Longtime friends and fan of - it was amazing to catch up with Caitlin Garcia-Ahern, founder of Thread Caravan - which hosts cultural art workshops around the world. Providing travelers with an authentic artisan experience to learn a cultural craft, and allowing steady income to artisan communities in locations from Central and South America, to India, Morocco and more. After our first interview three years ago, it was time to see how business had matured and what important lessons and and missions Caitlin had to share.
Three years ago we spoke about founding Thread Caravan, which is now four years old! Talk to me about the evolution of your company:
We are still hosting workshops in Oaxaca, Guatemala and Panama -- we’ve just deepened our relationships and expanded our networks in all three places.
In addition we’ve expanded to host workshops in Morocco and India and are exploring more artisan partnerships. We’ve also launched an Inclusivity Program, and a carbon emissions offset program, and some social initiatives (donating a portion of profits to various projects related to the trips and artisan communities).
Have the travelers who book changed?
The demographic of our travelers is very similar to the early days -- ranging in age from 20s - 60s, with desire to travel in a more connected and intentional way, and/or a specific interest in craft.
The main thing that’s changed is how they hear about Thread Caravan. In the beginning, I knew almost all guests personally. Then, guests started reserving based on Instagram or press. Now, while both still remain true, many of our workshop guests also hear about our trips through referrals, plus many repeat workshoppers.
What is feedback from your artisans, do they feel supported?
We have regular meetings with artisan partners before and after every workshop to check in and see if they’d like to update the structure of how we work in any way, have feedback, or anything they’d like to discuss or modify. These meetings lead to minor tweaks throughout time, as well as trust on both sides.
With consistent financial support, the families we work with have been able to renovate their homes, pay for schooling for their children, medical care for their families and more.
In addition, we see that children are interested in helping their parents host our groups, thus making them excited about the craft their parent is doing -- something that is often rare to come by in modern day rural artisan communities these days.
What is your relationship with the artisans?
We are partners and friends. I'm closest with the communities here in Oaxaca, because it's where I'm based and we can get together easily outside of the workshop schedule. I just spent Day of the Dead with Susi and Pancho, some of our weaving partners here, and their friends and extended family. Next week I'm taking two of the Caravana Canina rescue pups to their family.
How have you managed your time, budget and marketing - things I know that were a bit challenging in its nascency?
I started Thread Caravan with barely any savings and no investment, working part time jobs until TC became sustainable enough to take on as my only endeavor. This means in the first two years, I was working full time for Thread Caravan and also part time to earn a living -- it required extreme dedication and commitment. In the past two years, the project has grown and although I’ve been able to work only on Thread Caravan, now there is so much work, that there are new obstacles to overcome and things to figure out -- how to manage team members, balance different projects, etc.
I never had any doubts that there was a network of people interested in joining our trips and workshops. Now that we’re connected to those people (our workshop guests who are extremely sweet and supportive) it makes the other obstacles feel less challenging knowing they have our back and want the project to succeed too.
Knowing what you know now, what is some advice you would give to your pre-launching-a-business self?
Honestly, there are plenty of things I could have done differently (and better?) like hire an accountant and trademark everything from the beginning, only partner with people whom I know and trust or who friends can vouch for. However, although there were learning curves, none were totally debilitating and ultimately they helped Thread Caravan become what it is today.
Is this the same advice you’d give to someone else, today, who is thinking of starting their own venture?
No; the main advice I give to anyone starting their own venture is to make sure they are both passionate and thoughtful about it. They will need to be passionate in the moments when they are working 16 hour days and not making money, and they will need to be thoughtful so that they don’t make every decision based purely on the emotion and enthusiasm behind the project.
Not everyone has the personality type to be a business owner or spearhead a large project, or to be an innovator, and that’s okay. Know your strengths and follow them. If that means starting your own venture, great, and if it means working for someone else to support their project that you believe in, then that’s just as important.
Entrepreneurship is hard: it’s demands far more time and energy than a regular 9-5, it can be incredibly lonely and lead to imbalances in your life. But, if your personality is suited for it, you are passionate and practical about the project, it can be incredibly rewarding.
Also, don’t create a business that already exists. What’s the point? With social media, I think many people see the success of young entrepreneurs and think “I could do that” and so they do, or they try, but why? Why put time and energy into doing something just because you might be able to? If you admire something someone is doing, support it: buy their product, attend their workshops -- don’t just take their idea. Instead, find something that doesn’t exist and needs to. Or, figure out what your strengths are and use them.
You recently made the move from Mexico City to Oaxaca. What’s the scene in Oaxaca? What has been most noticeable in your move?
It’s so much slower here. The city itself is already significantly smaller than CDMX, but I also live outside of the city. Instead of busy city sounds, I hear birds, street dogs and occasionally the gas and tortilla delivery guys.
There is also a really beautiful connectedness here. It’s really just a small town, so it feels like everyone knows each other and many people are working to collaborate with each other in some way.
What’s a typical day for you in Oaxaca?
What’s a typical day for you in Oaxaca? None of my days are typical - there is no routine. During workshops, I’m basically “on” and available for the groups 24/7. When I’m not hosting the workshops, I work from the computer, spend time with friends and my dogs, garden, read, go to the market, seek out new trails and beautiful places in nature. One of these days I’ll have more time to weave!
Most of your recurring trips revolve around fabrics and textiles (dyes, weaving, eco-printing, embroidery, block printing, fibers, hammocks, macramé). Is this interest from your personal creation or a result of the interest of others?
A little of both. Textiles are my personal passion, so I’m more drawn to building itineraries around fiber-related processes, and it’s easier for me to communicate and share about them with potential workshop guests.
That said, I also have a deep appreciation for pottery, food, music and other cultural craft practices and I enjoy building these itineraries as well. We’ve gotten great feedback from our ceramics workshops, so that’s likely a craft practice we will put more emphasis on in the future.
What has been the feedback and reactions of students and creators who have joined on one (or many) Thread Caravan trips?
Very positive both on a personal and professional level.
The trips have been particularly powerful for people who are reconnecting to their heritage and roots. For example, we’ve had three guests who fled or whose parents fled during the Guatemalan genocide. Their trips with Thread Caravan were their first time visiting or returning to Guatemala since fleeing. The trips provided an opportunity for them to learn about and connect with their heritage in a positive way.
You can find testimonials on our website here and reviews on Facebook here.
How has Instagram affected your business?
Instagram played a crucial role in helping build a Thread Caravan community. Typically, if people read about TC or hear about it from a friend, it might pique their interest, but they won’t reserve a trip immediately. Instagram is a tool for contact and communication. If they’re interested in what we’re doing but don’t book right away, they can follow the account to be updated and reserve a trip when the time is right.
It’s also been a wonderful tool for connecting with other creatives. For example: it’s how I initially learned that Emily Katz of Modern Macrame does world tours of her macrame classes. I reached out to her to see if she’d want to teach in Mexico, and she did, and then joined one of the Thread Caravan workshops. Now a couple years later, she’s attended two workshops, we’ve cohosted ahammock-making retreat with local artisans in Oaxaca, I planned and joined her for her Modern Macrame book tour, and we are close friends.
What are your goals for the next 4 years?
Slow down. I don’t want Thread Caravan to grow just because that’s what “success” is supposed to look like. There is a high demand for the trips on both the side of guests and artisans; however, growing too fast would lessen the quality of the experiences. I’d prefer to offer fewer workshops all at a very high quality than as many workshops as possible at a lower quality.
After calling Atlanta, New Orleans, Cambodia, Hawaii, Guatemala, and Mexico home, is there a place that piques your interest in the future?
I actually don’t plan on moving anytime soon. I’ve made a home in Oaxaca, and there is still so much more I’d like to do here. There is a strong sense of community, and I have a great work-life balance.
What destinations are on your to-go list for travel?
Bolivia, Scotland + Japan
Any brands that inspire you, or think are doing shout-out worthy work in the realm of cultural travel, sustainable fashion and goods, or other?
I’m most interested in the work Diaspora Co. is doing right now. Of course their branding and products are amazing, but it’s also a perfect example of a business that was created to fix a problem in the system and do things in a new way. Let’s be kind + innovative humans!
Check out the upcoming Thread Caravan Workshops, and follow along @threadcaravan.