There are very few people in Dhaka’s internet entrepreneurship space quite as important — or as influential — as Fahim Mashroor, the Founder, and CEO of Bdjobs.com, country’s first online job portal, and Ajkerdeal, one of the fast-growing ecommerce companies in Dhaka.
He has built one of the first successful local internet companies in Bangladesh. And he is now building one of the important ecommerce companies in Dhaka. On top of that, Mr. Mashroor continues to influence tech ecosystem with his critical opinion, pro-bono support to founders in the form of mentorship and angel investment (s) in early-stage companies.
In this immensely fascinating interview, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader sits down with the most influential internet entrepreneur in Dhaka to pick his brain about the future of the industry, the future of Bdjobs, the future of Ajkerdeal, its mobile-first strategy and ambition going forward, what makes an ideal entrepreneur and contemplates what future may bring for the tech industry in Bangladesh, his management philosophy and what makes a good life.
We last covered Bdjobs.com in 2016 when we interviewed you on Bdjobs expansion plan. Many things have changed since then, can you give us an overview of major developments at the company over the last one and a half years? What are the priorities going forward?
Last few years have been phenomenal for BDobs. We have been able to establish and sustain our place in the market. That battle has been won. That does not mean that we are complacent now. Rather opposite. But the priorities are different. Plans are bigger.
The key challenge for us now lies in the type of job postings we are going to offer in future. Bdjobs from its inception has been predominantly advertising white-collar jobs. We have come this far doing that.
The market for the white-collar job has saturated. The growth opportunity there is relatively slim now. We are concerned with the pace of the growth of such jobs. While the manufacturing sector in our economy has grown considerably, the service sector hasn't followed at the same pace.
Normally, graduates fresh out of universities seek the kind of jobs that come from service sectors. The industry has not changed much. Which means, job seekers will find it tough if the growth of the service sector remains sluggish. As a consequence, we are seeing a rise in the overall unemployment rate, particularly among graduates, which is likely to grow in the coming days.
The scarcity of white-collar jobs poses a two-fold challenge for us. On one side, there are fresh graduates who are competing in hundreds or thousands for one single job. And on the other, employers are receiving too many applications per job that it's becoming increasingly difficult for them to sort out the best ones.
To counter this mismatch in job supply and demand, we have implemented several new processes and tools to make lives of the employers easier. For example, we have integrated a filtering system to our product that would help employers to select the most eligible CVs.
We have introduced an online employability test on our website. Now, anyone who applies for a job on our website will have to take the test first to proceed further. We have brought this test in collaboration with an Indian company. It's been almost six months since we began and we think it'd be helpful both for the employers and the job-seekers. When a job-seeker takes this test, they get a score that accompanies their application. The test is a combination of a host of skills starting from analytical ability to critical thinking and so on.
Job offering to non-graduates, i.e. people who have technical and vocational education, is also a concern for us. In the past, as many of these people did not have access to the internet, we only advertised for graduates. But internet penetration in Bangladesh is now higher than ever and many non-graduates have access to the internet and seek jobs there. This is where we are going now. We have launched a specialized skills job category on the side for this group of people. It has separate UI and application forms are also simple that suits the needs of these group of people. These are mainly blue-color jobs.
The major challenge here is that majority of these people use internet via smartphones and generally do not own a personal computer. This is why we are trying to make the application procedure more mobile-friendly and convenient for them.
Moreover, many of these people still aren't aware of the services we are providing at Bdjobs. In order to create brand awareness, we are doing most of our promotional campaigns in cities and towns other than Dhaka.
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Since we have been trying to streamline the applicant scoring system, and assessing their overall skills and qualifications, we now have more data on them. This enables us to design an efficient recruitment solution service for our employer partners. We have made significant progress on that front as well. We will be launching it soon where employers will have a greater control on the overall process and can get almost all of their recruitment works done using our platform starting from sorting our candidate to scheduling interview to shortlisting and so on.
Before getting in blue-collar job expansion, I want to dig a little deeper into your product for employers. Let me read to you from your previous interview: "we are working hard to make communication between employee and employer frictionless and also create a scoring system to help the employers the right kind of candidate from a sea of applications." To that effect, you've just mentioned that you've introduced an online employability test. Have you taken any other measure?
Besides assessing an applicant’s academic qualification, we are also trying to implement a system to grade her/his professionalism.
We have seen people who apply for jobs but don't show up for the interview. It happens mostly due to a lack of seriousness on their part. So, we are considering to score job-aspirants both on their academic qualification and behavior.
This scoring system resembles the one Uber uses to rate its drivers and riders that helps customers and drivers find a better match as well incentivize both parties to behave positively. Moreover, these scores are stored in our database so that when other employers look up for candidates in future they can assess their overall potential and make employment decisions more efficiently.
Since we have been trying to streamline the applicant scoring system, and assessing their overall skills and qualifications, we now have more data on them. This enables us to design an efficient recruitment solution service for our employer partners. We have made significant progress on that front as well.
Is the employability test that you mentioned vested by a group of employers? Or how do you ensure its acceptance? If employers start to accept this, it should reduce recruitment cost for many companies by standardizing entire recruitment process.
This test is similar to GRE, GMAT test. As I mentioned, we are doing this in collaboration with an Indian company and the test is very popular in India. So it is already market tested, although not in our market. We launched almost a year ago in Dhaka. The response has been great.
We understand that it will take some time, but it will eventually help everyone involved.
In that same interview, you want to turn Bdjobs into a complete recruitment solution for your employer partners. You have done some interesting things such as scoring, employability test etc, how much do you think you have come on that front?
Since we have been trying to streamline the applicant scoring system, and assessing their overall skills and qualifications, we now have more data on them. This enables us to design an efficient recruitment solution service for our employer partners.
We have made significant progress on that front as well. We will be launching it soon where employers will have a greater control on the overall process and can get almost all of their recruitment works done using our platform starting from sorting our candidate to scheduling interview to shortlisting and so on.
At present, employers can only advertise for jobs and receive CVs through our website and do a couple of other things. When we implement our system, which is going to happen pretty soon, they will be able to receive applications, shortlist the most eligible ones, make primary assessments, and schedule final interviews. We need a few more months to bring the service into effect.
At the same time, we are paying a lot of attention to mobile. Currently, 40% of our customers, particularly job seekers, use our service via smartphones. We are working on an app for employers as well which should make their experience better as well and also make communication between job seekers and employers smoother.
When you launch your system, which obviously is going to make lives of your employer partners easier, do you plan to charge extra for it?
No. This comes with the job posting service which our employers often purchase as a subscription service from us for a certain number of jobs. It comes as a bundle which allows you to search our database, post jobs and then these added benefits.
You see a huge growth opportunity in blue-collar job market space and have been pushing in that market for a while. You now have a customized product this segment of the population. Employers also know about it. One challenge, however, you mentioned in our last interview was awareness among blue-collar job seekers and bringing a sufficient number of these people to your platform. Have you made any meaningful progress in that area?
I would say we have done a good job in creating awareness in this segment. As I mentioned, we are focusing a lot on developing markets outside Dhaka. Reaching out to students in technical colleges and schools and institutions to attract users for this segment. Now we have a sizeable user base for this.
How many job applicants, I mean users, do you have in any given period of time? And what percentage of that are white-collar jobs?
At present, it is around 2 million job on an average of which 20% are blue-collar jobs and the rest is white-collar ones.
Most of our users - around 40% - access our service via the mobile application; another 30% using their mobile browsers and the rest of desktop browsers.
How is growth now?
During the last nine months, the business has grown almost at a rate of 20%. As for our team, it has increased by 10%.
What do you think about the competition? Locally, Bdjobs is obviously the market leader. However, there are other challenges as well. For instance, Linkedin, we are seeing an increasing number of companies are now using the platform for recruitment purpose. Do you think LinkedIn, in particular, poses a challenge for Bdjobs?
You are right, we are seeing a sizeable amount of recruitments happening via LinkedIn. But the key difference between Linkedin and Bdjobs is that they mainly cater to the top-level management, i.e. CXO and senior managers, while we serve the lower segment of the job market such as manager, management trainee officers, executives and so on.
Moreover, our experience tells us that most senior position recruitments are done through reference.
So, as long as LinkedIn remains in that niche, it doesn't pose a serious challenge to our business. In fact, we don’t see Linkedin as a serious competition even in the near future.
Although we don't expect much competition from LinkedIn. Rather classified portals, in my opinion, can be a threat to us.
In China, for example, traditional job portals are facing competition from classified ones. There are a few such portals in Bangladesh and some of them have tried but yet to properly target regular white-collar jobs.
They are more focused on casual blue-collar jobs, e.g. advertising for salespersons to work during a fair or for a waiter to serve at a two-day-long marriage ceremony.
Bdjobs, on the contrary, advertises more for formal blue-collar jobs such as personal drivers, a machine operator on a permanent basis and such and such. So, there is not much challenge yet. However, market changes all the time and competition will always be there. Our priority is to keep evolving.
What do you think about the job portal market in general?
I think the job market in our country has already been saturated, especially the market for university graduates. This is why it's become essential for us to move into the blue-collar space. It's a huge market and we're still practically scratching the surface.
I also believe that our employment assessment methods (e.g. online employability test) can be a profitable initiative in itself.
Given the breakdown of our traditional educational system and its ever-declining credibility, I think our employment-centric system will offer an effective alternative to employers to weigh candidates and make better decisions.
A significant percentage of your revenue comes from job posting fees that employers pay you. Then you also generate revenue from advertisement and training. How does your revenue model as well as distribution look like?
The major portion of our revenue comes from job postings. For every job advertisement posted on our website, we charge the employer a certain rate. That’s one.
Secondly, we generate a small amount of ad revenue. This is a very small percentage of the overall revenue. Add to that, we have Bdjobs Training that offers training programs on professional development. Combinedly, the revenue from those streamed are not more than 10%.
What is your observation about the overall job market in Bangladesh?
We have seen significant economic growth in the recent years. Compared to that we have not seen enough growth in employment opportunities. Many dubbed it as jobless growth" which isn't sustainable in the long run.
Add to that, the recent pay-scale reformation made in the public sector also raises a serious concern. Due to the high salaries and other benefits in the government job, university graduates are now flocking toward government jobs and shunning the private sector. But the public sector isn't a treasure chest and not every single graduate can get a job there. So, those who waste time by making futile attempts to secure a government job often end up having no private job either.
This unusual trend is frustrating the youth and, in turn, fueling the existing social anxiety.
On the other hand, the private sector can’t increase salary anytime when it wants because you have to earn it before paying it. This is also creating a challenge for the private sector. As an industry insider, it worries me how we are failing to engage a large portion of the youth into productive works.
As you work closely with employers in different industries, what type of skills do you think are generally in demand in the market? What’s your observation?
It's unfortunate for me to note that the skills and qualifications demanded by the market, and the actual quality of the graduates aren't rightly aligned.
We say that we moving towards a manufacturing-oriented economy, yet we do not have the human resource that has the necessary vocational and technical knowledge.
In my opinion, our tertiary education should reform its colonial, theory-based curriculum and focus more on imparting technical skills.
We have hundreds and thousands of business graduates and most of them go into either sales or marketing, no matter what major they study. Moreover, there are not enough opportunities for these people. Because if we don't have enough workforce to manufacture products, what would they be selling?
From being a desktop-based service, we moved to a mobile-first service. Majority of our traffic and orders, as I was telling you, now comes via the mobile application. Our strategic direction remains the same. We are operating in the mass market, working with small businesses with a change in the logistics service. Previously, we used to make most of our deliveries through the merchants; whereas now, we provide the delivery service ourselves.
That’s all about Bdjobs. We last covered Ajkerdeal in 2016 when I interviewed you on your plan for expansion beyond Dhaka. A lot has changed since then. You have launched an app. Your order number has grown. The market has changed a lot. Can you please give us an overview of Ajkerdeal’s operation?
We've come a long way since we last spoke almost one and a half years ago. The operation has evolved in several ways. From being a desktop-based service, we moved to a mobile-first service. Majority of our traffic and orders, as I was telling you, now comes via the mobile application.
Our strategic direction remains the same. We are operating in the mass market, working with small businesses with a change in the logistics service. Previously, we used to make most of our deliveries through the merchants; whereas now, we provide the delivery service ourselves.
It hasn't changed our inventory policy though. We still keep it to zero. This is to ensure better customer experience on which we were struggling in the past because of limited control on it.
Besides introducing taking control of logistics service, we have also lowered the delivery cost in and outside Dhaka. Our reach has spread to almost 80% of the cities in Bangladesh. These strategies have boosted our transaction number. On an average, our basket size at present stands at BDT 700 to 800.
We are anticipating to reach to every nook and corner of the country by the end of this year or in the middle of the following one. Through a widespread reach, we hope to realize our vision of establishing a bottom-up e-commerce organization. In that respect, logistics service and connectivity to remote areas will be the key challenges.
Although e-commerce has been the talk of the town for the last couple of years, I don't think much improvement has been made in this area until recently. We can see some positive changes happening at present. Previously anyone could sell anything on Facebook. That somewhat smeared the credibility among customers. But the market is more mature now and people don't readily believe anyone without cross-checking.
Moreover, most established/sustaining farms in the e-commerce industry have reliable customer care teams.
At Ajkerdeal, the customer care and complaint management team comprises of around 10 people. The team has been really successful in dealing with and reducing the number of complaints from our customers.
Previously, we used to receive 7 complaints in every 100 orders made. The rate has come down to less than 3%. The reduction also indicates a growing reliance on ecommerce among people. Our target is to bring it down to below 2%.
Despite these efforts, we don't think that there are no other feats to achieve. We are always trying to improve the precision of our service.
Artificial intelligence is in this regard, can play a vital role. We have plans to integrate AI into our operation so that customers can get the optimum service with better recommendation engine on our website. We have built a data science team at Ajkerdeal and they are working relentlessly on these areas.
Currently, there's a growing fear of challenge from international e-commerce platforms like Amazon and Alibaba. But I believe that we have got an advantage over them of being more connected to the local market.
We are focusing on three key areas: targeting the mass marketing, mobile-first strategy to distribution and a large merchant-base. We want to build our model in the likeness of that of Alibaba's Taobao.
Our total number of merchants at present is about 5,000. We want to increase it to 100,000 within the next few years. And we aren't particularly concern about having big brands. Because we believe once we build a customer base, it should not be a challenge to attract suppliers.
A challenge which companies often face with mobile applications is to keep users engaged. What are you doing to ensure engagement on your app?
For user engagement rate, we have introduced gamification to our apps. We have included features like flash deals, bonuses, buy-one-get-one-free, shopping news feed, loyalty points, and so on.
We have also integrated a voice searching option and it seems to be doing pretty well. Around 20% of our total searches are voice searches.
I think the voice search holds potential particularly because people here aren't quite accustomed to typing on smartphones yet. For them, voice search is a better alternative.
Also, in order to increase the number of users, we offer free delivery inside Dhaka and delivery on reduced costs outside of Dhaka for people who place an order via our app.
How many categories of product are you offering now?
The list pretty long. However, our biggest line of products is fashion apparel and small electronic gadgets - these two are our most popular item. Majority of our products are low to mid range in nature. We are not planning any shift yet.
What are the major challenges for Ajkerdeal now?
As merchants are mostly responsible for procuring the products and delivering them to the customers, it is quite difficult to monitor the entire process thus ensuring optimal customer experience. We are doing logistics ourselves now in collaboration with our third party partners.
Moreover, we have this ranking and comment system in the platform where users can rate sellers. This is why the review/rating system used by companies such as Uber is an effective tool. If we can popularize it, we can hope to fix the service challenge to some extent. Sellers would work hard to get good rating and ensure better quality products and services.
Connectivity is another key challenge for us. This is I think is the biggest barrier to the growth of ecommerce. If we can ensure affordable connectivity across the country, we would see a sea change in the ecommerce business.
Similarly, cost of logistics outside Dhaka is quite high. But the situation is improving gradually.
What's do you think about the competition in the market?
I think the market has consolidated a bit as a few major players are running their businesses in a well-organized way. There are some other companies that are being operated with foreign investments. Although I'm not sure whether they would sustain in the long run should the funding is discontinued.
Ajkerdeal is among the top platforms in terms of the number of transactions. Model and strategic priority-wise, we don't have any direct competitor in the market. Most eCommerce companies are focused on serving a certain group of customers whereas our segment is very different. I think there are only two online marketplaces in Bangladesh: Ajkerdeal and Bikroy.
Most of the e-commerce outlets is currently running at a loss. This is not unusual and is not different for Ajkerdeal as well. We need to increase the number of transactions in order to deal with this. It'd be possible if we can build an ecosystem with better connectivity, logistics, and so on.
What are the priorities going forward?
We have been investing in mobile for a while now which is at the core of our strategy. We will continue that.
Customer service has always been a priority. We now have a team who looks after the complaints from customers and solve them immediately. Our target is to bring down the number of complaints to a minimum level.
Data is another central piece of our strategy. We now have a data science team. We are using machine learning, Ai strategy in practice to improve engagement, develop better recommendation engine and so on.
We are also adding new services to our platforms such as travel and tour services and other relevant services by working with partners. We plan to explore these areas further in the coming days.
Outside Dhaka is where eCommerce is really needed. We are working with Ek Shop, an initiative of A2i and also with PayWell to better serve customers outside Dhaka. We are seeing good response. As connectivity and logistic improve, we are also eyeing to further push growth in those markets.
You've built a successful company from scratch. What makes an ideal entrepreneur?
I think patience is the most important attribute for entrepreneurs especially in countries like ours. They need to bear in mind that Rome wasn't built in a day, and that good thing takes time to happen.
Secondly, you need to be passionate. If you're building a business just for money, you won't last in the long run. But if you love what you do and keep at it, you are sure to have the intended result.
And last but not the least, an ideal entrepreneur must be an honest person. Whether you are running a business or working at a company, always remain honest in your conducts. Try to add value to the society through your initiative. You can make temporary achievements by unethical means, but dishonesty wouldn't get you too far.
Given the opportunity, what advice would you give to your younger self?
I look at the business scene now and see a lot of young people becoming entrepreneurs very early in their life. Many of them are still at university. I, in fact, started my company a little late, after I've finished my study.
I'm fortunate to be fairly successful at my first attempt. Should I failed, I don't know whether I would've either the time or the energy to turn around. If I could go back, I would've asked myself to get into the business arena a little earlier.
What is your management philosophy?
In case of management, I prefer to be as meticulous as possible. I don't delegate too often; and when I do delegate, I, more or less, tend to supervise the job myself.
Some might contend that I should only focus on strategic jobs. But, running a company in Bangladesh where people, in general, are yet to develop a critical set of skills, it's essential for the top management to keep in touch with every level of the management.
I think patience is the most important attribute for entrepreneurs especially in countries like ours. They need to bear in mind that Rome wasn't built in a day, and that good things take time. Secondly, you need to be passionate. If you're building a business just for money, you won't last in the long run. But if you love what you do and keep at it, you are sure to have the intended result.
What do you think about the overall startup ecosystem in Bangladesh?
Honestly put, we don't have any meaningful achievements in tech-based business yet. There's a lot of hype about it but we haven't been up to the par compared to achievements made in this area by other countries in South Asia.
Although there are some changes taking place now. A number of new companies are emerging who, unlike their predecessors, are not depending solely upon outsourcing. They are working with local resource and building products for the local people and taking a 'bottom-up' approach.
bKash is an example of such an organization that has succeeded in reaching out to the mass. The market has a lot to offer and we just need to work a little harder on understanding that need and go accordingly.
Life is a journey. It should be lived that way. More than the destination, people should enjoy the course of their journey and do what they love.
What are a couple of sectors you are bullish about?
Yes, I believe online retail services will see a boom in the coming days.
I'm hopeful of the overall transport industry, especially of the ride-hailing services.
Although very nascent, I think food-tech will be an emerging industry of the future. There's a fairly big market for low-cost, good-quality food in Bangladesh which will give space to new tech-based food-producing companies to come up.
What is your take on overall technology policies in Bangladesh? There are a handful of issues here. If you look at recently approved draft ride-hailing guideline, it is a half-baked thing and is not well thought out in many ways. How do you see the developments in this space?
It's a problematic area, to be honest. I, in fact, have been talking a lot on this issue. In terms of policy, net neutrality has become a matter of concern. If net neutrality is obliterated and telecom companies are allowed to provide digital services, they would be able to block others from coming into the space and build an oligopoly.
We should also be concerned about policies dictating foreign direct investment. In India, for instance, things have happened that are now causing challenges for local players. If we don't stay aware, the same can happen in Bangladesh too.
The government in Bangladesh should bear in mind that unemployment is one of the key problems in our economy. Corporations are not being able to create enough jobs. But the solution for that isn't to attract as many multinational companies as we can. We need to formulate and implement entrepreneur-friendly policies so that people can start and build companies and create jobs for others.
What do you think about life?
Life is a journey. It should be lived that way. More than the destination, people should enjoy the course of their journey and do what they love.
I also believe that a good life is a principled life. And such principles are not to be compromised. For me, I can’t stand injustice and wrongdoing. That’s one of the principles I adhere to. When you adhere to your principles, it becomes easier to live a good life.
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1) Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Sheikh Rahatil Ashekan
3. Cover photo credit: here