DataBird is a Dhaka-based technology holding company 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” and it aims higher.
In this excellent interview, we sit down with the always fascinating CEO of DataBird and Founder and CEO of ShareTrip, Kashef Rahman, to learn about how ShareTrip is doing out of the coronavirus pandemic, dive deep into DataBird as an internet ecosystem builder in Bangladesh, DataBird's strategy and the state of operation, and DataBird's ambition going forward.
Kashef is an original thinker and first principles oriented founder and this was an intellectually empowering conversation. We hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as we enjoyed doing it!
On ShareTrip out of the coronavirus pandemic
Kashef Rahman: This has been an extraordinary year. We have made some major strategic changes throughout the year, largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic. We have entered the B2B market. We are focusing significantly on this market throughout COVID period. That’s a major strategic shift we have made as our predominant focus before had been on the B2C market.
Second, we had predominantly been international market focused in the past years. We wanted to explore the local market, we were already working on a plan but we were planning to do so a bit later from now. COVID has pushed us to bring that plan ahead of our schedule.
To that end, we have launched a new platform called ST Rooms for the local hoteliers and resort owners where they can publish their hotel rates to be showcased through our transactional platforms like the B2C app, website, and B2B platform. We have created a dedicated platform for local hotels, where they could update their inventory and sell through us. We already have 250+ local hotels on our platform.
We could have taken this number to a different level but could not do that because in many places, hotels don't have their own people to manage online inventory since hotels have been suffering from a downturn in business. Many hotels told us that they don't have the manpower and that we should help them manage the inventory. It would take us a little longer to work on these areas.
There are two major strategic changes that we have made in 2020. This has been a difficult year not for us alone but for almost everyone. Despite the challenges, our team has done a fantastic job. We have made all the right decisions. You could see the reflection of that in our business.
Business-wise, while the market has recovered only 35% of pre-covid time business, ShareTrip has recovered 100% in terms of GMV. what we used to achieve pre-Covid, we have recovered that business now. Our market share has grown. Offline and online, if you consider the overall Bangladesh market, we have almost 12% market share. We are the dominant player in online travel.
This has been a difficult year not for us alone but for almost everyone. Despite the challenges, our team has done a fantastic job. We have made all the right decisions. You could see the reflection of that in our business.
On the evaluation of ShareTrip product
Kashef Rahman: We have done major improvisations to our platforms. The platform you see now is a completely new one. We continue to work on the platform and launch new things now and then as per business and customer requirement. Improving the user experience on the platform remains a priority. Our tech team continues to pursue improvements daily to achieve that goal.
To be specific, we are working on several things. We have recently launched our blog section in a new and user friendly way. We launched and ran a quiz competition for a few months successfully. The response was great. Since Quiz winners win different prizes, which has little use now given that you could not possibly travel, but if you win you could use the rewards later and our users participated in great numbers.
We have added two new features. A flight tracker where you could track the status of your flight on the ShareTrip App and website. It makes the lives of our customers easier and saves hours for our customer care representatives. We have also added COVID travel restrictions and updates.
These developments are there but we are not resting here. We are doing more detailed work and working hard to add more features and benefits so that we could serve our customers better.
We are working to offer useful precise information to our customers. We are working on automation in areas such as changing flight dates and time online in cases where Airlines allow us to do that. We have already automated a large part of the booking and issuing things and we now want to take it further in partnership with Airlines who allow us to do so. We are getting into NDC, where we are building direct contracted API with airlines. This is a first for any online travel agency in Bangladesh to do so and ShareTrip is making the pathway for this.
We are not sitting idle for a day. We are working hard all the time and developing new services and solutions for our customers. We are a team of more than 120 including 35 people in technology.
Research and development have become an integral part of how we operate as a company. Product-wise, our team is continuously working to improve our products across platforms and this remains an all-time priority.
On gamification and putting ShareTrip app at the center of customer interaction
Kashef Rahman: We have introduced gamification in the app. We have the spin to win thing where our users can spin and win TripCoins that they could use to buy services from us. We have features like ‘treasure box’ and ‘I want to go there’. These features are very popular among our users.
We have stopped promoting our app since last February. We have so far 300,000 downloads and have over 85,000 active users. Our retention rate is north of 77% and 70% of our booking takes place through our app.
On ShareTrip’s growing B2B business
Kashef Rahman: Our B2B business is quite young. But we have seen a consistent growth there amid the pandemic. We are continuously adding new facilities for our B2B partners. We currently have over 2800 registered agents in our B2B platform. Apart from that, we work with a2i where we work with 5000+ entrepreneurs, known as Digital centers across Bangladesh. From there about 500 entrepreneurs buy tickets from us every month.
It is a prepaid model. We have a dedicated B2B platform called b2b.sharetrip.net for our B2B partners. They get a different rate and several extra benefits. If they need to book a ticket, they can pay instantly and issue the ticket. They can use any MFS services such as bKash, Nagad, Rocket for payment. We have automated these options. If you need to buy a ticket at 1 am, you simply top up and get the ticket issued. The whole process just takes one minute.
What we are doing right now is that we are not losing any money there. We are also working to introduce an app for our B2B users so that they could buy and issue tickets on the go as well.
On priorities for 2021
Kashef Rahman: Research and development have become an integral part of how we operate as a company. Product-wise, our team is continuously working to improve our products across platforms and this remains an all-time priority.
We are working on deepening our supplier network. We already have almost 2 million hotels and 130+ airlines. We are now focusing on LCC airlines so that we have these inventories. In the next two months, we will be adding several low-cost airlines to our inventory. This will give our customers more options to choose from.
As I mentioned earlier, domestic travel has become a priority for us. We are working with domestic hotels and resorts and we will add more services and features there.
We have automated visa processing. We now offer online visa processing. If a customer books online, we do home pickup and delivery with a designated service charge. These are the changes we have made.
Generally speaking, there are five products: ticket, hotel, tour, package, and visa. The ambition is to make sure that our customers have an excellent experience in all these services when they are buying from us. The focus is on ease and speed. We have increased our service hours from morning 10 am to 1 am.
Our long term goals are both: to conquer the transactional platforms as well as user traffic.
On DataBird as the internet ecosystem builder of Bangladesh
Kashef Rahman: We believe and have seen great examples that the internet helps enhance the lives of people. While Bangladesh has experienced excellent growth in smartphone use and internet penetration, we believe that Bangladesh remains a whitespace and we have a lot of opportunities where we could build big enterprises serving millions of people.
In many markets, particularly in first world countries, we have already reached saturation points. The cost of customer acquisition is high in these markets. But it is different in Bangladesh. The marker remains nascent when it comes to the internet ecosystem. We see that there are a ton of opportunities to pursue and the impact of our work could be massive.
Our long term goals are both: to conquer the transactional platforms as well as user traffic. What is an example of a transactional platform: Alibaba shopping platform is a success story for that. For us, ShareTrip is there in online travel. For user traffic, Tencent generates traffic for WeChat. That's where we are focusing on our messenger and communication products.
We are working on four key verticals at DataBird: communication, online travel, online advertisement, and payments.
DataBird is one of the largest Internet groups in Bangladesh with products across online travel, news, keyboard, eReader, and lifestyle mobile applications. The company says its services reach more than half of all smartphone Internet users today in Bangladesh.
In communications, we are a clear leader in Keyboard and news, where we have 23 million MAU. We have online travel where we have more than 50% market share online and more than 12% market share both offline and online combined. It is tough but we are bringing people in slowly.
The upside for us is that there are a lot of challenges when it comes to dealing with international ad platforms and ad services including Google and Facebook. There are apparent challenges like payment and currency issues. Then there are many other challenges of working with international platforms. When it comes to us, people will be paying us in taka and we will be designing the platform to meet the needs of our local companies. We believe that being local is going to be a huge advantage in tech in the coming years.
In payments, we want to get into virtual and digital payment which is not present in the current market. We want to get into small payments that are not digital as yet.
We don't want to build a super-app. Our platforms are and will be connected and we benefit from the diverse consumer insights that we receive from users across our platforms. But we are not going to build a super-app.
We have our proprietary database, we call it Nest. Nest accumulates all the data from all the verticals where we work. It then helps us to make the connections and make better decisions using the insight from across platforms. Nest is one node where everything connects. For example, we have data for travel from ShareTrip. Similarly, we could see people who are reading travel-related news on Ridmik News. What Nest allows us to do is make the connection between these two, allowing us to reach out to the user who is reading travel news and reach him out with ShareTrip offers or services. This is one example. Someone reading travel news, ShareTrip can show ads to that reader. The same goes for all other services such as messenger.
One obvious connection of course is cross-promotion but that’s one layer of connection. As we move forward and our platforms mature, we will be using deeper integration and connection across platforms. This is where our ambition to build the internet ecosystem of Bangladesh comes in.
We have a P2P license for payment. We will offer a wallet where you can do transactions, but we would not have agents. Our payment is where our transactional platform begins. It is however tied with our messenger service. There are multiple layers that you will eventually come to see once we finally launch the service in 2021.
Our ambition is to become the Tencent of Bangladesh. We are using our existing platforms and their users as the basis for launching more products and services.
We are working on four key verticals at DataBird: communication, online travel, online advertisement, and payments.
On how DataBird operates as a holding company
Kashef Rahman: DataBird is a holding company. As I mentioned earlier, we have products across multiple verticals. While our operation across verticals are interconnected, we operate in a rather distributed manner.
As the founder and CEO of ShareTrip and the CEO of DataBird, I look after the overall operation. Shamim is the founder and CEO of Ridmik and the CTO of DataBird. Sadia is the co-founder and CCO of ShareTrip and the CCO of DataBird. We look after the different aspects of operations based on our portfolio. Shahim looks after Ridmik. I contribute whenever he needs support. Sadia supports where there are marketing and communication-related needs across products. Shamim jumps in where there are technical requirements.
Some of our operations are central such as Nest, our data platform that helps connect between platforms and verticals. But in how we operate as a company, the organization is not central. Each company operates independently focused on the individual business goals and targets. Each company has its team for almost every function. But we collaborate constantly and the tech team collaborate all the time.
That being said, we are a fast-evolving company. We might have a central team for common functions in the future if we see that it makes better sense operationally. For now, we see that independent operation is the strategically optimum choice given where we are.
We believe that being local is going to be a huge advantage in tech in the coming years.
On the challenges for DataBird
Kashef Rahman: To be honest, our numbers are great. We are proud of the work we have done so far. The number of users and the GMV we are achieving right now, it is promising. But COVID came and that is the biggest challenge for us, right now.
Bangladesh remains a difficult market to showcase to the rest of the world. As a market, we have some excellent benefits: high population density thus customer acquisition cost is minimal, internet and mobile penetration are growing, digital Bangladesh and excellent positive role played by the government, we have all the proper tools in our hands right now but the execution is the most important thing.
We are investing in innovations. In messenger, we are working on features like group chats, allowing people to see feeds of their friends, and so on. We are looking into a long-term timeline - 10 years minimum. We would see where we would go after ten years. Many of our features are built with assumptions each feature would influence other aspects of our operations.
For example, in messenger, we are introducing this digital coin called Bits that you get for typing words in the messenger, which you then can use to buy different services. Our goal is to make people habituated to these services. We will eventually take them to digital payments and all that.
On DataBird’s ambition going forward
Kashef Rahman: It is an assumption that it would take us 10 years to achieve these goals but it could be less than that. It could be 3 years or two years. Even for ShareTrip, what we have achieved now is not something we thought we would be able to achieve within this short time but we have been able to achieve it.
Execution is important but I would add: with great execution you need a bit of luck as well. So Ridmik Keyboard had some luck. ShareTrip and TBBD had some luck. Luck favored us. Hard work pays off. At the same time, you need a little bit of luck. This might sound unsubstantial to hear at first. But this is an issue. We all need a bit of luck.
We have some goals company-wise. At ShareTrip, we want to be sustainable as soon as possible. In our ad product, we have some goals. We want to grow our market share. We have some product-related goals such as showing ads in native apps and all that, we want to launch these features.
In Ridmik, we want to have as many downloads in messenger as we can. The more users we have we will have a better understanding of the market and so on. But why would users come to our service, that's where we want to show the difference and uniqueness of our product compared to existing services. In Ridmik, growth is the number one priority. The same goes for the Ridmik news.
We have a long-term strategy for Ridmik news. We started as an aggregator. We aim to launch more services and unique features in the news product. We plan to add podcasting and similar services there. We may add shows as well. We will invest more in quality content and niche segments. We will be targeting customer segments where we could make a difference with quality. We are building a stronger team to improve the quality of content. We are hiring new teammates who are working on original content.
The same goes for the books, we are working on Ridmik's original books. The priority is to bring more users and make sure that they stick around with us.
On Ridmik Messenger and DataBird’s fintech ambition
Kashef Rahman: Yes, it is in the next version. To be honest, it is WeChat. Two things will happen in messenger, there will be ads and there will transactions through which we will eventually monetize.
Skycatcher is a global value-oriented investment partnership based in Austin, Texas, with research offices in Asia and Africa. The firm specializes in software and Internet companies, with expertise across geographies and business models.
On working with the Skycatcher team
Kashef Rahman: Our working dynamic is excellent. They are the best, to be honest. They first invested in Pathao. They successfully exited as well. They are the first ones to show that you could build a consumer tech business at scale in Bangladesh, invest in it, and successfully exit as well.
Tanveer Ali, who is also the executive director of Olympic Group, has been living in Bangladesh for a decade now. He is the local guy and Siamac Kamalie is the global guy. Their working coordination is brilliant. They not only bring capital, but they also bring perspectives and insights, which are super useful. Their connection and experience have been instrumental for us. To give an example, we did not have a firm grasp of gamification before. Siamac encouraged us to pursue it. He is really fascinated by Chinese apps. When they helped me understand it, I was into it and we launched several gamification features at ShareTrip. Spin to win is now a huge part of our product evolution and a hugely popular feature in our app.
In travel, MAU is okay but DAU is tough. As a user, you don't need to use the ShareTrip app daily. You probably use the ShareTrip app three times a year for a couple of days. But these initiatives that we have been taking to bring users to our app daily, have been helping us a lot to build retention and loyalty and stay on top of the mind of our users.
We meet weekly. We set targets for ourselves. In fact, in many ways, we are more ambitious than them. Despite the fact that I'm a rather conservative founder. I'm aggressive but then and again, I'm also conservative when it comes to ensuring the sustainability of the business. I think about A, B, C, D options before making a decision. We have excelled a lot throughout this COVID period. Before COVID, we were stretching and going beyond our capacity. In the first few months of the COVID shutdown, we took the time to put things together.
We have a grand vision for building the internet ecosystem of Bangladesh. Tanveer and Siamac are passionately invested in the Bangladesh market. Their heart and soul is in here. It is a good thing for us.
The way we are growing. Alhamdulillah. We are super optimistic. The pandemic has been a difficult time and has changed many of our calculations. But we are confident and hopeful. We see a huge potential in the Bangladesh market.