24bazaar and How To Build A Profitable Online Business In Dhaka: An Interview With Mr. Maksudul Karim, Founder, 24bazaar.com
In 2012, Maksudul Karim started 24bazaar.com on the side while doing full-time job – selling home appliances online. After a few months, 24bazaar.com started to receive quite a good traction from the market that eventually led to Mr. Karim leaving his job to pay full attention to his slowly growing business.
Online business was not a thing yet in 2012. Very few people used to take it as something promising. But Karim saw the opportunity and worked hard persistently. Over the past several years, he has come a long way building a profitable online business on the way.
Having said that, it was not an easy journey for Karim. He had to endure his share of challenges and tribulations. And like most things in life, honest hard work also paid off for Karim. From a one-man operation, 24bazaar.com is now a team of 11 members and growing.
This is the story of Mr. Karim and his journey of, brought to you by Ajkerdeal.com, building a profitable business from scratch.
Please tell us about your background and what you working on now.
I started 24bazaar.com as a side project in 2012 while working full time for a company here in Dhaka. It was fulfilling job and not that I was not enjoying my work. However, I felt that I could do much more with my efforts than what I was already doing at the job. That was the trigger for starting 24bazaar.com. At the same time, I think I was passionate about entrepreneurship and doing something on my own.
I ran 24bazaar.com on the side for a while as a side project. I used to spend my free time and weekends on running the business. Eventually, it started to get some traction which again gave me more confidence as well as inspired me to pursue it full time. After much thought, I decided to leave my job and give full time to the business. Business requires you to working hard and at the same time it offers freedom and satisfaction when you love your work.
eCommerce was not a household thing back in 2012. We had a small number of players in the market such as OLX, bikroy etc. The market was not also ready yet. And the number of people shopping online was relatively slim. It is not that big even these days, but it was even smaller in 2012.
I started alone because it was hard to find a partner, more so for an eCommerce venture. Things are different today. Today, we are buying groceries to fashion to other necessities. Logistics was also a challenging affair.
Anyways, in our very early days we consciously made some decisions that are still helping us even these days. We started with offering uncommon yet useful products. Products that are not available in the local shops but if they can get them it would make lives of our users simple. Similarly, delivery charge for per delivery was around BDT 50 which means we had to make sure that we are selling medium to high value products that are expensive enough to justify the delivery charge. After much thought, we started with home appliances category, which we have been doing since then.
At that time, Asian Sky Shop was new into the market. They used to sell similar products. They did not have that many outlets in Dhaka and their products was neither sold in new market or in other local shops. Despite that people used to buy from them which sort helped us to validate our idea that there is demand. Our target was to offer unique and useful products at a reasonable price.
Our initial price range was between BDT 500 to BDT 1000 price because we were aware of the fact that trust in ecommerce was not that high at that time yet.
Today, we can see that people are prebooking products online and other things but it was beyond imagination in 2012. We certainly had hope, but it was just that, hope.
That’s how basically 24bazaar.com started. A very long answer.
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Why home appliances and why e-commerce?
Apart from a few reasons that I mentioned earlier, home and other living appliances are a regular need. It can be used all time. It is something that everyone of us need regardless of season. Moreover, it can be bought by anyone from the family unlike many other products where one particular member of the family makes the decision. For Instance, you might not use a peeler yourself but when you are browsing internet and come across a nice peeler that you think your mother would like, it is likely that you would buy it for your mother. This were part the hypothesis that we originally had when we started.
On the eCommerce part, although it was not apparent at that time, but I could see that eCommerce would go big in the near future. Moreover, starting an online business is relatively easier and affordable, I would say. You can start with a very small capital which is impossible if you want to start a brick and mortar business. You could also start it as a side project and then when you are having traction, you can move full time.
In many parts of the world, financing is easier but not in Bangladesh. In Dhaka, it is a real challenge. The banking system does not favor early-stage founders and venture money is yet to go mainstream.
There are other issues as well when it comes to starting an offline operation, starting from political issues to putting in systems and many other things.
In Short, non-seasonality, affordability, less capital and freedom of doing business was the key reasons of coming into ecommerce and home appliance products.
What went into launching the initial operation?
In the early days, we had started in partnership with bikroy.com which was quite popular at that time. We had a collaboration with Asian Sky Shop that acted as our supplier for some products. The initial goal was to attract as many customers as possible and retain them.
Marketing was a tough call at that time because digital marketing was not a thing yet and very few people had expertise about how to go about it. Logistics was another critical challenge. In many instances, I personally delivered products to customers.
The advantage we enjoyed initially was that many customers were engaging with us without our effort which was very encouraging for us. Even though we were called ‘Hawker’ by many people, our customers used to regard us highly which helped us a lot initially.
We mostly sell imported products which means a large part of our business is demand driven. We used to find products from all over the places and manage to bring products that fit with our context and add value to the lives of our customers. We don’t import ourselves directly. We have partnership with importers who supply us products according to our needs. We did not yet get into import because it is hard for us to manage the both end of the business.
We started really very small, with an investment of BDT 500. We started as an experiment to see what works and what does not. Instead of buying products, stocking and then going for selling, we used to buy in small quantity and then sell those products immediately to see the market response. We started with ‘Dish Line Quality Amplifier’ and ‘Memory Cards of 32 and 64 GB.’ These things were not that popular at that time. At the very first day of our business, we had 2 orders for ‘Dish Line Quality Amplifier’. We had bought those with a total of BDT 440. This was our investment on the first day. We sold the two products at BDT 1100 and making profit of almost BDT 700.
Eventually, we launched our website, opened a Facebook page and became more structured. Our strongest advantage was that we used to offer unique products which customers needed in their daily life. They just needed to see another way of doing the same things and we have shown it to them with our products. That’s how it all started.
BDT 500, a facebook page, sacrificing a stable life and the sheer willpower to do something on my own, was the only things that were with me.
Please give us an overview of your business today in-terms of people, size of operations etc.
Currently, we are a team of 11 full-timers and we have a good number of freelancers working with us mostly when workload grows. We have freelancers looking after all areas of our business starting from sourcing to photography to content preparing.
We prefer freelancing because we ourselves started with freelancing. Freelancers are always up for giving their best efforts for their projects and works as they are not paid monthly. It also allows us to control our overall cost.
We currently offer a host of products in diverse categories starting from home and living appliances, health and beauty products, handicrafts, accessories, and gadgets. Apart from that, we also offer products based on market trends and seasonality.
We do not have any physical outlet or showroom yet. However, we have an office and any of our customers or interested partners can come and meet us.
Please tell us about the challenges that you faced in the early days.
I mentioned a couple of the challenges around doing business such as logistics and a few others.
Apart from that, social stigma and perception was also a formidable challenge. Many people used to tell us that we do business on the air. Friends and family also did not support my decision of starting a business initially. They used to taunt me often. There was a huge psychological pressure. I have come from a middle-class family and for us, security and stable job, these things are critical. So it was a challenge.
In fact, it is often challenging to marry off young entrepreneurs because would be in-laws prefers job holders and professionals even if it is of that entrepreneur’s company.
Another challenge was around finding good people. Since we started small and initially, we had to go through challenges of building a stable business, it was hard to attract people. In fact, we had people who joined us for a brief period and left when they got better opportunities elsewhere.
Logistics, Social Stigma and Good people – were the challenges in the early days.
What are the challenges now?
The challenges now are quite different. We have scaled our business quite a bit over the past few years.
One of the major challenges is the growing competition in the online business space which is eroding our margin every day. It is so tough nowadays that in some products we are doing business at a loss just to be competitive in the market.
Another challenge is more powerful players are now entering the market and it is becoming challenging for smaller players like us to survive the competition.
Finally, we now need to invest in analytics and data so that we can make better decisions and design better strategy.
Can you please tell us a bit about your scale, monthly or yearly?
We are not that obsessed with numbers and growth. Rather our strategy is slow and steady and working hard for a long time to build a sustainable business.
Every month we serve about 600 orders only through ajkerdeal.com and more than 3000 orders combining all other platforms. We offer product starting from BDT 19 to BDT 10,000. We have a collection of over 500 different types of products that offer to our customers.
How does your marketing work?
Rather than increasing sales, we prefer to increase our reach. We always focus on that and we do not care if the customer is buying from us or not. Our target is to reach to new people and give them an experience.
We offer best possible price in our category and we make sure that our customers receive the best possible service. That’s also one of our priorities.
Over the past years, we have built a database of customers that we use to reach out to our customers with offers and product updates. In terms of tools and mediums, we use Facebook and email marketing.
We are also trying to attract different kinds of customers with our diversified products other than the electronics devices for the same purpose. For example, we would have room heater as the modern equipment and we would have the Nakshi Kantha as well to attract artistic customers.
How do you deal with the challenges that come with your business?
The first thing is mental preparation and persistence. There will be challenges and ups and downs and there will bad days and good days. The entire point is enduring and sticking to it no matter what.
You have to make the customers understand why they should buy from you and not from the other sellers of the same product. We ensure the highest quality products and best possible service.
Building lasting relationship with your customer is incredibly important for any business. We try to keep our commitment regardless of our profit or loss. We try to hold on to our promises and give our customers what we have committed to giving.
What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far?
It indispensable to be confident. When you are confident, the way you act and handle things radically changes. So the first lesson is: whatever you do, do it with confidence. Then and again, confidence comes from knowledge and commitment.
I think attitude is also critical. Maintaining a learning attitude and being humble, these things sound cliche but they make a meaningful difference.
Relationship is everything. Everything we do, we build relationship with people and it is that relationship that makes all the difference. Relationship means YOUR activities and steps that YOU take towards the other person and not the other way around. In business, being able to build a lasting connection with your customers is a privilege and without it do not ever think about building a lasting business.
Be honest and transparent. For instance, many sellers say that they would give a 10 year warranty of a product which is absurd in many cases. From our side, we differentiate and identify the warranty and non-warranty products to our customers beforehand. Due to this, we might lose a few customers but we build a relationship based on trust that last longer and far more stronger in nature.
Being Confident, Showing Humble Attitude, Keeping Relationship, Practicing Honesty and Transparency – are the biggest lessons and learnings for me.
What are the future plans for 24bazaar.com?
Our ambition is to create opportunities for people through building a sustainable business. One of the things is, of course, creating more employment opportunities for people.
We are planning to start glass painting that would employ some people. Most of the times, the creative people are left behind in our society and thus their creativity dies as they too need money to survive. We want to push their passion into an income source for them. With our platform, they can come out of shadow and people could know their works.
Going forward, we plan to work with our local products and local producers and enable them through reaching customers through our platforms. That’s one major extension plan for us.
Apart from that, we plan to open up show room in different parts of the country. We don’t have a timeline in mind, but we plan to get into that in the near future.
You have been working with Ajkerdeal for a while now, how has your experience been with ajkerdeal.com?
Ajkerdeal.com has always been a special partner for us. Our first formal collaboration was with Ajkerdeal. The best thing about Ajkerdeal is that unlike many other platforms it works with early-stage companies like ours and not only that they also support us to grow.
In the beginning, we started as ‘Tools and Toys’ with ajkerdeal.com and it was one of the first 100 merchants of ajkerdeal.
There are two things that I like about ajkerdeal. First one is that it is totally in Bangla and it helps people to understand and reach a large number of customers. Second is its merchant panel and its procedure towards operations. It gives a lot of freedom to the merchant in controlling, pricing and editing of products.
If you get another chance to start over, what are a few things that you would do differently?
I would be more serious about building a stable operation instead of spreading and expanding exponentially with products. It is better to go vertical than trying to grow by doing many things at once. We tried a few other businesses while running 24bazaar.com and expand our product line, which I think was not a right decision.
The second thing would be, again do one thing well. We tried to get into brick and mortar once and had a very bad experience. Instead, we should have focused on growing our business on E-commerce platforms.
Finally, sales is everything. We would focus more on sales and growth instead of running after vanity metrics.