Face To Face With Syeda Kamrun Ahmed of Bagdoom.com

Face To Face With Syeda Kamrun Ahmed of Bagdoom.com

Syeda Kamrun Ahmed is the Co-founder and CEO of Bagdoom, a fast growing ecommerce venture based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Ms. Syeda has an interesting career trail. After graduating from BUET with a Chemical Engineering degree, she attended business school to learn the tricks of running a sustainable business, embracing change and taking calculated risk. She started her career in banking before settling in IT and starting her own venture.

We chatted with Ms. Syeda about her venture Bagdoom, which just rebranded from Akhoni few months ago, the story behind rebranding, her take on competition in the industry, challenges she comes across as a woman and CEO, and her biggest lessons from her journey. Bagdoom is just getting started, as she says, we have big plans.

eCourier adOMF: Briefly tell us about yourself?

SKA: I have been working in the technology industry for about 9 years now. Prior of that, I worked for Standard Chartered Bank and also taught in the MBA program of a reputed University.

By education I’m an engineer, by trade I’m an entrepreneur. I graduated from BUET in Chemical Engineering followed by a Masters in Business Administration from North South University in 2007. I was the class topper from my batch and received Chancellor’s gold medal and started my career as a teaching assistant during my MBA days. After completing my MBA I did a short stint in banking, as I said before, and then I moved to IT. I have continued teaching at my spare time as a hobby.

My IT career started with e-Generation, a Bangladeshi software firm used to deal with European and American clients along with local clients. At e-Generation, I started in the Business development, looking after the department but ended up running the entire operations.

My entrepreneurial journey started after my time at e-Generation by co-founding Akhoni.com. Back in 2011, three of us started Akhoni.com, me and my two partners: Mr. Imran Khan, who is now the chief strategy officer of Snapchat, and Mr. Shameem Ahsan, the current president of BASIS.

We started the company with a vision to introduce the citizens of Bangladesh to online shopping. We always think of newer ways where Information Technology can contribute in improving our way of life and hence eCommerce was a no brainer.

Bagdoom website screenshot

Bagdoom website screenshot

OMF: You have come a long way since you started Akhoni in 2011. We will talk about all those things. For now, would you please briefly tell us about Bagdoom?

SKA: As I said, we started this because we wanted people of this country to discover and experience the huge potential, convenience and delight that online shopping can bring to us. Especially in a city like Dhaka where you probably have a job, children, social engagement, family responsibilities and on top of that traffic. Going for shopping is difficult for most people most of the time.

We thought probably we can solve this problem. That’s the reason why we started Bagdoom at the first place. There was a problem and we thought we might be able to solve it.

Initially it was an uphill battle. We had to work hard for creating awareness because obviously people did not know a lot about ecommerce and online shopping.

But gradually, particularly in the recent years, people of Bangladesh have quite adopted online shopping and things are changing rapidly. Increasing number of people are now shopping online. I think that is where we succeeded.

At Bagdoom, we are a lifestyle brand that seeks to empower people by offering high quality product and great shopping experience online. Many things have changed since we launched in 2011. Now we are focusing more in offering brilliant shopping experience while during our early days we used to try hard to familiarize online shopping.

Bagdoom today is more grounded in research and data. We put a lot of importance on research. We have small team working round the clock to understand new trends and make things better and deliver best services. I myself do a lot of research because this is an evolving model in Bangladesh that we need to understand better in order to win.

We are working on delivery, inventory management and experimenting with new approaches of doing things. We believe knowing our customers in the key and we are striving to put together systems that work better for our customers and make their experiences better. I can understand, we have a long way to go but we are surely moving towards that goal.

There is a meteoric change in how we shop and then how we shop online. Part of the reason we wanted to rebrand Akhoni to Bagdoom was this change. We wanted to be in a better term with all these changes happening in the market.

OMF: Briefly tell us about rebranding from Akhoni.com to Bagdoom. What was the reason behind this new effort? How is the response from market?

SKA: There were few reasons of course. When we started Akhoni.com, it was very early days of eCommerce. People were not very much into it and were largely reluctant to spend a lot of money online. Back then, for us the purpose was to make people interested in shopping online.

Suppose, you don’t know anything about online shopping you came to buy something online for the first time. The logical conclusion is that you probably would not spend a lot of money. Because there are many issues and you would be a little skeptical: you could not see the product, you don’t know about delivery, you don’t know whether the product would be delivered on time or not, and most importantly, you would not be sure about the quality. So there is a lot of confusion and you don’t end up spending a lot.

So initially our target was to cater those products for which you don’t have to spend a lot, products that are less expensive like T-shirt, pen drive, electrical accessories etc. That was how we designed our back-end and our website. The user interface was also designed to do that.

But gradually, as the market evolved, now we see people are spending a lot more online. People not only look for T-shirts and inexpensive electronic products but they are also buying other things that they used to buy offline before. It means people are buying almost everything online. They look for television online, party wear, fragrances and a lot of other things. I would not say people only spending more and buying inexpensive items online, I would rather say everything that you buy offline now you are ready to buy online.

There is a meteoric change in how we shop and then how we shop online. Part of the reason we wanted to rebrand Akhoni to Bagdoom was this change. We wanted to be in a better term with all these changes happening in the market.

Bagdoom in ICT Fair

Bagdoom in ICT Fair

Then we decided that the design and the logic that we used to have needed to change in order to make this a lifestyle brand. That’s when the idea of rebranding came in and we changed the name. That’s because Akhoni has a clear Bengali meaning and it means now. It was a perfect name when we started it back in 2011. Back then we wanted to introduce the convenience of online shopping which was that you wanted something now, you could get it now. You don’t have to go out and plan and allocate time to go for shopping.

Today that convenience factor is no more an exclusive factor. Online shopping is becoming increasingly different. It’s more about enjoying your shopping experience. That’s why we thought about Bagdoom. It is a Bengali colloquial word. Most people know it. When we surveyed people about how they feel when they hear this word, most responses were around the idea of energy, youth, impulsive, spontaneous, and whimsical. We thought this is a right fit for us since youth is a big portion of our target market.

Also, we wanted to build a ‘made in Bangladesh Brand’ in this space. In the telecom, FMCG most of the top brands are multinational companies. But we wanted to be a leader in ecommerce. Hence a Bengali colloquial name so that people know this is a Bangladeshi brand and it is Bagdoom

Moreover, a lot of other companies were copying the previous name and they all copied the idea of convenience. So we wanted to stand out again and start a new trend.

OMF: Akhoni had quite good brand recognition in the market but it slowed down during a period of time when we were seeing increasing number of players in this space. Why that happened? How things are going with Bagdoom and how different Bagdoom is compared to Akhoni?

SKA: Strategy-wise Bagdoom is obviously a little different than Akhoni, as I said. That was a reason behind rebranding. We were never a company that took the path of aggressive marketing. We always thought if we do our awareness programs and regular campaigns, and if we give the best service and products, people will come in anyway. I think that makes sense.

I personally believe if you serve an ad people will come in for once but if they don’t have a good experience they won’t come back. And your business won’t make money, if you have to pay every time to bring in new customer.

For us, the idea is to bring someone first time in our shop, impress him/her with our service so that next time without any advertisement that person comes back and refers me to his friends and family. That’s where our focus has always been and we always thought that is the best way to go. It has been working for us as well.

I think Bagdoom is a little aggressive compared to Akhoni. We will have our marketing initiative which is the key. But we will not go over the board without ensuring quality of service.

Quality and service is critical. Marketing is just a tool to reach out to your potential customers but this has to be balanced. If you put all your money in marketing and you cannot ensure your service, your business is not going to sustain. How long can you bleed your investors?

Making sure that our customers are happy with our product and service is our number one priority. ECommerce is a little tricky; customer doesn’t see the product when he/she places an order. They place their trust on us. Customers spent 10 to 20 minutes online looking at a product, also spent 2 minutes talking to my customer care representative. I want to make sure that he doesn’t feel that we took her/his trust for granted. That’s the number one USP that we have and our number one growth strategy.

Bagdoom

OMF: Briefly tell us about growth. How do you deal with growth and how is your growth so far?

SKA: I think customer acquisition and revenue; they both go hand in hand. If one increases the other would eventually increase. First of all, we ensure service and quality. We have a two steps quality control policy that makes sure that each product is checked at least twice before shipping it to the customer.

Making sure that our customers are happy with our product and service is our number one priority. ECommerce is a little tricky; customer doesn’t see the product when he/she places an order. They place their trust on us. They spent 10 to 20 minutes online looking at a product, also spent 2 minutes talking to my customer care representative. I want to make sure that he doesn’t feel that we took her/his trust for granted. That’s the number one USP that we have and our number one growth strategy.

Then we have a lot of engagement campaigns for our customers. We go for strategic partnerships with a lot of other brands, like right now we have a campaign going on with Unilever. They are launching one of their new products for the first time in Bangladesh through our platform. We also ran one with zero rating from Grameenphone which means for GP internet users our site is free and you can browse without any data cost.

We have been growing pretty fast. If we talk about 2011 to 2012 and 2012 to 2013, there were issues like payments, merchant acquisition, trust etc but after 2013 things have been very fast.

This is also true for our competitors. Back then, we were the only one trying to create awareness. Now there are 5 to 7 seven other companies doing the same job. So we all are helping each other and it also helps the industry. So the growth has been very impressive and exponential for us.

I would not say problem but things are different for men and women because they assume different roles in their lives. A woman definitely has to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister and perform many different roles. Also a man has to play different roles. A man is also a father, a son, a husband.

OMF: It is incredibly hard to build a company from scratch. Everyone, invariably, goes through ups and downs of this journey. Tell us about your struggles and challenges and the way you outperformed those.

SKA: There were a lot of challenges when we started. First of all, people were not aware about ecommerce. A quite large number of people even did not even know what online shopping was. Whatever awareness campaign we did it had to be very thought through. Despite our effort, initially the conversion rate was pretty low. If I talked to 20 customer only 3 of them probably come and try online shopping. The rest of them never tried probably because they didn’t know the idea, know how to buy something without seeing it, touching it, and probably they were not comfortable with trusting a new brand. That was one of the challenges.

The other one was the infrastructure. There was no delivery service catered for ecommerce need. We had to build our own delivery team. It was a good try on our part but not one that worked. Such an approach could work in the metropolitan areas but when we are talking about semi-urban or sub-urban or rural areas, the reach was a pretty difficult issue.

If you wanted having a nationwide delivery chain, it was a big challenge. It still is a challenge but now we have managed to reach a lot of the sub-urban and semi-urban areas with the help of delivery companies. They can deliver products throughout the country. Things have gotten much better.

The other one was trust. Trust on the online payments. Still cash on delivery [COD] is the primary mode of payment. People still are not comfortable paying in advance for products they buy online but things are changing and much better now. It has not been a long journey for the industry as a whole and we have come a long way.

Finding good talent is a huge challenge. Since this a nascent industry, it is hard to find experienced people. You can have people from other industry but it often a difficult job to train people at every level.

Then it is hard to find a local example to learn from. You get to look out to companies in abroad and contextualize their experience which requires a certain level of hard work and judgment.

Being said that, you get over a difficulty because when it shows up you work hard to find a solution. For us that was the case. We tried, hard.

I believe ecommerce is a service business. You provide best possible service and you win. I think that’s what we are doing and that’s what set us apart from the competition.

team Bagdoom

Team Bagdoom

OMF: Do you face any problem because you are a woman and a CEO?

SKA: I would not say problem but things are different for men and women because they assume different roles in their lives. A woman definitely has to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister and many different roles. Men also have different roles, but in our society they are much less involved when it comes to managing family and taking care of children.

It all depends on your understanding with your family, particularly with your husband. If the understanding is good you would not face a lot of problem from your family.

Moreover, things have changed a lot in recent years. Before, if you went to an office you would not see a lot of women employees. You go to the meeting, you probably be the only lady there. But things have been changing rapidly. Increasing number of women are joining work force and doing their due. There are problems still today but things have improved a lot.

I think, if you have determination, if you can work things out with your family, I think there is nothing that you could not outperform.

Building a business is entirely a different ball game. There will be lots of ups and downs and many people seems to understand it but could not endure when reality strike. You better prepare yourself. Try to find out about challenges you may face in doing your business and prepare yourself.

Team Bagdoom

Team Bagdoom

OMF: Tell us few lessons that you have learned from your journey?

SKA: If you want to become an entrepreneur, do your homework. It is good to have ‘I can do anything’ attitude but then again you need to do a feasibility study before you start. Talk to people who have experience and have already built businesses. Take advice and learn things from them.

Building a sustainable business is entirely a different ball game. There will be lots of ups and downs and many people seems to understand it but could not endure when reality strike. You better prepare yourself. Try to find out about challenges you may face in doing your business and prepare yourself.

Most people underestimate the finance, both maintaining finance and also having enough funds to go for a while. There is a misconception about ecommerce that it is not an expensive business. That’s not true. Ecommerce is not only about a nice and functional website, it is much more than that.

Have your business plan ready. Chalk out your plan and get your resources in place. Start with at least two years of finance. Be patient when things don’t work. Patience is the key.

Don’t try to copy other people. Be original and come up with your own ideas and build something that last.

And finally, business is all about people. Value your people and make sure that they love what they do.

Update: An earlier version of this story had a redundant question. It has been updated for clarity. 

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About the sponsor: This story is made possible in part by our friends at eCourier Limited, a next generation logistics company based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. Thank you, eCourier, for teaming up with us in 2016.

Note: Interview by Omar Faruk, edited by Ruhul Kader. Images by Bagdoom

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