The Story of Style Mart: How Starting Small and Dogged Determination Helped This Founder To Build A Profitable Online Business In Dhaka

The Story of Style Mart: How Starting Small and Dogged Determination Helped This Founder To Build A Profitable Online Business In Dhaka

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In 2013, Md. Saiful Islam, Founder and CEO of Style Mart – a Dhaka based online fashion retailer, started an online business named ‘03 Shop’ jointly with his two friends. The same year he graduated with a degree in Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering (ETE) from one of the leading private universities in the country. “A few months into the business, we realized that the business was not doing well in reality,” says Mr. Islam. “We were losing money. Despite that, we decided to continue for few more months. But after around 9 months we decided to pull the plug due to recurring losses. We lost quite a bit of money trying ‘03 Shop’. That was my first business and first major failure.”

“Failure is often a deal breaker for many” but Mr. Islam decided to try again. In 2014, he gathered a small capital from family and friends and started an online small business.

“When I decided to start Style Mart,” says Islam, “I consciously decided to start it small. This was a lesson I learned from our failure in the first venture which failed despite the fact that we had started it with a relatively handsome investment.” Today Style Mart brings in half a million taka in revenue per month and employs five people and growing.

In this interview, brought to you by Ajkerdeal.com, Mr. Saiful shares his journey to building a profitable online business, trials and tribulations he has had to endure, lessons from his journey and his future plans for Style Mart.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your background and what you are working on now.

Md. Saiful Islam

I studied Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering (ETE) at Daffodil International University. Being an ETE graduate, I always wanted to do something in the field of technology.

After completing my graduation in 2012 I along with a few of my friends started an online business. We launched a website named ‘O3 Shop’ at the end of 2013. Initially, everything started quite well. We were getting good orders and business was doing well. In fact, we were getting orders from abroad.

A few months into the business, we realized that the business was not doing well in reality. We were losing money. Despite that, we decided to continue for few more months. But after around 9 months we decided to pull the plug due to recurring losses. We lost quite a bit of money trying ‘03 Shop’. That was my first business and first major failure.

My other partners decided not to pursue online business anymore. But I wanted to do something in this space. I took notes of mistakes we made and decided to start again with renewed vigor.

I think we often talk about failure outside of the context of reality. While the idea that we should fail fast and learn and try again is a good one, it is not often that easy to stand up every time you fail. Particularly, when you fail at your first attempt. The feeling is disheartening and for many, it is a deal breaker. I would suggest instead, try hard to not fail. Having said that, failure is undoubtedly the best teacher. After a failure, your perspective about things will change forever.

As I mentioned earlier, after the disaster of 2013, I did not think of quitting. Instead, in early 2014, I started again. This time on a small scale as a Facebook page, which is now popularly known as F-commerce. That’s how Style Mart came into existence. We mostly offer lifestyle products and have been growing pretty consistently.

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I think we often talk about failure outside of the context of reality. While the idea that we should fail fast and learn and try again is a good one, it is not often that easy to stand up every time you fail. Particularly, when you fail at your first attempt. The feeling is disheartening and for many, it is a deal breaker. I would suggest instead, try hard to not fail. Having said that, failure is undoubtedly the best teacher. After a failure, your perspective about things will change forever.

Future Startup

What went into building initial operation of Style Mart? Please give us an overview of your operation now.

Md. Saiful Islam

When I decided to start Style Mart, I consciously decided to start it small. This was a lesson I learned from our failure in the first venture which failed despite the fact that we had started it with a relatively handsome investment.

In 2014, I raised a small investment of BDT 30,000 from my family and friends and that was our total investment at that time. I invested my time and effort and worked really hard.

We started with a mere Facebook page. We had no brick and mortar showroom. In fact, we just signed a deal for our first showroom recently.

Our first product was high-quality bracelets. We targeted high-end customers which worked and helped us to grow consistently in the early days.

Initially, we used to rely on mainstream courier services for delivery. We now use services of eCourier and Pathao and a few others for logistics.

We are a team of 4 people and growing. Apart from our Facebook page, we also sell on platforms like Ajkerdeal and a few others.

We are now focusing on locally made female lifestyle products. We sell both our in-house designs as well as designs of others. We also sell Indian replica products that we source from importers. We used to sell cosmetics which we have stopped selling for a while now due to import related challenges.

Apart from these regular products, we also sell quirky products such as selfie stick. We probably sold the highest number of selfie sticks on Ajkerdeal than any other vendor.

We generate about quarter to half a million BDT worth of revenue per month. We sell in between 1500 to 2000 items per month. 6 to 10% of our sales come from marketplaces such as ajkerdeal and others. However, this number is growing now. Our average basket size per customer is in between BDT 700 to 2000.

Future Startup

How does your operation work?

Md. Saiful Islam

In early days, we used to source products from different places including Ibrahimpur in Dhaka. After doing this for a while, we found out that we could produce the same products ourselves at a much lower cost. That’s when we decided to get into production ourselves.

We now manufacture most of our products in-house while sourcing a small quantity from outside, mostly Indian replica products.

We take a rather low-risk strategy when it comes to production. We don’t own any production facility yet. Rather we hire block workers and machine man contractually for a certain number of orders.

Communication is a challenge for us now. Being a small business, we can’t afford to have a big marketing budget which limits our ability to reach more people. At the same, the cost of reaching people through facebook has increased a lot and it is becoming more expensive every day.

Style Mart on Ajkerdeal

Style Mart on Ajkerdeal

Future Startup

What were some of the major challenges you faced in the early days?

Md. Saiful Islam

The first challenge was the family and social expectation that after graduation one should pursue a job and choose a stable career. Doing business is not something our society takes positively yet, more so when you graduate with an engineering degree.

My family naturally expected me to pursue a more stable career after graduating from a private university with an engineering degree. When they saw that I was into this business thing, they felt disappointed initially. Moreover, relatives and friends were there to make things more difficult! However, gradually they have become convinced that I’m doing something meaningful. They are now my strongest supporters.

The other challenge was fear. After my first business, I worked at a company for a year where I used to get a good salary at the end of the month. Contrary to that, starting a business is always risky and you need to meet the expectation of others regardless of what you do. Overcoming the fear that whether I would be able to grow the business was a challenge for the first few months.

Over the years the competition has grown significantly. Thanks to the internet which has driven down the cost of starting a business. However, we have learned to offer better service and products and believe that when you offer best products, competition does not matter.

In the early days, we had to face difficulties in convincing sellers to do business with us due to our small quantity of orders. Many who took orders after much pleading could not deliver right products on time. However, we have managed to overcome these challenges over the past few years.

Future Startup

What are the challenges now?

Md. Saiful Islam

Communication is a challenge for us now. Being a small business, we can’t afford to have a big marketing budget which limits our ability to reach more people. At the same, the cost of reaching people through facebook has increased a lot and it is becoming more expensive every day.

The second challenge is the competition. The entry barrier is quite low in this business. You can simply start selling opening a Facebook page. Many people start a business in this line without knowing much about the challenges of starting and running a business. Consequently, things end up in a sort of price competition.

Many new entrants think that once they acquire customers by offering low price they would be able to grow later. But in an undifferentiated market, it is hard to attract customers for a long time. Many of these newcomers fail to serve customers properly due to competitive pricing which causes a negative perception among the users about independent online sellers which is a growing challenge for us.

On top of that, designs easily get copied because there is little option for copyright protection. As a result, you have to continuously produce new designs and accept the fact that your competitors will copy them.

Apart from that, there are fake reviews where people intentionally give negative reviews and there are fake pages of the same name that cause new challenges for us.

Future Startup

How have you attracted customers and grown your business?

Md. Saiful Islam

Apart from regular outreach activities, we send promotional messages to our existing customers when we launch new products and offers.

One of our key strategies has been working hard to retain our existing customers while adding new customers. Maintaining a strong relationship with our customers is a priority for us.

Building an ecommerce platform from scratch is expensive, instead, we have decided to be present on all the leading marketplaces in the country so that we can reach out to more customers. We believe this will give us a growth boost as we move forward.

We have started working on our website and hope to launch it soon. Once we have the website, we believe we will be able to build a community around it as well.

First of all, you need to have patience and persistence to survive in this line of work. You have to work hard every day regardless of your mood and feeling and difficulties and challenges, only then you will be able to survive. Entrepreneurship demands an extreme level of hard work.

Future Startup

How do you differentiate yourself from other similar brands in the market like yours?

Md. Saiful Islam

Original design is one of key competitive advantage. We offer designs that you would not find elsewhere. Going forward, we plan to invest more in designs to make sure that our products stand out in the market.

Since we control the production, we can also control the price which allows us to offer a competitive price to our customers. This has served us well over the past years.

Finally, customer service has been a priority for us from the very beginning. When we receive a complaint, we try to solve it immediately.

Future Startup

What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far?

Md. Saiful Islam

First of all, you need to have patience and persistence to survive in this line of work. You have to work hard every day regardless of your mood and feeling and difficulties and challenges, only then you will be able to survive. Entrepreneurship demands an extreme level of hard work.

Secondly, you have to learn and develop yourself. We live in a fast-changing world. Things move fast. If you are not learning every day, you will fall behind.

There is a saying that winners never quit and quitters never win. This is entrepreneurship in nutshell. If you don’t die, you win.

Future Startup

What are the future plans for Style Mart?

Md. Saiful Islam

Our plan is to offer locally produced and culturally relevant products to our customers. We want to be a reliable fashion brand that will offer superior products and designs and ensure best in class customer service. On the product side, we plan to expand our product category as we go forward.

We are about to open our first retail store in Dhaka. We have completed the paperwork and plan to launch our first retail store soon. Our ambition is to open one retail store in every divisional city in the country which will work as communication and distribution hub for us.

As I said earlier, be patient. In an early stage business, everything takes a long time to happen. If you are not ready for waiting for months after months before turning a profit, don’t think of starting a business.

Future Startup

If you could start all over again, what are a few things that you would do differently?

Md. Saiful Islam

I would be more customer-centric from the day one. Learning about the product is important regardless of the nature of your business. I would invest more time in understanding our product and ensure that we offer quality products to our customers.

Another mistake I made was not starting my own production early enough. I would go for my own production from the day one because I had a lot of trouble in dealing with other producers who did not want to supply small quantity.

Style Mart's Ajkderdeal shop screenshot (On November 27, 2017)

Style Mart’s Ajkderdeal shop screenshot (On November 27, 2017)

Future Startup

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

Md. Saiful Islam

I have been working with Ajkerdeal for over three years now. From early days, they have been a tremendous support to us. Apart from regular business, they have helped us all the time with promotion and advice.

To be honest, BDT 30,000 was not a sizeable investment even for 2014. It was beyond insufficient. Support from partners like Ajkerdeal and others has helped us to grow despite our many limitations.

Mr. Rokonuzzaman Raju of Ajkerdeal regularly helps us with product selection and other business challenges. We added female products on their suggestion.

I would also like to thank e-cab for their immense contribution to the industry. They have done a phenomenal work in helping small businesses grow.

Find your niche and be consistent. Don’t always go for the next big thing because if you continue chasing the next big thing you would end up not having an identity for yourself. Truly own your niche and build on it.

Future Startup

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

Md. Saiful Islam

Understanding your industry before starting a business is critical. It not only helps your offer better solutions to your customers, it also gives you confidence of knowing. E-commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-cab) blog has some great resources for starting a small online business, explore.

There is no lack of resources online these days, explore and understand before starting your business. Understand your customers, product, and market and then start. It will increase your odds of success.

As I said earlier, be patient. In an early stage business, everything takes a long time to happen. If you are not ready for waiting for months after months before turning a profit, don’t think of starting a business.

Find your niche and be consistent. Don’t always go for the next big thing because if you continue chasing the next big thing you would end up not having an identity for yourself. Truly own your niche and build on it.

Our plan is to offer locally produced and culturally relevant products to our customers. We want to be a reliable fashion brand that will offer superior products and designs and ensure best in class customer service. On the product side, we plan to expand our product category as we go forward.

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