beyondBeanie (bB) is a social fashion brand whose mission is to empower women artisans and help children in need in Bolivia.
Each one of their products is signed by the artisan who made it, and for every item sold, a portion of the profit goes towards supporting orphan children in Bolivia as well as the children living on the street. For example: 1 hat = 5 meals for the children, 1 bracelet = 1 dental care treatment, 1 bag = 1 set of school supplies.
How did it all started?
Can you tell us about the genesis of your start-up?
HEConomist: What was your original idea?
Tito Alvarez: bB was the result of a backpacking trip to Bolivia after I finished my Master in Management at HEC Lausanne.
While in Bolivia, I realized there is a lot of need around the country.
For instance, I could see that there were a number of women sitting on different street corners making handicrafts such as beanie hats and scarves; and the way they make their living is by selling them to tourists. Right next to them, it was also common to see children, who are these women’s children, who instead of being at school were selling these handicrafts, candies, or sometimes even cigarettes to tourists.
My first thought was to buy a few hats from different women to bring as souvenirs to my friends in Switzerland. As I was buying these hats, I took pictures of these women to show to my friends.
Once back in Europe I gave the hats to my friends. They were quite fascinated by the fact that I could show them pictures of the women who made their hats. That’s how the idea to start a social fashion brand where every product ever made would be hand-signed the person who crafted it.
The second aspect about helping street and orphan children was the result of conversations with my friend Paty from Bolivia, now co-founder and Project Manager of bB. Before working with me in bB, Paty was a volunteer at an orphanage in Cochabamba. As such, she knew that the kids lacked basics such as toothpaste, toothbrush, pencils, notebooks and sometimes even food. This gave us the idea to have every product give back either meals, dental care treatment, or school supplies, etc.
HEConomist: What did you do to make this project come to life? (Financials, strategies…)
Tito Alvarez: The first thing I did was to ask Paty in Bolivia to coordinate with a few ladies to make some sample products, which were the rainbow hats. Once I had a few samples and prototypes, I started to look for start-up competitions to both validate the business idea as well as to find funding.
Fortunately, we won the first prize at a social startup competition in Geneva in October 2014 (the SIGEF awards). Winning this prize gave us some cash to build a proper website and make our pilot production.
HEConomist: Have you encountered any difficulties?
Tito Alvarez: There have been multiple difficulties! For example, when we first launched our brand, we had no experience about fashion, wholesale, retail, import/export social media management, etc. These are all things which we’ve learned along the way.
HEConomist: How would you describe your state of mind?
Tito Alvarez: Very happy with the work accomplished so far, extremely thankful to all the people who have helped us along the way, and beyond excited about the future.
HEConomist: What are the big qualities required to successfully launch a start-up?
Tito Alvarez: I think that the most important thing is to really have a passion for what you do and have lots of perseverance. You can plan all you want, but most of the time, especially at start-up phase, things don’t always go as expected.
HEConomist: If you could change something what would it be?
Tito Alvarez: Social media marketing has been key to our success and exposure. I didn’t know this in the beginning. Therefore, I did not spend that much time developing a solid social media strategy. If you are a new brand, chances are your clients are heavy consumers of social media information. Its important to take some time to understand where your clients intake most of the information from (LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) and target that segment.
HEConomist: Do you have any advice to give to someone before they start their own start-up?
Tito Alvarez: Be sure to find your passion. Do not start something simple because you want to make money or be “free”. Having a start-up is like raising a child: it takes time and perseverance.
HEConomist: What does this experience bring you?
Tito Alvarez: It has really helped me to learn so much about consumer behavior, as well to make incredible friendships and build relationships with people that are also starting their projects.
HEConomist: What are your projects on the long term?
Tito Alvarez: Our goal is not to build just a fashion brand, but rather a lifestyle brand that gives back. As such, we are working on coming up with other products, non-fashion lines, to add to our range of products.
HEConomist: Have you ever wanted to quit everything?
Tito Alvarez: Not yet!
HEConomist: Have you ever had the desire to sell your project?
Tito Alvarez: We’ve had a few offers from investors in Geneva, San Diego in the USA and even someone from India who have offered not buy bB, but to invest in it. They really like our approach to use fashion as a tool of change, and the fact that we can connect extremely well with Millennials, the next generation of adults, who are growing with our brand.
Anyhow, we’ve explained that if they want to help us, they are more than welcome to bring our way to new potential clients, but that at least at this stage, we’re definitely concentrating on organic growth and have no interest in having outside investors.
Thanks to Tito Alvarez for answering our questions!