It has been a busy few months for the Essmart team. After the encouraging results of our pilot in January 2012 and the support of organizations like the IDEAS Global Challenge, we returned to India to launch our enterprise in August.
For the past two months, we have been focused on doing – on building our distribution network and getting essential technologies into local shops. We found office and warehouse space in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, India. We brought on board our Director of Field Operations and a sales agent. We built relationships with 20 retail shops, and then cut this down to the 12 most promising shops. We started marketing our catalogue of essential technologies to shop owners and rural households. We tested and added a few new products to our catalogue. We have sold over 50 units through our retail shop network, and we are bringing on two new sales agents in the coming week to start expanding our reach.
It has all been very exciting, but in the midst of all this doing there has been little time for thinking. We have been focused on building relationships with shop owners so that we can sell products and get our business off the ground. But it is important for us to remember that our mission is not, in fact, to sell products. That is the task of our partner retail shops. Our mission is to build a channel through which products can sell.
To this end, we would like to forget all of the numbers for a minute and focus on our process. At the heart of our channel are retail shop owners, and we have been learning a lot by watching them over the past few months. First, we are learning about how crucial it is for shop owners to understand our product catalogue. It is not enough for shop owners to want to sell the products for profit; they must understand and believe in each product before they feel comfortable marketing it to their customers. Our demonstrations in shops have been critical in building understanding and confidence in our products. We’ve watched the comfort levels of our shop owners increase over time, to the point where they’re ready to take over the marketing.
Second, we are learning how important it is for shop owners to trust and believe in Essmart. The effort that we put into our relationships with shop owners far exceeds other distributors’. In rural India, companies come and go, taking advantage of the locals. As an enterprise based on a social mission, we take a different approach. We’re in this business for the long haul, and we need to build up our presence and brand. This begins with gaining the trust of the shop owners, who are more willing to sell our products when they know that we’ll be around to service them.
Each shop owner is different, which brings us to our third lesson learned: How much structure is needed to help our enterprise scale while also giving us the flexibility to cater to each shop? This is more of a question than a lesson learned, as we’re still trying to figure out the answer ourselves. We’re aiming to strike a balance between flexibility and structure as we’re creating this channel that facilitates and supports the flow of information and goods.
Despite lots of doing in the past few months, we still have a long way to go in building a sustainable, scalable channel for technologies that will change the lives of people in rural India. Some of this will be accomplished by doing – by repeatedly testing new ideas, increasing product sales, and marketing and servicing the products that are sold. But a good chunk will come from focusing on relationships with shop owners and end users, information exchange, and customer feedback. In a sense, these are non-tangible items that are not reflected in the numbers that we post. Yet although they don’t contribute to the nitty-gritty building of Essmart’s channel, they ultimately inform the shape of it.
Written by Diana Jue and Jackie Stenson with Essmart Global, a 2012 IDEAS Global Challenge award recipient.
Essmart creates a marketplace for life-improving, essential technologies in places where people already shop. www.essmart-global.com