Saturday, July 15, 2017

How to build an ethical design business?

- by Deepa Krishnan

I went to Kala Ghoda yesterday to meet a young man named Yazad. He is from LA, but is here in Mumbai now. The Parsi entrepreneurial streak is calling to Yazad, and he is plotting his own design label. He wants to launch a brand of ethical, sustainable clothing for millennials. 

Just before meeting Yazad, I went to the new Translate store at Kala Ghoda, and I couldn't help thinking what a great learning ground this store is. Yazad could learn lots of things from this brand.
True to its name, Translate has taken the traditional technique of ikat, as woven in the village of Pochampally near Hyderabad, and translated that into something contemporary, innovative and stylish. Urban women can wear these clothes easily, confidently, in lots of different leisure contexts. Some of the shift dresses can be worn to work as well. Translate has taken care with design and finish; the quality is easily visible. The sizing and cuts are designed for real women, not impossibly skinny models.

Clearly, Translate knows their audience, and has managed to find a price point at which the business is able to thrive. And they have found a clear design identity niche as well: ikat for sophisticated urban tastes. After their initial days in Hyderabad, they have now expanded into Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. 

Any successful design and clothing business, especially one that works with traditional crafts, needs a lot of different ingredients to work well. First, there is product creation itself. This kind of product cannot be done with just top-down design inputs from a designer. It is often is a collaborative process, with the realities of the craft interacting with the sensibilities of the designer.

The designer brings their understanding of the customer and market into the game. The craftsperson brings  their own understanding of fabric, colour, and technique. In the case of ikat, for example, they bring a very sophisticated understanding of dyeing of warp and weft into patterns. Locating the business close to the craft source is a good way to ensure there is ongoing collaboration between the designer and the craftsperson. 

But product creation is just the beginning of the story. I was telling Yazad last night that too many designers spend all their energy worrying about the product design. In the process, they forget to focus on the other things that make a sustainable commercial success.

It's hard for one person to have all the abilities to make everything work. But if you look at successful designers, you'll see that they all have sharp commercial acumen as well. They've managed to figure out how to finance their business. They've figured out pricing and margins. They've often started out with very low overhead costs, and only later taken on big fixed expenses. They've learnt the fine art of storytelling around their work, creating the necessary buzz (even when their marketing budgets were close to zero). These are fundamental entrepreneurial skills, which someone like Yazad has to cultivate if he is serious about getting into the design business. 

The other big part of the story is ethics. Yazad wants to run an ethical business. In the design world, this means paying fair wages, giving credit where it is due, and not copying designs. It means following a fair pricing policy. It means upholding the laws of the land. It's really tough for anyone except an insider to figure out whether a business is being run on ethical lines. I'm sure for every ethical design house that exists, there many more pretenders.

Running an ethical business can be very difficult, simply because it often means your costs will be higher than those of competitors with fewer scruples. How does one survive in a situation like that? It may mean you need to accept lower margins for yourself. It may mean raising prices - but then customers must be convinced that your products offer them value for the premium that they pay you. What are you giving them, that someone else isn't? Designers must answer that question with brutal clarity if they want to succeed.

In the process, you must also define who you want as your customer. And who you don't.  Here's the thing: You cannot build an ethical business that will cater to *everyone*. Do not agonize over the ones who go away. Learn some equanimity. 

My personal belief is that an ethical business can be built only when you don't really place money above all else. You need to be able to accept financial losses when ethics cost you money and customers. Sometimes really big setbacks will come and knock you off your feet. You have to pick yourself up and find the path again. If your value proposition is right, you will find that sweet spot, where customers and money will all come your way. But when push comes to shove, you have to be able to say, "This much is enough for me. More than this is greed. If I do this greedy thing, it will compromise what my brand stands for." 

I hope Yazad will find his path to ethical success. I hope he will find this sweet spot. 

Yazad is the nephew of my friend Gulserene. Last night we had dinner at Chetna at Kala Ghoda. Here are a couple of photos. By now I guess at least *some* of you want to see who this Yazad is. That's him in the maroon shirt. OK, OK, burgundy if you prefer :-) My friend Gulserene is the one with the arms folded on the table. We were chatting into the night, long after our plates were cleared.  
At last night's dinner, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Sunil Pandya of KEM, who has been at the forefront of medical ethics in India. Dr. Pandya's wife Shubha - sitting just across from me - is also a doctor (her area is leprosy); and she has a PhD in history as well. Next to Yazad is Dr. Lopa Patel, again from KEM, whose research work on cancer has generated much controversy. She has stood firm by her beliefs. What an amazing set of people, each making a difference to the world in their own way. Gulserene made a documentary on KEM, called "Getting Better" - and she is the thread that tied us all together. More about her documentary in some other post, perhaps!


Vimala sriram said...

Very well written..holds true for any business venture iguess

Vimala sriram said...

Very well written...holds good for any business venture I guess

Shanti Arunkumar said...

Very well explained about the dynamics of a business venture whose priority is ethics.

Shanti Arunkumar said...

Very well explained about the actual dynamics of how a business which is driven by the ethics factor....

Shanti Arunkumar said...

Very well explained about the actual dynamics of any business which is driven by the ethics factor....

Alison Abbott said...

Nicely done Deepa. You it on so many important points. I especially liked "you can't build an ethical business for everyone", one of the hardest things for an entrepreneur to accept.

Zee institute of creative Art Borivali said...


Haddock said...

Good to catch up with some intellectual grounded people.

Long time no posts ?

Tanya said...

Amazing Post Deepa. Would love to hear more from you.

indu.diva said...

“Value Proposition” - so so important . Truly it isn’t about just the money . Look forward to a session by you for us start-up enterpreneurs .