What started out as a backpacking tour through Southeast Asia in Spring 2010 serendipitously turned into an entrepreneurial venture for San Francisco-based Boston native Joe Demin. One morning, while his friends dozed on the sands of the coast of Northern Thailand, Demin ventured through a nearby jungle on a bike and literally stumbled across a small wooden shop selling artisanal hammocks by a local hunter-gatherer community, the Mlabri. Visiting with this rural community, he learned of their story and struggle for economic independence and immediately wanted to help. As Demin explains, ‘I literally sketched out a business plan on the back of the plane’s airsick bag.’
Returning to America with a backpack of these beautiful hammocks and a burning idea, Demin’s discovery would develop into Yellow Leaf Hammocks (YLF) — a social enterprise that provides a distribution network for Thai artisans creating hand-woven hammocks and a much larger customer base than they would otherwise have in relying solely on tourists in their home country.
Three years in, Demin and YLF co-founder Rachel Connors have built a solid foundation for a growing enterprise that is positively impacting the lives of over 140 artisans in Thailand, as well as their families and local community, while also reinvigorating a happy, healthy hammock culture in the West.
We caught up with the founding duo to learn about their journey, how their hammocks are positively transforming lives East and West, and what’s next on the agenda.
How did you establish a 'working' relationship with the Mlabri community?
At first they looked at me like ‘Who is this guy, travelling up here and proposing this grand idea?’ Though they shortly decided to partner with us, having nothing really to lose. Beginning with this one group, we have expanded from our first weaving village to three and expect to have almost 200 weavers by year’s end! Our ability to provide a sustainable solution to their negative economic situation is the most common question and hesitation we see with each new community. We want to ensure that, for the first time in their lives, people can plan for their future without having to resort to toxic farming or relocate to another village to find employment. We appreciate that everyone wants to work, to make a life for themselves and their families. We are empowering these communities rather than take the traditional donations-based route.
What has been the most challenging aspect in bringing YLH to its current stage in the market, publicly available for sale?
We bootstrapped. We had to tough it out to a degree. Rather than spend money fundraising or seeking investments early on, we developed Yellow Leaf Hammocks ourselves, which also meant slower but steadier growth. When I came back from Thailand with a backpack of hammocks, we took them to festivals and then more festivals. Besides being the outlet for our first orders, it put us in a position to speak directly with our customer. This approach, of course, was not without its hurdles. We did not have access to capital or funding, and so were never really able to make investments in inventory, which meant that customer purchases were constantly on back order. But now, we have amazing momentum and are very happy we didn’t take on investment or risk to dilute our impact.
Our recent partnership with Kiva, which launched in December 2012, helped address this obstacle. In partnering with Kiva, artisans are able to purchase raw materials needed to make hammocks, and it also allows us to expand our global distribution model. Since launching the program, we’ve accelerated our growth, created new jobs in Thailand and have been able to establish relationships with traditional retailers. Our inaugural class of artisan participants went through the Kiva micro-credit program this past January. The program included nine loans in total, and all have since been repaid.
What are the most surprising responses you receive from YLH customers?
When we started out, we wanted to just sell hammocks. We thought if that works, everything else will follow. We did not want to sell products based on our mission, recognizing how other companies have similar artisan models based on charity. Customers typically have questions about the intricate weave, how soft it is and how it’s made, which only then do we share the story. We have learned how to integrate the story into the selling process. We wanted to do this with dignity and respect.
We also stayed really close to the customer, having the benefit of going out and talking face to face with our first 200 customers. Even now, we handle all customer service on an intimate basis.
As we began to grow with the U.S., one thing that struck us most was how the hammocks are improving the lives of customers. Our product actually adds value to the customer or to the family that has a hammock in the house. It brings people together in a really positive way, which we want to communicate more going forward.
What changes would you like to see in the industry to foster scalable success for business models like YLH?
Working with retail partners has been an intensive process to inform and educate them about how an artisan-based retail model can work. Often times, retailers have delayed payment terms which is a challenge for our model, as we look to have payment upfront to provide security for the weavers in Thailand. Especially as a start-up, we have had to negotiate for better terms. Though, by spending time with our partners and helping them understand what goes into making the product, it has been a rewarding experience for both sides. We’ve been working with large retailers such as Amazon, who may have not taken a focused interest in these types of products in the past. Now, they are eager to learn how these products come into the marketplace, and are open to understanding and appreciating them.
Another change would be a larger distribution network that is flexible on how producers make goods that have a positive impact. The fact that we are transitioning away from traditional, very green customers to more mainstream sustainability awareness means that business also has to shift the way we (the industry) view our processes. We want to grow Yellow Leaf Hammocks so we can prove to everyone that there is a demand for this, that customers are into this and people are buying.
What can we expect from YLH in the coming year?
We have some really cool upcoming partnerships, though we cannot announce them yet. We are relaunching our website in the coming months for a better shopping experience and more opportunities for customers to connect with the artisans in Thailand.
For retailers, we are working to make it easier for them to custom design their own hammocks to fit with their customer base or other product lines.
We are redoing our labels, so every hammock will be hand signed by the person who weaved it. We are also expanding our designs to include more seasonal products and exploring collaborations with designers, as well as introducing accessories that will help people hang their hammock more easily.