17 Aug 2018 14:01 IST

Connecting rural artisans with urban buyers

E-commerce site GoCoop works with handloom weavers across India to create trendy styles

After 12 years in the corporate world, Siva Devireddy decided to bring to life a business idea that was tucked away in the back of his mind for many years, in 2012. GoCoop is an online marketplace that connects rural handloom artisans of India to fair markets around the world.

Siva says it took a couple of years to establish himself at the grassroots level, understand the challenges artisans face and help them realise the potential of the internet as a marketplace. “It took me two years to set up the supply chain and connect with handloom clusters across the country. We began marketing GoCoop only in 2014 and since then we have had more than 20,000 customers, and we work with more than 100 B2B buyers,” he explains. There is a B2B component to the start-up, where it works with retail buyers to source fabrics and other handloom products from artisans in its network. It also directly caters to consumers who can either buy fabric or ready-made products, such as dupattas, salwars and stoles, on the website.

Solid reputation

GoCoop works predominantly with weavers though it has a few kalamkari block printers from Andhra Pradesh, dhokra artisans from Odisha, and embroidery workers from North Karnataka and Gujarat, in its network. The company has a strong rural presence in the South. In addition to the five southern States, it has clusters in five others — Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Siva has worked hard to build credibility for the company. Now he doesn’t need to convince artisans to market through his site — they want to work with GoCoop because of its reputation. Though there are numerous e-commerce platforms that sell similar products, Siva isn’t worried. “We need more platforms in this sector if we want to solve artisans’ problems. Competition is healthy. In such a fragmented sector, creating a monopoly is not possible. If weavers are to really benefit, they should have the opportunity to work with different players.”

GoCoop tries to reach out to artisans working on endangered art forms as well. It supplies to over 20 countries, including the US, the UK, Germany and Australia. According to Siva, 14 per cent of the sales is international. “And 90 per cent of our B2C customers are women between the ages of 30 and 45.”

Explaining how the pricing works, Siva says, “A weaver decides the price. We advise them on what the market potential of a product is and how much commission they pay us. After that, it is up to them to decide.”

Entrepreneurial journey

Though he had the idea for the start-up much earlier, he was reluctant to make the entrepreneurial jump because technology penetration and adoption were in a nascent stage. “Growing up in Guntur, I saw the challenges weavers face in marketing their produce. As I grew up, I moved to the US for my Masters and started working there. In the early 2000s, I got to see technology mature; people began to imagine a world where technology could connect people across the world and solve problems. I started thinking of an e-commerce platform that could help rural artisans back home in 2010. I realised at that point in time that using technology for the sake of using it isn’t a goal I wanted to achieve; I wanted to use it to solve real social problems.”

Explaining the business model, he says, “There are two models. One allows the vendors to sell their product on their own. We charge a commission, like any other platform. The second is a B2B model where we act as a vendor and charge a margin on a product.” GoCoop was bootstrapped by three people. “Along with my own investment, two friends — Jagan and Srinivas — decided to come on as promoters and brought in capital. In 2014, we raised seed funding from Unitus Seed Fund and Indian Angel Network. Then, in 2016, we did a pre-series A round and got investments from Kris Gopalakrishnan and Saha Fund. In total, we have raised close to $2 million.”

Expansion plans

“Our first task was to try and organise the supply chain — it was a big challenge because the chain is very fragmented and weavers aren’t connected to the market easily. Next we created a market that is fair to both sides. Then we realised there is a need for product development in the sector. There are many men who want to wear good quality handloom shirts but the products available are of fairly low quality — they will probably shrink, run colour and have no design aesthetics. The same applies to sarees — women want handloom sarees but in contemporary designs. People want to buy handloom products but struggle with the design, quality and aesthetics of the product,” explains Siva.

This need for a brand that understands the consumer and takes care of artisans is what led to the creation of GoodLoom, a label that retails handloom garments in a contemporary style. “We wanted to develop a brand that would address all these requirements. It took us almost a year to put together GoodLoom.” Now, GoCoop plans to open stores across the country.