If you have visited Kullu, Manali, or any key tourist destinations in Himachal Pradesh, it’s most likely that you picked up hand-woven light woollen shawls with geometric and colourful motifs or a Himachali cap or topi as a souvenir. But what if these are not authentic handloom products despite being told by the shopkeepers otherwise, and you paid a hefty price for it?
Kiran Thakur, Co-founder of HimalayanKraft, shares that 80 percent of what are popularly sold as handloom products are in fact powerloom products manufactured in Punjab.
“Unlike 15 years ago, when weavers in Kullu benefited from the demand for these products, today it is on the verge of facing extinction. Despite the growing popularity and demand, the weavers are rarely the ones earning income,” he says.
HimalayanKraft is an ecommerce platform for handloom products, predominantly from Himachal Pradesh and its surrounding states.
Since its inception in 2018, the startup has registered 200+ local weavers, and partnered with 30+ weavers societies and 50+ Self Help Groups. The startup retails through its own site as well and large ecommerce platforms such as Amazon, Flipkart, and other marketplaces.
“We have delivered our weavers’ art to 20+ Indian states and seven international countries like the the UK, the US, Germany, and the Netherlands. We have also partnered with many retailers from India. In addition, weavers are being trained to leverage their expertise to make other products in the fashion category.”
From a tour consultant to an entrepreneur
A former tourism professional, Kiran worked as a business tour consultant in New Delhi. He took care of travel arrangements for business and corporate meetings, trade fairs, and exhibitions for corporates.
“The job gave me immense exposure not just into the opportunities in the travel industry, but also into how a business works. That kindled the fire to start my own business,” Kiran says . “But, I was not sure as which sector I should foray into.” When he began studying and researching on what his next step should be, he decided to go back to his roots.
“I grew up in Kullu and had witnessed a rise in demand for shawls and topis from Himachal Pradesh, so I decided to see if there was merit in exploring a business here,” Kiran says.
He visited the Kullu handloom industry and weavers’ offices to get up to speed on the industry. That’s when he realised how powerloom products were being blatantly passed off as handloom products affecting the livelihood of weavers.
“I reached out to my friends to join me in my entrepreneurial stint. But, no one was interested to invest money and time in the startup. But, I was not discouraged and set out on the journey alone,” Kiran says.
But, his conviction and confidence in the idea and the impact it was likely to have soon helped him find a partner in an old friend, Jagat Thakur.
For five months, the two friends interacted with weavers and deep-dived to further understand the challenges and opportunities in the sector. They also put together a detailed portfolio of products. Then, they worked with a few local talents for photoshoots and began working on creating their own website and putting in place the processes to retail on ecommerce platforms.
A centre for authentic Himalayan handloom
“We sold our first product, a Kullu shawl, on Amazon. Even when our website went live, it was yet another Kullu shawl that we sold. Even today, it is one of our best-selling products,” Kiran says.
He adds thata the Kullu shawl is one of the best handloom products from the region, known for its distinct weaving design and pattern. Today, HimalayanKraft retails a number of handloom products such as stoles, knitted socks, mufflers, and jackets for both men and women.
“Ecommerce has given these weavers a new lease of life. But more importantly, it’s slowly giving them the recognition they truly deserve.”
Talking about how they are able to retail only authentic handloom products, Kiran says: “In the beginning, we collected details of all the registered weavers society and SHGs from the government handloom and khadi departments. We visited each of those societies and SHGs and connected with them.”
Now, with the rise in the demand, they are also leveraging social media to expand their networks of weavers. “We are calling weavers to register with us. Once they do so, we partner with them after checking if they produce original handloom products”
Challenges vs conviction
In Just two years, HimalayanKraft has grown exponentially. “Today, we have a steady business and the future outlook looks great,” Kiran says.
But this journey would not have been possible without the conviction of the founders. The challenges ranged from resistance from weavers to adopting new patterns to suit market trends to finding talent to set up the backend IT infrastructure for the ecommerce platform.
“Additionally, major ecommerce websites did not have a dedicated operational hub in a small town like Kullu. So we had to coordinate with them to bring Kullu under their operations and service radar. After two months of continuous effort, they began to operate in Kullu and we were able to list our product,” Kiran recalls.
He explains that in hindsight all the effort was worth it, considering that ecommerce is a major business driver for HimalayanKraft.
WhatsApp for Business: a business enabler
Today, as the business continues to grow, HimalayanKraft has found a friend in WhatsApp for Business.
“Since the last few years, people in India have found comfort in reaching out to businesses and communicating with them over WhatsApp as opposed to e-mail or even a phone call. So naturally, people reached out on our personal numbers.”
That meant they had to address queries individually, even though in most cases, the questions mostly related to the size of the product, patterns, weaving technique, etc. This was time and effort-intensive.
So when WhatsApp for Business was launched in India, the founders didn’t think twice before making it their official communication channel. WhatsApp for Business made it easy for the startup to share ready-to-share custom messages, locations of offline showrooms, and updates on new arrivals and catalogues.
“More importantly, we were able to put out information like name of the business, short description, location, categories, e-mail, website, address, social media links, catalogues, all in one place. This gave the business holistic exposure.”
He adds, “That apart, we were able to set up the ‘away messages’ when we are not online, greeting messages and quick replies, thereby connecting with the customer more easily.”
The label feature on the app helped the startup understand customer preferences better. In fact, today, 90 percent of the customer engagement happens on WhatsApp.
Scaling up, slowly and surely
While focusing on growing Himalayan Kraft, the startup is also stepping up measures to work closely with the Tourism Board and create awareness for handloom products.
“We want to empower our weavers and at the same time make customers happy. And, that’s why partnerships with tourism boards will be the key.”
HimalayanKraft is also planning to work on an affiliate business model to boost sales, because at the end of the day, “our artisans and weavers are the real kings of the business. We are just the drivers, delivering their art to the world.”
That’s why the startup has a policy not to negotiate the price with the weavers. “Once the price is decided by the weaver, we add a nominal amount to cover the operations costs and profits.”
Reflecting on his journey, Kiran believes that his biggest achievement has been the happy smiles of the weavers. “And, that continues to motivate me every day.”
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)
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