Face To Face With Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq Of Zero Gravity Ventures

Face To Face With Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq Of Zero Gravity Ventures

Boomerang Digital Identity logoCo-founder and CEO of Zero Gravity Ventures, Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq, reflects on his early life, diverse career spanning across multiple industries, his path into entrepreneurship, Zero Gravity’s ecommerce ventures i.e. sindabad.com and kiksha.com, his management philosophy and lessons from life.

Future Startup: Tell us about yourself.

Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq: I was born in the hilly city of Chittagong, at my wide open ‘nana-bari’ (maternal grandfather’s house). I spent my childhood in Jahangirnagar University (JU) campus, the lush green campus, as my father was a teacher there. I left JU to attend Faujderhat Cadet College which was again a huge campus. The fact that I passed most of my childhood and teenage years in vast, open areas may have inspired me to think big in my later life.

I completed my SSC and HSC from Faujderhat Cadet College and then got into IBA, the University of Dhaka in 1994. I completed my BBA from there in 1998. Prior to one and half month of my graduation, I landed my first job at a creative firm called Unitrend Ltd – a McCann Erickson affiliate. I started working as a copywriter, and then gradually progressed to creative direction, strategic planning, and business development. That was quite an exciting journey. Unitrend-McCann gave me opportunities to do amazing works with many big brands, like Coca-Cola, Kodak, Reckitt Benckiser, Standard Chartered Bank, Holcim, Berger, and DBH to name a few.

After that, I took a short consultancy break to focus on my MBA. Upon completion of my post-graduation, I joined Holcim Cement as the Deputy General Manager of Marketing. Initially, I looked after the marketing operations in Bangladesh. Later on, I was stationed out of Bangladesh, in the ASEAN region. I was responsible for the brand management function for the entire ASEAN region.

After that, I returned to Bangladesh and joined MGH Group. This had been the shortest yet an impactful stint. I had led a major process re-engineering and employee branding initiatives. We created at least 6 different businesses across multiple verticals: founded Radio Foorti and established Nando’s in Bangladesh among consumer businesses at one end. But not-so-known ventures included establishing a dedicated office and business at Mongla Port to encourage alternative feeder-vessel service from Colombo. It was a very timely project because Mongla Port at that time was significantly underutilized. I was the group head of Innovation and Marketing there.

I left MGH in around 2006 and joined Warid Telecom Ltd. We launched the Warid brand – it was the fastest growing telecom operators at that time.

When Warid turned Airtel, I left to join BRAC Bank in marketing communications as country’s youngest SVP. This unusual, ever-changing amazing institution gave me the opportunity to do so many novel and noble works! From marketing to CSR, I was eventually handed over the service quality division and finally the process engineering team.

Making a difference with whatever I do has always been a propelling force in my life. And, I have always feared about getting at the end of the line without achieving anything. The nature of knowledge is combinatorial and advantage of working in different industries is that you can see and learn more.

At BRAC Bank, the most interesting time, among many, was when we planned to launch bKash. The start-up times, building the team, liaison with the regulator as well as well with media and various stakeholders, I could work closely with the bKash team and subsequent launching of the MFS.

After the MFS, I thought what’s going to be the next game-changer and realized that it is probably the ecommerce industry. In the 90’s and 2000, Bangladesh saw a massive change when telcos first started businesses here. Later, in 2010, MFS brought about another massive transformation in the scenario. I was involved with the both sectors. And, I think e-commerce is going to be the next big thing in Bangladesh. That’s how I see it and I want to try my luck in this sector.

I’m giving you my story because you wanted it. But the story of Zero Gravity Ventures and sindabad.com starts from Ananta Group.

You have diverse experiences of working in several different industries including advertising, bank, FMCG, Cement, and telecom.

I have always been passionate about doing something different. I didn’t really think about what sector I was choosing, rather have always been driven by the adrenal rush of work and learning opportunities I would get.

Making a difference with whatever I do has always been a propelling force in my life. And, I have always feared about getting at the end of the line without achieving anything. The nature of knowledge is combinatorial and advantage of working in different industries is that you can see and learn more.

Tell us about Zero Gravity Ventures.

Zero Gravity is an e-commerce venture of Ananta Group.

Ananta Group is a relatively large conglomerate based in Bangladesh. We have interests spanning over 8 different RMG concerns, 4 banks and financial institutions, several B2B logistics, real estate concerns and energy sector.

As a conglomerate, we could feel that there are particular need gaps in the market for operational and consumable items: (a) multiple yet unreliable vendors; (b) transparency in the process and ; (c) inconsistency in quality product supply. Although not necessarily large in cost, these purchases are the bigger worries for the CXOs.

This is where we decided to build an ecommerce platform which will cater to the needs of these companies – and we launched sindabad.com! It is country’s first B2B ecommerce site. Business organizations can purchase anything and everything from this online shop – rates are published, no haggling, one-stop for thousands of products, and delivered right to the office or at factory premise!

After launching sindabad.com, we have decided to invest in B2C as well. We understand that it is a fairly competitive business arena, but we think that the cake is quite large and everyone can have their own share of it if properly utilized. So, we felt that we have a lot to do here. That’s where our b2c ecommerce venture kiksha.com come in.

Zero Gravity Ventures Ltd. is at its initial stage. We are figuring things out. Structurally, it will act as the holding company for all our present and future ventures related to e-commerce. We currently have four directors. Ananta Group is represented by three directors: Mr. Sharif Zahir, Mr. Asif Zahir, and Mr. Syed Ishtiaq Alam, and independently me.

sindabad.com-screenshot

sindabad.com-screenshot

What is sindabad.com?

Sindbad is the first online B2B ecommerce platform in Bangladesh. It currently offers products in categories such as housekeeping, stationery, office supplies, electrical, IT, and safety and security equipment. We have plans to add at least 3 more categories shortly.

The idea is that anything and everything that an office needs – usual operational and consumable items – can be bought from sindabad.com. We currently have over 8,000 products which address almost 80% of the total product needs of any company, or office.

The model is simple. We source the frequent items, have multiple, reliable merchants, and deliver to clients when there are orders. We try to serve our clients at wholesale price. But we ask for a bulk quantity order. You can see that many of the products on our site can’t be bought on a single unit. These products need to buy multiple units.

The reason behind is that a business house doesn’t need only one unit of these products; they usually need more than one. For example, it does not make sense for a business buying only one pen. They need at least a dozen of them. We take this into consideration. Our site has been designed by keeping this in mind. The website is not sexy but it is clean and simple.

We do keep inventories and also do dropship services. We take the quality very seriously, even if it’s drop-shipped. For dropships, we do QC at the pickup sites. We usually deliver within 4 working days. If there’s a mistake on our part, we offer the free replacement, no-questions-asked.

We also work with existing brands that offer products for offices as their e-commerce channel partner. Our customers can buy our products of our partners from our platform.

We bring the products from our partners like Reckitt Benckiser, Ispahani, and others and keep in our warehouse. We have a mid-sized warehouse in Pragati Sarani, but in next 6 months we are establishing at least 2 more: one being over 20,000 sft warehouse.

The idea is that anything and everything that an office needs – usual operational and consumable items – can be bought from sindabad.com. We currently have over 8,000 products which address almost 80% of the total product needs of any company, or office.

What are the key growth metrics you look at? Can you please give us an idea about the growth of sindabad.com?

The primary metrics we look at are our total revenue, the gross profit margin and the number of regular clients. Although we have been beta-testing our service from the beginning of this year, we officially launched in June. In less than 7 months into operations, we have grown at an average rate of approximately 35% month-on-month.

We currently have more than 200 clients and a bouquet of over 8,000 products. Approximately 30% of these companies transact with us on a regular basis. Our average order sizes are at five digit figure at this point. The market has been growing for us. Going forward, we anticipate a reasonably steady growth of sindabad.com.

As per our financial projections, we are expected to reach break-even within the 4th year that is 2019. Zero Gravity Venture currently employs nearly 90 people. 35-40 people among them work for sindabad.com solely.

Do you offer any subscription service?

We already have tier-membership packages. There are 3 types of this: platinum, gold, and silver. We also have plans to introduce subscription service.

We want to include credit system in the new subscription model because we realize that businesses want different sorts of credit terms. We will also offer reduced delivery costs and preferential rates to subscribers.

How is the competition?

We are yet to have an ecommerce competitor in this space but the offline market is presumably much greater. It poses a significant challenge to us. For sindabad.com, our target customers are procurement/admin managers and CEOs who are difficult to reach. It’s not always easy to crack that market since B2B business depends on a lot on long-term relationships.

Our competitive advantage is simple: we are offering you a one-stop destination for all your office cash-purchase needs. You don’t need to go to numerous different places to purchase different types of products. And everything is delivered at your business premise!

How do you reach out to your target customers?

Digital presence is obviously a major vehicle; almost 90% of which is Facebook in Bangladesh. But Facebook doesn’t always serve our target customer base with the necessary information they need to make decisions. Hence we reach to the management and CEOs offline. We have a sales force who meet potential clients in person and tell them about our products.

Business-wise, what are the challenges you face?

The major challenges include marketing, making customers and organizations understand the benefits of taking a more efficient system.

Another major challenge concerning sindabad.com is the absence of a structured supplier-base.

Tell us about the culture at sindabad.com? How you plan and work as a company?

If you wander around the office, you’ll see that most of our team members are quite young. We are like a family here. The environment is quite open, everyone is encouraged to express their concerns and share ideas.

We also motivate everyone to perform. The core is to build a performance-driven culture. Call us “business casuals”!

We have annual business plans which the board of directors approves. We then break it down into different pieces and periods which are assigned to respective units later. Every unit has their own objectives to fulfill within the period. We encourage our employees to submit weekly, quarterly, and monthly reviews.

What is your personal management philosophy?

Performance matters. You can perform at your best only if you have your heart into what you’re doing. If you do not have the passion you are wasting both your time and that of the organization.

If you do have your heart set at what you’re doing, you need to carefully define your job and get back to the primary objectives from time to time.

At the end of the day, you need to make sure that you’re making a difference for the people around you by doing what you’re doing.

kiksha.com-screenshot

kiksha.com-screenshot

Let’s talk about kiksha.com a little bit. How is it doing?

While launching sindabad.com, we were also thinking about getting into the B2C space. We tried to avoid the ‘pregnancy period’ of forming the team, recruiting employees, getting merchants on board. That’s when we started looking for opportunities and found that biponee.com was the 3rd leading e-commerce site in Bangladesh. We decided to acquire it.

Once we started our operation, we conducted a research which revealed that the name of the service needed to be changed. That’s why we re-branded it to kiksha.com for our target segment which, by the way, has no specific meaning. It’s like a catchphrase only with one single word. It has a kick in it.

We also transformed the business model from a male, youth-centric service to an amazing shopping place for the generation. It is also a hybrid model like sindabad.com. We keep an inventory of products as well as get out products from merchants. But again, one of the major differentiating factors of kiksha.com is quality. We have a strict policy to ensure proper quality products on site, and regular monitoring of merchandising from merchants.

What are the key challenges for kiksha.com now?

I think the major challenge with B2C – not only kiksha.com – is that people who have money seldom shop online! This is why we have introduced the first EMI facility on credit cards in Bangladesh. We are having a satisfactory response and obviously some of our competitors are picking it up as well. EMI is helping our customers in several ways. Firstly, the gap between affordability and aspiration is met to some extent. Secondly, it is facilitating a shift from COD payment to a more advanced payment system.

Yes, we had to make a significant amount of investment into it. But the results are very satisfactory. We are seeing that the return rates are going down drastically because making advanced payment helps us to recognize our actual customers. Customers are also satisfied with it because the service quality has gone up.

Surprisingly, currently, 1/6th of our purchases are on credit cards or bKash, which means we have already started shifting from CODs.

Tell us a bit about the growth of kiksha.com.

kiksha.com, fortunately, has too seen a phenomenal growth. As I mentioned earlier, 20% of the Zero Gravity team is dedicated for kiksha.com only. We also have resources from abroad. We have managed to build a strong, resilient and young team. So far, kiksha.com has grown from a 6-digit company to a 7-digit one and if everything goes well, it’ll soon cross the 8-digit threshold.

Do you anticipate a price-war in the ecommerce sector in Bangladesh?

Yes. A price war is imminent as the market expands. But we are not keen to participate in it. kiksha.com will continue offering merchandise that other sites offer, but with a difference. While price war may help win a ground, it leaves you bleeding to lose the war. I think the sites with better merchandising and services will eventually sustain.

How do you reach out to your target customers at kiksha.com?

Our advertising has been mostly based on Facebook till now. But we are diverging into Google Ads. We also have plans to engaging with customers offline at optimum scale. We believe in sustainable growth. We are not in the valuation game, you see. We don’t want to hurry to rack up our numbers. We want to grow steadily and maintain it.

What are the major challenges for ecommerce now?

The major challenge, as I have noted earlier, is that we are not getting enough of the people who have purchasing power and a proper understanding of e-commerce. There are other industry issues as well. VAT is a very problematic aspect in case of e-commerce. The rules are ambiguous and misleading. The key law says that e-commerce businesses don’t need to pay VATs. But, for example, when we are buying from a retail brand, they are charging VAT on us. As per the rule book, we aren’t required to pay it. But we do.

What are the management challenges you face in managing two separate ecommerce ventures?

We try to minimize managerial problems as much as possible. We maintain a single management point for each of our merchants and retailers so that the products do not get mixed up. For example, there are tech companies that import both mobile phones and laser printers. Now, mobile phone is a product for kiksha.com and laser printer is for sindabad.com. The two teams deal with these overlapping companies separately.

There is also the pressure of logistics sometimes since kiksha.com and sindabad.com have very different business volume. When we send deliverables to our Sinbad clients, they are usually a truckload of products. But at kiksha.com, we usually get orders of 2/3 items for a client. Choosing the right Logistics Partner and Solution is a key decision factor.

A price war is imminent as the market expands. But we are not keen to participate in it. kiksha.com will continue offering merchandise that other sites offer, but with a difference. While price war may help win a ground, it leaves you bleeding to lose the war.

How does your logistics work?

We have an affiliation with third-party delivery and logistical service providers.

In ecommerce businesses, logistics is a huge challenge. The market is not ready for advanced payment practice. We are very fortunate to have a major percentage of our customers agreeing with our advance payment conditions for kiksha.com; and for sindabad.com, institutions are contract-bound. We have had many bitter experiences with external logistical service providers. This is why my future plans include starting a fairly automated and efficient logistics venture.

What are your future plans for both Sindabad and Kiksha?

We are positive to reach break-even within a 4-year time frame. We want sindabad.com to be the largest B2B online shop in Bangladesh. We want our number of corporate clients to reach 400 within the first year of operations who would buy on a regular basis. We have already achieved 50% of that goal. If everything goes well, we will accomplish it ahead of our time.

And for kiksha.com, our goal is rather qualitative. In terms of number, we want to be one of the top 3 B2C e-commerce sites in the country. We want to be a household name for e-commerce shopping.

eCommerce is a largely service business and experience is an important component here. Our aim is to make sure that people have fun and memorable experiences shopping on Kiksha.

Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq

Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq

How do you manage yourself, prioritize and work?

I’m a quite orthodox person, to be frank. I keep a notebook where I jot down important dates, appointments, and to-do list. I try to allocate time properly for both of my family and my work.

My first priority as a CEO is to look after the people who work with me. If I worry for them, they will worry for their works in return for sure.

How people work, how do you measure performance at Zero Gravity?

For both of the businesses, everyone submits a review on their activities on a daily basis. We monitor sales, merchants, and merchandises. We also schedule regular meetings for different departments on specific days of the week. For example, operations department do a meeting on every Tuesday.

We also communicate with our customers frequently. Every week there are at least 4 customers and 4 merchants visits.

On a more personal level, what was your motivation behind leaving a steady job and starting a new company?

I wanted to do something on my own. But I would advise everyone to tread very carefully if they have plans to leave a well-paid job and start a business.

It’s very important for a middle-age person to take a calculative approach in such cases. Should the new venture doesn’t figure itself out, they need to keep their alternatives open at all times.

Start saying ‘no’. You’ve to say ‘no’ to morning sleep, to weekends. You’ve to be steadfast in choosing your priorities and the people around you–your friends, partners, and employees. And unless you’re brutally focused, you can soon drift away.

Was your family and friends supportive of you when you decided to start a business?

Yes, people around me have been very supportive of my decision. I think, this support is the most important factors for early-stage entrepreneurs. Because family and friends are the places where we go back to whenever we feel down and are in need of inspiration.

I keep saying, if Allah gave every human a dime for every unit of friendship-blessings s/he has, I’d be the richest person under the sun!

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Above everything, one needs to find out her/his passion. It is also very important to step very carefully: I always say that follow your heart, but don’t lose your mind.

Secondly, you don’t need to listen to everyone.

Thirdly, start saying ‘no’. You’ve to say ‘no’ to morning sleep, to weekends. You’ve to be steadfast in choosing your priorities and the people around you–your friends, partners, and employees. And unless you’re brutally focused, you can soon drift away.

Never give up on your dreams and aspirations. No venture would fail if the founder sticks to it. Some venture may take six months, some ventures 6 years, but if you honestly hold onto it, the venture would not fail. It’s quite difficult to find a venture that failed despite the fact that founders stayed with it and tried hard.

There would be difficulties and challenges but success is not achieving something or reaching your goals but success is the ability to persevere when things get difficult.

In my case, I wouldn’t deny that I was about to experience a serious nervous breakdown because things were not going as I had so rigorously planned. We had plans to launch Sinbad in December last year. But it didn’t happen until June this year.

My experience tells me that life is actually what happens when you’re planning for everything else. But you do need to have a plan because it gives your life-goals a definition.

We launched sindabad.com 5 months later than our actual plan and that had a lot of impacts. When we launched in June, it was the month of Ramadan. And to our utter shock surprise, we soon found out that business houses don’t purchase in this month. But I think we have overcome that situation quite well. In October, for example, we have been able to fulfill 98.86% of our revenue and more than 100% of our profit target at Sinbad. At Kiksha, we have seen a phenomenal growth.

My experience tells me that life is actually what happens when you’re planning for everything else. But you do need to have a plan because it gives your life-goals a definition.

Things may not always go as per your plan. But there’s always a way out if you have the will to find it. You need to be patient.

This story is made possible in part by our friends at Boomerang Digital. Boomerang empowers brands in the digital age and helps entrepreneurs and companies to tell their stories across digital platforms effectively. Thank you Boomerang for teaming up with. You may know more about Boomerang Digital here.

Interview By Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Ashekan, Nezam Uddin contributed to this interview

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