Where Culture and Commerce Meet

Cross-legged with eyes half shut, Somboon Gavichi’s upper body sways to the hypnotic, almost nasal whine that emanates from a light, two-stringed instrument he bows. For centuries, the Sa-lor as it is called, has been an integral part of Northern Thailand’s musical heritage. Today, few know how to play it well, let alone make one.

Mr. Gavichi does both.

When the Thailand office of Novica, a global online retailer of exotic traditional artwork, learned of Mr. Gavichi’s talents, they visited the outskirts of Chiang Mai and found the 27 year-old crafting amazing woodwind, percussion, and stringed instruments in a dilapidated shed behind his parents’ house.

Novica offered him the world – free of charge – by showcasing his work on Novica.com to a planet of customers. He had never heard of the Internet before.

Novica seeks to foster the work of traditional artisans in the developing world by facilitating the exchange of culture and commerce at a personal level.

With a slick online interface and equitable pricing, Novica helps artisans to get better than local rates for their work and buyers to get retail pricing below that of brick and mortar stores. In bypassing middlemen with the Internet, all this is made possible.

The concept for Novica was born in a basement in 1998, the altruistic brainchild of the daughter and son-in-law of Armenia Nercessian de Oliveira, who served 16 years as a human rights worker with the United Nations. Today, the family-run business soars above the Dot-bomb fallout and boasts impressive success indices.

Following an ad blitz in the fall of 2001, Novica hit the MediaMetrix 500 as one of the United State’s 500 most visited sites on the Internet. Seasonal peaks aside, Novica.com consistently receives over 10 million impressions per month.

High traffic volume and ‘stickiness’, which reportedly averages 20 minutes per visit, are the results of a well-engineered site with rich content. Beyond being an online catalogue, the site features intricate product descriptions, colourful artist bios, and travelogue updates from the enigmatic Wander Woman – aka journalist Catherine Ryan – who brings a travel dimension to the bazaar experience with chronicles of her monthly visits to the regions.

Behind the scene, Roberto Milk, Novica Co-founder and CEO, points to three attributes of their business success: strategic alliances, team building and niche access.

National Geographic is their predominant alliance. Shortly after that marriage was announced last December, the two companies exchanged banner links. The 112-year old geographic giant sees Novica as a natural extension to their existing retail efforts.

Rick Allen, President and chief executive of National Geographic Ventures, says, “both companies share a commitment to support the world’s diverse cultures, preserve traditional art forms, and extend the developed world’s knowledge and appreciation of them,”

Web alliances could be considered an external part of Novica’s team attribute; so could its global network of 1,700 artisans.  However, the true team strength and spirit lie within corporate boundaries.  A staff of 180 handpicked people operates out of 12 regional offices established in areas of cultural interest.  The team is wired together b a stream of e-mail correspondence with tight reporting protocol.

The third of Novica’s successful distinctions – niche access – extends both up and down the supply chain between pre-qualified consumers and chosen artisans.

“Unless you have a niche on the Net, you can’t survive,” says Mr. Milk. “In fact, our business can only exist with the Internet. By it we provide customers access to 8,500 unique products from around the world and add 50 new items daily.”

The inventory differs from static catalogue companies that source and warehouse whole product lines. Being online, Novica offers dynamic product lines with many one-of-a-kind items displayed to give people unique pickings from a world of variety. Mr. Milk uses lingo to sum this up as “basically a ‘just-in-time’ supply model with a ‘hub delivery strategy’ for ‘point-to-point’ international service.”

“This empowers local artists because we don’t have to buy 10,000 items from a local wholesaler. We are geared to work with talented, individual artists and offer their products directly to the world as they become available.”

In Thailand, Somboon Gavichi has firsthand knowledge of these distinctions. His sales have tripled since he began listing on Novica.com late last year.

Perhaps most importantly, with his needs being met, he is now free to explore traditional skills as an instrument maker and musician. After all, business may be humming, but it’s the musician’s tune that folks really come to listen to.

[first appeared in National Post: Travel; June, 2003]

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