Vlad Ermakov, CEO and Co-Founder of GlobeIn, reflects on how it all got started and what’s changed for GlobeIn
In the past few years, GlobeIn has evolved from three people shipping products from a tiny office, to a company that sources products from over 10,000 artisans in more than 50 countries. I’ve been taking some time to reflect on what’s been a whirlwind of a journey.
The idea for GlobeIn started back when I was working as a robotics engineer. I was building a smart vacuum cleaner, which was an exciting project, but I realized that I was spending a lot of time solving math problems, when what I wanted to do was solve problems that affected people’s lives directly.
At the time, I was really interested in the ideas of Muhhamad Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance. The Grameen Bank gives loans to entrepreneurs who are too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans, and has helped bring millions out of poverty. (If you’re interested, I’d suggest reading Muhammad Yunus’s book, Creating a World Without Poverty).
Muhhamad Yunus’ ideas taught me that business can be used as a tool to transform people’s lives. It was inspiring. I always thought business was just a means to make money, but that wasn’t interesting to me. Realizing that it was a tool to make social change made me want to start a business with social purpose.
Soon after, I met Muhhamad Yunus at a conference and had a conversation with him. One of the big ideas that we discussed was that there are many small businesses in the world—artisans, farmers, and manufacturers—and they create great products, but they often can’t grow their business without access to bigger markets.
At the same time, there are customers in the US and Canada who want to spend their money in better ways. They don’t want to decorate their home with things that were made in a sweatshop or that don’t have a soul behind them. They want products that last a long time, are well made and beautiful, and are a talking point for people who visit their home. So we set out to make a company that would ethically source home goods, while connecting amazing entrepreneurs to a bigger market for their products.
Our first idea was to build an online marketplace where artisans could sell their products directly to customers. We travelled to many different countries to find these artisans, starting with Mexico and Central Asia—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. We took photos of artisan’s products, uploading them to our website. We helped them ship their products and transferred the money when a customer purchased something. We started a network of Country Managers, and they helped the artisans in their region.
There were a lot of issues with this approach. It took a very long time to ship products, we couldn’t guarantee orders for the artisans, and transferring small sums of money is very inefficient. And although we had a marketplace of tens of thousands of products, we realized that people were more interested in a curated, or even surprise experience, than in picking out the products themselves.
So next we launched a subscription, which offered an experience of ‘travelling the world’, featuring souvenir-style products from a different country each month. But soon we discovered that customers were more interested in products that they could fit into their lifestyle. We started curating themes that would offer items for the kitchen, the bathroom, or for experiences like going on picnics or hosting dinner parties. We used the information we learned about our customer’s preferences to help the artisans develop products that were a better fit for our customer’s needs. We introduced artisan brochures, and it made the subscription a much more rich experience, where customers could get to know the artisans who made their products, just as we did.
One of the earliest artisans that we worked with during our first prototype of GlobeIn was Marina, a weaver from Oaxaca, Mexico. We started sourcing baskets from the region and they were so popular that we sourced more and more. The operations grew from 1-2 weavers to over 200 people, and Marina became the community leader there, organizing these 200 women. We still work with her to this day.
Marina worked hard so that she could save for a house and have a big wedding, and about two years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to her wedding. It was exceptional. It started at a church, and when the ceremony was over, the band started playing Banda music (a genre of regional Mexican music) and we walked through the town as the band followed along, playing in the street.
We stopped off at several houses, and at each one there were hundreds of people already waiting to celebrate with Marina and Leo. We had lunch at one place, and dinner at another, with the band following and playing Banda all the time. When we got to one of the houses, there was a tarp in the courtyard with gifts underneath it—including everything from dishware to tables and chairs, and a cow with a bow on it.
We spent a couple of hours there—the band playing Banda all the time—and then all the guests picked up the furniture and walked back to Marina and Leo’s house, dancing with the furniture. We did all kinds of activities and had dinner. They cooked huge amounts of food, using shovels inside huge cauldrons. Finally, the band went home and a DJ came and started playing more Banda. Myself, my wife, and Pamela, our Country Manager, were invited to sit on the main table with the husband and wife and their families, drinking mezcal. The whole day was an amazing experience. It was incredible to think that this was the wedding of Marina’s dreams, and the work we provided had made it possible.
Though the company has evolved a lot since our initial idea of providing an online marketplace for artisans, everything we’ve been doing has been following the same original mission. This year we’ve been taking everything to the next level; bringing in more expertise for marketing, product development, operations and fulfilment. Our team is still small but hard working—we’re like a 20-person family who all believe in working towards the same goal. We hope to improve our customer’s experience and set ourselves up to continue growing in an efficient way, so that we can impact the lives of more and more artisans around the world. Of course there have been many unexpected challenges, especially those brought about by COVID-19. While it hasn’t been perfect, I am proud of our team and how they have constantly adapted to new and uncertain circumstances, always looking for new strategies to address issues that arose. It’s humbling to work with people who are much better than me at most things, and to be able to trust the team to make the right decisions. Reading our annual Impact Report is amazing, as it allows me to reflect on all the hard work that’s happening behind the scenes to achieve every single number in the report.
Personally, it’s really exciting to see how much GlobeIn has evolved over the last couple of years. We are always looking for new ways to continue to change and improve according to our customers desires, so if you have any feedback you’d like to share with us, please always feel free to head to globein.com/maven-feedback. Our team reviews this feedback regularly and looks for the next changes that we need to make as a company to improve your experience.
I truly feel that this is just the beginning. We have so much more potential to increase our impact, with your continued support. Thank you mavens!