Carly Nance and Rachel Bentley dreamed of starting a company that sold unique home goods made by artisans from around the world. Then, they hopped on a plane to Peru to see if it was possible. The college friends and now business partners recently marked the second anniversary of The Citizenry, a Dallas-based e-commerce startup.
The Citizenry raised $1 million last summer in a round led by New York-based Karlani Capital along with Dallas-based Trailblazer Capital and angel investors from New York, California and Texas. Their sales, which are in the millions, have more than quadrupled from 2015 to 2016, Bentley said.
By working directly with artisans and selling online, The Citizenry aims to be high-end, yet affordable. Nance and Bentley travel to other countries to find beautiful craftsmanship and artisan cooperatives that abide by fair trade standards. They work with artisans to design and debut items that put a modern spin on that craft. Ten percent of proceeds goes back to the artisan communities with grants that cover needs like new tools or business classes.
The Citizenry has collections from Ireland, Mexico, Uganda, Peru and Argentina. Their home goods range from ceramic plates made in Dublin to leather butterfly chairs made in Argentina. The startups website features videos about the people and stories behind each item.
Q: Tell me about how you got started. How do you know one another?
Rachel: We met the very beginning of freshman year at Texas A&M University. We werent friends right away, but we became friends because of our love for travel. In college, we began working together in different organizations in different leadership roles. I reported to Carly. Carly reported to me. We worked together. We did all sorts of things and that worked. We found out we were really good yin and yang.
Carly: If either one of us ever started something, we agreed to call the other one and say, What are you doing? Do you want to get into this with me? But that was a young, idealistic point-of-view. I think we said that when we were graduating college.
Rachel: Fast-forward seven or eight years, I had just started Columbia [University] Business School and was looking at what was happening in consumer products, particularly the shift to more premium artisanal goods, away from mass produced. We were both decorating our homes around the same time and having a lot of conversations around it. It just naturally unfolded from there.
Q: You find inspiration for home decor all over the world. Tell me about how you pick countries and find local artisans.
Rachel: That is the secret sauce behind it all, right? For us, deciding the country is a combination of where we see an opportunity in the market, a product were really wanting ourselves. Often whats behind that is looking for the highest quality material or a natural resource of that country so leather from Argentina, alpaca from Peru and then a history of craftsmanship tied to that natural resource. One of the things were looking for is where the design of that country is in terms of the U.S. culture and the current aesthetic. When we launched the Mexico collection last year, Mexico City and Mexico as a whole were really having a moment in the design world.
Q: How do you find local artisans, though? I would think you come up with the concepts, but how do you carry that out?
Rachel: It is far and away the hardest thing we do. Both Carly and I come from very strong research backgrounds. It used to be the question was Find this statistic that doesnt exist in the world about some obscure market. And now its Find this artisan. Its through a lot of working with fair trade organizations, with people we know on the ground and finding young, emerging designers in publications in countries.
Q: In your jobs, you go on a lot of really interesting trips. Tell me about some of the most memorable experiences.
Carly: Our very first trip is worth talking about. We were still figuring out the business and we were in Peru. There was one cooperative that is a 24-hour bus ride up a mountain with hairpin turns. And it was one of the moments when we sat and said, As a business, do we need to visit every workshop we work with? The two of us looked at each other and said Yes. We do. We need to know where every product is coming from. Im scared of heights and I get motion-sick, so I spent the whole day with my head buried in my jacket as we drove 24 hours up the side of the mountain to visit this tiny, but incredible weaving workshop in Peru.