Selling Goats and Old Textbooks
What happens when two entrepreneurs from the Internet-based services industry sit down for a candid talk that has no fixed agenda? Amun Thapa from Sasto Deal and Bal Krishna Joshi of Thamel.com met for the first time for this chitchat but soon both had opened up about their ideas, their ambitions an
Having great conversations is a crucial part of being an entrepreneur: to make your ideas more vivid, to add more detail to the pictures in your head and sometimes to help you scrap your ideas and come up with something completely new. A great conversation is where you can open your mind to the other person, give out your ideas, vision and opinions in exchange for the other person’s curiousity and questionings. For entrepreneurs and for the kind of progressive society they believe in and work towards, the power of a great conversation cannot be stresed enough. Some excerpts from a conversation about their experiences, a new found excitement in their industry of choice and the future that awaits them.
Bal Krishna Joshi is the founder of Thamel.com. Having more than 12 years in the field of e-commerce and remmittance, he is one of the handful of veterans in the field.
Amun Thapa is a young entrepreneur who launched his e-commerce venture Sasto Deal last year. Amun is currently working on a new venture – Sasto Books.
Amun: I recently told Bal dai [on Facebook] about my new project SastoBook, and his first question was – why are you creating a separate website and not using the same platform? I had replied – firstly, it is a completely different business model. Secondly, when I first started many people told me that there aren’t many users who would look for e-commerce. My reply was – the users will come once the industry is there. Once we have many players in the industry, users will start to come. So right now what we need is more e-commerce websites to promote the e-commerce industry. That is also why we chose to introduce another website.
Bal: When we talk about not having the user base, its not because there is no industry, its because the business model hasn’t been right. Take Bhatbhateni super market for instance: a company that has a turnover of 5 billion rupees goes online and does around 5 transactions a day. That’s absurd, and the problem here is they haven’t been able to implement the right adaptation of the model. I don’t think its just an issue of infrastructure when we say the industry didn’t grow, its because the industry members were not able to come up with the right business model. We are catering to 3-5% of the people with the product portfolio that we have. Look at CRBT. Its a million dollar e-commerce industry, which is able to cater to the masses. I have a great story about CRBT; we had a young woman working for us and one day I noticed how her phone kept ringing but she wouldn’t answer it. I thought it was strange and I enquired. Turns out her friend back home in her village was calling so that she could listen to the CRBT song as she did her chores.
Amun: I think the timing has to be right too. I can say that it has been fairly easy for us, having started in 2011. The culture was already there, the trend was kind of set and the infrastructure was almost there too. Had we started in 2001 like you, it would have taken a long time for us to get where we are now.
Bal: Ofcourse. I’ll give you an example –when we started we gained popularity by selling goats online. There were two kinds of reactions back then – they’d either scold us over the phone for talking nonsense or we’d get phone calls from the airport’s cargo office saying there are people looking for you asking for goats. We have come a long way. Another aspect is being able to localize our service. If Amazon sells CDs in the US, so what? The question is – how can we make our services relevant in our society? We have to be able to provide our services understanding the local context and timing. Everyone wants to go retail here. Our economy is driven more at the enterprise level than retail, and most businesses haven’t been able to understand that.
Amun: I am in my mid 20s right now and I think I still have some time to take risks. For me it’s not about making money, it’s about creating value. As you are more experienced, I wanted to know how things changed as you grew older; can you still work with the same attitude?
Bal: I just turned 40 and until a few years back my parents were still very frustrated with me. My father used to say, “He studied so much and he’s selling goats online.” So last year, in frustration I printed all my bank statements and showed them my company’s transactions. They could not believe it; they finally realised I was doing something. Coming to your question, I have been doing this for 12 years now. Through this time, I have been able to understand the global concept of remittance. Now my company is able to cater to people not only in Nepal but globally. This did not happen overnight, it is hard for others to imagine the kind of work I have put in, the kinds of risks that I have taken – all the odd jobs that I had to do, including flipping burgers just to finance my projects. At the end of the day, nobody does it for the money, it has to be your passion.
Amun: I recently watched Sujeev Shakya’s TedX presentation, and he mentioned a term – glocal. What he meant by the term was people can now stay here but their approach can and should be global.
Bal: I think the main reason to choose to stay here is the low costs. The cost of trial and error here is really low. It depends on how fast you can learn from your mistakes and how fast you move.
Amun: Exactly, having such low costs has enabled us to take a trial and error approach instead of spending resources on research. It was the same with SastoDeal and we’ll be taking the same approach with SastoBooks.
Bal: You wont believe it, but there are about 2500 young kids making $500 a day making video games for international companies. Beside e-commerce, take Chaudhary Group’s example: even the Thai food company wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what Binod Chaudhary was able to through Wai Wai. People tell me that the limitations in payment gateway is the main problem. If you have created actual value, the market will make it work; payment gateway is a small portion of the business. You need to find the right business model.
Amun: Another important trend that I see now is business and customer relationships are no longer a one-way deal. Businesses are asking the customers to tell them what they want. Just like the web has evolved to 2.0, the same can be seen in today’s businesses.
Bal: Very true. The economic model is not like before, there is a term called long tail theory – economy of the niche. There are many businesses now that do not follow the traditional business model and are coming up with new ways to provide services.
Amun: Entrepreneurs need to be able to analyse trends. As an entrepreneur you need to predict what is going to happen and ask yourself if you can do it now. In the tech industry, it started with the desktop, followed by the laptop and smartphones. Now Google has introduced smart eye wear and most likely the future will be in bio-chips.
Bal: Yes, trends and how you localize those observations matter. You are planning to sell books online. When you say books to the upper-middle class the first thought in their minds will be nice novels by big authors. But if you ask the rest, who make 97% of the population, it mean text books. With your website, if you are able to serve the 97%, then you have a business. At Thamel.com, our main customers are not people who work at software companies and make $60,000 a year. 70% of our customers are people who are washing dishes, who do not buy things online, but see the value in using Thamel.com to send money. So there’s a big demography that has to be addressed in our business model. At the same time it is important to be selective and make sure you don’t lose your identity.
Amun: The most encouraging thing about our industry for me is not only that small companies are trying to make it big, but that the big companies are now trying e-commerce, realising that the future is in this industry.
Bal: It is not just about becoming big in Nepal, but globally. Thanks to the Internet, we have the capacity to compete globally. It is a level playing field now, which means it is not enough to be the best locally but to be the best globally.