Presenting an email interview with Kamal S Quadir, founder and CEO of Bangladesh based mobile e-commerce company CellBazaar.com. This interview is planned under TED India fellows project and is my first CEO interview. Questions were framed so as to let people know more about Kamal as a person, as well as Cellbazaar and its operations. I thank Kamal for his precious time and for the trouble taken in providing detailed responses to my questions. -Nidhi
1 Cellbazaar’s success stories are very impressive and similar services (for farmers to sell their products) are not available in India at present , except some instances like fishermen in Kerala using SMS to find out which port can offer better price for their catch. (Most of the mobile value added services are focused on urban users). Do you have any plans to enter Indian market or tie up with operators here?
Kamal Quadir: Several of the large Indian operators have expressed interest in CellBazaar. We are exploring the possibilities.
2 Ability to send and receive SMS in regional languages can be a tremendous boost to mobile commerce business, particularly in rural segments. However progress towards this hasn’t been good enough. What’s your take on this? Do you see text communication in local language gain prominence or is English likely to dominate for near future?
Kamal Quadir: When I first launched CellBazaar in 2006, I assumed that SMS-based phones would continue to dominate the market for another few years. Only a few people had WAP/Internet enabled mobiles with graphic interfaces; high-end smart-phones were a rarity. Our forecasts said it would take several years before most people had Internet-enabled phones. Our initial launch focused only on an SMS-based application; our plan was for the technical team to continue modifying that application for another year or two, and then we would launch the second-generation applications on WAP and the Web.
But by January of 2007, the handset market experienced a seismic shift, and suddenly high-end phones were proliferating. At least five complex, interlocking factors help explain this rapid penetration, especially into the financially constrained segment:
•Nokia began a major foray into Bangladesh, identifying it as a major consumer market for high-end, prestige phones. Its successful blitz campaign used very unconventional methods for Bangladesh, including road shows with fashion models, celebrity endorsements, and aspirational ads featuring western users at play.
•The status-symbol phones, especially the sliding N95,E95 and Music Express, became hits in 2007.
•The iPhone arrived as the first celebrity phone, Bangladesh-based hackers man-aged to unlock it in record time, and the press was intrigued.
•Cheap clone phones flooded into Bangladesh from China’s grey market; soon look-alike phones were retailing for as little as Taka 8,000 (about US$ 120), while the Nokia originals retailed at Taka 30,000 (about US$ 430).
•More and more local youth were joining networks to trade video clips, and then wanted video-capable phones—Internet capability was an accidental bonus.
Contradicting our cautious estimates, more than 25% of the country’s user base had Internet-enabled phones by early 2007. This led us to change our strategy rapidly, and fast-track the WAP and Web platform. In startup mode all over again, the teams worked around the clock to meet intense deadlines and we launched the WAP and Web applications by mid-2007. Now I could access the growing market simultaneously from net-enabled mobiles as well as computers.
The fast-track gamble paid off: three months after the launch more people were using the WAP platform than the SMS platform and we had 10 times the traffic. The Web platform took off in early 2008.
Although targeted advertising was theoretically possible on SMS, it lacked graphics and animation, and would never have been able to command premium rates. Based on this experience, in fall 2008 I launched a fourth platform, using interactive voice recognition (IVR). This fit with an overall trend among cell phone companies of covering all platforms, and also of earning higher revenues by being easier to use. Because the IVR is in Bengali, and requires no typing, it was the next logical step after WAP and WEB.
3 You’ve been an artist yourself. What would be your tips to emerging artists and musicians who are struggling to make their presence felt? How do you think they can market themselves better using the web and new media?
Kamal Quadir: One aspect of art that I feel strongly is that artists should never feel content that they have to settled with certain media or certain kind of art. Developing a style is one thing and leaving the possibilities of exploring with new media and new type of art is another thing. Artists’ goal is to communicate their inner feeling via certain media and they should use whatever they find to carry that feelings.
4 Besides rapidly growing cell phone network, how is the broadband penetration in Bangladesh? How do you plan to tap that opportunity?
Kamal Quadir: Bangladesh has very effective cell phone network. Broadband is far behind, but, trying to catch up.
Please note that we are working in an environment (which is common in any developing country) where before we teach people how to use CellBazaar, we teach them the basic concept of browsing technologies: what screen icons mean; how to type words, numbers and symbols; and how to use navigation buttons, short cuts, search functions, etc. Having learned all these functions, consumers pick up new features as they are added to mobile phones, or if they get the access of broadband they can capitalize that.
I strongly believe in the future, as all mobile phones are transformed into full-fledged computers, the CellBazaar user will be trained and ready to do anything with mobile devices. I foresee that in the future each “super”user of CellBazaar will be able to start their own digital-based commodity training hub.
5 How are the e-governance initiatives in Bangladesh? Are mobiles being used for utility fee payments and other public service interactions?
Kamal Quadir: I believe e-governance is gradually taking shapes in Bangladesh. The government is very positive and active in such development.
6. Tell us something about your early days of setting up CellBazaar. Any major obstacles you faced, efforts spent in convincing villagers on the potential of how they can use CellBazaar.
Kamal Quadir: CellBazaar has been the subject of sharp learning curve called the pioneer’s penalty. Because we were the first such service in Bangladesh, we had to tackle basic issues of mobile literacy. As phones become cheaper, and clone phones arrive from China, more Internet-enabled mobiles are reaching more financially constrained users—who sometimes have trouble activating the phones’ features.
I discovered three challenges in people’s attitudes towards technology:
•Technophobia. People sometimes fear technology. But when our marketing teams interact with individuals and explain the service,users learn very quickly. Thus, human contact, and one-to-one or one-to-many teaching is essential.
•English perception. Although very little English is required to use our service, people perceive that advanced English is required.
•Generation. Many people see new tools on mobile phones as something mainly for young people. Because of the ubiquity of ring-tones and video clips, people automatically assume some association with entertainment, rather than understanding the phones’ other values.
In addition to overcoming these biases, we have to train people in the basic functions of their phones. Beyond dialing and storing numbers, many people do not explore the majority of their phone functions. I used to say it metaphorically that millions of people have NASA computers (NASA computers in 1969 were not as powerful in terms processing power as today’s mobile phones) in their pockets in Bangladesh, but they are severely under-utilized.
I strongly believe that the only thing the un-connected people needed is the audacity to believe that they could use the market, make money, find goods, and complete transactions.
7. If you were to chose between a celebrity cricketer and a common man (who used and benefited from your service) to endorse your brand in an ad campaign, whom would you chose? Why?
Kamal Quadir: A common man.
As I earlier said, I believe that the only thing the un-connected people needed to use CellBazaar is the audacity to believe that they could use the platform. If the un-connected sees that a common man is doing such thing they get the audacity they need.
8 You’re known as creator of CellBazaar, innovator and also as an artist. What career did you dream during your childhood? Are there any other activities/hobbies you’re pursuing that you wish to tell us?
Kamal Quadir: I wanted to work with art when I was a kid. I am trying to have fun in whatever I do.