Little Majlis Brings The Artisan Scene Online
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If you’ve been in the UAE long enough, from Art Dubai to Design Days Dubai to the Ripe Food & Craft Markets on the weekends, you’ll notice the slow-but-steadily growing art microenterprise scene in the country. Seeing the huge market for crafts and handmade products and the talent of local artisans, Anna Bolton-Riley and Annabelle Fitzsimmons launched Little Majlis, an online community and e-commerce boutique platform for art, edibles, and craft and design products from GCC-based brands and independent artists and designers. The co-founders, former colleagues, have both worked in the design and construction industry in Dubai since 1999, and developed the enterprise after noticing the opportunity, coupled with a desire to get back to their design roots.
Bolton-Riley says the website took a while to develop, but LittleMajlis.com went live in October 2012. Besides the typical costs of setting up an e-commerce business in the region, the duo also had a reserve budget and utilized their own skillsets for ongoing operations such as graphics, accounting, blog content, and social media. And now, the self-funded startup is looking into accelerating their growth, with investor discussions ongoing and a plan for securing funding over the next few months.
One can’t help but point out international and regional platforms with similar concepts, and Bolton-Riley asserts that their USP is the platform’s sense of community and support it provides to vetted sellers -with advice and support offered if and when needed- as well as its focus on the GCC and “addressing some of the issues that small brands face here.” The online boutique cultivates a community through its calendar of events, monthly newsletters, a forum and blog, with each store having a direct URL that can be personalized.
Given the number of GCC e-commerce marketplaces that have launched, it can be perceived as an industry with a low barrier entry- which Bolton-Riley agrees with: “Competition is healthy and keeps us on our toes. The more that online shopping is embraced in the region, the better it is for the industry. However, money alone does not guarantee success. We are close to our sellers and customers, and this cannot be easily replicated by people without our strong local reach and network.”
Certainly, the co-founders’ attitude towards building the Little Majlis community is a “constant drive” for them, so how does it onboard new vendors, while continuing to foster loyalty and purchase behavior among customers? The numbers of sellers vary as they move to and away from the region (quite a peculiar but unsurprising effect of being a transient place for most expats), with only a few taking a creative break or time out to improve their brand.
However, from having less than 20 shops to their current count -just under 300 active sellers, at the time of writing- Fitzsimmons remembers how when they first started, they were actively looking for sellers to set up, but now most sellers contact them. With regard to the customers, customer service is prioritized, with a message service to directly contact sellers and options to leave feedback.
Little Majlis’ dedication for interactivity is derived from its marketing strategy. Early on, the co-founders made a conscious decision to “think outside the box” when it came to promoting the platform, and through trying different strategies they’ve learned what works best for the business. “For example, a year ago, we launched an in-house collection of Little Majlis branded Made in UAE products,” says Fitzsimmons on their efforts, which include attending crafts markets for brand awareness.
Today, its current customer base is made up of mostly women aged 25 to 60 years old, with most sales from GCC-based consumers, although there is an increase in customers who are based abroad. On that note, the UAE’s entrepreneurial community is still a source of support, with Bolton-Riley commending the supportive camaraderie, but there’s still a tendency for some small businesses to be, as she aptly says it, “protective of their turf.” Having said that, she says she can relate to this emotion, given the amount of time, energy and money that has to be put in to build a niche business in this region.
However, Bolton-Riley says they constantly encourage Little Majlis makers and sellers to support each other: “We can only exist because of the amazing shopkeepers on the platform, and are very aware that we are stronger if we all stand together, [and] the same can be said for the wider SME community.” Indeed, united we stand.
LITTLE MAJLIS CO-FOUNDERS ANNA BOLTON-RILEY & ANNABELLE FITZSIMMONS
“There’s a wonderful entrepreneurial spirit here in the Emirates, and so it’s a fantastic place to start a business. We’ve found people to be incredibly generous in offering advice and support, so never be afraid to ask or to listen. Like any other new business, have passion for what you do and perseverance to get through the tough times.” Annabelle Fitzsimmons
“It takes time to build a good business and the man hours invested are going to be greater then you have ever experienced before. However, if you believe in your idea, and have a solid plan of how you are going to achieve it (bearing in mind that this will change, so being open minded is essential), then you will achieve your goals.” Anna Bolton-Riley
SELLING ON THE SITE
“There are no membership fees to use the website, but we charge sellers fees to operate a shop front. We don’t publish our rates and prefer to issue a no obligation information pack to approved sellers. Our approach to charges has been an ethical one and our fees are competitive when compared to other marketplaces in the region and abroad. Once a shopfront is open, we issue a Starters Kit of customized graphics, post shopkeepers’ stories [on the blog which is] full of tips and advice to make the most of their online shop and are always available to answer their questions. It’s a supportive environment.”
“Our key focus -like any community related platform and those involving e-commerce throughout the world- has been building a customer base and great supplier and buyer experiences. The value we have therefore created is Little Majlis’ focused community of people interested in and passionate about artisan offerings. And that is huge. We are also focused on the bottom line, but this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
“We dove into LittleMajlis.com with a business plan, a belief in our concept, a can-do attitude and not too much thought. We very rarely doubted what we were doing, which has been a blessing in allowing us to move through the tough times. However, in hindsight, it may have been a wise move to engage a business coach prior to starting the journey. This would have allowed us to think outside the box from the onset and really cement where we wanted the company to go. However, it’s never too late, and revisiting the business strategy three years in has been a tough journey, but one that has really allowed us to refocus and readdress Little Majlis’ path, and the outcome has been very positive. We’ve recently spent some time with a business coach, which has been an enormously beneficial exercise in revisiting our business plan and taking action to meet our goals.”
“We’re impressed and inspired by Be Super Natural. Hayley Mac has turned her passion into a business. We first met her on the weekend market scene, and in the matter of a few years, she has grown a large following, opened BeStro, a raw food restaurant, and is now branching out to catering and online delivery.”