Entrepreneurs love their businesses, and often do whatever it takes for them to succeed. They tinker with products, balance budgets, and often stay up until 4 in the morning to finish up last emails. Accordingly, it has become popular among entrepreneurs to refer to their businesses as their “babies.”
Sakib Jamal knows these stories all too well. Sakib maintains his own blog dedicated to covering entrepreneurship, and recently tried his hand at starting his own social enterprise called Chitro Social. Chitro provides an online platform for women in rural Bangladesh with low-incomes to design and sell hand-made products to earn a living wage. While Chitro has had its successes, Sakib’s experience has endowed him with a remarkably mature view of entrepreneurship, and he recognizes that he has also encountered many challenges in his work. As an active Cornell student, Sakib struggles to juggle his responsibilities to school and his business, forcing him to step back and consider giving away the rights to his company in a potential merger deal. Like any good parent, Sakib realizes that it may be time to let go.
In this interview, Sakib discusses the challenges he has faced at Chitro, and his advice for students looking to start their own business.
Tell me about Chitro Social.
Chitro retails hand-crafted products, especially in home décor like wall hangers and pillow covers, from women in rural Bangladesh who are earning less than $2 a day. We make sure our workers are underprivileged, and then we take their products and export them to developed countries in the United States and Europe. This allows us to sell our products in stronger currencies like dollars, or Euros, and often pay these workers 200% above their market average. The other element is that Indians are very famous for their art, Turkey has unique styles for their art, but in Bangladesh, not a lot of people know about our culture and our art. I want to make sure that our culture gets exposure, too. These women have been taught by their mothers and grandmothers, and the talent has been passed down across generations. Whenever tourists come, they buy it, so I thought if we could find a way to get it to their doorsteps through e-commerce, we’d have some success.
How much success did you have before you closed?
Initially we had sold taka 22,000, which is around 300 US dollars. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but in taka, that helped around 20 different women. That was a big achievement.
Why are you stalling right now?
I learned when you have a digital-based idea like this, it’s relatively easy to go out and start a business with all the resources we have available. You can make a website to shop with companies like Weebly or Etsy, and we have so much information at our fingertips through Google. That said, you really can’t be part-time on it. We had 3 initial members on our team, and we all went to college, got busy, and ran into problems. At least 1 member needs to be on it full-time. I’ve seen many student-entrepreneurs fail because they weren’t committed enough.
What other challenges did you face?
When I started the business, I thought it would be great, and everyone I showed it to agreed it was a great idea and the products had beautiful artwork. When you try to jump in on a startup, however, it’s really important to do a proper market analysis. Hand-crafted products are everywhere on places like Etsy, and it’s really hard to differentiate your products relative to some place from India or Cambodia where there’s also a story. In Cambodia, for example, there are girls aged between 10 to 15, who were previously child slaves, making similar amazing products . There may be demand for your type of product, but not for your specific one, and that’s something to keep in mind.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m in talks with a company back home in Bangladesh that is essentially operating a similar model. They’re also early-stage, but they have people who are committed to it full-time with funding to back them. I’m considering giving up my inventory and undergoing a merger with them. We could charge them, but our co-founders agreed the idea of the business is noble, and the main goal is to help people – hence it’ll end up a ‘free’ acquisition. The current team is definitely going to support the bigger entity when it forms over the summer.
What role does the story play in your product?
We want to make sure the people understand the amount of time, hard work and dedication that goes into each and every product. For a single bed sheet, it would take 2 to 3 women about a month to make it because it’s completely hand-sewn. It’s very difficult and intricate, which definitely gives us a competitive advantage over some place like Ikea.
What’s it like being a social entrepreneur?
I think businesses are becoming a lot more aware of their social responsibility nowadays. Before, people would go out and have their businesses, but now people are employing interesting models and succeeding. If you look at Warby Parker or TOMS, for example, for each unit sold they’re giving one away. That really gives hope for the future as it’s what the norm should be, especially in developing countries like Bangladesh. Every business should have a social issue they tackle either directly or indirectly.
At what point do you think a startup should seek funding?
You need to make sure it’s your top priority before seeking any kind of funding. You can have the best idea in the world, but you need to be committed and able to actually execute it. It is important to remember that ideas are produced every day and every founder ‘believes’ in their own idea. The key lies in execution. Before Facebook for example, there were other social media sites, but Facebook executed it perfectly. Until you can execute everything you say you can, you shouldn’t ask for funding.
What has it been like taking a more detached role from Chitro now that you’re in the US?
It’s definitely hard. It takes a lot of guts to say that it might not go where you want it to go after you’ve worked so hard. You put in so much effort that if and when you fail, it’s a terrible feeling. I know it’s not entirely my fault, because in my part of the world, you have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy, corruption and infrastructure problems as an early-stage business. But I don’t have the right to make excuses as many before me have beaten the odds to succeed.
What does the word entrepreneur mean to you?
The biggest problems come in the unexpected places, so an entrepreneur is a good problem solver. It’s about taking responsibility, and taking risks. I started my business with a grant, so I had no financial risk, but I was giving up time with friends and family in my last ‘free’ summer before college started. I gave up a lot of time and energy, but it was a great learning experience.
What advice would you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Read a lot. I would recommend Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things. If it’s really what you like, do school, but drop your other commitments to focus on this. Entrepreneurship and startups are the new smoking; it’s the new cool thing to do but people often forget how big a deal it is. Treat your business with the respect that it deserves. Make sure you have a strong mission for your business at the beginning, and that every single member of the team understands and agrees with it. For me, it was about making sure people knew about Bangladeshi artwork worldwide while making sure our artisans had a steady and healthy stream of income.
Perhaps the biggest thing I learned was that it’s important to know where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. I want entrepreneurs to know that it’s better to have a bad plan than no plan at all. Don’t assume things will work out, and have a blueprint for everything you’re doing.