Building on the success of guiding SME artisan exporters to market their goods on the international market in a previous non-profit venture, Daniel Salcedo launched PEOPLink in 1995 and incorporated as a Maryland-based non-profit 501(c)(3) organisation in 1996. Dan first taught himself rudimentary HTML and "hacked up" the first international crafts store on the web. He then hired a young, energetic staff and began importing crafts from artisan groups in developing countries and began selling them on-line, both retail and wholesale .
While PEOPLink's on-line sales grew briskly to $42,000 in 2000, it was very labor intensive. The bulk of the work was maintaining the voluminous, fast changing product/inventory information and managing it at a centralized location in the U.S. was too complex and expensive.
Therefore in 1997, PEOPLink began to place more and more responsibility in the hands of the artisan groups for capturing and maintaining this information. PEOPLink technical staff created on-line training modules and traveled extensively to guide the artisan groups in a progression of tasks including the following:
- Capturing high quality images with a digital camera and processing them in a form suitable for on-line transmission.
- Cutting and pasting their information into PEOPLink supplied HTML templates.
- Using a volunteer-created uploader tool to FTP the HTML files with images directly into their own portion of the PEOPLink server to create their own stores.
Under PEOPLink's tutelage, 42 artisan groups in 22 developing countries including the Philippines, Guatemala, Haiti, Nepal, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka, developed the capability to upload their own (albeit hand-built and crude) web stores.
The venture was widely hailed for its pioneering use of the Internet to democratise global trade as reflected in the glowing articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Le Monde, CNN, NewsWeek's Cyberscope, MSNBC, Wired, United Nations World Development Report and more (see press). It also attracted support from a wide range of multilateral institutions including the World Bank's infoDev Program, USAID, Hivos, InterAmerican Development Bank, Organization of American States, and the Leland Initiative for Africa as well as the Eurasia, Rockefeller Kellogg, MacArthur, and InterAmerican Foundations (see Funders).
In 1999, Dan wrote out the functional specifications for the CatGen (for "store generator" - what is now known as OpenEntry) e-commerce platform and began seeking funding to build it. However, PEOPLink's previous support had come from large development organizations, mostly on the East Coast of the U.S. that have long operated along geographic lines. Even though they understood that Internet tools enable numerous organizations worldwide to participate in a cost-effective manner, these traditional development funders were unwilling or unable to finance a U.S. based organization in the construction of such a tool.
It was the visionary support from the private sector, including the more entrepreneurial West Coast "dot-com" corporations that assisted CatGen in taking the next major developmental steps. Jeff Skoll, then Vice President for Strategic Planning at eBay, made a generous personal donation to PEOPLink and the eBay Foundation followed with two additional grants and a minimum of bureaucracy. Oracle, impressed that CatGen placed database based e-commerce in the hands of SMEs worldwide, donated a full suite of their latest software.
In another serendipitous stoke, at about the same time Marc Beneteau, a very experienced software developer (who is a Quaker and Buddhist) decided to put his values in line with his professional work and joined PEOPLink for a fraction of his previous billing rate. He assembled a talented team of programmers working from Ukraine, Siberia, Albania, India, Ecuador, and Ireland and tirelessly guided them to breath digital life into Dan's general concept. Collaborating on-line from the far corners of the globe practically 24 hours a day, the technical team built the first operational version of CatGen by late 2000.
The PEOPLink staff started working in dozens of countries to train a wide range of artisan enterprises members of the International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT) to build their own on-line CatGen stores. This "test flying" of CatGenwith real life users operating in extreme conditions enabled the technical team to receive and incorporate important user input to make it more relevant and user-friendly. This early testing helped us identify the need for complementary mechanisms for international payment and shipping that are now incorporated into the CatGen platform systems design.
The combination of comprehensive systems design and real experience with thousands of SMEs all over the world has continued to attract support from the industry leaders. Under special arrangement, eBay has provided a complimentary applications programming interface to its database that allows CatGen users to easily post items for auction directly onto eBay.>
CatGen won the 2004 Global IT Excellence Award for Digital Opportunity from the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (www.witsa.org) and United Nations Development Program evaluated the impact of this "pro-poor" e-commerce approach on income and employment in Nepal and documented its role in creating 4000 jobs for women artisans and "a relatively inexperienced group of young IT professionals" (http://ictdegov.org/e-gov/e-comm/nepal-artisans-exec-summ.pdf ).
More than 1400 enterprises, representing over 200,000 artisans from 44 countries have implemented CatGen and are offering 20,000+ items on the CatGen.com server. Thousands more products being marketed on other CatGen-powered websites that are being hosted at ISPs worldwide.
In addition to the handicraft enterprises, CatGen can also be used to power e-commerce websites for theaters, hotels, guest houses, music stores, and small tradespersons, previously unable to afford an effective means of marketing their goods and services on the Internet.