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Wowbox Grows Up, GP’s Digital Services, and Women At Work: An Interview With Farhana Islam, Global Commercial Head, WowBox, Telenor

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Mar 19, 2018

Wowbox, Telenor Group’s lifestyle app that operates in three countries - Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Myanmar - was launched in Dhaka in 2015 as GP Wowbox. Since then the platform - that offers lifestyle related contents, news, deals, GP services, tips, horoscope and other contents - has grown significantly amassing a user base of 11 million in Bangladesh and 15 million total. It offers localized contents in every country where it operates.

Over the past years, Wowbox has invested heavily in building a user base and understand them and their needs. After almost 3 years of operations, it is now aiming higher - to build a more personalized experience for its users in Bangladesh and start exploring options to monetize.

In this fascinating interview, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader sits down with Farhana Islam, Global Commercial Head of WowBox, Emerging Asia Cluster, Telenor, at Grameenphone headquarter in Dhaka, to learn more about the developments at Wowbox and to pick her brain about the state of Wowbox, its strategy and ambition going forward, overall digital ecosystem in Dhaka, Grameenphone’s digital services and to learn her take on women at work in Bangladesh.

Ms. Farhana started her career at Grameenphone almost 12 years ago. Over the past years, she played pivotal roles in developing and leading several significant projects at the company. Since taking the responsibility of Wowbox, She has been instrumental in growing Wowbox in Bangladesh and taking the platform to where it is today. Ms. Farhana is also an artist and takes interest in working at the intersection of art and technology. She also leads the Gender Diversity project at Grameenphone.

Future Startup

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Let’s begin with your story, please tell us about your journey to what you are doing today.

Farhana Islam

It has been almost 12 years since I joined Grameenphone. I started back in 2006 in the corporate sales and then after a while went on to CRM department where I handled customer lifecycle. Then I worked with the high-value customers under GP Star program. I also oversaw micro-campaign management.

Later on, I moved to customer product department. We undertook a project called ‘Internet for All” where I had a crucial role in Internet Campaign Management. I stayed in that role for 2 years - from 2013 to 2015. I was building up the structure of customer lifecycle management for our internet service users. Lifecycle refers to customer acquisition, customer retention, churn management and also ensuring revenue.

Finally, in 2015, when GP began to offer digital services, I took responsibility of the company’s new foray. This was a natural transition for me - from the internet to digital products.

Our first digital product is Wowbox which was launched in 2015. Initially, Wowbox was only supported on Firefox platform. We soon revamped it and created an android application. Today, we have over 11 million users on WowBox in Bangladesh, around 30% of whom are fairly active.

We provide a myriad of lifestyle services on Wowbox. The key focus is to make it useful for people. There is newspapers, weather broadcast, entertainment digest, breaking news, life hacks, cooking tips, horoscope, and many more. It is kind of a digitally composed magazine for our customers. There are also games that you can play for free and special deal offers from popular lifestyle partners.

Future Startup

Can you please give us an overview of WowBox?

Farhana Islam

In simple, Wowbox is a lifestyle app. As I mentioned earlier, we currently have around 11Mn users in Bangladesh and 15 million users in total, among whom 5 million people use our service monthly.

In Bangladesh, it is open for GP customers only. We also have this service in Myanmar and Pakistan with localized content.

We provide a myriad of lifestyle services on Wowbox. The key focus is to make it useful for people. There is newspapers, weather broadcast, entertainment digest, breaking news, life hacks, cooking tips, horoscope, and many more. It is kind of a digitally composed magazine for our customers. There are also games that you can play for free and special deal offers from popular lifestyle partners.

The concept of GP WowBox is to enable people to use the internet effectively and make the internet experience more meaningful by providing contents and services that add value to their experience. It is completely free for GP users.

Future Startup

How does WowBox operation work as well as other digital product initiatives at GP work?

Farhana Islam

As you can see, digital services department, til now, is complementary to our telecom operations. One of the objectives of digital services is to make the lives of our users easier and enable them to use our data services better.

Our operation, campaigns, and even the activities all revolve around increasing our active customer base online and helping them to have a better and convenient experience.

For example, ‘My GP’ - that digitizes our core telecom services - is such a platform where people can practice telecom self-care and activate the telecom services of Grameenphone. To activate it, you would just need to buy a GP SIM card and go online using your mobile internet - easy checking of balance, data packs and all kinds of tools are available there to ensure a smooth experience for you.

We also have a host of other digital services such as Bioscope, Wowbox, GP Music, that deliver value to customer’s lifestyle in terms of content and entertainment services.

Right now, the biggest ISP in the country is the mobile operators and among them, GP has the largest number of users. According to the trends, it’s safe to say that mobile internet users won’t plummet anytime soon. The reason is that people are always on the go now and this situation is not going to change.

Future Startup

As you mentioned, and it perfectly makes sense, one of the objectives with your digital services is to offer better ways to your customers to better use your mobile data, but don’t you think over the time when broadband penetration expands nationwide, people will prefer to use your digital services using broadband data instead of your data which means you don’t get the advantage of selling data?

Farhana Islam

Right now, the biggest ISP in the country is the mobile operators and among them, GP has the largest number of users. According to the trends, it’s safe to say that mobile internet users won’t plummet anytime soon. The reason is that people are always on the go now and this situation is not going to change.

Though many people think that broadband internet is more reliable, smooth and cheaper to use than the mobile internet, we are hopeful to give a better experience with our newly launched 4G coverage and technological changes.

Future Startup

It appears that at the core of Wowbox experience is content, how do you produce contents for WowBox and who produce it?

Farhana Islam

We collaborate with a handful of partners for contents. The advantage for partners is that they get a large and ready user base and can conveniently distribute their content which is why every company has a Facebook page. That’s there. We provide a platform to our partners to showcase their content to millions of our active users.

We also have our own content team that designs and produces exclusive contents for WowBox and produce content through partnerships.

Future Startup

How do you plan to monetize WowBox?

Farhana Islam

There could be multiple models of monetizing. Advertising is the most common one.

Having said that, monetization is only one part of the strategy. Right now, our focus is on growing the user base and improving the engagement on the platform.

Future Startup

What is your product roadmap going forward? Being a platform, you have these opportunities where you can open it up to users for contribution and generate content? At the same time, there are challenges as well around how do you reward your users for that matter so that they stay with you because there are platforms such as Youtube where content creators can make money? What are the plans?

Farhana Islam

Our aim is to make WowBox the best content platform in the country where people can find their desired contents. We want to make it more personalized. We also have plans to make it interactive by providing customers with an opportunity to contribute and participate in content creation, which is essentially a shift towards user-generated contents.

In case of traditional content creation, we can see the newspaper and other media to create contents and publish it in/on their platform, and readers of that platform read it. But, this is challenged by the new digital way of consuming contents and explosion of social media pulling in all contextual content at the right time. As a result, we are seeing that conventional media companies are facing challenges.

As for us, we plan to continue to have both partnered and original contents on our platform.

Yes, there are options where our users can contribute and create content but we are not pushing that feature yet. The main objective, for now, is to have a sustainable mix of contents over the time that can keep our users engaged.

In the case of user-generated content, yes, there likely to be a question of monetization from the users' side like that of YouTube and Facebook videos and contents. It’s a long shot for us and we are not thinking about it yet. These platforms are mainly shaped up by user experiences over a long period of time. That’s one way to go about it.

As we keep close tabs on our users, we will try to respond to their needs and demands. If we see that the users are participating in the exchange of recognition and relevant form of reward, we will scale on it accordingly. We will be experimenting a lot with WowBox, for sure.

Future Startup

What is your retention rate? As you have mentioned, you have around 11 million users in WowBox, what percentage of that return to your on a daily basis? And then how have you grown your users?

Farhana Islam

The number of registered users are, in fact, more than 11 million in Bangladesh. We have been acquiring customers since 2015. We have run many engagement campaigns over the past years to stack up our user number.

We used to offer free 20 MB internet to our regular daily Wowbox users which have helped our grow our user base significantly. There was a time when we received over 12000 signups per day. Now, it is a weekly reward. The growth continues.

Apart from that, we have consistently provided great content to our users, offered special data packs, token offers, and deals in the app.

Besides these data incentives, great collaboration with our partners and timely content have also been a consistent contributor to the growth.

Future Startup

Offering 20 MB data pack for free every day does not seem like a sustainable strategy to acquire new users. What happened once you stopped offering that incentive?

Farhana Islam

After a while, we understood that providing 20MB data free-of-cost on a daily basis to everyone is not a feasible strategy for the long-run. But we were also wary of decline in growth and retention of users if we stop incentivizing. However, we had to pull the plug. In the end, we changed it to a weekly 20MB free data pack with some added benefits.

When we made that change, we couple it with large-scale promotions and contents to attract and retain the customers as much as we could so that we could keep the impact of incentive change to the minimum.

There was an immediate dip after the change. But after sometimes, users started to return and things became stable.

We do want to make our services operator agnostic, before that we have to get the products right. That’s what we are trying to do - better understand our customers and design products that make sense for them. Then it is only a matter of opening up a product to a larger group of customers.

Future Startup

Tonic, Bioscope, WowBox and other digital products that GP has launched are GP only products. Essentially the connection is that being digital services, it will play a role in building customer loyalty as well as grow your revenue through selling data to these same users. Your greatest leverage has been your 65 million mobile phone users who are connected with you through GP number. On the other hand, the digital services and its usage are provider agnostic and a mobile number is not that much of a leverage. If you look at Bioscope, users can use broadband or any other provider’s data to use it. What do you think, what is your leverage here?

Farhana Islam

Ideally, I think that digital services should be operator agnostic. As for now, we are introducing a number of experimental initiatives in the market and trying to find out what our customers want and so on.

We do want to make our services operator agnostic, before that we have to get the products right. That’s what we are trying to do - better understand our customers and design products that make sense for them. Then it is only a matter of opening up a product to a larger group of customers.

Photo by Wowbox
Photo by Wowbox

Future Startup

What are the challenges for WowBox now?

Farhana Islam

Firstly, people want quality content but it is almost impossible to provide it for free unless we have a model that can provide for the content production cost. We are figuring out ways to monetize the platform while we continue to offer quality content for free to our users.

Secondly, retaining customers with the weekly 20MB internet is an expensive strategy to stick to. We have to find ways to grow and retain users other than offering free data incentives.

One of the ways to deal with these challenges is providing more quality content and launching interesting campaigns and features. Without that, we would not be able to retain users. At the same time, if there are contents to the user’s liking, they won’t limit their browsing to free 20MB.

We are testing a host of things to monetize the platform. Recently, we launched a Coke Zero campaign where we offered free Coke Zero to users who participated in the campaign. They just needed to sign up and ask for a coke zero and coke distribution center would deliver it to their address and that too without any transportation cost. After the campaign, we found out that about 30,000 cokes were delivered in 5 days.

These are new types of values and activities that we are trying on WowBox. The opportunities are there as long as we are serving our users.

Future Startup

You are a platform as content at the core of your strategy and in many ways, you can easily turn yourself into an aggregator where you can aggregate all the contents starting from newspapers to other contents of your users' liking. Suppose, I want to read newspapers and for that, I need to go to different newspaper websites every which is not a good experience of course but if I could find all the headlines in one place, I would probably prefer that and so on. Do you plan to go that direction as you already aggregate content from some of your partners?

Farhana Islam

This obviously an option where it helps our users. Then and again, for us, what our customers want and meeting that need is the key priority.

We consistently try to find out what our users want and exactly provide that, instead of providing everything as an aggregator that would diminish their experience on the platform.

I don’t think it would be wise to take an aggregator model for everything. We would be an aggregator for some selective items where it makes sense for our users but not for everything.

The more appropriate direction for us in the longer-term is personalization. To provide relevant and customized contents to our audience. Hence, personalization is a priority for us. We believe that different people use a product for different reasons. Since we have an intimate relationship with our users, we understand their needs and interest. As we move forward, we will be able to develop even better understanding about our users and finally, this intelligence about our users will allow us to serve them better with personalized content and experience. That’s the ambition.

Future Startup

Can you give us an insight into your users? Who are your users?

Farhana Islam

Mostly, people who are in the age group of 18-24 years use WowBox. Currently, the number of male users is greater than female users.

In terms of location, we have more people using Wowbox from Sylhet and Rajshahi than other locations in Bangladesh. 30% of our user base is from Sylhet, another 30% from Rajshahi and only 18% is from Dhaka. The rest of our customers come from Barisal, Khulna, and Chittagong.

This dispersion is not intentional. Initially, we were a little surprised to see the distribution. Later on, we realized that it is because these people usually don’t have access to many of the mainstream content sources that we have in Dhaka that has to lead to a greater adaption of Wowbox among these people.

The more appropriate direction for us in the longer-term is personalization. To provide relevant and customized contents to our audience. Hence, personalization is a priority for us. We believe that different people use a product for different reasons. Since we have an intimate relationship with our users, we understand their needs and interest. As we move forward, we will be able to develop even better understanding about our users and finally, this intelligence about our users will allow us to serve them better with personalized content and experience.

Future Startup

WowBox is a product and you are of course trying to build a sustainable business out of it. How does your operation work? Are you divisionally organized within the GP where you get to make all the product related calls or it has to go through an approval process?

Farhana Islam

For certain types of decisions, I and the team make the move. For instance, content creation and selection, we choose what should go on the platform and what should not.

We make most day-to-day and operation related decisions independently and try to act as fast as we can.

However, if the decision is related to investment or strategic alignment, we may need to collaborate with other departments and management team.

We are a big organization and we need to move forward as a team. You can’t essentially operate as a startup. That is why we need to consult before taking a step forward or we need to discuss investment issues before starting something on our own that may affect the whole GP and its operations or may have opportunity costs.

Other than that, there are sourcing and regulatory issues to deal with. For all these, we need the support of other departments. Working within a big organization does slow us down, I wouldn’t deny that; but, it has its silver linings as well. The kind of support we get easily from GP and Telenor is hard to get by in a startup setting.

Having said that, I would say that the digital services have a flat organizational culture in itself within the company that makes us relatively more agile and faster when it comes to getting things done.

Future Startup

Anything you want to add about GP WowBox and digital services that you are working on at GP?

Farhana Islam

I think the current period is a boon for digital services. An increasing number of people are relying on digital services for making their lives easier. This is no more a fad or a mere trend, it has become part of our lifestyle. The overall environment is also can’t be better than what it is today. If you take mobile penetration and internet penetration into account, it seems we are in for a great time.

We are now shopping, receiving medical services or information and even teaching our children using digital services and products. Digital is no more a mere extension of our offline world. As I mentioned, we now uber from one place to another, bKash money, order food online, Netflix films and so on.

At Grameenphone, we want to be the partner of our customers for their digital needs. We would want to add services that make the lives of our customers easier and better.

Mostly, people who are in the age group of 18-24 years use WowBox. Currently, the number of male users is greater than female users. In terms of location, we have more people using Wowbox from Sylhet and Rajshahi than other locations in Bangladesh. 30% of our user base is from Sylhet, another 30% from Rajshahi and only 18% is from Dhaka. The rest of our customers come from Barisal, Khulna and Chittagong.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for overall digital services ecosystem in Bangladesh?

Farhana Islam

The first challenge I think is the smartphone penetration - a significant percentage of our population still don’t use a smartphone. According to some statistics, our smartphone penetration is only 30%. Then comes the internet penetration. If we can make progress in these two metrics, the entire scenario should change dramatically.

Secondly, the needs of our people are immense and diverse. For example, we are now working on a project where the fishermen can have connectivity with the mainland while at the sea and ask for help if in trouble.

What I’m trying to say is that there is a huge demand for digital services that address our local challenges and problems but we lack these services. We should pay attention to building more localized digital services and products.

Future Startup

There are questions about the lack of representation of women in leadership positions in various sectors. The scenario is not particularly hopeful, the number of women in the leadership position is slim in almost every industry, why do you think this is the scenario?

Farhana Islam

The problem primarily lies in our culture. Our society is largely male-dominated, and this is the case for many other societies in the world, and women are not essentially always encouraged to pursue higher studies and career.

Secondly, many women prefer to stay at home rather than pursuing a challenging career. This sort of inclination becomes more powerful once they have children. Rearing a child requires a serious level of dedication and many find it more rewarding than chasing after a career. This bars them from entering into a professional life and aspiring for a top career. And I don’t see anything objectionable with that. This is a matter of mere choice.

However, this scene is changing rapidly. We are seeing a growing number of women are joining workforce these days and pursuing a career. Many of them are opening up startups and many have shown an incredible amount of grit and ability.

We also have an increasing participation of women at GP. I think that the inertia that troubled the advancement of the female portion of the population for a long time will gradually weaken over time. Today, my girl is equally interested in technology like any other kid of her age. I see that the scenario is changing.

While there needs to be more welcoming environment at the workplaces and the overall system, the women also have to do their part by pushing themselves. In today’s world, theoretically speaking, everyone has access to same information and opportunities, now you have to work hard to move forward. There will be obstacles and for women, it is likely to be more challenging, but I think it is possible to move forward if you try genuinely.

Future Startup

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

Farhana Islam

This is an era of learning and failing fast. You need to identify your skills and the areas that you are passionate about. In the real workplace, there is no longer any significant divide between finance, marketing or product management and technology that you have read in school. Jobs becoming more and more interdisciplinary.

Nowadays we have many roles that require one to know multiple functions to be able to analyze situations and be able to give holistic decisions. Even business and technical skills are required together.

Many of our employees are not bound to one single department and assume multiple roles at the same time. There will also be new scopes of work in the future. So, you need to prepare yourself for a diverse skill set.

You have to understand what you want to do and how you should advance with it in the corporate world. Then, aspire to achieve competence of global standard in the area of your passion and interest.

I am an artist and a passionate painter. I want to combine this artistic side of mine with my work in the field of technology and platforms. There is visualization, automation of the value chain, graphical arts and much more that can be collaborated to enhance the field of Art and Artists. Integrating art and technology is of great interest to me. I would like to make some contribution here.

Future Startup

A couple of books that you read and enjoyed in 2017 that you would like to recommend to others.

Farhana Islam

I read more articles these days than books but I can say that for enhancing innovative business skills How Google Works is a very good book. It is written by Eric Schmidt and I would advise everyone to read it. Also, the Innovators Method by Nathan Furr is an interesting read.

There is also How successful people think‘ by John C Maxwell and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman that I have found quite fascinating for personal development. Other than that I enjoyed reading Sapiens and Homodeus by Yuval Noah Harari

Future Startup

What is your personal new year resolution?

Farhana Islam

First of all, to create greater value and have a bigger impact on the local digital scene. I want to solve more problems in the customer’s life through digital services to help make their everyday life easier.

Secondly, I am an artist and a passionate painter. I want to combine this artistic side of mine with my work in the field of technology and platforms. There is visualization, automation of the value chain, graphical arts and much more that can be collaborated to enhance the field of Art and Artists. Integrating art and technology is of great interest to me. I would like to make some contribution here.

While there needs to be more welcoming environment at the workplaces and the overall system, the women also have to do their part by pushing themselves. In today’s world, theoretically speaking, everyone has access to same information and opportunities, now you have to work hard to move forward. There will be obstacles and for women, it is likely to be more challenging, but I think it is possible to move forward if you try genuinely.

Notes

1. Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Mohammad Tashnim

2. Further reading on Grameenphone’s digital initiatives and strategy here.

3. Further reading on telecom operators business in Dhaka here.

4. Photo credit: Wowbox

Update on 19th March: This interview has been updated with a new cover photo.


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