B’atz’ works with local weavers and shoemakers to create beautiful, custom-made shoes and bags. With the profits from these sales, B’atz’ aims to support entrepreneurs in Guatemala who are seeking to start their own businesses.
Sara El Solh is a co-founder and the social media manager for B’atz’, a Guatemalan social enterprise which launched on Indiegogo at the end of last year. I spoke to her to find out what motivated her to start her company, and what has made it successful.
I meet Sara in her office; a bedroom in a small student house in East Oxford. It is filled with anthropology books, paperwork, and boxes and boxes of shoes. As well as helping to run B’atz’, the organisation she started with friends Daniel Chávez and Matilde Ugarte, she is studying for a masters degree in Medical Anthropology at the University of Oxford.
“B’atz’ means “thread” in the Mayan language Kaqchikel. It is the thread of life that unites all living things, and in daily life it is the thread that is used to weave the beautiful traditional textiles that are a great source of pride here in Guatemala.” — B’atz’ Indiegogo campaign.
So, Sara, how did you get the idea to start B’atz’?
A friend of mine told me that there was a place in town where you could have shoes made, and I decided to go. The weaving in Guatemala is incredible – there are beautiful, beautiful textiles, and I really loved them. So I just sort of thought – Oh, what if I try to put these textiles into the shoes? I had a few bits lying around, so I took them with me to the shoemaker, and he said ‘Yes’. I was absolutely delighted with them – and my friends really loved them too – everyone would always ask me; “Oh, where did you get your shoes? They’re amazing!”
The idea kind of occurred to me at the time, but it just seemed like a lot of admin, I suppose, and I didn’t know where to start. So, the idea just sort of came and went, but it never left completely.
At the beginning of last year, I was on a trip with a couple of friends. We were in this little village beside my favourite lake in Guatemala, and we met these women that were weaving these incredible textiles. I absolutely loved them, and I mentioned my idea to my friends over a drink that night, and they both thought it was a great idea. And they decided to convince me into starting it.
What were the first steps you took to make your idea a reality?
We started making prototypes. We had a very limited budget, so we just made a few designs. It was quite difficult to do as we had so little money.
The first thing we did was decide which textiles we wanted. And – really more importantly – decide which weavers we wanted to work with. And so, we went back to one of the women I just mentioned, whose textile work we’d absolutely loved, and we said, “look – we’d like to regularly buy the same textile; can you recreate the same one?”. And she said yes!
It was actually the case that the first design we investigated was original; it belonged to the weaver, Maria. It wasn’t the pattern of the village, or of a family – it was one she came up with – and we really liked that. We found a couple of other people that did their own styles too in the same area, and we decided on three final textiles.
So, we got our textiles, made some sketches, and gave them to the shoemakers.
Did you face any major problems starting out?
There were so many problems to choose from! The biggest were mostly problems during product development.
Our fold-up shoes (Doblado boots) were originally taller, and we realised that when we folded them down, the tongue was too long to do anything with – we made a whole pair of shoes before we realised this!
Sara points to various parts of her shoes – she is wearing a set of the early prototype Doblado boots. She shows me various edges of leather, intricate stitches and carefully-placed buttons, noting every minute detail she had adjusted and corrected to improve the shoes.
All these things I would never ever have thought of – these really small, really three-dimensional things – gave us the biggest problems. Look at these little buttons! It took us an awfully long time to find buttons that were the correct colour for the three types of leather we wanted to use. I remember at one point spending about a week just walking around all the different import/export warehouses – I mean that’s all I did; I woke up in the morning and thought Well now I’m going to cover this part of the city, and I would just walk around looking for these particular colours of buttons. But we eventually found the three colours that we needed.
And also shoelaces! Shoelaces that were long enough were quite difficult to find. You can see here – Sara points to a knot at the base of the eyelets in her shoe – this is one of the first prototypes we made this year and you can see its got two laces tied together. We couldn’t sell them like that!
It was definitely a lengthier process, and more frustrating and costly, than we’d thought initially. It took quite a few tries to get the style right. And then, once we were happy with that, we moved on to bags, which was slightly simpler.
As well as a co-founder, you are also in charge of social media management for B’atz’. How have you found using platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to advertise your brand?
I’ve learnt a lot. A lot! I’ve never really been a massive social media person; it’s not me. I think at the beginning of this project – even still now, really – that it’s not my passion; it’s not what I would choose to be doing. I would much rather be working with the textiles and working with the micro-loans. But, because I’m here in the UK, I’m the social media manager by default!
I’ve found it difficult, and I’ve found certain platforms more gratifying than others. I’ve learnt a lot about all of these different forms of media because now we have a Facebook page, we use Twitter, we have a Tumblr, and we have an Instagram account. And we have Pinterest as well, but my partner in Guatemala manages the Pinterest account.
I’ve found the Facebook page relatively easy to manage. I also find Instagram quite easy because I like taking pictures, for a start. I like taking pictures but I’m not a professional photographer. I don’t even have any aspirations of becoming a particularly good photographer! But I’ve enjoyed it. People have been telling me for months to start an Instagram account, and now we’ve started, I really have to agree with them. I find Instagram much more gratifying than Twitter. Twitter is quite a difficult one, I think, to really engage with new people through – I find it quite frustrating.
How have you found using a crowd-funding platform to launch your business?
When I first started reading about this, I did not know what crowd-funding was. But, at the end of last summer, a friend of mine said, “you should be crowd-funding your idea, it sounds great“. And I said, “what’s crowd-funding?”. And so, he sent me a link to Indiegogo and to Kickstarter. I had a look through previous projects, and it seemed kind of easy. I think the good projects make it look really easy, but it’s not!
How did you decide which crowdfunding website to use?
In a certain way – and I think this is to do with the feel of the website – Kickstarter sort of seemed more commercial somehow.I saw that Indiegogo seemed to have more of a social-enterprise lean.
Kickstarter is an amazing platform, and a lot of incredible artwork has been funded on it; video projects, art projects. I think you just need to figure out which is best for your project. And, although I would definitely class B’atz’ as an art project – just look at the textiles, its all handmade – I think we really weren’t sure how to classify ourselves. Were we a business or an NGO? For me, Indiegogo seemed to have more of a social lean, so I decided that, whatever our business turned out to be, this was right for us.
Do you have any advice for people thinking about using crowd-funding as a start-up tool?
Indiegogo has a whole list of campaign advice, and one of the first things they said – and they said this over and over again – was “make sure you have nothing else going on”. Which is unrealistic advice, because who has nothing else going on?! It was certainly unrealistic for me – I’d just started doing my masters; I was getting to know a new city, getting to know new friends. But, having said that, you do really need to commit time. I mean, I spent about a week without sleep before the campaign launch!
I think every project is different, but with our project, I really concentrated on the visuals. I think that was really important – it has to be – because of what we’re about. With the textiles, you can’t just talk about them and do them justice. I’m lucky enough to have a friend who is a professional film-maker, and she made our video which really helped.
So concentrate on the visuals. You have to explain to people what’s going on in words, but they’re just going to be on your page for a few seconds. They can skim over what they’ve read, but they can’t really skim over your photos.
You sent out your first batch of shoes in January. Have you had any feedback from your customers?
Yes. After the campaign closed, my biggest worry was with sizing. That became my major concern because our shoes are so unique; they are made to order. We send instructions on how to measure your exact size and then make the shoes exactly to those measurements. So, no shoe is in fact a size – not like a size 8 or a size 9 – they’re all different, and use different shoe moulds according to each foot.
It’s great when it works, but there’s potentially room for error, and that was the big concern of mine! But so far, everyone who has received their shoes has said they fit perfectly. So, I’m very pleased with that!
You were able to give out your first micro-loan a couple of weeks ago. How do you manage this process?
We funded it through Kiva – an online funding platform. I really like Kiva because they work with people all over the world and they function very efficiently. They grant micro-loans to people, they work with field agents on the ground to assess ideas and give them training on how to manage their money, et cetera.
They have a really low default rate on their loans, they charge very low interest and they are just, generally, I think, doing great work. I decided to work with Kiva because they have a lot of partners in Guatemala, and they’re also really transparent. You can see, underneath each loan, the list of donors – you can see our profile. Its been very easy to fund a loan through Kiva.
When did you decide you could fund your first micro-loan, and what project did you choose to support?
I did it really as soon as we had an idea of what our finances were. Technically, we’re out of debt, but there’s still a lot of expensive things we need to fund, like building a website. We probably shouldn’t have done it so soon, but I was really excited to, and I really wanted to. Hopefully, in the next few weeks, we’ll be able to do another one.
The ladies that we lent it to are starting a tortilleria, so they needed to get cooking oil, corn, and some kitchen equipment. They are based in a town in Guatemala, near the location of B’atz’. You can find out more about them here.
How do you plan on growing B’atz’?
At the moment, our next big step will be breaking into wholesale; trying to find small boutiques and independent shops to sell our products. That would be a really great step for us. At the moment we’re still live on Indiegogo, and people are still finding out about us – our social media accounts are still connecting us with people. But what we really need is a regular income; something more secure.
Have you approached any shops yet?
I haven’t! I’ve made a list though, and probably in the summer I’ll to go to places that I think might like what we have. I’m going to go around Oxford, and travel to London and Brighton, whilst I’m here in the UK.
Do you hope to eventually take a salary from B’atz?
What I would actually really like to do is to start paying the shoemakers and the weavers a salary rather than a wage; we will pay you x amount per month if you make us however many pairs of shoes, or metres of fabric. As for myself, it depends on how much time B’atz takes to run. If it grows so large that I need to commit full time, then I would need a salary to survive! I suppose we’ll see how it goes, but for now, it’s not an immediate concern.
Do you have any parting advice for anyone looking to start a social enterprise or a small business?
That’s hard! I suppose, from my experience, the most important advice I could give is to not be afraid to really invest in your project. Invest your time, money, love, energy, passion, blood, tears! It is so important to see it through from an idea to a concrete project, and there can be so many obstacles – big or small – along the way. You really can’t succeed unless you truly commit to your idea!
With thanks to Sara El Solh, and the rest of the B’atz’ team.