Saturday, March 6, 2010

Copper Crochet Bracelets: A Prod Dev Case Study

In a recent chat with one of my predecessors, we talked about the Association's latest breakthroughs. Among other updates, I sent photos of our newest products. In response, she exclaimed, "I'm so excited about the broadening of creative ideas that are bubbling up in our little village!" While I appreciate her enthusiasm, this comment caught me off guard. Bubbling? I find it somewhat naive of her to think that's how events unraveled.

Perhaps from afar, it seems as if these ladies have finally tapped into their well of endless creativity. Innovative ideas and attractive designs are gushing out with the speed of Angel Falls. New products may seem to be "bubbling" to the surface. But that would disregard approximately a year's worth of work. It dismisses the hours I spent researching, experimenting, gathering feedback, researching and experimenting again. It discounts the numerous workshops and house visits I made for the ladies to learn new skills. It disregards the blood, sweat and tears exuded by these ladies. And it overlooks the money spent along the way.

When a writer hits a "block," he may want escape into a beach sunset until Callipo's muse starts playing. Pen won't touch paper until lyrical words flow from above. Maybe some writers work this way. I don't. Writing is editing. And editing is writing.

In the same sense, product development requires constant "editing." In business, product development represents the complete process of bringing new products or services to the market. Therefore, the heart of product development lies in feedback- from the target audience, design experts and producers. What knowledge and skills do these ladies have? What can they produce? What want or need does that product X fill? To whom? What are they (the customers) saying about product X? Is product X unique? Does it reflect current color trends and tastes?

About a year ago, I carefully prepared questions with my tutor to ask the Association. In hopes of understanding what I might be doing, I had to understand what was and is. My language was still chicken scratch. I had difficulty making sentences, much less conjugating verbs properly and agreeing adjectives with nouns. Therefore, we discussed possible responses. He then scripted dialogues. I memorized key terminology. I even rehearsed these hypothetical dialogues alone in my room. By the time I actually sat down with Aicha, the president of the Association, I already had the conversation 20 times over.

"What are the Association's biggest needs?"
"A childcare center. And a market for our products."

Up until that point, the conversation flowed as I had expected. I was even encouraged by my comprehension level. What I had failed to anticipate the crushing weight of responsibility being dumped on my shoulders. How can I move mountains in less that two years? Where do I even begin? Blank. My mind went momentarily blank. All I could do was nod in agreement.

"Mushkila kbira. Big problem." I added after a couple minutes of awkward silence.
"Mushkila kbira." Aicha repeated.

After further questioning and countless hours of observation, I realized how thin their product line actually was. After digging here and there, I found holes in their colors choices, designs, styles, sizing, craftsmanship and raw materials used. Why weren't the Association's products flying off the shelves? Wait. Rewind. Step back. Why weren't these products on anyone's shelves except ours? Their products brought limited success not because there was no market, rather the products themselves were weak.

I'm not a designer but I am a picky buyer. Therefore, I went to my favorite Fair Trade retailers, found similar items to that of the Association's or made with the same skill set. About every two weeks, I printed out these photos and brought them to the nedi. I wanted to show the ladies products in the market and hopefully inspire to create something similar. The ladies always chattered wide-eyed with excitement. On several occasions, Amina and Houda sat down with me to experiment. Although I began growing friendships with them (and others in the Association), nothing that could be counted in profits came of this.

By spring, I realized that the best place to start would be with their line of crocheted bracelets. While these are not featured in any boutiques, they had a respectable reputation in the Peace Corps community. I brought bracelets with me to any and all Peace Corps gatherings. During VSN training in March, I set up shop in Karen's house. When invited to speak on a PST panel, I brought along bracelets to sell. Vacation up north? Yup, a stash of bracelets came along for the ride. By the time IST rolled around in June, a handful of PCVs emailed me requesting to purchase bracelets!

**Photo of the crochet bracelets at the time I began working with this Association.

During this time, I collected feedback, specifically on colors and designs. I told the ladies to keep careful inventory. After these trips, I would ask them which designs sold the best? Which colors were most popular? I even had my staagmates fill out a color survey during IST. We then adjusted production accordingly.

Even with these small adjustments, I had my doubts as to how big the market is for crocheted bracelets. I love the touch of soft, fine thread. I love the artist taste in textile jewelry. I appreciate the labor of these women. And I believe whole-heartedly in the Association's mission. However, I can see why our young twenty-something year old, socially conscience, potential female customers would pass over crocheted bracelets for a silver one... or wooden one.

That's when I wondered, what if they crocheted with something besides thin, rayon embroidery thread? What about wire? Browsing on and searching on google, I found several eye-catching crocheted wire bracelets and earrings. Like before, I printed out these photos. For weeks, I circulated these photos and eagerly hoped for someone to take initiative. But nothing beyond excited chatter. What's wrong with them? Don't they understand we just hit jackpot?

During IST, Heather, the founder of Mushmina, came and did a workshop on product development. She repeatedly stated the importance of "connecting the dots" when translating ideas into new products. If you want carpet weavers to start making carpet purses, make a real-size paper prototype. Draw out the design to scale. In this way, weavers can unfold the prototype next to their looms. They see exactly what they have to weave. No wonder new bracelets weren't flying out of my village and into a boutique near you! That leap was too big for the ladies to make on their own. The photos I printed represented exciting ideas and promising possibilities. But what my ladies needed was a map and step-by-step directions.

I took that advice to heart. Over the summer, I experimented crocheting bracelets with different wires. However, the ladies laughed and said how much they look like the steel tagine scrubber. What about copper wire? I hunted my souq town until I found copper wire thin enough to crochet with. I spent about two months testing various versions of copper wire.

By September, I produced something I was proud of. For the whole month of October, I wore these bracelets everywhere I went. Wearing it in my village created a buzz among the ladies. It even attracted more women to the Association! Wearing it outside my village gave me invaluable feedback. Like before, I took advantage of every opportunity- at PCV gatherings, trainings, PST invite, friends and strangers sitting next to me on a bus ride. Afterwards, I produced new copper bracelets using the feedback.

In October and November, I helped the ladies produce their first trials of crocheted copper bracelets. I had them use my bracelets as examples. Learning how to make copper crochet bracelets will come quickley, I thought. This is same skill- crocheting, just with a different materials.

By the AIWA Bzzar in early December, most ladies produced two bracelets. We ran into the good signs! Their craftsman ship improved from bracelet number one to bracelet number two. I became better at noticing what made clean copper crochet work versus not. Therefore, I became better at giving the ladies tips. Ladies also transferred learned skills amongst each other. Saida Bachad was particularly good at teaching other women how to attach the clasp. Ikram helped countless women hide their ends. The copper bracelets I liked, all sold in the craft fair... and then some. A couple places in Morocco showed interest in stocking these. That's a good start!

But we had plenty of misses. Well, a lot more misses than hits. Working with a larger crochet hook and tougher material threw a curve ball at these women. And a fair majority of them were hit square on the forehead. To make matters worse, working with wire can be unforgiving. Mistakes are final. My loose directions provided poor guidance. Although the ladies are perfectly capable to producing lovely crochet thread patterns, lovely crochet copper patterns were few and far between. The ladies also chose their own accent beads. And they made some choices I would have never made and potential customers didn't like. All of these combined, means that there sits of copper bracelets. Most likely, they will remain unsold.

An interesting aspect about this Peace Corps experience is that I'm learning as my counterparts learn. I don't know everything. I've never done anything like this before. Heck, I graduated with an Economics degree. Not in design. How did I get to Morocco and get tangled up in product development?!

Late November, I stumbled upon a wonderful discovery. The Peace Corps librarian sent me The Encyclopedia of Crochet Techniques. From this book, I realized that most women could reproduce new crochet patterns which had a photo of the end result and a drawing of the directions. In fact, this was far more effective then having me work next to them. Better results and self-sufficiency! It's a win-win.

** Photo of how I translated new products to be reproduced.

That is precisely how I directed copper crochet production in February. I gave the women specific design patterns. I produced a sample and then drew out its pattern. The ladies were able to produce far more impressive bracelets! Instead of eight excellent copper bracelets and five ok ones, we have a real collection! And by the end of this week, we'll be ready to test them in several markets!

I worked in a similar fashion with Amina Yabis, the president of Cherry Buttons Cooperative. The Santa Fe Folk Art Festival has extended her an invitation to participate in this summer's craft fair. She wanted help with color selections and necklace designs. The first time I went, I gave her a free-form necklace made from jellaba beads. In the couple hours following a delicious chicken lunch, we jointly reproduced a similar necklace. Excellent! She learned something new! Right? Not quite. In the following weeks, the PCV in Sefrou gave me disappointing reports of her latest creations. Free-form was apparently too free. It was free enough to encompass scattered and incomplete artistic thoughts (or un-artistic thoughts).

Therefore, I created a different necklace that follows an exact pattern. Amina Yabis would have the freedom to change different jellaba beads. In February, I sat down with her again. This time we watched as I remade the necklace. The second one, she made on her own under my watch. Beautiful. She understood and she was able to reproduce on her own!

** A photo of Amina and I producing crocheted jellaba necklaces.

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