Shuvo Rahman is the founder and CEO of Alice Labs, a Dhaka-based startup that provides multi-channel customer service solutions and virtual assistant to ecommerce and online businesses. Incorporated in Singapore in 2018, Alice Labs currently operates in South Asia and Southeast Asia including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Philippines, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka serving over 50 e-commerce stores and enterprises, including major brands and retailers like Unilever, Coca-Cola, Giordano, and Maybelline, among others.
In this interview with Future Startup’s Naziba Ali, Mr. Rahman gives us a peek behind the scenes of Alice Labs, his path to entrepreneurship, the origin of Alice Labs, the early days of building the product, putting together the team and resources, the state of Alice Labs today and its ambition going forward, the prospect of SaaS industry in Bangladesh, why panic hiring should be avoided by founders at all cost and much more.
Future Startup: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us. I wanted to start at the beginning of your journey, could you please tell us about your background and path to entrepreneurship?
Shuvo Rahman: I earned my bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Engineering from BUET in 2015. In 2016, I joined as a Tech Team Lead at Maya Apa which is an anonymous messaging platform that connects users with expert advice. Problem-solving has always been my forte. To that end, I designed various machine learning modules for Maya to handle challenges such as categorizing user inquiries and matching them with appropriate specialists. I met one of my co-founders, Jamil Akbar, who was employed as a Project Manager back then at Maya. We had to collaborate on projects every now and then and as a result, we built a good rapport over the years.
In 2017, Jamil, Fahad (CEO of iFarmer and currently a Director at Alice), Munim and I started a dev shop: MisFit Technologies Ltd. Jamil had expertise in the field of automation, Fahad was apt at strategy and vision, Munim at sales and marketing while engineering and product development was my forte. Being one of the founding members and CTO, I was involved in the strategic and technical decisions and roadmaps to take the company forward. One of our projects has spun off into Alice Labs. I am still on the board of Misfit but am not involved in day to day operations.
Future Startup: When and how did you come up with the idea of Alice? What motivated you to start Alice Labs?
Shuvo Rahman: In the early days, MyAlice started as a project of MisFit. We eventually decided to establish it as a stand-alone venture and I took over as the CEO. At Misfit, we were attempting to solve multifarious problems of diverse businesses. While working with multiple enterprises, I noticed a trend: Customers preferred to reach out to retailers via social media rather than emails or call centers. Since the average attention span of today’s humans ranges from 8-12 seconds, there's a decent possibility they'll move on to another brand if their questions aren't answered right off the bat. 75% of online shoppers and potential customers expect help within 5 minutes. So it became imperative for e-commerce and online businesses to ensure seamless customer experience across all conversational platforms: Messenger, Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp and so on.
During those days, I myself encountered a horrible customer service experience with a bank. While I was in Myanmar for work, I called the call center with a question, but the wait was exasperating. I also emailed them, but received a response three days later. In fact, 78% of customers feel irritated because they need to relay the same information to multiple employees of a company across different conversational channels. To resolve such customer inconveniences, I devised the concept of MyAlice, which automates customer interactions and helps organizations reduce support costs and response times. It also structures conversational data which help enterprises to understand their user base thus managing their customers from a myriad of sources.
Alice's proprietary AI learns over time from the interactions of human agents. Every day, the best D2C brands use our customer care solution and virtual assistant, from e-commerce to fashion, FMCG, and even banks.
Future Startup: What went into building the initial operation of MyAlice? How did you put together initial investment and other things to get started? Please walk us through what the first few months of your journey were like and the challenges you faced.
Shuvo Rahman: As I mentioned before, we started developing MyAlice as a product of MisFit. Eventually, we realized the market demand and decided to separate MyAlice from its parent company as it started gaining some traction. So initially, MyAlice was bootstrapped.
One of the toughest parts of a bootstrapped SaaS business is low cash flow (especially at the beginning). You need customers to build up your monthly recurring revenue so you can grow and expand your product. Hence, we had to focus a lot on sales rather than product improvement. That was definitely a tough journey for us. However, we were fortunate enough to generate traction quickly and then secure financing to allow our product development team to work on bettering MyAlice.
Apart from that, we concentrated on assembling the best team possible. We identified the talents we need in the team and used our network to discover persons who have those capabilities.
Future Startup: From a product perspective, how does MyAlice work as a platform? How does the tech part work?
Shuvo Rahman: By using MyAlice, you don't have to juggle between softwares to converse with your customers across multiple channels. Businesses can connect all of their customer-facing channels, such as website chat and social media messaging platforms, to MyAlice to automate conversations for both sales and service through natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) with the ability to smoothly transition to a live operator when required. 3 minutes is all it takes to set up #yourAlice and automate 70 percent of your customer service conversations and reduce service costs by more than 30 percent.
Step 1: Connect all your messaging and digital channels by logging into MyAlice. Provide information related to the size of your businesses, product category, volume of transactions etc. In the present world, effective communication is essential for effective customer service. MyAlice is powered by Natural Language Processing (NLP) which gives it the ability to cater to different customers in their native language, be it Bangla, English, Bahasa, Malay, Philipino, Arabic or Burmese.
Step 2: Automate your customer responses through the Virtual Assistant chatbot. MyAlice will automatically reply to the queries of your clients even at 4 am through all social media and digital channels.
Step 3: Integrate your ecommerce store to MyAlice’s-commerce help desk to benefit from our stock integration automations. In this way, you don’t have to check your store manually each time you get a sales query on each of your different channels.
MyAlice can also decode complex behavior of shoppers across different regions, understand user preferences and recommend similar products. Businesses can also track previous orders, viewed products and sell more through up-selling and cross-selling.
Future Startup: What’s your rationale behind narrowing down to e-commerce and online businesses as your core target demographic?
Shuvo Rahman: It's critical for us to scale as a tech startup. Apart from e-commerce enterprises, we also deal with FMCG, banks, and telecommunications companies. In the FMCG sector, however, because brand loyalty is typically high for these products, there are fewer opportunities to generate stickiness. On the other hand, most banks don’t even use Cloud, so scalability is near unattainable.
Customers flock to e-commerce stores in greater numbers. And retailers must respond to customer queries as soon as possible. As far as my knowledge goes, there are around 24 billion e-commerce stores worldwide. However, very few e-commerce stores are visible. 90% of e-commerce stores are on Shopify and WooCommerce. So, in terms of scalability as well as revenue generation, e-commerce is a niche and lucrative market. And the pandemic has only strengthened its position. MyAlice thus works with over 50 e-commerce sites and organizations across the region, including major brands and retailers such as Unilever and Coca-Cola, among others, through its subscription-based customer service plans.
Future Startup: How did you design your customer acquisition channels? Could you tell us about the strategies that you carried out to achieve the growth?
Shuvo Rahman: When choosing your channels, you must keep your pricing model in mind. I followed the 80/20 rule while picking my sales and marketing channels. To begin, we relied on SEOs and word of mouth within our networks. We started pushing our product on relevant E-commerce groups on Facebook. Due to its relatively low CAC and virality effect, Facebook has been a great channel for us to acquire customers.
However, these e-commerce stores could only handle 20-30 orders each day. For these retailers, we devised a $50/month pricing strategy. As you can tell, the ARPU was almost insignificant. In order to broaden our consumer base, we also resorted to influencer marketing.
As a business professional, you know that high-end brands do not expect a sales call or a marketing email to kick off their research process. Since we are a B2B business, we decided to pursue Account-based marketing. In order to onboard the reputable brands, we introduced a 300$/month pricing model. Our Sales and Marketing team would produce a list of the best-fit clients with the biggest ROI potential for MyAlice. Next, we would send them automated emails.
Future Startup: How much has MyAlice evolved over the past years?
Shuvo Rahman: I’d say, a lot. We have built partnerships with local players in nearly every country in the South and SouthEast Asia including Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, among others. These countries are very much native language-oriented and it’s difficult for any foreign company to penetrate this market. MyAlice uses machine learning and natural language processing to mimic human experiences by understanding text inputs and interpreting their meanings across languages.
The partners essentially resell our product, extending our distribution. We are also focusing on our sales team in the Middle East. In the third quarter of 2021, we are planning to launch systematic sales campaigns but till then we’ll be focusing on strengthening our product in cooperation with our tech partners.
We have successfully raised US$500,000 in seed investment led by New York-based VC Anchorless Bangladesh and participated by HOF Capital.We intend to use the new funding to further develop its product, form new alliances, and expand into new markets in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. As Alice Labs expands into more of these markets and incorporates more languages, it will be able to strengthen its strategic moats.
Future Startup: Did you plan to build a global startup from the get-go? What kind of strategies, in your opinion, are necessary for building a worldwide SaaS company from the ground up?
Shuvo Rahman: In the very beginning, I just focused on the macro changes in consumer behavior: the average attention span was shrinking and it was becoming difficult for enterprises to sustain client communication across multiple channels. So I stepped in to address the problem with MyAlice. Initially, all I wanted to do was keep my head above water. It was challenging for us to attain quick enough growth because MyAlice was a bootstrapped startup.When MyAlice began to gather momentum, that’s when I set my sights higher.
For building any kind of startup, be it local or global, you should equally focus on the four dimensions: Market, Product, Channel and Model. Make sure to give your product a core value, a hook, a time to value, and a stickiness factor. While going global, ensure that the markets you’re targeting have similar issues and that you can integrate your operations.
Future Startup: What are some mistakes you’ve made, if any, that you want other entrepreneurs to avoid?
Shuvo Rahman: As a founder, you must avoid panic hiring. Build a team that won’t sink your startup. To avoid panic hiring, keep this mantra in mind: The wrong hire is worse than no hire.
Future Startup: What are your future plans for Alice Labs?
Shuvo Rahman: In 2022, we want to target the Australian and European markets, with a goal of entering the North American market by the end of 2023. However, we will perhaps not be developing new products for the next 2-3 years, but will focus on building moats around MyAlice. Because the development of a new product necessitates the evolution of your channels and business plan, so for the time being, we want to be very focused on a specific vertical which is e-commerce.
Future Startup: What are your thoughts about the prospect of the SaaS industry in Bangladesh?
Shuvo Rahman: The startup culture in Bangladesh is gradually evolving. Currently there are 5-6 Bangladeshi SaaS companies that are doing really well. From a technological standpoint, we have a significant edge because the cost of hiring developers or engineers is lower. That is, we have a unit economy in our favor, and we can construct a SaaS offering for 10 times less money. You just have to make sure you can sell the product. With adequate training of young founders, Bangladesh has the potential to produce a large number of worldwide SaaS enterprises. However, when compared to the technological infrastructure of the North American and European markets, Bangladesh is still 10-15 years behind.
A SaaS business doesn’t have any boundaries and hence, can be scaled rapidly. Even for a new firm, SaaS can be a terrific method to get started and eventually grow into a million-dollar business. You can sell your services to any company in the world. However, if you don't build a moat, your organization will perish.