The Investibles: Issara's rebellion against leather's status quo

Issara founder
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Of all the places to have a business idea, you could do a lot worse than a diving boat in Indonesia's crystal blue waters.

That's exactly where Roshni Govindaraj's idea for Issara, an e-commerce business focusing on affordable, quality leather goods, was born.

Two years on from that epiphany, we spoke to Govindaraj about her mission to transform leather goods.

Name:  Roshni Govindaraj
Company:  Issara
Date established: 2014
Website: www.issara.co        
Twitter: @issaraco

1. What is your investment status?

Bootstrapped.

2. Describe your business in one paragraph; what’s its vision and what problem does it solve?

I started Issara after becoming frustrated with the options available for leather carry - it was either buy cheap and nasty, or super expensive and covered in logos. So I started working with artisans to create minimalist, luxury quality leather goods that don't break the bank. Last year, Techcrunch likened us to Everlane.

3. How did you come up with the idea for your business?

I got the idea when I was on a dive boat in Indonesia (June 2014) and spotted a bag on a guy sitting next to me. It was beautiful, and looked like it could withstand anything. So I asked where he got it and ended up accompanying him on a trip to a leather workshop where I had my own sketches made into a gorgeous bag for daily use. I was hooked – it was so much more special than just picking up something from the nearest store. I figured that I could use the power of the internet to bring that joy to people from my part of the world too. That was my bingo moment. I quit my job 3 weeks after that.

4. What’s your addressable market?

Discerning 25-40yo men and women who value quality over inflated brand names.

5. What’s great about your team and do you have a mentor?

The artisans we work with are incredibly committed to their craft and I work with part-time staff who take care of quality checking, packaging, and logistics.  I have a number of informal and formal mentors from various industries – social enterprise, F&B, retail. They’ve been a huge support.

6. What key challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

a. Finding suitable artisans & workshops was an arduous and time-consuming process. It’s always going to be difficult doing business in a foreign country, but as a relatively young woman (I was 25) in a male-dominated traditional industry I faced some unique challenges. Older male artisans would often refuse to deal with me, and deride my decisions in a language they thought I did not understand.

b. On a particularly memorable sourcing trip, one individual blackmailed me on the day of scheduled delivery (after I had paid the deposit) when I had a photo shoot scheduled and was flying back home that night. This was a case where he assumed I had no one to help me out and I'd be forced to pay 30% more than agreed. I had to get creative and asked an acquaintance to rush over on her motorbike to the workshop (which was 7 hours away from where I was) to collect the goods.

c. One initial challenge lay in sourcing premium leather and hardware. There are lots of brands which retail handcrafted leather goods but I wanted my products to rival the high-fashion brands in quality. We now have Grade A, full grain leather custom-developed for us in tanneries that also supply luxury Italian brands. This was a massive step forward.

Issara

7. How have you funded your startup and why did you choose this route?

I’ve bootstrapped it to date as I wanted complete creative control. We’ve just successfully run our first crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and are 140% at the time of speaking (2 days to go!). I may consider seed funding down the road to allow faster expansion but that is a discussion for another day.

8. How do you market your business and how successful has it been so far?

The initial push came from organic press – we were featured on TechCrunch, Forbes, Fashion Journal, Carrology and other big fashion and tech publications in May 2015 when we launched. That helped with traffic and of course credibility. A few blogger collaborations and endorsements from big names such as Guy Kawasaki, Om Malik (founder, Gigaom) and Garry Tan (Y Combinator) has also helped with credibility and getting the word out. We’re also running some facebook ads, blogger collaborations and undertaking content marketing with complementary London brands.

9. What are your plans for the future?

To be the leading lifestyle brand renowned for creating high-quality everyday products, and to have made a significant social impact in the communities we work with.

10. If you started again, is there anything you would do differently?

I would start with fewer products, and invest more in blogger collaborations.

11. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs that are starting a business?

Few things are irreversible. Just go for it – do your research, seek to mentor, and get connected to the entrepreneurship scene, but ultimately just start. If it doesn’t work, you’ve learned a lot, and can always go back to your safe career J

Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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