Cultural Entrepreneurs and Curated Lifestyle Consumption

Several months after Kathy died in 2011, I decided it was time to get out and see more of Santa Fe. In early July, I attended the International Folk Art Market (http://www.folkartmarket.org/) which brings together folk artists from around the world and visitors from all over the U.S. into a delightful marketplace. I was struck not only by how much difference it made to purchasers when the artist was there to tell their story but by the direct financial value delivered to the producer and the heartfelt joy the consumers felt about their purchase. Indeed, I am certainly not someone who typically purchases art at these events but I happily walked away with several items knowing that rather than layers of middlemen skimming most of the margin out of a purchase, these artists went home with over 90% of the purchase price.

As a consummate entrepreneur and someone who was in transition into my ‘third act’ where I had decided to apply my skills to building sustainable social enterprises, I began to think about how this type of narrative-based, interactive marketplace could be extended to a year-round operation and not limited to the handful of artists who were able to attend this event in Santa Fe. After all, we have incredible mobile technology to capture narratives in real-time anywhere in the world, an amazing global logistics system and almost universal Internet access by consumers and many producers. How can we use technology and creative curation to connect these conscious “lifestyle consumers” with artists and artisans? What I wanted to do, in an online world, was re-create the connection between the artist and the purchaser that I felt when I bought art at the Folk Art Market. No, I’m not talking about Etsy or the National Geographic online store. They both serve a purpose but they lack the human dimension that is present where a story connects the consumer and producer…the artist and the lifestyle consumer who appreciates the full context of the art they acquired.

I was energized by the idea which was quickly ‘pooh-poohed’ by several people. Too hard, the logistics won’t work, yadda, yadda. Naturally, this just makes a committed entrepreneur such as myself even more convinced that I was on the righteous path. My natural inclination is to look forward to the way things can be (and should be) done rather than looking backward through the prism of the way things are ‘supposed-to-be’. As I was pondering the scope of this project (it’s a big idea requiring technology and people with vision and resources), I met Praneet Bedi at one of his clothing art showings a week or so after the Folk Art Market. We quickly discovered that he was doing a small-scale version of the market with his clothing line by directly representing cultural entrepreneurs with lifestyle consumers. No middlemen squeezing the producer, no consolidation of production into container-size shipments. Instead, Praneet delivered two critical elements to the transaction—a meaningful narrative about the artists who produced his clothing line and an understanding of what worked for me as a conscious cultural consumer of artistically produced clothing. Anybody who knows me, clothing is not a high priority yet I walked away with two exquisitely designed and sewn linen shirts. It was this combination of the products (maybe better called ‘art’) and the “lifestyle curation” provided by Praneet that created a meaningful transaction between cultural entrepreneurs and a cultural consumer. A fair price was delivered to the producers which was important to me and I was rewarded with two pieces of clothing art enhanced by an understanding of the artists and their world.

Over the course of the next week, Praneet and I discussed our mutual interest in trying to scale up this idea of lifestyle curation and directly connecting artists and producers with cultural (or lifestyle) consumers. The primary objective was to improve the life of the producers of well-designed, high-quality lifestyle art while delivering a richer, more conscious shopping experience to the lifestyle consumer. We knew it was possible but we also knew it was a big project. Unfortunately, over the next few months our discussions and planning were sidetracked because my first Good Karma Now project (our snap.tap.give mobile giving service—http://getgoodkarmanow.com) become far more complex and comprehensive than the short project we envisioned. snap.tap.give finally launched earlier this year and Praneet and I restarted our discussions over the last few days.

The question ahead of us is how to move forward with this venture under the aegis of Good Karma Now. We envision it as a sustainable operation based on a combination of mobile technology, sophisticated online “lifestyle curation” systems and optimal use of modern package delivery logistics. The physical world has small-scale retail metaphors for this type of cultural, lifestyle consumption but the online world continues to be largely a digital representations of “big box” stores. Great selection, reasonable prices and quick delivery yet the transactions lack “soul” and the producer is completely transparent to the buyer. Certainly much of what we consume can be transacted in this manner but the success of the Folk Art Market and farmers markets suggests consumers want more from their shopping experience. We believe that it is possible to create an online analog to these real-world markets.

At the core of this project would be the very real human element of “curation” rather than simple retail “merchandising”. We use this term in the same manner museums do when curating exhibits for visitors. In our case, we we will have a team of “curators” responsible identifying artists and artisan who produce a range home and personal items. They will be responsible for developing the narrative that tells the story of the artist and her community. Our “lifestyle curators” will work closely conscious consumers to bring these pieces of art into their homes and lives. Essential to this curation model is a collection of technology-based tools to enable the scalability that makes this degree personal involvement possible.

Our next steps are to investigate more fully how we actually build such a social enterprise. What kind of people, technology and resources are required? How would such a system of technology and human-centric processes actually be built? Concurrently, we are exploring financing options. The large “human” element of this project and our focus on the value delivered to all parties in a “lifestyle” transaction take it out of the realm of conventional venture capital investors. However, we don’t see this as a nonprofit venture either. Rather, it’s a sustainable social enterprise that must be successful to meet the needs of its many stakeholders but without the requirement for an “exit event”. The convergence of social entrepreneurship and impact investing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_investing) is where we are focusing our attention since we believe many prospective philanthropists are seeking alternatives to traditional giving.

So, snap.tap.give has launched. There is still a ton of work to make it as successful in helping nonprofits reach out to mobile givers but it’s time to start looking at where we direct the Good Karma Now energy next. The story is just beginning…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s