The first reaction of most people when they see a wooden pen made by Ray, one of the 30 artisans bTizzy.com represents, is one of disbelief. “He couldn’t possibly do it if he didn’t have some sight,” is the response, explains the platform’s founder Nikki, over a coffee on a sunny morning in Cannes.
She’s here as a delegate at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2016, to explore brand partnerships for the work of the artisans and artists with disability she represents, marketing partners who can help take the platform to the next level, and collaborate to take it beyond the US. After all, she points out, people with disability are the largest minority in the world. The unpretentious lady is keen to get all the guidance she can get to address this populace.
bTizzy declares itself as a platform that features products and services by talented artists and craftsmen ‘who happen to have a disability’. Nikki, its CEO, wants to focus on the ‘person’ and not their disability. She is also author of A Life With Riley. She consciously does not want it to be the calling card for bTizzy, but the passionate pursuit of her purpose through the platform stems from her daughter with disability, Riley, who passed away four years ago.
The early days
bTizzy was launched as a website where people with disabilities could put up their work for sale. The team thought it would fly and ‘go viral’. It didn’t. The sellers on the platform could not even respond on time to online queries. “It is the Amazon age,” notes Nikki. Four years on, she is convinced the ‘mock-up’ is ready to grow.
There was a ‘trust challenge’ as well. With the government supporting those with disabilities with grants, media cited cases of those who were labeling themselves as disabled to avail the benefits. bTizzy has made an effort to validate the disability before bringing people into the platform, explains the founder-CEO, and makes it a point to ensure that they are paid fairly for their work.
“But we’ve never found anyone who is ‘gaming’ it,” she adds.
There was a time in the early days when the team size was in double digits. As Nikki admits, there were huge expectations. It’s now down to three, but she believes the model is ready to scale up. ‘Subscription Boxes’ are getting picked up as corporate gifts, artists’ work is getting onto merchandise, and the disabled with talent are connecting with brands that can use their talent for the value of the work, and to showcase their support to the cause.
A seller of bow ties, for instance, is now sourcing work by a person with hearing impairment, as a socially responsible brand, and smitten by the craftswoman’s situation. A connection made possibly by bTizzy.
A higher calling
It takes a lot of effort to identify and connect with people with disability who want to showcase their talent, reveals the platform’s founder.
When Nikki wrote back to a woman who had a quadriplegic mother-in-law, with mobility in just one finger, the lady was delighted. “It’s sad that no one responds to them,” notes Nikki. But true. And the lady’s mother-in-law’s one working finger had to be kept active, for it to keep working.
In this instance, bTizzy discovered that the product made by the disabled person was simply not saleable. Efforts are now on to bill the product conceived for a functional purpose, as cat toys.
“Manufacturing and selling for her wasn’t the idea to start with. Someone telling her ‘you matter’ is a really nice thing to be able to give,” says Nikki.
A woman with total visual impairment in the US imports olive oil from Spain and sells them on the platform. Yes, even if they do not create the product, they can sell. The end-product comes with Braille labeling.
In the case of an artist prone to severe epilepsy, whose work bTizzy licenses, the first payment he received for his work was $100. The first words he spoke were, “Now I can go to the doctor.”
Each of the talent the platform empowers has a compelling story of hope to tell. One of them is Clement's. The carpenter was involved in a motorcycle accident and became a paraplegic. As he was recovering, his son got into medical school. The young man was killed by the roadside a month later by a drunk driver. Clement makes wooden fountain pens today, with patrons of bTizzy inking his future with hope.
"A lot of this is economics, but it’s also simply purpose,” surmises Nikki.