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The Evolution Of SSL Wireless: An Interview With Ashish Chakraborty, Chief Operating Officer, SSL Wireless

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SSL Wireless is one of the interesting technology companies in Bangladesh. The company has helped launch SMS banking, which is now known as mobile banking in Bangladesh, for the first time. It is one of the key players behind popularizing mobile value added services and many other interesting services in mobile and financial service space over the past few years that are used by millions of people in different ways.

The way SSL Wireless operates and works as a company is also very interesting. Before coming up with a product or service, it looks hard at the lives of its users and listens to them and then design services and products that can add material value to the lives of its users. As an organization, it is largely a people driven company, “we are an employee driven company,” says Ashish Chakraborty, COO of the company.

A large part of SSL Wireless’s business was designed during the time of feature phones, but today we live in a different world. Smartphones are dead cheap and feature phones are dead which is a challenge as well as an opportunity for the company. It has launched new products, moved on to find new revenue streams but still this is a difficult transition for the company.

Recently, we sat down with Mr. Ashish Chakraborty, Chief Operating Officer of SSL Wireless, a wonderful person with a profound understanding of technology business, to talk about early days of SSL Wireless, business, growth and team, changes and challenges in its business and future plans of the company.

Future Startup

I want to start at the beginning of your story, tell us about yourself and your path to doing what you are doing today?

Ashish Chakraborty

I'm currently the COO of SSL Wireless. The person who founded this company is Mr. Sayeeful Islam, a very successful businessman and former president of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Let me first tell you about him and how the company works which will give a context and make it easier to understand where I come in the scene. Mr. Islam completed his graduation in chemical engineering from the USA and then did his Master's from Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.

SSL Wireless has a history that goes back to two different streams. Initially, when Mr. Islam started this company, he wanted to build an IT educational institution. It was back in the time when Aptech computer education system first came to Bangladesh around 1999. He wanted to impart training on software and computer usage because there was a great scarcity of sophisticated resources in the IT industry.

The Aptech companies that came in Bangladesh soon failed because their model was more business-focused rather than education. So, he eventually left Aptech and started a software business in the country, which later revamped as SSL Wireless and started focusing on the domestic software development and telecommunication VAS business.

SSL stands for Software Shop Limited. The vision behind this name was that it would be a software destination where people would get all sorts of software solutions. That was the model 8 years back. The model has then revamped again in 2007 and thus came a new batch of employees including myself, Mr. Anisul Islam, CEO of CloudWell, and many other.

Our objective at that point was to do something out of the ordinary, something that had not yet existed in the market. We didn't want to develop inventory, accounting, ERP software because everyone else was doing that. We wanted to work with something that would add value to the lives of people and the industry. That’s how I became a part of SSL Wireless.

Let me come to my personal background now. I was born and raised in the old town part of Dhaka city. I had my high-schooling at Nawabpur High School and completed my Higher secondary education from Kabi Nazrul College in 1996. Then, I took several diploma courses in computer education from NIIT and, enrolled in a BBA program at the Asian University at the same time. I did my MBA from BRAC University. Combining both technology and business knowledge proved to be very useful for me in the later days.

I started my career at an outsourcing firm. They used to provide school management system to a few schools in Australia. What I used to do there was quite interesting. I used to articulate the requirement provided by the Australian parties to technological terminology. I worked there for 1 year, and then I moved to Navana Computers & Technology in 2004. I joined at the software wing and was soon promoted to a managerial position.

Some of the software that was being developed there was very unique. For example, at Navana's 3S (Sales, Service, and Spare Parts) center, they developed a solution for automobile dealers. Those were quite unique and customized software solutions. So, just as we thought of doing at SSL, Navana was also committed to doing something different focusing on the niche markets.

I worked at Navana for three years and learned a tremendous amount during those three years, and then I joined SSL.

Initially, I joined the sales department here. Surprisingly at that time we didn't have any fully-developed software.

Our target market included financial institutions and telecom companies. We targeted them with two purposes--one of them being that we observed a worldwide trend of financial services adding value to the lives of customers in different ways. Their customers also began to want a lot more than just depositing and withdrawing money from the bank. But we did not have almost any of those additional services. For example, there was no SMS banking system at that time.

We realized that people who took part in a transaction with a bank needed constant reassurance of whether it had been successful. Considering that scenario, we thought what if we automate this process? What if customers received alert messages whenever a bank transaction took place? Such automation would make business easier than ever, and, most importantly, the cost would also go down.

So, with that thing in mind, we pitched our idea to a couple of banks. Unfortunately, the initial feedback from them was very unsettling. They did so because they thought the confidentiality of their information would be hampered if outsiders were connected to their system.

They were so sensitive to this issue that they didn't even want to listen to us. But we kept explaining them with our analysis and case studies. As a result, a few of them gradually conceded--two, to be exact. We first started with AB Bank Ltd and now we are 45-banks strong.

On top of that, we have continued to add value to our services, such as--instant cellphone balance recharge service from your bank account, utility bills payment, Merchant payments, ticketing etc. Behind many mobile applications that we see banks are using now is our platform working.

This works in two ways. Firstly, we connect various services such as bill payment, top up etc, and bring pipes from a number of different sources and managing it. Secondly, we connect those pipes to the central system of the bank to make things easier for them. In other words, we sort of aggregate different services and connect them to the central system.

This is the part with financial services.

We always look out for the needs of our customers. We work on things that can enrich their daily lives.

The other part that we focus on is mobile based services. We work with mobile operators and provide them different types of value added services or VAS. We create and gather contents and transmit them to the users via the operators.

We gather the contents in two ways: firstly, we develop them ourselves; and, secondly, we collect them from various sources. In fact, we are currently affiliated with 20 TV channels. In the case of television materials, we modify them to suit for our mobile phone users. But, as the use of the smartphone is on the rise in Bangladesh, we are working more on video content, such as- short clips of popular TV shows and music videos.

One might ask, how do we work in these two separate streams of business, apparently financial services and mobile services look like two entirely different fields. Actually, there is a similarity between these two focuses which is the sensitivity of the content.

In the case of working on media contents, for instance, there is always room for misquoting or misrepresentation which can be fatal. So, the fact is very sensitive here.

In the case of financial institutions, on the other hand, data is of the highest importance. If not carefully handled, data can be manipulated or compromised. That's why we need to be very careful while working in both of these fields. Our sincerity thus creates a sense of reliability among our clients.

Two other areas where we are also focusing are: digital services--which is known as SSLCOMMERZ, and another is corporate services. The corporate houses run different types of campaigns on a regular basis. For this, they need a lot of IT support. We provide them with this support. There are a number of corporate houses that use our IT support. We provide services to ecommerce companies, digital marketing service, and other online supports.

Suffice it to say, SSL basically works in two major spheres. One is developing and distributing all types of value added services for mobile and internet. In fact, this is something we feel very proud of at SSL. We always seek to add more value through new services. Currently, we are working on cyber-security with a foreign company called AlienVault.

One fun fact I'd like to share about our culture here at SSL. When someone new joins our company, we interview them after 1 month. We ask them about how they view SSL and their experience and to give feedback.

One remark that often comes from the employees is that they find the office to be a fantasy kingdom because the various types of works that we do seem like fantasy ride to them.

We cater to around 900 customers at present.

B2B space is quite challenging than consumer market because deals take a longer time to happen and access is often difficult. At the same time, it is interesting. You have to start with a good product, then and again it should start with understanding challenges of your customers, and you have to keep pushing.

Future Startup

Your customer base is largely comprised of B2B clients.

Ashish Chakraborty

Yeah, largely other businesses are our customers except for 2 products: easy.com.bd and etunes.com.bd. The first one is sort of a digital catalog of online services where we began with mobile operator recharge (e.g. Grameenphone, Banglalink, Robi), and later we introduced internet modem recharge (e.g. Qubee, Banglalion), movie tickets (e.g. Cineplex), DTH payment.

We also have plans to integrate utility bill--such as DPDC, WASA, and DESCO--payment system in the first quarter of 2017.

We now have more than 300,000 registered customers on Easy. And on a monthly basis we see a traffic of about 80,000 to 90,000 individual visitors.

In 2017, we expect the number of hits to be 70,000 to 80,000 per day. To achieve that, we need more services. That's why we are contemplating an expansion or a change in the model.

We also have a mobile app for Easy services. But we are yet to promote the app enough because we are to incorporate multiple services into it at first and are thinking of revamping it and then move ahead with the promotion.

Although, Easy is yet to turn a profit but we are very excited about this product. At the same time, we consider it to be a great learning opportunity for everyone at SSL.

Now to eTunes. Initially, our observation when we started eTunes was that scarcity of content was a huge problem in the music industry. Besides, artists were often deprived of their rightful remuneration because of mass-scale piracy.

Considering these, we decided to design a portal where people can pay to listen to music and see how it goes.

Many people were skeptic about this thinking that no one would possibly pay for music. But, when the portal was opened in 2014, we were surprised that people from both home and abroad were purchasing albums and audio tracks. The number isn't very impressive, I wouldn't deny that, but, despite that, the response gives us confidence.

B2B is a different space than the consumer market. How it works, particularly, how do you reach out to your target customers and work with them? What kind of challenges do you face?

In the case of B2B, our main concern is to deliver the best possible service to our clients. A major portion of promotion in this space is done by word-of-mouth.

Let me explain that for you. Take banks, for example. When a bank wants to take a service, they ask other organizations who have used the same service.

As I mentioned earlier, we have gone through countless meetings and even more discussions when we pitched our idea to the first bank. They were dubious of our proposal at first but then one by one they began to opt for our service. That increasing acceptability among big players in the industry eventually helped our company to grow.

Let's come to our another major type of clients: mobile operators. In that instance, we enter into agreements with them. Currently, we have a contractual relationship with 6 operators in the country, among which 2 of the operators, i.e. Robi and Airtel, have merged together recently. In accordance with the agreement, we connect all of their content platforms together and provide services to them.

Besides banks and mobile operators, we also serve corporate clients. Word-of-mouth is a great marketing technique here as well. If Coca-Cola does an excellent promotional campaign, everyone in the industry will try to search who is behind it. In that case, you don't need to find your client. They will find you instead.

Moreover, we are the pioneers in the ecommerce space. To acquire merchants for e-commerce, we use two methods: digital promotion on Facebook and Google, and direct marketing by our own sales force who regularly reach out to merchants and analyze their needs.

That said, B2B space is quite challenging than consumer market because deals take a longer time to happen and access is often difficult. At the same time, it is interesting. You have to start with a good product, then and again it should start with understanding challenges of your customers, and you have to keep pushing.

We are carefully observing the technologies used by foreign companies. We are also thinking of introducing virtual cards and wallet system. Digital payment is an important and interesting industry. We know a couple of players are trying to solve this problem from different angles. We do have plans to experiment with a couple of ideas in this space.

teamm SSL Wireless
team SSL Wireless

Future Startup

You're now focusing a lot on e-commerce and have already started a logistics company. You are also in online payment through your payment Gateway. Payment is a critical problem. Payment gateway does help but it seems not enough. Tell us about digital payment and payment Gateway.

Ashish Chakraborty

We introduced our payment gateway service, named SSLCOMMERZ, in 2010 by a circulation published by the central bank of Bangladesh. We designed a website for that called ekushey.com.bd which we had to discontinue.

But we got interesting insights from our experience. We saw a glaring difference between the understanding of the concept of payment gateway by different financial institutions and how it actually works.

Let me describe it for you. Take a POS machine, for example. It's a device that can read debit/credit cards like Visa and MasterCard. Suppose, you've opened up a restaurant and a bank approaches you with a proposal to take a POS machine and, in return, you'll be able to accept sorts of cards at different rates. It's quite easy--the conversion.

But the scenario is totally different in the case of e-commerce. The difference between an e-commerce merchant and a physical merchant is that the former requires a website/ordering system/booking system to operate which need a payment gateway module.

A bank can't give such services because they do not have adequate technology team to build a website for an external party. But, as a software company, we have the means and resources to do that. This is why we stepped into this space.

Let's come to the second issue now. We have made a website for you and a payment gateway module has been integrated into the system. But now you have to promote, right? You have to inform people about it. To do that, you need a promotional platform and agent. But most of the agencies in Bangladesh work in a very conventional way which is often ineffective in this increasingly digital world. Considering that, we decided to tap into this market and accordingly we have launched a new department named NGAGE.

If the promotion is done properly and your sale reaches sky-high, you still have one other problem. How will you deliver the products? So, you seek service from third-party courier services. But the question is how far their reach is? This is the reason we thought to start a logistics service.

We have done a lot of researches in this regard. We are going to introduce digital and mobile tracking system for logistics for the first time in Bangladesh.

One important thing to note here is that our newly opened logistics service, Biddyut, is an entirely separate company. Although we are providing resources to Biddyut, there's actually no scope to say that it is a part of SSL Wireless. Currently, we are working with a couple of clients on the test basis and plan to launch officially soon.

So, in other words, we are trying to provide a 360-degree solution for the entire e-commerce industry, from technological support to payment to promotional campaign and delivery.

Now, let me elaborate the payment gateway thing. If there is a lacking of payment instruments, like cards, then payment gateway cannot work properly.The situation at present is somewhat like a chicken-and-egg problem. As a matter of fact, we don't see that many POS machines outside of big cities like Dhaka and Chittagong.

This's why when we ask banks to roll out more cards, they say that there are not enough POS machines; and, when we tell sellers to adopt POS machines, they reply that there is a huge lack of cards.

There need to be a couple of changes in order to increase the usage of the card. Firstly, we need to ease up the tight formalities associated with card issues. Secondly, the cost of issuing a card needs to be brought down. Lastly, banks need to pay more concentration on rolling out more cards. They need to make it widespread.

We are carefully observing the technologies used by foreign companies. We are also thinking of introducing virtual cards and wallet system. Digital payment is an important and interesting industry. We know a couple of players are trying to solve this problem from different angles. We do have plans to experiment with a couple of ideas in this space.

Future Startup

How big is SSL team now?

Ashish Chakraborty

We are around 220 people team at SSL now. In 2017, we have plans to recruit 70-80 people more.

Team SSL Wireless
Team SSL Wireless

Future Startup

The digital is a fast-paced industry and changing every day. So, going forward, what kind of challenges do you anticipate? And what do you think about competition?

Ashish Chakraborty

Let's talk about competition first. In that respect, we are facing a major threat from foreign companies when they come here to tap the local market. It's great that we are seeing more foreign investments. But it needs to be under proper rules and regulations. You can’t get undue advantage.

When big foreign companies get an undue advantage, it's devastating for the local companies because of the large volume of investment foreign companies make. Secondly, they have more degree of control and access which, in itself, has a huge potential to disrupt the market.

One other thing is policy problems and lack of incentives from the government. When you look at foreign countries, you see that local companies get the highest priority from the government. They enjoy a lot of space to grow. We don't have such opportunities here.

That said, Government is now more open to talking about this issues and is now considering conducive ideas so far we can understand from the outside.

We also don't have enough infrastructure to cope up with ever-changing technology. We, for example, don't have a testing facility for software programs. To do so, we have to build our own platforms.

Another problem is talent crunch. Our education system is failing to create good people. We have so many bright minds here. But due to the lack of adaptability of our curriculum, they end up learning things that have already become obsolete.

We need to fix this soon. Expertise from different fields needs to be sought when designing this curriculum.

SSL is an employee-driven organization. The management seldom interferes in the daily affairs of the organization. The executive do their own planning and set goals. We present those plans in AGM and different meetings.

Future Startup

Mobile is eating the world. You started VAS for feature-phones but smartphones are now becoming the default since the price of smartphone is going down rapidly. Accessibility to media content on the internet is rising every day. So, soon, many of the value added mobile services you provide will lose its demand. How are you thinking of tackling this challenge? Also, your clientele, mobile operators, whom you provide VAS services are also getting into content generation, operators like GP and Robi have become content providers which, by the way, is against net neutrality. But, since, we don't have proper regulations in place yet, it's a huge challenge. What do you think about that?

Ashish Chakraborty

You have pointed out the major challenges that we are facing now. To be honest with you, we have yet to figure our solution for every one of them. If you talk about basic challenges, we are trying to adjust to the technological shifts--from feature phones to smartphones.

We are adapting by changing our revenue focus from one domain to another and improving and changing our products.

The other issues, like net neutrality, we depend on government and policy. There have been talks going in the government, especially BASIS is trying very hard to push this issue. It needs time, but I'm very hopeful.

Other than that, we are doing what we do best in order to tackle this shift and challenge and it is understanding our customers better and solving their daily life problems better.

We always look out for the needs of our customers. We work on things that can enrich their daily lives. Dealing with financial technologies, we try to address customer problems in that space. Say your child studies at a school where, every month, you take a considerable amount of hassle to pay the tuition fees. We would try to address this problem and see whether automation is a feasible solution.

If you need help with planning the best itinerary for your trip of a lifetime, we are working on that.

Currently, our research wing is trying to develop new kinds of products. We are also working on financial inclusion.that said, all these new services and products remain to be seen.

Future Startup

As you have mentioned earlier, you have many departments and product priorities within the organization. This has twofold aspects: one is that you may find it hard to focus as an organization. On the other hand, working on an array of areas gives you the scope to test different types of ideas and collaborate better. How do you find it?

Ashish Chakraborty

Well, let me explain our organogram for you. Every wing at SSL has a manager who looks after it. That executive is solely concerned with the operation of that particular wing. Although the management ultimately finalizes the budgets, but the executives are in charge of running everything for that wing and he makes the final call for operational decisions.

SSL is an employee-driven organization. The management seldom interferes in the daily affairs of the organization. The executive do their own planning and set goals. We present those plans in AGM and different meetings.

In the case of yearly plans, we generally do it in advance. For example, we have completed planning for 2017 in the last month of 2016. We determined what sectors to work in and how much to invest.

We have some criteria here. The main KPI for sales-related departments, for example, is target volume; for finance and accounting department, it is cost-minimization.

In the case of our daily activities, we break down our targets on a day-to-day basis. We use software to do that, such as--CRM, where we can design our KPIs. The supervisors in each department have the responsibility to monitor those KPIs.

We ensure an environment of accountability within the organization. That said, every one of the company owns the company. They feel like they are running their own company. We do not believe in putting pressure.

Ashish Chakraborty
Ashish Chakraborty

Future Startup

As a COO, how do you manage your schedule and prioritize?

Ashish Chakraborty

As I have the responsibility to work with all the different departments, I need to be very careful. If I fail to manage properly, it will be a disaster, so to speak. I oversee the financial growth of the company and whether the operation is going according to plan.

Add to that, when senior managers come to me with their proposals, I try to assess them with my own expertise and the network. I correct if anything needs to be amended and I learn if anything is new.

As a culture, we delegate things and are open and work in a collaborative manner.

Apart from that, I personally work with some goals which I divide into two types: financial and non-financial or developmental. I arrange my order of works according to those goals.

For example, I work on some independent projects in which I do not include others until I'm sure of their feasibility. I usually run 3 to 4 such projects every year.

We ensure an environment of accountability within the organization. That said, every one of the company owns the company. They feel like they are running their own company. We do not believe in putting pressure.

Future Startup

What are your plans for the future?

Ashish Chakraborty

In the fields we are working, we are the pioneer. We plan to pioneer in some other fields as well in the coming years.

We want to do things that have a lasting impact on society. Our mission is to change people's lifestyle and help people to be better at what they do.

If I can provide you with a benefit today, you'll choose me in the future. That's why we focus more on providing benefits than just selling. This is the mindset we want to cultivate over the coming years. In the coming years, we have plans to work with wallets and digital advertising and a couple more interesting products.

[su_note note_color="#ffffff" text_color="#050a45" radius="15"]This story is made possible in part by our friends at Thinkpool, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. Thinkpool helps brands to maintain seamless digital presence, please go to Thinkpool to know more.[/su_note]

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Ashekan, Edited by Ruhul Kader and Nezam Uddin

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