5 Lessons I Learned Building An Ecommerce Startup That Does Good

Ricefield Collective is a social enterprise that provides a way for the indigenous people of Philippine to stay on their ancestral land and to have meaningful and fulfilling work. We teach indigenous women in Ifugao how to knit and then sell their handmade crafts online though our website that we launched Aug. 2013. The seeds for Ricefield Collective were sown several years ago when the idea first struck me, I wanted to make a real difference in my birthplace and in the lives of the people living there by using skills I already had.

As someone who is chiefly from an arts and humanities background, starting a business came with many unknowns. Ricefield began by utilizing my own skills and was able to grow by collaborating with people from different backgrounds.  We’ve had our fair share of challenges along the way, but we have navigated these challenges with resiliency and determination. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

Start With A Compelling Product

We believe in what we make, and we love that it’s not just about economics. It’s also about preserving a way of life and providing people with work that integrates with their daily activities and needs.  Because knitting does not require a factory, knitters are free to work wherever suits them best and do not have to change their way of life.

Our products are compelling because while they make a world of difference in the lives of their makers, their high quality craftsmanship allows them to compete in an international market.  The products are beneficial and valuable to both the maker and the customer

Present Products Using Professional Materials and Visuals

Because of my creative background, one of our strengths has been communicating our products visually through images and design. By using my photography and graphic design skills, I was able to present our organization in a professional and visually engaging way during our genesis. This kind of engagement is an indispensable part of a successful startup because growing a community around your organization is vital.

Presenting your vision to an audience can require an entirely different skillset than conceiving a product, and we have taken extra steps to ensure our message is presented accurately and professionally. We also enlisted the help of, a local design firm that specializes in social enterprises, to design a website for Ricefield Collective that presented our products and told our story in the best way possible.   A professional design that parallels your organization and showcases the product is an integral part of connecting with an audience.

Find Your Market

This part is still in progress for us. One of the unintended consequences of placing such a big emphasis on our knitters is that it also placed more value on the social enterprise aspect of what we do. We’re proud of the social good our products promote, but we also want to assert that our products are wonderful and competitive in any market, regardless of where they were made.  To find your market it is important to be aware of all the different audiences that might find your project appealing.  Our market thus far has primarily been those who are interested in knitting or eco fashion. We are currently working to expand our market to a crowd that would want to wear one of our products not just because of who made it, but because it is comfortable, stylish, and high quality.

Learn From Others

This is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of working on a social enterprise, and we’ve learned from a great many entrepreneurs, especially those who are generous enough to share their ideas. Nathan Rothstein from Project Repat has been an important influence, both in the way he discusses his work with such frankness and also how genuine his passion is. I’ve also recently been in contact with Leila Janah from Samasource and the newly formed Sama Group, who in an hour-long phone call infused our enterprise with so many wonderful and worthwhile ideas. Mike DelPonte from Soma Water has also had an enormous influence on our marketing, as he and his company communicates both genuine enthusiasm and an ability to convince people to buy their product, a combination that I always hope to aspire to.

Constantly Think, Rethink, and Tinker

While directing Ricefield Collective for the past several years, I have learned that the most important thing you can do as a social enterprise startup is to constantly reexamine your methods and figure out what works and what doesn’t.  At Ricefield, we regularly scrutinize our methods in areas such as efficiency of logistics or marketing strategies, and we are always on the look out for ways to improve our organization. This is essential in helping us stay focused on our ultimate goal of making a difference, one knitted hat at a time.

Filed under: Grow


Meredith Ramirez

While at Cornell doing my PhD research on indigenous Philippine poetry I founded Ricefield Collective as a way to combine my cultural, business and craft interests while helping to keep indigenous people in the Philippines from leaving their ancestral land.