What’s Next For SSL Wireless: An Interview With Ashish Chakraborty, Chief Operating Officer, SSL Wireless

What’s Next For SSL Wireless: An Interview With Ashish Chakraborty, Chief Operating Officer, SSL Wireless

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Technology has been a part of the lives of common people in Bangladesh for a very long time. The computer usage was started in the 70s. BUET opened its CSE department in 1979 in the form of a computer center that was later turned into CSE department. And we first experienced dial-up internet in the early 90s. Then Grameenphone was launched in 1997. Our first online job portal was launched in 2000 and this development continues.

Many of these developments have become part of the everyday lives of people in Bangladesh. In the past years, we have also seen major, albeit sporadic, developments in the space such as Bdjobs.com which has democratized the access to job opportunities in Bangladesh.

We have seen bKash to unleash a revolution of financial inclusion and many more similar big and small innovations to impact our public and private life. Then we have seen the inception of digital media with Bdnews24.com, eCommerce and ride-hailing, digital health services and digital ad network, and many more.

This development has been going on for many years now. The significant change that has taken place, however, is in how we look at technology. We have finally come to realize that technology is not utility services, it is not the mobile phone and browsing the internet, it is a lifestyle and that it will change how we operate as individuals, as a state, and as a society. Partly, this transformation is a subject matter of this interview along with others things.

“I have finally come to realize the fact that technology is changing the fabric of our life and society,” says Ashish Chakraborty. “I once used to listen to music on cassette players. Then came CDs, later memory cards and now everything is in the Cloud. There is no CD or cassette,” continues Mr. Ashish. “I’m not alone. In my family, I browse Youtube for entertainment and so do my two toddler children. Oddly enough, my mother who was never a tech-savvy person is also watching Uttam Kumar’s films on Youtube. This is not because she’s interested in the technology, but because she is driven by her need.”

Ashish Chakraborty is the Chief Operating Officer at SSL Wireless – as we wrote in our previous interview with Mr. Ashish, one of the interesting technology companies in Bangladesh – and Director, Corporate Affairs at E-commerce Association Of Bangladesh (eCab).

We also wrote in that interview, SSL 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.

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 almost 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. We re-explore some of these questions again in this interview. For a better contextual understanding, I would encourage you to read our long-form interview with Mr. Ashish from past year here.

In this fascinating and immensely insightful interview, we discussed a wide range of topics, including follow-ups on our previous interview, ranging from a meditation on 2017, growth of SSL Wireless, the state and future of Fin-tech, the future of technology in the context of Bangladesh and the world, major challenges for the tech ecosystem in Dhaka, how technology is changing our lives, SSL’s plans for 2018, major lessons he has learned in 2017 and his personal resolutions for 2018. Happy reading – Ruhul

In my family, I browse Youtube for entertainment and so do my two toddler children. Oddly enough, my mother who was never a tech-savvy person is also watching Uttam Kumar’s films on Youtube. This is not because she’s interested in the technology, but because she is driven by her need. I’ve never thought of it like this and it was one of my major lessons last year.

Future Startup

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. We just welcomed a brand new year! Let’s begin with rewinding the events of 2017. If you could tell us what your plans were in 2017 and about your major milestones at SSL Wireless.

Ashish Chakraborty

The last year was quite interesting particularly for the reason that technological changes came at a much faster pace than we’d initially expected. Noteworthy changes include a boom in the e-commerce industry where we saw a number of companies, run by both domestic and foreign owners, opening up their businesses.

Last year has also seen a host of innovative new products in the financial space, such as UPay, the QR code-based payment system launched by UCBL and the introduction of a few wallet-based services in the country.

If we look back, we can see that the payment industry in the past was concentrated only on two channels: formal banking services and mobile financial services such as Rocket and bKash. In 2017, we saw a paradigm shift in how financial services are being offered and consumed.

We saw an increasing presence of digital financial services in the country. QR code-based payment system and E-wallet were introduced and now, just at the outset of the New Year, EBL launched an e-bot to further optimize its operations and automate its customer service.

We at SSL Wireless feel deeply connected with these new waves of changes in the financial industry. It is because we deal with different payment systems – one of the main aspects of the industry.

We have been providing P2B payment solutions for many years and as new technologies, such as the ones I have just mentioned, are being introduced; it has created new opportunities for us.

We have achieved two significant milestones in 2017. First one, we have developed the Online Visa Processing Fee Payment System for Indian Visa Application Centre (IVAC) in collaboration with the State Bank of India. Previously, UCash was the only medium by which one could make payments for Indian visa processing.

Now with our developed system and integration of our Payment Gateway SSLCOMMERZ, applicants can pay the Indian Visa processing fees online through whichever payment method they like, such as using Credit/Debit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Amex etc.), Internet Banking (CityTouch, MTB etc.) or Mobile Banking (Rocket, bKash etc.).

Prior to the expansion, the singular payment channel often faced huge traffic since 6,500 people apply for Indian visa every day.

Since our integration, it has become much more convenient as various other payment channels have been opened up for making payments and people now can pay from anywhere, anytime and do not need to face deceitful intermediaries.

The other achievement that makes last year important for us is that we have received the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) Level-1 v3.2 certification. It is celebratory news for us as we have been expecting this certification for some time.

PCI-DSS is significant in the sense that it gives an international recognition to the software we have developed for businesses in Bangladesh. Now, it becomes more strongly established that our service is secure, reliable and maintains the international standard.

Moreover, we have improved our payment service. We have revamped our online Payment Gateway platform SSLCOMMERZ and added card data storage facility in it.

Now while making payment through our gateway, you don’t need to put in all the details of your credit/debit card every time you make a payment. Your details will be stored in our database (secured as per PCI-DSS guidelines) and you would just need to use a PIN code when you want to make payments.

Add to that, we have provided ease in case of recurring payments which include utility bills and subscription fees. It also has an automation feature which can make payments for you every month if you choose so. This was not there before. We launched it in 2017 and we believe it will enable more subscription businesses in Bangladesh.

We have been working on a payment product for awhile now called ZPay, which we plan to launch this year. ZPay will enable smartphone users to make Payment by scanning QR Codes. We believe it will make digital payment a lot easier for people.

The idea behind it is to replace the tedious task of providing details every time you make a payment through your card. With ZPay, you can store multiple card data in-app and you won’t have to carry a number of cards in your wallet. Your card data and account information will be already stored in the app and you would just need to scan a QR code and select a card to make the payment. The QR codes will be generated on merchants’ websites and/or available in stores.

We think online buyers, as well as offline merchandisers, will be the greatest beneficiaries once we launch this product.

Offline retailers mostly use expensive POS machines to register a digital payment which makes the entire payment process cumbersome and at times impossible. With ZPay, they will just need to provide a QR code to the customer to receive payment.

However, ZPay is not a mobile wallet service. Let me explain you the differences. You save money in a wallet service after collecting it from different sources and then you spend whenever a need arises; whereas ZPay establishes a direct link with card accounts and don’t store any money, which means it is more secure and convenient. You don’t need to collect money all the times when your wallet runs out of money. It has multiple layers of security, so people can use this service stress-free.

ZPay is still in its beta version which we have been testing internally. We will be launching it in early 2018.

Here, I would like to mention that we have launched the first ever mobile wallet platform, named ‘FastPay’, in a foreign land. While Bangladeshi companies are primarily willing to buy software from abroad, we are the one that took our software abroad.

We have deployed our FastPay Mobile Wallet platform in Kurdistan, an autonomous region in Iraq, under an agreement with Next Generation Communication, a sister concern of Newroz Telecom group.

FastPay has been successfully launched and implemented in the Kurdistan region, which has been receiving positive reviews from its customers. It the first month of its launch FastPay acquired 17,000 active customers. Now FastPay has become Kurdistan’s quickest, most convenient, and safest Mobile Wallet for Shopping, Mobile recharges, Internet recharges, Money transfers and Bill payments.

People use FastPay for a cashless, hassle-free experience while shopping, dining, and traveling and a lot more. With the success of FastPay, we are now in process to take the service to the next level by implementing it in entire Iraq.

As I already mentioned, a lot of good things happened in 2017 and a lot of not so things also happened. If we look at the aspects that were rather depressing in 2017, we see that the market for Value Added Service (VAS) has become highly saturated.

While value-added services are growing in many countries, we are making the process harder for both the companies and the customers. The market has been manipulated by some rouge players for quite some time which created a persistent distrust among consumers. As a result, the market is shrinking due to pressures from regulatory bodies. Our own VAS division is underperforming because of it.

Apart from that, we have undertaken some interesting projects last year. We bought the Digital Distribution right of Aynabazi – The Original Series for running on Youtube and mobile phones.

We tried a new strategy. Instead of monetizing Youtube views only, we put short advertisements inside the videos at specific intervals. None of the ads was more than one minute long so that viewers don’t get annoyed. There were around seven episodes in the series and we applied the strategy to all of them.

We also distributed the soundtrack of the series separately. Response from the audience was huge and overall, our strategy was a success.

We have also ventured into a new field in 2017—Digital Marketing. We began at a relatively small scale focusing mainly on digital channels, such as—Google, Youtube, Facebook and different social networks, and video commercial.

We have observed that the current service providers in the market are either very expensive or very low-end and subpar quality. We intentionally tapped into the middle segment of the market with a better quality offering at a reasonable price.

We have been working in the digital ecosystem for many years now and we have gathered experience that allows us to help others with that. We provide consultation services to our customer that is based on our own experience in the market. So far, the feedback from the market is quite positive and we plan to expand into digital space this year.

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Future Startup

In our last interview, from a year ago, you told us that SSL Wireless enables banks to provide SMS banking services to customers. Since then the banking industry has evolved a lot and the banks have been investing in digitizing their operations with bots and a host of other digital tools. Do you think this poses any challenge to your existing business?

Ashish Chakraborty

To be honest with you, I don’t think it poses any challenge to our business. Rather I consider this as an opportunity. Change, you see, is inevitable for every business. And for tech, change is the norm.

Once banks didn’t want SMS banking, but now they want to interact with their customers and make their lives easier with better services and they are willing to explore many new things.

I think as a technology company we need to be the pioneer in enabling these changes. This is why we have focused on developing mobile apps and automating payment systems lately.

Previously, we used to provide services only via different banks. But now we are introducing direct services, such as ZPay, for our customers, the beneficiary of which is ultimately the banks.

We are also working on a few new innovative services that we plan to launch this year which I cannot disclose to you right now because of confidential nature of the information. The point is that you have to innovate and adapt, otherwise you will be extinct.

To be honest with you, I don’t think it poses any challenge to our business. Rather I consider this as an opportunity. Change, you see, is inevitable for every business. And for tech, change is the norm.

Future Startup

You provide payment services and various corporate and e-commerce solutions under your SSLCOMMERZ brand. Can you please give us an overview of how SSLCOMMERZ is doing?

Ashish Chakraborty

SSLCOMMERZ has four different functions: web development, payment gateway integration (PGI), digital promotion and delivery. We focused on all of these functions last year.

We are calling it a ‘360-degree’ solution for digital commerce. We have solutions for setting up your online shop, we have solutions for payment, we have solutions for digital marketing and we have solutions for delivery.

In case of web development, we are providing both large and small-scale solutions. We have included email invoicing system to our PGI services in which you can pay by just clicking an URL that would be sent to you via email or SMS.

Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned earlier, we have started to provide digital marketing services to companies. Digital promotion entails two distinct challenges: content creation and distribution/boosting. So far we have been able to tackle these issues.

To perform the last function, delivery, we’ve opened up a new company called Biddyut Limited (BL). In BL, we have integrated sophisticated technology to ensure safe deliveries. Using our system, you can track your product in every step; know the estimated time of arrival and even the face of the courier. The idea is to offer a complete solution to digital businesses.

A persisting challenge that we’ve faced in doing everything is the lack of trust among customers. People, for several valid reasons, don’t feel confident enough when taking ecommerce services. In 2018, our plan is to reach out to people in order to create awareness. We believe that if credibility increases, transaction volume will follow which will benefit all the parties involved.

Future Startup

How is Biddyut doing?

Ashish Chakraborty

Logistics is a challenging business given the upfront investment you need to make and the kind of meticulous attention you need pay to every aspect of the business. Despite the challenges, within a very short period of time, Biddyut has grown significantly.

We now serve a host of clients from different industries starting from a number of corporate houses in Bangladesh to almost all the major e-commerce players including AjkerDeal, Bagdoom and Daraz among others take our service.

The competition is growing in the sector. However, we see competition as a positive sign. In order to build awareness among people, we need to work together. There is a lot of work to be done which we don’t think we would be able to do ourselves alone.

We also see an opportunity for decentralization here. The existing logistic system in Bangladesh has been built up surrounding the urban populace. But this is not where you need delivery solutions, most of these people have access to shops and malls where they could find their required products but it is a real service where people can’t access products like in Dhaka. That’s what we are trying to do to be a reliable logistics service for last mile delivery.

The real challenge lies with the rural populace because transportation is difficult for them. That sector has a real potential if we can serve the last mile with a reliable solution. That’s our ambition.

As I mentioned earlier, logistics is a tough nut to crack. Delivery companies require large initial investments which is true for Biddyut as well. Which means it will need a little longer to reach the break-even point. Having said that, we are positive about our growth and we hope that 2018 will be an even better year for us.

Logistics is a challenging business given the upfront investment you need to make and the kind of meticulous attention you need pay to every aspect of the business. Despite the challenges, within a very short period of time, Biddyut has grown significantly.

Future Startup

What was your overall growth in 2017?

Ashish Chakraborty

At the beginning of every year, we usually eye for a growth of 30% to 35% which we were able to achieve throughout 2017. If we talk about employees, we had about 150 personnel working with us at the end of 2016 which increased by about 66% with 100 new employees in 2017.

We have also opened up a few new offices: one in Dhaka and one in Jessore at the newly inaugurated Sheikh Hasina Hi-tech Park.

One of the main objectives of opening up offices outside Dhaka is to set up R&D projects there which we believe will be cost-effective if we could develop local talents. We’ll face resource scarcity in Jessore, initially but we are hopeful of overcoming it.

Future Startup

What are your plans for 2018?

Ashish Chakraborty

Our ambition is pretty high in 2018. It is going to be a real roller coaster year. The main focus is on fintech this year, especially digital payment. We also want to increase the transaction volume by improving the trust among customers.

2018 will see, as I mentioned earlier, the introduction of ZPay which, I hope, will expedite the growth of digital payment by improving digital payment experience for customers.

We have come a long way as a Fintech company. Our main vision now is to take it to the next level. We want to automate digitalization of payment to the root level and want to help those who will do it. By developing cashless transaction method and make it accessible to all the people, we can improve our country’s economy at large.

I want to read more this year and make reading a daily habit.

Future Startup

What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned in 2017?

Ashish Chakraborty

I have finally come to realize the fact that technology is changing the fabric of our life and society. You see, despite being in the tech-business ourselves, we can’t always understand how technological changes are transforming our lives in a profound manner.

I once used to listen to music on cassette players. Then came CDs, later memory cards and now everything is in the Cloud. There is no CD or cassette.

In my family, I browse Youtube for entertainment and so do my two toddler children. Oddly enough, my mother who was never a tech-savvy person is also watching Uttam Kumar’s films on Youtube. This is not because she’s interested in the technology, but because she is driven by her need. I’ve never thought of it like this and it was one of my major lessons last year.

Future Startup

What are a few major technology trends that you see going big in 2018?

Ashish Chakraborty

Well, let me talk about the global trends first. I think that mobile phone will start to disappear over the next few years. Their place will be taken by artificial intelligence (AI) coupled with more subtle infrastructure. We will be doing everyday chores with the help of holographic assistance. I think there will also be changes in the way people make payments now.

In Bangladesh, the growing mobile phone, particularly smartphone, penetration will change the overall landscape of tech and its usage.

Digital payment is a major trend and I think it will take a more visible shape. But for that to happen, we will definitely have to improve the quality and pricing of our Internet.

I would also like to point out the need for trustworthiness in the economy. The way our economy is growing can only be sustained by protecting it from people with self-serving motives. So far we haven’t been able to do that as is evident by the recent disasters in the banking sectors or Bangladesh Bank incident. These incidents are impacting the overall economy. If we can’t establish law and order and bring the wrong-doers to face the consequences, we can’t expect the economic growth to sustain in the future.

I have finally come to realize the fact that technology is changing the fabric of our life and society. You see, despite being in the tech-business ourselves, we can’t always understand how technological changes are transforming our lives in a profound manner.

Future Startup

What are your personal resolutions for 2018?

Ashish Chakraborty

On the work side, we want to contribute to the digital transformation of our economy through our work at SSL Wireless as much as possible.

At a personal level, I want to read more this year and make reading a daily habit.

_

Notes:

1. Part of the introduction is reproduced from this article and this interview.

2. You may read our long-form interview with Mr. Ashish from last year here.

3. For trends, you may read out tech predictions in the context of Bangladesh for 2018 here.

4. Interview and edited by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Sheikh Rahatil Ashekan

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