A few months ago, I came across a term that piqued my attention – artisanal chocolate – and I ended up ordering a bunch of it online from QTrove, an online marketplace for curated and handmade products.
Thie artisanal chocolate – dark, milk, fruity, or nutty – produced by a wife-husband duo under the brand name Jus’Trufs, is actually handmade by artisans. But more importantly, it has no harmful chemicals, typically found in abundance in mass-produced chocolates.
“Pure chocolate contains cocoa and butter. I bet most people didn’t know this, and they would be shocked to know it wasn’t chocolate they were eating all this while,” shares Vinamra Pandiya, Founder of QTrove, short for curated trove (meaning store).
Curated marketplaces are the antithesis of platforms like Amazon, or Flipkart because pricing is not the key differentiating factor. In the case of QTrove (which sells everything from handbags and stationery to personal care products and granola), the real value lies is that the makers of the products – mostly small business owners – take great pains to ensure the use of all natural ingredients. There’s also a strive to ensure biodegradable, eco-friendly packaging.
Having been brought up on a diet of consumerism that was all about buying a “quality” product for the best price, this shopping experience was a whole new one for me. Over the years I have started questioning the idea of what we deem as “quality”, because, in a world that’s struggling with climate change, pollution problems and water shortage, our choices as consumers play such an important role in the scheme of things. “QTrove as a concept is tailor-made for today’s time. The way we are pulverising nature and the way it is taking its revenge, years are not far away when we will have to buy pure Oxygen,” observes Vinamra.
In many ways, QTrove is using technology to turn back the clock by marketing products that are not mass-produced or ridiculously cheap. Yet, they are not so expensive, that they fall in the high-end category (prices start at INR 60). Secondly, when you buy a product, you will know exactly who is making them, and more importantly how they are being made. As consumers get more discerning, these two factors will be core differentiators.
I was curious though to understand how such a platform stands up to the big dogs of e-commerce, which not only have deep pockets but are also constantly seducing consumers with lower prices. In such a scenario, consumer loyalty is not a thing.
To this Vinamra explains the long-term vision of what he is building, “We want to make customers for life, and not based on some discount fad. Hence this is a slow but sure approach. However, we are traditional businessmen at heart and believe each business should be started with the core focus of creating value for all the concerned stakeholders (employees, investors, customers and sellers). This philosophy is the underlying theme behind Qtrove.”
He also shares with conviction that online curated commerce is slated to be a billion-dollar industry.
Many of the makers of the products marketed on QTrove (or “magicians” as they are referred to by the platform), are professionals who quit their jobs to do something they believed in. Manas Nanda, 31, a former financial analyst markets his brand of chemical-free laundry detergent Bubblenut Wash. The soap nuts, a base ingredient used for making soap (though typically adulterated with a whole lot of other stuff by most FMCGs), are directly sourced from communities living in remote forest areas.
Rumana Haaris, a former engineer channelised her love for doodling into starting Doodle Ninja, which makes doodle-inspired stationary and other products. Since Haaris is a vegetarian-humanitarian, 30% of the proceeds of every sale go to two NGOs working for the welfare of animals, and mental health.
Makers like Manas and Rumana get as much prominence as their products. “Since these are non-branded products (in the traditional sense), trust won’t come easily. Hence the importance of content and community comes before commerce can commence. Through their stories, photos and videos, we want to establish that connect with the consumer,” shares Vinamra.
Finding and identifying the right “magicians” takes work and a certain amount of discretion on the part of the platform. They are found via online research, attending offline flea markets, exhibitions and offline research. “This is the toughest part and will surely test our theory in the long run,” shares Vinamra. “Yet, we feel there are millions of creators out there and we haven’t even yet scratched the surface.”
Vinamra, a chemical engineer from IIT-BHU, worked for two years as a software developer at Infosys before turning entrepreneur at the age of 25. “After doing food tech for the last 10 years, I needed a bigger challenge,” shares Vinamra, who’s partner-in-crime is Prashanth, a third-generation entrepreneur from Chennai who was looking to start up from scratch. That opportunity arrived in the form of QTrove. According to Vinamra, he and Prashanth “hit it off from day one”.
“Co-founders should have complementary skills and I find his poise and calm demeanour a perfect foil for my controlled aggression,” says Vinamra. While Prashanth takes care of sales, vendor management and catalogue, Vinamra looks after product, marketing, operations and investor relations. He is also very particular about hiring right.
“Our every hire had worked with me before as I wanted a set of passionate people who would do whatever it takes to get our startup off the ground,” says Vinamra, who describes his team as “passionate doers with diverse skills”.
He offers two pieces of advice for anyone who ventures into entrepreneurship. “One, reduce your ego to zero. Two, love of money is important. A business’s objective is to make money and hence be very clear about this.” Touche.
QTrove, is of course, not the only emerging curated e-commerce platform. There are other stellar platforms selling unique, quirky, and beautifully crafted products. These attributes make shopping an engaging experience. However, the real value of such a platform is the strive to cultivate a socially conscious consumer.
For me as a consumer, this is an important quality in a business I patronise, as I get to make sustainable choices without having to put in all that research to ascertain what human rights are being violated, or chemicals are being pumped in. That’s a lot of faith to put on a platform, but shouldn’t we encourage businesses to adhere to these values?
Secondly, I don’t think this is discussed enough but curated platforms are great enablers of the “Make in India” idea, because it provides a space for honest makers to build up their equity, something that’s tough in the cut-throat world of e-commerce.
“We are trying to create an industry of curated and sustainable commerce,” says Vinamra. “How successful we will be – only time will tell but we will do whatever it takes to make this planet a better place for our children.”
Well, you have my kudos for trying.