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DataBird's Ambition to Transform Dhaka's Internet Ecosystem

We 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, the country remains a nascent market for technological innovation. There are opportunities to build solutions and impact the lives of millions of people. 

DataBird, a Dhaka-based technology holding company, sees this as its opportunity to build dominant tech enterprises and serve the market. The company currently has bets in four verticals: communication, online travel, online advertisement, and payments and describes itself as “the leading Internet group with products across online travel, news, keyboard, eReader, and lifestyle mobile applications.” A team of 160 people across its different verticals, DataBird claims its services “reach more than half of all smartphone Internet users today in Bangladesh.” 

DataBird looks to build platforms at the intersection of two verticals: transactional platforms and user traffic. This is critical given demand independence, aka control on user traffic, and payment independence can offer necessary competitive moats in today’s internet ecosystem where it is increasingly turning towards centralization and winner takes all.  

“Our long-term goals are both: to conquer the transactional platforms as well as user traffic,” says DataBird CEO Kashef Rahman. The company has actively been building platforms and products on both ends of the spectrum. On the traffic side, it has been investing in news and travel, and on the transactional side, it has been into payments and advertising platforms.  

DataBird looks to build platforms at the intersection of two verticals: transactional platforms and user traffic. This is critical given demand independence, aka control on user traffic, and payment independence can offer necessary competitive moats in today’s internet ecosystem where it is increasingly turning towards centralization and winner takes all.  

DataBird has built leading products in most verticals where it currently operates. In online travel, ShareTrip, DataBird’s online travel agency, claims to have more than 50% of the market share in online travel and more than 12% market share both offline and online travel combined in Bangladesh. 

DataBird is a clear leader in Keyboard where it has 25 million monthly active users in Ridmik Keyboard. 

Ridmik News, its mobile-focused news aggregator, has 250k MAU. 

Ebook reader platform Boitoi currently has about 300k downloads and about 40k people use the service monthly. 

The distributed operation, long-term thinking 

DataBird is a holding company. While its operation across verticals is interconnected, it operates in a rather distributed manner. It has some central operations such as its data platform Nest, which helps to connect between platforms and verticals. But the organization is not central in how it operates as a company. Each DataBird company operates independently focused on individual business goals and targets. Each company has its team for almost every function. But collaboration between teams happens all the time. 

“We are a fast-evolving company,” says Mr. Kashef. “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.” 

Ridmik Labs
Part of Ridmik Labs at Work

DataBird’s businesses across verticals 

ShareTrip: ShareTrip is an online travel agency that sells air tickets and hotel bookings directly to consumers along with a number of other travel products such as tour packages, visa processing, etc. ShareTrip is one of the leading players in the online travel agency vertical with a significant market share. 

Ridmik Keyboard: Ridmik Keyboard is one of the most popular Bangla language keyboards in Dhaka. The app has a monthly active user base of the north of 25 million with over 60 million total downloads. 

Ridmik News: DataBird’s news aggregator company continues to experience excellent growth. The service started off as a news aggregator and now increasingly delving into original content. “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”, says DataBird CTO and Ridmik Labs CEO Shamim Hasnath. “We plan to add podcasting and similar services. We may add shows as well. We will invest more in quality content and niche segments.”

Boitoi: Boitoi is a specialized Bangla eBook reader. You can read Bangla books using Boitoi. The company currently works with a long list of writers including Jafar Iqbal, Anisul Huq, Sumantha Ashlam, Selina Hossain and it keeps on books by popular Bangladeshi writers. A lot of publishers are now joining Boitoi such as Anupom, Anonna, Adorn, and a growing number of publishers. It works with a growing number of new writers who are publishing books only on Boitoi platform. More like self-publishing. The Boitoi app and website offer a publishing option where anyone can write and publish books by clicking a few buttons. 

Bondhu Buzz: BondhuBuzz, which is in beta, aims to be a friendship app for the Bangladesh market that understands local culture and customs. “We are currently trying to understand consumer insights in the market”, says Mr. Hasnath. “We want to make sure that people don’t misuse or misrepresent the service. There are many issues. We are trying to understand the market dynamic.”  

Messenger: DataBird has been working on a Messenger app called Ridmik for a while now. It has all the standard features of a messenger app such as users can make audio, video calls, send messages, and some unique features as well to enable it to compete with other players in the market. The company has been beta testing the app for a while now through a program called Ridmik friends + and aims to launch it into the market in the next couple of months. 

The company sees the messenger be a key piece of its overall strategy and connecting node for its payment product. DataBird aims to do with Ridmik what Tencent has done with WeChat in China. “Messenger is tough but we take it seriously. We are hopeful that we are onto something big and local”, adds Mr. Hasnath. 

Data as an underlying connecting thread 

DataBird sees strategic advantages in building independent products and brands in each vertical and connecting them with an underlying data platform, which, it says, will benefit the company with the diverse consumer insights from users across its products.

The company has already started building a proprietary data platform called Nest. “Nest accumulates all the data from all the verticals where we work,” says Mr. Kashef. “It then helps us to make the connections and make better decisions using the insight. Nest is one node where everything that we do connects.” 

One obvious connection of course is cross-promotion but that’s one layer of connection. The company says it will use deeper integration and connection across platforms as it moves forward and its various products mature. 

On the transactional side, the company has a payment license and is in the process of building a payment product. The company will offer a wallet. But it will not have agents like bKash because it has a license for P2P payment and not for running an agent-led model like bKash. 

“Our payment is where our transactional platform begins. It is however tied with our messenger service,” explains Mr. Kashef. “There are multiple layers that you will eventually come to see once we finally launch the service in 2021.” 

The company says it aims to become the Tencent of Bangladesh. “We are using our existing platforms and their users as the basis for launching more products and services.”

Part of ShareTrip Team
Part of ShareTrip Team

DataBird’s ambition, and connecting the dots 

DataBird aims to build an ecosystem of products and services and build services on top of its existing services. The company has done it once in Ridmik News where it has built a huge user base on the back of the popularity of Ridmik Keyboard without disrupting the experience of the keyboard. The Internet is a fascinating space. 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. 

That’s only one aspect of it. The company, as explained earlier, sees data from across its products as a significant advantage in developing a meaningful understanding of the market. DataBird has access to widely diverse user data from people who buy expensive travel packages to people who read news and consume free entertainment from across the country. This can be invaluable when you are building consumer tech products such as payment. 

DataBird has great numbers. The number of users and the GMV, the company has been achieving is promising. As an organization, it remains nimble and fast. It has been investing in innovations. In messenger, it says it aims to introduce many interesting features like group chats, allowing people to see feeds of their friends, and so on. More importantly, it takes a long-term view of building ventures. 

“We are looking into a long-term timeline – 10 years minimum,” says Mr. Rahman. “We would see where we could go after ten years.”

The company is betting on the connectedness of its operation. Many of its services and features are built with assumptions that each service and feature would eventually influence other aspects of its operations. 

Mr. Kashef explains: “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.”  

Bangladesh is a fascinating market with excellent growth in smartphone and internet penetration. A burgeoning middle-class. A young population open to new ideas and with excellent exposure to all the technological developments across markets. 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. The company has started off well. Challenges will be there. The path remains ambiguous at best coupled with growing competitive pressure and a fast-changing market landscape. We will have to wait to see how it turns out for DataBird. 

Update on 7 April 2021 at 8:07 pm: The story has been updated with new information.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2021 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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