“About two years ago I was talking to my daughter, who was nine at the time. She was really upset about elephants being killed for ivory and she wanted to do something about it. She said: ‘I’m nine, so what can I do about stuff happening in Africa?’ So I tried to inspire her and tell her that anyone has the potential to make a difference. And at the end of this talk she said to me: ‘And what are you gonna do?’”
Gijsbert van der Sleen, founder of Discovered, the online retailer of artisan products from across the globe, told me this story as a way of introducing his company, and as an explanation of its raison d’etre.
“It was a tough question,” says van der Sleen. “During the day I was making money for corporates through my e-business development work, but it was quite difficult to see what impact I was making. I’ve always thought that people in emerging countries that are trying to make themselves a better future are unable to access international markets, and if they are, there’s a lot of people in between. So in essence, everybody earns but them. That felt wrong. Then I thought – everybody today has a mobile phone: what would happen if an artist in Soweto took a picture of a little giraffe, for example, that they created, and put it online, cutting out all the middlemen? They would hugely increase their income.”
From that idea-seed van der Sleen has developed an extremely cool website, on which artisans from many different countries sell their handmade jewellery, accessories, home décor and many other items. ‘Handmade’ normally smacks of ‘poorly made’; but the items on Discovered are exquisite and beautifully designed and crafted. And if you want to, you can have online chats with the person who made the product you are thinking about buying.
“There are quite a few challenges if you are in an emerging country and you want to grow your business,” says van der Sleen. “Interest rates are quite high, the process is quite lengthy, simply borrowing money to grow your business is difficult. So what would happen if we created a platform for people to sell their products to an international audience? If the products sell and people start to recommend you then perhaps we can make loans to you through the platform. Based on the market data – we know how many products you have, how well they sell, how quickly they sell, and the margin you make on the products – it would be fairly easy to provide a loan just based on that specific data. I thought this can be amazing because we could help small businesses grow. Being an entrepreneur myself, I’m really convinced that entrepreneurship is one of the ways we can created sustainable change in these societies. International e-commerce is booming – but there is also a really big trend against mass-market consumerism. People are a little bit tired of mass produced goods. People want to be able to buy something that is unique, but also they want to know where it came from, who made it and why. Being able to make this process transparent, so you know who you bought something from, is another big trend these days. This is Discovered: it has the potential to make the difference, and is an answer to my daughter’s question.”
Discovered partnered with Enviu – another Social Stock Exchange member – to raise the finance to get started, to take it from concept to an investable business plan. It came across two ‘angel’ investors; did a crowdfunding campaign; found some more seed investors. Today it has more than 200 individual stores supplying products online – some of these being individuals, others being small groups of people collaboratively working – with around 3,000 artisans. The artisans who sell through Discovered retain 85-95% of what they sell their goods for. Potentially it’s a vast global marketplace – Discovered says the global artisan crafts export market is valued at $34 billion. It reckons that more than 70% of the kind of artisans it works with have access to the Internet, yet currently less than 1% of their wares are sold online.
“We are a marketplace, like Alibaba or eBay or Etsy. We provide a platform for selling products. We try to get good products on it and vouch for the artisans’ work. But in the end it’s the consumer who decides if the products reach the standards required or not. We guarantee the site, the support, the ease of payments. Our ambition is to create a platform for both digital inclusion and financial inclusion – that’s where we are headed. We are building the marketplace first. What you see from the website is mainly consumer oriented but we have a bigger ambition than that.”
“There’s a couple of reasons why we joined the Social Stock Exchange. First we became a B-Corp because if you talk the talk you should also walk the walk. We wanted to validate that what we do is in line with certain standards and guidelines. The other part is that we would like to be connected to other like-minded organisations because we feel strongly feel that we should use businesses for good – we are that, so we want to support that as well. We need to have access to investors and we prefer to do that in line with our values and for that there’s only one answer – the Social Stock Exchange. It’s really important for us to work with people who would be our ambassadors, who will carry our story to others. We want to invite people to join, to participate, to give feedback – to become our ambassadors on a global scale.”
So if you like the idea of buying something totally unique – and helping people in emerging markets to become entrepreneurs – Discovered is for you.
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