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Community Highlights: Meet Aparna Thyagarajan of Shobitam Designs

Today we’d like to introduce you to Aparna Thyagarajan.

Hi Aparna, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I moved to the US from India in the early 2000s. I am an engineer by profession and have a technology background. Until a few years ago, my life was all about bringing up my two young boys and my career at Microsoft. While I thoroughly enjoyed all my roles, I realized that I had a strong passion for fashion and an urge to express myself creatively. Arts and crafts activities were always therapeutic for me. Even when life got too busy, I always found time to do something creative.

My sister Ambika has been my constant companion. Both of us have many hobbies in common, stitching and designing being one of them. Our mother introduced us to this magical world of fabrics, textures, and colors. Back when I was 12 years old, it inspired me to learn sewing by hand. My first experiment was a dress for my sister Ambika. For one of her birthdays, I stitched a dress from an old but beautiful saree fabric. The end product was appreciated by all and soon, it became a hobby. It was very empowering to know that we could conceptualize a design in mind and bring it to life with our hands. Soon Ambika also picked up the interest and we shared a common passion – two minds surely thought better than one.

Time flew by, I got married and moved to the US. Indian clothes, especially the saree was something I began to admire after relocation. The sight of it brought fragrant memories of times spent with my loving family back home. I finally realized that it was an instant mood lifter and the reason for our mom to cherish each one of her sarees so fondly. For millions of South Asians like me, the saree, one of the oldest garments, is more than clothing. It is something that helps us to celebrate our roots.

However, buying Indian ethnic wear in the US has not been a very satisfying experience. I always felt short-changed for variety and quality. While working with an Indian artist in 2018 for sarees that Ambika and I were designing for ourselves for a special event, the ‘weaver’ suggested that we start a boutique and that he would work with us. That got us thinking.

During my career break, I started mulling over a business concept. The idea was to showcase the best Indian weaves by designing and collaborating with skilled weavers. When my parents were visiting us, I casually mentioned this to my family during a dinner conversation. Their excitement and belief in me gave me a boost of confidence. My sister Ambika extended her full support and became my rock. Together we Co-Founded Shobitam, a digital-first, web-based, global ethnic fashion brand on 8th, March 2019.

We started on Etsy as a proof of concept, with just 15 products. Our first order came from France three days after setting up our shop. Our first batch of products sold out much earlier than we expected. We had people coming in for more. Our early customers referred us to their circles. We have never had to look back ever since. Today Shobitam is witnessing over 300% growth annually over the last two years. Today we have scaled to over 1000+ products and feature amongst the top 1% store on Etsy. We have shipped to over 30 countries. We have earned tens of thousands of customers globally. The massive acceptance we got from Esty led us to launch our website last year. Today there is exponential growth from the website as well.

Our focus on customer centricity, design, quality, and variety has won us, patrons, from all over the world. The love we have received is evident from the 2000+ 5 Star Customer Reviews.

We operate with a grand vision of “democratizing ethnic fashion globally. Our mission is to help people, “Look Good. Feel Good and do Good”.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
We always knew that starting a business without prior experience is going to be challenging. The size of it and the rapid growth in two short years was beyond what we predicted. One of the initial challenges we faced was winning the trust of the customers. Generally, customers prefer offline purchases for ethnic fashion. The touch and feel of the product are a huge deciding factor during purchase. Many of them loved what they saw on screen. However, they were apprehensive as they had bitter experiences in the past from other companies. We worked on this by handholding the customers guiding them right from the beginning. Our technology-led solutions help us in doing this for each one of our customers.

The other major challenge was winning the trust of weavers and forging meaningful relationships with them. We had very little in-person interaction with them all our weavers who are from India. We had to invest time in understanding their working styles and winning their confidence. We worked on building a healthy relationship organically. Today they are welcoming of our ideas and incorporate our inputs. We have collaborated on many exclusive collections.

We also had to face many hurdles while setting up a robust inventory and logistics framework. The pandemic began during the second year of our operations. Our learnings from the first year helped us to develop a winning game plan during these difficult times. We built a strong inventory pipeline that helped cater to the rising demand globally as more people migrated online. We were also able to generate demand for artisans when their primary sources of income were drying up. Our relationship deepened, we were able to launch new products.

We feel all our efforts are paying off when we receive touching messages from people across the globe. Today we have VCs knocking on our doors wanting to invest in Shobitam. Many customers tell us that their mothers, spouses, sisters, or friends loved their gifts as they added more color to their special occasions. It is also heartwarming to interact with children who are teaching their mothers to shop online. The cherry on the cake is when we get calls of gratitude from our weavers and other workers who end up sharing many of their personal stories with us.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
What we do and what we are known for: Shobitam is a digital-first ethnic fashion brand that aims to bring South Asian handloom weaves, arts, and crafts to the forefront globally. At Shobitam, one can find ethnic wear for all occasions, be it daily wear, weddings, parties, evening outings, festivals, or family get-togethers.

Our strategy is to delight our customers at every step of the purchase journey. We aim to provide the best selections with convenience, quality, and service. Apart from sarees, our website hosts a wide range of dupattas, ethnic fusion wear, ready-made blouses, jewelry, made-to-order outfits, and home decor items. Our customers have had great things to say about each one of these products. Some of them consider our custom blouse stitching service as a blessing and keep coming back for more.

We follow a “Weavers first, Customers first” policy. Our goal is to build Shobitam as an iconic brand with a mission-led approach and a sense of purpose.

Weavers first: The well-being of our weavers is the topmost priority for us. They are the ultimate entrepreneurs with deep knowledge, skills, and talent. They do labor-intensive work in poor conditions. As they are not customer-facing, they are often not aware of the latest market trends. We have a two-way approach where we try and learn about the fabric and weaving techniques from them and pass on the details to our customers. We also feed them information about customer preferences when it comes to colors and fabric choices. We also develop exclusive products by sharing our original designs. We believe this has been a differentiator for Shobitam as one can find something uncommon. To empower our we have launched various initiatives under The “Shobitam Give and Cares” program. We help them secure financial stability and support the education of the children.

Customers first: In parallel, our philosophy is to be customer-obsessed and deliver a delightful 5 Star experience. We have not just survived the pandemic but thrived during this time due to our customers. They have generously showered praises on us on public platforms and have recommended us to their friends and family. In 2 years, we have rapidly grown to a community of over 50,000+ fans and followers with deep engagement across social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest), our website, and Etsy. Content development on the platform happens after careful planning. W engage deeply with the community we have built over time. Based on their needs, we have developed a collection of XL sarees. We have widened our made-to-order segment. Today Shobitam has a robust stitching unit that takes care of all the stitching associated with saree wearing. We have also launched Vegan sarees that have yarns made from plant waste. We share the details on what goes into the making of the product with them. We are transparent about our pricing and follow a no-questions-asked returns policy. Our impeccable quality, packaging, fast shipments, and custom stitching services have been a great hit with our customers. Today we have a growing tribe of Shobitam Fashionistas who are proud owners of our creations. Our formula for successful growth is:

Great Content + Deep Community Engagement drives Commerce & Customer Satisfaction.

Business with a cause: I believe in the power of education. My sister Ambika and I reached here because we were privileged to get a good education. From the ideation stage of the business itself, we were clear that however meager our profits are, we will support this cause. Today through our “Shobitam Gives” initiative, we work with two world-class organizations, Shanti Bhavan and Amrita Seattle. Both are doing stellar work for the education of kids belonging to economically underprivileged sections of India.

We are proud of how we did not consider the epidemic as a setback. We saw it as the time to learn and apply our learnings from our failures in the past. During the pandemic, we addressed many distress calls from customers. They had to cancel their travel plans to India and needed urgent options for weddings and other unavoidable functions. As India went into lockdown, our weavers were also facing a hard time with no real income coming their way. As we were online, we could generate demand for our weavers from different parts of the world. Apart from this, we could provide a steady pipeline of work to other people who do handmade tassels, tailoring, sewing, and other jobs.

When we started Shobitam in 2019 as a passion project, we did not envisage all this. We aimed to create a shopping experience that we could not find. An experience that brought back all the good memories associated with our homeland. Our technology-backed approach led us to the right avenues quite early on in the business.

Today the heartfelt notes from our customers, weavers, and employees help us in pushing ourselves harder.

Can you talk to us a bit about the role of luck?
We go by the belief that luck favors the prepared. On the product front, we only list items after a stringent quality control process. We try to provide as much information we can to our customers. We give crisp and clear instructions to all our collaborators. Our best efforts go into not leaving anything unattended. More than once, our preparedness has helped us to reduce the size of the damage. Sometimes even evade crisis altogether. However, things don’t always work according to plans. As a small team that works across geographies and time zones, there is always something around the corner. We always try to mitigate that with Plan B solutions. So yes, there are many days where our good luck has favored our preparedness and those odd days where we blame our luck. But we believe in being a learning organization with a growth mindset. We make a quick note of all the learnings and try our best to learn from our mistakes.

We are spiritually inclined and big believers of Karma. On many occasions, we have placed our relationships over the business. We work very hard to create value for each one of our stakeholders – customers, weavers, or our employees. We are optimistic that this intent of ours will keep us in good stead always.

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1 Comment

  1. Rupal

    October 16, 2021 at 08:10

    Love Shobitam and their collections!

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