Owning a business nowadays means going against the conventional terms of merely earning profits.
As traditional and digital commerce grows in Singapore, startups are coming up with ways to solve a problem or to disrupt an industry, while older establishments are reinventing the way they operate to adapt to changes.
But here’s a business borne out of a passion, dreamt up by a 28-year-old girl who was inspired by a trip around India.
Where, Why, And Who Made It Matters
Renyung Ho went on an auto-rickshaw journey called the Fluk Fluk Run in 2013 – which led me to finding out she was the founder of MATTER Prints.
I learnt of MATTER first in early 2015, when I worked a temporary job in an e-commerce store. I tried on a pair of its pants and immediately, I could tell why people loved them.
Before MATTER started, though, Ren was already a two-time entrepreneur.
The first venture was a creative co-working space and the second was a crowdsourcing platform.
She had always loved connecting ideas to concepts, and creating platforms for opportunities.
Ren said on her past experiences, “That taught me about failure, partnership, the relationship between idea and execution.”
The idea for MATTER took shape five years before the Fluk Fluk Run, when Ren and her partner drove an auto-rickshaw from Jaisalmer to Kerala.
I saw the beauty and chaos of India and my time there helped me make connections and meet people that helped materialise the idea.
Ren started MATTER with two main intentions:
- To create a purpose-driven business and;
- To celebrate cultural heritage by connecting modern design and textile artisanship.
This explains their mission – Change Beyond Textiles.
Ultimately, we believed that the world would be a better place if people asked where and why something is made, and by whom, and connected their purchasing actions to these questions.
The diligent founder studied sociology at the University College London and took modules in civil society, economic development, and philosophy.
Those classes led her to do a thesis on social entrepreneurship, which was an eye-opening lesson in her life.
Her past work experiences in renewable energy consulting, microfinance, and volunteering in conservation programmes and social work organisations exposed her to a myriad of way different sectors approach problems.
Her stint in waitressing showed her that ultimately, people have universally common needs and dreams, and journalism developed her love for storytelling.
“I was lucky to grow up travelling, and travelled.”
Her Journey Of Entrepreneurship
Ren began MATTER Prints with her own savings of $50,000 to fund the first year, and they broke even in six months.
From the first year to the second year, they more than tripled their revenue.
Now in their third year she admits that while business has slowed, it is still growing steadily.
Early this year, MATTER made their millionth dollar, to which Ren said that it “feels like a nice number to hang our hats on as a milestone”.
At the same time, however, I constantly remind myself that these are only one set of numbers that count. The other set is our impact metrics – the number of communities we work with (8 communities, 5 techniques, 1287 artisans involved), 32,380 metres of fabric created, over 14 collaborations created.
Ren revealed that what was at stake was the capital she was ready to risk, including her time, energy, and reputation.
“I’d say it was not a huge sacrifice but a great learning journey.”
When asked what were the sacrifices Ren had to make to start MATTER, she said,
Every choice comes with a sacrifice, as well as its gains. Such as never being able to clock out, endless self-doubt and worry, the responsibility of supporting others, and so on.
But she doesn’t see these as big sacrifices as she did not have dependents and was able to work on her own time and funding. This gave her the freedom to go about the process, and place purpose at the center of it.
“It’s a very different story when you are raising rounds and answering to investors. I consciously took a route of starting very small,” she added.
Hitting various milestones such as bringing Khushiram, their fifth generation artisan partner, to Singapore to conduct blockprinting workshops last year.
She said, “It was first trip outside of India and seeing his personal insights from that cultural exchange was very fulfilling.”
Collaborating with Himalayan designer, Preetika, was another notable milestone
MATTER worked with her on creating prints from the Kumaoni tradition, an artistic tradition that is slowly fading away in the Himalayas.
Ren gushed, “Preetika told us that her entire community back home was so proud, and that her father who is usually a reticent man, told her how proud he is of her work. That really struck a chord.”
The collection is handcrafted in batik by artisans in the Jlamprang village in Indonesia and all the proceeds go toward three years of land rental, building a workshop facility, and an indigo vat.
These are efforts to sustain the village’s economic freedom.
Within two days of our launch, it sold out entirely and it heartened us to see how many came together to support this cause and make their impact matter.
Customer stories like when one told them how she had spotted another traveller in MATTER pants at a farmer’s market in Guatemala and connected.
She said with pride, “Our #mattertribe exists in 42 countries and 471 cities around the world, and are all connected by common values. This is what inspires us.”
Of course, it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows. They have had their share of pins and needles too.
Ren’s response to the lowest points in the business was matter-of-factly – it was all the firsts of the company; from the first shipment, their first customer complaint, the first partner that copied and sold their items, the first employee leaving, the first negative month on their P&L, the first website crash.
The lowest points are often the ones that are the newest, and then you learn how to approach them and see the larger picture.
Why Ethicalism Matters
If you have taken a look at the beautiful and minimalistic MATTER website, you’d noticed that the team puts in a lot of time and effort in sourcing for original artisans.
Ren said that each of their supply chain partners are chosen through a set of criteria that emphasises product integrity, community integration, and good business practice.
She explained, “We choose to define artisanship as ‘skill in a craft acquired through generational transfer’, meaning we work mostly with artisans who were taught their skills by their forefathers and grew up around this knowledge.”
Usually, these artisans become small family businesses and are a part of a community whose identity, culture, and geography revolve around a particular technique and its processes.
MATTER works with local field managers who have worked in the artisan trade for years, so they could educate the team and impart invaluable experiences in choosing the right partners.
These managers help with sourcing, curation, and communication.
But Ren makes sure to pay them a personal visit and focuses on building long-term relationships for better market access.
Is she trying to change the way Singaporeans shop or wear with fair trade products, I asked.
The confident entrepreneur stands firm in her cause saying that she strongly believes that information about the process and the materials is an inspiring part of a brand and product’s story.
“When customers become more mindful and conscious of their purchasing decisions, they’re taking a stand and ultimately choosing to make their impact matter.”
What I understand through our exchange, is that Ren has developed a certain set of principles which she uses to fortify her unwavering belief in MATTER’s purpose.
Staying relevant was never our intention nor was it our motivation, I think the relationship between customers and brands has to go beyond relevance – it’s about building a connection through our story, purpose, and values. How to keep that connection using what available tools, is how businesses and brands stay continually relevant.
She stated that MATTER falls in a very niche category, and she sees that as a good thing for them, being in a homogenising industry.
“Brands depend on customers and we do have power and say over the world we are shaping,” she continued.
Ren is positive that their speciality in this “segment of this industry in the area of sustainable fashion and provenance-driven brands” makes a path for “sustainable growth”.
“For example, alongside absolute revenue, we look at customer loyalty and return rate as indicators of the health of our brand,” she explained.
She credits the core value of making “a commitment to impact change beyond textiles” the anchor of their voyage, defining three components that encompass that value: “To make rural artisan production sustainable, shifting designers’ approach to their process, and inspire customers to value provenance.”
“I truly believe that is why we’ve formed the relationships we have now with our community,” she added.
The Important Lessons That Matter
Ren was upbeat when I asked her about her adventure with MATTER so far,
The multitude of choices you have to make in starting a business is a direct expression of your values, and personally I have learned that it’s vital to be flexible, and adapt to the circumstances you’re in to make the best out of it; to listen to people you trust and also your gut instinct. Lastly, (I learnt) that collaboration is far more valuable than competition.
Her advice to millennials on entrepreneurship was candid.
“Just start. But before you do, have an idea of why you’re starting and what success looks like, in what time frame. Run your own race. Don’t expect it to be as glamourous as it seems, and compare only constructively.”
Rounding up the interview, she noticed that “people make fun of millennials” for wanting to “change the world and have purpose” but she personally thinks that is amazing.
She explained that when they value the purpose of their work over the money, “and work towards contribution rather than pure self gain”, capitalism transforms consciously.
When she judges the few university social enterprise challenges and had the privilege of working with many young interns, she is always impressed and inspired by the drive and idealistic vision of our younger generation.
MATTER Prints started out with their signature Sideswept Dhoti pants, and since its release they have produced more designs and came up with more collections.
From sourcing textiles artisans, to understanding and the printing of the design, to the style of the garments, each piece is a perfect balance of the designer and the artisan, a fragment of their passion and hard work that you can put on for the world to see.
Featured Image Credit: Sassy Singapore