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How I Built This: An Interview with Nitai Sarker (Partha), Founder and CEO, Ortha

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Nitai Sarker (Partha) is the founder and CEO of Ortha, a Dhaka based premium home-decor brand with a specific focus on the bedsheet. Started with a small personal saving as an investment and one man operation, the company is now a team of three and generates a couple of hundreds thousands taka in monthly revenue and has become one of the promising online home-decor brands.

That said, while Ortha now has a steady and growing business, the story of Partha is not as straightforward. Rather, it is a story of struggle, difficulties and sheer persistence. Mr. Partha has seen and endured an abundance of hardships starting from a lengthy period of unemployment, that too after graduating with a BBA degree, a growing reality for many young graduates in the country, and working without pay and more. Even after starting Ortha, as a solo founder, he had to do almost everything of the business for a long time starting from sourcing to delivery of products. Some of those stories are incredibly moving.

The one advantage, however, Mr. Partha has always enjoyed is his strength of character and ability to endure. Instead of giving in to despair, challenges often has made him resilient. Instead of sitting around, he has always tried things which eventually led to the founding of Ortha.

This story, supported by Ajkerdeal.com, is about the journey of Mr. Partha to what he is doing today, about the reality many young people have to endure in our society, about Ortha, about entrepreneurship and about what it takes to build something from scratch. This story is about life.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your journey to what you are doing today.

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

I was born and brought up in Chandpur District. My father was a government employee and my mother was a school teacher. I had a wonderful childhood. I have been entrepreneurial since my childhood. I used to set up small stalls at the village fair and try to sell something every year. Although my parents did not encourage it, I enjoyed it wholeheartedly.

I remember one particular story of my fascination with business. One day, a guest came to our house with a bag of apple. Usually, that’s the culture in our society, guests bring something when they come, a sort of gift for the host. In one opportune moment, I took all the fruits and sold it to people using only a tool and table. I was that obsessed with doing business. The learning was that you always don’t need monetary investment to start a business, investment can be other things such your creativity, effort etc.

I was a tenacious and lively kid growing up. My parents had to fetch me every time I wandered off without notifying them.

In class 9, I chose business studies division as the first person to do so from my family. My favorite subject was Accounting.

After my HSC, I moved to Comilla for college. College was a different life for me. Apart from academic studies, it taught me living alone, and self-reliance. It taught me that we need to take responsibility for ourselves and solve our problems with efforts and dedication. To be honest, I was a moderate student throughout my student life. I was not good at memorizing things. However, I tried my best to overcome that limitation with studying regularly.

After college, I came to Dhaka and started BBA at Eastern University in 2008. At college, I became fascinated with marketing. Mostly because of the job prospects in the market. I came to understand that marketing executives often get better benefits at the job.

At university, I learned a lot. One of our Faculty who taught us Service Marketing shared an anecdote one day that has remained with me since that salesmanship is an important quality which we undervalue in our culture whereas salesmen are well-respected in many other parts of the world.

I learned the importance of punctuality of kindness from Dr. Zakaria Rahman sir who taught us Principles of Management. Later in my university life, I became quite close to sir. He became my mentor and advisor. I used to go to him with any kind of problems and he tried to help me as much as he could. Moreover, he used to take me and one of my friends with him whenever he used to go outside Dhaka. He is now the Chairman of Faculty of Business Studies of Kushtia Islamic University.

After graduation, I did an internship at Fortuna Bangladesh, a footwear company as a course requirement. That too with the help from one of my teachers whom I feared most and avoided as much as I could during my entire university life.

After joining, I was transferred to Sylhet. Sylhet was is a different market. There were few but mostly high-volume customers compared to what we see in Dhaka.

At Fortuna, I learned the value of customer service. In many instances, customer service is not a popular idea in our market. But I have a fascination for customer service. I think it allows us to build a lasting connection with customers. I remember one instance from my Fortuna days, one day, a female customer came to buy shoes at our shop and I assisted her. I put the shoes on her feet whereas the salesman and other interns were reluctant to do so. I helped her with making the choice with giving helpful feedback and opinion. The result: she bought two pairs of shoes - one for her mother and one for her. I stayed at Sylhet for three days. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at customer service during those days.

After the internship, I was unemployed for the next 6 months. I was done with my studies but I could not manage a decent job for me. It was an extremely difficult phase of my life.

I graduated in 2012 with a BBA degree and BBA graduate was the most easily available thing at that time which made the situation even direr. After trying for a while without any luck, I started helping my uncle in his pharmacy at Old Dhaka. Doing an unpaid pharmacy staff work for your uncle after having a BBA degree is not something everyone can endure. It was suffocating experience. I was heartbroken but I was not frustrated. Instead of giving up, I was looking for opportunities to do something of my own.

The pharmacy had a little unoccupied and unused space beside it. After much thought, I started a flexiload shop in that space without notifying my parents.

Trying to control everything has its downside as well. Sometimes while delivering the product, I get to experience difficulties realities. One day, I had to wait around 2 hours for a customer to come down and receive a product where I was drenched in the rain. This efforts and time will not be given by anyone other than the owner.

The value of any good education is that it remains with you and you can apply it anywhere if you are willing. Since I was a BBA graduate, my way of dealing with customers was naturally different which helped me find a place in the market in no time. Customers used to love the way I treated them. Consequently, I was doing better than the previously established shops around me. Many of my customers used to pay me in advance to give them flexiload whenever necessary. Some people knew why I started a flexiload. Although I was surviving with the monthly income from the shop, flexiload business was not something I was looking for. While running the shop, I continued to look for other opportunities.

After 6 months of graduation and subsequent unemployment and running a flexiload shop for 5 months, I got a call from Fortuna Bangladesh for a full-time position in their e-commerce wing in 2013. Though the initial salary was not that lucrative, I had to take the offer just to survive.

My alumni and my boss had told me that, starting with a small salary is not an issue and if you work hard and can deliver on your job, you will go far.

I used to handle product photography, product uploading, inventory management and even the customer and order management. In simple, I was into everything. During my time at Fortuna, I developed a hearing problem because I was overly exposed to query management issues over the phone and other devices. It was an incredible experience for me. Almost 80% of the e-commerce clients of my company knew me and they wanted to do business with me. Sometimes, I used to call them on the weekends to maintain the relationship. I really enjoyed working hard and seeing the result of my work.

We used to close e-commerce site 3 days before Eid but the showrooms used to remain open till the night before Eid. I used to go and work in the showroom as a salesman just to know more and see more about the products even though I was on official vacation. I did that because I enjoyed the customer service and their satisfaction. This eventually led to some opportunities for me. I was sent to attend some programs and events related to e-commerce in Dhaka on behalf of my company.

One day, mother-in-law of my showroom manager came to our showroom to buy shoes. I did not know her identity and treated her as all of my customers and that is helping her with her purchase. She was really touched by this and told his son and daughter about the politeness of it. I enjoyed these small things with my customers.

Throughout my time at Fortune, I worked to make sure that we deliver the best possible service for our customers. I used to put satisfaction of my customers at the top of our priority list all the time. Sometimes, I used to push the showrooms for giving products to my customers through e-commerce which was not admired by a lot of people as it would not increase the sales of the showroom and would increase that of e-commerce. I prioritized convenience of our customers above all.

I remember many small memories from those days. In one instance, one of the apprentices mistakenly interchanged two orders which made one of our customers really angry. The apprentice, I and my superior, the three of us could not calm him down on the day he received the order. At one point, he disconnected the phone. After a while, I called him again and apologized for his inconvenience and promised to solve the problem. My target was to make him happy with us with or without our product. So, I called him again after 3 days and tried to convince him not to hold the anger. Eventually, he purchased another product from us after some time.

After working for two and a half year in eCommerce, I wanted a change. I always wanted to start something of my own. One of the reasons I joined Fortuna was to learn about ecommerce, gather experience and build a network. During my two and a half years at Fortune, I learned a tremendous amount. I felt that now I can start something of my own. After much thought, I resigned from Fortuna in December 2015. By that time, I also completed my MBA.

I created an event management page on Facebook while working at Fortuna called ‘Ortha’. I occasionally used to post and promote some products from my page but it was not fully business purpose.

At the same time, I was closely watching ajkerdeal.com and other e-commerce pages to develop an understanding of the business. I realized that if you want to start at a small scale, starting an online shop does not require much capital. I could buy from manufacturers and sell anything and everything through my page.

When I decided to go forward, I placed an order for some boutique cloths from an e-commerce site to know how it works. Fortunately, I got an opportunity to speak to the owner of the boutique. I pitched my business proposal to her. She gladly listened to me and supported me in the very early days. I am grateful to her for her support in those days.

After running the business for a while, I got an order of around BDT 38,000 from one client. I was surprised. To some extent, I was in disbelief as well. I called the customer to ensure the order. Even after the confirmation, I was not sure whether to go for it or not as there were many frauds back in those days. After much back and forth, I decided to take the risk. I invested my personal savings to purchase the products and fulfill the order. The client was shifting from Comilla to Dhaka and was late in payment. In the end, he took the products and was very happy with the quality and our service. He took a picture of the products and I shared those through my Facebook page. This actually turned into a habit and tradition of my business. I think I probably have the most selfies with customers in the whole e-commerce industry.

I deliver my products by myself rather than using a 3rd party logistic service. This allows me to interact directly with my customers, satisfy their queries about the product, get their feedback to further improve my business.

In ecommerce, you can’t do much around product apart from ensuring best possible quality, the only thing that makes a difference is customer service. If you can deliver best customer service it would help you to build a loyal customer base. While product quality remains a steady priority, I work hard to ensure the best service for my customers.

On top of that, I invest effort regularly to better understand my customers. In the early days, I used to cut loose threads of the products when I bought them from the factory and do the packaging on my own so that customers do not have to go through the hassle.

Trying to control everything has its downside as well. Sometimes while delivering the product, I get to experience difficulties realities. One day, I had to wait around 2 hours for a customer to come down and receive a product where I was drenched in the rain. This efforts and time will not be given by anyone other than the owner.

My strategy is slow and steady. We are now planning to create a studio production unit in order to have more control on overall business.

In 2016, I came across an opportunity to receive mentorship from Mr. Debashis Phani through a training program organized by ‘Startup Bangladesh’ in 2016. I believe that was the breakthrough of my business. Though our formal mentor-mentee relation is over for a long time, I still consider him as my mentor.

Previously, I was doing many things at once and selling many different types of products starting from gift items to jewelry to ladies clothes. He advised me to focus solely on one thing: on the bedsheet, deleting all other lines and items. He added that 70% of my customers were interested in the bedsheet and not the other items. Moreover, the other items and product lines were susceptible to color deformation and other quality problems.

He suggested me to focus on the home decor items for at least 3 years so that people can know the brand through that. He used to tell me to be passionate and dedicated to the business but not to be a drunk on the business.

I also mention the name of Mr. Razib Ahmed, President of e-CAB, who was a great inspiration to me. I had to endure a lot of struggles in the early days. I could not take money from my parents, at the same time had to live and save money for further investment in the business. He helped me and inspired me during those difficult days. Whenever I went to him with problems, frustrations, and obstacles, he would encourage us to be persistent and keep trying.

I am grateful to Ms. Jafrin Farid, one of my faculties at Eastern University, who is a constant source of support and guidance for me. She has seen my struggles and has always been there for me. Although she is staying abroad, we maintain regular communication with her. She has recently gifted Ortha some furniture to help us in our operation and store. I and my team, we are grateful to her for her generosity and constant support.

Through the hard work and dedication, I have managed to build a business that works for our customers. The biggest achievement of my two years journey is that my product returning rate is zero. I achieved this through impeccable time management and customer-centric business. From the day one, I was aware of the fact that, a loyal customer base can generate up to 95% profit of my business.

In 2016, I was faced with another obstacle. During the Ramadan Eid, an artificial crisis far. and I could not find any products. It was a difficult period. And I had to ask for money for the first time from my parents.

Fortunately, through hard work and hustle, I could overcome the crisis of Eid and managed to sell around BDT 6.5 lakh. Initially, I used to do all the things of my business on my own starting from designing products to delivery. I used to bring products from the factory and then carry them on the 6th floor of my house all alone. I used to do this twice each day in the month of Ramadan. In Ramadan, my father was visiting me in Dhaka and he saw me doing this for a couple of days. He cried seeing me like this. I believe it was a good sign for me.

I do my designs myself which allows me to come closer to my customers and sell those to online and retailers. Now, I have 4 regular retailers who take my products and sell on online. Over the time, my business has grown significantly. Sometimes, I face difficulty in meeting the demand of the retailers because of large quantity. I could survive all these just because of the persistence and endurance.

My target is to be in a good position by the year 2021. Right now, I have one machine. My ambition is to grow to 21 machines by 2021 and build a small factory set up by 2021.

My ambition is to make Ortha one of leading bedsheet brands in the country. I want to establish Ortha in a position that whenever people think about bedsheet they will consider Ortha.

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Future Startup

Why did you choose to start an eCommerce company that too in home-decor space?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

One particular reason is, of course, a fascination for trying out new technology.

The more practical reason, of course, is that you can start a small e-commerce business with a relatively small investment and I did not have a lot of investment initially. On the top of that, I worked at an eCommerce company for more than two years which gave me confidence that with my skills and experience if I start an eCommerce business I can make it work.

Digital has opened up a whole new world. Anyone can access to anything no matter where you live. Anyone from any part of the country can now take and use my products if they like the design and it is possible only because of e-commerce. For instance, my products went to many districts and even abroad indirectly or directly. This was possible because the internet has broken down the border.

The other reason is more around the growing trend in how we shop and consume things. We are becoming increasingly busy. A growing number of people now prefer to shop online which made me realize that online is the future.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your initial funding, current business operations, process, and team.

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

I did not need much funding at in the beginning since I started small. Whatever small investment I needed, I invested it from my savings of the previous job. We are a team of 3 people, right now. I personally design the products. One of my teammates helps me in design, another work in preparing the products and the other one manages our social media page.

That said, I do everything. I do not hesitate to take up any task regarding the business. I even sit to stitch and wash the products if I have to.

We are a growing business and in the process of expanding my team which will enable us to produce and handle more products and business operations. Another benefit of having a good team is that it will allow me to shift my focus to strategic decision-making rather than operation.

We are a customer-focused company. Our customers are the marketers of my products and they are the buyers. A significant number of our new customers come through referrals. For example, all the residents of this building have become my clients. I came and told all of them about my products and they started buying it. They also spread the news among their relatives and neighbors about the bedsheet that I supply. So, the neighbors and friends are coming to my house to buy bedsheets or at least to see my products. They are happy because they are getting my quality products at a lower price than the market.

Currently, we do not have a production facility of our own. My producer works from his place to make the products after I give him the design. We have a machine here which allows us to do some small work when necessary. We buy the fabric and raw materials from outside and use them according to our products.


Future Startup

How much revenue is Ortha generating now?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

Our monthly revenue is about a couple of hundred thousands taka monthly and growing. Last year, we almost reached our annual revenue goal.

My mentors have suggested me to monitor the business weekly instead of doing it monthly. In that way, the figures will be small but it will provide data that can be used to design response to the changes in the market or sales. Moreover, it allows to design plans weekly, monthly, quarterly and half yearly.

Future Startup

What were the challenges that you had faced in the early days? What about the challenges now?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

The current challenges are harder than the past ones. When I started this business, I started it out of passion and emotion. But over the years it has become my livelihood and source of earning which means the stake is high now and it is now a much serious affair and requires more careful decision-making. Simply because the business has become a thing, it is now more critical to be careful about it.

The competition has grown over the years and it is becoming increasingly challenging to maintain product differentiation. Creating a competitive advantage is now tough more than ever.

The current challenge is around bringing new designs and unique products to attract customers. Moreover, the bundle of garments is very expensive and the stocking option is also limited for me. As a result, I can not stock the products as much as I want. These are a couple of challenges we are facing now. However, we are working hard and putting strategies in work to deal with these challenges.

My strategy is slow and steady. We are now planning to create a studio production unit in order to have more control on overall business.

Future Startup

What is the marketing and communication strategy? How do you reach out to customers?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

There are two parts: one is our suppliers and the other is customers. I personally communicate with the fabric supplier. I do not delegate this responsibility to any of my people. My target is to keep the total cost as low as possible so that I can charge lower price from my customers. So far, our suppliers have been very supportive.

For my customers, I try to keep the communication as organic as possible. In the last two years, we probably spent at best $100 in Facebook marketing. That said, we are mostly Facebook-based and that’s where we invest mostly.

Future Startup

How do you deal with the challenges and obstacles in your business?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

I love my work starting from talking to suppliers and designing products to delivering the products and talking with the customers. Since I love doing all of it, I do not feel demotivated or stiff when I come across a challenge. I get to deal with huge pressure before Eid and other festivals and I have to run twice faster and harder to maintain the demand. That said, I enjoy this challenge. The only problem that I can not solve is the traffic jam in Dhaka. This thing is sucking the life out of the inhabitants of this city.

As a result, even if I want to, I can not go to every customer. I have to be selective based on different criteria to deliver products on my own. I look for a business prospect in the customer and choose according to that.

I try to finish my day’s work on a daily basis rather than delaying works for tomorrow. This has personal cost as well, I sometimes need to sacrifice my personal priorities in order to meet the demand of my business.

To understand my customers better, I maintain regular communication with my most loyal customers. Moreover, I use a secret group to determine and discuss designs, fabric and other color related issues with my customers so that I can come up with designs that my customers love.

The position that Ortha now has reached is only because of the help and support of countless people. This is the biggest lesson of my life that you can't-do it alone.

Nitai Sarkaer (Partha)
Nitai Sarkaer (Partha)

Future Startup

How would you differentiate Ortha from other similar brands and products in the market?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

The first differentiation is our custom design. The customers can not find it elsewhere and our every design is distinct. That’s one.

The second thing about Ortha is our customer service. I know my customers very well and I know potential customers profile and taste around home decor. That is why I can produce things that attract them and their neighbors. Moreover, the dedication and affection towards the products and their finishing is another thing customers like about Ortha.

The third is the quality of our products. When I finish a design, I use it on my bed to experience and feel the product so that I can be sure of the quality. This keeps me confident about my product and my information about the product stays reliable and honest.

Future Startup

What is your future plan for Ortha?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

My vision is to reach out to every household in the country. It will take some time but I am trying my best to achieve this vision.

By 2021, I want to establish Ortha as the best brand for home decor and bedsheet in the digital space.

We have plans to open our own showrooms by 2019 in Dhaka and gradually expand outside Dhaka. Showrooms are even more necessary for the outside Dhaka because e-commerce is not that much popular outside Dhaka. The customers can come and physically check the products if they like.

Moreover, it will create a good impression on the suppliers since they still feel don't feel comfortable with an online business. Additionally, for wholesale and bulk purchase, people still trust showroom operations where they can see and touch the products themselves. So, my plan is to open showrooms in Chittagong and Sylhet in the first phase after some time.

We want to grow as a team as well. The goal is to grow to a 15-person team by 2019. I want to create employment opportunities for more people.

If I consider the product line, I started with the bedsheet and still doing it. My plan is to capture the bedroom items market. I have already started doing wall curtains matching with the bedsheet. I am looking at Sofa covers and Cushion design. In the end, I might go into the furniture design as well to match and coordinate the whole bedroom of a family. I am moving forward step by step with all these plans to capture the bedroom.

Future Startup

How long have you been working with Ajkerdeal.com? How has your experience been with Ajkerdeal?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

It is almost around one year we have been working with them. Our relationship with them is very good. I personally know 80% of their team members and they know me. They have supported me all the time. I was the first merchant from Ajkerdeal.com to go live in their program. It is nothing but their love and support and that is something I am grateful for. I consider them as my family as they consider Ortha as a family as well. We are doing good business through Ajkerdeal. In a month, we get around BDT 80,000 to 1,00,000 of sales revenue from ajkerdeal.

Future Startup

You have come a long way on your own overcoming countless obstacles and problems. What are your major lessons from all these years of hard work?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

The first one is that everyone will support you if you do business ethically. You have to be honest, reliable and trustworthy with your promises and words. People will help you only if they find goodness and honesty in you. If they do not find it, you will face trouble getting help.

I personally give importance to networking. I tried to mix and catch up with anyone and everyone that I could. The greatest thing about e-commerce is that it takes only one click and only one order to change everything. We do not know who will be that person to give us that big, life-changing order. So, trying constantly and take every opportunity as your last and most important opportunity because one chance can change everything.

The third is support others in order to receive support. I maintain relationships with utmost sincerity and help people as much as I can. I am getting positive support from a lot of people for that.

The position that Ortha now has reached is only because of the help and support of countless people. This is the biggest lesson of my life that you can't-do it alone.

Future Startup

What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

Nitai Sarker (Partha)

Well, I do not have the position and expertise yet to give advice. However, I can share some experience. I have been in this industry for almost 5 years combining my experience at Fortuna and Ortha.

Many people start online businesses out of emotion and trend. They do not do any planning before starting it. Some people think that online business is all about profit and it is easy to make money online. But this is a limited understanding. There are endless challenges in this space. I think before starting a digital business one should understand it properly before starting an online business.

You have to properly study and understand the market and then and only then you should start in this sector. You may work at an e-commerce company to gather knowledge about the business process and problems more closely before starting your own business.

Tashnim is a Final year-Finance major of BBA department at Bangladesh University of Professionals. His interest revolves around entrepreneurs, their stories and taking an initiative to change society. Tashnim likes to think about technology with its impact on our business and lives. Say 'hi' to him at tasnimdrmc14@yahoo.com

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