First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Kyle Tortora: Everything is great! We are looking forward to the birth of our 2nd child in February and enjoying watching our daughter grow. 2 is a fun age!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Lotus Sculpture.
Kyle Tortora: I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. My father was a podiatrist, just like his father. They ran a family office where, almost daily, I would go into the office, and my father or grandfather would have me say hi to the patients, and he would show me their ingrown toenails or bunions. Growing up, I always felt like my destiny was to follow in their footsteps (no pun intended).
In middle school, I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, and it profoundly impacted my life. Siddhartha told the life story of the Buddha and his path towards becoming the first enlightened being. I was fascinated by the idea that something else existed outside of the Connecticut Catholic bubble I grew up where expectations were the norm of going to school, finding a job, getting married, and having kids. That there was something out there that did not conform with what I knew. It became my bible, and I read it almost every year growing up.
My freshman year at the University of Richmond turned out to be a key turning point in my life. After taking my first pre-med course of organic chemistry, I quickly knew that my heart was not in any way cut out for being a doctor. I had zero interest in Alkanes bonding with Epoxides or Aldehydes and Ketones.
With this revelation, I took my first steps on my true path. I didn’t want to do the typical thing my friends were doing with their summer, so I researched temples in Thailand that would accept foreigners to mediate. I booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok and thus started my first true love in life, traveling!
That summer, I spent two weeks in a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai where I would meditate for 8 to 10 hours a day then the following two months after I spent traveling the whole of Thailand, exploring the temples, trekking to hill tribes, going diving in their blue seas and strolling through markets eating everything I could. I was 18, and my lifelong love affair with Asia had begun!
I graduated U of R with a degree in Religion. I spent the next 3 years after college with a backpack on my shoulders and not a care in the world, traveling around Southeast Asia, hungry for new experiences. The seeds of interest in Eastern religion planted after reading Siddhartha blossomed with every step I took in Asia. I couldn’t have been happier with sweat rolling down my face and a backpack on my back!
After 3 years of wandering around South East Asia, I returned home and got “a real job” selling websites to small businesses in Manhattan. Two years of wearing a suit and tie every day were too long. I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Bombay. I longed traveling and exploring a part of the world that I had not visited yet, India.
My 4 months in India was an eye-opening, intense experience. Every day I was blown away at how different the culture was from anything I had seen before. I was an astronaut experiencing intergalactic travel on my own planet. I knew I wanted these experiences to be a part of the rest of my life. During these months, my mind was continually looking at how I could fuse my love of travel with making a living.
I had an epiphany when I saw my first bronze Lord Shiva Nataraja statue in South India. I had to find out where these statues were made and meet the people who made them.
That brought me to the village of Swamimalai and days that would change my life. I discovered and met the master who made the Nataraja I fell in love with (this statue is currently in my living room, a piece I will never sell), learned about the lost wax method process, a bronze casting process unchanged since the time of the Rajas in 1200AD. I saw how the artists’ lives were being affected by the lack of demand for their hand made bronze sculptures. I knew immediately that this was my calling, to build a website creating a new global marketplace for these artists to sell their statues outside of India to help pump new life into this struggling industry while simultaneously increasing Western exposure to the beauty of Eastern religious art.
How does Lotus Sculpture innovate?
Kyle Tortora: I am personally not an artist, but I continually ask my artists to look at a design with a fresh outlook. Lotus Sculpture creates Hindu and Buddhist sculptures that have been reproduced in the same styles for centuries. There are a select few artists who I personally work with to create some new poses in sculpture by melding designs I have in my head with their incredible artistry. I recently created a series in bronze of the three main deities in Hinduism; Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu in a pose of meditation with their respective wives; Parvati, Saraswati, and Lakshmi. Having these gods in mediation poses is not something you would see in India, but I thought it a natural progression to capture in a sculpture. They came out beautifully!
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Kyle Tortora: In the beginning, the business was booming! Having the whole world more or less stranded at their homes with nothing to do but surf the internet was the perfect storm for an internet business. We have actually had to hire two new employees to keep up with demand.
We were in a very good position as our warehouse is always full of statues. I can never say “no” to a good statue in all my buying trips, so I always have an overfull inventory of sculpture to sell.
The one issue we had was with India. India is a country that we do a lot of business in, and it was shut down for 4 months. Thankfully my stock was enough to not miss a beat in those 4 months. Now things in Asia have opened back up. We have just had a shipment from India ship out, which is a full 4 months behind schedule.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Kyle Tortora: I wouldn’t say I had to make any difficult choices. But I feel that being a business owner, you constantly have to make choices for your business’s future. I always think long-term and right when the pandemic started I made a long-term choice to buy a piece of land to build a new warehouse one day. It wasn’t an easy choice to make because of the state of the world at that point, but I knew it was the right choice in terms of my business and still feel that 5 years from now I will be in a much better position because of that decision to go forward with the land purchase.
I guess the lesson you can take from that is to be confident if you know what is right for you and your business no matter what headwinds are coming your way.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Lotus Sculpture in the future?
Kyle Tortora: I sell Buddha and Hindu statues! How can I be stressed?
I always take time out to be with my family. I have a 2-year-old daughter, and right now, I would rather be looking at ants crawl around the ground than anything else. Having good employees that I trust, and I can delegate important work to as needed is invaluable to my mindset to let work go and free my mind up for more important things like ants.
For my future, I am just looking for steady growth. Every year since inception, I have shown double-digit growth in my bottom line. I just want to continue this trend. I do this by maintaining a slick, easy to navigate website. If I am able to keep up with the best websites in terms of functionality and ease of navigation, I know this trend will continue. I have done 3 sets of major upgrades to my website so far this year. By investing in my website, I am investing in Lotus Sculpture’s future.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Kyle Tortora: I don’t really see myself as having competitors. I sell something that no one else has. Other companies sell Buddha statues or Shiva statues, but no one else sells handmade contemporary hand-carved statues that I have.
It took 20 years to develop my worldwide network of artists, and no one else even comes close to this. For the savvy shopper, I don’t feel I have any competition.
However, other websites sell statues like Amazon and Exotic India, but no one carries the one of a kind items that Lotus Sculpture carries. Everything else is mass-produced.
Your final thoughts?
Kyle Tortora: Yes…I think one thing people need to think of when starting a business today is Amazon. You need to Amazon-proof your business before you even start one.
They have made it nearly impossible to start a new business in a market they are already dominating. Amazon will be dominant in the field that has anything mass-produced. It doesn’t matter what it is, but if the product is being made somewhere on the earth, then it will be sold on Amazon.
However, Amazon lacks personality. I have connections with each and every artist and know who carved every statue in my showroom. I know their wives and children and have been doing business with them for, in some cases, 20 years! Through pictures and stories that I have posted online, my customers are able to get an insight into the lives of the artist and into the statue itself. For me to sell any statue, a connection has to be made between the customer and the statue. I always say to our customers, “the statue chooses you, you don’t choose the statue.” Amazon will never be able to replicate this connection. It is personal….between people. Big companies aren’t invited to the party.
I also don’t envision anyone being able to actually find the artists I have been able to find over the years. Sometimes I even marvel that I was able to find them! I’ve been on lots of long rides to unknown villages, been hit by a motorcycle crossing the road, been hospitalized with a virus….
You have to love it and be hungry! Because it isn’t easy….
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