Building The Largest Domestic Travel Platform In Bangladesh: An Interview With Md. Imrul Hasan, Founder and CEO, Amarroom
Md. Imrul Hasan is the Founder and CEO of Amarroom, a Dhaka-based domestic market focused OTA that has been getting a lot of attention of late.
Founded in 2017, Amarrom has grown meaningful over the past year into a leading domestic travel platform. The company says it has the largest collection of domestic hotels across Bangladesh, domestic airlines, bus tickets on its platform, serves north of 4000 bookings per month and generates around 200 million BDT in annual revenue from domestic travel alone. The company aims to be the dominant domestic travel platform in Bangladesh.
We recently caught up with Mr. Imrul, to learn about his path to entrepreneurship, how Amarroom came into being, what is Amarroom and what it does, how Amarroom operates, the state of Amarroom’s business today, its ambition going forward, lessons he has learned from his journey so far and much more.
Could you please tell us about your background and elaborate on your path to entrepreneurship?
I was born and brought up at Kaliakair, Gazipur. I did my graduation in Computer Science and Engineering from BUET. After graduation, I joined the telecommunication industry where I built my career. I was one of the lucky guys who got expat treatment in Bangladesh and drew 7 digit monthly salaries.
After returning to Bangladesh in October 2014, I started to think of doing something of my own. I eventually started a company in partnership in December 2014 but I left it after one year due to a long delay in getting a license from BTRC. Since we’re not getting any specific timeline from BRTC regarding the license, I started to think of alternative opportunities. I also started a dairy farm and a goat firm to ensure quality food for our children but forced to shut down the firms due to human resource challenges after reaching 200-liter daily production capacity.
We started amarroom.com in 2016 with an ambition to create a domestic tourism brand and provide a one-stop solution to all classes of people and businesses.
When and how did you get started with Amarroom? What motivated you to start Amarroom?
Since I am a techie by education, I have always thought about starting a technology-driven business that would add value to the country and people.
Bangladesh’s domestic tourism has good potential. The market has been growing consistently over the last few years. But whoever was trying to do anything in the tourism industry, the main focus continues to be the international market and outbound tourism.
We did not find anybody trying to address the gap for local tourism with sustainable and technology-driven solutions. This is how we came to realize that this is a problem for a good number of people who travel domestic and there is not enough good solution for this.
I realized that if we could build a technology-powered eco-system where all domestic hotels, resorts, airlines, buses, service providers will be integrated and offer cost-efficient and flexible tourism services to the people, it would help fulfill an important gap in the market. That’s how amarroom.com, which exclusively focuses on domestic tourism, came into being.
With amarroom.come our ambition is to build a platform that would serve everyone including an ordinary and poor remote village person if he wants to travel from his place.
What went into building the initial operation of Amarroom? How did you put together initial investment and other things to get started? Please walk us through what the first few months of your journey were like and the challenges you faced.
The idea is to build a one-stop online travel solution. The opportunity big and it is an investment hungry business. When I came up with the idea, I presented it to a few potential investors. After a while, Expo Holdings Bangladesh came forward to invest in the business. We formed a company named InfoSapex Limited in February 2016 and under this umbrella company like Alphabet Inc. we have launched amarroom.com as a travel product.
Initially, we narrowed down our goal to a challenging part that is bringing the domestic hotels into a common platform. We have developed a full-fledged international standard Hotel Management Solution including all features like integrated accounting, reservation, inventory, house-keeping, Point of Sales, etc for the hoteliers and offer it as a gift to hoteliers so that they can run their operation on this solution.
Our focus has been nationwide from the beginning. We have paid a lot of attention to hotels outside Dhaka. Initially, the challenge was training the hotel staff to use such a big ERP solution as you can imagine in areas like Bandarban, Cox’s Bazar, Sajek, Khagrachhari, Khulna, Rangpur, Sylhet, Shreemangol, etc.
The other challenge was building a relationship of trust and convince the hotel owners and management about data security in the SaaS model. Many of them had some previous bad experiences with a few other companies where they took their data without their permission.
We have been able to overcome both challenges. My team has worked hard and we have been able to build bring a large number of local hotels on our platform.
Could you please give us an overview of Amarroom in terms of services you offer, how many users you have, the size of your business, etc?
We have built the largest domestic travel platform in Bangladesh. Currently, you can have domestic hotels across Bangladesh, all domestic airlines, bus tickets, and we also offer custom packages.
We are working on our mobile apps and will launch with a few more interesting services.
We soft-launched in June 2017. Our yearly revenue is around 200 million BDT. We have to keep in mind that all transactions are for domestic travel. Our forecasted yearly revenue from domestic tourism by 2024 is around 3100 million BDT.
We consider our focus on the domestic market is our strength. We are working to build real-time hotel inventory. Our ambition is that one day all international OTA players like booking.com, Agoda, yatra, etc will get domestic hotel inventory from amarroom.com through our API if they want to sell local hotel rooms. We are not considering international 5-star hotels in the picture.
We have both B2C and B2B customers. Innovation and adding value to our customers remain a priority to us. We strongly believe that continuous innovation and service level assurance are the main drivers for growth.
How big is your team? Could you tell us about your culture at Amarroom?
Currently, we are a team of 40 people and it will be double in the next few months considering the growth.
We are in the business of service. We are focused and determined to ensure the best quality of customer experience. I would not say that we are 100% successful but we are trying to reach the milestone.
We empower our employees to learn and grow. We try to enjoy our work and always put our customers before whatever we do.
On average how many customers do you serve per month? How have you attracted customers and grown Amarroom? Could you tell us about the strategies and activities that you carried out to achieve the growth?
Currently, on average we serve around 4000 bookings per month. We have been seeing consistent growth over the last six months.
Our main goal is to make tourism services affordable to all classes of people. We always try to provide excellent service. I can say still we have a long way to go but feel better that our customers find us trustworthy. That has helped us to grow over the past months. You offer great service at a great price. Since our priority is affordability, it dramatically expands our market in terms of the number of people we could serve.
What are the lessons you’ve learned in terms of growing a business? What other entrepreneurs can learn from your growth journey?
Entrepreneurship is a journey where a mistake is a blessing. Learning from mistakes and applying those lessons to reach your goals are the key factors.
Consistency is another important thing. You have to work hard, consistently. You have to ensure great price and service, consistently. Consistency should be built-in into anything that you pursue.
Innovation is critical if you want to stay ahead of the competition and build a strong moat for your business. Unless you are trying new things often you would fall behind. If we can differentiate ourselves from others through innovation and continuous value addition, it will help us to build a rock-solid foundation for our venture.
Have you raised investment?
We have not yet. However, we are considering raising investment. We are not in any formal discussion as yet.
We are coming up with something big and game-changing for Bangladesh domestic tourism. We believe it would accelerate our journey if we have some likeminded people with us on this journey.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced? What are the challenges now?
The biggest challenge for a startup is to find the right colleague with goal-driven ownership. A startup is a company that is driving for something beyond its capacity and great people are one of the keys to their success. Reaching the goal post within the targeted timeframe is critical but it is quite impossible without the right people.
I could be wrong but we have a crisis in mid-level management in all sectors. This is an alarming concern for Bangladesh.
How do your sales and marketing work?
For marketing and brand awareness, we mainly focus on TTL. In case of any specific event; we also do both ATL and BTL communication.
We have a dedicated corporate sales team for B2B engagement. Apart from our B2C, we provide corporate business travel support with excellent cost efficiency as per B2B partner’s policy.
What are the goals for the future?
The goal for the future is to build a sustainable digital tourism eco-system in Bangladesh. We want to extend our services to rural areas and engage the people so that they can earn revenue through amarroom.com. In the long run, we want to leverage our domestic experience to expand to other countries in both ways.
What are some lessons you’ve learned?
One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is about not engaging yourself in such areas where you don’t have control. And don’t judge others by your capacity.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous in the process of building Amarroom?
Always have a positive mindset and a can-do attitude. Entrepreneurship is not easy. Adaptability is an important key attribute for an entrepreneur. You have to be able to change and adjust to the changing needs of the market.
Customer service is critical for every business. Take customer engagement and timely customer service as one of your key priorities. We have been lucky in the sense that our customers have been very supportive of us.
How do you deal with challenges and stress that come with being a founder?
Every morning I start with a fresh mind. Islamic teaching on Rizik/earning helps me overcome the challenges and stress. I can have a sound sleep in any situation. That helps me to manage my energy well.
What advice would you give to founders who are just starting out?
Collaboration with the right friends is important. You are an average of people you spend the most time with. Make friends with good people.
While starting your venture, don’t go solo. Try to have one or more co-founders. Building a business is hard. It is important to have someone you can share your thoughts and ideas with.
Learn to think for yourself. Take ideas and advice but evaluate opinions and finally make your own decision.
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