Sam Lancaster talks to the inspiring duo behind Luxembourg’s newest online marketplace, Yourshop.lu
Photography by Alessandra Brescia
As honeymoon destinations go, conflict-ridden Chad probably isn’t the most romantic spot that springs to mind. Yet, Africa’s fifth largest nation is precisely where Yourshop founders Mina and Thierry Nicola decided to spend theirs, following their marriage in 2008.
After growing up in Luxembourg and attending high school together, the pair lost contact after leaving for University– Mina opting for Brussels, to study Architecture, and Thierry to Switzerland, to study Computer Science. Romance quickly blossomed after reconnecting via Facebook, some ten years later, and a plan was hatched to find a way to be together, “We just wanted to go somewhere, and we said, the first one of us that finds a job, we just take it. We wanted to do something first that was just for us, something that we thought was meaningful”, explains Mina.
“We just wanted to go somewhere, and we said, the first one of us that finds a job, we just take it. We wanted to do something first that was just for us, something that we thought was meaningful”
Living in Chad
Thierry bagged a job with a Swiss NGO, and the newlyweds were soon off to live in Chad, helping to set up a Computer School teaching computer skills to local kids. With their involvement scheduled to last one and half years, the project initially aimed to educate around 6 students per year, but proved to be far more successful, according to Thierry “in the first year we had 150, so we were far, far from the goals we had set in Switzerland”.
Meanwhile, Mina got involved with another project helping to set up a different school and they adjusted to the pace of life in Africa, all a far cry from their previous existence, “we were one of only five western people in the city where we lived, so when we went out to the market, everybody was coming up to you and talking and watched what you did. Everywhere you went it was like “hey! White people, hello!” It was very unusual”, remembers Mina.
This first-hand experience of living in Africa had a profound affect on the couple and it was during this time that they encountered something of an epiphany that would later provide the impetus for Yourshop. Thierry explains: “the Chinese market was very invasive. Chinese rice was cheaper than locally produced rice and so a lot of people buy Chinese products and therefore they produce less next year”. It’s a similar situation when it comes to clothes, where well-meaning organisations flood the African market with free clothes that find their way to local markets well below the going rate. “So all these t-shirts, they end up in the market for half a euro. Therefore young people are buying these clothes and prefer them to locally manufactured goods”.
Returning to Luxembourg
With their time on the project drawing to a close, they decided to head back to Luxembourg to find jobs and start a family, albeit with a totally new perspective, according to Mina: “people tend to think there is something wrong with Africa, let’s go there and fix it. I came back with the idea that there’s nothing wrong there, actually, there’s something wrong here, and it’s the consequences they are seeing there”.
“People tend to think there is something wrong with Africa, let’s go there and fix it. I came back with the idea that there’s nothing wrong there, actually, there’s something wrong here, and it’s the consequences they are seeing there”.
Returning to Luxembourg, they made a determined effort to ‘buy local’; sourcing European food, fruit and vegetables from local markets, wherever possible. However, it wasn’t until the arrival of two daughters in fairly quick succession that the problem of where to source baby kit and caboodle – and crucially, what to do with it afterwards– that the idea of an online marketplace came into focus, “you need so many things, for such a short period and then we thought, shall we buy all this new? Then once we had it, what are we doing with it once we don’t need it any more? And so all these questions started running through our heads and we started looking for second hand markets”, says Mina.
It was during their research that another spark was ignited when they discovered some of the region’s creators markets “There is a really big group of alternative thinking people that is being created in Luxembourg. You don’t know this group exists at all, but once you’re in it, you know, there are so many events, so many things happening”. This coincided with a conscious decision to seek a work/ life balance that enabled them to be around for their children, at least for the first three years before they go to school, as Mina explains “we are still renting, which is not usual in Luxembourg. We would love to buy, but for that we would have to both go and work and our daughters would have to go in a crèche all day and that’s not what we want”.
“we are still renting, which is not usual in Luxembourg. We would love to buy, but for that we would have to both go and work and our daughters would have to go in a crèche all day and that’s not what we want”.
Inspiration: Virtual Stores
Alongside the physical markets they turned to some of the region’s online second-hand groups, such as LuxBazaar and Free Your Stuff, but the main selling platform tends to be facebook, which is not entirely convenient, particularly for used baby items, as Thierry elaborates: “you get things popping up in the stream and then you say, “oh I might need this, better take it because somebody else will get it, but you cannot browse or search for it”. It was something of a ‘light bulb moment’ and the pair set about creating their own vision of an online marketplace unique to Luxembourg, one that offered users the potential to not only buy and sell second-hand goods online, but their own creations too, and so using their savings, and some invaluable help and advice from Luxembourg’s excellent Chambre de Commerce, Yourshop was born in January of 2014.
For users of Etsy or Dawanda, the model will be familiar – users simply sign up to buy or sell items via individual ‘virtual stores’ much like stall holders in a market. But there are subtle differences to Yourshop, chiefly in its local bias towards the Luxembourg region only, although they hope to extend this out to the greater region too, eventually, if all goes well. Then there’s the mix of handmade with second-hand. Where Etsy and Dawanda have somewhat restrictive policies on the sale of second-hand items, preferring to focus on vintage, Yourshop proudly facilitates the sale of old, used, nearly new and vintage along with handmade items. There’s even a ‘free’ section, where users can pass on unwanted items.
A Way of Life
It’s a concept that eschews mass production and mass consumption. One that encourages people to not only shop locally, but to seek out the handmade, and to recycle and re-use where possible. Where Yourshop differs markedly from other online marketplaces, however, is the way users are positively encouraged to meet up, interact and – almost unheard of in the online retail model – transact directly outside of the Yourshop platform.
It seems like a risky business model, but the couple are adamant that their vision for the site is not merely to max out their profits but to encourage and foster a creative community that will grow and expand to reach a wider public consciousness. Mina is passionate about this: “I’m just hoping that this platform can be a place for connections, not only through Yourshop and the things they’re selling, but through the second hand shops and interesting services that are here in Luxembourg and maybe through the teams that we’re hoping to create. Through all this, it’s a lot more than just an online platform, for me. It’s a way of life, and this way of life, I have seen it can work”.
“it’s a lot more than just an online platform, for me. It’s a way of life, and this way of life, I have seen it can work”
Initial response has been phenomenal and there are now 177 shops live on the site. Averaging a staggering 10,000 hits per day after just a few short weeks – that’s around 2% of the population – this is surely a clear indication that Luxembourg is more than ready to embrace its creative potential. The couple have plans to add a directory of sorts to the site, covering local events, markets and happenings related to everything handmade and second-hand. There is talk of organising meet-ups and events, and even promotional videos and potentially a catalogue to help promote the work of the creators using the site. Networking and collaboration is key, and they aim to foster and encourage relationships to facilitate these ideas. But above all they hope to inspire others to do the same, to get involved, take up a craft or just explore the idea of buying local and handmade.
Above: a selection of some of the handmade creations available via the site.
In person, their warmth and empathy is infectious but it’s their own connection that is so endearing – they have the air of true soul mates – and where Mina has the more gregarious and bubbly nature, Thierry’s gentle, but deadpan humour makes for quite a giggle too. For Mina, it’s a happy life that is a long way from war-torn Iran, the country in which she was born, but was forced to flee with her parents at just 5 months of age during the revolution of 1980. Her parents, peaceful followers of a religion that celebrates tolerance and unity across all religions, became targets, and were persecuted.
Her father had already gone ahead to Luxembourg to arrange everything for their impending exile, but the situation worsened and her Mother was then forced to flea suddenly, carrying baby Mina in a handbag, alongside her two brothers, aged just 5 and 7, and a single suitcase containing everything she could carry. From there they endured a three-day journey on a bus from Tehran to Istanbul, before flying to Italy where she was able to stay for two weeks while they arranged for the four of them to come to Luxembourg “She had to leave by bus because Iraq invaded and the airports were all closed. That’s exactly the start of the Iran/Iraq war, which lasted 8 years. So when I think of myself here, and that I could have lived 8 years there, all the things I owe to them right now because they left, really, everything behind”.
“I really do believe that it is through talking, through getting to know people that you let go of prejudice. You let go of all these things that stops us from being together, and just living”
It’s quite a story and while there is a somewhat happy ending – her parents settled and have done very well here in Luxembourg and the children have grown and are now pursing successful careers themselves – Mina admits that, for her parents, there remains a sense of longing “they went through a lot, for a religion that actually promotes that we should live in peace. So it is a very contradictory thing. I’m just thankful that we could end up here in a safe country where they could very easily find a job again”.
Whether it’s hardwired into her genetics, or a conscious need to give back, it’s clear Mina is driven by an infectious positivity to make the world a better place “I really do believe that it is through talking, through getting to know people that you let go of prejudice. You let go of all these things that stops us from being together, and just living”. Together with Thierry, and their creative vision for Yourshop taking off on home turf, it’s sure to be a case of mission: accomplished.
For more information visit yourshop.lu
Starting a Business
Chambre de Commerce – assistance to help start a business (French)
Guichet.lu – Luxembourg’s government administrative site for citizens and business with advice and information (English)
Creative Adult Education Classes
The Second Degree – Interesting variety of classes taught in English here in Luxembourg
Lifelong-learning – Portal with over 60 training domains listed
Craftsy.com – Online crafting courses in English
Creators Fairs and Events
DIY festival @ Kulturfabrik
Marché des créateurs Festival @ Mudam – June 14th -15th 2014
For more on Mina’s parents’ story, watch the moving documentary created by Mina’s brother, Cyrus Neshvad, entitled “En dehors de l’eau” (Out of water) here. English subtitles.
Photo credit: Main photos by Alessandra Brescia Photography and other Yourshop.lu store images courtesy of (from top row, left to right) PopUp Studio, Mona’s Shop, Vom Pfingstspatz, BoGe Art, It Dressing, Little Handmade Treasures, Funny Candy, Dame Cuicui and Sophi(e) s t i c a t i o n. With special thanks to Angela Van der Meulen.