Connecting Cross-Border Shoppers
The unique business idea of AirBringr’s cross-border shipping and shopping platform from international online and offline marketplaces for global shoppers and resellers got selected as one of the winners of the Robi R-Ventures season-1 initiative and was launched in 2018. Ashik Noon, founder and CEO of AirBringr, writes about how AirBringr came into being and what this platform offers.
AirBringr was launched in May 2018 with financial as well as motivational support of Robi Axiata Ltd. The journey started in the form of incubating the employees’ business ideas under the company’s innovative digital entrepreneurship development platform, R-Ventures. A total of 212 business ideas were initially submitted by the Robi employees. Following multiple rounds of selection, it was finally narrowed down to 15 in the semi-final round. AirBringr was among the top six business ideas that were selected to be put through the incubation stage. I was then Vice President of IT in Robi Axiata. Finally, due to its uniqueness, AirBringr got selected as one of the winners of the Robi R-Ventures season-1 initiative.
When I launched the AirBringr concept as an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) back in Aug 2017, a market already existed for foreign products in Bangladesh. This was mostly due to Bangladeshi consumers being aware of the global trends and taste, and thus the demand for reliable sources to bring authentic products from the US via online or physical stores were growing. But managing travellers from the USA and connecting them with local shoppers was a big challenge for this kind of innovative concept.
I wanted to create a platform that will allow buyers to purchase products with reliability and trust but also have the product at an affordable price. AirBringr found the solution by tapping prospective travellers from the USA. To identify prospective travellers from the USA, I had to participate in various fairs in the U.S. and organized multiple traveller hunting meetups in Dallas, New York, and Los Angeles and highlighted the benefit of helping global shoppers to purchase something from the US through the AirBringr platform. Despite the challenges AirBringr successfully managed to create the pool of travellers and built the richest database of travellers who are flying around the year.
MAKING CROSS-BORDER SHIPPING AND SHOPPING ACCESSIBLE
Globally, the E-commerce industry is booming. While consumers in emerging economies are making the greatest shift to online shopping, the ongoing pandemic has created a strong uptake of E-commerce across regions. But access to products is still not smooth enough for global shoppers and resellers and the existing traditional way of cross-border shopping and shipping is hampering the actual growth of the global E-commerce industry.
AirBringr is a cross-border shipping and shopping platform from international online and offline marketplaces for global shoppers and resellers which saves up to 80% overall cost of international trade by serving purchase, storing, consolidating, repacking and shipping facilities from tax-free zones. AirBringr’s crown-shipping model connects local B2C shoppers with international travellers by monetizing the unused baggage space of airline travellers. It allows travellers to match their itineraries to customers who want to bring an item in a cost-effective way than courier companies and enable travellers to make money at the same time by sharing their airline luggage space.
It’s a win-win situation for shoppers and travellers where shoppers are getting their desired products quickly and travellers are earning $300 to $1000 to offset their airline ticket cost. For the B2B sector, AirBringr has introduced ‘sharing-economy’ based air cargo/sea cargo co-loading concept to help global resellers to enjoy reduced shipping costs during International Trade and also providing a one-stop solution for B2B commerce, logistics and financing for resellers.
In contrast to the traditional international logistic companies which are based on fixed-cost and company-owned asset models, AirBringr is based on an information-driven and asset lite model, which enables it to be experience-versus efficiency-focused. From a broader perspective, this concept will ignite a significant growth of the global E-commerce industry and also help reduce CO2 emissions globally.
THE MAN BEHIND AIRBRINGR
Many kids have an IT background and especially those with good CGPA ─ the dream of being high-end programmers. Although Ashik Noon checked all the boxes but being a true critical thinker and an innovator in 2002—-he was pulled towards the fledgling gaming industry. Ashik was one of those from Bangladesh, who was brave enough to take the first step as a 3rd-year undergrad student at North South University who decided to form a 3D interactive software development company in Bangladesh named eSophers Ltd. His debut project back in 2002 was much-talked-about “Dhaka Racing, the 1st 3D game ever developed in Bangladesh. The game got a huge response from the local and international gaming community and got awarded by the President of Bangladesh and the ICT ministry. He also developed the 1st 3D game on the Liberation War of Bangladesh called Bangladesh-71 back in 2003. Later his eSophers team worked with companies like British American Tobacco, Bell Canada & Nokia to produce games and interactive software products. After his undergraduate and graduate degree, he received an associate degree as a Business Analyst from The George Washington University which also helped him to get a better global perspective of business.
He possessed natural leadership abilities that were recognized by various institutes. He was given a “HERO award” on the 50th anniversary of Govt Laboratory High School as one of the top 5 heroes of this great school for his contribution to the IT industry of Bangladesh. He was also selected as the Peace Ambassador of Bangladesh and represented Bangladesh in various leadership programs in Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong & China.
Before starting his entrepreneurship journey, Ashik expanded his horizon in tech industries spending 14 years of his career with Ericsson, Huawei & Robi Axiata Ltd. He held various Technology, IT, Business Intelligence and Pre-sales leadership positions including the position of Vice President, IT Demand Management & Strategy in Robi Axiata Ltd.
COMMON CHALLENGES FACED BY START-UPS
Logistics is always a tough business model to operate. Especially, when it is dealing with cross-border logistical issues and that is when the intensity is greater due to the totally fragmented nature of this particular aspect of the business. But the success of a startup highly depends on the intensity of the problem it is solving. It is expected that problems would be big enough for any startup’s future success and sustainability as most of the Startups are in untested territory. While launching the AirBringr concept, Ashik has faced many challenges as he was not privileged to operate his startup within one country or region like most of the startups around us. We are taking orders from Asian shoppers and helping them to buy products from North American & European Sellers and finally delivering those items from 13,000 km away to a shopper in a remote village area of Bangladesh. This is a huge operational task as we are not only serving the global shoppers to ship at an affordable cost and meeting the demand within expected time limits but also, we are helping them with the freedom to purchase any item from any marketplace. The ordered products are then consolidated and repacked to reduce the total shipping costs.
As March 2020 came dawning, everyone in the world was about to brace themselves to an unpredictable danger. During Mid-March, Airbringr as a company had to face its worst challenge as the pandemic was spreading globally. The USA started to impose its lockdown on all states and also banned air flights from all visiting countries. As AirBringr services depended on cross-border shipping where international travellers share their unused luggage space to deliver items to local shoppers, Covid-19 brought us to an uncertain future for a new startup like ours.
2020 was all built up and set for the best business year for start-ups like AirBringr. The company had just come off a great successful Black Friday campaign at the end of 2019 and kicked off 2020 with a lot of promise to grow. Ashik Noon mentioned that “during this upbeat time of the business, coming to know that we may have to cease all working functionality of our company was the worst problem that could have headed towards us.”
CEOs all over the world started to experience overwhelming challenges and struggled to keep afloat in the uncharted waters as they continue to navigate through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the country’s biggest businesses were at the brink of closing their doors. During this time, Airbringr took the bold decision to not let go of any of our workforces which showed the sign of compassionate leadership, but this meant that they needed to function differently to survive. One of the greatest strengths of a startup is its ability to adapt to different conditions.
However, given the travel bans from the USA and the inability to serve the customers posed a very difficult situation for them. This was the time when Airbringr showed integrity explaining the situation to our customers as honestly as they could, and to their delight, they experienced a very positive encouragement. The majority of their customers understood the situation and showed their support and believed in their service. Airbringr managed to earn the trust of its customer base and they believed that Airbringr will deliver on the promises once this pandemic situation eases.
In order to sustain their business, Ashik and AirBringr decided that since people were in lockdown, the barrier everyone faced was getting necessities delivered to them, such as groceries, medicine, etc., as people could not get out of their houses. Therefore, we decided to move to a new venture dubbed FreshBringr to cater to the loyal base that already existed.
From Aug 2020, as the international flights started their operation, we instantly restarted our AirBringr operation to serve our valued customers. But this time on top of Traveler channel we have introduced Air Cargo channel as a redundant option of delivering items from US or UK to our shoppers. So Covid has helped us to pivot and introduce new services for our shoppers.
HYPER-LOCAL TO GLOBAL VISION
Currently, AirBringr is serving mostly B2C shoppers by connecting them with travellers and air cargo channels. But since its inception, AirBringr has been getting continuous order requests from local resellers in bulk who want to sell international brands to local shoppers and at the same time, many local sellers want to sell local brands to international shoppers. To crack this huge opportunity, early this year AirBringr has introduced a new concept that is based on the IRON TRIANGLE model to serve the B2B segment. Initiating this new concept AirBringr aims to connect international brands with end-to-end bulk import facilities for local resellers or MSMEs (e.g. f-commerce, mom-and-pop stores etc.) and also will help local LARGE eCommerce players, MSMEs & local amazon sellers to export local brands directly to global shoppers or through amazon FBA program. This will create a huge positive impact on the local/global SME sector by growing new small businesses where AirBringr will act as an enabler of B2B Commerce, Logistics & Financing for the SME sector.
There are around 20 million mom-and-pop shops in Bangladesh and this SME sector is contributing $25 billion as annual turnover in the Bangladesh economy. Under AirBringr’s new initiative, these 20 million mom-and-pop shops will play a vital role by connecting the urban & rural young generation of Bangladesh with global technology. AirBringr is running a pilot project where they are helping local mom-and-pop shop owners to upgrade their shelf space with cross-border high-end products, all the way from BestBuy store or Amazon marketplace in the USA and selling those items to their local village kids to ignite the actual power of Digital Bangladesh concept. Here AirBringr is not only helping them to act as a B2B commerce platform but also ensuring logistics plus financing for small shop owners.
Apart from going hyper-local, AirBringr is in the process of taking their very first warehouse in the USA as a Bangladeshi startup to serve their global shoppers and reseller by offering Purchase, Picking, Storing, Consolidating, Repacking and Shipping facilities, which will drastically reduce the upfront shopping & shipping cost of international trade.