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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on November 29, 2021 - December 5, 2021

Jade Lee was a banker for 40 years, and when she retired at the age of 64 in December 2019, she wanted to do something to give back to the community. As an arts and crafts enthusiast, Lee has art pieces displayed around her living spaces, by artists with a strong passion for art and interesting backstories.

When the pandemic hit, artists all around the world experienced a financial fallout, as with most others. Lee says that in 2019, there were 1.2 million people in the informal working sector — made up of creatives and artists — and she believes that this number would have increased significantly during the pandemic. Lee and a few friends got together and decided to find a way to help them survive.

After much thought and discussion, they developed an e-commerce platform to cater for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), including artisans and micro businesses, to kick-start their digital journey. After taking four months to set up the website and another four months to set up the digital mall, Lee officially launched The Artisans Haven.

To keep it young, fresh and relevant, Lee hired four millennials to run the site, as well as learning from a group of banking retirees how to manage different parts of the business. The Artisans Haven has been up and running for a year now and has grown from only 30 to 500 tenants today.

“We built a simple e-commerce site and my friends and I agreed to work pro bono to support it. And because it’s targeted at small, artisanal businesses that don’t have big budgets, we worked on keeping the costs down,” says Lee, who is the co-founder and CEO of The Artisans Haven.

She says she received overwhelming support from her friends in the banking sector, all of whom either contributed to the site’s development pro bono or helped her promote it as a “shop for good” e-commerce site.

Developing an ecosystem for businesses online

As most were stuck at home during the lockdowns, people had food, gifts and trinkets delivered to friends and family to brighten their day and let them know someone was thinking about them. Lee says this is something she saw on The Artisans Haven too, where at least 50% of orders were for gifts. Corporates were also regulars on the site, purchasing handmade gifts for events and clients.

“Gift boxes were particularly popular. People came on the site and bought things and added on a gift box, so it would look pretty and presentable,” she says.

The Artisans Haven wanted to make it easy and fuss-free for any business to sign up and start selling on the site. For merchants, Lee says there is an annual charge of RM300, which is directed at social media marketing and advertising. Other than that, merchants would need to bear the transactional costs of online payments, if any.

“We have a presence on Instagram. I also have a personal Instagram account where I feature some products. And we have about 17,000 followers on Facebook, which is pretty decent. We do a lot of social media marketing because that’s how people get to know the products.”

The next phase of the project was to offer services that the merchants might need to carry out their business both online and offline. Lee says  The Artisans Haven started a smart solutions programme and one of the first things it focused on was cybersecurity. She says even though the merchants are mostly small businesses and may not seem like targets for cyberattacks, they are still vulnerable to ransomware.

“Even with a small company, there are people trying to steal information and scam them, just to see who will fall into the trap. So, I believe cybersecurity is important, whether you’re a big or small company,” she says, adding that unlike banks who can pay millions and have a team focused on one aspect of a business, SMEs have limited funds and resources.

“I knew of companies that provided such services for big corporations. I approached them and they said they could scale it down to make it accessible to SMEs. Vigilant Asia (M) Bhd, for example, did that for us, to offer affordable cybersecurity solutions to the SMEs on the site.”

The Artisans Haven uses the services of Affin Bank Bhd for its payroll and when the bank got a whiff of this initiative, it invited Lee to come on board as a “rakan niaga”, which is part of the bank’s own initiative to support local SMEs. Affin Bank also has 80,000 SMEs as part of its SME Colony community and app.

In September, The Artisans Haven strengthened its partnership with Affin Bank and launched Smart Solution Services, which is an expansion of the solutions offered to the existing handmade product range at The Artisans Haven. There are 15 technological solutions and competitive business tools under this solution in the categories of technology, innovation and self-help, specially curated to support SMEs and help their employees navigate the fast-paced digital world.

Lee says these 15 partners had worked with corporates and were willing to customise their services for SMEs as well. With this partnership with Affin Bank, the same services will be offered to companies under Affin Bank’s SME Colony.

The current 15 pioneer partners are just the beginning. Lee says they started with cybersecurity and offering business continuity plan management to companies. They also focused on providing hardware such as laptops and computers.

The second part of the solution was to help entrepreneurs grow their funds. Lee says it partnered with a proprietary stock market trading software known as Smart Robie by Trade VSA for this. Education is an important aspect too and so it partnered with Scholarships2U to allow companies to offer scholarships to employees and their families.

The third part of the solution looks into the well-being of the employee, and for this, the company partnered with trainers and motivational coaches such as Harizon Ramli and Xandria Ooi.

“Quite a few companies are interested in being part of the smart solutions and have approached us to participate in our programme, but our criteria is that their solution must be good for SMEs and they must be willing to work with SMEs,” says Lee.

This means that their services are not just downsized to make them affordable but also modulated to suit SME businesses.

The next part of the services offered under the smart solutions will be office furniture and fixtures, with companies such as Seng Hup Lighting. Other fixtures such as flooring and printing station solutions are among the products that will be eventually offered to SMEs.

Lee says she hopes the website will garner about 1,000 merchants by the end of next year, with RM1 million in sales. She is also targeting for the website to garner 250,000 hits in that time.

“Currently, we have under 50,000 views a month, so we want 100,000 views by year-end. I think these are decent targets for us and our merchants as well, so they can reap the benefits of being on the site.”

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