Razia Begum, a native of Mymensingh, has been living in Dhaka for many years, working mainly in different houses as domestic help, or what is known as ‘chuta bua’. She still does the same work in 2018, but out of an office where she gets calls for work through a sophisticated mobile app. Her office contacts the customer that placed the call through the app, takes necessary details, finalizes the timing and then she gets sent to the house to work for the stipulated time. “Typically people want one or two hours of work done. But sometimes it’s three or four hours as well. It varies,” said Razia after finishing her work at Khadiza Afrin’s house in Dhanmondi 8/A.
Earlier, Khadiza – a freelance education professional working both from home, and in offices on some days – had found herself in a conundrum when the maid at her house took a long leave and left her family in desperate need of someone that can look after a one year old child and do other domestic work. All adult members at Khadiza’s household also work and they cannot do without a maid. After their maid took leave, Afrin’s sister-in-law suggested using ‘RobotDako’, an app for on-demand maid service, to call a maid for two hours of work. When a search on Google Play for ‘RobotDako’ returned results showing an app called ‘Hellotask’ on top, Khadiza tentatively placed a call for a maid, wondering why the app she was looking for wasn’t there. But one hour later Razia Begum showed up with an ID card with QR code, which prompted a timer in the app after scanning. It would stop when Khadiza would scan it again after Razia Begum finishes the required work.
“We had to change the name from RobotDako to Hellotask, even though we really liked the name,” said Mahmudul Hasan Likhon, co-founder and CEO of Hellotask. The former name apparently confused customers and investors alike, who thought the service involved actual robots or it was demeaning to the poor women that worked as maids. Currently, Hellotask has 150 women on its payroll, ready to be deployed to houses immediately after a call. Likhon says the demand is much greater than what his company can supply right now. He is busy with his small team in his Jhigatola office, working hard to scale up the business, while looking for further funding to help Hellotask expand.
An hitherto untapped market
Likhon’s company is among a number of startups that sprang up within the span of last few years that are catering to the big and untapped service market that exists in the country. Service providers, of course, always existed, but the digital era is now enabling the tech-startups to consolidate and organize the services in a way that wasn’t possible before. And it is shaping up to be a humongous industry.
According to Ilmul Haque Sajib, there is over a billion-dollar worth of business hiding in plain sight in the service market. Sajib’s company sheba.xyz, of which he is a co-founder and COO, currently seem to provide the biggest marketplace for the service market in the country. Sajib started sheba.xyz with co-founder and current CEO Adnan Imtiaz Halim in 2015, when the two friends realized that there is no quality-focused service marketplace available to the consumers.
“We saw that the service market was a niche market where not much work was done with a focus on quality. We realized that we can develop quality in this market. Sheba.xyz was conceived from this very thought,” Ilmul Haque Sajib told Fintech. Sajib and Halim, who have a combined 12-year experience of working at the top executive levels in leading multinational companies, realized that they are able to put their business acumen into good use and develop a unique Bangladeshi product that doesn’t only tap into the service market domestically, but can be versatile and adaptable across national borders.
And they were right. Earlier this year Sheba signed franchise agreements with companies in Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar. Because the company has been developing its product – the software – based on its experiences on the ground, it is now uniquely adaptable and can fit into a myriad of service market needs, regardless of geography. Starting initially with appliance repairing services, such as AC, TV and refrigerator servicing, and later moving onto other basic electric and sanitary needs, car rental, food among many others, Sheba now offers approximately 1,200 services in Dhaka city through its app platform. And all of the accumulated data over the past couple of years went into creating a platform software that makes for an immensely usable and unique product.
Segment-focused startups are more numerous
But not every startup focused on consolidating services and creating marketplace platform. Startups like Hellotask are focusing on a particular category of service and building up their businesses on specific segments of the service market. There is now at least one mobile app based service for on-demand doctor to the doorstep, which offers the opportunity to consult medical doctors without having to commute and then further wait in the invariably long serial at every doctor’s chamber. ‘Olwel’, a Finland based startup working in Bangladesh, is currently providing services in Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Dhanmondi, Lalmatia and other neighboring areas. Olwel promises to have one of its doctors visit the customer’s home within 30 minutes from placing a call.
To further enhance the service the company has recently partnered with Mumbai based Thyrocare for laboratory support. Thyrocare is one of the largest preventative diagnostic laboratories in South Asia and established the first fully automated diagnostic laboratory in India. Other than the home country, it has laboratories in the UAE, Nepal and Bangladesh. This partnership will enable Olwel customers to get necessary lab tests done without having to go to a diagnostic centre. The company has also partnered with Ural EMS, which will provide a standardized ambulance service through the Olwel app and call centre; and it formed another partnership with ePharma, which will enable patients to get medicine delivered to their home and get discounted prices.
Currently charging Tk600 for per visit and available from 8am to 10pm, the startup is looking to expand across the country and start providing 24/7 service soon. “The way we are using ICT to decentralise primary healthcare is unique — we are the first to provide this model in Bangladesh,” Aftab Hossain, the CEO and a co-founder of the company told the Daily Star newspaper.
Operating for four years from 13 service centers in the major cities of Bangladesh, Drooto is slightly more diversified than Olwel, in that it has different services, but still within the broad category of electronic appliance repairing. The company offers repair and installation services for 12 different electrical appliances including AC, refrigerator, TV and generator. Drooto has set up a standardized pricing model, which ensures uniform pricing across all areas where it provides service.
Uniform pricing is typical with nearly all the tech-based service providing companies. Handymama, which operates in over 28 major areas in Dhaka, also has uniform pricing. It currently has cleaning, plumbing, electrical, home appliances, interior design, carpentry, painting, property management, computer servicing, laundry, pest control and moving. Like Sheba, Handymama also connects vendors through its system but regulates pricing to keep prices uniform. Sheba, on the other hand gives the opportunity to its vendors to set prices and allows for competitive pricing.
“The rates for the services are fixed by the service providers,” said Sheba COO Ilmul Haque Sajib. “When you go online to place an order as an end-user, you can see multiple service providers and their prices and customer ratings. Then you can judge which service provider you want,” Sajib told Fintech.
Sky is the limit
Sajib believes that the way Sheba app is being developed and constantly upgraded makes it infinitely flexible. “There are many ride sharing apps in the market. That is because the product is available in the market, whereas the product for the service market is not available. Consequently, we are creating a unique product that is not really available in the market that easily,” Sajib said.
With complete management tools available for its vendors, Sheba is not just a consumer facing platform. “If you take a look at the dashboard you will see how this is a management solution tool,” said Sajib, referring to the business management tools in the app available to Sheba’s vendors. The app now essentially provides tech enterprise solution to SMEs, such as small-scale repair businesses, which typically aren’t able to afford such tech, nor are these business owners technologically literate to use one. “We are giving them the complete business management service which is our main focus. For that they pay us a service charge for each job they get through our platform,” Sajib explains.
As the nascent industry begins to plant roots, it promises to flourish in the Bangladeshi market which thus far has not enjoyed a consolidated, quality-focused on-demand service marketplace. Sheba, clearly a leading player in the market, has amassed 3,000 service providers under its platform which together provides approximately 1,200 services. Its ‘onestop marketplace’ is destined to continue growing as the company plans a country-wide roll out by the end of 2018 and bring 10 thousand vendors under the platform. Its goal for extending to South East Asia is also seemingly on-track.
But the market is big enough for as many startups as are able to set up businesses with good market strategies. “And the market is huge and quite new. With more people coming in, it will only help the industry grow further and make the service market platform more reliable,” said Sheba COO Ilmul Haque Sajib. With every tech-startup from Sheba to Hellotask in the service market eying to expand, and with very realistic prospect of doing so, it seems only a matter of time before the service market grows into the projected billion-dollar industry, which in Bangladeshi currency comes up to over Tk8 thousand crore.