SSLCOMMERZ, The Future Of Digital Payment And The Art Of Sales: An Interview With M Nawat Ashekin, Head of SSLCOMMERZ

SSLCOMMERZ, The Future Of Digital Payment And The Art Of Sales: An Interview With M Nawat Ashekin, Head of SSLCOMMERZ


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Head of SSLCOMMERZ M Nawat Ashekin on how SSLCOMMERZ has built an ecosystem of services at the intersection of commerce and payment, the state of SSLCOMMERZ’s business, the future of digital payment, SSLCOMMERZ future plans, lessons from his journey so far, why startups fail and why your success in sales depends on the number of cold calls you make daily and why there is nothing to be scared of future as long as you are ready to work hard to figure it out every time you screw up.

Future Startup

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Could you please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing today?

M Nawat Ashekin

I graduated from North South University with a dual major in Marketing and Finance and simultaneously pursued my ACCA qualification under Oxford Brookes University, London. In between College and University, I tried many things and started and failed at multiple ventures.

I started my first venture, a mushroom producing business, while at college. Midway through that business, one of my friends joined me. He was studying BBA at a Private University. We first came to know 4Ps, marketing, and other stuff. We did everything accordingly except sales as it’s not a part of the 4P. You can understand it did not end well. After a while, we shuttered the business.

After that, I tried several other businesses in vain including accessories business, leftover business, stock trading, candle making, pencil selling, t-shirt selling on the streets and so on. With every new venture, we invariably made one or another mistake. One of the disadvantages of youth is that it is easy to get high.

One of my successful ventures was teaching Physics and Math to A & O Levels students which eventually led to the founding of my first coaching center. We had a campus at Dhanmondi and a good number of students. The challenge, however, was that we could not scale it, as coaching business depends more on teachers name which is a component which you can’t essentially produce at wish. We tried many things to scale the business with little to no success.

I already had a family – I got married right after my A Levels – and there was pressure for taking up a real job. So I joined an accessories firm as an Executive, Marketing, and Sales.

After working there for a while, I joined a friend of mine in his BPO services company called 1 Dreamweb. I used to look after the marketing at the company. We had clients from all across UK, USA, and Canada.

Besides work, I was juggling my University and ACCA classes. They gave me flexible hours which allowed me to attend my classes and handle my coaching center as well. I was doing multiple things at once. It was a good experience for me.

In 2010, I joined Lithe Group of Industries as Internal Audit Officer. It took me a year to realize that I did not like finance which eventually led to the decision to not pursue a career in finance.

Later in 2012, I started a hardware IOT startup called ArahanTeK focused on home automation and an online bookstore called Boishop with an ambition to bring entire Nilkhet book market to online. These were ambitious projects. We even won the first National Entrepreneurship Summit Championship in 2013.

Hardware requires both investment and skills to succeed, while ecommerce requires infrastructure that was lacking at that time. Despite, I worked hard for a year and eventually realized that these ventures would not work. I shut down my ecommerce venture and pivoted my hardware startup to software in 2015.

Since I already had a family, I had to take responsibility. While the passion lives on, I took to entrepreneurship as a side hustle while working full-time to secure my basic needs.

My software startup still continues as a cloud and SAAS based product research focused company. We try to build products to improve operational efficiencies in business and provide empowerment.

I realized that I had a lot to learn. I had a good mentor, an elder brother of one of my friends, who helped me a lot at that time. I was confused and could not figure out a way forward. He advised me to learn sales. He helped me to get an opportunity at Unilever as an intern in the Brands & Marketing team.

While working at Unilever, I came across an opportunity at LAVA, one of the leading Indian Handset brands, under Ontel BD LTD. Lava was exploring Bangladesh market at that time. They approached me. Initially, I worked as a consultant. Six months later, I joined Lava full-time when they finally launched in Bangladesh. Later, I became the Chief Operations Officer of Lava Bangladesh. Later I also worked at Intex Technologies as COO.

In 2013, I took a break. At that time, we started a digital marketing company called Ngage, which is now a part of SSL Wireless. This was the early days of digital marketing in Dhaka. It was a tough market. After months of hard work, we found out a sad reality that very few brands genuinely want to invest.

By the end of 2014, I and my wife were expecting our son. The need for a steady income returned. Rocket Internet just launched its ecommerce marketplace Daraz in Dhaka. I came across an opportunity at Daraz Bangladesh and eventually joined there as Head of Business Development. It was a wonderful learning curve for me. I learned about ecommerce, growth and how to run a business in a global perspective.

While working at Daraz, I launched another venture on the side called Copacabana, a restaurant, in Gulshan. Long story short, my son was born around this time and then we were struck by a family crisis. It was a difficult time for me. I took a leave from work and eventually left Daraz. After a while, Holy Artisan incident happened which led to the closure of my restaurant business.

Around that time, SSL Wireless was looking for a Head of E-commerce services. I applied and eventually joined SSL Wireless. I already had an understanding of e-commerce and e-commerce industry in Bangladesh at that time. But I did not know much about payment business. I was super excited to learn about how payment business works. Currently, I look after SSLCOMMERZ’s business and work on my tech startup on the side.

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If you don’t have the drive, you’ll never make it. Life is all about the trade-off. We are continuously making choices. And every choice comes with an opportunity cost. You are doing something means you are not doing something else. Which brings us to the point that in life you either pay now or you pay later. Everybody has this choice. If you’re having a comfortable life now, know that a tough is coming.

Future Startup

Could you please give us an overview of SSLCOMMERZ as well as an insight into your job as the Head of SSLCommerz and how you approach your work?

M Nawat Ashekin

SSL is an intrapreneurship company, run by the employees. Anybody who comes onboard gets a framework of intrapreneurship. People go and try their things. Everyone operates like an entrepreneur within the organization.

SSLCOMMERZ, as a payment gateway, was conceived in 2008. It took two years to get the necessary permission. It started off in 2010 with Dutch Bangla Bank, followed by BRAC Bank in 2011. Eastern Bank and City Bank joined in 2015 and Southeast bank in 2017. Five acquiring banks are operating today for 4 major card instruments – Visa, Mastercard, AMEX, and Nexus while Qcash for ITCL based banks.

We are in the business of payment collection. Payment is at the core of any business. When you start a business there are many things you need to take care of but payment remains a critical component.

At SSLCOMMERZ, we wanted to solve the payment problem. The solution we provide is simple. We aggregate all the payment gateways and instruments at one place – in total there are 20 instruments – and offer a comprehensive and secure payment solution. The value proposition is straightforward.

While solving the payment problem, we came to see that people also need support with their websites. So we started offering web development services. Today, we provide web and app development and peripheral services as well.

Then we came to see that merchants who take our website development and payment solutions also struggle with communication. That’s where Ngage, our digital marketing agency, comes in. We provide digital marketing services to our business partners.

This is the Ngage which I told you about earlier. Ngage is now a separate company under SSL Wireless and is a team of 20 people.

After Ngage, we realized that merchants also need logistics service to fulfill the orders they receive which eventually led to the launching of our logistics company Biddyut Limited. Biddyut is a separate company and operates independently.

The idea is to build an ecosystem of services around commerce. We started with payment, today we offer a host of services that enable businesses across the country starting from payment to technology solutions to marketing solutions to logistics.

I and my team look after e-commerce services division and related businesses including payment gateway, web development solutions, our consumer-facing service easy.com.bd and the digital marketing agency.

A major part of our effort goes into developing the ecosystem. We not only build the solutions but also run awareness programs and influence policymaking. We work with the Central Bank. We work with our banking partners to ensure better services for our merchant partners. We organize events and community engagement programs to help grow the ecosystem.

Thirdly, live like Forrest Gump- a quarter-mile at a time. When you do that fear disappears. Be present. Live for today.

Future Startup

How many transactions take place through your system, say per month?

M Nawat Ashekin

In 2016, the size of our e-commerce market was tk. 400 crore. In 2017, it became 1700 crore. In 2016, the digital payment market was around 100 crore and in 2017, it grew to 400 crore, as per Bangladesh Bank.

The way we handle transactions could be broadly classified into 3 levels: the two broad ones are purchase transactions (e-commerce) and payment transactions (utility bills etc.).

Our contribution to the e-commerce payment is relatively insignificant. COD being the significant driver. If you take overall payment numbers, about 15% is e-commerce transaction. 80 to 85% would be payment transactions.

On an average, we process 800,000 transactions per month. In the payment space, we control 87% of the value and 93% of the volume. That’s from our independent study conducted in 2016.

We have over 1500 e-commerce sites using our solution. Except for Bangladesh Biman, all the local airlines use our solution.

In terms of market share that could be gained, we have a leverage of 98%. There are some cases where we really can’t work correctly such as banking requirements and passport channels. However, we offer passport office support to three different banks.

This year we are expecting an attempted level of transactions of at least 1.2 million to 1.5 million. In 2017, we saw a 1000% growth.

Future Startup

How do you make money? What is the business model for Payment gateway?

M Nawat Ashekin

Let’s assume, we charge our merchants a 2.5% transaction charge per transaction which we buy from the banks at 2.3%. So our margin is about 0.2% per transaction. Our business is in the volume. When the number of payment increases, our commission increases as well.

On top of this, we resell multiple value-added services like SMS, software, and digital marketing services to our merchants base.

We have brought many traditional sectors under digital payment purview. The education sector was not much into digital payment. We have reached out to different institutions and today, we have 90 educational institutions accepting online payments using our solution.

Over 38 online travel agencies are using our solution to accept payment. We are seeing a huge growth in the space.

We have 27 different sectors and 6 different segments and 4 classes of merchants who are doing business with us.

Companies fail because we tend to think that product is more important than sales. For my very first venture, I was obsessed with product and operations. But I didn’t pay much attention to sales. This is the case for most early-stage businesses. Founders tend to de-prioritize sales.

Future Startup

How does your marketing work? How do you reach out to your customers?

M Nawat Ashekin

Our marketing is helping our customers. When we make our customers happy, they tell others about our service which eventually help us to grow. Then when we invest in communication activities, we do it with our merchants so that it also benefits our them.

Apart from that, we always take two placements: one at SoftExpo and another at Digital World. Presence at these events allows us to get the visibility that we need and reach out to techies and our target audience.

We also place ourselves in seminars and awareness programs. Since we are mostly a B2B company, we don’t invest much in the consumer-facing promotion.

Our sales flow is simple. Anybody can visit our website, sign up or call our call center for help. Once we get a request, our sales team get back to the customer with details.

For every segment and sector, the charges and requirements are different. We have responsible people for each category. When a merchant signs up, we identify who should be responsible for this lead. The salesperson will then call up the merchant and take care of all the necessary things.

We are trying to make these processes even smoother where our customers can effectively get things done by themselves. In many ways, making our platform self-serving for customers.

Future Startup

Digital payment is becoming an interesting space to watch. A host of new players are entering the market. The priority is shifting from MFS to digital payment. It is likely that competition will be intense in the coming days. What do you think about the competition in the payment market?

M Nawat Ashekin

Right now in the MFS space, there are 20 providers – bKash and Rocket continue to lead the market. In the card space, there are 8 providers, out of which 4 are significant – VISA, Mastercard, AMEX, and Nexus.

In the e-wallet segment, we have iPay, bKash, Nexus Pay, SureCash, Upay, Ucash and there are a few more coming.

A greater number of instruments is better for the ecosystem. It means greater awareness which means more people would come to know about the service and start using the service.

We see this development very positively. As we see ourselves in the business of integration and aggregation SSLwireless as a whole. For us, more channels and instruments mean my merchants will get more value. The merchants don’t need to be integrated with all these services one by one. We aggregate all the systems and do the integration and make the lives of our clients easy.

Instruments are merely instruments. In case of Bangladesh, it doesn’t matter even with this many instruments. Nobody is even close to 10% of bKash. It’s not the number that matters, it’s the quality.

We don’t see this as competition. We are an enabler. In fact, more players are better for us.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for SSLCOMMERZ going forward?

M Nawat Ashekin

Firstly, we have a meager 1.22% card penetration in Bangladesh. Unless more people are using cards, growth will be slow. It’s an external challenge. A challenge that we alone can’t solve. The mindset of our ecosystem partners, which are the banks, need to change.

Putting up too many restrictions is never helpful. The government also needs to take initiatives to help digital payment grow. We are doing our best, working with our ecosystem partners and all, to grow the industry.

The first internal challenge would be investment intensive nature of our business. We hardly make a margin – it’s no more than 0.2% – 0.3% per transaction, which means our business is in the volume. And the volume is not high enough yet. The operating cost at this level of volume is a tough math for us.

Secondly, knowledge is a challenge for us. Although we have been operating in this space for 10 years, when we compare ourselves to international experts of payment and technology, we are far behind.

Thirdly, finding good people in this area is hard. It takes about 6 months to fully integrate a person into a job. And there is no map in this job and needs a good amount of figuring out. On top of that, the roles are interdisciplinary in nature. There is a cross-functional knowledge requirement. As a result, it often gets difficult to find the right fit. These are the some of the challenges.

Firstly, sales is all about quantity. It’s a simple equation. You have X number of contacts/prospects, you make Y number of calls and you make Z number of sales. Increase any of them and you have a higher chance. When your hygiene factors are okay, it is all about the number of calls and pitch you make every day. You increase the number of cold calls per day, your overall result will improve.

Future Startup

Throughout your career you have tried multiple ventures and have your share of struggles and failures, from your experience, why do startups fail?

M Nawat Ashekin

Often, startups fail because we tend to think that product is more important than sales. For my very first venture, I was obsessed with product and operations. I didn’t pay much attention to sales. This is the case for most early-stage businesses. Founders tend to de-prioritize sales. This is number one.

The other startup killer is fear. It is fear in the guise of reputation and brand value and all those fancy things that stop us from doing important works.

We are scared of two things. Firstly, we think we are someone big and already have a big brand. Hence, we fear that if my product fails to deliver and if I can’t create the delight, then I would be in trouble. We tend to overthink which is not helpful. This fear dictates our action. Instead of making decisions, we abstain from taking action. I don’t pitch. I don’t commit because of the fear of judgment that I might fail to deliver. This leads to not trying to sell and overcome the deficiencies and eventual failure.

Secondly, the fear of self-worth plays a part. We tend to mix up our self-worth with the worth of the startup that we are trying to build. This makes us risk-averse. We become overly cautious while making decisions. Which means we hesitate to take actions.

Thirdly, wrong pricing strategy. Startups tend to price conservatively. When there is some big competition, they further reduce their price. The thinking behind this strategy is simple. You think people are price sensitive. Hence, if you can provide competitive price they would buy from you. And if you can scale enough, you will be making a hell lot of money. Not at all.

When you start reducing your price, your margin becomes razor thin. Add to that, your resources are limited and scaling is not easy. We tend to think that I would make a profit through volumes, but that’s not how you make money. You’re a small company, you have to make higher margins out of your small operations. When I can’t sell enough. On top of that, I make lower margins, eventually, I run out of money which means death.

The lack of financial knowledge leads to failure as well. Many founders tend to start with huge fixed cost. They build up fixed costs from the beginning. We build customer service process, better delivery, the delegation of work etc. The moment we increase our fixed cost, the reserve dries out sooner or later.

When you are starting a company you can’t delegate anything. You have to do everything yourselves. You should not hire an employee until you have exhausted your own energy. If you do the opposite you run the risk of failing.

Finally and most importantly, focus. Early stage entrepreneurs easily get distracted. People try to do too many things at once. They explore unnecessary product verticals foregoing specialization and trying almost everything to maximize profits. This is suicidal and eventually kill a startup.

Future Startup

What does it take to sell? What are the things one should be mindful of while making a sales pitch?

M Nawat Ashekin

There is only one question to be answered: why should the customer care? Anything other than the answer to this question is useless, so to speak.

Nobody buys your features. People buy solutions. Benefits – the job your product can do for the customer. It must be a problem-solution approach. You need to identify the problems of your customers and then offer a solution. Communicate it. That’s how you make your customers care.

Secondly, you need to know when to walk out of a sales pitch, be ready to lose and not sell anything. If you aren’t prepared to do that, you will always undersell.

Then, when I’m selling, I need to be convinced myself that as a buyer I would buy the product. If that is not the case, you would not be able to sell the product. You have to believe in the product.

Once we have the answers to these questions, then comes the real work part. And there is only one rule called ABC – Always Be Closing.

Firstly, sales is all about quantity. It’s a simple equation. You have X number of contacts/prospects, you make Y number of calls and you make Z number of sales. Increase any of them and you have a higher chance. When your hygiene factors are okay, it is all about the number of calls and pitch you make every day. You increase the number of cold calls per day, your overall result will improve.

Secondly, it’s about quality and the conversion rate. This is something we don’t do. Once we have a pitch deck, we don’t change it. Somebody made it and we keep using it for all kinds of clients. You should not do it. It reduces the effectiveness of your pitch.

Finally and most importantly, listen. A client is only ready to listen to the things that solve his problems. You can offer effective solutions only if you listen carefully to what your client has to say. With an intention to understand.

When you listen to your clients with intent, you will find the problems. Once you get that you just need to match their problem with your solutions. And you’re done with sales.

The biggest part of sales is to listen to the clients. Don’t talk too much. Listen. Listen with intent. If you have 10 points to say, you need to find out what are the two points you absolutely need to say and forget the rest.

The other thing is we don’t measure the entire process. We tend to measure only value. We don’t measure the activities. At SSLCOMMERZ, we have recently restructured. We now measure how many phone calls we have made, how many meetings we have done, how many emails/proposals we have sent – this contributes to 70% of one’s KPI. Only 30% is about the final result.

We value the activities more than the result. Because we understand that it is the key. If you make X number of phone calls, you will do Y number of meetings, and then you will have Z number of sales. It’s as simple as that.

Future Startup

3 pieces of advice you would give to your 20-year-old self.

M Nawat Ashekin

First, find a mentor.

Secondly, focus. Stick to something. Don’t do too many things at once. You can have everything but not at once.

Thirdly, live like Forrest Gump – a quarter-mile at a time. When you do that fear disappears. Be present. Live for today instead of worrying about the future that is yet to come.

Future Startup

What are some lessons you’ve learned?

M Nawat Ashekin

If you don’t have the drive, you’ll never make it. Life is all about the trade-off. We are continuously making choices. And every choice comes with an opportunity cost. You are doing something means you are not doing something else. Which brings us to the point that in life you either pay now or you pay later. Everybody has this choice. If you’re having a comfortable life now, know that a tough is coming.

You can’t plan your entire life because often plan does not work. Despite that, you should plan. And you should also explore. There is no harm in getting lost in life. And there is nothing to be scared about the future as long as you are ready to work hard to figure it out every time you screw up. As long we have the drive and the fire inside us, anything is possible.

Finally, you can do only so much alone. You can do a whole lot more when you work as a team.

The other startup killer is fear. It is fear in the guise of reputation and brand value and all those fancy things that stop us from doing important works. We are scared of two things. Firstly, we think we are somebody big. We already have a big brand. Hence, we fear that if my product fails to deliver and if I can’t create the delight, then my business is doomed. We tend to overthink. That is not helpful. This fear dictates our action. We abstain from taking action. I don’t pitch. I don’t commit because of the fear of judgment that I might fail to deliver. This leads to not trying to sell and overcome the deficiencies and eventual failure.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Khaleda Husna Fariha

Lastest update: May 26, 2018

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