Generation Start-up: Dubai's One Good Thing urges giving for a cause
Wife-and-husband team set up social enterprise selling products that have a positive impact on people and communities globally
What if the next time you buy a gift for a loved one or yourself, your purchase could help a human trafficking survivor to learn a new skill, afford a new home or find a steady job?
Dubai start-up One Good Thing provides such an opportunity to do good with every purchase while steering away from impersonal “stuff”, according to Bridgett Lau and Michael Cooke, the married couple who co-founded the business.
It sells upmarket gift items online, each with a story of the positive impact it has on people or communities around the world.
Ms Lau was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, a month after giving birth to her son, and the ordeal gave them pause for thought. After about two decades of working in the corporate world, they decided to chart a different course.
“I thought about what is going to be on my epitaph when I die and I don’t want it to be ‘Ran a project management company’. I wanted it to be something meaningful,” says Ms Lau, who is now in remission.
In December 2017, the pair started One Good Thing.
They are a social enterprise, or business with a mission to do good. There are more than 1,000 social entrepreneur accelerator programmes globally, according to Conveners, a US organisation that lists events and training programmes for the sector that aims to tackle issues ranging from homelessness to climate change. There are about 180 companies in the US, which has one of the largest social enterprise sectors, according to the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurs, a US training scheme.
Items on One Good Thing can be ordered on the website and bought at pop-up stalls in markets around the city. The company sources products from around the world with the caveat that they have a direct and clear positive social impact, Ms Lau says.
The top-seller on the website is Branded Collective from Tennessee, which employs survivors of human trafficking in the US and teaches them to make jewellery. This gives them the economic independence to find accommodation, support their children and find new jobs without returning to illegal revenues streams such as prostitution, Ms Lau says.
Each piece is branded with the initials of the woman who made it, along with a short bio about her story.
One Good Thing works with 18 partners worldwide, with brands from the Netherlands, South Africa, the US and the UAE. Prices range from Dh100 to Dh1,700, with an average spend about Dh370 per customer.
“Geographically, they can come from anywhere: but the story of the impact must be clear and direct, the consumer must feel they have power in their pocket,” Ms Lau says. “You need to know how your $100 made an impact: ‘so with this bracelet I cleared 9 square metres of land-mines’.”
One UAE brand converts bits of billboards from Sheikh Zayed Road into tote and sports bags while another local entity collects old bike parts and crafts them into custom-made leisure cycles.
Ms Lau and Mr Cooke have a stringent process for sourcing partner brands, she says.
“We wanted to find well designed, innovative items, with direct stories of bringing a change to the world or someone, and it has to be something you’d want,” she says.
One Good Thing was initially self-funded by the two co-founders with Dh500,000.
They are now seeking angel and seed investors to fund its growth in the UAE and beyond, says Ms Lau.
The start-up looks to raise $250,000 to $450,000 from angel investors to boost their marketing spend and increase visibility against bigger luxury retailers and buy stock in wholesale to reduce prices.
The start-up aims to break even by the end of 2020 and turn a profit by 2021, says Ms Lau.
It is eyeing regional growth, with plans to expand its footprint into Saudi Arabia by the end of 2020, as well as into expatriate-oriented cities such as Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Barcelona and Amsterdam within the next five years.
“We feel these places have opportunities for us with global citizens, who are tertiary educated, have disposable income, make conscience-minded decisions, and want to do good in the world,” Ms Lau says.
However, social entrepreneurs around the globe find it difficult to convince customers and investors of their potential. A Reuters poll in 2016 found almost 60 per cent of social enterprise experts in the 45 biggest economies said there was a lack of public awareness about their work, which made it harder to raise funding and sell products and services.
“People don’t appreciate what social enterprise is, they refer to us as an initiative,” Ms Lau says. “But in order to make sustainable change the business should be profitable.”
She is adamant the start-up is not a charity or initiative.
“With every purchase, customers can make a direct impact on someone in the world,” she says. “Customers need to feel they have direct power in their pocket by knowing the impact they’re making with their purchase.”
Ethical gifting is on the rise as people take an increasing interest in the “where, how and why” behind the brands they are purchasing.
One Good Thing receives a range of customers, from busy mums to millennials looking to shop for meaningful gifts, and estimates the average person buys about 11 gifts per year with women buying more than men, according to Ms Lau.
Business picks up at holiday seasons such as Christmas, but birthdays, leaving presents, self-gifting and thank-you gifts are popular too.
Vying for the attention of these customers, especially in Dubai where luxury retail abounds, is difficult in a climate of competitive retail and tighter consumer spending.
“Business-to-consumer is hard now, people are not willing to splash cash as they used to,” Ms Lau says.
“But we’re niche, people are spending conservatively and want something of value and meaning and that’s exactly what One Good Thing is,” she adds.
The online start-up is facing competition from Amazon, which purchased Souq.com, and Noon.com in the UAE, with its faster delivery times and broader product range.
“We’re not Noon, we’re middle-bracket pricing in the UAE. [But] everything is worth the money you spend because there’s a meaningful story behind it and customers don’t mind waiting for delivery,” she says.
Ms Lau adds the company is different because it makes use of e-commerce channels, an increasingly popular way of shopping in the UAE, to reach out to customers who want ethical products.
“People are fed-up of splashing cash and buying stuff,” she says. “We’re hijacking that online model because that’s how people consume, but we’re using that to our advantage and dovetailing what people are craving: one-to-one transparent storytelling and personal interaction.”
The business is set up to help make it easier for people to contribute to communities amid busy schedules and too many choices, Ms Lau says.
“People feel so overwhelmed about doing good,” she says. “One Good Thing is about helping people do that, if everyone did one good thing, the world will be better.
“The idea is to make doing good accessible for everyone through mindful and ethical consumption,” she says.
“The world will continue consuming so why not buy stuff that leads to something good?” Ms Lau adds.
“People are going to shop, you can’t change that, but you can change what you choose to buy.”
What inspired you?
My own meaningful gift from my husband, a necklace made of bomb metal.
Who first invested in the company?
How does the business operate?
With every purchase customers can make a direct impact on someone in the world.
What already successful start-up do you wish you had started?
Warby Parker (US e-retailer of prescription glasses and sunglasses).
What is your next big dream to achieve?
To hear people use our company name as a verb, ie "Google it".
What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your start-up?
Communications in a business-to-consumer market.
Updated: July 8, 2019 01:57 AM