Honduras Threads team hunts for a market for its luxury textiles
More than 500 small, yellow sticky notes. That’s where the clues to the treasure were buried during the five-day, design thinking challenge in June.
One by one the sticky notes went up on the wall the team created, each one containing an observation or an insight. One by one, several times over four days, the ten research team members looked at the notes, moved them around, grouped them into categories to try to make sense of the clues.
Arriving on Roatán, Honduras, Sunday, June 23, the challenge was this: Honduras Threads leaders, members and volunteers in Dallas and Honduras constantly, unrelentingly struggle with what to make and where to sell their luxury textiles. It’s important to solve this challenge to alleviate individuals’ frustration, the organizations’ production decisions and, ultimately, to achieve sustainability. An ideal solution: Sell substantial amounts of already-made product in Roatán where the cruise ships disgorge a million passengers a year. Create and sell new products using raw material sources already available in Honduras. And create a process to achieve product sales that will work for the long-term.
Design thinking is well suited for situations where the problem is ambiguous and the right question is uncertain.Bill BancroftI chose and led design thinking with its process and tools as the approach to meeting the challenge because it’s well suited for situations where there’s lots of uncertainty and complexity. And, where there is little data. This case was loaded with uncertainty. And we had no data. Design thinking is also well suited for situations where the problem is ambiguous and the right question is uncertain. Again, spot on for Honduras Threads.
Design thinking, I knew, would spur deeper levels of research which, in turn, would help us understand how to reframe the challenge, come up with fresh ideas for solving the challenge and lead us to decide which ideas to prototype and test. The process and tools delivered in ways I imagined and in ways, even more important, I did not foresee.
Despite what seemed like slim odds for success, the research team took up the challenge. Four of the leaders from different production centers in the mountains outside Tegucigalpa now operating as one government-sanctioned Honduran company came to Roatán as core team members. Two more Hondurans who have worked with members of the Honduras Threads production centers for several years also joined the team. A Honduran businessman who is also a crack translator added his skills. Three people from Dallas, myself included, rounded out the team.
Once on the ground, the first task was to ask people – anyone we could think of – whether there was a market for Threads’ goods. We started by interviewing shop owners, interviews we had arranged before we arrived on the island.
First up on Monday morning was Fernando Macpui, owner of Proimi, a high-end furniture store. He works with clients to furnish expensive homes and decorate investment properties. After listening to our story for half an hour, and looking over our samples, he agreed to feature our products in his showroom and recommend them to clients. Not quite a sale. Still, the team, especially the Hondurans who had never participated in selling their wares before, left smiling. And we were getting answers to our questions.
After lunch, we made our second call on a souvenir shop and art gallery called Waves of Art. Michele Braun, the owner, is an American ex-pat who came to Roatán more than 20 years ago, fell in love with the place, stayed, married, and now has two teenage children. She’s run successful stores on the island for more than 20 years. She took the team upstairs to the gallery and led a round robin of introductions.
Then she told us her story. And her needs. She needed low-price point souvenirs for people who came to the island on cruise ships. She needed higher priced items for island homeowners who wanted to decorate their homes. She needed to see quality in all the items she stocked. Anything with an ocean theme would work. Sea shells, yes. Bright colors, yes. Turtles, yes. And made in Honduras. Everyone asks for Honduran made and she doesn’t have much to offer, she said, in veiled desperation. She asked to see the samples.
The four Honduran team members who made the samples – pillows, placemats, table runners and napkins pulled them from canvas bags. First one, then another explained how they made them, the work that went into them, all about the stitches and the designs. Braun’s demeanor went from interested to excited. She was awed by the quality and designs and by the women who demonstrated they knew what they were talking about. She immediately began buying, ending up picking out 15 items.
And oh, by the way, she asked if she could stage a show in her gallery to open the high season on the island in December. And, of course, a reception for the opening. And she would need many more items so reception attendees have something to see and buy.
Yes, and she had friends who were always looking for Honduran-made items. One who owned a restaurant and gallery on another part of the island and a third who manages a wholly-owned island with a large gift shop catering to cruise ship passengers who go to the island for a day while their ships are in port. Threads items would work there, too, she was certain. She called ahead to be sure we got an appointment.
We left the store struggling to believe what we had seen and heard. Back at our end-of-day meeting, we captured our learning on more notes. One observation: A combined team of Hondurans and Gringos were killer sales people when working together. Still, we didn’t know enough. Not yet. We’d only interviewed two shop owners.
Tuesday morning and another souvenir shop owner, Penny Leigh at Penelope’s Island Emporium. She, too, is an American ex-pat who has been in business for more than two decades. She listened as we introduced ourselves in Spanish and English. She was skeptical at first. Then when team members pulled product from the bags, she lit up. She was desperate for Honduran-made products. She had just finished spending five years figuring out how to get a certain kind of jewelry made locally. She needed items at relatively low price points.
Then she started suggesting ideas. Could we make Christmas ornaments using some of our designs? Could the ornaments be sea turtles, maybe, or an octopus? She can’t keep enough good Christmas ornaments in stock because they sell fast year round. What about note cards, she asked, maybe with a small piece of embroidery on some fabric glued to the card. Her customers buy lots of greeting cards. Idea after idea. Could this be possible? More observations to turn into sticky notes. She wrote us an email later that day emphasizing she wanted to purchase our items.
And so the research went on Wednesday, too. Each time another revelation, another learning. The team started the day touring all the shops at the Mahogany Bay cruise ship terminal where a big Carnival Cruise Ship was moored at the dock. A couple from Denton, just off this ship, said this was their 28th cruise and they always buy a magnet and a Christmas ornament as souvenirs of every cruise. After all, she said, she puts up six Christmas trees and she’s got to decorate them! But the stores offered Honduras Threads limited opportunity. One sign said, “Nothing more than $30 for sale.” More learnings, more sticky notes.
Mid day, Cindy Carter, Braun’s friend who helps run a private island named Maya Key, sent a launch to a dock near Mahogany Bay to pick us up. Braun arranged the meeting after seeing our samples. Carter, she said, could help us break into the cruisers market. Turned out Maya Key contracts with the cruise lines to host land excursions. Cruisers come for the day, snorkel, scuba dive, lie on the beach talk to the macaws and shop in the souvenir shop. How quickly, Carter wanted to know, could we deliver our products to her shop?
At day end Wednesday, we stopped last at New Souvenirs, a store selling traditional, Honduran-made souvenirs only. Lenca Indian pottery. Carved wooden chests. And T-shirts. There must have been 200 different T-shirts hanging along a hundred-foot wall. One of the sales people met with us. Cheap. Cheap. Cheap. The items they would stock had to be cheap. Quality wasn’t high on her list. So noted on sticky notes.
Thursday morning it was time to make sense of the sticky notes. We used them to create personas based on our research and interviews – a cruiser, an island investor, a tourist who comes to the island for a few days and another who stays more than two weeks. We took the personas on an imaginary 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. shopping trip, recording the highs and lows of the experience. No Honduran-made products in one store. Been there, seen that in another. Completely bummed out until the fourth store when there it was – the ideal Christmas ornament made by Honduras Threads.
What were the sticky notes telling us, we asked? What did people who came to Roatán really want? Where was the treasure hiding? Bam, came the insight! They wanted…
But will Roatán stores demand enough that we can sell down our inventory? Will we be able to create new products using raw materials already available in Honduras? Will we be able to create a process to achieve sales for the long term? Will there be enough demand to take Honduras Threads to sustainability? Was there that much treasure buried in the sticky notes? We don’t yet know.
When we arrived on Roatán we were apprehensive, unsure whether the team would accomplish much more than learning something about the market. But now after 16 years of sweat and tears, the answers to these questions, including sustainability, may be much closer. For sure, for the women who made the items to experience success in selling them was empowering.
Credit design thinking process – a process I now use for businesses, cities and executive coaching – with helping to ferret out answers and for suggesting many more questions to think through.Bill BancroftThe design for the week was heavily weighted toward empathy at the front-end of the process. What I didn’t realize going in was how the samples we showed would fit the definition of prototyping and testing at the back-end of the process. The samples proved how powerful prototyping and testing can be.
As if to punctuate the Eureka moment, the last day on the way to the airport, Honduran team members who made the products, stopped by Waves of Art to deliver the items Braun purchased. A couple from Danville, Va., both of them divers, asked to see what was left of the samples. They grabbed four items. “We have been coming to Roatán for years and we always stop in this store, always looking for something new and different,” Flo Jackson said. “These items are it.”
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