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On Strides Co, Fashion eCommerce, and Building a D2C Business With Alavi Khondoker, Co-Founder and COO, Strides Co

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June 3, 2021

Strides Co is a fashion e-commerce platform that curates high-quality, modern, and affordable wardrobe essentials from a mix of local and international brands, as well as private labels. The startup plans to serve the growing tech-savvy youthful fashion consumers in Bangladesh using deep expertise in apparel and technology.

Bangladesh Angels Network (BAN) has recently backed Strides Co with a pre-seed investment. With the new investment, the company plans to widen the collection and range of its in-house brands, work with third-party sellers, expand its geographical coverage and become the go-to contemporary fashion destination for modern Bangladeshis.

In this wide-ranging interview with Future Startup's Ruhul Kader, tech entrepreneur and founder of Strides Co, Alavi Khondoker gives us a peek behind the scenes of his venture Strides Co, his path to entrepreneurship, the art of growing a fashion-tech company, the early days of building the product, putting together the team and resources, the evolution of Strides Co over the past few years, the operational mechanics of the business, the state of Strides Co today and its ambition going forward, the prospect of the fashion industry in Bangladesh, reflects on why it is critical to concentrate on your startup full-time rather than half-assing it and to have a mindset of doing everything on your own in the early stages of a business, and much more. 

Interview by Ruhul Kader, composition by Naziba Ali

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? 

Alavi Khondoker: In 2014, I graduated from Aston Business School in the UK with a BSc degree in Accounting. It was a four-year sandwich course that included a one-year work placement internship. To that end, I worked as a Research Assistant in the Department of Small and Medium Business Financing at Barclays Bank. I also worked as an Audit Intern at Hoda Vasi Choudhury & Co, an affiliate firm of Deloitte. In 2015, I completed my Masters in Finance and Accounting from Imperial College in London. 

I moved back to Bangladesh in 2016 and joined my family’s ready-made garments business: Shanta Garments Ltd. I was overseeing the whole operations in the factory, beginning with how the factory is running, how orders are processed, the efficiency of the manufacturing process, if there is any room for improvement, and if raw material and supply chain logistics are in order. at the same time, my sister joined the company and was looking after the marketing and design divisions. 

As far as my entrepreneurial journey is concerned, I’d say it stemmed from a very keen interest in fashion. My sister, Zahia, and I have always been fashion-forward, following global fashion trends and delving into the collections of high-end fashion boutiques. We had access to every fashion style while studying overseas, and we would take inspiration from high-street brands when styling ourselves.

Future Startup: When and how did you come up with the idea of Strides Co? What motivated you to start Strides Co? 

Alavi Khondoker: Global fashion labels are still a long way from entering the country since the majority of Bangladeshi consumers may not be able to keep up with their price point. However, we have noticed that there’s a huge chunk of fashion-savvy youths who wish to wear globally trending attires at a reasonable price. Given our considerable experience in the territory of fashion, garments as well as R&D, we decided to create a fashion e-commerce platform that will serve as a hub for contemporary clothing for modern Bangladeshis. Ariq Mansur, who has been my best friend for nearly 20 years, joined us as the CTO and is our third founder.  

Over the years, our family's  RMG firm has delivered orders for upscale brands in North America and Europe, including Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Guess, DKNY, and CK. So we are well-versed with the parameters of export-quality garments. We are attempting to solve the most prevalent issues with online clothes purchases, namely the sizing issue, by allowing buyers to try on multiple sizes. 

While starting off, we weren't sure whether to pursue a marketplace model or stick to our in-house brands. Lastly, we decided to create a hybrid model by tying up with selective third-party brands that would satisfy our three pillars: quality, affordability, and contemporary. Strides aspires to be a platform that can help people decide what to buy when they are unsure.

Future Startup: What went into building the initial operation of Strides Co? 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.

Alavi Khondoker: So, the idea of Strides hit us at the end of 2017 and we started operations in 2018. In the early days, we tried to bootstrap as much as possible.  And this was applicable not only in terms of finances but also in regards to day-to-day operations. We had a motto of doing everything ourselves, from ironing to packing to customer service to delivery. We even set up a photo studio and began modeling for our own brand. That is, we really focused on keeping things lean and organic. 

Since my sister and I had expertise in the woven sector, we launched trousers as the very first product of Strides Co. We leveraged our family’s garments manufacturing facility. As soon as the production line or sample section became available, we would initiate our production. Meanwhile, Ariq and his IT company were working on our e-commerce platform. We financed the operations with our personal savings and some soft loan from our parents. From manufacturing to website development, we were largely operating on credit which gave us a cost-benefit. 

Fashion is often an emotional experience. So we wanted to figure out how to curate a product exactly to a customer's liking so that they are completely satisfied. We noticed that clients are frequently perplexed regarding their sizes. To address this problem, we came up with the idea of Trial at Delivery. We provided multiple sizes to the consumers and allowed them to try on the outfits until they came across the best fit. Ariq and I personally delivered the first 50 orders, realizing that a fitting trial can significantly improve customer experience by eliminating the hassle of exchange and returns. Thus, despite the risk of logistical challenges, we incorporated the Trial feature into our company. 

In 2018, we onboarded few third-party brands. We handpick brands that can give us quality and fit assurance. We needed to create our brand and achieve product-market fit before we opted for raising any external capital. We met Kowser bhai through Bangladesh Angels. He runs one of the largest ecommerce image post-production companies for global brands. He was looking to invest in e-commerce companies and his goal thus aligned with ours.

Strides Co Team: Ariq, Zahia, and Alavi (from left to right)

Future Startup: Could you elaborate a little on what your operations looked like when you initially launched? How much has the company evolved over the past 2 years? 

Alavi Khondoker: As I said, when we launched, we were just 3 people. I was in charge of operations, Zahia was handling R&D and marketing while Ariq was taking care of website development. We occupied a corner of  Shanta’s office space. There was an unused space beside the office which we used as our warehouse. From product design to manufacturing to listing to price setting, we were doing everything by ourselves. We were lucky to get assistance from the internal resources at Shanta. Our product line wasn’t quite enriched when we started.  Garments would be busy throughout the year fulfilling buyers’ orders. So, we would barely get the opportunity to manufacture our products. We didn’t have a streamlined supply chain either. Consequently, we would suffer from stock gaps every now and then. 

Back then, in absence of brand identity and a full-fledged website, we became popular as a Facebook page instead of a one-stop online shop. There were extremely few website visitors. So, for 1.5 years, we focused on increasing our brand awareness through digital marketing. Facebook and Instagram are the overall aesthetic and we currently have 70K followers across our social media platforms combined. But our main target is to promote our website as the primary destination for shopping as it clearly provides a size guide, fabric details, and stock availability. At present,  6K-7K people visit our website every week. 

There are plenty of online sellers on Facebook and Instagram but nobody operates on a web front. This is the gap we were trying to bridge with our e-commerce platform. 

Future Startup: What is the current size of your business? How does your team work? 

Alavi Khondoker: After securing funding back in February, we started building a proper dedicated team. As of now, we have a design team led by my sister Zahia who is the CEO and looks after Marketing and R&D. The design team consists of a full-time fashion designer and two interns. We are working with a digital marketing firm that guides us in that segment. 

Speaking of operations, I’m the COO. Like the design team, it is also made up of three members: operations manager, operations executive, and a customer care intern. I assist my co-workers in packing orders, locking orders, and any other task as much as I can. In the tech team, there is a full-time developer and a part-time developer. In total, we are a team of 11 members including 3 of us and our partner, Kowser bhai. To increase efficiency, we will broaden our team as our company expands. 

Fashion in Bangladesh can sometimes be a bit disheartening. Most consumers desire a ‘touch and feel’ retail experience. So initially, our growth was quite slow. We also refrained from onboarding third-party sellers in our platform as a result of which, we couldn't serve diverse customer sets. As of now, we have  500+ products featured on our platform from a range of in-house brands as well as third-party sellers, and growing our product collections at a steady rate.  We are primarily catering to young people aged between 18-34 years and our market size stands at 500 million BDT.

Since the product is at the top of the funnel, we are pushing to increase our product variety. The pandemic created a demand for loungewear and we curated a collection accordingly. In the last 2-3 months, we saw some traction, and our orders really skyrocketed. We are currently receiving 700-800 orders per month on average, compared to 100-150 in October and November. We hope that it’ll keep going up. 

Future Startup: How does your platform and overall operations work? 

Alavi Khondoker:  Tech team, led by Ariq has played a very big role in developing our platform. We have a collaborator panel where our partners can keep an eye on their sales and inventory. We can modify our website as much as we like because it is entirely designed in-house. We have built a unique in-house Inventory Management System that updates our inventory in a real-time fashion. When we do inventory in the backend, that is reflected accordingly on our website. So customers can easily see which products are available at the moment of their purchase. 

When the customer sends the product from trial, there is a system in place that automatically restocks the inventory. One of our primary value propositions is the ‘trial option,' and we send out a large number of products for that purpose every day. If we were to keep track of these inventories manually, there would be considerable room for error.  

We follow international standards in the case of warehousing. We always keep in mind that your warehouse is akin to your bank. As soon as we receive an order, we make every effort to dispatch it at the earliest. We do quality checking beforehand and consistently maintain a certain level of inventory from our collaborators in order to avoid delivery delays. Inside Dhaka, our shipment reaches customers within 2 days of order placement. 

Future Startup: How do you deal with your partners?

Alavi Khobdoker: We work very closely with our partners. We approve their items if they meet our three criteria of affordability, quality, and modernity. We are in charge of selling their items and providing them support in regards to warehousing, content creation, inventory management, logistics, trial, marketing, and customer service. We perform our own product photography to ensure that the products represented on our website are consistent.

We have a few models for third-party sellers. We take a small listing fee from collaborators. We deploy an inventory-led model for our in-house brands, but we charge our collaborators on the basis of sales. We don’t purchase their products outright. For exclusive collections, we also have partnership models which are customizable. We're experimenting with our models and have yet to find one that's 100 percent effective.

While creating collaborative collections, our design team works with the third-party brand creating a collaborator brand. Last year, we had a collaborator for ethnic products and we received a positive response from our customer base.  To that end, we launched our very first in-house ethnic brand Mahal this year. 

Future Startup: How did you design your customer acquisition channels? Over the past years, which strategies helped you broaden your customer base and grow your business?

Alavi Khondoker: Like every other D2C brand, it’s been quite challenging for us to build our brand online. However, after seeing the potential for online fashion in Bangladesh, we decided to take a chance and continue on this path.

First and foremost, we amplified our product variety. We added more shirts for men and women, as well as hoodies, cardigans, bathrobes, ethnic wear, high-priced three-piece sets, fusion style tops, joggers, and so on. We have plans to include more varieties of graphic t-shirts, plain t-shirts, shirts, and expand our product lines to include formal wear, casual wear, undergarments, and lingerie, etc. We do this in a curated way since more choices don’t necessarily translate to better customer satisfaction. We want our consumers to put their trust in Strides to style them according to global trends without needing to visit a stylist.

We stepped up our digital marketing efforts and started working on SEO. We are consistently boosting our Facebook and Instagram page. We plan our orders ahead of time so that there is no stock gap in-between. The tech team has made our web front more robust and efficient, enhancing customer experience.  All in all, every department is pushing a lot.

Future Startup: What kinds of challenges are you facing at the moment?

Alavi Khondoker: As I said, we follow an inventory-led hybrid e-commerce model. This model allows us product control, visibility into stock levels, and control over the pick, pack, and ship process. However, you often need to compromise your capital efficiency in this model. We have to be constantly on the lookout for lead times, design processes, procurement processes, and selling processes. Reducing the lead time and building an efficient supply chain are quite challenging in the case of an inventory-led approach. In a Marketplace model, I am not liable if the products do not sell. In the case of an inventory-led model, however, the opposite is true. As we gather more funding, we’ll gather a dedicated merchandising team that will work with collaborators. 

Fashion is like taking a bet. You’ve to work within a lot of parameters. You can’t always predict which products will work and which won’t. Certain products are occasionally requested by our clients, and we try to include them in the pipeline. However, it’s rarely possible. When it comes to the garment industry, your scaling capability is always proportional to your order quantity. 

Future Startup: In the process of building a company, as a founder what are some of the things that worked for you? What are some mistakes you’ve made if any, that you want other entrepreneurs to avoid?

Alavi Khondoker: My co-founders and I always had a bootstrapping mentality. We didn’t go for VC funding until we had a positive brand image. We did not seek VC financing until we had established a positive brand image. This relieved us of investor pressure and allowed us to proceed at our own pace. My father is a businessman and he has always encouraged me to do things by myself. If you rely on people and start delegating work in the very beginning, you’ll miss out on valuable experience costs. When you’re working in a startup, you have to be able to juggle a lot. 

Building our brand organically was extremely beneficial to us. You are taking a major risk if you spend a lot of money on promotion and media activity in the early stages of your firm.  Now that we have entered a growth mode and reached a certain point in terms of brand awareness, we work collaboratively with marketing firms.  After being in the fashion scene for a while, we have come to realize that ‘Trial at delivery’ is the USP that works really well. Repacking outfits like shirts can be very difficult but we don’t want to compromise on it. We have always tried to think in an SME kind of way: balancing our growth and liquidity. When you focus entirely on growth, you will neglect many factors that may be beneficial to your long-term sustainability.

In terms of mistakes, we did a lot. The most significant of these would most likely be approaching our startup idea as a side project. None of us were working on the startup full time. My sister and I were looking after our family’s garments business; Ariq was running his own IT firm. So, to make a serious play at doing something investable, you'll have to take the leap and do it full-time sooner than you'd want. Secondly, I think we should’ve been a little more aggressive from the very beginning. That could better accelerate our growth. 

When you’re trying to build a disruptive startup, don’t dwell too much on it. All you have to do is try and keep going. Instead of pivoting too fast too soon, focus more on persevering. 

Future Startup: Where do you see Strides Co in the next few years? What are your thoughts about the prospect of the fashion industry in Bangladesh? 

Alavi Khondoker: Fashion is an essential good but also an emotional product. With Strides Co, our end goal is to make global fashion accessible to the Bangladeshi market. In the next three years, we will work towards increasing our market share, and we expect the market size to become potentially BDT 800 million. We are optimistic that the pandemic will further accelerate our growth due to increased online buyers. 

If you look at the figures, the fashion industry is elephantine in Bangladesh. Currently, online fashion accounts for 40% of our e-commerce trade. But the market has no key player. Our e-commerce industry is expected to reach $3 billion in 2023. Fashion e-commerce has a lot of promise in Bangladesh, thanks to the expanding middle-income social class, digital revolution, and fashion-conscious consumers. So we are aiming to capitalize on this market potential and bring all kinds of product categories to our customers through a unique shopping experience. We are extremely grateful to our consumers for their encouragement and support throughout our journey and hope we can serve them better with each passing day.

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