"i would have shut it down if i had done it for money"
Money was not on Prabal Saakha’s mind when he started Hamrobazar.com, nor when he brought the first convertibles and Hummers to Nepal, and even now as he introduces a Café Racer inspired bike with Nepali branding. However, there is a method in this seeming ‘madness’, and it’s starting to show as Hamrobazar.com establishes itself as the biggest Nepali online transaction platform.
W hen a recent surge of 1,600 simultaneous uploads caused HamroBazar site to crash, Prabal Saakha had reasons to be worried, but contented at the same time. “We weren’t registered for that much traffic, so the host server disconnected us,” says Saakha, “till a few years back we could not have imagined such traffic on our site.” Since the latest accomplishment disguised as a temporary setback, the system has been restored and upgraded, and the website has since been in full swing.
In February, the site was displaying around 19,000 classified ads, displaying goods that ranged from automobiles to apparels, and even jobs, events and pets. The site gets 3,15,000 unique hits a month. The total number of hits exceeds 600,000. But despite the popularity and traffic, Saakha admits that the profits are limited. The site does not charge its users, even services like computer generated featured ads are free add-ons. Therefore advertisements have to generate most of the revenue for the site. The growth has also called for increased number of team members, adding to the expenses of the company. However, he is quick to point out, “HamroBazar was never about making money. That’s why it has been free from the start, and we intend to keep it that way. And I don’t think one can measure success in terms of money.”
When Saakha started HamroBazaar six years ago, he had recently come back from Bangkok after finishing his Masters degree in marketing and advertising at Webster University. The idea and motivation to start HamroBazaar was inspired by an incident rather than a career choice of becoming an entrepreneur. Saakha was trying to sell an old mobile set in New Road, and found the shopkeepers quite hesitant. The ones who did agree to try selling asked for a month’s time. “It wasn’t like I made HamroBazaar because ‘I didn’t want others to go through what I had gone through’. It’s not really a profound idea. It was simple – the technology was there, and so I thought ‘why not!’” he says.
He convinced two of his cousins –Pranay and Pranav, who were good in computers, and started working on the site. Without an office, the work was mostly done at home and at their family office. The things were slow at start –“each ad uploaded would be a reason to celebrate”, he says. And the site continued to struggle through the next few years. “I would have shut it down if I had done it for money, probably around four years ago,” he admitted. “Considering the Internet’s growth, the site had to work. And also, I loved what I was doing. I felt the site was making a contribution or at least had the potential to make in the future, and it kept me going.”
Being from a prominent business family – the Saakha Groups, the then twenty-three year old did have options. As he was working on the online platform, he also pursued another venture aligned with an old passion of his – automobiles. He brought a few Sandstorms– convertibles – to Nepal and started selling them. He also got a few Hummers after that. Both of which lost him money – “but not so much,” he says, adding, “it was quite naïve of me back then, but I don’t regret it. It helped me understand the market and realize things like – what kind of vehicle would work in Nepali market?” With the support from his family, Saakha went on to initiate the automobile division within his family company – Saakha and Universal Automobiles Pvt. Ltd., bringing in Chinese vehicle company – Geely to Nepal.
With a more quintessential ‘business’ to show for himself, he continued his work on the online platform. After dragging it for four years, the site finally gained traction. As the smart phone market boomed locally with more affordable options, so did the platform that could help sell the old sets. Then the word spread to people who were trying to sell old automobiles, followed by the real estate traders. “As more and more people saw the utility the word got out,” says Saakha, “we never marketed the site, it was all word of mouth.” The site soon became the largest platform for real estate transactions – currently listing more than 2,300 properties.
Today thirteen people are dedicated to the site, and the site is completely self-sustained. “The best part of HamroBazar is the value it has been able to create. There are businesses that revolve around Hamrobazar,” says Saakha adding, “even when we get complains when the site is having some kind of technical problem, there is a sense of satisfaction in it – when you know there are people who depend on what you have built.” Saakha also believes Hamrobazar is making a noteworthy contribution to the economy –being a platform that’s helping money to change hands in the economy more quickly, and also significantly reducing the cost of hoarding.
However, depending solely on revenue from advertisements HamroBazar hasn’t been that successful in terms of profit. “The company has grown, but we are still not making the kind of money that justifies the growth,” says Saakha adding, “We could have made money from the site by introducing plug-ins and buy options, but we thought that would dilute the site, and we want to keep it simple.” However, he does have a plan to monetize the popularity of his site. Keeping Hamrobazar’s USP intact, he is working on other sites that use the network of Hamrobazar but provide services that generate revenue. Currently they are working on a travel site. “Once we have a site that is popular and which people trust, we have options,” says Saakha.
Similar to HamroBazar, the Chinese automobiles have also seen some growth in Nepal in recent times. According to Global Times, a Chinese news tabloid, the sale of Chinese vehicles in Nepal grew from 3% to 7% in the last two years – a completely different outlook from the time when Saakha decided to go into distributing Geely. Chinese goods were categorized as khasa ko saman– of inferior quality and vehicles weren’t considered exceptions. Rather a luxury and status-symbol than utility good for most, the affordability of Chinese vehicles weren’t always an advantage as well. Despite the challenges, Saakha decided to sell vehicles from a Chinese automobile manufacturer.“I have believed that in a market you have to be a leader. If you do something that others’ have done already, you only end up getting the dust left behind by the ones before you,” says Saakha, who is also the Managing Director of Saakha and Universal Automobiles Pvt. Ltd. “I cannot make an impact by introducing another Indian company or even Japanese. If you look how the consumer preference has shifted previously, you can sense where the market is heading. First it was the American cars, and then came the Japanese, the Indian and the Korean. Vehicles from all these manufacturers were criticized in the start, however the preferences shifted eventually,” he says with conviction. With the maturing Chinese economy that’s shifting its focus towards producing quality goods, and also looking at the local car sale figures, it might be that the shift has begun.
His passion for automobiles hasn’t been limited to four-wheelers. Last year he introduced motorbikes called Madass from German manufacturer – Sachs, through a new company called Eco Auto. And as the name suggests, this venture hasn’t been conventional either. The bike without a pronounced fuel tank, stands out amongst the existing bikes in the market. Recently, Saakha also introduced a café racer inspired bike branded with the name Gurkha. The locally assembled bike, manufactured by a HongKong based company – SkyTeam, is being tested by a few local bike enthusiasts. With their feedback Saakha plans to launch the brand to a wider audience. He even plans to introduce locally hand carved parts for Gurkha bikes. “Currently, we are just trying to establish a brand, and see how the market responds to these bikes. If the feedback is good and we are able to establish a credible brand, we will look into introducing more bikes,” he says.
“You have to do what you love and have passion for,” says Saakha. His beliefs have helped him build the largest e-commerce platform in the country. HamroBazar has become more than just Saakha’s venture, but a shared platform for other businesses to operate on. With such passion, he is still trying to make his other visions tangible. His educated bet on a Chinese vehicles will tell in due time. Will Gurkha bikes follow the same trajectory as HamroBazar is a question that will be answered in time. However, if they do follow similar paths, they will achieve what hasn’t yet been achieved. This time around, the profits w ould also be more tangible. But that’s not the point, it’s not money that he is doing it for.