We built the Swat Valley Guild to economically re-generate a post-conflict region. The Swat Valley is ancient trading region. Like other startups we had to overcome the challenge of where to start. Like any other innovation-driven enterprises, we needed to leverage technology and innovation. What follows is our story. It combines our best thinking about startups. It highlights how we are organising a business in an ancient tribal society. While leveraging technology and the latest developments in business thought.
A Born Global Startup on Ancient Grounds
Over the last 6 months we have made great progress. We have been invited to join the UN Business Call for Action program. The World Fair Trade Organisation is open to certifying us. We are looking to ensure our processes are ethical and eco-sensitive. Their only concern is the lack of trading history. So how do we go about building the trading data as a startup? When we came up the concept of the Swat Valley Guild. We had the same optimism as any other startup. “Yep ! 6 months and the world will be our oyster.” Truth be told we are pretty much on target as well. We set out to use globalisation as way to support a local post-conflict region in Pakistan. The Swat Valley is renowned for its natural beauty. Over the last two decades it has experienced terrorism, counter-terrorism and climate change. Collectively all this has destroyed the social fabric of society there.
We started by understanding where we wanted the Guild to be 5 to 7 years down the line. We then started to work our way backwards. This meant getting in touch with the UN and World FairTrade Organisations. Understanding their requirements to work with us. Then to organise the processes to suit these needs. This has meant taking a hit on the cash generation side. We all know cash is the lifeblood of any organisation.
A Great Product to work with but ...
On the cash side. We weren’t sure where to start. The dilemma for us was if we enter the market at too low a price point we would be seen as a low-quality goods provider. If we entered it too high we would not make any money. So establishing this range has been of critical importance to us. The other concern for us was understanding the customer needs. The Swat Valley has a heritage of generating high-end hand made fabric. It also decorates the fabric with embroidery - again hand done.
There seems to be broad division of labour where the men focus on the generating the fabrics. The women then focus on decorating the fabric. For instance, if the men generate a fabric using a mix Angora - rabbit wool - and goats wool. The women then focus on making the fabric look attractive to eye. The patterns and floral approach has given them international recognition. Traders along the old silk route frequently pass through for the produce there.
Design Drives Desire
Now that we were looking to make this quality produce available globally. Where should we start? We know the product is great. It has worked. Its quality has been verified. Its has been tested locally for a long time. So how do we customise it for the needs of users based in far off countries where the locals have no exposure. We stumbled on advice from some unconventional sources. Rumer - a famous singer spent some time with us. She helped us gain an insight into how someone like herself would make her purchases. This then mapped out the standard process for us. We then verified this process by knowledge sharing with Turquoise Mountain. A charity set up by HRH Prince Charles to support Afghanistan. They both highlighted the importance of designers. Designers customise the products for specific needs of target markets.
Pushing the boundaries of Islamic Design
So our next challenge was to identify and get on board the right kind of designers. The idea was to work with them to generate something for the EU & US markets. We approached many designers and settled with two. We sort of self-selected each other. Emma McGinn and The Islamic Design House. Emma had worked with small communities in India before. She is a London based textile designer. So she was open to supporting other artisans from the region. She understands firsthand the experience of rural communities.
The Islamic Design House. They like to push the boundaries. They stand for faith fun and fashion. To them you can have faith and be trendy. There is no contradiction there. We settled on targeting the modest fashion market.
“The Duchess of Cambridge is seen as a modest fashion icon.”
- USA Today 1st July, 2016.
Minding the Gap between Cash & Flow
The dilemma still was how do we generate revenue ? What approach do we take? The underlying problem has been understanding the needs of the companies we want to work with. For example, How to enter ecosystems of high-end retailers? How do we accommodate the 90 day payment cycles. This means they pay us 90 days after we deliver the goods. Yet, we have to pay the producers up front in Swat. The other concern we came across was their buying cycles tend to long. They like to plan at least 6 months ahead. Working along those timelines, the earliest we could organise anything with them would be next year.
Funding by Crowds
So how could we get things going while we worked our way into the ecosystems we were targeting. We touched on Crowdfunding as a solution. We initially dismissed it. Yet, after talking to the designers about budgets and other practical matters. We decided to look into Crowd Funding as an option. An entrepreneur I did some mentoring with last year suggested a platform in the US. Launch Good. They charge less and also provide business coaching along the way. Sounded great. What we found most useful about this platform was the community functionality. Here you could have many campaigns at the same time. We felt this would be great for us.
We discussed this approach with the designers and they liked it as well. Each design they generate gets put in front of the people. The people then decide which design gets produced. We feel this was a great way to engage the public. They get to learn about us and help us get going.
Up and coming artist - Daisy Perkins - has offered limited edition prints from her exhibition 'Paintings from Pakistan.' As artist in residence in the Punjabi village of Shergarh, she spent time capturing everyday life in her art work. As a passionate supporter of art, craft and development, she will also be taking her landscape painting to the Swat Valley. The commission for these original pieces will be offered as a reward to our generous supporters
Gone Live - Join Us !
The campaign is due to go live in the second week of October for 30 days. This is the link where all the designs will be listed. We are still editing the copy so bear with us while we organise everything. It would be great to have your opinion in helping us decide which designs to produce.
This article was edited by Michael Moon CEO of GISTICS - An Innovation Think Tank based in the Silicon Valley.