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How to Start a Values-Based Business

You might be familiar with MATTER. Perhaps you saw them in a Design9, remember our holiday giveaway or maybe you love MATTER’s work with our friends at Conscious Magazine. However you know them, MATTER is hard to miss. Though less than a year old, this inspiring women’s indie clothing line uses flawless storytelling and, of course, great pants to draw attention to hardworking artisans and ethical production methods.

From Singapore, MATTER co-founder Renyung Ho tells us about the journey of starting a business that puts values first.

I strongly believe that a product should stand on its own two feet first, valued and considered on its own, and its social impact is a secondary, bonus result.

A business is made up of hundreds of decisions everyday: whom to work with, what to produce, what message to put out, when to launch a certain product or service. But one of the biggest questions we faced when starting MATTER was where to start looking if you want to create a business that does good alongside doing well.

In the big world of production, sourcing and distribution, being a newbie with a mission beyond profit adds on another layer of consideration that can be intimidating. I had no experience relevant to creating a travel-wear brand around artisan production. I had a fuzzy idea of what I imagined, and a strong conviction that it could work. So where did I start?

1. Start with one thing

The initial grand idea was to work with artisan production, with women-focused cooperatives, and a model where one pair of pants sold funded one school uniform for a child for a year. This came from a passion for education, women and children, and wanting to tie it into the cultural heritage of artisan work. The problem was tying it all together – conceptually I could not reconcile so many purposes and business processes, and from a messaging point of view, was it about women, or children, or artisan work, or the pants themselves? Ultimately I chose to focus on artisan work, and to build impact into the supply chain itself through employment instead of the BOGO charity model. Start with one thing, and then layer on other objectives as you learn how to work your business model.

The pants-only production model was in part because we wanted to focus on innovating within the fabric and therefore relying on a production model that was simple, scalable and repetitive. The other reason was that we had identified this core product that we really believed was missing from the market; it exposed us to a certain customer segment and allowed us to get to know them better for future development of product categories. Many well-known companies start with one thing first – Ralph Lauren started with bow ties, Diane von Furstenberg, the wrap dress, and Alice + Olivia started with just pants. Being good in one thing and being known for that pays off over time.

2. Know your non-negotiables

When we first started, we were idealistic, wanting to create the pants from start to finish with artisan organizations. When the first pair came back, the quality was terrible – one pants leg would be shorter than the other, the stitching was uneven… the list goes on. We had to make a choice to let artisans focus on what they were good at (fabric construction), and use a professional unit to develop the final garment. We didn’t want to make pillowcases or just scarves and the tailoring of the pants mattered to us, and for this we had to hybridize our production model. This was a difficult decision, made because we looked at what our non-negotiable was, and that was artisan production, and also, high quality pants as our main product.

Knowing your non-negotiables essentially means knowing your own theory of change for your organization. What impact do you want to achieve? What business processes must be in place to achieve that impact? What quantitative metric will you use to keep you on track? Our theory of change is that textile artisanship will become sustainable when more designers want to work with it, and more consumers see the value in its processes. Our work is to make buying and designing an artisan product as easy and attractive as possible.

3. Create frameworks for decisions

When you’re guided by purpose besides profit, there’s often no right answer for how to choose. If profit maximization were the main goal, then it would be an easy one of ensuring lowest cost with highest quality. But our goal is supply chain impact and long-term production partner relationships – with that in mind, we created our own criteria for how to choose whom to work with.

You have to decide which parameters are most important to you, guided by the impact you want to achieve as well as your available resources. Once created, these frameworks save a lot of time and energy of choosing whom to work with, and keep you aligned to your why. Boundaries make life easier.

4. Surround yourself with the right people

Having a key community is fundamental to success. I have a co-founder with a separate full time job, so many times I act and feel like a solo founder. One of the things that saved me in the rollercoaster first year was having a core group of people I went to for different purposes.

Usually, I find that these people fell into specific categories: first, the skeptical naysayers who tell you things are not possible but are invested in your success. Proving them wrong can be a great motivator. Second, unconditional cheerleaders will pat you on the back and tell you you’re doing great because you’re your worst critic – these people will keep you going in times of doubt and worry. Third, inspirational peers who are also doing their own thing and have surmounted the same obstacles you face will provide timely advice and a sense of camaraderie. Lastly, domain mentors who are industry experts can guide you in areas where you lack expertise.

Timing is also important, as you’ll need different people depending on what stage of the business you’re in, and also the kind of person you are and what you need.

5. Know what you’re really selling

Know the value of the product you’re selling, and whom you’re selling it to. There are so many instances in social businesses where the end product is simply a byproduct of the socially impactful process the founder wants to put in place.

But I strongly believe that a product should stand on its own two feet first, valued and considered on its own, and its social impact is a secondary, bonus result. We started with a lot of user interviews and market research (through pants parties!) to understand first, the viability of simply selling pants online, and second, the type of pants and brand that people would want to wear. From our customer surveys now, I realize that ultimately what we’re selling is connection, not clothing. Our customers wear the pants because they want to feel connected to a larger cause, be part of a community, and know where and why their product was made. Knowing this guides all of our communications and also validates our starting hypothesis that people will make the better consumption choice when armed with the right information. Hence, we focus on provenance – where something comes from – and transparency as brand values.

One big thing I’ve learnt in starting my own business is that the journey is an ongoing negotiation of personal values. In creating your business and nurturing it from idea to operating concept to business model, you are actively materializing something that is an extension of your being and experiences. Whether you are practical and focused on making profit from someone else’s need, or idealistic and seeking to change the status quo through transforming an existing process, whatever you create will be a statement of who you are, and who you are is laid bare by what you value. Start by asking what’s important to you and why, and the answers will pave the way.

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