Nitin and Jia Pamnani, founders of online handicraft and textile retailer iTokri, discuss their motivation behind starting the venture, and how they have built the multi-crore brand into one that thousands across the globe trust.
In 2010, documentary filmmaker Nitin Pamnani and microbiologist Jia Pamnani decided to move back to Gwalior, their hometown, from Delhi. “The city had worn us out. The pollution just added to it all and that was when we decided to move back to our roots,” Nitin tells The Better India.
Wanting to engage in something that promotes sustainability, they began iTokri in 2012. Starting with an investment of Rs 20 lakh, the online store, which sells handcrafted fabrics, jewellery, paintings and other artworks, today works with over 10,000 artisan families across India. Even while clocking revenue of close to Rs 27 crore, the duo remain bootstrapped and have not looked to raise capital yet.
“When we started ten years ago, there was no online marketplace where one could get so many different products from across the country. We had a first movers advantage back then,” Nitin says.
Today, iTokiri’s employee strength is at 130, all of whom work out of Gwalior.
A start with 10 artisans
“We started with about ten artisan groups and five employees, of which two included my husband and I. At that time, we had about 200 products listed on the website,” recalls Jia. Over time, the couple learned the many facets of running a business, while on the job — managing customers, keeping track of inventory, payments, shipments.
Nitin notes, “We want to allow the artisans to do what they do best — create. We have understood that they do not have the financial strength and the know-how to hold on to inventory or have a presence online to sell their products. By taking away that onus from them, we are allowing them the freedom to explore and experiment. Therefore, we buy from artisans in bulk, stock goods at our warehouse and courier orders from here.”
Umar Faruk Khatri from Bagh Print, an artisan associated with the brand, who is also a State and National award winner, says, “It was sometime in 2014. I was not even aware of iTokri at that time. Nitin had called me and asked me to send him a few samples of the handicrafts we dealt with. We sent him a sample worth Rs 18,000. I was surprised when I started getting customers in Bhopal, who said they saw our products on a website called iTokri. That was how this relationship started.”
He adds that in the initial phase of the pandemic, when he was stuck with goods worth Rs 20 lakh, it was iTokri that came to his rescue. “At a time that was very difficult for me, I got an order from iTokri for my entire collection. I was extremely relieved and so grateful. That’s when I instantly felt a sense of belongingness towards the company. During those difficult times, iTokri thought about artisans like us and helped us get through it.”
Adding a personal touch
Going above and beyond, each order shipped out is accompanied by a handwritten thank you note. “We wanted to make sure to build a connection with our customers. The drawback of online shopping is that it can be so formal. One cannot touch and feel the products and is completely dependent on the retailer. This is our way of building a rapport with each customer,” Nitin explains.
One would imagine that with over 500 orders being shipped out every day, the frequency of these notes would reduce. However, this added touch remains constant. “This has been our USP and we will continue with it. We also believe that these small things have helped us build a very loyal customer base,” adds Jia.
Ritu Verma, a customer, says, “iTokri has the widest and most amazing range of handlooms, with superb quality. I got a free gift and that hand-written note gave my shopping a very personal touch.”
Meanwhile, Dana Amyr-Prem, took to social media to share her feedback — “Indian craftsmanship at its best! Ordered several times. A great joy receiving the beautiful packaging with the lovely note and present. Always exciting and never disappointing.”
Nitin says, “While our customers are important for us, we ensure that we are equally in sync with the artisans we work with. To allow them the flexibility to create, we ensure that we procure material from them on an upfront payment basis. Selling the product then becomes our work, Artisans shouldn’t be breaking their heads over how they will market and sell their products.”
“We hold 100 per cent inventory of every product that you see listed on our website,” he adds. In doing this, middlemen have been eliminated from the ecosystem. “We want to give as much credit as we can directly to the artisan. ”
“When one places an order on the website, the details of the artisan are also mentioned alongside a photograph, whenever available,” adds Jia.
Naqeeb Dar, another artisan who iTokri works with, says, “I met Nitin ji at an exhibition in Delhi around 2017. A month after that meeting, he ordered all my handicraft products, ranging from cushion covers to table runners, bags, and all other handicrafts of Kashmir embroidery.”
He adds, “There was a time during COVID-19 when my business sales were extremely down, and I had hit the rock bottom. My association with iTokri kept me going. I have more than 600 artisans, out of which over 300 are women. Nitini ji’s payments have always been on time, which is very rare in this field of business we work in. In a way, iTokri helped me save my business and the livelihood of my artisans when there was nothing else to fall back on.”
The running fabrics, sarees, dupattas and stoles continue to be the bestsellers. “Almost 70 per cent of our revenue comes from textiles, and the rest from non-textile products, like home décor pieces, wooden items, etc,” he says.
Today, products are shipped not just pan-India, but also globally — the US, UK, Middle East, and Europe to name a few.
To check out the products and place your order, click here.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)