B.Oyun-Undrakh: Small business started in a five-wall ger expanded to have its own studio


2019-03-19 16:36 GMT+8

Ms. B.Oyun-Undrakh built a business using old newspaper scraps. Fashion designer by training, she makes variety of products using scrap paper. A little over two years ago, she started her business in a small “five-wall” ger, which has been expanded into a 30 square meter comfortable studio. Now she employs two people and one of whom is a person with disabilities. Here is an interview with B.Oyun-Undrakh, who is trying to do her part to replace import products. 

-I heard you’re a fashion designer by training. Let’s start our interview with a question about why you started making products with paper.

I graduated from “Urlakh Erdem” university in 2013 with a degree in fashion design. Not long after graduating, I became a mother. While I was caring for my newborn baby, I started to make handcrafts with embroideries, bead-work and inlay-work. I experimented everything that was out there. One day, I saw a facebook advertisement for a full-day training on weaving baskets with newspaper. At first, I was surprised to know that a basket can be made of a newspaper, but it seemed interesting and I decided to research more about it. Later, I attended the training and started weaving baskets at home by June 2015.

Paper bags we make have embossed prints, we customize them by stamping words/letters that our customers request.

When I first attended the training, my son was only 4 months old. I left home at 8.00 in the morning and came back late in the evening. My parents and my husband were taking care of the baby while I was gone. The training participants could take home whatever they made during the training. A coat of varnish I laid on my item wasn’t dry, so I had to carry it on my both hands as I was riding a bus back home. I had a smile stretched on my face for many days to learn that such items could be made of paper.

- How many different products do you make?

We make four different products- paper invitations and greeting cards, paper boxes, paper bags, and woven baskets. In addition to that, we also make small items like bookmarks using craft felt sheet. But for woven baskets, we make different types of baskets depending on use i.e. for general household use, children’s toys, living room, closet, flower pots, and baskets with compartment for undergarments, etc. Also, they can be made in different colors, shapes and sizes. Our paper bags are customized with embossing stamps which differentiates our products from competitors who mostly use printing as opposed to embossing.

- Can you tell us about your first investment?

I started with my own money, but I don’t remember the exact amount. Paints were usually sold in 1kg packaging, but I implored the seller to sell me 500 grams of paint of a single color, a small amount of varnish and a polisher.

- As for pricing, is it cheaper than import products? In general, handmade products tend to be expensive.

Our products are 800-2,000 tugriks cheaper than baskets sold on the market. We spend lots of time hand-weaving our products, but the raw material is relatively cheap, which makes our price competitive. We sell our products at “Tsaasan shuvuu” stationery shop, we also take orders at our studio and online, and we deliver the products. 

Baskets made with newspaper are very durable, and there’s nothing to worry about the quality.

- Where do you get the newspapers?

We buy old newspapers in kilograms. Women’s Business Center (WBC), our friends and family, they all save their old newspapers for me.

- I am wondering about the durability of baskets made with newspaper. For example, can a laundry basket in the bathroom endure the humidity? Can a toy basket withstand constant use and handling?

We apply glue to reinforce the weaving, and 3 to 5 coats of water-based varnish to finish off the product. These treatments make the final product very sturdy and durable, so there’s nothing to worry about the quality.

- Who was your first paying customer? For most entrepreneurs, their first buyers are usually their family, friends and/or acquaintances.

Not long after I started making baskets, I saw an ad regarding an event called “Kholio & Solio” (Buy/sell & swap) on Facebook. That event provided an opportunity to sell handmade items, so I prepared for two weeks. I made very bright colored handcraft items and rented a tent to participate. People were interested in my products, but they were hesitant about the color. As end of the day fast approaching, I hadn’t even earned my rent money. At that time, I saw a foreigner and approached him to ask whether he would be interested in my handmade products. He liked my products and purchased products worth 24,500 tugriks. My hard-earned first sale made me realize that I shouldn’t make things that I liked, but things that buyers like.

- I am sure, you had to do a lot of research to understand what people like.

While I was doing more research about non-toxic and hypoallergenic paints, current trends, likes and dislikes of youth, and upcoming trade fairs etc., Ms. Oigonjav from MNCCI told me that they were launching a new project for entrepreneurs. That new project was “Women’s Business Center” funded by the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and implemented by the Asia Foundation in partnership with the City Municipality of Ulaanbaatar, Development Solutions NGO, MNCCI, and Golomt Bank. I attended number of trainings and seminars organized by the WBC and learned what it takes to build a business and that I should focus on product development and branding.

- I know that you supply woven baskets to the flower delivery “Tsetsegt mendchilgee”. It must be hard to find a regular client?

In 2015, my friend who worked for “Tsetsegt mendchilgee” told me that they bought all their flower baskets from China and encouraged me to meet with the director of the company.

I met with the director, and he put an initial order for 50 baskets. I worked day and night to make different types of baskets, and when I showed the baskets, they wanted to buy my products on regular basis. That’s how I got a regular client.

During that period, I was still attending trainings, seminars and other events organized by the WBC to further expand my knowledge. WBC has a 4-month accelerated business incubator program.

Tavan bogd group was eager to support Made in Mongolia product and proposed to work with us.

At first, I was hesitant about submitting a proposal thinking that I wasn’t ready. However, I participated in the 4th incubation program and established “Undrakh Design Art” LLC. I started my business in a small ger and now I have a 30 square meter studio. I am very happy. Previously, when I told potential buyers/companies that I made my products at home, they would say that they would contact me later and I wouldn’t hear back from them. Advantage of having my own studio is that when I give my work address to people, they come and see my products first hand, which prompts further discussions about my products.

- Has the number of regular clients increased?

My regular customers are Tsetsegt mendchilgee and Tavan bogd group. Tavan Bogd group used to buy their baskets from China, but last month they offered to have a business with us since we were able to make good products in Mongolia.

- You said that you purchased the equipment you wanted. What kind of equipment are they, and what are they used for?

When you participate in a four-month accelerated business incubator program, the WBC project provides a grant of 4.2 million tugriks for purchasing required equipment. I purchased a compressor as it was difficult to hand paint bulk orders. With the compressor, I thin down the paint and spray paint my products. Also, for large baskets, we need to make a base and it’s hard to make a hole in it. Therefore, I purchased a special drill. Also, I bought a multi-functional machine that’s used for embossing, cutting and shaping. I also bought a sewing machine for making basket linings.

In addition to purchasing much needed equipment, I gained so much knowledge and insights from WBC.

Besides equipment, WBC equipped me with much needed skills and knowledge. The most important one was how to develop and design my product in a way to attract customers. Also, I learned that financial discipline is very important to sustain a business. Earlier, when I was on my own, I didn’t have a saving or working capital to buy materials when I received unexpected bulk orders. Now, I have a working capital that is enough to keep inventory of materials and supplies.

We gain new knowledge, share information with each other, and research opportunities to establish new contacts and relationships with potential customers. Our incubator cohort also organizes a “coffee break” event with the support of the Women’s Business Center. Basically, we visit an organization during their lunch break and showcase our products while serving coffee and cookies. I have learned so much from the WBC, and this is just one example. I believe that I have received not only an investment for my equipment, but also an important investment for my future.

- I see you have lots of orders. How many people are working with you?

I worked alone from 2015 to 2017. Now I have two employees. One of my employees is disabled. She is not able to leave home on her own, so we deliver necessary materials like newspaper, glue, wrapping tools to her and collect the product when she is finished. Also, we have another woman who works with us when needed. We’re planning to make her full-time employee soon.

– You’re a fashion designer by training. What was your reason to pursue handcrafts instead of fashion?

First reason is my clients. Imagine that people trusted me enough that they ordered half of their required amount of baskets only from me, so I can’t betray their trust. Secondly, I was amazed to learn what can be made of paper.

I made significant changes as compared to how I first started weaving baskets. I am still learning how to run a business. Most importantly, I really want to show people that beautiful products can be made of paper. Also, I aim to build a responsible and marketable business. There are many people who try to replace import products. I believe that being responsible and creating useful products is a good way to move forward. Many people have trusted me until now, therefore I have such dreams and aspiration to do more.

For more information about UDA brand click here.

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