Even in the age of mechanized mass production, small-scale artisans are forging ahead as consumers embrace the creative spirit behind unique, handmade items. But in order to thrive, artists and crafters need a platform that will allow them to showcase and sell their products, as well as enable them to interact directly with their target consumers.
In the Middle East, Saudi entrepreneurs Lulwa Alsoudairy and Leena Alaufi are doing just that through Artistia, a digital start-up they founded in 2016.
“When we launched Artistia, our goal was to support local brands in the region. We’re both very passionate about this because we saw there was a demand for an online platform where artists can post and sell their items. Back then, such marketplace did not exist so artisans used to post their items on Instagram,” narrated Alsoudairy, the company’s CEO.
While Instagram, the photo- and video-sharing social network, may have given regional jewelry designers, painters, illustrators, fashion designers and crafters the brand exposure they crave, it did little to satisfy their e-commerce needs.
Etsy with a twist
At first glance, the Artistia business model may be reminiscent of Etsy, the US-based e-commerce website that focuses on handmade or vintage items. Artistia also follows a revenue-sharing model, where it takes commission on sales. But Alsoudairy said there is more to their website than meets the eye.
Alaufi, who serves as chief technology officer, further explained that unlike Etsy, their start-up combines the functionalities of e-commerce and social media.
“We’re building a community. We don’t want to break the link between sellers and buyers because as a seller, this is how you improve your product – by getting feedback directly from your buyers,” she said.
Indeed Artistia, which was initially self-funded, has been designed to be more than just an online shop front or digital store that fulfills orders.
As well as product displays, the website features profiles about regional artisans, who offer Artistia shoppers a glimpse into their creative processes. By sharing their own stories, artisans are able to have a deeper connection with consumers, which goes beyond the typical buyer-seller experience.
“We want to sell with soul,” Alsoudairy pointed out. “Our aim is to encourage local production and make it sustainable. One way of doing that is by increasing awareness.”
Why it clicks
Although headquartered in Riyadh, the idea to set up Artistia was actually conceived in 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States, where Alsoudairy and Alaufi met. At that time, Alsoudairy was pursuing her MBA at Babson College, while Alaufi was working on her master’s degree at Northeastern University.
After pitching their business idea, the duo was accepted into Babson College’s accelerator program called Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab, which helped them fine-tune their concept.
Since its launch, Artistia’s network has expanded from 60 to 400 artisanal brands across the GCC region, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. The platform has also facilitated more than 3,000 transactions to date.
Alsoudairy attributes their early traction to the business model’s compelling value proposition.
“Many of our creative entrepreneurs started small and have now grown with us. Their growth has become more sustainable because our platform takes care of all the administrative tasks, so they can concentrate on what they do best, which is product creation,” she said.
By looking after the administrative functions, including marketing, logistics and payment processing, Artistia is able to reduce an artisan’s overheard cost by as much as 33%, according to Alsoudairy.
In the GCC, as in the rest of the world, the business of creativity is a female-dominated industry. Alaufi said more than 80% of artisans who have signed up on Artistia are women, which gives the platform a whole new perspective in terms of social impact.
“Many of our sellers are women who work from home or have boutique stores,” added Alsoudairy.
As an online marketplace, Artistia offers women in the Arab world an opportunity to make a living while staying productive and creative. It also helps preserve traditional craftsmanship and promote it to a wider audience.
These value-added features and Artistia’s potential have caught the attention of early-stage investors, including 9/10ths, a start-up accelerator operated by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Before that, the company received grants from the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab-Saudi Chapter, and the IE Business School.
The financial support has allowed Alsoudairy and Alaufi to continue improving the platform. Currently, content in Artistia is available only in Arabic, but plans are underway to introduce an English version of the site soon.
For young Saudis who want to explore the world of entrepreneurship, here’s what the Artistia founders have to say: “Just do it”.
“Take action. The sooner you do it, the better because someone else may have the same idea and beat you to the race,” they said.
© Accelerate SME 2018