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How 2 Years In The Family Business Helped Me Build My Own Startup

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By Samriddh Burman: 

If I had to put a pin on when my entrepreneurial journey really started, I would probably say 2011, when after completing four years of college in the States, I returned to Kolkata, and decided to join my family’s business. One of the oldest manufacturers of jute bags in the world, my family is invested in making and selling eco-friendly, handcrafted products, something they have been doing for several decades now.

Two years working there, and I came to realise that public outlook towards jute bags didn’t have much going for it. It was looked upon as one of those cheap, mass-produced commodities that didn’t have much room for aesthetic or functional appeal.

I realised that there wasn’t anything there for the well-travelled, environmentally conscious customer who also cared about aesthetics and quality. The bags being produced lacked soul.

Worse still, it appealed largely to companies looking for cheap ‘green marketing’ CSR tools and consumers looking for cheap, everyday ‘fast-fashion’ picks.

Consequently, the bags being produced did little to highlight craftsmanship, or exploit the enormous potential that jute has. I realised that there wasn’t anything there for the well-travelled, environmentally conscious customer who also cared about aesthetics and quality. The bags being produced lacked soul. As someone who had grown up with a passion for travelling, this was a definite concern for me. Further, my period of study in the States had instilled in me a strong sense of the importance of community and sustainability. All factors combined, I was motivated to impact a positive change in the bag manufacturing industry. And that’s really how The Burlap People began.

To be honest, The Burlap People wasn’t just born as a brand idea, it was born as a community- to be made up of the growing number of people who are environmentally conscious about what they consume and how they live. This small, yet fast-growing community needed to be catered to not with soul-less, mass-manufactured products, but with visually pleasing, good quality commodities. The Burlap People’s purpose was to meet these needs- our jute bags would pave the way for a class of products that motivated people to go green without having to compromise on quality or aesthetics.

Idea in place, what I needed to do on priority was to build a team. Since I was starting up with something that wasn’t ‘conventionally’ a money-puller so to speak, it was extremely important for me to find the right people to work with- people who would understand the reasons behind launching Burlap and believe in it. And that was tricky.

It took me months of searching, but eventually, I connected with Nuruddin, who became the master craftsman at Burlap. A moody maestro, Nur as he’s known at the workshop, claimed he could make any bag on earth, so we started with a simple duffel. Next on board was my friend Karuna Parikh, who initially collaborated with us for a photoshoot, but fell in love with the idea and product to the extent that she became the brain behind the Original Checked Burlap Duffel! Since then, her spirit and complete faith in the idea have been integral in motivating the rest of the team every day to believe in ourselves, the product and a bright, successful future for Burlap. The team was completed with a fourth member, Rewant Lokesh, who attended college with me. Fresh out of MBA, he brought to the workshop a sense of reality, helped turn a passion project into a full-fledged business and oiled the wheels of the Burlap train. As someone who had grown up with me and studied the same ideals of community and sustainability that are the driving force behind Burlap, he was the perfect fit and has proved a great personal and professional teammate. That completed our core team. Almost two years on, we work with nine craftsmen and are growing every day.

At Burlap, we’re proudly indigenous, rejecting the Indian craze for international brands and embracing instead the idea of creating in India, identifying as an Indian brand and taking our goods from here to the world.

At Burlap, we’re proudly indigenous, rejecting the Indian craze for international brands and embracing instead the idea of creating in India, identifying as an Indian brand and taking our goods from here to the world. We believe that our bags are priced incredibly reasonably, and we’re working towards a model of complete transparency for our clients.

What makes The Burlap People truly unique, is that after the initial push with help from family and friends, a large chunk of our promotion strategy has been based out of our Instagram page. We could have easily done paid promotions on the platform, but we prefer to stick to our guns. It’s both interesting and challenging to figure out and come up with posts that maximise organic reach. Goodwill is something we’re ever grateful for and depend on for our growing Instagram community, which today is replete with contributions from members who collaborate by adding posts with the bags and helping us grow.

In a short span of time, there is a lot that we have come to learn. First, that starting small is not a bad thing at all. Instead of launching with massive capital, we built our base slowly and moved upwards. Because our base was so solid, our climb upwards was smooth. We started with nothing but one 4×4 workshop, one design and an Instagram account which our mums and sisters followed. Today we have over 8.5k followers and more than 20 designs and all this with a completely organic growth model. We recently even launched a Facebook page to expand further!

Of course, we owe much of this to our loyal, loving client base. They’ve taught us the value of belonging to the Burlap family or #theburlapfam, as we call it. In fact, many of our designs are client-generated, and we allow for complete customizations in the bag we make.

It’s been an incredible journey, and has so far taught us the most important entrepreneurial lesson: there is always room for improvement.

For us, as long as the client loves the bag, we’re good. Most of the time, it goes up on our Insta feed and becomes a permanent part of the family.

It’s been an incredible journey, and has so far taught us the most important entrepreneurial lesson: there is always room for improvement. Not just in terms of quality and aesthetics, but to think up new ways to impact the community and environment positively. And that’s the driving force behind our work. It’s what we’re most passionate about. After all, like Hegel said, and Karuna constantly reiterates, “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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