During my second visit to Nepal, I spent three months getting to know the people and the country very well.
Among the people were some of the shop owners along the Lakeside strip that is popular with the tourists in Pokhara. A, sort of, dedicated area that the people of Nepal have come accustomed to tourists staying in hotels and hostels around, and shops that are set up that appeal to those tourists. From the Tibetan women that I bought my jewelry from on the street and the ones that have their shops, to the seamstress that will measure me and make me custom clothing to my specifications (because my healthy American body doesn’t fit into the clothes made for uber skinny hipster girls) and the man that sold me 60 yak wool ear flap caps at 200 npr each for the children in Arnakot. I have even come to know a few of the restaurant owners like Sweet Memories where the entire family keeps a Diet Coke available for me for when I come and order the special Eggplant Pakoda.
During my time in the US between my first visit after volunteering in November 2015, and coming back for my three months in February of 2016 I had purchased all of my Christmas gifts for the family in Nepal. Covering my 4 Nephews, my two Children, my Mother and Father and my Siblings for a total of $60. Now, don’t go thinking I was a cheap a** and bought crappy items for them, to the contrary, I bought nice hand made yaks wool caps with the Nepal flag embroidered on the front for my Nephews for $2 each, that would sell in the US for $10 or more. My oldest child got a Yak Wool sweater and some other items, my younger Son a pair of hemp pants and hemp flip flops, and my Mother got a 100% Cashmere scarf that I paid $10 for and would sell in the US for over $40 or $50.
Why is everything so much less in Nepal than it is in the US?
It’s a simple matter of the economy, what it can support and the overhead the shops have. In the US a shop might pay upwards of $5,000 or more each month to stay open and a shop in Nepal’s Lakeside can run anywhere from $500 to $800 per month. There is also the importing of goods to take into account. Most items are made by hand by the people of Nepal, and the hemp being grown in Nepal helps keep the costs down. Hemp in the US is usually imported from people in Nepal and other countries as there are many regulations around growing it within the country. Labor to have items made are also more in the US as living expenses are much higher than the living expenses in Nepal.
So how did I become so familiar with the costs associated with the items? It didn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure. It all started with the few items I brought back to the US to give to my family for Christmas. A few friends also received gifts since the cost of the items were so reasonable. Friends started asking for more, and their friends were boasting about the Cashmere scarf, or Yak wool gloves, hat and sweater that I had gifted them. So I decided to try my hand at purchasing more items during my three month stay and bring them back with me on the plane to sell. It started with purchasing items at retail prices from the people I had come to know on Lakeside. Bihm was my best seller as he gave me good deals when I purchased more than 5 or 10 items. I knew that hemp would be a big seller, that the people that live on the Island just off of Seattle, WA where I spend my time in the US would love the hemp. I addition, I knew they would like some of the jewelry I had found made of yak bone. I found a man by the name of Isrula who sold me Yak bone necklaces at half the retail price he normally sold them. I also fought with the Tibetan refugee women to give me a good price on the yak bone bracelets. Isrula even had some beautiful turquoise necklaces and earrings to match.
Three weeks before I was to return to the US I took photos of the items I had purchased and posted them on a Facebook group for the people that live on the Island that I created a few years before. With over 5,000 members to the group and all on the Island, I simply wrote that I was on my way back from Nepal in a few weeks and had the items coming with me, then offered them up at below the standard US prices (still giving me a 2 or 3 times markup). The items were bought up within days, and I needed to buy more. I went into town and purchased 20 to 30 of each item rather than just 3 or 5. I actually found myself messaging in Facebook with one woman as I tried on yak wool jackets for her and sent her photos so that she could decide on which one she wanted.
Knowing that Etsy is a good place to sell hand made items, I set up a shop on the famous website and added a 2 week processing time (since I was now arriving in the US just 2 weeks away). Because I needed a name for my shop as a business, I quickly came up with “Tika Nepal”.
Tika is a red powder rubbed between the eyes as a blessing given by the people of Nepal when you leave on a journey, and for various other reasons. I also wanted to have the name include “Nepal” for people searching for items in Nepal, this way the shop would be recognizable right away by the name as having goods from Nepal and would show up in search results since the word “Nepal” would match any search that included “Nepal”. It took me all of 10 minutes to come up with the name and settle on it.
I posted similar items to the ones that had sold already. Focusing on hemp backpacks at a 2 times markup still undercutting the other ones I had seen on the site, that were exactly the same, by $20. I posted the yak bone necklaces, bracelets and some of the Pashminas that Nisha helped me find. All with markups of 3 times or more. With the help of Nisha and her Husband, I took photos of the products.
Nisha, being Nepali, looked beautiful in the earrings, pashminas, and her Husband was perfect for the backpacks. Not to mention that the setting of the Hidden Paradise hotel with the plants and flowers and the view of Lake Phewa was perfect. The items started to sell within the first few days and I had to find a larger bag to bring my things back in.
During my three months, I purchased returning round trip tickets from the US to Nepal to come back in September, giving me a summer with my kids and my family. I had brought a few paragliding wings for Laxman and his Brother and was told that I could keep the bag by Matt who helped me get the wings for them. I asked Laxman to give me the bag, which fit all of the items I needed to bring to the US and had room for more that I hadn’t sold yet.
I arrived in the US and quickly shipped off the items that had sold on Etsy, and had met the people on the Island that purchased off of the Facebook post I had made. I then posted on the Facebook group again, and began promoting the items with advertising on Etsy. I sold out of all 25 backpacks I brought with me and talked to Bihm about what it would cost me to get more. He told me he would sell them to me at 1500 each (they were 1200 when I was in Nepal) which included the cost of shipping. So, I asked him to send me 20 backpacks to the US. Nisha had my business ATM card so that she could take out money from my account while she was building her home, so she pulled the cash out and gave it to Bihm to pay him. Just before she took the money out, Bihm contacted me and said that the backpacks would be 1700. When I questioned the higher price he told me I misunderstood before, as they have always been 1700. Given that I still made just over two times what I was paying for the backpacks, I didn’t complain to him, and just paid the amount. Over time, I leanred that this is the way of some of the Nepali.
The backpacks arrived and I used my younger Son to take the photos this time in the backyard of the home I was renting for the summer. I gave him one of the backpacks to pay him for his time (since he liked them so much, and he earned it). The next set of backpacks all sold out but one by the time I was scheduled to go back to Nepal. The necklaces had sold all but a few, but the Cashmere scarfs hadn’t sold, and neither did the hemp sun hats (aside from 2 that a local woman on the Island bought from me in-person). By the end of the summer, Tika Nepal on Etsy and selling on Facebook had profited $300 each month that it was active.
When I returned to Nepal, Nisha had began work on the home. I worked a couple of one month contracting gigs with agencies and earned a few thousand that paid my bill at Hidden Paradise, the foundation for the home and walls, and I purchased many gifts for the family as well as items that the hotel needed. The home was well on it’s way to being built, the workers had dug into the hill and dug out large holes for pillars to be poured for the foundation (to help hold the home in case of a mud slide).
The work on the home continued through October until we had ran out of money. I asked friends and prior guests to help out, and while some sent over a few hundred, it still wasn’t enough to finish the home. Nisha and I also talked about what she would do as a job once she and her Husband moved out of the hotel and away from the family. She told me that she didn’t know what to do, and her Husband can’t get a job because he doesn’t do well in the interview. We spent a few days talking about what to do, and thinking about options.
During that time, I mentioned that it would be nice to have a shop, or a way to buy the products I had at a better price. If I could buy larger numbers for a retail shop and the wholesale business then I could get better prices and sell at a higher margin as well as sell wholesale to the US and have other people sell my items for me, or sell to retail shops in the US and still make a good profit. I also wanted to be able to use some of the profits to help buy school supplies for the children and help pay for the scholarships for the young girls. A westerner owning a shop in Nepal is very difficult as I spoke with Laxman and a few others on what it would take. There are politics involved, and with the tourist visa only allowing me 5 months out of the year to stay (with a 3 month maximum) it would be difficult for me to manage. Not to mention that I would be working every day and wouldn’t have a day off to enjoy my semi-retirement, or be able to spend time on client work and keep earning the money that pays for my traveling.
As Nisha and I mulled over possibilities of getting more money to finish the house, and what she and her Husband could do to earn an income to keep their household going after the home was finished, we just couldn’t find a plan that could work. Nisha and her Husband had the option of taking out a bank loan to pay for the home to be completed, but that would require a loan payment each month, which would be a lot for them to be able to cover. Laxman said that Hidden Paradise didn’t have the money to pay them a salary to do the work they were doing at the time. The arrangement they had was to stay for free and work as they supported the family and the hotel. Manish (her Husband) is a trained chef, but couldn’t find work outside of Hidden Paradise. Nisha could also cook, or work in hospitality, but getting a job meant that she knew someone that knew someone who could get her in. She just didn’t have those connections, and she also had a 3 year old little girl that she had to spend her time caring for.
Then Nisha said “Jenny, maybe you open shop and I work.”
I thought about it for a while, and we talked about how it could work. It would be nice to be able to cover the rent on a shop and a salary for her that would pay the loan it cost to finish the home. I told her we could price out what a space would cost per month and how much I would need to get it up and running. The next day Nisha said she has a space just off of the popular Lakeside strip. I told her I want to look at it and get the costs before making any sort of commitment, and I wasn’t quite ready to do that yet. I was busy the next day, and the following day walked into town to talk to Bihm and ask him questions about his shop to maybe wrap my head around what it would take to run a shop in Nepal. When I asked Bihm how much he paid for rent, and what all it took for him to get his shop up and running he was a bit reluctant to tell me anything, but was helpful in some ways. During our conversation he said “Maybe you need a partner.” and we talked about the possibility of him partnering with a new shop as he was looking to open a second location, but wasn’t able to work two locations. I told him that Nisha, him and I could be three partners on the shop. The next day Nisha and I walked into Bihm’s shop and the three of us talked about how it could work. Bihm and Nisha spent a lot of time talking in Nepali, which I didn’t know enough yet to understand what they were saying. Bihm told me he knew the location Nisha was talking about and it was a good space. We tried to look at it that day, but the owner wasn’t available so we left it for another day.
The next day Nisha said that the owner of the space had rented it out, so it was not available anymore. I was relieved and disappointed at the same time. I have always lived my life as it comes at me and deal with situations and opportunities as they arise. This, to be, was one of the moments that was just not meant to be, so I continued to work on my client work and the website for Hidden Paradise.
A few days later Nisha mentioned that the youngest brother, Milan, has a friend by the name of Kishan who owns a hotel in South Lakeside off the main strip a little bit. She insisted that we look at the space right away so that we don’t miss out on it this time, that afternoon was the anniversary of the Brother’s Mother’s death (the Nepali celebrate the death of a close family member every year with a gathering of friends and family) so Kishan showed up as part of that day. We talked about the location and how much he wanted for rent (which was pretty reasonable), then set a time the next day to go look at it.
Nisha and I walked down, with her friend Niha with us, to the shop along the lake and through the main drag of Lakeside. All in all it took us about 40 minutes to walk there as I said to Nisha “Are you sure you want to walk this every day?” She said “Yes Jenny, no problem.”
When we arrived at the space it looked like it could be the perfect size. It wasn’t too large, but it wasn’t so small that it would make people feel cramped. There was a lot of work that it needed in terms of paint, and the window at the far wall looked right into Kishan’s bedroom, so I asked if it could be covered, which he said he would do. Next door was a paragliding office, which would bring many tourists while they wait to leave for their paragliding adventure or when they would come back and wait for their video. The other side had a tour office and next to that a convenience and alcohol shop that tourists both would frequent. There were no other handicraft shops that were similar to what I wanted to start on the street at all. Most of what surrounded the location and the street were restaurants and many hotels. I watched as tourists walked past a few times on their way to Lakeside from their hotels. For the price of $100 per month and the location, it seemed like the perfect situation.
We went home that afternoon and Nisha and I talked about how the partnership would work, and what she would earn. I figured that Nisha and Bihm could split half of 60% together at 30% each and then I would hold 40%. I would put in the money that it costs to set up the shop with the deposit and whatever it takes to paint and get fixtures for the merchandise, Bihm would provide merchandise and Nisha would work in the shop for a reasonable salary for her loan payment (a number we didn’t know yet) and earn a portion of the buy-in as a partner. She liked the plan, and we talked about the rent on the location. Kishan wanted $5,000 down and $100 per month on a five year lease, but I wasn’t comfortable with committing that long, so I came back with $2,000 down and $100 per month with a two year lease, of which he accepted.
The next day we went to Bihm and talked to him about the conditions of the partnership. Gihm then said to me that he could not do it as he was building a new home and needed to focus his time there. Nisha told him she was working on her home as well, and that she would be spending the time at the shop, but it didn’t sway him. I was learning that Bihm didn’t stick to his word much. I was worried about how we would get items to fill the shop, and be able to get them at wholesale since Bihm had the connections that I didn’t (yet). I later asked Bihm if he would help me with getting items at wholesale and he said he would. He said he could sell many things to me at cost and I could sell, but with counting on him to provide merchandise, I didn’t have money to pay for things to fill the shop as well. He agreed to let me have items on consignment and pay him when they sold. It was a good deal in which he made some money, and I could fill the shop when it was ready.
Nisha and I went to the ATM together and pulled out as much cash as we could to pay the deposit. With my bank only allowing me to take out $300 with each ATM card we could only get $1200 ($300 from my two business accounts each, $300 with the ATM card I got for Nisha to use, and $300 from my personal). We handed the money to Kishan and repeated the process the next day with the final amount to make up the $2000.
Most of the Nepali do business with a verbal agreement and a handshake, bu there are times when they like to have a legal document. When it came to the lease I figured we would work off of the verbal agreement, especially since we had a few people witnessing it and it wasn’t for a long term, but Nisha insisted on a legal lease. She called up a lawyer friend of hers and asked him to draw one up. She and Kishan went to the office together and she brought back the lease with her. I asked her if we should get my name on it, and she said “No, it’s ok Jenny, we partners so no need.” Nisha is a very cunning girl and is always working some angle. I understood she was putting just her name on the lease thinking that she could claim the shop as her own if things went south between us, but she didn’t think it through very well. If things went south I simple could just stop paying rent at any moment and she would be stuck with having to pay rent and a lease she couldn’t break. I would never do that to her, and I would hope she wouldn’t just take the shop from me.
Now that the shop was paid for it was time to get painting and get it ready. I had 3 weeks before I was leaving for America again as we were in November, and I planned on flying home for our traditional American Thanksgiving and Christmas to be with my family. My flights to come back were booked for January so I would be gone for just a couple months. We talked about the timing of getting the shop up and running, should we start painting now and try to open before I leave and stay open during the down season (not many tourists), or wait to open when I came back at the end of January when the tourist season would pick back up. Nisha was pushing to open quickly as we bought paint and supplies.
In Nepal there is a very strong cast system that they all are born into. Nisha is of a higher cast, and therefore should be doing any physical labor. I, being a westerner and white, am considered the highest cast possible, and definitely shouldn’t be doing any physical labor.
But, that’s not how we do things in the US. We don’t hire out work when we can do it ourselves and save the money. So, we began painting and my friends and some of the Nepali chipped in to help. Many of the men from the surrounding hotels and businesses stopped by to watch and spoke to Nisha in Nepali. They would then say to me “Jenny, maybe you hire workers to paint.” I always replied with “No, we can paint ourselves no problem.” Some even argued with me about the low cost of having workers paint to which I replied with “But that’s 1000 rupees I could buy merchandise with and make 2000 rupees. I would rather my money make money that just spend it.” They would think about it and then agree. It started to become a game as each Nepali business man would walk by and watch us white people and Nepali girls paint then comment, and I would respond.
We finished painting the shop and it was time for the fixtures to go in. We had $800 from my initial investment to put into buying when we needed as well as merchandise (which I figured would be $300 with the addition of Bihm’s contribution on consignment). Nisha called our friend Raju who drove a taxi to take us to New Road to buy what we needed. We managed to find a bed to act as a bench that I wanted for people to come and hang out with me and Nisha, there was also a shop that had racks and many fixtures that other shops bought from. We managed to get everything we needed in one day and pack it all into the taxi.
Next up was our trip to Kathmandu for the items we needed to sell in the shop. Bihm had told me that we could go to any shop in Thamel and ask for wholesale prices. This is where Bihm got vague on helping me get what I needed. He told me to go to Thamel and how to ask, but he didn’t give me the places he goes to, or any names of manufactures so Nisha and I were on our own.
Nisha had me taking the Microbus, as she called the local Nepali bus that goes to Kathmandu every day, the last time we left Kathamndu to go to Pokhara and I was miserable. There is no air-conditioning, they pack you in like sardines for the 6 hour journey and they don’t stop but once for food and that’s it. The tourist bus was rough, but still a much better experience. So I told Nisha’s Husband to book us a nice tourist bus and handed him 4000 rupees. The bus we were on was the fanciest I have ever been on anywhere, let alone in Nepal. There was a girl dressed in traditional clothing waiting on us serving us breakfast, tea and bottles of water. The seats were leather and very big. Nisha sat at the window and scrunched up into a ball not knowing what to do with herself as she was used to having a Nepali on either side of her.
We arrived in Kathmandu and began shopping immediately. We walked into a shop that had necklaces and these really cool hemp and silk wrapped style to them. He immediately gave a good wholesale price to make a good profit even in Nepal. Some of his stone necklaces were a bit more expensive and wouldn’t allow me to sell and make any decent profit so I only bought a few and we were on our way. We walked into a few places, but when I asked the price they were too high, even when we would say “wholesale” and then “Nepali wholesale”. One man got so angry at my haggling for a low price that he kicked Nisha and I out of his shop yelling. We walked out trying to get away from him as a man had the door blocked and we had to push him out of the way to avoid the screaming man. We were laughing as we walked down the streets of Thamel looking for good deals on merchandise we could sell.
My biggest struggle was finding backpacks for less than half what I paid Bihm for. I know Bihm had to be marking his products up two times, which is standard retail markup, so there was no reason why we couldn’t find the backpacks at that price, but every show we went into kept quoting us the same price and wouldn’t come down to the price I wanted to pay. One mane yelled at us like the one who chased us and said “You not find a better price in Thamel”, but I was determined. We came across a woman who was working in a handicraft shop that primarily had hemp backpacks as well as fanny packs, wallets, sun hats, beanies, and Native American dreamcatchers that packed the shop. We talked about the backpacks with her and after Nisha and the woman argued, loudly (as Nepali tend to do, but are still friendly) the woman came within 50 rupees of what I wanted to pay. She brought me a stack of the backpacks I could buy at the price I wanted, and we had a deal.
Nisha and I managed to get everything we wanted for the shop at the prices I was willing to pay within the day, and we were back on the bus in the morning. We arrived at the shop that afternoon and Nisha began hanging the merchandise up when two men stopped in the shop and immediately bought a fanny back from us. My question of whether I should open before I left and let Nisha work while I’m gone or wait was answered. So, at that moment the shop was open, but it still was not full of product and needed more.
I followed our shopping trip with a trip to Bihm to pick up some of his things. He didn’t allow for very good prices, and some were even close to retail, but it helped me to fill the shop so that it didn’t look so empty. I also talked with the Muslim men from Cashmere that sell me the scarfs at very good prices. They lowered the Cashmere scarf prices even more for me to sell to the locals at a decent profit, getting my two times markup and still allowing me to compete with the other shops that sell cashmere.
I came across a man that had some Chinese lanterns that I liked, and when I asked him how much we ended up talking about my shop, then he told me he was going to have to go out of business. The hotel his shop was in wanted to take out his location and use it for an entrance. They offered to buy out his expensive Lakeside location loan and lease he had for ten years, so he didn’t need the merchandise any more. He and I worked out a deal for me to buy all of his jewelry and all of his fixtures that displayed the pieces for a very reasonable price. I went back to my shop and grabbed a large bag, and stopped at the ATM to get him the cash and Kishan drove me and all of the product on his motorcycle with bags hanging from whatever extension we could find on the bike and myself with the large bag as a backpack.
We now had a full shop of merchandise, and were up and running. A few days later was the day of Desshai that all the businesses create a rongoli in front and give a blessing with candles and incense, so my Nepali friend Lewis and I drew out a design we liked and my friend from the US who was now married to a Nepali helped me fill it in with colors, and later a few Nepali girls came in to finish it up. The shop looked beautiful with the candles and the offering.
The next day Nisha brought a group of women that were staying at Hidden Paradise to see the shop. They ended up buying all of the cashmere scarfs we had and asked us to find more for them to take back Sweden with them. In the end, they bought 50 cashmere scarfs and we made a hefty profit for the shop.
By the time I left Nepal the shop was up and running with Nisha working every day. We were selling on some days, but not on others. Our margins were good enough that when we did sell we could cover buying more merchandise to fill the shop up even more, and put some of the money away for the non-profit work I wanted to do.
I didn’t have enough to cover the business license and registration for the name, but Nisha, Laxman and the youngest Brother Milan all said that I would be fine. They said that many Nepali open up businesses without the proper paperwork, so I was trusting them. Nisha and I didn’t have a formal agreement, as I was going off of the Nepali word and handshake with her, and would finalize what her salary and portion of what she would earn for half of the business when we knew what the loan payments would be. I didn’t have enough money to pay for lights, but the shop was bright enough during the day that we were ok, and Nisha wasn’t able to work when the sun went down as she had to get home to her family and little girl. So even with some unfinished business, I still felt confident that the shop was in good hands and would be fine. The rent was low enough and manageable for me to just pay it, and Nisha’s salary wouldn’t be decided until she knew what the loan payment would be (I figured $150, which is what the highest paid banker gets and more than enough).
Owning a shop in Nepal is fun and very surreal all at the same time. My friends all think I am either crazy or it’s the coolest thing ever. I took some items back to the US again for my family to get for Christmas. My Mother got a yak wool wrap this time after she commented on how much she liked mine. My kids got some more cool stuff, and my nephews got the ear flap hats.