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SHURUA(R)T: The Art of Making it Happen and Work "We lost less, and ended up gaining much more"

By Sana Sabah

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In the evening, I received a call from her telling that she was extremely happy. I thought maybe she had finalized the deal with the client, but it was something else. Sadhana was happy to have done her first ever Skype Call.

Sadhana is a student of BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts), third year, at Faculty of Visual Arts in Banaras Hindu University. She was working on a commissioned artwork, and the client wanted to talk to her to tell her about what kind of artwork they were looking forward to. The client was in USA, hence we arranged a video call for Sadhana to talk to them.

And the joy in her voice was new to me. I'd never seen anyone so happy after a Skype call. That was the day I realized, in this era of internet and millions of ways of connecting with people, there are girls like Sadhana for whom such things are quite big a deal.

Pankaj is from Jharkhand and is also a Visual Arts student at Banaras Hindu University. He has been training as an artist since childhood. His first art teacher was his neighbour who used to make billboards for shops in the village.

Pankaj was actually a fan of that calligraphy artist. Pankaj's good hand at making portraits landed him into his first assignment in his village. The temple priest of the village asked Pankaj to paint Goddess Durga on the temple walls. Years later when Pankaj made a 22 feet by 26 feet sized portrait of Malviyaji (Founder of Banaras Hindu University) on the occasion of centennial celebration, that portrait became the talk of the town.

These artists undergo rigorous training to become a professional. This training did not start in the college, but before that, in some cases since childhood. Not all of them had a professional arts teacher, some of them are self-taught, some learned from those who make pandals for Durga Puja, some learned about brush strokes from labourers who paint walls.

And they're not just being trained, but they're also able to deliver terrific artworks. Sadly, making paintings is easier than selling them. And hence the dropout rate is high. These artists either end up giving art as a career, or make peace with teaching for meagre pays in private schools.

Gaurav Tiwari the man behind the idea had a ravishing career in IT sector. He left his job to run a startup in Chennai. That didn't work out. Already having a failed startup attempt in his bag, it required serious guts to think about starting another one. But he did.

Gaurav originally from Banaras, came back to his roots to make SHURUA(R)T happen and work. Neha , a PhD in Lingusitics and Gaurav's childhood friend joined in.

But it required much more than having an idea. One of the biggest problems that a social enterprise has to face doesn't come from the market or the investors. It comes from the people. In our case, we faced trust issues from the artists. They were hesitant to give their work in our hands thinking that we might use it for our own benefits and would not let them know about it.

Prof. Suresh Nair and Udita (one of the co-founders, our art specialist, ex-student at Faculty of Visual Arts ) helped us a lot to deal with this issue. They helped us in gaining the trust of the artists, and making them understand that their paintings are in safe hands. We started recording the artists' interview and publishing it on YouTube.

This also played a role in making the artists realize, that we're actually helping them to build their profile, and to bring their stories forward. But the struggle is still on, and would continue to remain. Trust takes time to penetrate hearts.

I joined 8 months after SHURUA(R)T was launched, and 3 months after my exams. Like every college passout I wanted to be a part of big names. But big names did not hire me. And 5 rejections later, I tried my luck at SHURUA(R)T.

Initially, it was difficult for me to understand that how are we going to make this work? Earlier we were targeting USA, and foreigners visiting Banaras. The idea was to get a decent amount that would justify the effort involved in making those paintings. With our limited resources and outreach, I couldn't understand that how can a person sitting in USA would come to our website to buy paintings.

I mean, that would require rigorous marketing efforts, which would involve huge costs. We tried everything from cold e-mails, late night calls to USA, to social networking posts. Even targeting the tourists didn't help, because they were given strict instructions from their tour guides to not talk to any Indian apart from the tourism crew. We didn't even reach our target audience, how were we supposed to know them and have their feedbacks, let alone selling any painting to them.

Having and maintaining the core team in a startup is as crucial as any of its operations. We faced similar challenges. It wasn't just about hiring talented people. It was more about making them believe in the purpose of our existence, and of course making them to stay. We hired interns for PR and production. The working hours were kept flexible for them, they were given good stipend from the standards of Banaras.

At times we used to arrange open talks at lunches after watching a movie together, in order to understand their comfort and concerns. But, it was hard for us to infect them with same passion as ours. We couldn't make them stay.

The best thing about all of these challenges is, we lost less, and ended up gaining much more. The only good thing we did was to keep our operational cost low. We pivoted in December and changed our value propositions and our target audience. We're now into selling of prints through our website, and organising offline exhibitions for originals. We do understand our target audience (Indian urban working women, age from 30 to 45 years) better, as they're now more approachable, with our given resources. After conducting numerous customer interviews we have changed our product pricing as well. In order to create buzz, we keep publishing the video bytes of our customers on our YouTube channel.

Attending various startup meets have resulted in better networking. Such meet-ups have helped us to get access to the guidance from experienced entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, which otherwise wouldn't have been possible, due to our Geographical location. It is because of these meet-ups, we're now trying our hand in getting B2B outreach. It could be anything ranging from making prints available for office merchandise, or selling paintings for office decor.

Losing a few interns has been helpful in improving work culture for our future team members.

Our plan is to increase our inventory through including more Visual Arts students from various Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, and hence expanding the impact we're willing to make.

Overall, we just need to keep working on it to get it more structured. Quoting B.F. Skinner, "A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying."

Sana Sabah

Co-founder and CEO, SHURUA(R)T

I am responsible for general management, partnerships, promotions, handling the digital marketing of the website, and for scripting, shooting and editing of advertisements, documentaries, and PSAs. Apart from my responsibilities as the CEO, I am glad that I am able to continue with my love for production for the benefit of the artists that we're working with.

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