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Nitin Pamnani on how masks were a game changer for iTokri

The co-founder of the artisan-focused e-commerce site on how they grew during the pandemic and wanting to become a global brand for artisan products

Nitin Pamnani, co-founder of  iTokri. (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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Like most of the country, Nitin Pamnani, co-founder of the country’s first e-commerce craft site, iTokri, remembers the chaos that followed the nationwide lockdown in March 2020. iTokri had been growing steadily, building up artisan networks. Suddenly, all their plans were up in the air.

“Everything was so dark, and we weren’t sure where it was going,” he recalls; they were closed for nearly two months. Eight years old at the time, they had built linkages with 200-250 groups across 150 categories and were sitting on inventory worth around 4 crore. Pamnani, 40, and his co-founder and wife, Jia, operate on a warehouse model—buying products, putting them through quality checks and then on the website.

As the pandemic tightened its grip, no one was in a mood or position to purchase saris, jewellery or home décor. But they didn’t want to cancel orders placed with artisans. The one thing in demand was masks. So, they started making masks from the fabric they had already ordered, engaging 300-odd people, primarily women, who could make these at home. Masks came under essential supplies and could be shipped easily. “And that really picked up,” he says, adding that it opened up a completely new space for them and helped them end 2020-21 with revenue of around 20 crore.

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Today masks occupy a separate category on the iTokri website: There are over 1,500 combinations of double-layered cotton masks, encompassing diverse craft traditions, including Sanganeri block-printing, ajrakh, kalamkari, ikat and jacquard. “We were very shy of introducing new categories before this,” he says, adding that they have sold nearly 5 crore worth of masks so far. “This was a completely new innovation for us and we weren’t sure that it would work.” But it did, garnering nearly 60-70% of their revenue through that dark period.

“We didn’t have to cancel a single artisan order,” Pamnani says, adding that he was able to pay artisans small amounts despite the overall drop in business. They also ended up adding more groups to their network. “When the physical retail stopped, all the purchase orders stopped from big companies; everyone wanted to go online and sell their stock,” he says, adding that he was approached by 200-250 more groups over 18 months. It helped that they were already online, ready when customers began turning to a more sustainable lifestyle. “By the time the second wave came, we had nearly doubled in size to a network of around 500 artisan groups,” he says, adding that they have greatly increased the depth in product category. “We are representing more of India.”

Now, they want to bring all these energies together and become a global brand for artisan products in India.

The handloom and handicraft industry is the second-largest employment sector in rural India, with over 4. 3 million people directly or indirectly engaged in it, according to a November 2021 report from the government export promotion agency Brand Equity Foundation. Most Indian artisans continue to get a daily wage for a job that requires immense skill and know-how, while the actual money is made by middlemen or the high-end designers who buy from them.

“The distress story is being sold as a product story today; the artisan is in distress so buy this—people support that cause,” he says. “But the artisan isn’t making money.” So fewer younger people are entering the industry. “The demand for handmade products is going up but producers are going to get fewer,” he believes.

iTokri, says Pamnani, helps by cutting out the middleman, buying outright at a fair price. “Artisans are not businessmen; they should be focusing on creating their product,” he says.

Till covid-19 happened, the brand, which operates out of Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, had been fairly conservative in its approach. At 40-50% year-on-year, growth, he says, their growth had always been organic. “We mostly invested in the product and spent very little on marketing or photographs.” The success of the masks, he says, changed the “whole ideation system”. Since then, they have ventured into categories they had been hesitant to get into—stitched clothing, for instance, “basic, classic traditional stuff for daily wear made out of handloom”.

Their latest initiative, kick-started in January to mark the 73rd Republic Day, is a Save the Craft Campaign, spotlighting 12 techniques through the year, including Gujarat’s ajrakh printing, Lucknow’s chikankari embroidery, Andhra Pradesh’s hand-painted kalamkari textiles and Karnataka’s kasuti embroidery. The campaign’s current focus is on sabai grass (weaving) from West Bengal. “We hope that people will take notice of these artisans, support and encourage them to keep their efforts going,” says Pamnani.

Their post-covid growth has been exponential. “Our revenues have nearly doubled in these last two years,” says Pamnani. Before covid-19, they were making around 13-15 crore; they expect to close at 30 crore in 2021-22. “We have more than 200,000 live SKUs (unique products) now,” he says.

Starting up in Gwalior

Gwalior, home to the former Scindia dynasty, is known for its majestic fort, the statue of Rani Lakshmibai, who was killed here, multiple temples, music, a famous trade fair and delicious street food. As a place to set up an e-commerce site, especially back in 2012, however, not so much. “We didn’t have any logistics company which would collaborate with us at that time,” recalls Pamnani. “It was tough to make people understand what we do.”

Yet the city was home, though he had moved to Delhi for postgraduation in Hindi literature and then worked as a documentary film-maker for seven-eight years. The decision to move back was partly economic. “Film-making is erratic: I was not making money for the films I wanted to make, and I wasn’t interested in making the films that people wanted me to make,” says Pamnani, who had got married in 2008 and wanted something stable. “I also wanted to move away from metros and pollution.”

He had a lot of friends who worked in the craft sector and had always been fascinated by sustainability and environmental preservation ideas. Jia, who used to make and sell jewellery at People Tree, a design studio and shop selling handcrafted products in Delhi, was on board. This was around 2010; e-commerce was still in its fledgling stage—Amazon hadn’t yet become the omnipotent force it is today; Flipkart still dominated the online shopping universe, he recalls. “That is how the idea for iTokri popped up.”

The couple started from a single room; Pamnani’s father, who had a rice factory and several godowns, gave them the space. “It was just an idea—we had no clue about the technology, logistics, who we would buy from, what we would do after buying, where will we keep the stuff. It was a total blank slate,” he says, adding that the initial funding of 20-30 lakh came from their savings, friends and family. For two-odd years, they did research. “It took us that long to figure it out because there was nothing already existing, and we had to figure it out from scratch. It is easier today—anyone can open an online store now,” says Pamnani.

In 2012, once they got the technology in place—a friend built the website—they started iTokri, partnering with the NGO Dastkar. “They were very supportive—connecting us to artisans, allowed us to use their name on the website saying that products were sourced through them,” he says. They still do.

Back then, they were working with 10-15 artisan groups, focusing on fabric, jewellery and home décor. At first, the couple did everything themselves—travelling to procure the products, putting them on the website, rushing to speed-post counters to book shipments. Today, they have 130-140 employees, mostly women (there are just 10 men) who live in and around Gwalior, and have expanded their customer base (website visitors and mailing list) from about 3,000 in the first year to over 200,000-300,000 today. They now have a 20,000 sq. ft warehouse.

“We have run it like a social enterprise but we have been profitable from year 1,” says Pamnani, who credits first-mover advantage, fair pricing and organic expansion for their success. Also, genetics. “I am Sindhi— business is in my blood,” he says with a laugh. “It picked up right away.”

Looking ahead

If you have ever shopped on iTokri, you would have seen this, tucked beneath the recycled newspaper packaging: a handwritten note, penned by a member of the team, thanking you for buying from them. “That has been our secret sauce,” says Pamnani. It’s challenging to keep up, though. “When we were doing 10 orders a day, it was easy. Now we often do 500 orders per day—that is like 15,000 letters every month.” However, he intends to keep doing it. “It is like the central fuel to us, keeps us going.”

This personal touch is iTokri’s USP. They have always relied largely on a mail sent every morning, without fail, listing new products for existing customers. Word-of-mouth also appears to be a driver. “At least 50% of traffic to our website is organic,” he says. If most orders— 70% of them for textile and textile products—initially came from big cities, the demand has moved to tier 2 and 3 cities.

iTokri also ensures that artisans are given due credit—every product on their website has the story of the brand, group or people behind it. Not giving due artisans their due has contributed substantially to their distress, says Pamnani.

Today, he is looking at scaling up and is open to the right investor. “Craft is delicate stuff and the kind of investor we could have in future should understand the kind of product we are,” he says. “The kind of response we are getting, the scale we see in the future, the support it needs…there is a lot of potential right now.”

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Quick questions

What is your favourite weave or product and why?

Hard to choose, I like ikat very much. The weave is so intricate; I am very fascinated.

Who are the celebrities who wear handloom best in your opinion?

Kirron Kher and Vidya Balan. I love the way they carry themselves in saris.

Where do you shop from?

Apart from iTokri, I buy tees from No-Nasties. 

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