The Enduring Edge Of Rokomari: An Interview With Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, Co-founder and Chairman, Onnorokom Group

The Enduring Edge Of Rokomari: An Interview With Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, Co-founder and Chairman, Onnorokom Group

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Rokomari is one of the most fascinating digital commerce companies in Dhaka. Founded in 2012, the company is one of the earliest, most loved by consumers and consistent players in the space. Most importantly, it is a 100% locally built and managed company with no external investment. The company is a perfect bootstrapping case study in digital commerce for entrepreneurs in Bangladesh.

Rokomari has been doing a tonne of interesting things of late. The company has designed an ingenious growth strategy using growth hacking techniques and putting together email, content, and relentless testing into work. It has successfully launched its ebook platform Muthoboi and started an interesting expansion plan called Boi Toi.

We recently caught up with Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, Co-founder and Chairman of Onnorokom Group, the parent company of Rokomari, to learn more about how Rokomari came into being, the early days of Rokomari, the state of Rokomari’s business today, its ambition going forward, growth hacking, failure, entrepreneurship, ecommerce in Bangladesh, and much more.

This is our first major story on Rokomari, I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.


Ruhul Kader

Although Rokomari is one of the pioneering eCommerce companies and most loved digital brands in Dhaka, we did scarce reporting on Rokomari in the past. To begin with, could you please give us an overview of the early days of Rokomari and how Rokomari came into being?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Rokomari is one of the youngest ventures in our portfolio. The actual name of our company is OnnoRokom Web Services Ltd. The original idea before Rokomari of this initiative failed, which was something similar to LinkedIn failed.

The story of how OWS came into being is quite interesting. Three of our juniors from BUET 02 batch of CSE came up with an idea they named “careerclub.com.bd”. It was very much like LinkedIn. LinkedIn still does not have many of the features that they initially pitched when they first came to us.

When they came up with the idea, they first went to Munir Hasan bhai of Prothom Alo and he sent them to us. We liked the idea and formed a company named careerclub.com.bd for that project. We worked on that project for about 1-1.5 years. This was a project of tremendous scale which we did not realize when decided to embark on the journey. After working for over a year, we came to see that we made little progress. Everyone in the team was demoralized. We could see that the project was failing. We were considering a way out for the project.

Fortunately, one day around this time Shaiful Azim bhai of Prothom Alo called and told me to give some ideas to work on during the cricket world cup. This was during the Cricket World Cup. At the time, I was an avid player of Mafia game on Facebook. I noticed that I was playing a game for hours a day. This got me thinking about how a game kept me engaged for hours. I was trying to understand the philosophy of the game. That’s how I came up with an idea of a game for Prothom Alo as part of their cricket world cup events. I shared the idea with Shaiful Azim bhai. He was immediately sold. The game was later named Cricpaul. The idea was simple: Cricpaul would allow users to predict the outcome of various aspects of a cricket match in real-time on the Prothom Alo website and the people who came up with the right prediction would receive a gift.

Crickpaul was designed as a prediction game. For example, before the start of a match, we would give 10-15 questions related to the match. People would give their predictions before a particular match. Simultaneously, when the match is being played, there would be real-time questions that people could answer. We had a micro-blogging feature for that as well.

We pitched the idea in front of Matiur Rahman Bhai and he liked it. We didn’t have any software at the time. We pitched the idea with a simple .psd file. Monirul Bhai, who was at Grameenphone at the time, liked the idea very much. He was super excited. Prothom Alo was supposed to be the media partner and GP would be the sponsor. However, GP could not proceed with the sponsorship despite their strong interest due to some issues.

Then we approached Qubee and they give a good budget. Although Qubee is an MNC, they sort of by-passed their approval procedure and gave us the green light to go. At the time, Qubee had merely 2,000 subscribers on its Facebook page. Teletalk also sponsored. The project was for 40 days only. It was a big hit! We had a pageview of about 9.5 million in 40 days at the time. We are talking a time when the internet penetration was much lower than what it is today.

Overall, the project was super hit. The project was being able to attract good sponsorship money. It sort of saved our almost dying OWS.

Before that, we had many other failed projects. We had a project called OneTouch, recharge your mobile balance using the internet. We had the solution but it was not commercially viable hence failed.

Regardless, after Cricpaul project we got our confidence back. The game was so popular that on the last day our server went down because of the number of people playing the game. Some even played for about 7-8 hours at a stretch. That saved OWS from going down. However, careerclub eventually failed.

After that, the juniors suggested if we could move to e-commerce and if we could start with books. I have been fascinated by books throughout my life. The three juniors, living in Mirpur at the time, asked a teacher there for a good name while they were in a tea stall. Rokomari was one of the names the teacher suggested. They liked the name and my partner Liton liked it so much that it was like we have to do something with the name. That how Rokomari came into being.

It was the month of December. The book fair was still 2 months off. We managed to build the site and started to reach out to some publishers. Initially, publishers didn’t take us seriously. They would tell us that many people get interested in books before February and they leave the market just as fast as they come.

Our target was to launch with a minimum of 10,000 books. We officially launched on January 19, 2012, as an online bookstore at a school in Dhanmondi. Musa Ibrahim, Anisul Huq, and a few publishers attended the event.

After the launch, Prothom Alo published a feature on us which gave a huge boost to our growth in those early days. It immediately helped pick up our orders. We built Rokomari website and software in about a month. We had almost no back-end order management system, which became a challenge when the number of orders increased.

That’s how Rokomari came into being.

We were relentless from day one. One of our boys, Tushar, who now lives in Libya, used to spend his entire day in Bangla Bazar wearing a Rokomari tee-shirt. He was so persistent that people around the Bangla Bazar area nicknamed him Rokomari.

At the time, no e-commerce had the cash on delivery (COD) feature but we could sense that there was a need for the feature. We decided that we would go for it. Sundarban, our logistics partner, helped us a lot and built a model keeping our COD feature in mind. It would have been difficult had Sundarban disagreed to accommodate our idea. The COD feature has always been available in the Post Offices for a long time. We used that service and our parents did. At the same time, Sundarban agreed to work with us and we were all set to give a better service to our customers.

Rokomari warehouse snapshot | Courtesy Rokomari

Ruhul Kader

How many books did you have on Rokomari platform during the launch?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Our target was to launch with 10,000 books. I cannot recall the exact number now, but we started with several thousand books. Our office was at Karwan Bazar at the time.

After a while, the team size grew and we came here (Rokomari’s current office in Motijheel). This was an office of Udvash. We took over a classroom and vacated it for Rokomari team. We were a team of 5-6 people at the time. Almost all of them are still with us today.

We had no idea at the time how this would be. We were slowly getting into the challenges of the project. We were getting to know the hurdles of building and running an ecommerce operation. The business was growing slowly and with that, the challenges were too. We started updating the software and slowly adding new members to the team. There are many memories of those days. As Rokomari grew from a fledgling tiny project to an organization, many things happened for the first time that we had never experienced before.

During this period, one day our sales reached BDT 12,000-13,000. It was a huge achievement for the entire team. We were like this is huge and that we never thought that we would get here someday.

We have grown consistently since then. Our evolution has been amazing if you consider the fact that we are a 100% homegrown technology company. We have done everything in-house. We learned through doing things and making mistakes.

It feels really different when we cross the annual sales figures for the entire 2012 in a day, which we did recently.

Our growth has been excellent throughout this period. There is a perception in the market that people don’t read books these days. It’s both true and false. For instance, Paradoxical Sajid was sold 175,000 copies in its inception. Do keep in mind that it was the first book of both the writer and the publisher. The writer was still a student. The audience is there. The market is there. What is needed is that you need to add value if you want to succeed.

In the first year, the total number of people in our team was no more than 15-20 people.

Ruhul Kader

How many orders were you serving in the early days?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Total sales in the month of February were similar to what we sell between 10-11 am in the morning on any given day now.

Ruhul Kader

What are a few things that have contributed to this evolution of Rokomari?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

I have tried to identify the reasons why we failed in many of our early ventures and projects. I found around 30 failure cases among which 10-12 were company failures, rest were project failures.

One major reason, I found, is getting into a business for the sole purpose of making money. There is probably some logic to this. When you get into something for money, you are thinking in the short term and when your business does not work, you become frustrated and give up easily and go for the next idea that could potentially help you make money.

Entrepreneurs should work on things that they find interesting. That they would pursue regardless of money. Something that is bigger than money. It could be something they love doing or something that they are interested in because it doing it would make a difference in society. It is like playing games. If you don’t like what you are playing, why would you waste time behind that?

At OnnoRokom, we love dealing with books. We love the feeling of delivering a book to someone. The struggle we had to endure at Rokomari was not as difficult as it was with Udvash. We could be patient although the venture was not profitable in the beginning because we had the backup of OnnoRokom Group. It has made our journey relatively easier. That being said, building a business from scratch is always tough regardless of your financial condition. Unless you have some reasons bigger than making money, you would seldom be willing to continue on such a path.

At Rokomari, we have done many things for the first time in Bangladesh. For example, we started delivering books all over the country from the very beginning. It took several weeks to deliver a book through the post offices to clients but in the end, we earned the praise when the books reached the customers’ hands. We were optimistic about it. All of our partners at the time accepted us cordially as one of them and the majority of our partners from those days are still with us.

The second thing that helped us is that we have always been a dynamic organization. We routinely add new features to the platform. It has been the case throughout the history of Rokomari. We have been adventurous in every way possible. We tried and continue to try new things every once in a while.

We have been able to achieve the trust of many of our publishing partners. I personally find it inspiring that I know many publishers whose books I grew up reading and they know me as well. There will be challenges. But this is a reward you could not find anywhere else. This is intrinsic and a priceless feeling. I think this feeling has driven us all these years as a team at Rokomari.

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag | Courtesy Rokomari

Ruhul Kader

What was the ambition when you were getting started? Did you think about profitability, break-even, etc? Are you a profitable company now?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Our initial assumption was that we would break even within 5-6 years. After 7 years, we are yet to break even. We are close. To that end, we failed marginally. That being said, we have grown substantially.

We believe there are a lot of things to be done with books, most of which we haven’t touched yet. For example, original books for university and medical. We have done very little there. The opportunity there is huge.

Only recently we have launched our ebook business. We have done an incredible amount of work putting together our eBook product. We are super excited about the future of our eBook business.

You need to keep in mind that, Rokomari is the only e-commerce that is 100% local. We don’t have any bank loans or equity investments. There are only a few eCommerce in Bangladesh that runs at our scale. We are maybe second to Daraz only. But Daraz is a very different company than us. They are an Alibaba owned company. All other ecommerce have external investors. We are an independent company and that too 100% locally developed and managed.

I’m not saying this is an upside that we have. It probably is not. But we take pride in the fact that we have come this far without taking any external investment.

We have grown this far through a process of trials and errors. There is no other ecommerce company that deals with a similar level of complexities that we deal with.

We deal with some 200,000 different titles at any given time, which you may call product types. For most ecommerce companies, the number of product categories is quite limited.

We have a long way to go. There will be ups and downs, which is the nature of any journey. After all these years, we are ready.

Ruhul Kader

How much has Rokomari evolved as a product?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

In terms of tech, what the users see is only the tip of the ice-berg. While we started with a very basic version of Rokomari, the platform has evolved over the years. We currently have a 10-12 men tech team.

As Rokomari grew over the years, we have consistently been working on our back-end. The platform is changing every day. This has been a huge learning experience for me and I think it is for any entrepreneurs that when you and grow and scale, your initial business model does not work anymore. That as your business grows, what worked a few weeks ago would not work anymore. It is like what got you here would not get you there kind of situation. You have to evolve at every stage of your business.

Our back end is complex. It has hundreds and thousands of things continuously working behind. For example, when customers place an order, we need to pick that up from thousands of publishers. First of all, it is not an easy job to collect all the books from different publishers, package them and then make the delivery without making any error. We are going through continuous technology innovation. Our product catalog is huge. To give you an understanding, Chaldal is handling 6000 products whereas we are handling around 200,000 products of different types. Those who filter need to be real experts so that no errors occur.

When we started, we did almost everything manually. After that, we started using the barcode. Now when a customer places an order, you just need to print out the order. The software will tell you the shelf number and row number, you just need to go there and pick up the book.

Now this change did not happen overnight. It took us all these years to come this far. And it happened in phases. We are now working on another clustering model that would make the process, even more, foolproof.

We are working on making route planning more efficient. We are trying to develop a model to improve the timing of collecting books. When someone is going to pick a book from a shelf, he probably does not know what is the best route to take to get the book quickly. When you take a route to collect the books from a shelf, there are multiple routes available to you. There are routes that you could take that would improve your efficiency and there are routes that would not reduce it. So route optimization could save a lot of time. Human minds cannot do this easily. We are building software for that purpose.

When you are using the Rokomari website, you don’t see these changes but on the back end, it is quite a complex system.

One of our most common complaints is that we inform the customer whether the book is available or not after 1/2 days, which we should have done immediately. We agree that we have areas where we need to improve.

However, the challenge for us when it comes to ensuring real-time confirmation is that we often don’t have real-time information about the stock of our publishers. We maintain stock at Rokomari office. At the same time, we collect books from publishers on a daily basis as well.

The challenge is that 98% of our publishers are analog which makes it almost impossible for us to know whether a book is in stock unless we physically go for purchasing the book. However, we are working on some solutions that would improve the condition in the future.

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Ruhul Kader

Digitizing the publishers could save you a lot of time and improve your overall efficiency? Have you tried that?

Mahamudul Hasan Sohag

We have. We have built a software for publishers. But it is not about software alone. In order to operate a software you need some arrangements, you need someone to operate the software, someone to run a PC and so on. For many publishers, it is an investment they are not willing to make. Thus a few of them are ready, but the majority of them are not. Some of them are used to manually managing things and don’t want to change. Others are not convinced about making the investment.

We have created a panel for publishers. But few publishers take the hassle. We upload the books ourselves. That’s a tremendous amount of work itself. When you are uploading a book, you are uploading tons of information price, pages, sample chapters, cover photos and so on, etc. We do all these things ourselves.

We are trying to give the publishers the publisher panel so that they can upload their own books, edit them, change the contents, etc. This will take some of the burdens off of our shoulders. It would speed things up. Since publishers would update the list, they would also update availability in almost real-time reducing cancel orders rate significantly for us. Now what we do is basically check with publishers every few days to ensure the availability of a title. This manual check-up system is a challenge for us.

There are other challenges as well. Not all the publishers are open 24/7. There are off days in the week when publishers are not available. For example, if you place an order on a Thursday night, it is likely to get delayed by one day because Friday is an off day for many publishers. Book collection from the publishers remains a major challenge.

In the past, we used to mostly rely on a manual process to predict inventory and so on. We have improved our process. we now have the software and machine learning tools that do the prediction. Our system remains quite rudimentary at the stage but as we grow and the system gets access to more data, it will get better.
We still purchase books on a daily basis.

Logistics remains a key challenge for ecommerce. There is hardly one logistic company that could offer excellent logistics services country-wide. We do the delivery ourselves within Dhaka. For outside Dhaka, we manage almost 30/40 couriers partners.

For delivery, we have developed a tracking system for our users. They could see the status of their order in real-time from Rokomari website.

We have an in-house call center. We have to receive a minimum of 20-30 calls at a time. Plus all the calls are being recorded. We brought in automation in there as well.

We have made payment simpler for our users. Apart from all the regular payment options, we allow people to pay using more than one method. A user could pay in splits: half using bKash or card and another half via COD. In Bangladesh, Daraz is operating with the biggest investment, which is owned by Alibaba. They don’t even have the option of paying in different moods for the same order. We have this option. This is a critical option. We had to design a complex system to do this. It has an increased workload for our people. Our call center needs to handle extra calls for this service. But we have decided to give this flexibility to our customers since we know that it would make their life easier.

Initially, we were only selling local books. Eventually, we started to sell books of international authors. We bring these books from India and other places. Sometimes we don’t have available stock of these books. It often takes a few days to bring a book from India. When that happens, it takes a toll on our delivery time.

A snapshot of Rokomari warehouse | Courtesy Rokomari

Ruhul

What are some changes in other areas of your operations?

Sohag

We started as a small scrappy organization. We had a little process. We were a tiny little team. Everyone worked hard, did their best and made it work. Most things were manual. Our understanding of how eCommerce works were limited. We had little understanding of the complexity of our operation. We built systems that were essential for the stage we were at the time.

As we grew over the years, I have learned that organizations reborn all the time. What works when you are a 5 people organization would not work when you are a 10 people organization. Organizations are dynamic entities, evolution is essential for survival. We have evolved as an organization as well. We have built processes and those processes are changing every day.

We now have strong processes in place. There are departments that look after different aspects of our operations. One essential cost of the process is that it kills emotion. In the early days, our people have been super motivated. They worked in a self-driven pace. They owned their work.

When we started to put more importance on the process, it made things smoother but at the same time, it became harder to transmit these emotions and the sense of ownership into the new members of the team. As a result, team bonding often suffers. Whenever an organization becomes organized, empathy gets lost. Initially, there are no rules and regulations, only a strong emotional drive. That becomes a challenge with the growth and when people get used to the rules.

Having said that, we have been trying to build an organization where people feel like they belong here. We don’t want to build an organization where you come, work and go home and you seldom engage. Rather we want to be an organization you love, own and an organization where you do your best work.

Previously, we didn’t have any quarterly or yearly plans; now we know what to do next. We didn’t have any corporate department. Now we have a separate department to look after our corporate business. We have a department for imported books. We now have a team of developers where we have 10/12 people working continuously on tech.

We have introduced tonnes of features around AI, Bangla search among others that are new to our market. We have built enough verification steps so that no error or mismatch occurs.

The other important development is analytics. In the first few years of our operation, we did not use any analytics tool. We started using Google Analytics after 2/3 years of inception probably.

We now put immense importance on analytics. In the beginning, we invested a lot in off-line branding. We have gradually shifted to digital. Our communication is mostly digital now. When we started using analytics, there was a major shift in terms of branding and marketing.

Then another level of change came when we started testing growth hacking ideas across Rokomari. At first, there was no dedicated growth hacking team, now we have one. We have started growth hacking in marketing and communication first and now almost every department uses growth hacking techniques to test ideas and improve.

We didn’t have reviews and ratings in the beginning on Rokomari.com. Now we have that. We have found that people do give reviews and do care about reviews.

We are a 100% homegrown company. Our technology is built in-house. Everything that you see at Rokomari is built here and with our local talent. We are proud of our achievements. No other company has been able to do that in Dhaka. If you consider us from a status perspective, we are a quite mediocre team. We don’t have people from top universities. We don’t have senior people in the team. What we have, I believe is teamwork and love for our work.

Ruhul

Could you please give us an overview of Rokomari?

Sohag

We are now a team of 150 full-time members. We have around 40/50 delivery personnel who work on a contractual basis.

We have grown from an orders perspective. Today, we process more orders in an hour than we used to do in an entire year in our early days. This year has been a wonderful growth journey for us.

Our delivery service has improved. We now can ensure delivery within 24 hours inside Dhaka except for some cases. For example, in February, we prepared for a three-fold order rush. But the volume of the order was so huge that almost everything collapsed. On top of that, there was no pre-order culture in Bangladesh before. We started that and it has become a hugely complex operation for us. We went through a challenging phase when it comes to managing orders and ensuring on-time delivery. We learned a lot.

Our marketing has changed. Initially, we were mostly Facebook focused. We now do a tonne of different things. I remember pushing the marketing team for email marketing. Initially, they didn’t care. However, email marketing is a hugely successful initiative. People like our content and emails because we have been trying to do it right. As a result, the unsubscription rate is meaningfully low.

We started to rely more on data to make decisions. For marketing, we started to look into data to understand the efficiency of campaigns. It has been a very useful shift for us. We came here from a place where we did not have the expertise to place Google Ads once. Due to technical complexities, we could not place any ads on Google. We have come this far without placing any ads on Google. If we had someone senior marketing consultant, we probably could have grown much faster. But we always wanted to have a culture of learning in Rokomari.

Seek, you will be given. We have built a culture of learning. Every Thursday morning I and our core team, we study together till the afternoon. We are successful in terms of growing our personnel. You will be amazed to see the handwriting of one of the guys who used to serve tea. He works with the team now. We have a very humane culture here and we mean it.

We have an internal app for communication and management purposes for Rokomari called “Poribar.” We appreciate each other through the app.

We cover almost all the books published in Bangladesh. In the beginning, fictions were the top seller. In the last three years, non-fiction became widespread. One of the non-fiction categories is Islamic books such as Paradoxical Sajid and the other categories are self-help and skill-development books. These categories have been doing consistently well.

Our broader product category is almost 50-60. Then there are subcategories under these broad categories and sub-categories under those sub-categories. We deal with about 200,000 titles at any given time.

Our book market has changed significantly over the past few years. We have contributed to this change to some extent. Previously, it was difficult to popularize a book and manage the distribution. It has changed. Now we single-handedly manage sales of many of the books of several publications. There is a growing reading culture happening in our market.

We’ve launched our ebook reader Muthoboi. Many companies tried ebook before with limited success. It is quite a challenging endeavor from a technological perspective. We worked for almost one year only on security. Dealing with the publications is supercritical as well as the writer has the copyright. We don’t bypass the publisher. Having been able to onboard both of them is critical. None of these are easy tasks and we have been able to do it successfully.

Ruhul

How many orders do you serve daily?

Sohag

More than a thousand orders.

Ruhul

What is the basket size for the average order?

Sohag

It depends. Per month we serve more than a hundred thousand books. We have been growing at a staggering rate every year. We experienced a 100% growth in the first year. That gradually came down to 28% in the third/fourth year. Once we learned data analytics and growth hacking and applied those lessons, it went up again. Then it went 45% next year, 70% last year and we are assuming 80% or more annualized growth this year.

Ruhul

How many publishers do you work with currently?

Sohag

We deal with several thousands of enlisted publishers. Every month we purchase from about 2,000 of them. Every day we deal with about 400 publishers.

Ruhul

How big is the market out there?

Sohag

Everyone in Bangladesh is a potential customer. While we have done well in some categories, we have not been able to penetrate into some of the even more interesting categories.

We haven’t been able to penetrate into the textbook category yet. For example, the test paper market is huge. This is a market of several hundred crores. We only penetrated some portion of it. If we compare it to other categories like fiction, the volume is incomparable. A single Panjeeri guide is sold several hundred thousand every year.

The academic book is a major segment we have not explored yet. Then there are job and career-related publications which is a huge market. We are exploring some of these segments at a small scale as experiments and hope to go deeper in the coming years.

Ruhul

What is your plan for the academic books category?

Sohag

We have started working with some of the publishers. We have dedicated personnel for that purpose. We have had meetings with some of the auxiliary book publishers.

In terms of medical and university books, we are trying to bring original books from India. We understand that original books are expensive and would be out of reach for many students. We are trying to have some sponsors for that purpose as well to motivate the students to purchase the original books. Because when we read our textbooks that have been pirated, our ethical sense doesn’t grow. We buy a hundred taka ice cream but we don’t like to pay a little extra for original books. We are trying to encourage people to buy the original books and trying to find ways to do that cost efficiently.

The other thing is educating people. We have introduced features on Rokomari website to guide people. Recommendations and suggestions are now big things on Rokomari. We have introduced multiple AI-enabled recommendation features such as ‘recently sold books’ and ‘people also bought these books’, etc. Recently, we have started a series on YouTube called “Boikotha” with an intention to encourage reading.

We are considering options to empower libraries across the country. There are some self-financed small libraries in every corner of the country with limited abilities. We plan to collect specimen copies from the publishers and support these libraries and there are people who want to give books away for free, we plan to work as a platform for that as well. Probably, we would come up with some matchmaking solutions of some sort.

Ruhul

What is your plan for expansions to other verticals, for example, technological products?

Sohag

We are exploring new ideas for category expansion. We have tried to add new product lines along with books in the past. This time we are trying it differently. Instead of introducing new categories of products, we are exploring it in a way that makes it much more relevant. We are calling it Boi Toi model where we are introducing relevant products with different books.

We already have started doing it. We are probably doing it with 100-150 categories.

The idea is to suggest some associated products that would be useful for the readers of the books that they purchase. For example, if you are reading a book on turkey farming, you probably will like some of the products related to turkey farming such as turkey foods, etc. Now when someone is seeing a book on turkey farming, we show them products related to turkey and turkey farming. We are placing some other products as well such as backpacks, stationery items, etc.

This is a challenging job. We have tried this several times in the past. We tried to work with the kid’s product once. The challenge is finding original products.

We tried with cycles once with a tagline, book for your mind, cycle for your body. But we had to discontinue once we found out that the majority of them are clones of the original brands. The majority of the eCommerce sites sell Chinese clones.

We use a little bit of machine learning and AI to do these things. For example, if we want to sell diapers, Bornomala boi customers will be our target group. So we need to place diapers in places of the Bornomala books. It doesn’t necessarily take AI to do it, human intelligence is enough I think.

Ruhul

You have been using growth hacking quite successfully at Rokomari for a while now. Could you please tell us about the basic principles of growth hacking?

Sohag

I came across the idea of growth hacking when one of my students gave me a PDF. I got really fascinated after reading it. Then I started to dig a little deeper and I was hooked. I shared the idea with my team which eventually led to weekly sessions where we learn and discuss growth hacking and how we could apply the techniques at Rokomari.

That’s how our growth hacking journey started at Rokomari. Before that, we were doing random things without doing much measurement.

One of the important aspects of growth hacking is that you have to measure everything you. You generate ideas, test them and then measure their impact. For example, when we added the “look inside” feature, we realized the people who look inside a book have a higher tendency to make an order. But we found out that a majority of the visitors were not using the feature. After a little bit of research, we understood that most people do not even know that there is a feature like that at Rokomari.com

We then made some changes to the feature. We asked our users for a better name for the feature. We gave it a more prominent position. With that more people came to know about the feature and we also received some good names. Then after some modifications, we changed it to “Ekru Pore Dekhun (read a bit)” and received a 27% increase in the use of the feature. That’s a growth hack. We ran several tests and found something that worked.

We now do this in every area of our operation. We routinely make changes to our website, big and small, to see how people respond. We make these changes and then we see how it affects orders and other important metrics. We run tests with email marketing. We change font, color, headlines and try to see the impacts of each change in terms of conversion.

Growth hacking, broadly, is a model where you generate ideas, test them, measure results, learn from each test and continue the cycle.

We don’t take the growth hacking as some sort of marketing tool, we have taken it as part of our culture.

With new ideas, we have been able to save time, improve user experience and grow our business. Take our call center for example. We analyze every call so that there are more value-adding calls and fewer non-value adding calls. We have started an order tracking service so that customers do not need to call us about the delivery and they can see their orders for themselves. We are continuously testing new ideas.

Ruhul

eCommerce has become a competitive space of late, what do you think of your competition?

Sohag

There were many more players in the book market a few years ago. The majority of them couldn’t continue. When there are more players, it means everyone is pushing and the market is growing. We are not serving the whole market as yet. It is good to create more awareness and we alone would not be able to do it. So more players, better.

Ruhul

What do you think about the long term aspect of competition?

Sohag

If let’s say Amazon comes in, that will be a disruptive situation. Otherwise, the book is not that much of a lucrative item compared to dress or electronic items. Therefore, those who are the most passionate about books will survive in this market.

You cannot make a lot of money with books. It will not be that much lucrative for Daraz to deal with books. It is complex. Chaldal, for example, serves more orders than us with only 6,000 products whereas we have more 200,000 products and it is a huge undertaking.

Ruhul

You have not raised any external investment, do you have any plans in the near future?

Sohag

We have not thought about it actively as yet. We have some thoughts about it but nothing concrete. At this point, we are good. But if some big competition comes in and start aggressive price competition, we probably would have to go for external funding. That being said, we haven’t actively planned about it as yet.

Ruhul

You have been pushing your app of late, could you please tell us about your app as well as your ebook app Muthoboi?

Sohag

Our app is fairly recent compared to our age as a company. We launched late. It would have been better for us if we launched it earlier. But we didn’t have dedicated resources because of our limited investment and we could not do it earlier.

We didn’t do any significant marketing for the app. Despite that, we have seen a huge growth in downloads. It has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. The uninstall rate is also very low. It gives us a lot of confidence.

For Muthoboi, we have officially launched it Alhamdulillah a few weeks ago with about 100 books. We try to follow the growth hacking method, launching and testing things before expanding.

Ruhul

What is your plan with the app?

Sohag

We have some ideas regarding gamification in the app. For example, we could go for everyday quotations or everyday book summaries. There are some techniques in there right now but we are planning to add more value-adding contents so that people find it meaningful to keep the app on their phone.

We have also launched a pointing system. The system is working well. Now we are giving points for purchase and reviews which customers can convert into cash in their next purchase. So far, our users have accepted the feature well. There is some sort of gamification in there.

Ruhul

How does Muthoboi work?

Sohag

It works on a paid model. There are some free books there. But if you want to purchase the other books, you can pay for them. We will go for the subscription model later.

Ruhul

What is your plan for the next 2/3 years?

Sohag

We are an agile company and continuously learning. We thought about the blue ocean strategy and started implementing some of the ideas.

Our major verticals are going to follow the Boi Toi model. We are not exactly clear about the categories for diversification yet. We will try to focus on the non-fiction segment especially the academic segment.

We are also trying to popularize the gift voucher product where the person you want to gift books probably has that book already. So if you send this gift voucher instead, they will be able to pick up the book according to their own choices. We are also trying to put a significant focus on eBook initiative in the near future.

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