Monday, June 28, 2010

Update on Bloom the social enterprise

(Bloom duffel bags - all ready for shipment!)

I keep saying I do not write about Bloom enough. I know many people follow our story. They have emailed me to say they'd like to hear more about my experiences setting up a social enterprise and whether and how successful it can be.

I was reminded of this recently after I posted this on my Facebook: Diana Saw: "Yes! deleted about a 100 "friends"-- people i can't even recognise from their photos and others who don't matter to me. hope this way i can see the updates of only real friends."

[I usually do housekeeping on Facebook because I don't want so many friends. After a while it gets hard to keep track of everyone. When I see these people with 1000's of friends I just want to laugh. Who are you kidding? You're obviously just using them for marketing and (self) promotional purposes.]

Most people said "Phew, glad to still be on your list." But then I got this response from a Facebook friend, John.

"Diana, There's very little reason for me to still be able to see this, but I'm glad I can. I fell in love with Cambodia, Bloom products and then the business a couple years ago on my first visit. I hope to spend a lot more time in country in coming years. Bloom is in inspiration about how to do business the right way there. Next time you have to weed the list, maybe there's another way to keep people like me informed about the Bloom story while still tracking your close friends here. Thanks again."

It was a good reminder. This was my response:

Diana Saw: hey john! that's a really good point. thanks so much for reminding me. i went a little berserk early this morning cos my kitten died and wanted to feel like i was doing something useful. i actually have a bloom list of friends--people i know through bloom (those people on my friends list who look like supermodels are not friends i hang out with in real life - i met them all through bloom!). in fact i think 300+ of my friends fall in the bloom category. i have kept them all because i really appreciate their support. the people i deleted are mostly people from my past job, school etc who add me just so. even though we have moved on and don't even send an email to say hi - just "add friend". it's stupid, really. anyway keep in touch and i hope to see you in srok khmer soon! :)

Yes, it has been a very sad couple of weeks for me because a two week old abandoned kitten I found on Sok San road and took care for 2 weeks died. I will write about the experience when I am able to. I can't really right now cos it still breaks my heart.

Anyway, I will try to write more about Bloom. The reality is that I have many interests outside of Bloom. I am curious about Cambodia and interested in my environment here in Siem Reap which is why I blog so much about it. I am also more interested in workers' rights and liberty and justice than in business--and that's the truth.

Much of business is very mundane and uninteresting. Sometimes I can hardly believe I spend my time writing emails to customers who negotiate prices. I am so tired of explaining over and over again why our bags are priced as they are, why they are not as cheap as a factory-made bag. I struggle to keep at these email exchanges when all I want to say "screw it, it's just not worth it. let me refer you to a chinese site that sells cheap and rubbish quality bags".

This part of business is uninteresting at best and unedifying--petty even--at worst.

It is something other friends who have multimillion dollar businesses tell me they dislike too. Possibly it is because my friends are like me, i.e., not real salespeople to begin with. Still, it is something we all recognise and accept has to be done. After all, owners or bosses can delegate many things but, at some point, it falls on the owner/founder/boss to explain why the business is run the way it is (in management speak, it is called "escalation". Staff members are asked to "escalate the problem" to their higher ups, and there is none so high up than the boss).

In Bloom's case, because it is small and I am the only foreigner, it falls on me to deal with things like these. I can hire a professional Khmer manager, I guess, but my intention has always been to help the poorest Khmers, not the middle classes. This is why I have steered clear of hiring managers at Bloom, preferring to hire more sewers, i.e., workers. I like workers; I don't like middle managers quite so much. In my experience workers contribute way more to a business than middle managers.

One solution to this specific problem is to send a template email so I don't have to put in so much effort. But I like responding to enquiries in a personal manner because after all, it is me, a person, dealing with another person.

However, this email from a very good customer in the US shows me there are people who tend to forget about other people when they get caught up in the pursuit of profits. My customer had been talking to a very large online Pet store that is not so Smart:

"They loved the collars leashes but wanted to buy them at a disgustingly low price, plus I paid to ship to them & they have this stupid policy about markdown money if products don't sell through a certain amount every 30 day period. I could go bankrupt just filling their order. I honestly don't understand how anyone can sell to them. I (obviously) graciously declined & told them it is part of my business plan to not only build in a % to each product to give back to charities, but that amazingly enough I needed to have a bit of profit in it as well - to which they replied "Oh, I see. Good Luck" click, hangup. My kids asked me if I was upset because I had put hours into presentations for them - but I said no - I was actually a bit relieved that I avoided getting dragged into a corporate mill that would milk me dry."

My customer is great and these are the people I usually end up doing business with--people who care about others instead of simply lining their own pockets. People like my customer and me want to prove that it is possible to do business in an ethical way, in a way that does not exploit anyone, and in a way that gives back to society. Sadly, many people running large corporations (and even small ones) do not think the same way and operate selfishly.

The other reason I don't blog so much about Bloom is that after almost 4 years, Bloom runs pretty much as a well-oiled machine. The workshop is in Phnom Penh under the hands of a very capable young man, Sina, who not only cuts the ricebags into shape but also oversees production together with another very capable young lady, Kamhut, who also makes the templates. As you can see, we would like our managers to also be hands on and involved in the production of the bags. No one is stuck in an office making decisions that have no relevance to the business.

Meanwhile I live in Siem Reap, a 6 hour bus ride away (I made the move to Siem Reap in Nov 2007). It was always the plan for Bloom to be a workers' cooperative, eventually running on its own without me.

Of course there are issues that crop up now and again. The most costly mistake, apart from Sipha stealing from us, was when we did not write the name of the customer who was awaiting the bags at Bangkok's Le Meridien. EMS (Express Mail Service) Bangkok refused to release the bags to Le Meridien even though the hotel knew who to give the bags to. At the same time, EMS Cambodia refused to accept any responsibility even though they had accepted the forms without the addressee and cleared the parcel. Yes, EMS, you suck.

Finally, after a month of to and fro-ing, the bags arrived back in Phnom Penh and we had to pay for the bags to be re-routed to Holland, at a cost of almost US$300 dollars. Thankfully, the customer was kind enough to share the bill for that. But it was still a costly lesson.

At that time, many friends had asked me to dock the pay of the person responsible for the mistake but, come on, everyone makes mistakes. I know the Khmer staff member responsible felt really bad and even asked to be removed from this responsibility for fear of making the same mistake again.

Anyway, the point is mistakes happen in business, as they do in any other aspect in life. No matter how well you plan things, accidents do happen. The good thing is we did learn something from this and have instituted a new process--forms have always to be double-checked by someone else before they are sent off. A simple enough idea, but one we did not think about until the mistake happened.

Ok that's it for now. It's 10 pm Cambodia time now and I have to take dad to the airport at half past six in the morning by tuktuk. I will make an effort to write more about Bloom, I promise!

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