DataBird is a holding company that owns and markets Bangla-language app Ridmik Keyboard and online travel agency ShareTrip, both are companies it invested in two years ago and now fully owns. The company describes itself as “the largest and leading Internet group with products across online travel, news, keyboard, eReader, and lifestyle mobile applications.” The company claims its services “reach more than half of all smartphone Internet users today in Bangladesh.” The company currently employs over 160 across its different verticals and is led by Kashef Rahman, CEO of DataBird, Sadia Haque, COO of DataBird, the husband-wife duo who co-founded ShareTrip, and Shamim Hasnath, who founded Ridmik and is now the CTO of DataBird. The company has strategic investment from Skycatcher, a US-based venture capital fund that invests in internet companies across markets.
In an interview with the Tech In Asia published early last month, DataBird team said it aims to become the Tencent of Bangladesh using its two existing platforms and their users as the basis for churning out more products and services, a widely used playbook in the digital technology business. You build one service, acquire a large number of loyal users, and build more services on top of that for evermore users. The expectation is that users come for one service, you aggregate more demands aka users, and then the same users start using other services that you keep on adding.
DataBird says it already has millions of users in its two products: ShareTrip and Ridmik. It now aims to build an ecosystem of mobile apps and services using the same user base as the market, to begin with.
The Tech In Asia report suggests that Ridmik Keyboard has some 22 million monthly active users, while ShareTrip remains one of the leaders in the online travel space in the country with around US$1.2 million in gross bookings in September. The company also operates a number of apps and services in news, ebook, entertainment, and advertising including news aggregator app Ridmik News, Bengali e-book reader Boitoi, and Bondhu Buzz, a yet to be launched dating app.
Since Data Bird owns a large number of users and has direct interaction with these users through its two main services, ShareTrip and Ridmik Keyboard, the company now aims to launch more services tapping into the same user base. The company has used a similar playbook to launch news aggregator Ridmik News that now has 250,000 monthly active users, reports Tech In Asia. A Ridmik News button appears on Ridmik Keyboard, which directs users to its news app. This strategy can be used as a model for integration between apps and services to build the Data Bird ecosystem.
Data Bird next aims to expand into fintech, particularly high-frequency use cases, says the article. It has already applied for the payments services license and expects to receive one by the end of 2020. To that end, the company has already started working on some plans. Ridmik Keyboard, one of its flagship products, plans to introduce a virtual currency that users can collect with every word they type, which can then be used to top up mobile bundles, etc. The company says through these gamification and virtual tokens, it wants to educate people and then take that behavior to real currency.
For its payment product, DataBird plans to follow the Tencent model. The company says it plans to launch a messenger app to be used in high-frequency-use cases with QR codes. This is akin to what Tencent has done with WeChat pay. The company says it believes that Bangladesh is ready for such a product given the incredible growth in both smartphone and internet penetration.
In travel, ShareTrip sells air tickets and hotel bookings directly to consumers. ShareTrip is one of the leading players in the online travel vertical with a significant market share. The company also has a growing B2B business where it works with over 2,800 offline travel agencies who use the ShareTrip platform for booking. As travel shifts to the domestic market, an outcome of the coronavirus pandemic, and many experts predict that the future of travel is local, ShareTrip has also been working hard to improve its local business with domestic travel packages. The TIA report says, between July and August, domestic ticket sales made up 90% of the total sales of ShareTrip’s business. OTAs have seen excellent growth in Bangladesh over the past few years. Despite the growth, offline travel agencies remain the dominant players in the space with support and services that online players are yet to be able to replicate.
ShareTrip, with an ambition to improve its repeat customers, has been trying a number of things. The company launched an app last year and says that 70% of its traffic comes through the app. The company launched gamification features such as in-app games and quizzes to improve stickiness and repeat uses.
DataBird aims to build an ecosystem and build services on top of its existing services, similar to what it has done with Ridmik Keyboard and Ridmik News. This is now a widely used playbook in the digital technology space. Many companies in Dhaka tried similar strategies with mediocre results. The majority of today’s digital companies from Uber to Snapchat to Facebook are using or aim to use a similar strategy to build successful operations in a myriad of verticals. While building an ecosystem and building multiple services on top of one widely popular service is a lucrative strategy and makes for an interesting story, it is always not a surefire strategy.
One of the reasons ecosystem building is interesting and feasible in theory but so hard in execution is because in reality users' incentive alignment is an important challenge these platforms need to address. Unless users who come for air tickets do not find reading news aligned with their interest, they will not take that one more service. That is why when aggregation looks like a killer strategy on the internet, misaligned aggregation can be fatal as well.
Platforms like Facebook have successfully been able to build multiple distinct services from broadcasting to shopping within one platform because the reason people come to social media is to kill time. It appears people have far more time to kill than we previously realized. But air ticketing is a serious business. For DataBird, this is going to be a major challenge.
This is apparent when it comes to the user base of Ridmik and ShareTrip - these two products serve different users with different incentives. But the advantage DataBird has is a large user data that will allow it to better understand the market and then design products and inventions accordingly. Tanveer Ali, a DataBird board member, and investor explained this to Tech in Asia: “together, the apps allow the company to access “different income levels, demographics, phone types, socioeconomic backgrounds of someone that’s buying a plane ticket versus one in a rural setting that’s using a lower-cost Android phone.” This can be invaluable when you are building consumer tech products such as payment.
The second challenge for DataBird as it expands into other verticals such as messaging is competition from a number of multinational players such as WhatsApp, Messenger, and others that already have huge market penetration and offer excellent service. The DataBird team says it can build and provide superior products and experience to users because it will be building for the local market that WhatsApp and other multinational products can’t offer. There are precedents of local apps beating multinational apps such as WhatsApp and Messenger in a number of markets in Asia such as Vietnam, Japan, South Korea. We will have to wait to see how it plays out in the Bangladesh market.
Data Bird has a unique opportunity. Bangladesh is a fascinating market with excellent growth in smartphone and internet penetration. A burgeoning middle-class and a young population who are used to seeing all the technological developments across markets are open to new ideas. Compared to that, while multinational players such as Google and Facebook continue to dominate in the tech space like every other market, the market remains a fertile ground for local tech solutions. DataBird sees this as perfect timing for building a local tech giant akin to China’s Tencent.
Internet is a fascinating space. More importantly, we are just waking up to the potential and possibilities of the internet. Internet empowers aggregation. And mobile and internet can be a deadly combination to that end.
There are motivations for companies like DataBird to build an ecosystem of services not only because it offers a wonderful opportunity to build a large and dominant business in a market like Bangladesh but also because it offers growth and helps build competitive moats in a market where every player is breaking boundaries daily. Being mobile services, ShareTrip and Ridmik could be a perfect combination for DataBird. Successful integration of multiple services will allow DataBird to attract more users and cross-sell multiple services to the same customers opening up new doors of growth. At the same time, more services in one place mean customers are more likely to stick with your platform than otherwise. The challenge however would be building the right bundle and aggregation. Because like everything else all aggregators are created equal but some aggregators are more equal than others.