How Lauren Conrad and Hannah Skvarla Curated Handmade Goods From Around the World to Build Nonprofit The Little Market
The co-founders traveled the globe and even worked out of a grandmother's garage to bring their fair-trade operation to life.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Hannah Skvarla always wanted to help. As a teen, she took multiple trips with humanitarian groups, visiting communities around the world and doing what she could to bring help to people in need. And as early as high school, during a trip to Cambodia, Skvarla noticed how many travelers were enthusiastically purchasing local goods made by skilled artisans, who typically only had access to the people in their village. The lightbulb went off.
“I wished I could make these beautiful items available back in California and set up a distant marketplace that would benefit these families who have been perfecting their skills for generations,” Skvarla says. “But I was 15 at the time, and did not know how to make that work.”
Years later, at fashion school, Skvarla met Lauren Conrad (of The Hills and Laguna Beach fame), and as the two became fast friends, they realized their complementary skill sets could make a version of Skvarla’s vision a reality. The Little Market was born in 2013.
The Southern California-based nonprofit organization is a fair-trade shop that curates ethically made products from around the world, sells them online -- and in a brand new brick-and-mortar store in Los Angeles -- and helps those very artisans find financial and economic security.
Here’s how they built their organization.
1. Do your research
Before the co-founders officially set out to create the Little Market, the two planned a trip to Africa.
“We both knew we wanted to create something with impact, but Lauren had done most of her traveling within the United States, and she really wanted to learn more about some of the humanitarian groups I had worked with,” Skvarla says. “We took a trip to Africa in 2012 and the goal was to visit nonprofits focused on women and children.”
2. Expand your vision
Skvarla and Conrad took that trip with an idea to launch a small campaign or charity collection. “But the more we saw all these incredible handmade goods -- special, unique items -- we realized that they were primarily being sold in small villages that aren’t visited by tourists,” Skvarla says. “So these people are just hoping that passersby will drop in to buy them, or they’re spending time traveling to marketplaces to sell them.”
The two women decided to think bigger. “Rather than doing a one-off campaign in partnership with a charity, what if we created something lasting, something with no geographic limits, something that could continually and actually help women?”
3. Ask the experts for help
With the vision for the Little Market cemented -- an ecommerce destination featuring beautiful products made by artisans who would benefit directly from the sales of their work -- Skvarla and Conrad spent a year laying the groundwork and asking more experienced entrepreneurs and humanitarians for advice.
“We started with experts in international development and human rights and asked: How do we set prices for artisans who’ve never set prices before? How do we verify that artisan groups live up to our standards?” Skvarla says, looking back. “We originally created an 11-page artisan application for vetting, then realized that was a hurdle, too, and simplified it. Before we took any steps, we just kept making sure that the artisans’ livelihood and ease was at the top of every decision.”
People admired their ambition, but questioned whether or not they could pull it off. “A woman I absolutely love who’s spent her life fighting for women’s rights told me this wasn’t going to be possible,” Skvarla says. “We had that pushback, even from people who understood our vision.”
4. Ask your friends for help
Well aware of the tough road ahead, Skvarla and Conrad called in favors and help from their own network of friends. “We’re both really lucky to be surrounded by a lot of amazing women, and our network has of course grown, but even six years ago, we had friends who had done different elements of this before, had different business experiences and valuable input.”
Skvarla and Conrad used whatever expertise they could find to “learn a lot about business really quickly,” she says. From customs to packaging to shipping, the two founders figured out each step.
5. Secure your partners
To locate and secure partnerships with artisans and artisan groups ahead of launch, Skvarla and Conrad visited multiple trade shows, travelled the globe, and ask human rights organizations for referrals. “Now, because people have heard of us, we have an artisan application, and it’s a bit easier,” Skvarla says.
Currently, the Little Market works with a wide range of organizations, from a group in Chicago that provides skill training to young mothers, to a group of Madagascar craftswomen that create raffia tote bags, to a group of refugees who have been resettled to Massachusetts and became skilled candlemakers. “The variety is so valuable, but it’s also one of our biggest challenges,” Skvarla says. “We want to communicate every different story effectively.”
6. Make big moves
In the early days, the co-founders were living in Los Angeles and working with a New Jersey-based warehouse to store and ship goods. “We had a bunch of problems with shipping, and we were helpless since we were in LA,” Skvarla says. “We had to find a better way.”
So she and Conrad hired a moving company and had all of their inventory transported to California, where they stored it, temporarily, in Skvarla’s grandmother’s garage.
“She’s the opposite of a hoarder, so her garage was empty,” Skvarla laughs. But when her grandmother’s neighbor found out the business was using the private property, the homeowners’ association came calling.
“We got kicked out,” Skvarla says. “But we did find a warehouse space in Orange County, where I spent four days a week doing shipping and fulfillment. It was all hands on deck.”