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Brazilian native Tiago Dalvi had big dreams from the start. He was accepted into business school at the tender age of 16, where he first noticed his talent for sales. While Dalvi loved talking to customers and devising new ways to sell a product, he didn't want to sell just anything. Rather than peddling the standards like cars or appliances, he wanted to sell something that made a difference.
A few years later, he started working with an NGO called Entrepreneurial Alliance in Brazil. He soon realized that a large percentage of its partner entrepreneurs were artisans, many of whom lived below the poverty line. Most made quality goods for competitive prices, but they didn't know how to sell their products.
"Most of these artisans used to live in a local bubble," Dalvi told Triple Pundit in a recent interview. "They sell their product in their community and in street fairs, but they have no idea how to sell their products outside of these communities."
The young businessman saw an opportunity to use his penchant for sales to make people's lives better by connecting artisans with the resources they need to sell their products to a wider customer base. Armed with a bright idea and a passion for the cause, the then 20-year-old entrepreneur began approaching small retail shops in Brazilian cities, where owners were even more receptive than he'd hoped.
"We actually realized that the other end [retailers and consumers] really wanted to purchase those kind of products but had no idea where to find them. So, there was no company bridging that market," he remembered.
His next idea was to connect with corporations and other major retailers that already had name recognition in the country -- not to mention hundreds of retail locations. Although he had no business experience outside of college, he set his sights on the big kahuna: none other than mega-retailer Walmart.
"We knew if we got accepted into Walmart, probably the other retailers would open their doors to us. And that's exactly what happened."
The Walmart executive with whom Dalvi scored a meeting quickly "fell in love" with the idea, recognizing it as a more proactive way for the big-box chain to engage local communities. Products made by Solidarium artisans first appeared in one Walmart store, then three and then more than 50. Before long, the company's handmade products were also being sold at JcPenney and Ikea locations across Brazil.
From 2008 to 2011, the company was doubling in size each year, but the logistical details of shipping handmade goods across the 3.2-million-square-mile country were expensive. Looking for another change in business model, Dalvi headed to a small business accelerator at the Unreasonable Institute in 2011. After the 45-day program ended, Dalvi devised a new model that would soon revolutionize his business.
"We came up with the idea of bringing the whole knowledge that we [gained] in the past five years to launch the online marketplace," he recounted. "The main concept was: Any artisan in the country would be able to sign up for Solidarium ... list as many products as they have and market them to the whole world."
Of the more than 8.5 million artisans who call Brazil home, about 80 percent have access to the Internet -- yet only about 1 percent of the country's handmade products are sold online.
"The mission for the company is to develop something really meaningful and really change the reality of these artisans here," Dalvi said. "In order to do that, we realized that the whole experience that we had with these major retailers, we should bring it to the online world as well."
Through the new business model, artisans can list their products and begin selling to customers around the world in just a few clicks. In addition to direct sales on Solidarium's website, the company is continuing its relationships with Brazil's major retailers but moving the focus to the online world.
For example, the company just closed a deal with one of the largest online retailers in Brazil (name yet to be released as of publishing). Through the agreement, artisans can list their products with Solidarium and -- with just one click -- begin selling with one of the nation's largest retailers.
Solidarium already has more than 6,000 active sellers (both artisans and cooperatives) -- and it's adding about 1,000 new sellers every month. Sellers are able to increase their income by an average of 85 percent in their first year with Solidarium, according to the company's research. Some have increased monthly incomes to as much as $10,000, Dalvi said. So far, the company's efforts have improved the lives of more than 15,000 people across Brazil.
"The whole idea is to scale up extremely fast," he told 3p. "Since most of these people aren't online yet, we need to be offline. We need to be talking to them; we need to be at the street fairs and the trade shows; wherever they are, we've got to be there."
In addition to a place to sell their products, Solidarium provides all the support local artisans need to grow their business -- from help with marketing and accounting to taking attractive photos that catch a customer's attention. In the interest of speedy expansion, Dalvi and his team also work with a network of NGOs, including Entrepreneurial Alliance, to develop training videos and other tools to help more artisans learn to use the marketplace and expand their businesses to the online world.
A few months later, Solidarium was selected as one of five winners of SAP Business One small business enterprise technology. It was also awarded ongoing support from a network of mentors to help grow and run the business sustainably.
In partnership with SAP, Solidarium was able to improve its accounting and bring it online, so Dalvi and his team can focus on improving lives for artisans rather than mundane, but unquestionably important, details.
SAP is also working with Solidarium to develop a mobile app that allows artisans can easily list their products from a smartphone. The app is currently in the concept phase and is expected to go live by the end of the year, Dalvi said.
"Right now we have the funding; we have the team; we have everything we need to scale up. The idea is that, within five years, to reach at least 1 million artisans -- and to replicate the same business model into other countries."
Dalvi hopes to expand Solidarium elsewhere in Latin America, as well as Southeast Asia and Africa, he told Triple Pundit. "We know that the solution that we came up with for Brazil could be scaled up and replicated through other countries."
For more on Solidarium, check out the video below.
Photos and video courtesy of SAP.
Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor, has written for TriplePundit since 2013. She is also Managing Editor of CR Magazine and the Editor of 3p’s Sponsored Series. Mazzoni’s recent work can be found in Conscious Company, AlterNet and VICE’s Motherboard. She is based in Philadelphia, PA.