Rokomari is one of the fascinating digital commerce companies in Dhaka. Founded in 2012, the company is one of the earliest and most loved brands by customers 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. In this story, we look into the origin of Rokomari based on an interview we did last year with Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, Founder of Rokomari and Chairman of OnnoRokom Group, the parent company of Rokomari. The beginning of Rokomari is an interesting story. Like most journeys in life, it is a story of going off the road and landing somewhere other than what you originally planned.
Mahmudul Hasan Sohag on the origin of Rokomari:
"Rokomari is one of the youngest ventures in our portfolio. The official name of our company is OnnoRokom Web Services Ltd. Rokomari did not start as Rokomari. The predecessor to Rokomari was an idea similar to LinkedIn, which failed. The story of how OWS came into being is quite an interesting one. Three of our juniors from BUET 02 batch of CSE came up with an idea they named “careerclub.com.bd”. It was similar to what LinkedIn is today. In fact, LinkedIn still does not have many of the features that they first pitched the idea to us.
They first went to Munir Hasan bhai of Prothom Alo with the idea. He then sent them to us. We liked the idea and formed a company named careerclub.com.bd. It was a project of tremendous scale which we did not realize when we first decided to embark on the journey. After working for over a year, we came to see that we made little progress to show. Everyone in the team was demoralized. We could see that the project was failing. We were looking for a way out of the project.
When we were struggling with the project, Shaiful Azim bhai of Prothom Alo called me one day and asked for some ideas to work on during the cricket world cup. I was an avid player of Mafia games on Facebook during this time. I noticed that I was playing a game for hours a day. This got me thinking about how a game kept me engaged for so long. I was trying to understand the psychology 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 to 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 gave us a good budget. At the time, Qubee had mere 2,000 followers on Facebook. Teletalk also joined as a sponsor. The project was for 40 days. We had a pageview of about 9.5 million in 40 days. We are talking about a time when internet penetration was much lower than what it is today. Overall, the project was super hit and could attract good sponsorship money. It sort of saved our almost dying OWS.
After Cricpaul project, we got our confidence back. The game was so popular that on the last day our server crashed. Some people even played for about 7-8 hours at a stretch. That saved OWS from going broke. But careerclub eventually failed.
After that, the juniors suggested we should move to e-commerce and start with books. Books have been my lifelong fascination. The three juniors were living in Mirpur at the time. As we were discussing a potential ecommerce venture, they asked a teacher in their network for some good names. Rokomari was one of the names he suggested. They liked the name and my partner Liton liked it so much that it was like we had to do something with the name.
It was the month of December. The book fair was still 2 months away. We managed to build the site and start reaching 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. We had to work quite hard to convince the publishers to work with us.
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 the Rokomari website and software in about a month. We had almost no back-end order management system at the time, 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 such a 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 did not 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. Sundarban agreed to work with us and we were all set to give a better service to our customers.
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 the office of Udvash. We took over a classroom and vacated it for the 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 about the future. 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 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 daily 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 by doing things and making mistakes.
It feels really different when we cross our entire annual sales figures for the entire 2012 in a day now.
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 by Arif Azad sold 175,000 copies in its launch. 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 in order to get attention."
This is an excerpt from our interview with Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, Co-founder and Chairman of Onnorokom Group, the parent company of Rokomari, read the full interview here.