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Starting From Scratch: The challenge of sticking to a social mission during product development

   /   Jul 7th, 2011India, News

When you look at a business plan, it can all seem so simple: design product, sell product. Right?

In reality, there are countless obstacles to climb over between envisioning a business and bringing a product to market – especially if your enterprise has a social mission in addition to needing to make a buck.

Back in early April, when Dowser first spoke with designer Kari Litzmann, who is creating a fair-trade stationary company called Rubina Design, Litzmann was just getting started on designing her product line, which was to be made by rural artisans in India. She had signed a contract with a mass-scale production company called FabIndia and was awaiting fabric samples from them.

But now, as August approaches, Litzmann is suddenly anxious about the product development process, and she wonders if the stationary will reflect the original social values she had in mind when she created the company.

The original inspiration for the company came from a women’s sewing group in Pakistan, and it was this vision of helping women through entrepreneurship that led Litzmann to the Gujarat province of India. There, Litzmann fell in love with the stunning garb worn by women.

That rural setting of India was what Litzmann had in mind when she approached FabIndia to sign a contract. And that’s when things got complicated.

“FabIndia sent me a product sample,” Litzmann told Dowser, back in New York. “And overall I’m happy with it. But I had only ten days to design it – I used already-made fabric from their warehouse – and I felt rushed and overwhelmed.”

To get organized, Litzmann taught herself to create a production calendar for the next 45 days while “thinking backward,” so that she could keep up with deadlines.

The next step was sending “tech packs” (technical specification packages, also called “specs”) that contained details on the size and dimensions of the products. In addition to stationary, Litzmann began designing a line of nomadic-themed products , including tote bags, laptop sleeves, and journals.

The “nomadism” theme was inspired by rural societies in India, which were traditionally, and to some extent still are, nomadic. Litzmann felt that today’s modern woman, who moves around for career opportunities and self-exploration, would identify with such nomadism.

As product development continued, Litzmann was unsure that her original social mission was remaining at the heart of her enterprise.

“I emphasized [to FabIndia] to work with women, and use eco-friendly materials whenever possible,” she explained. “They should be able to provide details about the cost and source of the materials.”

From traveling in India, Litzmann knew how factories were destroying artisans’ livelihoods – so she felt strongly about using handmade materials. But furthermore, she wanted to capture the culture and worldview of the artisans, since that was what had first enchanted her during her time in Gujarat.

It has not, however, been so easy to effectively communicate the experience of nomadism and rural lifestyle through designing products, Litzmann has found.

“I’m now thinking about going back to India for up to six months,” said Litzmann. “There’s a difference between knowing how they live, and really knowing.”

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for the post, Rachel! I’m excited to have Dowser follow our development during the start up phase and get some good dialogue going around some of the issues design startups face. I’d love to hear people’s own stories of how they’ve tackled similar issues and/or any ideas the general public might have. Thanks!

  2. On the one hand it’s encouraging to read stories about organisations seeking to create beneficial social outcomes through the design and manufacture of product in partnership with emerging markets.

    On the other, it’s important for ventures working toward social or environmental impacts to recognise that if they operate as a business, the rules of business still apply.

    I agree with the author’s sentiment that balancing social / environmental outcomes with generating a profit can be tricky. I’m keenly aware, that it seems as if this venture could have done with a little more robust support from its advisors from the outset (much of what this article speaks to are common challenges in the sustainable venture market).

    Kari – I think you’re doing an amazing job, and love the essence of your project. Please connect with me and I will be happy to introduce you to some folks who may be able to support your mission further.

    • Thanks Cameron! I will definitely reach out.

      You bring up a great point about advisors. I agree that a Board of Advisors is a good way for a new social venture navigate this balance. We have had several trusted people who’ve helped shape our direction individually along the way. And currently, we are putting together a small group of people that are committed to Rubina’s success to serve as this formal advisory board. I’m excited about how much deeper we will be able to go with everyone in the same room talking through these issues together. Perhaps a future installment of “Starting From Scratch” will be about advisors and ventures aligning themselves with the right team…

      On the other hand, I’ve found that it’s also easy to think yourself into paralysis when starting something new, so it’s important to eventually just take the leap and start. There will be mistakes, which is why iteration, continuing to look back at your mission and goals, and having a group of people (your team, your board, your market, etc) to keep you accountable to those goals is really key.

      • Hi Kari – I was just reminded of this post through a follow-up notification of another comment (below). Thought i’d reconnect and find out what you need now. Would love to know how this project is evolving. Cheers, Cameron.

  3. [...] Litzmann began working with an Indian firm on product development, she worried that the social mission of her company was becoming secondary to aesthetic or commercial factors. [...]

  4. [...] Litzmann began working with an Indian firm on product development, she worried that the social mission of her company was becoming secondary to aesthetic or commercial factors. [...]

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