TheÂ Adianta SchoolÂ extends itsÂ heartiest welcome toÂ – Diana JueÂ who is a co founder at Essmart:Â developingÂ technologies for the underprivileged in the rural areas such asÂ â€” affordable solar lanterns, nonelectric water filters and other life improving technologies.
She is here to shareÂ insights on tacklingÂ challenges she faced Â â€œÂ doingÂ her bit inÂ bringing ‘social-impact’ technology to people who need it.”
1:05 pmÂ Diana never choseÂ to be an entrepreneur but it was her her desire for social welfare in ways much different from the norm (backed by her well thought understandings of technology +Â economicÂ usability) , that led her to become one.
As the session commences Diana tells us that she is not a trained product designer but she saw aÂ problem that sheÂ cared about and was confident in finding a solution for it, this is when back in 2011 she co founded Essmart with colleagueÂ Jackie Stenson.
…..What we saw as areas of innovation was to make a product which our users wanted and that, we did not understood only with time.
1:15 pm Diana tells the Adianta cohort, both of us hadÂ research backgroundsÂ inÂ technology development under mentor-Â Â Amy smith at the D-Lab (Development through Dialogue, Design and Dissemination) . Their focus then was to synthesize user-centric design and technology in arriving at products for those who don’t have a much money to disposal.
DianaÂ tells us how herÂ research in Urban Studies and PlanningÂ was followed by a visit to rural China and IndiaÂ and herÂ attempt to learn Â about existing technologies also made her realize howÂ only a few people knew of the existing technologies. And for those few who did know of the technology the did not know where to get them. In other cases, if theÂ product was fromÂ a nongovernmental organization, they did not have good after sales service to mend a productÂ (if broken)
1:26 pmÂ She illustrates this with anÂ example, fromÂ a Tibetan villageÂ where peopleÂ were unaware ofÂ solar cookers and theÂ household that owned it was too scared to use it fearing, an accidental fire! She also spoke of Â dusty-Â smoke-reducing biomass cooking stoves locked ‘ignorantly’Â in a warehouse in southern India as they were notÂ commercialized effectively.
DianaÂ then tells us how anÂ interest inÂ community development introduced her toÂ Jackie who was doing a research inÂ Sub-Saharan Africa (post university studies)Â pertaining toÂ issues related toÂ stores of distributionÂ andÂ economic logisticsÂ at the village level model which wasn’t working : as going door to door is hard and time consuming.
1:40 pmÂ DianaÂ tells us how she was convinced of a model which did not rely on distribution throughÂ retail but throughÂ institutional tie ups only. This was also a time whenÂ JackieÂ was researching in Africa , looking at successful distributors of mobile phones and coke bottles .
…..It is important to know what others are trying to attempt and be inspired byÂ a person who you could possibly look to model .
1:55 pmÂ DianaÂ tells us how afterÂ finishing herÂ masters in social impact technology sheÂ got a team together andÂ raised money for Essmart.
….To facilitate aÂ sustainable business model and a successfulÂ distributionÂ system there is a need toÂ create aÂ complimentingÂ eco-system around itÂ asÂ youÂ canÂ neverÂ ‘sell in a shell’
DianaÂ speaks of her operations which were based onÂ market demos, educating people on product usage and also concentrating on betterment of after sale services e.g. warranty facilitation. She tells us Essmart presently hasÂ 6 distribution centers the sales guys train the shop owner (as it is an institutional modelÂ and not a retail). However, as her team works in rural areas sheÂ does not want to market an EssmartÂ product to echo with beingÂ ‘poor’. as an example she states…..
….. Nano was marketed very cheaply asÂ the world wants to be an owner of the smartest car and not the cheapest car.
One of the things we learnt on the marketing front,Â in our case, was the fact that we want to resonate the image ofÂ a ‘Happy middle class family/families’ asÂ Essmart is a brand of quality.
2:03 pmÂ In terms of distribution:Â we decided to piggyback on the Â existing buying and selling in the market andÂ it is through the storeÂ owner that we build trust inÂ our customers. Instead of reaching all of them one by one we need to approach the store owners who will create trust relationships .
The unorganized retail space is huge and we could scale faster ifÂ we focus onÂ how toÂ distribute products in a moreÂ accessible way. The model is also based on a lot ofÂ trust as it develops on theÂ limited income from people in rural areas.
Diana shares her observation on howÂ opinion leaders in the rural society matter a lot in such places. More importantly,Â the store guy is one among the trustworthy lot. So we need toÂ make sure the store guy trusts us.Â It is a slow process and the relationship takes time to build.
In many cases people throw away their products so we noticed they want high quality products and we are trying on our part to ensure better after sale services andÂ win their trust back in.
…..Â So make sure youÂ as a new company ensure good word of mouth, customers don’t mind if a product breaks they mind more that we get their back and mitigate their risk.
They want to buy products with good after saleÂ service , understandably – marketing, distribution and after sales needs to go hand in hand.
2:10 pmÂ Nikhil (anÂ ASLI student)Â has a question: Q) What do you have to say about warranty claims? what if they break products themselves ? A)Â DianaÂ replies,Â Â In some cases it happens and our suppliers do accommodate for itÂ but at other times we ask the products ownerÂ to buy the replacement parts.Â The company supplies the productsÂ and the cost of replacement is with the company we want to make sure customer is happy …
Q)Â How do youÂ choose to include and market your newÂ products in rural areasÂ ? A)Â DianaÂ replies, We have a book or catalog with pretty pictures :)…Â but before that we have to make sure everything is in print and ready to display.Â As we don’t have good internet in such areas we resorted to having a hard copy.We also haveÂ media channels talking about us.
Speaking of new products customers are requesting products from usÂ such and their choices have surprised us (by challenging andÂ inspiring usÂ )Â Â reflective ware ,Â low cast head lamps,Â torch lights etc.
However, before we put out a product we carefully test it on the appropriate parameters such asÂ : battery backup in the lab, drop tests to ensure durability. Post this we also go to stores and ask the guys to get feedback.The shopkeeper is the first userÂ andÂ if the response if generally positive we add it to the catalog.
Once the ‘technical guy’ is passed successful we have to deal with the ‘business guy’ who is responsible for bringing in theÂ supplier. It is vital that the supplier is responsive enough and not stuck up in his own issues, as there are at timesÂ tax registrations for productsÂ and other logistics which delay delivery.
Q)Â What is your model of distributionÂ if it is not retail?
A)Â Once done with the pilotÂ stage testing we eventually start sellingÂ and asÂ we cannot retail we do wholesale (based on FDI rules as we can’t do retailing) but it works for us. Presently,Â Â it is hard to raise money in India and we have non Indian investors. I also learnt our customers care that we are a ‘US’ company and we want to play it a bit more in with a sense ofÂ aspiration
Q)Â How do you deal with the inventoryÂ managementÂ and distributionÂ ?
A) We have aÂ mobile appÂ and details on the sale executive is there as ASLI studentsÂ are also making new apps you could look at it in terms of a better solution for us too 🙂
The problem with our app is that it gives access to all peopleÂ and ifÂ the sales guy just needs to place order it takes 5 clicks to place an order. At our end we are working on making theÂ data moreÂ visual enough for us as we would have preferred graphs, pie charts et allÂ toÂ see how many pending orders are left, the locations etc.
Q)Â AnyÂ custom software you are using ?
A)Â We might have to do that asÂ we are looking for people who can deal with bugsÂ and not keep us waited forÂ sixÂ months for the next release
Q)Â How do you shop keepers ensure proper space management for your products
A)Â We ask for a shelf to placeÂ Essmart as it helps the branding.Â Even our catalog needs a good placement as it is just like a book that may get lost midst other articles on the table. Speaking off branding we are also looking at store boards, wall paintings etc.
At this point an Chaitanya (ASLI student) points out how calendars have helped him leverage his brand name in his home start up which deals with educational institutions.
Q) How long does it take to deliver the products?
A)Â We essentially want immediate delivery as we want store owners to stock the productsÂ so we tell them youÂ buy more get more discounts but for large products we connect the end user with the supplier
Q) Your thoughts on expansionÂ expanding
A)Â We are presently in 6 places and in July 2013, we just had one center, now we have 6. DianaÂ also tells us her love for Bangalore as sheÂ likesÂ the weather better and it suits the management team too.
.….We started in Tamil Nadu and we think innovations diffuse towards from the richest to the poor.
You are not going to a start up forever and we want to spread geographical, simultaneously we also want to develop a culture within the organization. We want to understand what values we are willing to abide byÂ for which we heldÂ roleÂ plays and other interactive sessions.Â We want to ensure the sales guy that hisÂ opinion counts and we want to respect authority and autonomy over everything …
…..You have to have your visionÂ and make it a good one in what you start.
The HR team is also aÂ vital partÂ andÂ don’t fire good people in the wrong roles. Â You can always look out for better options for them.
2:46 pmÂ Q) You biggest competitor?
A)Â It has to be aÂ bad product in the market for e.g. cheap lanterns, we know word of mouth helps here and we too have dealt withÂ cranky customers in the past.
3:00 pmÂ DianaÂ speaks of how her team is connected onÂ WhatsAppÂ be it theÂ dispatch team or their close knit associates.Â They also have a software to get the sales data after the month,Â Quickbook for accounting and how she ensures a cap on the transport expenses of these items when transferred to new households.