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Building a Global Marketplace During a Worldwide Pandemic

Building a Global Marketplace During a Worldwide Pandemic

How two female founders quarantined in Tel Aviv used Instagram and Zoom to build a global marketplace

In early March 2020, my Co-Founder, Shanny Harel, and I founded our company, The Nopo. We had been playing around with the concept for a couple of months, running surveys and researching the market, and finally felt confident enough to take the leap.

Our goal was to create an experience-driven global marketplace connecting online shoppers with extraordinary artisans in spectacular destinations around the world. We had a grand vision: a world where people can transcend their geographical boundaries and access the true cultural and artistic riches of the world. Lofty visions aside, we knew we’d have to execute the hell out of this if we were going to create real value.

Our research pointed to a growing trend that validated our own experience -millennials prefer purchasing things they can relate to on a deeper level -products that have a story and that reflect their individuality. We also learned that over 20% of US adults buy handmade items online and that the handmade market is growing at a rate of 11% (CAGR), and is projected to be worth over $400B by 2024.

All this was enough to convince us of the viability of creating an experience-driven, content-focused platform that would give online shoppers the sensation of exploring exciting destinations and meeting the local artisans. In doing so, we would give them the opportunity to purchase quality handmade items from another place or time and take home some of the magic and wisdom that went into creating them.

We incorporated and set out to build a proof of concept, focused on Morocco where the craft industry is tightly regulated to preserve the quality of its crafts. We purchased our domain, set up a website, and started planning our trip to Morocco so we could locate and sign-on local artisans and launch the pilot. Traveling to Morocco was a critical part of our plan; how else were we supposed to find these amazing artisans who are virtually invisible to search engines?

On March 17th, Israel entered complete lockdown. A trip to Morocco was out of the question. We took a couple of weeks to try and make sense of this new reality and figure out the implications for our fledgling Nopo. As the days went by it began to dawn on us that, ironically, our idea had become even more relevant than before. In a world where international travel could no longer be taken for granted, online access to unreachable handmade items from the other side of the planet would become all the more appealing. Now all we had to do was figure out how to find these unreachable artisans, whilst stuck in lockdown more than 5,000 km away.

The artisans we were looking for generally don’t have the resources or know-how to operate and promote their own websites, nor the ability to manage the logistics of foreign currency transactions and international shipping, and thus remain invisible to international shoppers. They do, however, have smartphones and manage active Instagram accounts.

We knew that once we onboarded a few dozen terrific artisans, word would spread, and new local artisans would find their way to us. But we still had to reach those first few dozen. April was Instagram month. We spent countless hours scouring through IG accounts. It felt like looking for a needle in a haystack. Instagram is a wonderful passive-discovery platform, but when you are actively searching for a very specific type of account, it’s a different story, and hashtags will only take you so far.

A week in, I recall telling Shanny “F**k it, there aren’t any artisans in Morocco!”. But we kept plugging away and the following week, we finally found our first: Soufiane Aissouni, a lamp designer from Marrakech who creates beautiful handwoven raffia light fixtures working with a collective of craftswomen from a village nearby. Soufiane’s Instagram feed was a playful invitation into his world of luminous design. His style is sophisticated yet approachable, earthy, and warm — just like his personality. We DM-ed him on Instagram, and he was instantly sold on the idea. Despite a large international IG following, Soufiane was limited to selling his creations to tourists visiting Morocco. With no incoming tourism, he was hurting.

Artisan by artisan, we managed to uncover an amazing pool of talent. Using Instagram we were also able to get a lot of insight into who our artisans are -their unique artistic voices, their values, and their community of followers. We were also able to discover ‘creative brokers,’ individuals who were at the epicenter of artistic communities of the kind we were looking for. We would not have been able to find these people using Google, and in retrospect, we realized we would not have found them traveling to Morocco either. Instagram became our main early-stage discovery tool.

Once we grabbed the attention of our desired sellers on Instagram, there was still a lot to discuss before we could onboard them to the platform. Six months ago, most of our Moroccan partners never heard of Zoom, let alone used it. By April it had become the most popular method of communication throughout the world. We were all in the same boat sharing the same virtual oars.

Surprisingly, Zoom connected us with our Moroccan partners in a more intimate and personal way than we could have ever imagined - bringing us into their homes. Trying to hold a conversation while our children or partners were whining, laughing, fighting, or singing in the background was an immediate icebreaker. It created the sort of familiarity that usually only develops among people working together for months or even years. On one occasion we got to meet one of our partners’ one-week-old daughter, and learned that her name “Maya,” which is a common Israeli name, has a beautiful meaning in the Amazigh language too: ‘the sound of the echo of the mountains.’ One Zoom call is all it took to create the trust, transparency, and clarity needed to move forward and start working together.

Instagram and Zoom enabled us to locate, connect and bond with partners 5,000 km away while the world was in lockdown. They also enabled us to quickly launch a super-successful pilot on a super-lean budget. While we’ve extended our arsenal of tools, and have developed more effective processes, it’s clear that Zoom and Instagram will remain critical tools for discovering and connecting with local artisans, as we prepare to expand and scale to many more magnificent markets and destinations around the world.

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