Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi guys! My name is Eman Bachani and I am the founder of Meraki Design House. Even though my company “officially” started 2 and a bit years ago, I have been working on the brand for more than 4 years.
“Meraki” is a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love -- when you put "something of yourself" into what you're doing, whatever it may be. The idea behind Meraki Design House is similar. We work with artisans and traditional craftsmen in south Asia to elevate traditional crafts into everyday lifestyle products. Our hero category is flat footwear (can you even imagine wearing heels anymore? haha).
Our leather flats use the form of traditional Indian/Pakistani Juttis/Khussas, except with double cushioning and the best quality leather. Each style is versatile and there is a style for every kind of taste. The most special thing about the flats is that they mold to your feet so they can become your most comfortable pair, and this is reflected by the fact that there is no left or right foot - and you get to make your own!
Our goal is to reach 2 sets of customers: (i) customers with a South Asian heritage who don’t feel represented by mass-market brands and want to access high quality South Asian rooted products (ii) customers who want to discover unique of kind products and have an affinity for handcrafted goods.
Being based in Canada (read: always freezing) and selling non-winter shoes has been a challenge wherein the business becomes automatically seasonal however we’re actively working to offset this seasonality by growing our audience and customer base outside North America. This strategy has definitely helped us grow even in COVID as consumers in different countries can use the product even when we locally can’t!
Even with the incremental growth, the pandemic has definitely thrown off all planning as we have to remain cognizant of how the consumers will actually use the product. A lot of purchases used to be centered around festivities, celebrations, and gifting, and with some of these areas wiped out our best bounce-back was a collaboration that was ideated in the early days of covid where we worked with an influencer in Australia to design our version of an elevated essentials line up that would serve as the perfect pair in this version of the world and beyond. This collection sold out in less than 36 hours and allowed us to tap into new markets and serve new customers instantly!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Basically, I’ve grown up a chubby kid for the most bit, and what that really meant was that I could never dress up like the “cool” kids did and never fit into anything that was “in” fashion. So an instinct I developed to counter this and I guess protect myself was to hunt for locally made clothes and accessories because that would automatically mean I am not gunning to follow any trends. Since I grew up in Asia, the “local” products always had an undertone of tradition and culture which elevated anything simple and basic into tasteful. In fact, my closet and my belongings have become an homage to all the places I have lived and traveled.
As I moved from the Philippines to Toronto, I did recognize that North American fashion and consumer culture is largely driven by mass-market brands that only offer basic and predominantly caucasian centric products with the assumption that all consumers would assimilate to a singular way of dressing and expressing themselves.
Furthermore, I also faced two different experiences where ordering products from Pakistan, India, and other Asian markets was a taxing (literally) process, and often brands would disappear into the abyss and when the package would eventually arrive, it would end up costing an arm and a leg more because of local regulations so my supply of interesting items was pretty much restricted and a difficult experience.
Secondly, when I spoke to non-south Asians, most were surprised I spoke English fluently or watched the same TV shows they grew up watching because the preconceived notion was that I would watch Bollywood, and clothes made in the subcontinent were limited to saris and shalwar kameez.
I have periods in the year where I would cold email e-commerce founders and ask them about things that have worked for them and things that haven’t. I think I’ve definitely been able to grow my network through doing that and would recommend it to everyone - especially because entrepreneurship is just so damn lonely.
I needed to change the experience of buying and I needed to change the perception of products that came out of South Asia. Most women, including myself, share a universal love for footwear, whether to admire, wear or collect and thus when random people would stop me on the street to ask me about my “Indian” looking shoes, I really wanted to have them know that these shoes were as good as any other shoes, except better because they were painstakingly made by hand using leather and incorporating the art of embroidery and beadwork- but most importantly, these shoes were designed for you to make them your own with their ability to mold to your feet.
When that entire realization came together, I just went for it. I knew there were many many people out there who would appreciate this as much as I did, and that’s where Meraki was born.
I had never worked retail in my life before this. I had no sales experience. No footwear or design experience. No digital marketing experience. I was right out of university and I knew nothing about anything to do with this. However, in hindsight, If I did know all the pieces, I do wonder if I would still do what I did. There is definitely some merit in embracing the unknown because you live the questions and then you live the answers. My dad helped me do a lot of the legwork like registrations, imports, costings, etc, however, it came down to me to actually sell the product.
A few years ago e-commerce was still relatively nascent and thus I just did not know how to sell online. How were people even meant to find me? So I spent almost every weekend for a few years just driving from town to town and attending pop-ups and markets. Picture a girl dragging suitcases in the snow to set up a table full of shoes. It was so hard. So hard. But had I not done that, I would have never learned how to sell, and more importantly never understood that my buyer is actually a lot different than whom I imagined it to be.
Putting in face time with customers allowed me to validate the idea and fine-tune the product, pricing, and sizing, it also helped me understand the practical FAQs to consistently improve the online shopping experience.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
This was actually the longest part of the process. My thinking is very linear so I was trying to move down a list of things to do with the name and the logo and the website and simultaneously meeting manufacturing partners that shared the values and ethos as me. However, finding ethical manufacturers was by far the hardest task. I kept on meeting people who would pretty much teach me how to con customers and in that process, I knew I didn’t want to work with partners who led with those values.
Eventually, I found a few partners, narrowed them down, and started to work on prototypes, however, the end product was just not good enough. All samples were just blah. By this point I was back in Canada and going back and forth between Pakistan and Canada is just not that easy and as I continued to get frustrated by the subpar samples I started reaching out to contacts and acquaintances and got introduced to a girl my age, who shared similar values and found that her family was in the business of working with artisans and hiring them for various handcrafted products.
Getting to this point took about 6 months but once I had seen the quality of their products, I was instantly sold and started designing an initial collection which took about 3 months to complete. Having never designed footwear or sold any products before, I did not think to make my own sizing chart and just assumed the manufacturers would provide me with standard sizing and thus when the product arrived, two things worked against me:
- By the time the product arrived in Canada, it was already winter and even I couldn’t wear my own product out and about.
- The fit and sizing were completely off from the sizing marked on the shoes which meant selling these online would be a nightmare (...and it was!)
At this point, I already knew I was going to be selling a lot of the product in person at pop-ups and such, but every online order I got ended up being a mess because of the sizing. I’m pretty certain lots of customers were not impressed and I had no choice but to sell most of that collection at events to avoid negative online shopping experiences.
The first collection, while not thematically coherent, was the best way to understand the next few collections because every design and style was driven by customer insight and feedback and to this day, customers have a huge role to play in what comes next.
Describe the process of launching the business.
My lack of inexperience and exposure definitely did not help with a launch plan. At the time, my approach to it was just to keep inching forward a little at a time rather than launching with a big bang. For starters, I had worked with a freelance graphic designer instead of a proper branding agency, had no idea how PR worked and I built the Shopify website myself using a free theme. Bootstrapping a product business that requires investment in inventory doesn’t necessarily always leave a lot of room for the more expensive things like a fancy PR firm.
As I mentioned earlier, my product arrived right in time for winter which was off-season, and because I didn’t really know how to sell, the only way I could start getting the word out was through organic social media posts. I do have to be upfront and mention that I really had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to sell other than to show up in places where customers would buy, whether that be through boutiques and independent shops or at events and shows.
I tried the B2B route with selling to boutiques and consigning to artisanal stores, and while that started to get the word out more and more, I didn’t really have an inventory system and thus replenishment was a challenge and so was the fact that I got no customer feedback or insight from these B2B customers.
Within 6 months of B2B, I decided that I wanted to remain exclusively direct to consumers, and even if that slowed down sales, I would at least get the full insight into what customers like and dislike.
It took a lot of effort to be in different places and meet different kinds of customers to understand what kind of customers appreciated our products. From there, it was one connection after another.
For example, one particular show we went to was huge for us and thus we spent months after that targeting customers in that city. At some point, we started experimenting with email marketing and would collect email addresses at events and tried to work on retention and repeat customer strategy.
After that, we started working with influencers, and when we zeroed in on the kind of influencers whose audience engaged with the product and scaled that strategy to about 50 influencers in that year. These new strategies we implemented every few months were almost like mini-launches into a new phase of the business with more growth, new customers, and new learnings that would allow us to figure out the next move.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Different things have worked at different stages of the business but one thing I’ve really learned is that when it comes to brand building (not just sales), a lot of strategies have to be executed together for an overall lift.
In the beginning days, I didn’t know how to drive traffic. I didn’t understand how paid ads worked so I thought organic social and word of mouth would be the main sources of traffic. However, I was very wrong because you need a relatively bigger network to see some shift in numbers and any sizable results for those two sources to work.
I did have great success with Influencer marketing as the first thing that really worked for me and I made sure to 10x my effort. It is important to note that because I am a small brand, I got away with managing this strategy at a low cost because influencers understood the demands of a small business and were open to just accepting my product and showcasing it to their audience rather than charging me for posts and stories.
I sent the product to women who fit into different demographic segments but spaced out the gifting so I could track the impact each influencer made. Based on positive movement, I would focus on influencers who matched the demographics that worked and allowed me to acquire customers.
Once I acquired an initial slew of customers and understood where these customers were coming from, I finally leaped faith in FB/IG ads and started playing with basic story ads. I saw success, but this was also early COVID so that could have something to do with the cost of ads. I was able to get to a ROAS as high as 4 which surpassed my expectations and allowed me to take more risks with my spending.
Due to the nature of my product, I have always had limitations with my conversion rate so a few months into running ads, I hired an employee who would help me optimize and scale the ads effectively. The changes with the FB ads platform and fluctuating CPM costs + lockdowns have definitely been a huge challenge but we’re still trying to keep influencer marketing in the mix. For example, Muslim and South Asian influencers do well for us so we run an Eid Gifting Campaign around the same time as our Eid Sale and use both ads and email marketing to maximize the ROI from such gifting programs.
A lot of people swear by email, and we’ve definitely benefited but more so to move customers down the funnel and retain customers. We attempted doing a biweekly newsletter that was not product-focused but instead, lifestyle-focused and we realized that it ended up being more work than value so we’re still trying to look at what a longer-term non-product-focused email strategy looks like.
Our email sign-up source has been great though because instead of a pop-up form, we use our chatbox. This was initially an effort to reduce drop-offs and improve conversion rate however incentivizing customers on chatbox with free shipping in exchange for email addresses has helped us grow our list significantly.
At the end of the day, I have no idea how I will get to where I want to be, but knowing that you get to employ people, contribute to their welfare, and provide opportunities is a privilege in its own right.
Amazon while often on our minds has not been a channel for us yet. We’re simply not sophisticated with our inventory planning to be able to ensure we can meet the demands of Amazon. With our own website, we can ensure an excellent customer service experience even if we don’t have the product the customer ordered. However, with Amazon, there are several limitations in situations like that.
This quarter we took our influencer marketing strategy to the next level where we worked with an influencer to co-design a collection that would help us acquire a whole segment of customers in her audience. We did this strategically by working with someone in Australia so that we acquire international customers and can offset the winter seasonality factor. The collection was a year in the making and sold out in less than 36 hours.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re most grateful for the fact that we’re growing despite a pandemic. However, I don’t anticipate us being profitable for a while. A big part of that is attributed to our high customer acquisition cost. The nature of our product is one that almost needs in-person customer interaction at some point for us to convert customers at scale and keep the acquisition costs in check.
The biggest drop off in our online traffic is due to customer concerns about sizing and fit, and thus having (even a limited) in-person trial opportunity will allow for customers to be 100% certain about their purchase, with very minimal chance of return and exchange and higher customer lifetime value (because we can control the most controversial part of the customer experience) and an even higher repeat rate.
The limitation with the above solution is the fact that our customers do not predominantly come from any one place and our orders are a fair split between Canada/US and the rest of the world. At the moment we’re trying to find new ways to reach international customers, and improve the overall shopping experience when it comes to size and fit but also start to focus on products that are more accessible and less size focused.
For example, our shoes are narrow and they need to be broken into when a customer has a wider foot but we’re looking into more styles that are open so that we can engage with a potential customer who likes our aesthetic but does not want to risk a fit issue.
In the short term, we will continue to build our influencer marketing network but also invest a little bit in traditional PR as we’ve never dabbled in it. We hope this will add to our credibility amongst different consumer groups and contribute to an overall lift within our business. Our longer-term vision though is to have temporary pop-ups in cities where our customer networks are concentrated so that we can engage with customers in person and offer an on-brand experience.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the bigger mistakes I’ve made that’s cost me quite a bit is hiring someone who intuitively didn’t feel like a brand fit. I was not once, but twice in this situation where a candidate had more skills & experience than I did (way more) but wasn’t organically a brand fit. I thought perhaps the experience would make up the gaps but it was a bad decision each time! In fact, it also made me realize that a lot of times people sell a skill they may not even necessarily possess or can apply effectively.
I also am officially averse to hiring “consultants” because any time I’ve worked with a contractor who wants to be referred to as a consultant, I’ve basically paid them to research something I thought they already knew. These experiences have allowed me to understand that I should not be intimidated by qualifications and instead lean into my intuition. At the end of the day, attitude will always win and skills can always be taught.
Lots of people have been really helpful on this journey but I’ve actively sought more help from strangers than friends because I found that to give me the most objective feedback and insights about the brand and the products. In fact, I have periods in the year where I would cold email e-commerce founders and ask them about things that have worked for them and things that haven’t. I think I’ve definitely been able to grow my network through doing that and would recommend it to everyone - especially because entrepreneurship is just so damn lonely.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I do think the best app for us has been Tidio as it has helped us grow our email list considerably. This may vary from person to person but we were able to fully leverage it by offering promotions in exchange for email addresses.
Other than that, I’ve become a fan of TikTok as a consumer where I can find tidbits on different topics if I haven’t worked on them before. For example, when I wanted to learn the basics of Pinterest marketing, I just watched a few TikTok videos about it and it definitely helped me build a basic foundation of knowledge on the topic.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I used to be an avid reader but because I am on the road so much I end up listening to podcasts more than anything. My top picks are:
- How I built this (no explanation needed because everyone who listens to it is obsessed). This podcast helps with the higher-level inspiration for me on days I feel like things aren’t going my way.
- Shopify Masters - Because our store is on Shopify, this podcast is more action-oriented for me where I am trying to make notes of apps, tools, and other insights that I can apply to Meraki
- Cold Call: This is an HBR podcast that does case study style deep dives into different topics and businesses. I’ve heard most episodes about consumer goods, retail, and innovation and it has allowed me to start thinking about issues and problems I might face in the future when my vision actualizes
- Exit Strategy with Moiz Ali: As someone whose been in the consumer goods and DTC/E-Com space, Moiz knows all the right questions to ask and really drills into how a business can be bootstrapped and scaled
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Might be a common one but, I would say just start. I meet a ton of people who have so many good ideas but year after year they just sit on them for the perfect timing or some sign from God, but if you keep waiting to be ready - chances are you’ll never be ready.
I would also urge people to start to go back to the basics. For example, I started at a time when FB ads were all the rage and by me not understanding the platform, I took the route where I did more work and went to all these shows and events to sell the product (something that goes against the grain of e-commerce). However, in hindsight, I learned many more transferable skills doing that than if I had just thrown around some money on ads; I learned how to sell, I learned how different consumers respond to different attributes, I understood why consumers converted (or not) and most importantly, I learned that my customers might look a lot different in real life than they did in my head. Fast forward, I can now target consumers easier by having these insights in my back pocket.
At the end of the day, I have no idea how I will get to where I want to be, but knowing that you get to employ people, contribute to their welfare, and provide opportunities is a privilege in its own right. I spend so long thinking about the kind of things I want to offer my team is the biggest motivation for me to get out of bed and get things done. Of course, you want to serve your customers and build a life for yourself, but I am most excited about giving back to the people who trust me with their time and energy!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes! We’re actually looking for a paid part-time content creator to grow our presence on TikTok. In addition, we’re also looking to move our fulfillment out so actively looking for the right partners for that as well!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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