An entrepreneur at the helm of many different organizations, Didarul Alam Sunny honed his skills in entrepreneurship working in different local and multi-national organizations before launching his own ventures. His digital marketing company currently serves 25-30 top corporate brands in Bangladesh.
Sunny was a member the BASIS team that developed the ‘National E-Commerce Policy’ and the draft for ‘Digital Media Buying Policy’, in collaboration with the ICT Division and the Commerce Ministry.
Fintech recently spoke with Sunny at his office in Banani to learn more.
How did you start your career as an entrepreneur?
My career as an entrepreneur took off in 2013. Before that, I worked in various multinational companies like Warid Telecom and Banglalink.
I was also employed in ACI which is a local company. I was primarily responsible for the strategic planning of the Shwapno Project which has now become a business of 14-1500 crore. I was involved with the Shwapno Project of ACI from scratch. ACI Logistics Limited evolved from the company which was known as ACI Corporate Communications.
The Shwapno brand was created from ACI Logistics Limited. I was involved with the total process and looked after strategic planning, supply chain and marketing. From that time onwards, I could sense this knack about retail supply chain in me. I wanted to work in that line in future.
Afterwards, I joined Banglalink where I worked with a high-value brand called Icon. I was there for about two years. Then I started my own business when the ICT sector in Bangladesh started to develop. I decided to do something related to ICT.
Consequently, my journey in e-commerce began with Esho.com. From 2013 to 2016, Esho.com flourished in its business. I developed interest in other sectors over time and started a company for developing games.
I created a company for training management in Bangladesh where I looked after its digital content and marketing. That company is running smoothly and is operating simultaneously in 10 districts at present. The digital marketing company I am involved in currently serves 25-30 top corporate brands in Bangladesh like Teletalk, ACI, Pran and Akij.
The digital ecosystem of Bangladesh is still evolving. Consumers have started to adapt to it. They are being habituated with it and this is a phase. During this phase, the market size will increase with time as more and more people will come into its fold.
This business is not trade business and is not meant for a short span of time. If you spend time and build up a brand with passion, then you will reap a handsome return from the market. In the global context you will notice brands with the highest valuation are all technology based. Technology is such a field where if you can create the platform and your product is good then you can have worldwide engagement.
Other types of brands are limited in this context because they are restricted by area, boundary etc. Getting support from people is another issue but for technology based brands it is wide open. If you can innovate and push your product in the proper channels, then it is quite possible to create an impact.
I was basically drawn into technology for these reasons. In the future, you will have products emerging from virtual reality, augmented reality and AI. We want to create next-generation products using these components and intend to capture a wide market share globally.
Talk about Esho.com.
Esho.com is basically a B2C e-commerce and it is still working in this model. However, I am in a hibernation mode with Esho.com right now because we are waiting for a plan to get passed. Like I told you earlier, the main strength of a brand is to create a proposition.
In that regard I believe that the supply chain in Bangladesh is facing a huge problem. The supply chain is not responsive. Because of that you cannot procure from abroad even if you want to, you have to depend on local merchandisers.
The competition increases many fold when you purchase from local merchandisers. In order to make e-commerce scalable, you need to optimize the global supply chain through cross-border trade and channelize the products to their proper destinations.
Optimizing the import is a system which exists in India as the country imports a lot of products. When we will avail such facilities, we will expand the operation of Esho.com in the market. This is the plan. Business sustainability is extremely difficult without value optimization. Although we can see many brands doing well but doing well means performance, not just investment. We are working on an initiative to create a proposition. Because of its large-scale deployment, it will take some time for Esho.com.
How did you collect funds when you started your business?
I believe if you want to raise funds, you have to be a good salesman and if you want to become an entrepreneur, you have to be a good marketeer. If you can pitch to the peer group that is closest to you and local influential business owners or those who have the capacity to invest and raise the initial capital, it becomes easier for your business to take off.
Once you have created a demo and the impact line is established in the market, then you can attract international investors. This is the model of investment I used to believe in and received the initial investment from my close peer group. Then you have to connect with international investors and large local groups to raise capital. I never considered operating my business with the money from my own pocket. If your idea, your concept is sellable then you can acquire the funds from the market. This is how you can collect funds from external sources.
Do you have partners or do you run the business on your own?
I operate my business venture on my own, and I have an angel investor whose name I cannot disclose to you at this moment. I look after operations and management.
What challenges did you face?
The biggest challenge was the supply chain and then consumer adaptability. Since the supply chain in Bangladesh is not standardized, you will see thousands of variation of the same product. You will see many different types of quality of the same product.
Without a centralized supply chain, the products appear randomly and you will notice a massive difference in quality of the same t-shirt or furniture or jewelry and so on. There is this perceptual gap with consumers. Devaluation arises from a lack of longevity, quality and other issues. Due to this, consumers tend to leave your brand after the initial interaction. Consequently, a huge number of products are returned back in e-commerce. These are the challenges I had to face.
You are a director of BASIS. Talk a little about what role it plays and your involvement.
BASIS has a huge responsibility as the national trade body for software & IT enabled service industry of Bangladesh. All the companies related to IT, small or big are members of BASIS. We have to represent many categories of companies. We have to look after their interests and maintain the negotiation points in their favour.
Different types of companies have different needs and necessities. BASIS has to ensure the line of service to fulfill those requirements as well as look after the benefit and business growth of its members. The scope of field is really big for BASIS as it oversees employment generation in the local market for the member companies.
In general, BASIS is responsible for developing business in the IT sector. We have to deal with clients in the local as well as international markets. Recently, a seminar on the prospect of Bangladesh’s IT sector in Japan was held at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo. Software outsourcing companies in Japan are now coming to Bangladesh. BASIS is trying to simplify the tender process so foreign investors find it easy to do business in this country. The work that BASIS has to do is quite versatile. It also looks after the branding and promotion of the local software market.
I became a director at BASIS when I was only 25, after I passed out from American International University-Bangladesh (AIUB). I employ an inclusive strategy as a director and as a result I have to shoulder more responsibilities than others. I try to contribute to the internal functions of BASIS besides helping the member companies. I am also involved with the strategic planning of BASIS.
At the policy making level, I am working to streamline the digital buying process where the companies are yet to receive any kind of tax benefit. Furthermore, I was also involved with the national e-commerce policy.
Honestly speaking, Bangladesh is not digitally equipped. BASIS works at the core of policy and structural development to bring about ‘Digital Bangladesh’ and this is where BASIS plays its most important role. Once the structure is developed and you can identify where to improve in the ICT sector, then the roll out will begin.
The biggest contribution of BASIS lies in creating the market for achieving the seven billion dollar export target. BASIS is continuously working with the government and its international partners to make the vision of ‘Digital Bangladesh’ a reality.
Why do you think Bangladesh was among the least innovative country? Does this apply to digital innovation in business, given that Bangladesh is doing quite well in the MFS sector?
You have to understand first that you can create innovation from where you can generate demand. The digital demand in Bangladesh is low and it is only prevalent for mobile financing. You need the digital demand for digital innovation to thrive.
Let’s say you want avail a service, for example city operation service, you will notice that very few people actually install an app if they want a service. The access to MFS of fintechs is limited while the adaptability is still low.
In terms of accessibility, the market has not developed yet. The products that develop are based on these aspects. Otherwise the product developers will not be able to create any value. The entire market is non-responsive due to the factors I mentioned earlier.
For the demand cycle to transform the market from non-responsive to responsive, the demand is being pushed gradually in this market. Slowly but surely the users are increasing. The more users we have higher will be the demand and as demand rises, digital innovation will increase.
Another point I should mention is that the financial facility for small and medium sized entrepreneurs has not developed in our country. Without that support you cannot expect innovation from them.
There are certain things mandatory for innovation; first of all you have to give enough scope to generate interest in this sector. Let’s say the projected cost of your venture is five crore taka but you are given only five lacs then you will be able to get on the runway but won’t be able to take off.
The funding is crucial for the digital innovation system. Mentoring is also mandatory. If the ecosystem for funding and mentoring is not created and funds are not easily accessible then the escalation will not take place.
Boys and girls of our country are really talented but what happens is that either there is a ‘brain-drain’ where they go abroad or we are not able to properly nurture them. That is why they get involved with work that doesn’t create much value but they can generate a regular income. Many people come to do business in the ICT sector but they leave after awhile, they move to another business after one or two years. This is happening because we are not able to keep them engaged in the ICT sector.
Only lip-service will not create any innovation, we need to create an ecosystem to ensure this innovation. If we can do so, Bangladesh will be among the top five innovative countries in the world. However, if the overall system is not supportive then you will not get any results.
We can see that banks are not that interested to invest in startup ventures. Why this is so?
Banks are not interested because there is around 70 to 80,000 crore non-performing loan in Bangladesh. The government will never be able to recover this money. The money simply vanished and was not utilized anywhere. If you can provide loan facilities to trade and production then you should also provide such facilities to the ICT sector.
If we fail to give such facilities to the ICT sector then ultimately we won’t be able to nurture our talent. We won’t be able to ensure the next step for the talented individuals in our country. Banks have the most important role to play in this. Banks never consider IT or the talents in IT as properties. They consider physical structures as properties. When the whole world is dependent on IT, ideation and concept, our attitude is still backward in this regard.
We place value on goods, infrastructure and transactions to ensure loan facilities from banks. If the banks do not come out of this trend then the ICT entrepreneurs and startups in Bangladesh won’t be able to sustain in the long run.
With favorable government policy there can be dedicated banks for the ICT sector. If the banks can ensure financial service based on the rights and framework of the modalities we do business on then we will be able to see the industry develop quickly. 60 to 70 percent of people in the current generation want to be involved with latest mode of business in the ICT sector. They are smart, knowledgeable and they have the skills.
If we can ensure technical knowhow and financial support, then we can go to the next level where we can compete with China or Singapore with tech-based products.
What do you need to become a successful entrepreneur and what advice will you give to the young entrepreneurs?
In my opinion, to become a successful entrepreneur you need to go through the test-cases in business. It is better if you can do a job for a couple of years before you start your own business. You will have adequate knowledge about the process, system and management.
Many people say that the CEOs of certain companies have started off fresh without that job experience but you will find this true for a handful of companies out of a thousand. That is why you cannot take it as an example.
Apart from management and operation skills, networking and communication is the heart of business. This is the most important knowledge that you need. You can gather the technical knowhow from the market anytime but the in-built qualities of salesmanship and marketing along with your passion will make you successful in the long run. Your proof of concept must also be very strong. You must know all the details of what you are doing.
What plans do you have for Esho.com in the future?
Moving away from the traditional e-commerce business, I want to create supply chain optimization on a global scale which will ensure cross border e-commerce. As a result value can be delivered to the end consumer and they will realize that.
To that end I want to work with a revolutionary supply chain system where no boundary will exist and the world will be a single place. I want to work with such a concept which will be applicable for both B2C and B2B. For this plan I will give most importance to logistics and freight optimization. This is my future plan for Esho.com.