Aahlada Chennupati of The Artisan Variety: “Everybody is becoming conscious of who they are and what they stand for today”

The five things that help me on this entrepreneurial ride are — a partner, a peer group of entrepreneurs, motivating and inspiring talks from business leaders, a group of girlfriends, and activities to distract my mind. Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of […]

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The five things that help me on this entrepreneurial ride are — a partner, a peer group of entrepreneurs, motivating and inspiring talks from business leaders, a group of girlfriends, and activities to distract my mind.

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Aahlada Chennupati.

Aahlada Chennupati is an entrepreneur and the founder of The Artisan Variety. She was born and raised in southern India where she spent a large part of her childhood with her grandmother who bought her local handcrafted gifts. After founding technology company ProductPlay, she looked at how artisan goods that were a part of her growing up were sold, she thought there was a better way to do it. With the idea of elevating the product, the craft, and the artisan, she started The Artisan Variety in 2019.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

The idea to start a business stemmed from my experiences growing up in India. I was born and raised in India and spent my childhood with my grandparents in a small village. Growing up in a rural village, handmade and handcrafted was a part of my childhood. I saw my grandmother wearing handloom sarees, I played with hand-carved wooden toys, slept in handwoven blankets, and decorated the house with brass lamps. In 2008, I moved to the United States for my Master’s at Stanford University. The strong entrepreneurial and startup community at Stanford played a significant role in pursuing my own startup. When I moved here, I was particularly fascinated by the shopping and retail experience at a mall or online. I started The Artisan Variety, https://www.theartisanvariety.com/, to reimagine selling Indian artisanal handicrafts in the United States.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I believe there are two types of startup founders, doers, and thinkers. I am a doer, so I like to act impulsively and see sales, data, or traction to believe in its potential. The sales we received for The Artisan Variety over a short period of time, is what led me to see the full potential of my idea. If I have to think of a specific moment, I would say it was during the pandemic. One of our customers bought a Mortar and Pestle made in India and wrote a gift message with their order. The message note read “ Happy Birthday, Even though you are locked down at home, this will bring the world to your kitchen.”. I read it and it stuck. It is true, we bring the world to your home. That message really opened up what The Artisan Variety could do. Today, The Artisan Variety finds high-quality handmade goods by artisans from over 15 countries and we are re-imagining traditional crafts for today’s modern homes.

In your opinion, were you a natural-born entrepreneur, or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Myfather has his own business in India. He became an entrepreneur after working at a corporate job for nearly 20 yrs. He also encouraged me to get job experience before I pursue my business ideas, but I never did. Some of my early influences on entrepreneurship were through a television series called The Young Turks. My father would watch these episodes of young entrepreneurs on how they built their businesses, and I believe I subconsciously was inspired and influenced by those founder’s stories. I must add that I chose entrepreneurship and pursued it. It didn’t happen by chance. From pursuing courses on entrepreneurship during my undergraduate or listening to podcasts on startup founders, I always loved the idea of building a business. I have always consciously worked towards becoming an entrepreneur.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

I graduated from Stanford in 2009, during a bad economy. I didn’t get a job and as an immigrant, I had to move to a dependent visa to my husband. On a dependent visa, you are permitted to stay but are not allowed to pursue job opportunities. I have always wanted to pursue entrepreneurship. I thought this is the right time to work on my own and pursued my first business idea. I believe it was circumstance, freedom, and my own motivation that let me start out on my own.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The Artisan Variety curates home decor made using traditional crafts from over 15 countries. Our products from each country are unique and a far cry from the products you find on the market today. Our best seller during the 2020 holiday season was an Onyx Fruit Bowl from Pakistan. The onyx fruit bowl is hand carved from natural onyx stone. The stone for each bowl is mined by artisans from onyx mines in Peshawar and Quetta in Pakistan. During the pandemic, we saw a huge spike in our terracotta outdoor pots. Our terracotta pots are made in Bangladesh by a women’s co-operative and the pots stand out for their unique etched patterns. We take a lot of pride that we are able to create a market demand for products that are made in some of the most far corners of each country. The beauty of the products is what makes us truly stand out.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I believe the impulse to act on a business idea has been instrumental in building my own business. I like to test out the product and see what lays in front of me. When I decided to start promoting handicrafts, I started with the idea of selling handwoven clothing. Handwoven and hand-embroidered clothes were a mainstay when I was growing up in India and I thought western wear made from handwoven clothing would be new and unique to the US market. When I started to work with a few designers, I realized the challenges soon. Clothing was a high capital investment as all clothing needs to be stocked in multiple sizes. It was a lot of inventory to deal with as a small business. I saw home decor made by the same designers and I decided to pivot. Home decor meant a lot less capital and less inventory than clothing. I didn’t have to stock multiple sizes. These learnings were possible because I acted on them.

The other trait I would say is trusting my intuition. When I have to believe in a certain brand or stock up on a brand, I go with my gut feeling. And when we do have enough sales data, we use that to make decisions. The first step starts with following my gut.

The most important trait I have is being self-motivated. Despite having worked on other ideas without much success, I motivate myself to see the big vision every time. As a single founder, it has been even more important to keep myself motivated. I am always working towards it by listening to business leaders on podcasts and social media.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about the advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Over the last ten years, as I worked on multiple business ideas, I would hear feedback that would constantly ring in my head. I would say I never followed the advice, but it definitely created a lot of self-doubt. I heard this not once but multiple times, that I was not focused on one idea but was trying too many. As someone who likes to be impulsive and act first, I like to get my hands dirty. I believe entrepreneurship is like an artichoke, you have to peel away a few ideas to get to the heart of it.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

As a single founder of a startup, I find myself overwhelmed. I practice the philosophy — all work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. I believe activities that let you use your physical hands can help with stress and anxiety. I personally enjoy gardening and cooking. With a lot of our jobs at desks, it can be nice to get out there and start using our hands to do pottery, painting or farming. As we are just beginning to grow our team, I realize the importance of de-stressing during work hours.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

From my experience, I believe trust is built when we truly understand what the other person wants and needs. I find that speaking to your employees about their future goals along with their work is very important. When we truly empathize and understand why they are with us, it can pave a long way towards building trust and loyalty. It is also equally important to communicate what your goals for the company are. When I hear one of my employees talk about how they would like to redecorate their house or pursue college, I believe the relationship is stronger. As a company, I can only work towards creating an environment that can let an employee share their dreams.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Everybody is becoming conscious of who they are and what they stand for today. When we do not create an environment to let employees be themselves, they will walk away from us. As we know, finding the right employee is not an easy task.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

A common mistake that I watch out for myself and see other founders doing is working on an idea too aggressively without finding a product-market fit. At The Artisan Variety, we sell home decor in various categories. Some categories perform way better than others. We take a lot of caution at what categories to introduce and how much inventory to hold with each category. We can only be in business as long as there is demand for the products we are selling. To stay in business, we have to constantly find our best sellers, that is the products that have a market demand. We do so by looking at what our customers buy and when they buy. When we introduce a brand new product category without any data, we never steer too far away from our best sellers. Finding product-market fit is a continuous process to evolve and grow.

Ok, fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills, and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

I agree that Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster ride. When you think of life, there are joys and lows that you experience over a few months or sometimes over years. Like the joy of graduating from college, getting married, having a baby or the lows of losing a loved one, getting rejected from your dream job or falling sick. Some of those life experiences happen over a few months or sometimes years. As an entrepreneur, I feel like they sometimes happen over a few hours during a day. Imagine feeling like you got married in the morning, lost a job by evening and a baby news by night. They are dramatic highs and lows. During the holidays in 2020, we were having some of our best sales days. On one of those busy holiday days, I would be happy that sales were coming in, sad that there were complaints from customers about delayed and missing packages and angry that the freight didn’t arrive on time. As an entrepreneur, you are always holding yourself responsible for multiple areas and that’s what makes it more challenging than a regular job.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Retail companies eagerly wait for the holiday season and I now know why. I was amazed at the interest we received during the 2020 holiday season on Etsy. We had started working with Etsy only a few months prior and our December 2020 revenue made up 30 % of the total annual revenue. The sales made me realize the potential of The Artisan Variety and what we could achieve. The business during that season continues to boost me when I feel low.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

I have always loved the idea of working on my own. For the last 10 years since I graduated, I have always worked on my own startups and dabbled in various ideas. I enjoyed discovering physical goods and saw myself in eCommerce. I worked on multiple ideas in eCommerce and finally saw potential with Product Play. ProductPlay, an eCommerce technology, did well early on, but it failed to keep the momentum going. So, we wrapped the startup and I was back to square one. But unlike last time, I was pregnant and got busy being with my daughter. When I finally began to focus on my career, I found myself at a new low. I couldn’t decide if I should find myself a corporate job or pursue a new idea. I thought I had given myself enough time to work on my business ideas and it was time for me to focus on my family and prepare for a 9 to 5 job. While everybody at home was supportive of either choice, it was up to me to decide. I grew up imagining myself as an ambitious career woman and to be back at square one was quite depressing. The biggest struggle was being unable to decide what I wanted to do. When I finally decided for myself and started to pursue my own business, I felt relieved and confident again.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

When I started to feel low and faced anxiety, I decided I had to work on myself to bounce back. I hadn’t tried therapy earlier and with a lot of courage put myself out there and worked with a therapist. It helped me list out things I was struggling with, how I saw myself and what I needed to do. Therapy is like going to school to learn about yourself. Real learning happens when you graduate. One of my learnings from therapy was how much I enjoyed being an entrepreneur. The next big step was to really embrace who I was and what I wanted. I slowly found my confident self again.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

The five things that help me on this entrepreneurial ride are — a partner, a peer group of entrepreneurs, motivating and inspiring talks from business leaders, a group of girlfriends, and activities to distract my mind.

We had a huge increase in sales during the last holiday season and it was even more joyful to share the happiness with my husband. But along with it came the logistics nightmare that we as a small business weren’t equipped to handle. It was so helpful to just talk to someone outside of my business. It helps to hear myself and list out all the issues that are running through my head.

There is nothing better than having a chat with someone who can resonate with you. I can instantly feel a synergy with an entrepreneur in a similar business. Those conversations with a peer entrepreneur remind you that joys and struggles are common and it’s a part of the ride.

When I am feeling low or not feeling motivated, I like to go on a long car ride with my favorite podcast — How I built this. It always works and reminds me that I should be tenacious and be here for the long haul.

My favorite activities to distract myself from my business are coloring with my toddler, cooking, and gardening. I personally enjoy activities that let me use my hands like gardening and coloring. They really help me deal with the anxiety of running a day-to-day business.

I also enjoy getting lunch or doing facetime with my girlfriends. It also helps me ride the lows and highs of my personal relationships.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster ride and it was even more challenging during the pandemic. We had inventories that didn’t ship on time, orders that got delayed and packages that went missing. When you are going through a challenging time like that, it feels overwhelming. I had to remind myself that I had to see the big picture and not be overwhelmed by the day-to-day operations. When faced with such situations, the stress also spills over to your personal life. And I think resilience is your ability to pull yourself up and not let it wither away your spirits. As they say, resilience is a muscle and it gets stronger with practice. I remember during our early days, I would feel so low for a while if we received a negative review for a product. A few years in, it doesn’t impact me anymore like it did. Now I know that people who are resilient are so, because they have put themselves a lot more in stressful situations.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Growing up in India, I would constantly hear about how light-skinned and slim-built girls are beautiful. As a girl with a darker tone and plus-size body, I found it quite challenging to feel comfortable and positive about my body. Those incidents have played a role in who I am today. I began to see myself beyond color and size. I saw myself as someone who was creative, managerial and intellectual. My resiliency was the strength to steer myself away from the conventional and be able to build my confidence.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

When I am faced with a difficult situation, I like to see how significant that situation is in the big scheme of things. When I am dealing with a challenging customer, I try to remember that the customer is only one of the many. I like to think of the many positive reviews we have received and that really helps. I also try to remember that the business is not me and any feedback about the business is about the business and that helps.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

We recently had a delay in inventory and we couldn’t fulfill orders on time. When one of the customers got back asking for the status, I responded telling her the situation with inventory and that we apologize for not communicating it earlier. I also agreed to cancel the order, but the customer decided to keep their order. It only shows that when you keep a positive attitude and face the situation, it gives your customers an opportunity to empathize. When it comes to employees, they are like toddlers picking up cues and watching how you react. They will keep a positive attitude as you keep showing them how to do so.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

One of my favorite quotes is “It always seems impossible until it’s done” by Nelson Mandela. A quote that resonates with me and keeps me motivated. When I imagine the big idea for The Artisan Variety — to find and create demand for handicrafts from the nooks and corners of different countries, it seems too big and too challenging. And when I do bring one craft after the other from different countries, I can’t help but think, It always seems impossible until it’s done.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can shop with us at https://www.theartisanvariety.com/. The Artisan Variety is @theartisanvariety on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. I am @aahladachennupati on LinkedIn and @aahlada on Instagram.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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