Business Today

When crowdsourcing does not work

For many merchandise makers, crowdsourcing is not yet the go-to model.

G. Seetharaman        Last Updated: March 20, 2012  | 17:01 IST

G. Seetharaman
G. Seetharaman
It's only appropriate George Harrison is crooning "What is Life" as I enter Ranjiv Ramchandani's office. He is nuts about the edifying sounds of the sixties and seventies and has carried that devotion to Tantra, the iconic T-shirt brand he founded nearly 15 years back. One of Tantra's most popular T-shirts is one with an image of a godly Jimi Hendrix accompanied by the notorious words 'Are You Experienced?'

A team of nearly 10-15 designers and copywriters, many of whom Ramchandani's friends from his advertising days, has created most of Tantra's designs including this one, and he does not see that changing. "About 80 per cent of our designs still come from them. We can't rely on crowdsourcing because most of those designs are amateurish," says Ramchandani.

Crowdsourcing, as the name indicates, is the concept of tapping into a large group of people, aided by the internet, to source ideas or funding or solutions to problems.

Anckur Patodia, managing director, GTN Enterprises, which owns the Chimp brand of merchandise, could not agree more with Ramchandani, adding, "The design has to have an aesthetic which is missing. Here a lot of people just copy existing designs and send them off as their own."

Chimp sells T-shirts, bags, mugs, notebooks and bags through its own website, kiosks and multi-brand outlets. All of Chimp's designs are made by three professional designers who have worked on the brand on a freelance basis since its inception in 2008. Most of these brands have figured nothing works as well as humour and hence their merchandise tend to, or at least try to, tickle your funny bone. Sample this: the image of a Tamil guy clad in dhoti, with vibhuti on his forehead and a cape on his back and 'Supermaniam' written beneath.                                     

With the explosion of websites like Facebook and Twitter, the number of amateur designers sending ideas to these companies has doubled over the last couple of years, some say. But very few of those find their way to the merchandise. "Only one of our ten approved designs is crowdsourced. Some people just tweak a dialogue from a film and mail it to us as their slogan," says Pranav Kapur, co-founder of Blue Bus Tees, which currently turns over Rs 2-3 lakh a month.

The concept of crowdsourcing designs was pioneered by Chicago-based Threadless which invites users to post designs on its website which are then rated by visitors and the winning entry gets $2000 in cash and is put on merchandise. The website gets 8,000 entries a month, according to Jake Nickell, co-founder of Threadless. The model has been replicated by companies across the world, including Mumbai-based Inkfruit, which boasts of 5,000 submissions a month. It offers Rs 5,000-25,000 in prize money and has over 30 product categories.

"We select about 15-20 designs a month but about 25 per cent of them are from regular winners," says Chief Executive Officer Kashyap Dalal. Though he adds that all the graphics the firm uses are crowdsourced, one of his competitors, requesting anonymity, says, "It's just a marketing tool. Like other firms, they (Inkfruit) have a fixed set of designers who supply most of their ideas." While Dalal refutes that, Patodia notes that unlike Threadless which chooses designs from across the world its Indian counterparts do not have that luxury. Inkfruit raised $3 million from private equity firm SAIF Partners last year. Bhagyshri, founder of SheepStop, a peer of Inkfruit's, admits that there are restrictions in the variety of designs she gets: "There are a lot of artists but not many of them are good at computerised graphic art."

Satish Kataria, managing director, Springboard Ventures, partners to Grow VC, a crowdfunding portal, concurs that there are enough good ideas but "there is not much awareness about collaborating with people you don't see. Educating users on this is key."

Kailash Iyer, a freelance designer who occasionally submits designs to Threadless and other such sites, opines that most of the bigger crowd-sourcing merchandise sites in India do not have a distinct identity. "Their range varies from arbitrary grunge illustrations to photo references to done-to-death slogans. These are designs you'd get at any shop or vendor, so most of the time there's no reason to visit them." Despite offering a cheaper alternative to traditional business models, crowdsourcing is still in its nascent in India and there is not much reliable data available on it.

Besides depending on the user community to vet the authenticity of the designs that are posted on their website, there is no foolproof way of keeping away the knockoffs.

"The best thing is to be respectful, transparent, accessible and honest yourself," says Nickell in response to Business Today's email queries. He adds that Threadless is a tool for the crowd to express its creativity rather than the crowd being a tool for it to use. While Threadless does not see "that many contributions" from India," some believe things could change.

"Earlier you had to rely on foreign brands for cool designs but now we have some international-looking t-shirts being made in India. People's design sense will definitely improve," notes a brand consultant who was earlier heading an advertising agency and who occasionally designs T-shirts for Tantra. Till then, Patodia says, brands like his would be wary of soliciting ideas from the crowd.   

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