Amber Chand emigrated to the United States and worked for years in a museum gift shop before launching Eziba in 1999. Initially an online retailer that sold arts and crafts from third-world countries, Eziba has since expanded to include three sales channels: the Internet, catalogs, and stores. Chand recently spoke about the expansion; doing business with individual, third-world suppliers; and being a foreign-born, female entrepreneur.
Eziba has added sales channels over the years, from the Internet to stores. What was behind the decision to expand into new channels?
We started as an e-commerce site. We felt the Internet would be a very efficient vehicle for distribution in part because the products we sell are only available in limited quantities. They are made by hand. If they were made in factories, I'd have no issues. The Internet offered us a wonderful platform in which we could show limited items, and when they sold out, the photograph would simply come down and give a very dynamic sense of items coming in and going out.
That was the vision for the global bazaar. We were actually using the Internet in a very interesting way, which was to connect globally. Someone in Cleveland, with the click of the mouse, guess what, you could shop the world. We were tapping into the wisdom of what the Internet could be, back in 1998.
At the same time, our business plan was building a company that would become profitable, so Internet alone could not bring in the revenue we needed.
And also, we discovered Eziba customers were women -- older, higher income bracket. The Web wasn't exactly the place they were shopping from then. To this day 80% of our customers are women.
We began to experiment with a small catalog. It did so well, it made sense to build that out. Eziba customers are catalog shoppers.
What distinguishes catalog shoppers from other kinds of customers?
[They are] people comfortable buying from catalogs, but maybe a little nervous about buying online.
We were a new company, the catalog allowed us to expand our reach nationally and to become more targeted. Revenues from the catalog grew much higher than the Web site.
Within a year, we had two sales channels.
It's a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit of Eziba that we adapted very quickly. We could have said, "We are just an e-commerce company" and done all we could for that. But we had nimbleness and a keen sense of vigilance about what was going on in the market.
Then, we went into retail stores.
What was behind the decision to expand into retail stores?
Part of it was to build on the brand. And there was a sense that Eziba would do well as a brick-and-mortar store. We did it sort of upside-down from other companies like Gap, which had stores, then a catalog, and then a Web site.
How did you convince your suppliers to sell their goods through Eziba?
Well, in the beginning, it wasn't so easy. I remember going around and telling people that we were going to be this amazing company and they were like, "Right, right. Show me the money." But over the years, we've built ourselves into this very credible brand and for these small-scale producers, we are their biggest distributor.
Around the world, what people need is economic security. And we are working with some of the poorest people on the planet who happen to be incredibly talented artists. What they need to sustain their lives is a market. Very few retailers have taken the risk and the investment to go to these people and say, "We will sell your product," because there is a market in the United States.
How did you find the artisans in the first place?
I had already had an extensive network from working at museum gift shop. Then we built on that to create a more extensive network.
What are the challenges to being a foreign-born entrepreneur in the U.S.?
The challenge I have always felt is this particular, American, fast-paced, always-rushed way, which has its place, but as a woman born in Africa of Indian background, I have had to face some challenges. One is to work in an environment that is founded on a more male way of doing business.
It's the idea of building a business and growing a business. When you build a business, you can be very aggressive. In a way, that's a sense of testosterone.
I came from a school of thought that said, "When you start a business, you are growing it." I use two analogies to help me in my work. One is the analogy of a mother that gives birth to something. You watch it grow. A two-year-old cannot act like a five-year-old, no matter how much you want them to be five years old, they cannot. Similarly, I use that kind of wisdom to understand my business. And I could see that even though our growth strategy was quite aggressive, the deepening of the foundation was going to take time.
So today, five years later, I believe we are in the most confident position. We could not have been here five years ago.