March Issue 2014
Interview: Saba Gul
What is Popinjay and how was it born?
Popinjay is an artisan-made handbag label that simultaneously enables livelihoods for underprivileged female artisans by creating a hand-made product that revives ancient craft techniques. It was inspired by the beauty of the Punjab, where craftsmanship has been stunted by the lack of connections to global markets. In October 2013, it launched its debut collection.
How has BLISS/Popinjay evolved over the years?
At first, I was a one-woman show with 25 artisans but no finished product, no market and no customers. Today, we have 150 artisan women, a full-time team, committed investors, hundreds of products sold every month across the world (primarily North America) and a band of loyal customers. Our products have been carried at the Emmy Awards (Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy) and featured on CNN, Al Jazeera and NBC News, and most recently the US retailer, Anthropologie, has picked up our products as well. It’s been one heck of a ride and I’m insanely proud of my team!
What is the nature of your workforce?
Our full-time team consists of a production manager, product designer, sales/marketing director and myself; that’s three females and one male, all in our mid-20s to early 30s. We’re geographically dispersed, with half the team in Pakistan and the rest in North America/UK. The team also includes 150 artisan women and five trainers in Hafizabad, Punjab, and a growing network of 15 female brand ambassadors throughout the world.
How did you acquire the funds in order to set up your business?
It was quite a process, with lengthy reviews of the company’s valuation, financial and sales projections. The investors are all Pakistani, so they were quite excited by the potential of the business for changing lives in Pakistan, and two are now on my board of directors. The most important ingredient for entrepreneurial success is persistence and this is what ultimately convinced people to join us, as investors and team members.
How do you market Popinjay?
Our main marketing strategy is word of mouth, so we work hard to cultivate relations with our customers. We also do regular trunk shows, where I personally communicate the brand’s story to attendees. Recently, we’ve started doing online marketing, exploring Facebook and Google advertisements, email campaigns, etc. And we’ve been getting global coverage too.
You re-launched BLISS, a not-for-profit, as the for-profit, fashion line, Popinjay. How has this changed the productivity of the business?
With this transition, our production per month has almost tripled. As a for-profit venture, our hiring focus has shifted to design, production and quality.
You’re doing a lot to bring your women artisans into the limelight. How has the standard of living changed for these women in comparison to when Popinjay was a not-for-profit venture?
Popinjay’s impact is baked into our business model — the more products we sell, the more money the women make and the better their standard of living. Many of these women now earn more than half of what their husbands earn, and after only three to four hours of work a day. The 50 — 60 per cent increase in their household incomes means that they can educate their children and spend more on healthcare. They also feel immensely proud of earning their own living and creating a beautiful product.
What are the problems you’ve encountered as an entrepreneur in Pakistan, specifically as a woman?
Being an entrepreneur is tough as hell, regardless of where you are. My startup has led me to lose sleep, ruin my health, neglect relationships, and push myself to new levels of physical and mental fatigue. I always like pointing out the dark side of entrepreneurship because startups and their founders’ lives get glorified a lot. The biggest challenges have included building a team and achieving the quality our product boasts. As the founder, I’m answerable to everyone, so it can be pretty challenging, psychologically!
Also, manufacturing is a heavily male-dominated sector in Pakistan, so I deal with a lot of men who, unfortunately, don’t take me seriously. But I simply ignore it.
Is working for oneself a 24/7 job? How do you manage to strike the infamous ‘work-life balance?’
I’m probably one of the worst people to answer this question! My work is my life. But, sometimes, I do force myself to take time off for friends and family.
What is one thing you’ve learned as an entrepreneur in Pakistan?
Never give up! Ignore the naysayers and keep chugging along. At times you feel like it’s never going to work, but remember: good things don’t come easy. Pakistan needs more people to think outside the box.
This interview was published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue.
Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline