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June 16, 2019
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A young entrepreneur is building the Amazon of Bangladesh

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At just 26, Waiz Rahim is supposed to be involved in the family business, having returned home in 2016 with an engineering degree from the University of Southern California. Instead, the young entrepreneur is plotting to build the Amazon of Bangladesh.

Deligram, Rahim’s vision of what e-commerce looks like in Bangladesh, a country of nearly 180 million, is making progress, having taken inspiration from a range of established tech giants worldwide, including Amazon, Alibaba and Go-Jek in Indonesia.

It’s a far cry from the family business. That’s Rahimafrooz, a 55-year-old conglomerate that is one of the largest companies in Bangladesh. It started out focused on garment retail, but over the years its businesses have branched out to span power and energy and automotive products while it operates a retail superstore called Agora.

During his time at school in the U.S., Rahim worked for the company as a tech consultant whilst figuring out what he wanted to do after graduation. Little could he have imagined that, fast-forward to 2019, he’d be in charge of his own startup that has scaled to two cities and raised $3 million from investors, one of which is Rahimafrooz.

Deligram CEO Waiz Rahim [Image via Deligram]

“My options after college were to stay in U.S. and do product management or analyst roles,” Rahim told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “But I visited rural areas while back in Bangladesh and realized that when you live in a city, it’s easy to exist in a bubble.”

So rather than stay in America or go to the family business, Rahim decided to pursue his vision to build “a technology company on the wave of rising economic growth, digitization and a vibrant young population.”

The youngster’s ambition was shaped by a stint working for Amazon at its Carlsbad warehouse in California as part of the final year of his degree. That proved to be eye-opening, but it was actually a Kickstarter project with a friend that truly opened his mind to the potential of building a new venture.

Rahim assisted fellow USC classmate Sam Mazumdar with Y Athletics, which raised more than $600,000 from the crowdsourcing site to develop “odor-resistant” sports attire that used silver within the fabric to repel the smell of sweat. The business has since expanded to cover underwear and socks, and it put Rahim’s mind to work on what he could do by himself.

“It blew my mind that you can build a brand from scratch,” he said. “If you are good at product design and branding, you could connect to a manufacturer, raise money from backers and get it to market.”

On his return to Bangladesh, he got Deligram off the ground in January 2017, although it didn’t open its doors to retailers and consumers until March 2018.

E-commerce through local stores

Deligram is an effort to emulate the achievements of Amazon in the U.S. and Alibaba in China. Both companies pioneered online commerce and turned the internet into a major channel for sales, but the young Bangladeshi startup’s early approach is very different from the way those now hundred-billion-dollar companies got started.

Offline retail is the norm in Bangladesh and, with that, it’s the long chain of mom and pop stores that account for the majority of spending.

That’s particularly true outside of urban areas, where such local stores almost become community gathering points, where neighbors, friends and families run into each other and socialize.

Instead of disruption, working with what is part of the social fabric is more logical. Thus, Deligram has taken a hybrid approach that marries its regular e-commerce website and app with offline retail through mom and pop stores, which are known as “mudir dokan” in Bangladesh’s Bengali language.

A customer can order their product through the Deligram app on their phone and have it delivered to their home or office, but a more popular — and oftentimes logical — option is to have it sent to the local mudir dokan store, where it can be collected at any time. But beyond simply taking deliveries, mudir dokans can also operate as Deligram retailers by selling through an agent model.

That’s to say that they enable their customers to order products through Deligram even if they don’t have the app, or even a smartphone — although the latter is increasingly unlikely with smartphone ownership booming. Deligram is proactively recruiting mudir dokan partners to act as agents. It provides them with a tablet and a physical catalog that their customers can use to order via the e-commerce service. Delivery is then taken at the store, making it easy to pick up, and maintaining the local network.

“We’ll tell them: ‘Right now, you offer a few hundred products, now you have access to 15,000,’ ” the Deligram CEO said.

Indeed, Rahim sees this new digital storefront as a key driver of revenue for mudir dokan owners. For Deligram, it is potentially also a major customer acquisition channel, particularly among those who are new to the internet and the world of smartphone apps.

This offline-online model — known by the often-buzzy industry term “omnichannel” — isn’t new, but in a world where apps and messaging is prevalent, reaching and retaining users is challenging, particularly in emerging markets.

“It’s not easy to direct people to a website today, and the app-first approach has made it hard,” Rahim said. “We looked at how companies in Indonesia and India overcame these challenges.”

In particular, he studied the work of Go-Jek in Indonesia, which uses an agent model to push its services to nascent internet users, and Amazon India, which leans heavily on India’s local “kirana” stores for orders and deliveries.

In Deligram’s case, the mudir dokan picks up sales commission as well as money for every delivery that is sent to their store. Home deliveries are possible, but the lack of local infrastructure — “turn right at the blue house, left at the white one, and my place is third from the left,” is a common type of direction — makes finding exact locations difficult and inefficient, so an additional cost is charged for such requests.

E-commerce startups often struggle with last-mile because they rely on a clutch of logistics companies to fulfill orders. In a rare move for an early-stage company, Deligram has opted to run its entire logistics process in-house. That obviously necessitates cost and likely provides significant growing pains and stress, but, in the long term, Rahim is betting that a focus on quality control will pay out through higher customer service and repeat buyers.

A prospective Deligram customer flips through a hard copy of the company’s product brochure in a local store [Image via Deligram]

Startups on the rise in Bangladesh

Rahim’s timing is impeccable. He returned to Bangladesh just as technology was beginning to show the potential to impact daily life. Bangladesh has posted a 7% rise in GDP annually every year since 2016, and with an estimated 80 million internet users, it has the fifth-largest online population on the planet.

“We are riding on a lot of macro trends; we’re among the top five based on GDP growth and have the world’s eighth-largest population,” Rahim told TechCrunch. “There are 11 million people in middle income — that’s growing — and our country has 90 million people aged under 30.”

“An index to track the growth of young people would be [capital city] Dhaka… you can just see the vibrancy with young people using smartphones,” he added.

That’s an ideal storm for startups, and the country has seen a mix of overseas entrants and local ventures pick up speed. Alibaba last year acquired Daraz, the Rocket Internet-founded e-commerce service that covers Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal, while the Chinese giant also snapped up 20% of bKash, a fintech venture started from Brac Bank as part of the regional expansion of its Ant Financial affiliate.

Uber, too, is present, but it is up against tough local opposition, as is the norm in Asian markets.

That’s because Bangladesh’s most prominent local startups are in ride-hailing. Pathao raised more than $10 million in a funding round that closed last year and was led by Go-Jek, the Indonesia-based ride-hailing firm valued at more than $9 billion that’s backed by the likes of Tencent and Google. Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia.

Pathao is one of two local companies that competes alongside Uber in Bangladesh [Image via Pathao]

Its chief rival is Shohoz, a startup that began in ticketing but expanded to rides and services on-demand. Shohoz raised $15 million in a round led by Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures, which was announced last year.

Deligram has also pulled in impressive funding numbers, too.

The startup announced a $2.5 million Series A raise at the end of March, which Rahim wrote came from “a network of institutional and angel investors;” such is the challenge of finding a large check for a tech play in Bangladesh. The investors involved included Skycatcher, Everblue Management and Microsoft executive Sonia Bashir Kabir. A delighted Rahim also won a check from Rahimafrooz, the family business.

That’s not a given, he said, admitting that his family did initially want him to go to work with their business rather than pursuing his own startup. In that context, contributing to the round is a major endorsement, he said.

Rahimafrooz could be a crucial ally in future fundraising, too. Despite an improving climate for tech companies, Bangladesh’s top startups are still finding it tough to raise money, especially with overseas investors that can write the larger checks that are required to scale.

“I think the biggest challenge is branding. Every time I speak with new investors, I have to start by explaining where Bangladesh is, or the national metrics, not even our business,” Pathao CEO Hussain Elius told TechCrunch.

“There’s a legacy issue. Bangladesh seems like a country which floods all the time and the garment sector going down — that’s a part of the story but not the full story. It’s also an incredible country that’s growing despite those challenges,” he added.

Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia. Elius didn’t address that directly, but he did admit that raising growth funding is a bigger challenge than seed-based financing, where the Bangladesh government helps with its own fund and entrepreneurial programs.

“It’s hard for us as we’re the first ones out there, but it’ll be easier for the ones who’ll follow on,” he explained.

Still, there are some optimistic overseas watchers.

“We remain enthusiastic about the rapidly expanding set of opportunities in Bangladesh,” said Hian Goh, founding partner of Singapore-based VC firm Openspace — which invested in Pathao.

“The country continues to be one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, underpinned by additional growth in its garments manufacturing sector. This has blossomed into an expanding middle class with very active consumption behavior,” Goh added.

Growth plans

With the pain of fundraising put to the side for now, the new money is being put to work growing the Deligram business and its network into more parts of Bangladesh, and the more challenging urban areas.

Geographically, the service is expanding its agent reach into five more cities to give it a total of seven locations nationwide. That necessitates an increase in logistics and operations to keep up with, and prepare for, that new demand.

Deligram workers in one of the company’s warehouses [Image via Deligram]

Rahim said the company had handled 12,000 orders to date as of the end of March, but that has now grown past 20,000 indicating that order volumes are rising. He declined to provide financial figures, but said that the company is on track to increase its monthly GMV volume by six-fold by the end of this year. Electronics, phones and accessories are among its most popular items, but Deligram also sells apparel, daily items and more.

Interestingly, and perhaps counter to assumptions, Deligram started in rural areas, where Rahim saw there was less competition but also potentially more to learn through a more early-adopter customer base. That’s obviously one major challenge when it comes to growth, and now the company is looking at urban expansion points.

On the product side, Deligram is in the early stages of piloting consumer financing using its local store agents as the interface, while Rahim teased “exciting IOT R&D projects” that he said are in the planning stage.

Ultimately, however, he concedes that the road is likely to be a long one.

“Over the last 18-20 years, modern retail hasn’t made much progress here,” Rahim said. “It accounts for around 2.5% of total retail, e-commerce is below 1% and the long tail local stores are the rest.”

“People will eventually shift, but I think it’ll take five to eight years, which is why we provide the convenience via mom and pop shops,” he added.

China overtakes U.S. in smart speaker market share

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The U.S. no longer leads the smart speaker market, according to new data from Canalys out this morning, which found China’s smart speaker shipments grew by 500 percent in Q1 2019 to overtake the U.S. and achieve a 51 percent market share.

The firm said shipments in China reached 10.6 million units which was driven by “festive promotions.”

More specifically, Baidu had a huge quarter thanks to an exclusive sponsorship deal with China’s national TV channel, CCTV, on its New Year’s Gala on Chinese New Year’s Eve — one of the biggest entertainment shows in terms of viewer numbers. This promotion prompted users to download the Baidu app, which distributed over 100 million coupons to an audience of 1.2 billion during the show, and drove awareness around the brand’s smart speakers, Canalys says.

In Q1, Baidu shipped 3.3 million speakers — putting it in third place behind Amazon’s 4.6 million and Google’s 3.5 million. Alibaba and Xiaomi followed, each with 3.2 million shipments, also driven by Chinese New Year promotions.

“The lightning fast development in China is largely driven by vendors pouring in large amount of capital to achieve dominant share quickly,” noted Nicole Peng, VP of Mobility at Canalys, in a statement. “This strategy is favoured by internet service providers like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent who are used to spending billions on traffic acquisition and know how to reach critical installed base fast.”

Other brands, combined, accounted for a further 2.9 million shipments. That includes Apple’s HomePod, whose market share was so small it got wrapped into this “Other” section instead of being broken out on its own.

With 10.6 million units, China topped the U.S. 5 million units shipped and brought its market share up to 51 percent, while the U.S. dropped from 44 percent in Q4 2018 to 24 percent in Q1 2019.

Overall, the global smart speaker market returned to triple digit annual growth of 131 percent in the quarter, reaching 20.7 million total Q1 shipments — up from just 9 million in the first quarter of 2018.

TikTok owner ByteDance’s long-awaited chat app is here

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In WeChat -dominated China, there’s no shortage of challengers out there claiming to create an alternative social experience. The latest creation comes from ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup and the operator behind TikTok, the video app that has consistently topped the iOS App Store over the last few quarters.

The new offer is called Feiliao (飞聊), or Flipchat in English, a hybrid of an instant messenger plus interest-based forums, and it’s currently available for both iOS and Android. It arrived only four months after Bytedance unveiled its video-focused chatting app Duoshan at a buzzy press event.

Screenshots of Feiliao / Image source: Feiliao

Some are already calling Feiliao a WeChat challenger, but a closer look shows it’s targeting a more niche need. WeChat, in its own right, is the go-to place for daily communication in addition to facilitating payments, car-hailing, food delivery and other forms of convenience.

Feiliao, which literally translates to ‘fly chat’, encourages users to create forums and chat groups centered around their penchants and hobbies. As its app description writes:

Feiliao is an interest-based social app. Here you will find the familiar [features of] chats and video calls. In addition, you will discover new friends and share what’s fun; as well as share your daily life on your feed and interact with close friends.

Feiliao “is an open social product,” said ByteDance in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We hope Feiliao will connect people of the same interests, making people’s life more diverse and interesting.”

It’s unclear what Feiliao means by claiming to be ‘open’, but one door is already shut. As expected, there’s no direct way to transfer people’s WeChat profiles and friend connections to Feiliao, and there’s no option to log in via the Tencent app. As of Monday morning, links to Feiliao can’t be opened on WeChat, which recently crossed 1.1 billion monthly active users.

On the other side, Alibaba, Tencent’s long-time nemesis, is enabling Feiliao’s payments function through the Alipay digital wallet. Alibaba has also partnered with Bytedance elsewhere, most notably on TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin where certain users can sell goods via Taobao stores.

In all, Flipchat is more reminiscent of another blossoming social app — Tencent-backed Jike — than WeChat. Jike (pronounced ‘gee-keh’) lets people discover content and connect with each other based on various topics, making it one of the closest counterparts to Reddit in China.

Jike’s CEO Wa Nen has taken noticed of Feiliao, commenting with the 👌 emoji on his Jike feed, saying no more.

Screenshot of Jike CEO Wa Ren commenting on Feiliao

“I think [Feiliao] is a product anchored in ‘communities’, such as groups for hobbies, key opinion leaders/celebrities, people from the same city, and alumni,” a product manager for a Chinese enterprise software startup told TechCrunch after trying out the app.

Though Feiliao isn’t a direct take on WeChat, there’s little doubt that the fight between Bytedance and Tencent has heated up tremendously as the former’s army of apps captures more user attention.

According to a new report published by research firm Questmobile, ByteDance accounted for 11.3 percent of Chinese users’ total time spent on ‘giant apps’ — those that surpassed 100 million MAUs — in March, compared to 8.2 percent a year earlier. The percentage controlled by Tencent was 43.8 percent in March, down from 47.5 percent, while the remaining share, divided between Alibaba, Baidu and others, grew only slightly from 44.3 percent to 44.9 percent over the past year.

China’s Tesla wannabe Xpeng starts ride-hailing service

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There’re a lot of synergies between electric vehicles and ride-hailing. Drivers are able to save more steering an EV compared to a gas vehicle. Environmentally conscious consumers will choose to hire an electric car. And EVs are designed with better compatibility with autonomous driving, which is expected to hit the public road in the coming decades.

Indeed, Tesla is eyeing to launch its first robotaxis in 2020 as part of a broader ride-sharing scheme. Over in China where Tesla has a few disciples, EV startup Xpeng Motors, also known as Xiaopeng, just started offering a ride-hailing app powered by its own electric fleets.

Screenshot of Xpeng’s ride-hailing app ‘Youpeng Chuxing’

The company is the latest in a clutch of carmakers flocking to introduce their own ride-hailing platforms. Didi Chuxing’s massive loss has not deterred their ambitious plans. Rather, this may be a prime time to crack a market long dominated by Didi, which is prioritizing safety over growth following two high-profile incidents and a series of new government regulations.

Xpeng’s ride-hailing app is currently only available in a limited area within Guangzhou where it’s headquartered, shows a test conducted by TechCrunch’s on Thursday.

The company’s coffer is probably large enough to fund its newly minted venture. It’s one of the most-backed EV upstarts alongside rival Nio, which raised $1 billion from a New York initial public offering last year.

Xpeng has to date banked $1.3 billion from Alibaba, IDG Capital, Foxconn, UCAR and other big-name investors, according to disclosed funding data collected by Crunchbase. Founder He Xiaopeng, a serial entrepreneur who made a fortune selling his mobile browser company UCWeb to Alibaba, told CNBC in March that Xpeng may also try an IPO down the road but wants to focus on building the business first.

When it comes to sources of inspiration for the business, Xpeng told local media that it sees Tesla as its “benchmark”. The company has never been shy about its admiration for its American peer. In an interview with Quartz in 2018, He said one of the reasons he founded Xpeng “was because Elon Musk made Tesla’s patents available. It was so exciting.”

But the affection might have gone a little far. In March, Tesla sued an ex-employee for allegedly stealing Autopilot’s proprietary technology before taking a job at Xpeng.

Xpeng started shipping to its first owners in March and was founded five years ago against the backdrop of Beijing’s aggressive electric push in the transportation sector. The sprawling city Shenzhen, just north to Hong Kong, has turned all its public buses and almost all of its taxis electric.

Alibaba returns to growth with revenue up 51% to $13.9 billion

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It’s business as usual for Alibaba after the Chinese e-commerce giant bounced back from a lackluster Q3 — which saw its slowest growth for three years. For Q4, the company saw revenue surge 51 percent year-on-year to reach 93.5 billion RMB, or $13.9 billion.

That revenue beat analyst expectations of 91.5 billion RMB, according to Barons, and net income came in at 23.38 billion RMB, or $3.48 billion.

Alibaba positions itself as the gateway to Chinese consumers, and it continues to grow. The company said its mobile monthly users — a metric it uses to measure shoppers — reached 721 million in March, an increase of 22 million in three months and 104 million over the last year. Annual active users were up 18 percent to 654 million and the company’s Chinese marketplaces saw GMV — the value of total goods sold — rise by 19 percent year-on-year in its fiscal 2018.

Speaking on a call with analysts, executive chairman Joe Tsai claimed Alibaba is ideally placed to capitalize on China’s switch from an export economy to domestic consumption, despite the ongoing U.S-China trade war.

“China is opening its markets to more foreign businesses to satisfy the demands of Chinese consumers,” he said. “We have the reach and deep insights… our scale and access to Chinese consumers is simply unrivaled.”

On the earnings call, CEO Daniel Zhang explained that the impressive results were a result of improved conversion rates — thanks to a new app interface featuring more recommendations and video content, an increase in retailer product launches and general user/shopper growth.

A big part of that growth focus is on consumers in more rural areas. Indeed, over the past year, more than 70 percent of the increase in annual active consumers was from less developed cities, Tsai said, adding that spending in tier three, four and five cities is projected to triple to $7 trillion in the coming years. Alibaba clearly believes it can take a large bite of this, despite rivals including Pinduoduo focusing intensely on rural Chinese consumers.

The user growth also arises from Alibaba’s hold on its range of businesses and its ability to channel traffic between them. For example, its online ecommerce app Taobao and e-wallet Alipay brought about 30 percent of total orders to Ele.me, the food delivery service competing head-on with Tencent-backed Meituan Dianping.

Outside of China, Lazada in Southeast Asia and internationally-focused Aliexpress clocked a cumulative 120 million shoppers over the past year although Alibaba is, again, not giving many more details on either service.

Cloud has been a major growth vertical for Alibaba, and once again that proved true although growth is tapering as the business grows larger. Alibaba Cloud, which is ranked as China top cloud service with 42.9 percent market share according to IDC, grew by 76 percent annual to hit 7.73 billion RMB, or $1.15 billion. Alibaba claimed the cloud business services over half of China’s A-listed companies.

Outside its core online retail business, Alibaba continues its big bet on brick-and-mortar retail. Its own supermarket chain Freshhippo (formerly Hema) reached 135 stores, dwarfing its rival JD.com’s counterpart 7Fresh which operates fewer than 15 locations. Digital entertainment is another cash-guzzling business for Alibaba, although the firm once again refrained from revealing user number for its video streaming service Youku, once a pioneer in the industry.

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