mentioned steps led to customer acquisition, retention, and increased word of mouth.
  • Though the target market was huge, there was a lack of variety and quality. We addressed this by bringing the best product selections that included fabric types and designs from all over India.
  • Shipping was another hurdle for customers. It involved added costs and a long wait that ran into weeks especially if they were shipping from India. We ship within 2 - 3 working days at no extra costs.
  • The other area was value-added services. Attaching falls to the saree and edging it at the hem is highly recommended. Apart from getting a better drape, it also protects the garment from tears and entanglement with footwear. Though they are important, sarees are usually not sold with falls. We decided that all Shobitam sarees will come with falls and edging at no extra cost.
  • Finally, we also adopted no-questions-asked returns or exchange policy. This gave the customers the confidence and motivation to try a new brand like ours. Due to the five-star product experience, and high focus on quality control, we saw very low return rates (< 1%). The ease in the purchase journey also resulted in the consistent growth of excellent ratings. Today we have over 1900+ 5 Star Reviews.

Our biggest lesson learned during the launch days is that a crisis can knock on your door when you least expect it. As a fledgling business one should be able to quickly adapt and rise to the situation. The whole world went into lockdown within months of launching the website. It took us some time to find our feet again.

We had to re-calibrate and make some quick decisions. As a result of this, we not only survived but we thrived in these challenging times. We built very well on our strategy of being digital-first e-commerce driven business as customers turned online for their needs.

 

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Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We truly believe that our underlying magic is driven by the formula, “Great Content with UX” + “Deep Community Engagement” leads to “Commerce” with high customer satisfaction and repeat rates

Since we have built a base of customers who are invested in our brand, email marketing works very well for us. All our patrons get a weekly update of our latest collections. We also have a growing customer referral program. Our existing customers can refer their friends and family with offers for both parties through Smile.io solutions. We partner with micro-influencers for affiliate programs. They get a percentage from the sales that happen via their promotion.

We also engage with our global audience through daily Facebook posts, community content, and targeted ads. This helps us in generating customer leads and driving growth. We also run a social media initiative called 'Shobitam Fashionista’, the program has helped us to build a community. We showcase our customers in all the finery bought from Shobitam on our social media platforms. Today a lot more of them endorse us on their social media handles without us asking them for a favor.

We have also got good traction through video shopping through Instagram live. Taking the customers through our products in a lively way has helped us gain a lot of eyeballs. This has eventually led to conversion as well. Today we have a dedicated team to analyze and visualize our conversion funnel. They tweak our marketing strategies by mapping the unique conversion flow.

In summary, we truly believe that our underlying magic is driven by the formula, “Great Content with UX” + “Deep Community Engagement” leads to “Commerce” with high customer satisfaction and repeat rates.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We have had a good year so far and we are bullish about the future. In 2020, which was our first full year of operation, we clocked in half a million dollars in revenue. We gained over 6000 customers and received excellent reviews from our customers globally. In 2021, we are growing at over 300% YoY. We have added over 11,000+ customers and have shipped to over 30+ countries so far.

Though the majority of our sales come through our website, Etsy continues to be an important channel for us. We have become a Top 1% store on Etsy within a short period. We have earned more than 1900+ five-star ratings on Etsy alone with several more on our website.

We have a highly active social media community with our Facebook page growing to over 35000+ followers. We are building our presence on Instagram with over 5000+ followers. We focused on building a Facebook community first, as our social media base is growing we have adopted a robust retargeting strategy.

Our gross margins after deducting inventory, fulfillment, and shipments stand at 55 %. Our net margins are around 12%. . A good chunk of our sales also comes from the subscribers of our mailing list. Currently, our Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) is $17 per customer with an Average Order Value of $ 184. Our return on ad-spend investment (ROAS) stands at 5.6 X which is above industry averages. We are also witnessing a customer repeat rate of 38% with a customer lifetime value of $ 348 in the 12 months. Our operational efficiency continues to improve with fulfillment costs, and inventory turns of 6 for the year.

If we have to break it down in simple terms, when we started we were shipping stocks from our homes in Seattle, California, and our parents' house in Bangalore, India. Today we have already grown to a base of over 140+ weavers and artisans working across 17 cities. We have opened and shifted offices twice with an employee count in both the USA & India that has more than doubled in 2 years. We continue to both grow and add talent at a rapid pace.

Currently, we are fast ramping up for the busy festive holiday season. In the coming months, we aim to keep building on our strengths, expand our product portfolio, and widen our presence in key markets.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

When we started it was just the two of us. We designed the website ourselves. Right from product photography to modeling to packaging and shipping, we did everything by ourselves. Each process, big or small, each decision big or small has been a huge learning curve for us

We relied on our strength of understanding technology and built our business 100% as a digital-first online-only venture. Though there were risks involved since we were selling products that require touch and feel, we strongly feel this decision paid off. Going online enabled us to double down with the COVID challenges. By leveraging tech, we could handhold the customers and win their trust by giving them a hassle-free experience. They realized the convenience of shopping from their homes for a niche product, so they returned for more. The onset of the pandemic meant that people were missing traveling back to their countries or going to stores. They were celebrating all the festivals in a manner that reminded them of their loved ones back home. This led to an increase in demand and a surge in online shopping with shifts in customer behavior.

Our biggest learning however was not recognizing the size of the online opportunity right at the beginning. India is the largest transnational community in the world with 18 million citizens living outside the country. Indian-Americans are the highest-earning ethnic group in the US with a $139,000 median household income. While the overall median US household income is $61,372 as per the US Census Bureau.

When we started, our hyper-focus was on quality control. Due to this we had limited SKUs and had restricted the number of artisans we worked with. As we are Seattle-based, our primary focus was only on the US market. It took us a while to realize the orders trickling in from other parts of the world could be a huge opportunity. With the onslaught of COVID in 2020, orders started pouring from countries like the UK, Canada, Singapore, and Australia.

Our learnings in 2020, helped us plan for 2021. At the beginning of 2021 itself, we scaled our inventory, widened our portfolio, and added more artisans to our network. As we had built a strong pipeline, we were able to expand our global coverage and manage the vast volumes that came in during the last 12 months. We were able to achieve this feat despite countries like India, where we source all our products, were shutting down in April this year. Our inventory stock up with a pre-positioning strategy has helped us build supplier moats with our weaver community.

Our decision to be a socially responsible business right from the beginning has struck a chord with our patrons. During the first and second waves of the pandemic, we were able to support our weaver communities in more ways than one. We kept buying from them despite being unsure if that would result in a sale or not. The demand we were able to generate for their products during these trying times paid off. Today we have a very healthy relationship with weavers and artisans across the board. They are developing product lines exclusively for us.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shopify is our sales platform. We work with Klaviyo and Privy for email marketing. Our order fulfillment with logistics is done through ShipStation. We depend on Slack Channels for internal communications. Customer chats are of huge priority for us and we do it with the help of Tidio. Apart from these, we use a whole bunch of other apps from the Shopify app ecosystem.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Our chance viewing of the Netflix documentary, Daughters of Destiny led us to partner with this inspiring organization called Shanti Bhavan. They work relentlessly for educating children belonging to economically poor families. We have been listening to several entrepreneurship and startup podcasts. All have been wonderful to learn from for scaling Shobitam.

We always tune into Masters of Scale by Reid Hoffmann. Other resourceful ones are The Goal Digger by Jenna Kutcher and She Did Her Way by Amanda Boleyn. Business books like “True North” have been guiding forces for us to build our startup with a sense of purpose. Both Ambika and I are spiritually inclined so we follow a lot of content on that. Apart from that, we follow blogs and influencers who extensively write about Indian handlooms.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

It is fine if you don't know every aspect of your business. Even though it is a highly competitive world, there is enough help available.

Our advice to anyone who wants to get started is that there is no better teacher than experience. So if you have an idea that you feel confident about, don't wait for a perfect moment. Chances are high that you will create that moment as you move forward in the journey.

Apart from being a socially responsible business, we invested a lot of time in building a strong trustworthy team. Today our team is agile enough to fill one another's shoes when there is a need. We have understood that solutions can come from anyone. Some of the most valid suggestions have come from unexpected people. Everyone from our customers to the person taking care of Ironing and folding clothes to the one handling logistics has given us insights that have helped us improve as a business.

It is fine if you don't know every aspect of your business. Even though it is a highly competitive world, there is enough help available. We rely a lot on our mentors who with their vast business knowledge help us with fresh perspectives.

We have stuck to our mission and vision from day one. Every decision that we have taken so far is led by our principle of being “Weavers First & Customer First”. Finally, we love our culture with strong values where we not only “Work Hard” but “Play Harder” to have fun as a team!

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always on the lookout for smart people who can join our team, especially in sales and marketing. We are open to interns who are willing to do full-time or part-time. Anyone interested can email us on this ID- hello@shobitam.com.


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