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Founder at Work: Apurba Das, Founder, JeansFellow Footwear Limited

Apurba Das is the founder and Managing Director of Jeansfellow Footwear Limited, a direct-to-consumer footwear brand based in Dhaka. A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to speak with Apurba about his entrepreneurial journey, trials of founders, and building companies. 

We talk about how he came to start Jeansfellow Footwear Limited, the early days of the company, its growth trajectory and operational mechanics, challenges for the company today and ambition going forward, his lessons in entrepreneurship, productivity, and management, and much more. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it and learned a lot, I hope you enjoy reading it as much. 

Ruhul Kader: We have been following your work for a while and wanted to speak with you about Jeansfellow. To begin with, can you please tell us about your background and introduce yourself? We can start with your introduction and then can go into how you started your entrepreneurial journey and your path to Jeansfellow and the early days of the company. 

Apurba Das: My name is Apurba Das. For my background, I come from a middle-class background without any prior history of family businesses. My parents are government employees. I'm the first to pursue business in my family. I started my business in 2014. I was an LLB second-year student at the time. I have been in the business since. 

I tried a couple of businesses before coming to Jeansfellow. My first business was in garments and clothing — a buying house business if you will. I used to buy leftover products from different garments in different parts of the country such as Gazipur, Mawna, etc, and sell those products to different local and international buyers. I also did broker business for a while. I used to take small orders of different clothing products such as t-shirts, pants, etc, and subcontract them to small factories. I used to make a small margin. It was a tiny operation. It was more like a student entrepreneur thing. I did not have much capital. I came to business for survival. I wanted to earn my tuition fees and manage my finances. I was surviving on these and tuition.

At one point, I realized I'm into too many things. That I needed to focus if I wanted to do something good. So I decided to drop out because managing studies and business both got difficult. Dropping out came with some financial respite. I also decided to cut all my expenses to save money to invest in the business. It helped. I eventually managed to achieve a good turnover but it was still very small. 

I'm talking about 2015. These were the early days of ecommerce. I was not into ecommerce yet. I did average business in 2015. It was already one and half years by the time I was doing the business. But I could see that I was not able to break out. After a few more months into the business, I finally realized that I would not be able to make it in the RMG sector because the overall environment of the industry was not friendly towards people like me. I could not manage to deal with industry insiders. I was not feeling at home and was looking for a way out. Although I wanted to do more in the sector. For instance, I bought Jeansfellow.com in 2016 with a plan to sell denim pants. I had some expertise in denim when I was doing RMG. But I eventually had to drop the idea due to various challenges. We did not have an ecosystem and I could not manage everything from taking photos to everything else. It is hard for newcomers to do everything and start a business. I eventually realized that I would not be able to do denim. 

Anyways, I managed to save some capital doing the RMG business to start a new business. So I was exploring opportunities. I did some study and eventually settled on shoes. 

We launched JeanFellow in 2017 out of a small office — a guardroom on the ground floor at a monthly rent of BDt 4000 — in Mirpur. I started super small, bringing and selling 10-15 pairs of shoes at once. Gradually, I learned how the business works, how to sell, and how to serve customers. Between 2014 and 2017, these years were my years of struggles. The business did not grow much during this period but I learned a lot of things. 

In 2017, we started to see some growth at Jeansfellow — from 20 customers to 5o customers and so on and I felt encouraged and started to focus more on the business. I gradually left other priorities to focus on the JeansFellow and started to invest both my time and money. The hard work and focus helped to push the business forward. By 2018, we were doing some 300 orders per month and were in better shape as a business. We took a slightly bigger office. Hired two people. Scaled the business a bit. From mid-2018, we caught another wave of growth. In the next year, our order number went from 300 to 800 per month. 

However, In 2019, I had to slow down a bit due to some family emergencies due to the sudden illness of my father. The business was going well but I was a bit out of focus and could not dedicate enough time. 

When my father recovered and I returned to business, the coronavirus pandemic happened in 2020. The early months of the pandemic were a challenge. I made some fixed investments in the business to scale the business. In 2015, I was a solo operator. It was enough if I could earn for myself. This was not the case in 2020. I was running a small company with a proper setup and an office. I had a team of 4-5 people, and rent to pay. So I had to find a way to sustain that. 

Ecommerce was experiencing excellent growth at that time. People were buying online. But a common challenge in ecommerce is that customers don't trust online sellers. This is not entirely unfounded. Customers did suffer and continue to suffer from bad actors in the ecosystem. It was challenging to break into the market. But I decided to go head-on. 

In response to the challenges, I made another jump towards the end of 2020 when everything returned to some normalcy. We were not doing cross-border ecommerce yet. In a fresh move to counter the trust issues new entrants face in ecommerce, we started to offer products at 100% cash on delivery. Our message was that you see our products first and if you like, you buy. 

We took a huge risk and we were hugely rewarded for it. We had excellent growth during this time. Consumers were super supportive of us. For the first time, I started to love our customers. We took several risky bets where we brought bulk shoes based on pre-order from our customers without advanced payment. Customers placed the orders without paying any advance and we imported the products based on these orders. And to our surprise, all of our customers did buy their ordered products. They could easily decline the orders later since they did not pay any advance but they chose otherwise and it helped us tremendously. It was a huge risk for us because usually return rates are super high for unpaid pre-orders. But we sold all the products with just a 10% return. 

With the growth came support from many people in the ecosystem. I received excellent help from Biplob bhai of eCourier and Afeef bhai of RedX. They have helped a lot in executing our orders as well as with our payments. Other ecosystem players and partners have also helped us a lot as we started growing. 

When we started growing, we made some more aggressive moves to push the growth. Throughout the pandemic, we broke records every month. If we sell 1000 this month, 1500 the next month and so on. 

At the same, I have also built a team. I started to realize that without a team, we would not be able to go far. When you are dealing with several thousand orders per month, you could not run it alone or with a small team of 4 people. 

We have since grown as a team and are now a team of over 40 people including recruits for our upcoming venture Giftmart. I have built this team over the last two years gradually and have been lucky to have a team that is dedicated and sincere. Our people from the early days have also progressed in their career both in their position in the company and in terms of earning. 

Since our inception, we have sold more than 100,000 products. We are doing over 5,000 orders per month. I believe we have more room for growth. 

We have built a customer-centric company. We don't compromise with quality and customer service. If a customer complains about a product, we replace it no question asked. Everyone in the company is obsessed with customer service. If you look at our people, everyone is equally mad like me. I love my team and they are my family.

To give you an example, we ran a clearance sale recently. We don't give many offers. We ran two campaigns: a big sale and one clearance sale annually. The pressure goes up by notches during these campaigns. Our entire team worked day and night with me equally hard. We run three shifts: day, evening, and night. My entire team worked the entire time during the last few days. 

We are working on a number of other interesting initiatives such as loyalty programs where we are getting into collaboration with different brands to offer benefits to our customers. We are working on a new version of our website which will be different and improved. 

Ruhul: You started your entrepreneurial journey in 2014 and made several transitions. You started selling garment products. Then moved to cross-border ecommerce focused on shoes. Could you please tell us about these transitions and lessons and takeaways from them? 

Apurba: If I talk about my takeaways while working in the RMG, the biggest challenge I faced was community. Not being able to find the support I needed. I could not connect with anyone. Finding support was not easy. I got big international buyers but could not serve them because I could not find financial support to fulfill these orders. The second challenge I would say is that our entrepreneurial ecosystem is not supportive of newcomers. 

We do a lot of our work with global partners. For example, we do a lot of media buying for push sales because without push sales it does not work. There are other models such as discount and cashback which are failing in Dhaka. In push sell, you show your product to the customer, take orders, deliver the product, and then get paid for it. We do push sales and we need to do a lot of digital media buying on digital platforms and our media buying is handled by HTTPOOL. 

The whole entrepreneurial thing happened differently for me. We started and grew gradually. The capital I put together in the business came gradually. I started the RMG business with zero capital and slowly got to a point where we have some savings. I started Jeansfellow with some BDT 80,000 as an investment. I earned the capital. One thing at a time. 

I learned from working with my Chinese partners that if you come across an opportunity, you should take it. That if you want to grow as a businessman, you have to be able to see far. You have to be visionary and be able to have the foresight and see what will happen a year from now. If you could do that your business will grow. I have tried to do that. I have tried to see ahead of me. 

In business, you go through various challenges. I did many things in the early days. I took money from informal channels with high-interest rates. But I have always made sure customers did not suffer. I have always kept my promise to customers and delivered them on time. Now when I look back I get surprised that I took those risks. 

When the business started to see some traction, I came to realize that I could not do everything. I need a team. I brought together a group of people who are super passionate about what we are doing. I have taught my people how to do things. I have delegated and empowered people. If you don't allow people to grow, you don't have a team. I try to be detail-oriented and have tried the same with my team. They now go through the small things. As a result, I can now confidently rely on them for operations and growth. 

I have learned these things gradually. I study companies a lot. I read case studies a lot and try to understand how companies operate. I try to learn every day and apply these lessons in my business. I try to be prepared for change all the time. Because what we do daily can get old. What we are doing today can change tomorrow. For example, we have introduced a QR process for sorting. But I can see this process going out of fashion in two years and we will have to find something better. If you stay with the old system and tech when the world is moving ahead, you will see after a few years that smart people have changed everything and you have fallen behind. 

An entrepreneur should always be vigilant about what's happening in the ecosystem. You can't be complacent. You have to be always on the lookout for more opportunities. You have to keep doing your research, analysis and keep moving forward. 

Ruhul: When you started JeansFellow in 2018, how big was your team? How did you build relationships with your suppliers and manage your supply chain? 

Apurba: At the beginning, we were two people. I was looking after the supply chain and the other person was looking after the customer service. We then grew into a team of five people including me. Between 2018-2019, we were the same five-person team. We did not grow much in 2019 since I was absent mostly due to personal emergencies. In 2020, we saw some growth and grew to a team of about 20 people. 2021 has so far been the biggest year for Jeansfellow and we grew to become a team of 40 people. 

We used to manage our entire operation on excel. We used to put together our order details in an excel file and send that to our suppliers. They would then send the products. 

In terms of building relationships with our suppliers, most of it happened through the internet. My earlier research in finding international buyers and sellers helped me this time around. 

The relationship that we now have with our suppliers has grown over time. We started small. Placed some small orders and trusted them with the small orders. It grew from there. 

Ruhul: How big was your first order? What happened after that? 

Apurba: The first consignment that we brought was about 20 pairs of shoes in 2017. When I found that the quality was good, I felt that people would buy these products. Then I gradually increased the order size from 20 to 50 to 100. We used Facebook and a bit of Google ads for selling products. 

We have had the web with digital payment capabilities since 2018. We work with high-end customers who prefer paying online. So we have tried to make payment easier for our customers. We were never an f-commerce company. We have always been an ecommerce company. I have always studied ecommerce companies from different markets and tried to understand them. 

For logistics, we started working with eCourier in those early days. We now work with several logistics partners. 

Ruhul: What were some of the things that helped you with growth in the early days? 

Apurba: We have made some consequential decisions in the early days. For example, we decided to be an ecommerce instead of an f-commerce from day one. We wanted to have a direct relationship with our customers instead of relying on a platform. It has been an excellent decision for us. 

Second, I have tried to delegate as the company grew. Instead of trying to do everything myself, I gave up on responsibilities empowering my team. I entered into partnerships with brands and potential partners. Trying to do everything yourself is a middle-class mentality. 

Third, I focused on understanding and then making our customers happy. I did everything in my company. I worked in delivering products and worked closely with my customers, which has helped us to develop insight into what makes customers happy and so on. I have found it to be immensely important that you understand human behavior. If you don't understand people, you can't do business. 

For building a company, you will have to do a lot of things. Although some of these things may sound unnecessary, they are not. For example, I meet with all of my employees once every day. I go through the office and warehouse and meet with everyone and try to know what they are doing and if they need any help. I invest time in grooming my people and helping them grow. This has helped us to build an organization where people operate independently. We now have several departments that operate independently. 

Ruhul: Could you please give us an overview of the company today? 

Apurba: We have eight departments in the company. We have a robust customer service management department. We have several teams in the department including the after-sales service team. We do a lot of after-sales services and we take customer feedback seriously. We have separate teams for operations, tech, account, and finance, logistics, admin and HR, creative, legal matters, etc. We are not complete but as we grow our business, we will have more people across departments. 

Ruhul: How does your marketing work? 

Apurba: We have a dedicated team for marketing. Most of the marketing is done in-house. We have a media buying agency. We use mostly Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms. Since our customers are mostly corporate we do some LinkedIn marketing as well. We are just getting started and we believe we have a long way to go. 

We operate in a niche market. Since we are a DTC brand, we don't have a lot to do like a marketplace. What we prioritize is building connections with our customers. There are not many things you can do here. Push sales is an option and we do that. 

We have done well in online marketing and we are now working on offline distribution through retail partnership. We are also into loyalty programs and similar initiatives. We give a rating to customers based on their transaction with us and it helps. We now have an over 40% retention rate. We plan to give our repeat customers some privileges through these loyalty programs where our customers get benefits outside of Jeansfellow. We have been working on this for a while now and hopefully will be able to launch it in early 2022. We are in communication with 10 brands for this purpose. 

Ruhul: You mentioned you are a team of 40 people now and do about 5,000-6000 deliveries per month. How big is your basket size? 

Apurba: It is about 3000-5000 taka. We have seasonality in our business. We sell a lot of slippers during the few months of the rainy season. Since slippers are inexpensive, basket size comes down to BDT 3000. In winter, we sell boots, so it goes up to BDT 5000. 

We deal with about 20% return and we are very open about it. If a customer is not happy he would not return. So we try to make the return experience as easy as possible for our customers. When a customer sees that we don’t make them suffer by returning a product, they come back and become a regular customer. 

Ruhul: What are the major challenges for the Jeansfellow now? 

Apurba: There is a crisis of trust in ecommerce due to recent events. Consequently, acquiring new customers is a challenge. People are skeptical of online sellers. Since we are eyeing accelerated growth, this is a major challenge for us. 

Second, we serve the high-end consumer group, which makes it a challenge to expand the market. Our ambition is to compete with brands like Bata and Apex in the coming years, so finding new growth levers are a priority for us. 

Our loyal customers are with us. We can have a steady business with our existing customers base. But acquiring new customers is a challenge given the reality of ecommerce. Moreover, malpractices from some players are encouraging regulatory measures from the government that could be challenging for people who are doing business ethically and following the rules. 

Digital payment is a challenge. There are a ton of frictions in ecommerce. So the overall ecosystem is not growing as fast. That is a challenge. 

Ruhul: One of your plans is to get into offline retail through partnerships, where you have made meaningful progress as we were discussing. Apart from that, what are other plans for the next few years? 

Apurba: I love to be visionary and ambitious. I don't need to get there right away but I love to plan so that I can get there in five years. Our quality is European and we have a plan to go to Europe in the future. We first want to create a more stable position in our local market and then expand outward. We have a plan to enter the gift market in Bangladesh in the next few years. 

Ruhul: How big is the shoe market in Bangladesh? 

Apurba: About 200,000 pairs of shoes get sold every day in Bangladesh. This is only showrooms and online combined and only shoes, not sandals and not unorganized retail. This is a huge market. If combined with unorganized retail, it will be much much bigger. 

However, the market we operate in, which is the high-end shoe category, is relatively smaller. Our goal is to grow this market. We are doing it through some initiatives such as we do Big Sales where we offer large discounts to reach new customers. We don't do these haphazardly. We do it in a planned manner so that it does not go out of control. We lose money in these campaigns but we see these as customer acquisition costs. For example, we brought in about a thousand new customers in our most recent campaigns who did not use us before. It has helped us drive growth even after the campaign. 

Lessons and reflection

Ruhul: What are some of the lessons you have learned from your journey so far? 

Apurba: I don't mind making mistakes. I think we all should make mistakes because without making them, we would not grow. But I mind when you are making the same mistake twice. That's bad. That’s the number one lesson. Be willing to be wrong. But be careful to not repeat your wrongs. 

Although I'm a dropout, I don't think one should drop out. I had to drop out due to my circumstances. I believe formal education helps us a lot in developing ourselves and our character. One should complete education. 

My most important business lesson is that business is all about trust. It is hard to gain trust but once you have it, you have everything. Trust is a competitive business advantage. 

Productivity is a matter of the environment. To be productive, you have to be with productive people. When I came to see that Chinese people are more productive, I started to spend more time with them which helped me. You have to skip people who are not productive and complacent. 

Stress comes from challenges and worries. So if you are worried about something, examine it. If it is a real problem, kill it. If you can not solve it, forget it. That is how I try to deal with stress and challenges. Sleepless nights are given for an entrepreneur. The thing is you have to try to minimize them in numbers. If you are stressed with something, find it and kill it. It will give growth to your life.

Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based writer, researcher, and entrepreneur. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and the author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about entrepreneurship, business, strategy, technology, and culture. He can be reached at [email protected]

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