In September, Bengaluru-based Zwende, a curated online marketplace for handcrafted products, was featured by Amazon Chief Technology Officer Dr Werner Vogels on Now Go Build – a global showcase of the stories of entrepreneurs using cloud-based technologies to solve tough real-world problems. Zwende is the first and the only Indian startup to have featured on the video series so far. And not without reason.
At a time when small businesses and micro-entrepreneurs in rural India are finding it hard to sustain and grow, Zwende is creating growth opportunities for rural artisans and traditional artisanship using innovative technology and disruptive business models. The feature is not just a big moment of recognition for the Bengaluru-based startup, but also for the creativity and resilience of India’s artisan community.
Watch how Zwende presents old-world artisanship to modern-day consumers and celebrates India’s diverse and rich art in a sustainable way.
A ‘crafted’ technology and business model
Co-founded in 2016 by Innu Nevatia and Sujay Suresh, Zwende is an e-commerce platform for personalised, handcrafted products and experiences from across India. It leverages AWS cloud technologies to drive modularisation and digitisation and create storefronts with millions of digital SKUs for each maker, without them having to manufacture in bulk and hold inventory, since makers on Zwende manufacture products on demand.
Zwende’s technology pairs the customisation and accessibility needs of modern shoppers with the creativity and craft of skilled designers and makers. Its recommendation engine, coupled with its unique customiser and real-time visualisation, allows customers to choose a product, its materials, art forms, designs and colours, and visualise their creation with a 360 degree live preview.
“We started with lamps and bags in Tholu Bommalata, an art form rooted in the puppet theatre tradition of Andhra Pradesh. With our technology, we were able to launch the first set of products with a whopping 75 million+ SKUs. Even for a product like a lampshade, we could create up to 4.5 million+ SKUs with all the designs and colour variations. This made it the world’s largest repository for this art form, right from the get go,” shares Innu.
As a fully-serviced and managed marketplace, Zwende takes away the hassle of setting up a storefront, cataloguing, marketing, discovery, customer interactions, and order fulfilment from creative entrepreneurs. “This ensures we celebrate their strengths and cover their limitations of low working capital and limited tech and business expertise,” says Sujay.
To make the shopping experience more experiential, customers can watch the art forms and products being created and even try their hands at learning them through workshops. The startup has delivered over 5 million minutes of live learning across different workshops. “This makes shopping on the platform an authentic, immersive and personalised experience,” says Innu.
Technology to cater to diverse consumer tastes
At Zwende it is all about data-driven design and co-creation – powered by technology. To start with, Zwende works with designers who use their creativity to contemporise age-old art forms for the modern-day consumer. “This means you would see more contemporary designs on products, the art form being adapted to newer products and sometimes just fresher colours being added to what you have been seeing for years,” shares Sujay.
He explains how technology plays a critical role in delivering on this further.
“Modularisation and digitisation powers choice for the customer and long tail of supply, which means there are higher chances for more customers to find what they want. These SKUs don’t really sit in the database but are stitched on the fly using cloud technology.”
Zwende’s online customiser helps users mix and match and make their own combination. They can see a real-time visualisation of designs that they create. This is an industry-first for the handcrafted sector, says Sujay. What’s interesting is that the basic rules and ethos of the art forms are retained. “This ensures that the nuances of an art form and the ethos of the designers are preserved and whatever a customer creates looks good. We often say that our AI is 2500 years old,” he adds.
The platform’s analytics and feedback loop collects data on users’ interactions on the website which helps recommend the right product to customers, and influence new products and design launches. Each interaction between the customer and Zwende paves the way for a data-driven improvement in product experience.
Today, powered by AWS technology and a growing network of its designer partners, Zwende has expanded its product portfolio across 50+ categories featuring 100+ art forms from around the country. “We now have a storefront with 10 billion+ SKUs,” shares Sujay. There is also a ‘discover’ feed of pre-customised products for customers, populated based on-demand preferences collected over time.
Accelerating through the cloud
Interestingly, while technology is at the core of Zwende’s business, they manage without a large in-house technology team.
“Our platform is built on AWS. And, our development team works closely with experts recommended by AWS. They specialise in setting up the AWS servers and infrastructure, advise on the architecture and also help with implementation, which makes the process seamless and easy. The AWS team is extremely supportive – it’s like an extension of your in-house team. They advise us on a regular basis in order to adapt to our changing business requirements.”
Since speed was fundamental to Zwende, it required an efficient cloud service to enable fast storing and retrieving of data and run the personalised and customised recommendation engines. “AWS scored highest in terms of scalability, reliability and flexibility when we did an internal evaluation. And, given that we were mostly catering to the Indian market, the location of AWS’s India regions was an added advantage,”
shares Sujay on why they switched to AWS cloud. He adds, “The last nudge to make the switch came in the form of AWS startup credits.”
Today, Zwende’s platform is powered by a number of AWS solutions – AWS Systems Manager and AWS IAM to advanced services like Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), Amazon Aurora (RDS), Amazon GuardDuty, Amazon Cloudwatch, AWS Compute Optimizer, among others.
“With billions of potential SKUs possible on Zwende, a new SKU is created on the fly every time a customer creates their own combination. We need a system that can scale rapidly without slowing down the system. The AWS auto scaling cloud solution helps us deliver on this. This also means our image storage requirements are massive and we rely on Amazon S3,” shares Sujay.
Solutions like Amazon S3 and RDS also enable the startup to scale on the cloud efficiently without having to invest too much on the applications front on Zwende’s tech platform.
The startup is also looking to leverage AWS’s solutions like Amazon Rekognition and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) to enhance the platform’s efficiency and productivity and intelligence.
A transformative effort in many ways
The impact of Zwende’s crafted business and technology blended model has been multifold. “Our biggest achievement has been to bring in new players into the online ecosystem and open up new revenue channels,” says Innu. Partnering with Zwende has enabled 350+ rural artisans to earn a sustainable monthly income. “In fact, 50 percent of these artisans earned their first online dollar with Zwende and some of them have created their own ‘brand’ with their annual incomes growing 100x YoY,” she shares. Another key achievement is their contribution to preserving age-old craftsmanship. “All of these art forms may not survive because of changing consumer tastes. Reinventing these art forms with a modern touch and giving them global recognition enables artisans in remote villages to continue what has been passed on to them over generations,” she opines.
Interestingly, while other businesses were hit due to the pandemic Zwende’s agility and innovative approach ensured that they were able to achieve business continuity and drive growth.
For instance, within 48 hours of the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown, Zwende took its offline workshops online. This not only helped artisans but also provided a creative outlet for customers, resulting in a 5x growth in user base. The startup also leveraged the lockdown and restrictions on e-commerce deliveries to create new designs and products. “The storefront of some of our existing partners grew 10x. We were also able to launch 150+ new artists and designers,” says Sujay. They also included COVID essentials like masks, which is one of their largest and fast-growing categories today. “With offline spends slowly moving online, makers on Zwende have seen upto 15x growth in revenues during the pandemic.”
The founders are upbeat about the future of Zwende and the impact they can drive. “The opportunity really is being able to take 10K+ art forms from all over India online with trillions of SKUs and live experiences to a global audience,” say the founders.
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