It’s easy to presume social impact businesses aren’t lucrative, but two sisters in Mumbai, India, are turning that notion on its head. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we talk to Sujata and Taniya Biswas, the co-founders of Suta. Suta is a modern saree and apparel brand that supports the livelihoods of 14,000 weavers, with fair wages and high ethical standards. Sujata and Taniya share their journey of creating a $4-million company with social impact at its core, their process for hiring and building a team, and how they market sarees to younger audiences.
For the full transcript of this episode, click here.
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Answering the social impact calling
Shuang: What is the meaning behind Suta?
Sujata: It was magical when we figured that “Su” and “Ta” [from Sujata and Taniya] can form “Suta,” and the word means “thread.” We were very happy that we could make a social impact, and work on the product, which is sarees. So, we quit our corporate jobs in 2016 and started Suta.
Shuang: How did you make that decision, and what did it take for you to quit?
Sujata: We felt that what we were doing, we couldn’t see the impact we were having on people, because I used to be in the steel industry, Taniya was in strategy at IBM. We knew steel is making buildings, so I know who is getting impacted. But there are certain classes which we don’t know what they do, whether they work and if they get the right amount of wage when they work. So, we wanted to do something for them.
When we started Suta, we figured that we can touch lives in the villages where the crafts are dying, where the art form is not as appreciated. These artisans quit their craft and take jobs in garages, or they work as drivers.
Taniya: It is not as organized. There were middlemen. And workers used to not get wages on time or a proper wage. When we started working with them, we knew this is it. And I can see it happening directly in front of me and I am going to do this.
Sujata: It was kind of scary because when we started we put in our savings. Suta is still boot-strapped—we haven’t taken investor money in and we wouldn't like to. So far that's the status. It was scary because nobody in our family has done business, and our parents were really scared that we’ve studied so much, and corporate is a cushion. If [a job] doesn't work out, then there's another company you can join. There was always the safety net and at the end of the month, I would be getting a good salary. So, yeah those are all the turmoil that we had to go through to finally make a call.
Shuang: Was it hard to convince your parents, because it’s not one of their children quitting their job, it's both.
Taniya: The day came, we told them, “You know, I think we’re going to start something, and we are going to submit our resignation papers.” They asked, “How long are you going to do this?” We had to tell them that this is the plan. If this flies, we fly with it, and we are not going to go back. Initially, convincing them was a little problematic, but slowly they saw a little success. The revenue started coming in.
Sujata: And now, they are a major part of the business. My father handles the operations in the villages, and my mother is the backbone too. It’s amazing how they have become a part of the Suta business. And not only our parents but our in-laws are very supportive of this idea. My mother-in-law told me that, “Even if your parents say no, just don’t worry, I am with you. Even if nothing happens, I am there, so just do whatever you feel like doing.”
If you ask me how long has it been, it has been since childhood, because we always said that we wanted to make something of our own and sell it.
Shuang: When did the idea first come to you, and how long did you plan before you launched?
Taniya: If you ask me how long has it been, it has been since childhood, because we always said that we wanted to make something of our own and sell it. We used to say that we will make bags out of handkerchiefs, and make dolls or something, and we’ll sell them. So, that was the game we used to play all the time. And entrepreneurship is something which was always in us, even though we didn’t know if we are going to take that path.
Sujata: I also had a business that I started called ADdogic, which was an ad platform. We had the entrepreneurial gene in us, but we just didn’t know whether we should do something together. But when we came together after 2013, she came to Bombay after college. Then, for a year, we both were discussing what we should start. In 2014, we started working on Suta. But it was an extremely small scale. At that time, we were not working on the product we are working on now. It was dresses. We started very small, with a few dresses. And we got a lot of inquiries on the dresses.
Initially, we were only selling on social media. We were just on Facebook and taking money in our bank accounts. We didn’t even have a website. 2016 was when we started selling. We had a tiny office, like a garage—very small. And we had all the inventory there. People used to come over to buy things from us, because of word of mouth. And people would know us through our Facebook page. Customers gave us feedback and input, and we started our website in 2017 or the end of 2016.
Shuang: People might not know that in India, businesses start socially. People are selling through WhatsApp groups or Facebook, tell us a bit about the local business scene.
Taniya: In India, since ecommerce started, it became easy for people to start their own businesses. And through WhatsApp and Facebook, the reach of it increased. So, a lot of people sell from their own houses, because it’s easier to manage your own family and manage time in your life.
Sujata: It is now very acceptable and not taboo. Initially, they would say, “You just can’t leave everything and start this.” If you have some spare time, you might be doing it just for killing your time or on a very small scale. But now, slowly, I see so many more brands. When we started, so many people were doing this. We were not scared at all. We just knew that if it grows, if there is a demand in the market, we will make it big. Social media helps us because we can stay small and reach a lot of people without investing a lot of money.
Shuang: It also seems like a great way to test the idea, because you mentioned there's almost a two-year period where you were both still working full-time.
Sujata: Exactly. I don’t have to worry about how my product will reach the people who are going to buy it. I can start working on the supply chain. I can work on procuring, or I can work on figuring out what kind of weaving I would want on my products. We both could focus on that without thinking, “Okay, who is the customer and have to find them.” Because initially what used to happen in brick-and-mortar is that you would have just one store and would need to wait for people to come and see you.
Taniya: Also, you invest a lot in the brick-and-mortar store. The investment is less [with ecommerce], and you can test the waters. If people like what you’re making. And then, you can invest more in the same idea.
Supporting the livelihood of 14,000 artisans
Shuang: Tell me about meeting the first artisan or the first weaver. How did that journey begin?
Sujata: I'll just go back a little by starting by saying, 2014 is when we started the dresses. We used to get fabrics from Bombay, in one of the wholesale places. Taniya and I were not at all satisfied. And we kept saying that, “You know how Grandmom used to wear these beautiful, soft sarees? I would want that fabric.” And we kept telling our father that, “Where is that fabric? Why can’t we find it in the market? ”
On one vacation when we were in our hometown, which is in the east, in Calcutta, West Bengal, we were with our father, and we said, “Ask your staff members if they know somebody who weaves”. In a week, he came back saying, “Oh, I have made a plan. Let’s go to a weaver’s place.” It was four-and-a-half, five hours away from where we stayed.
We took a train, and we thought even if they disagree, I’ll just buy whatever they have. So, we went. And we found that they had these huts, tiny houses made of mud. And a team of four or five weavers sit together and weave. We went to the houses. They’re so warm and offered us food. But they were skeptical, thinking we’re girls and we might not continue working with them.
We started working with two weavers. And we said, “Whatever you make, we will take. Even if it’s not as per what we have thought.” Because we are not from a design background, and we didn't know whether what we are saying they understand or what we are thinking in our minds will come out as designed. We just gave them some design, and we came back home. And then, from the family of two, now it’s almost 14,00 weavers.
Taniya: We engage the entire family, not just the weavers in the house. We asked the daughters or mothers or the brothers, who are not skilled as much, to make tassels, to put on the tags for us. Suta’s tags are usually placed by the wives of the weavers. And the tassels are arranged by the sisters or the mothers who probably also do the saree’s washing. All our sarees are pre-washed. We engage the entire family together, so there’s like a community feeling now.
Shuang: Does it feel intimidating growing exponentially and having so many livelihoods dependent on Suta?
Sujata: It is scary sometimes because, sometimes I also go through the lows of life. And I feel, “Oh God, what am I doing?” What if it doesn’t sell? It’s so much pressure. This is one thing that keeps us so pumped and motivated as so many people who look up to us, we work on probably 10 or 15 collections at one time. Thinking, “If this doesn’t do well, we have something else like the backup.” We keep visiting places and getting ideas and getting inspired to make sure we can sustain these families.
Taniya: Because there are so many people dependent on us. And we’re like a family. And we can’t just fail.
Designing sarees with a clean, modern twist
Shuang: You mentioned both of you don't have design backgrounds. Was it intimidating to start being creative in that way?
Sujata: Not really. It was not intimidating design-wise, because what we always thought was that, if we like something, I know there are like-minded people in the world who will like similar things. And we are creative people, both of us. I love painting. She loves writing a lot and also paints. So, we thought that we’d create something which we have imagined in our minds and we also wanted to wear at a certain point in time. We mostly make things that are nature-inspired. And when it comes alive in the form of a saree, it’s amazing to see.
Taniya: If you see our designs, we don’t follow a particular trend. For example, a kind of fabric that is getting celebrated now is organza. We wouldn’t jump into that just because it is getting celebrated elsewhere. But if, let’s say, we have just come back from a trip from Thailand, we are probably working on something like underwater themes. Things like that. We don’t always follow trends and not get pressured by what is going on.
Shuang: I feel your designs are very modern yet classic, there's a nice balance that you have achieved.
Sujata: Thank you so much. What you are saying is what we wanted to create and what we had in mind. We also wanted to celebrate all the art and craft in each corner of India, because it's vast. And some art forms are costly because it takes a lot of time. We wanted to keep it simple so that it doesn’t pinch people's pockets. What people make now, if you try to do the same, the sarees will be costly. We tried to minimize the design. We wanted to make it very minimal and classic so that it reaches people. So that you can celebrate that kind of artform or that craft, but not spending too much money, which usually is very expensive or difficult to afford. That’s what has always been the idea in our minds when we start any project work with a village or a village group.
Shuang: In a typical year, how many new designs do get launched?
Taniya: At least 24 to 30 collections a year. Each collection has seven sarees and seven blouses. So maximum we have 14 products multiplied by 30.
Sujata: We have two designers onboard. But most of the designs me and Taniya approve, we also still design, because we like doing it. I think it’s very special and the reason why we started because we like designing.
There’s a collection called In The Sky, and that is because we used to play this game when we see a cloud and we’d say, “Taniya, what do you think that is?” And she’d be, like, “Oh, I think this looks like that.” So we just sketch it and see what it can mean.
Hiring for passion and training for personal development
Shuang: What was the first position you hired and how did your team grow?
Sujata: Our first employee was Jaya. We tell everybody that if somebody can become the CEO, Jaya is the one. She joined as a person to pack our products. As small a role as that, which was an essential role to just pack and ship. So she started with that, then she took care of the accounts because she was doing everything, and we were just three of us. And she would clean the office some days, and she would paint on the sarees.
And now she’s managing the company’s inventory with another person. That’s how she’s grown. Everybody in the team has joined are Suta fans, people who wear sarees, or people who like us. It’s very like-minded people who join up our brand. And that’s what makes the brand more family-like, or other than just an employee-and-employer relationship.
Taniya: There is one example of Raksha, who was an air hostess with Emirates, and she is the head of operations now. It’s very diverse, and a lot of people have joined us without even giving us their CVs. It's because we like talking to them and they said that, “We love your work, and let’s see how we can work together.” And they were on board, and most people are here for the whole lifetime, so the team is really warm and like a family. And the designer who joined us sent us her portfolio, but we didn’t even see her portfolio—we lost the mail. So she came on board like that. We’re not looking for a designer, but when we spoke to her and we liked her a lot.
Shuang: Now, with 35 employees within four years of starting your business, does it feel crazy to have grown to this size?
Taniya: If you ask me back then, I wouldn’t be saying that it would be so big. It just became big because we’re not chasing numbers. Because we were figuring out how to make everything very sturdy and robust, and it just grew. We were not looking just to push ourselves to achieve a certain target. We didn’t have a target in mind. But it's produced so beautifully. I’m so proud. It’s reached the stage when we look at it and it seems like such a big business now.
Shuang: What did it take to kind of let go and give those tasks to other people?
Taniya: I think it’s always a struggle to let go of things. If you do things in a certain way, you would just want to do it, and you are not allowing your territory to be given to somebody else. We had that feeling initially, but then I think this is very tactical and is a business call that it’s always there in my head, that unless you give your work to somebody else, you will never be able to be better. So, knowingly, we sat together and decided, this work we give it to that person, like a specialist or somebody who is better at it. So we hired right, made sure that the person is capable enough, and we let go.
Sujata: If we started to also pack and ship everything ourselves, we will never grow.
If the person is passionate, I feel a person can go on and become better. I don’t see marks now. I don’t see how much you scored in college.
Shuang: When you interview people, what do you look for?
Sujata: When I used to run interviews for my ex-companies, I never gave importance to passion, I rather gave importance to competence, the work experience they have done, the projects they have handled. Now I look mostly for passion. I think 80% of marks are for passion. If the person is passionate, I feel a person can go on and become better. I don’t see marks now. I don’t see how much you scored in college.
Taniya: I don’t focus on the CV format. If the font is wrong, the spelling is wrong, I just let it go, because I know that that is not the most important thing you have to see the person. And we always ask one person, what do you want to do in the future? Do you want to do this?
Sujata: Because we want the person to stick around and grow with us. We don’t want a topper of the school to come to me. Probably you would be really good in marketing, but I would rather have probably the 10th ranker who would rather stick to Suta for the longest of time, totally dedicate his life, just work with Suta through and through and not just quit and move to another rosier or better company. I would rather have a personal love for Suta as a brand.
One of our targets is to make Suta a great workplace. We just want the entire team to be really happy and content, so we keep asking people, Are you liking your role? Are you liking what you're doing? What do you see yourself doing next year? Do you want to do the same thing, or do you want to increase your workload and change your role?
Shuang: You develop people for versatility. And it seems like people are well rounded and could do a bunch of different roles within Suta.
Sujata: Yes. It’s really how Rupesh, one of the guys who started with us by serving coffee. Then from serving coffee, he slowly moved to packing.
Taniya: One time he said, “I like clicking pictures, Taniya. Can you tell me how you do it? I said, “Then why don't you use your phone?” Now he takes photos, and I have given editing duties to him. He uses Lightroom because we taught him how. And he uploads on Shopify. He uploads everything on Shopify. Can you imagine a guy who started off serving us coffee and now he's uploading on Shopify? All the tags right, all the naming right, everything is right, everything. It goes to the right category. It is amazing how he does it.
Small logistical changes with big financial impacts
Shuang: How was the process of setting up operations and making sure everything, logistics-wise, ran smoothly?
Taniya: It’s so beautiful, because both of us are engineers with MBAs. We didn’t think that we have to achieve just in time or to achieve Kaizen, but then it just automatically became that. It’s so good to experience all these terms in real life. It just feels right. Now I open any management book and I feel I do this right. I do this exactly this way. So yeah, it took a lot of time initially. Obviously, it started very small. We added an accounts department. Then we added an in-house marketing department. Now we have an inventory team.
We always hire people who are multitaskers rather than specialists. Now we have specialists, of course, but then we also do a lot of internal training and uplifting our people in their roles. Like how I told about the first employee, Jaya, who is now in inventory. Now the head of operations, as I mentioned, Raksha, it was a role which she moved into after she served customers. So there are other broader role shifts to figure out what we should do. It’s a continuously evolving process.
Shuang: I also wanted to talk about the fact that you both have MBAs. I feel like that’s also very different from a typical entrepreneurial journey.
Sujata: It worked well, even if we don’t follow the bookish knowledge, but somehow it’s there in the back of the mind.
Taniya: It has helped us a lot immensely. Even now, we are in touch with a couple of professors with whom we discuss strategies. So it helps us a lot, and we also believe that there is no magic mantra to everything. There is no way that a person can, say, focus on what customers are saying, implement the five things, and you’ll do everything right. It doesn't work like that.
We keep changing one thing at a time, even small policy changes or any small change can have such a big impact, and we keep doing that quite often. We also discuss these strategies with our mentors, our professors, and in the team. It helps us a lot. By talking to people, other entrepreneurs, we keep meeting once a month with other people to at least bounce off our ideas, at least see what they are doing. Is there a benchmark to do certain things in a certain way?
Shuang: What are some of the things you tweaked that were small but ended up having a big impact?
Taniya: One of the very tiny things, but me and Sujata used to have a conflict with, was COD [cash on delivery]. She never wanted COD to happen. She said, “Let's make it cashless. Let's make it easier.” So we never had COD, and I insisted, saying that even my friends from engineering school prefer COD. They don't go for online payment. If educated people also sometimes are scared, and I don’t know about what holds them back to make online payments, but they will do a COD. Imagine so many other people who are scared to put their card. They think that it’ll be hacked probably. So how do we tap into them, and when we change that small thing, the numbers increased drastically.
Sujata: Another example that was such a failure was reverse shipping—a reverse pickup arrangement with the courier partners. But they were not doing it properly. So we would request a pickup today, and it will happen after two months. The customers get frustrated. I get frustrated because I’m not getting the product back. I can’t refund the money. So we decided, let them ship it. Let the customer ship it to us, and we will pay them the money, what they have spent on shipping. We changed the policy overnight, and two months later, sales dipped so bad. It was so bad.
Marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing
Shuang: Let’s talk about your marketing because I love the fact that you guys are in the photos, and it just looks like everyday women who are wearing your sarees. How did you start tackling the marketing side?
Then people started recognizing me and relating to me because I did not look like a model. I don’t have a perfect figure and people relate to that.
Sujata: We started with no marketing, actually, and we were like that for the initial two years. But our brand got built very beautifully and automatically. When it came to the photoshoots, we wanted to save money on models and photographers. We didn’t know anybody. So we thought, why go and approach somebody, let me just stand in front of the camera. And she used to click the photo. And we had nothing. Our father would fold the sarees, my mom made sure that everything was happening right and we'd just do it in the house, or go down the lane.
Then people started recognizing me and relating to me because I did not look like a model. I don’t have a perfect figure and people relate to that. I think it just automatically happened.
Taniya: And the backdrops were natural backgrounds, and we didn’t use artificial light or anything, so people could relate to it.
Sujata: And they started trusting us more. It looks like everyday life. That bit got taken care of automatically. And the fact that we started posting customers’ photos online. We started posting thinking that that lady would feel nice if I posted and talked about how she’s wearing it so beautifully. And I was excited when people used to send us pictures, and we used to reply to all the messages ourselves. So it beautifully just kept becoming our community. Even now, I meet a customer, they would just come up to me and say, “Hi Su. You know, I am part of the community.” She would never say, “I’m a customer of Suta.” She would always say “I’m part of the Suta community,” because they feel Suta is like a family and like a community or a cluster.
Taniya: And we tried changing the backdrop to a solid background as other websites do. We saw that people didn’t like it anymore, so we thought that let’s stick to what we used to do and not follow the industry standards. And we changed the model too, but people don’t like it. So we went back to Sujata. That’s how the marketing strategy initially has been. Of course the community thing also really worked in our favor. But now, we spend our money on Facebook and Instagram and Google ads.
Sujata: And we have a person who is dedicated to replying to customers. We have a person who’s a freelancer from Chennai. We just met her for the first time last month. She’s been with us for one and a half years. She writes the content and writes it so beautifully. We have a story for all the sarees on the products page. We write about why we gave the sarees their names, or why the color is such. So it has worked beautifully, because she relates to the brand so much. She understands our story and writes it so well.
Taniya: And also people sometimes buy the saree because they relate and love the story so much. So it’s a beautiful thing that has built up what we both liked. Our salespeople also have started liking it. Its marketing has been amazing for us.
From small marketing budgets to brand-building investments
Shuang: How did you kind of begin to invest in marketing, and what were some of the first campaigns or tests you did?
Sujata: We started small. We started spending 20,000 rupees a month. An amount so small that the marketing partner said he doesn’t even talk to people with such a low budget.
Shuang: What do you spend your money on? Which channels?
Sujata: So now we spend more on Facebook, Instagram, but we spend a substantial amount on SEO so that organic traffic grows through. We also do retargeting.
Taniya: This is one aspect of it, but we also strongly work on brand building so that we don’t rely only on the budget that we spend to get customers. People should know us as a brand, social mediums, and we have our podcast.
Sujata: We get invited to a lot of colleges to talk to young students about entrepreneurship. We went and talked about how Shopify works. We do meet a lot of people through talks or on-panel discussions. We get calls later. We make sure we are present so that we are touching other people’s lives, even by sharing our own experience of how we failed, where we have succeeded, so that other people can learn about it. And selling is not always what we want to talk about. We would rather share our stories that we touch more lives. I think that makes more difference rather than just keep selling.
Taniya: Also, on Instagram we talk a lot about sustainability and what we do in our personal lives to be more sustainable in our daily lives. So we keep doing other things apart from just marketing, as in marketing on Facebook and Instagram. We build the brand and make it a community.
Sujata: Make sure the values are passed on to people. We always carry our own bottles, how we can impact the environment by probably using soap nuts to wash your clothes, and making our own bio enzymes. And we have a story called sustainability on our Instagram page, and a lot of other people have started making it.
Taniya: So what we want to do is that if people click on ads and come to our page, they should see the brand as it is. They should know the values. They can understand the values through the website.
Building a business with the future of the planet in mind
Shuang: Let’s talk about the weaving process and how you incorporate sustainability in all aspects of business and life.
Taniya: At the beginning, when we started Suta, we realized that we cannot avoid plastics, due to the rain. The items need to be packed from the factories with plastics, otherwise they get soiled. So we didn’t know what to do, how to avoid it. There's no other way. So we use recyclable things, and we started shipping it back, even if it was a big cost for us.
Sujata: Yeah, we could just easily dispose of it, but we make sure that we pack them back to the villages, the factory where they reuse the material.
Taniya: And we are very strict with people who don’t open the plastics properly, and they tear it, so they have to make sure they take time and cut it properly so it’s usable again. So we ship them back, and the same plastic is reused constantly.
Sujata: For the torn plastic and we have to throw away, we plan to use it as a design. It’s a very new concept. We are making embroidery using plastics. So it becomes a part of the saree and the blouses.
Taniya: We also don’t take drastic steps to lure people. For example, there was this brand that came up with a liquid that will make the sarees water-resistant. So if something falls on your saree, it just slips off. It won’t absorb a stain, so that was very fancy, and it was amazing if I just promoted it that way. But later, even when I took the sample and used it, I realized that it has a chemical that does not absorb in the soil. It forms a layer, so if you flush it in the ocean or sea.
Sujata: The animals would die, so we strictly said no, that we are not going ahead with that chemical, because it’s just fancy but probably gets us more revenue but unnecessary.
Sarees will never be tight or too loose. It just wraps around you, so its such a sustainable clothing.
Taniya: And so we use methods which will consume less water and during the dyeing process, and now we’re using soap nuts, which is natural, to wash our sarees. So a lot of things we incorporate in our processes make sure that we are sustainable and we are not spoiling nature, and saree in itself is such a sustainable garment.
Sujata: Sarees will never be tight or too loose. It just wraps around you, so its such a sustainable clothing.
Taniya: And also to encourage people that if you don’t want to wear it and cut it and use it as napkins because the more you wash your sarees, it becomes softer, and absorbs a lot of water. You can wipe your face with it, so people have started wrapping their babies in that because it’s breathable, so we keep on promoting all these ideas.
Expanding to international markets without physically crossing borders
Shuang: When you first land in Mumbai, there’s such a good mix of people in t-shirts and jeans, but then there’s also ladies and sarees. So it’s a good mix of tradition and modern-day clothing.
Sujata: I think it’s amazing that sarees are coming back. A lot of people thought sarees are very cumbersome. A lot of people can get daunted by the idea of six and a half meters of fabric. But even if you know how to wear a saree, people get scared about what to match the blouse and what to wear underneath the saree, the skirts. So we made sure Suta is a one-stop-shop for sarees. So we get all of that done so that the younger crowd who are running away from wearing the saree and make sure that they come back. So we have a lot of young girls now buying from Suta. I think a maximum of the crowd which buys from us is 25 to 35.
Taniya: And not only in India but abroad also people have started wearing sarees a lot, even if we don’t do marketing outside we still ship to all over the world. Name the place, and we ship it there.
Shuang: What percentage of your total sales come from outside of India??
Sujata: It's little, 12, 13% without marketing at all.
Taniya: We are now making a US website through Shopify.
Sujata: We are glad that Shopify is there because it’s such a sturdy platform. At least that way we don't have to be worried that, you know, the site is down. Something’s wrong. We’re not worried about that.
Taniya: We don’t even need a big team to maintain the Shopify platform. That way, our headache is gone.
Shuang: Are sales still mostly on your Shopify website? Have you explored other streams of business?
Sujata: We have three revenue channels. Primarily we sell through Shopify. 90% of sales still come from Shopify. We’ve just opened a store in Bombay. And we did it because we kept getting walk-ins in the warehouse. And it was becoming too messy because we had an online order and customers pull out something and they would say, “I want it,” and I would say, “No, I can’t give it to you because we have an order for that.” So we had to open a store to keep the inventory and stock separate for offline and online.
Taniya: But still the store is in a quiet little lane where people would not just come directly.
Sujata: There are no walk-ins. They are probably people who just will search for us and messages that I’m going to come over to the store. The third channel is very tiny. But we do keep our products in different stores because people want Suta products to be there.
Taniya: And a lot of people who don’t shop online yet to reach them, we have placed our products in a couple of cities to see how they respond.
Pricing sweet spot: fair wages for artisans and affordable for customers
Shuang: I also wanted to ask about pricing, because I feel like you guys have found a very good balance between making sure that weavers are paid adequately while offering affordable sarees for people.
Sujata: So payment, we were very strict from the beginning that we will never miss them or delay the payments. Even delays make them suffer so much because they are dependent on just that money. It might be little for us. For them, it’s everything. So we had promised this, and the accounts team knows, the moment we will send their bills, not even one minute delay we paid right then.
Taniya: We also make advance payment according to whatever the raw materials we procure, everything is in place even before the check happens. We pay their dues and everything so that they are really happy.
Sujata: Even now, people come in and say, “I want to work with Suta.” You know, in the village, Suta name is so big that they want to work with us because of the payment systems and because we pay more than they get paid anywhere else.
Taniya: And pricing wise we wanted the young crowd to start wearing sarees. And if I priced higher and kept my margins higher, I won’t be able to reach that crowd. So pricing was never a big thing in our heads, even now there is the bestseller category, we hardly make any money there. We do sell a lot of it because people love it so much. The first collection that we had, called Made In Heaven Mul Cotton, which is super light and very breathable.
Sujata: We want more and more people to wear it and experience what kind of Mul Cotton fabric it is, so that the weavers get constant work. People also buy a lot, so we play in volumes that way.
Taniya: We have customers who have a Suta section in the cupboard. All the colors like 25, 30 colors of that same saree. So it’s amazing how they send us photos and not just a few. There are many customers like that, they have a Suta corner. So it’s nice. It makes me super happy.
How the complementary sisters live, work, and build a business together
Shuang: I want to close off by asking about being women entrepreneurs and being married and having your own families and balancing everything.
Sujata: It doesn’t feel different. I think there are issues of people trusting us. Would they question us if it was a man? That the question is there and that pinches us sometimes thinking that people come in asking, Who’s your boss? I’m like, “Who do you want to talk to? No, where is sir? Why can’t it be a madam?”
I think it comes from the fact that I’m from a certain gender, that these questions are asked sometimes, but I think we grew past it.
Taniya: I feel like going back to put a mustache on and come back into the room.
Sujata: Yeah, they just expect a man to be sitting on the table. And sometimes people would walk in and say, “Oh, you guys are very young to be sitting here.” If a man is sitting there, a boy of the same age, they would never probably ask that question. It’s weird that they ask hygiene issues like questions like, “Have you done this?” It's just a weird question. Why would somebody ask me this? I think it comes from the fact that I’m from a certain gender, that these questions are asked sometimes, but I think we grew past it.
Taniya: And a lot of women entrepreneurs and business leaders in the country. Also, being a woman and managing a family. Sujata has a two-year-old boy. So what we did was we moved our families together into one house. We stay close together and our offices, two minute walk from our house. So that helped us balance everything.
Sujata: And we have a vast support system. I can take a flight and go and not be bothered about the family because there is a very good support system. Our in-laws are always there. If you need the help, my parents, our parents come over if you need them. So that way, life is sorted and we didn’t have to worry much about that aspect.
Shuang: I’m amazed because it’s hard to find siblings who can work together, and now you’re also living together?
Sujata: Our parents were certain that we will never leave India and always live close by. We always talk on the phone and tell them what we’re doing. We were separated for eight years when we were studying but we came back together. Even if we fight, my mother made sure that we just talk about it, whatever we fought about, discuss and find out whose fault it was and say sorry before going to bed. Otherwise, don’t sleep.
Taniya: We followed it to a T. Even if you are angry with some decision we make sure we just talk it out, sort it, and then go about doing other work.
Sujata: The next day, we get up, and we’re just back to what we were, and we are just the same old when we started. It’s the same thing, just as if nothing happened the previous night. Yes. And make sure you start afresh, so that’s the mantra.