Startup story: Artasian
by Nursultan Sulaimanov
It’s Barcelona, it’s February 2016, and the city is buzzing with the biggest mobile technology expo on the planet. How did a group of young people from Kyrgyzstan end up on stage, wearing handmade hats and presenting the traditional folk art of Central Asia to some of the leading lights of the mobile and technology industry?
My name is Nursultan Sulaimanov, and I’m an entrepreneur from Kyrgyzstan. My home country is a landlocked, mountainous nation in Central Asia with a small population – less than six million – a turbulent history, and an economy that’s traditionally relied on agriculture and natural resources. Once a waypoint on the Great Silk Road, Kyrgyzstan is a land of mesmerizing natural beauty with a rich tapestry of culture, folklore and traditional arts and crafts that have been handed down through the generations.
My story began around two years ago, when our social entrepreneurial startup, ArtAsian, was in the early stages of its journey. Our mission: to help the talented artisans of Central Asia to market their unique and quality handmade products to a global audience. Through our website and mobile app, we created a beautiful and accessible online market that connects independent regional producers with customers in North America, Europe and Eurasia. Through ArtAsian, everyone can participate. Everyone can make an impact.
We launched our service because we saw an opportunity to address a real problem: the arts, crafts and textiles of Central Asia are largely unknown outside the region, but possess a unique aesthetic that make them popular with visitors to the region. Many of the artisans we work with live in remote locations, with no ability to reach customers outside of their immediate areas. Plus, English is rarely spoken in Central Asia, and in creating an English-language online market for local sellers, we could make the work of our artisans accessible and available globally. The vision: a virtuous circle of increasing external demand driving increasing prosperity and productivity among our artisans at home.
We’d worked hard to build the first iteration of our desktop site, but we knew we had to take things further to reach the customers we needed: an international audience who are affluent, time-poor and increasingly present on mobile devices. So, we signed up for the Eurasia Mobile Challenge, a competition for mobile solutions across the Eurasia region, supported by VimpelCom as part of its global program ‘Make Your Mark’. The competition opened up new doors for us: we could network with other contestants, participate in group events with other mobile entrepreneurs, and take advantage of mentoring and support the competition offered. We benefited from the support, but also the challenges: answering some difficult questions and receiving constructive criticism helped us make adjustments to our approach and business model which built a stronger business for us going forward.
As well as the financial reward, winning the Eurasian Mobile Challenge got us a lot of traction back home in Kyrgyzstan. Our small startup received positive media attention, and people started to see what we were up to, both in Kyrgyzstan and across the region. And as winners, we received a place at the Global Mobile Challenge competition in Barcelona, competing with regional winners from across the world and inspiring other young people to get their ideas off the ground.
We continue to face challenges. Our biggest: logistics, namely the fact that we have largely had to create our own infrastructure for fulfilling and shipping products to individuals in foreign countries. This is infrastructure most of our customers take for granted in their home countries. But we are becoming increasingly visible, and as we continue to grow, we will build sufficient scale to ship more cost-effectively.
Eurasia Mobile Challenge is open for entries again, and we’re proud to have played a pioneering role in the first round. If I were to offer advice to this year’s entrants, it would be to value and respect your team and the individual contributions that everyone makes. Being able to work collaboratively has been a crucial factor in our success so far. We’ve also been willing to experiment, iterate and try new approaches until we settled on something that worked. We’ve worked hard each and every day, constantly looking for opportunities to promote and sell our product, and our hard work is beginning to pay off.
And, we continue to be driven: by the passion we share for our region’s artistic heritage, by our desire to grow our global connections, and by our willingness to act on our belief that we, in Kyrgyzstan, can build a start-up business that spreads prosperity into our nation and region. And many thanks to VimpelCom and the Eurasia Mobile Challenge for supporting us on the way.