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As youngsters Charles Hachtmann and his friends, Roberto and Andy Milk, traveled together and marveled at artwork and crafts produced by artisans in remote corners of the world. As adults, they wanted to start a business that would help these artisans reach a wider market.
The Internet made that possible. Almost a decade ago, they founded Novica.com, a retail site that links far-off artisans with lovers of art and crafts in developed nations.
To make the connection come to life, the site introduces the artisans through photographs, videos, biographies and the artisans' own words. Customers can offer reviews and send messages to the craftspeople.
"We've built an infrastructure that enables artisans in developing countries to display their works online," says Hachtmann, Novica's chief technology officer. "We're reaching out to areas that didn't have access, and we've created a platform for them."
The site offers product information not often found in crafts stores or art galleries. Visitors can view images of artisans in their workshops and learn about their goals, philosophies and lifestyles.
"Showing the history of a product is fantastic", says analyst Scott Kincaid, vice president of usability practice for Usability Sciences, Inc., which advises web site operators on customer experience. "Its a very good way of standing out from the crowd and making people aware of not just the product, but the story behind it."
Novica.com features a map highlighting the regions where items are produced, and site visitors can search by region or craft category. Products include jewelry, home decor items, paintings, musical instruments, furniture, sculpture, tapestry and wall hangings.
The company has offices in seven countries. In many cases the artisans do not have access to the Internet where they live and come into the local offices to see how their products look online and to learn more about what consumers want. Each item is shipped from its country of origin, eliminating warehouse costs. Rotating images of artisans top the home page. "We want to provide people with a feel of travel and connectivity with artisans," says Hachtmann.