On this week’s show I had the pleasure of chatting with Henrik Saetre, Chief Online Officer at Mamahuhu. Their story—and the mission behind selling stylish shoes that are handcrafted by artisans—is a fascinating one. Not only did they bring a unique and high-quality product online, but they are helping artisans build their own businesses and become self-sufficient. Their business model is based on one of my favorite lines, Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
We chatted about:
- Their story and business model
- How they find their artisans and what they look for
- Why they chose Shopify
- The challenges they have encountered and the solutions they found
- What words of wisdom Henrik has to share on how others can find success in their own businesses
Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Jilt
Bob Dunn: Hi, Henrik. Welcome to the show.
Henrik Saetre: Thank you very much.
Bob: The model for your online store and your whole business is fascinating. When I found your site and went through it, I thought, “Wow, this guy’s got to be on my show.” Why don’t you tell everyone who you are and how you started this whole venture of yours?
Meet Henrik Saetre, COO at Mamahuhu Online
Henrik: Yeah sure, thanks. My name is Henrik. I’m the COO of Mamahuhu Online. Very briefly, I believe in doing the right thing, and that’s what I use to guide my actions, especially when doing business.
Mamahuhu Online, a part of Mamahuhu, is an ethical fashion brand that was started about five, six years ago by a very good friend of mine. Though he’s Spanish and I’m Norwegian, we studied together in Shanghai. Mamahuhu Online got started as a result of him and his then partner. They were looking at how they could get into fashion. They had an idea for the type of shoes they wanted to produce, and they wanted to figure out how to do it.
Where do you start? You have a design for a shoe. How do you go about it? They looked into all types of traditional things like having it made in factories, but they were struggling to find something that really fit them in terms of the ethics involved. The, when they were in Colombia, walking the streets of Bogota, they saw a cobbler sitting there, working on shoes and they got talking to him. That was—and I’m going to butcher the name because my Spanish pronunciation is really not up to par—I think it’s Jorge Rozo.
They got talking to him and they found out that he was a master artisan. He used to work for a bigger company but, with a lot of other employees, he got laid off because a lot of the production from Colombia, which used to be a major leather production country, got moved to Asia. So a lot of people lost their jobs and were either unemployed or underemployed.
They showed him the design of the shoe and he said, “Yeah, sure. Come back in a day, and I’ll have it made for you.” So they gave him the design, and they paid him to create the shoe. They came back, and he had the shoe for them and it was just perfect. It sounds strange but they had the designs of how they wanted it to be made, and he was a master leather worker, so he just took it and made it.
It all started with one shoe. So they started making shoes with Rozo and selling, first on Facebook, to friends and friends of friends and things like that. The way it took the next big leap, was that they ran a Kickstarter campaign. With the funds from that, they bought all the machinery and the equipment and the leather and everything needed to set up a workshop for Rozo.
And they opened the first Mamahuhu shop. If you fast forward about five years, that’s about one and a half year ago now, Mamahuhu had more than five stores in Columbia and one store in Spain.
Then Luis, the founder of Mamahuhu, reached out to me, because we’d stayed in touch since we were at university together. He invited me and my fiance to come on board and create Mamahuhu Online, which is basically the online store that sells Mamahuhu shoes worldwide, except for Colombia. The funny story there is that it’s actually cheaper for us to send a shoe from Spain to Venezuela than it is to send from Colombia to Venezuela. Unless it’s changed very recently, there’s not really been a postal service in Colombia. So my fiance and I joined them about a year and a half ago, and we started setting up the online store, and that’s basically how it got started. That’s how I got here.
How do you find your artisans?
Bob: These artisans, as I understand from you, are from two or three countries. At this point, how do you find them? Are you looking for anything specific when you seek them out, or do they come to you?
Henrik: That’s an interesting question. In the beginning, it was going out and searching for them. Like with Rozo, it was a chance encounter. Today, we very frequently get requests from artisans who want to work with us, because there is still quite a bit of unemployment and underemployment.
So there’s a lot of artisans who really want to do work in this way, and this is where we do something a little bit special. We don’t actually employ the artisans. Instead, we provide them with microfinancing, a loan that is repaid in product. That allows them to buy the machines they need, buy the leather they need, and start hiring helpers. We work with them to figure out how to grow their business as well. So it’s about going from being underemployed or unemployed to being a business owner and an employer.
Instead of us employing them and them being depending on Mamahuhu succeeding or not, we’d rather help them to stand on their own feet. For many of them, we are not their only customer. They make shoes for other companies as well export out of Colombia. This is, we call it, “Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a day, instead of give a man a fish.” I think I said that completely wrong, but you know what I mean.
Bob: Right. So you’re empowering these people with a livelihood.
Henrik: That’s really what we’re trying to do. For me, that’s one of the most fulfilling parts of the job, knowing that what we do allows people to have a good life, and create a life where maybe it wouldn’t be possible, and at least not to that standard, at least not very easily. So it’s very important for us also that they get paid a living wage, because these are some very skilled workers. These are people who are master artisans.
Anyway, to answer the second part of your question, what are we looking for. The first thing is that we’re looking for master leatherworkers. So what also happens is they do employ people to help them. So for a lot of the shops now, it might be one master leatherworker, but then he has five or six people that work with him.
One of the most amazing things is there was one who was almost a kid and he joined as an apprentice. He worked in the workshop for several years and mastered the trade. Then he pitched to Mamahuhu that he wanted to set up his own workshop. So we helped him out with that with a loan so he came in to this workshop and spinned out as a new entrepreneur.
That’s the second thing that we’re looking, the entrepreneurial drive. Because obviously it’s not easy, right? They do amazing work. We just work as much as we can to enable them to do it.
The third thing is that they have to be fast learners, because as they’re going from being an employee to being an employer, there are a lot of new skills to master: everything from health care to taxes and accounting.
Why did you choose Shopify and was it your first choice?
Bob: Let’s touch on the tech side of things. I’m interested because your store’s on Shopify. What I’d like to know is if that was your first choice and, if so or if you moved to it eventually, why did you choose Shopify?
Henrik: That’s a very interesting question. Yeah, because we did start on Shopify. Before we made the choice to start on Shopify, we were looking into different platforms. Mamahuhu had a smaller store that they had created but didn’t have time to operate, that was running on a different system. We spent some time comparing them. What was it that really made the decision?
I think a big part of it was the app store. It’s really about how simple it is to create the web pages using Shopify, because neither me nor my fiancé know enough about coding. We can troubleshoot a bit, but pretty much everything we’ve done is drag-and-drop. Being able to create a store like Mamahuhu Online without actually doing any coding, that would’ve been impossible five to ten years ago. But now, using Shopify, I believe we have quite a decent store, and it’s running well.
That was the two main reasons. We also looked a bit at the pricing, but in all seriousness, they are so close, and as soon as you start making some sales, it really doesn’t matter until you get into the very high numbers.
Can you address any challenges you’ve had?
Bob: I’ve heard that a lot. That’s why a lot of people end up on Shopify, the ease of things. You don’t have time, you want to get on with your business, and you want to get things up and going. Have there been any challenges, and maybe you could address how you solved them, either on the technical side of things, or in marketing or selling? Anything that comes to mind?
Henrik: We definitely have challenges. That’s daily. That’s one of the things that I love about this, because that constant challenge drives us. I’m a true believer that if you give a person a challenge, they will grow to match it.
One, as with many other e-commerce stores, traffic has been our number one challenge. We’ve pretty much tried everything. We took all the spaghetti we could find, threw it at the wall, and then looked at what stuck.
There are two things that we now see. The first one is SEO. I think it was almost a year after starting the store before we really got into SEO, because I had this understanding that it was a very slow thing, and because of that, previously, we’d been fighting the smaller fires, trying to make quick fixes. Then we decided, okay, let’s do the SEO thing. I did, and this is going to sound cheesy, but I went through an online course, and then I read several blogs on how to do SEO, and then I did our own SEO. And it went from being almost no organic traffic to pretty much close to half our traffic, and over half of our sales. That took about six months for it kick in.
Secondly, it was bloggers relevant to our niche. There, I would say it’s just being gutsy and friendly, and always believing that it could happen. If you ever watched the movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they have something there called American style shooting, which is pour as much lead downfield as you can, something’s going to hit. This is a little bit like that, but of course every email we send is tailor-made to that one blogger. It’s just that you have to put in the time to sit and write them, you know?
What do you feel has been the key to your success? Any words of wisdom to share?
Bob: Right. For the last question, it’s in two parts. What do you feel has been the key to your success—for the people that you’re working with— and do you have any words of wisdom to share with people who have dreams of starting a business? Any final words for everybody out there who is thinking of starting a business similar to yours, well not maybe not, similar, but with the same model, people who are saying “This is so cool, how you are empowering others to build a business.” Any last words? I’m just going to leave it open for you.
Henrik: As to the keys to the success, for us, we really do believe in doing the right thing. Having an ethical business has been a big part of that, because ethical fashion and ethical business in other industries are on the rise. That makes it so much easier to cut through the noise and get in front of our customers. That is also a big part of our customer profile, which is that we look for people who believe the same thing as we do, do the right thing, because then we are not competing with most of the fashion brands out there.
Second is, treat your customers right. We personally reply to each email we get. Sometimes that is a very big number of emails, and sometimes it’s less.
Thirdly, have a quality product. This also comes a little bit back to doing the right thing, which is think of what product you would like to use for it. If you are taking shortcuts or producing it in an unethical way, it’s going to come back and bite you in the ass, as they say.
As to words of wisdom, I don’t know, I don’t feel very wise. I guess it would be that it’s never been easier to start a successful e-commerce store, because the entry barriers, they’re so much lower now than any other time in history, because you can get in with lower investment. You have less special skills needed like, for example, coding or things like that. You have easier access to customers through Facebook, Google, all the social media.
You have better tools like, for example, one thing that’s really strongly impacted our bottom line is Jilt. With Shopify, we had abandoned carts, but it wasn’t really recovering very well for us. It was more around 5 to 10%. Then we found Jilt, and it worked really well. They gave us some advice on how to set it up, and over the last six months, we’ve had a recovery rate of 41% of abandoned carts, which is crazy. Anyone who does e-commerce, they know that if you can secure that amount of abandoned carts, that’s a huge part of your monthly sales, you know?
Henrik: Yeah. So for the final words, this is still way tougher than holding a job, but I do perceive it to be so much more fulfilling, at least for me, because you’re forced to achieve so much more just to cope with everything, and I think it’s a tremendous amount of fun.
Bob: Excellent advice. There are people who are made to have a business, and people made to work for somebody, but it is rewarding. I’ve been in business for many, many years, so I totally get that.
Where can we find Henrik on the web?
Well, tell us where the site is again, and also where people can find you on social, or where’s the best place to find you on social?
Henrik: You can find us at www.Mamahuhu.online. That’s www.Mamahuhu.online. Quick fun fact. Mamahuhu is from Chinese, because that’s something all people studying in China have to learn a little bit of. So ma ma is actually horse horse, and hu hu is tiger tiger. So in Chinese, it’s horse horse tiger tiger.
Bob: Interesting. I was wondering about that.
Henrik: Yeah, and on Twitter we’re at @MamahuhuOnline (one word), and on Instagram, you can find us on MamahuhuBarcelona.
Bob: Well, that was an excellent story. Your business is fascinating. I know that you’re at the end of your day where you are. I’m at the first of my day. So we’ll go ahead and sign off here, but thank you for joining us.
Henrik: And thank you so much for having me on. Appreciate it.