How 26 year-old entrepreneur Ankiti Bose revolutionised small-scale retail in Asia

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When she was in Bangkok a few years ago, Ankiti Bose was like any other tourist picking up bargains in the Thai capital, especially from Chatuchak Weekend Market. Bose left the city with more than just bags of shopping, however. After noticing how the small and medium-sized enterprises had lots to offer but barely any access to digital platforms other than Facebook, she came away with a business idea. Together with her business partner Dhruv Kapoor, the duo started Zilingo, a fashion e-commerce platform that aggregates the small fashion retailers of Singapore, Bangkok and Jakarta onto a single platform.

In two short years, Zilingo, a play on the word "zillion", has over 4,000 small enterprises that sell apparel, accessories, bags, shoes and lifestyle products from Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong with half a million active users in Southeast Asia. Before Zilingo, Ms Bose, 26, spent three years working in venture capital and management consulting at Sequoia Capital and McKinsey & Company.

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Did you ever think you would be starting your own firm after coming back from a holiday?

In retrospect, I wonder: what was I thinking? We have offices in five countries, and 80 staff of 10 different nationalities. How do I work with people from different cultures and backgrounds? But when the idea to start Zilingo was born, questions such as these didn't pop up. Dhruv and I decided it was now or never. We started the company with about US$10,000, pooled from our savings. Unlike other online shopping platforms, we don't handle products and we don't have warehousing issues and costs to deal with. We are operationally profitable, but we are not profitable yet, after deducting costs such as salaries. We hope to be profitable in two years.

What makes Zilingo so popular?

Customers may see us as similar to other online shopping sites. Besides Singaporeans no longer need to fly to Chatuchak to shop, they can do it through Zilingo. But what really makes us different is how we help the sellers. We do more than just give them a platform. These sellers only need to focus on producing their products. We help them with delivery. For example, we have third-party logistic firms that we work with, and our vendors use them. We track the passage of the items to make sure they are picked up from the vendors and sent to the customers.

We also help vendors with financing. Unlike other shopping platforms, we pay our vendors about five times a month, which means they have the funds to constantly produce items. Our various websites also come in localised languages and currencies, which makes it easier for vendors to sell their stuff. For apparel, we adjust sizes according to the market, for instances when an item is considered a large in Thailand, but is usually a small elsewhere. SME vendors like us, because we have made it easier for them to reach a more global market.

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How do you curate your vendors?

So long as they don't sell fake stuff or are fraudulent vendors, they can list themselves on Zilingo. Listing is free, but we impose a 10 to 20 per cent commission for each successful transaction. We get about 50 to 60 requests from vendors daily, and each month, we add about 300 new vendors, which range from fashion to lifestyle products. Our focus is on the millennial crowd, and their average spend is about S$20, so we have quite a few vendors that specialise in fast fashion.

About 85 per cent of our vendors in Thailand and Indonesia are indie and SME brands. In Singapore, about 40 per cent of our vendors are indie. Because the Singapore market is more developed than its neighbours, we also carry designer brands on our website.

Why do you need to help small vendors?

There is the feel-good factor of helping people. A Thai vendor told me that Zilingo helped double the size of his business. I met another vendor from Singapore, a student who wants to be an entrepreneur, and Zilingo helped make that happen. It is encouraging to hear such stories. The other 50 per cent of why I want to do this is: there is a lot of potential and revenue in this business of helping small companies. Outside of Singapore, about 60 per cent of the businesses are SMEs, so there is still room to help them.

Is it a lost cause for offline retailers?

Traditional retail businesses won't die out, because people still like the option to touch and feel products. But what's important is for these businesses to be omnichannel retailers. I think it is also important for these retailers to list themselves on online marketplaces, so that they can be more cost efficient and reach a wider scale more easily.

You must be a big online shopper then.

I shop online for quite a lot of things, including groceries, even though there is a 24-hour supermarket just across my home. I shop for clothes, accessories and homeware items online. I've shopped for art online too. Online shopping makes buying more convenient. I shop at Zilingo, and other sites, such as Zalora, to understand the shopping experience. I do online shopping about three times a month. But I'm not the sort who is clicking the "add to cart" button at 3am. I prefer to spend my time watching Netflix.

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Story originally appeared on Business Times.

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