ShopUp- Digitized Retail Solutions for Bangladesh

Shaheen Siam, the founding member and Chief Strategy Officer of ShopUp engages in conversation with COLORS Magazine, in the wake of ShopUp’s notable achievement, receiving the esteemed Investment Excellence Award at the inaugural Startup Summit in the country. In this interview, Siam provides an in-depth exploration of his entrepreneurial approaches and shares his valuable insights into the dynamic and evolving startup ecosystem within Bangladesh.

The Startup Summit Bangladesh, held in 2023 was the first summit of its kind in the country. Representing Bangladesh as an ambassador of the Bangladeshi startup ecosystem has been an experience of a lifetime for Siam. “I feel lucky, and honored to have been part of such an initiative, and to have represented my country, not just in front of the budding entrepreneurs of Bangladesh, but also the foreign investors who came in. I feel especially honored to have received the Investment Excellence Award from none other than the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina herself.” 

Siam feels that the summit inspired him, in many ways, to double down on the company’s vision- to make food accessible and affordable across the country and, in doing so, bring value to both the retailers and end consumers. “ShopUp currently impacts about 20 million retailers in Bangladesh through its network of small shops. We want this number to go higher, to at least 80 million, and further, to cater to the population of the entire country.”

Digitized Solutions for Retailers

It is estimated that almost 98% of food sales in our country happen through small retail shops, or what we popularly call “mudir dokaan”. Superstores and e-commerce still play a very small role in our consumption channels. “Yet, when you see these shops, you will notice that ever since your childhood, they are the same size, doing the same business they’ve been doing for 20 or 30 odd years.” According to Siam, it all boils down to three constraints: logistical, sourcing and financial. “This is why we bring a full-stack solution to retailers. We give them all of these solutions on just one platform.” 

Shaheen Siam, Founding member & Chief Strategy Officer, ShopUp

ShopUp believes in empowering its retailer base from the word go. This means keeping them in mind before they design any solution. “We don’t build a solution and make retailers adapt; we talk to them, try to understand their pain points, and use a hybrid approach. They can order from our application but at the same time, we have on-ground representation- Mokam partners that can train and assist these retailers to order.” 

He shared an example to make things clearer. “After working with retailers, we understood that they were habituated to writing down their daily orders and transactions. However, this act of writing was missing when they ordered digitally. Our designers learned about this issue and developed the application in such a way that even if they write the name of a desired product in the Bangla language on the screen, using nothing but their fingers, they can access those products through the app now.” The addition has encouraged retailers to place their orders through the act of writing. “We’ve built this from the bottom up, this feature was not present in the app from the beginning.” The budding business leader astutely notices that while technology might be a barrier to the retailers during their first orders, the company has enough staff on the ground that help train and assist them, as and when required.

Inclusiveness is equally important to ShopUp. “As a startup, we understand that our retailers are not always technologically savvy. This is why, even if someone does not have a smartphone or internet access, we encourage them to get our services and add value to their stores. Our on-ground partners can help them through the process.” The businessman emphasizes how they are not strictly an e-commerce business, but a B2B sourcing for retailers. “It is much easier for us to work with these retailers and train them.” 

Despite awareness, training, and assistance, however, the Bangladeshi market has not fully warmed up to technology. Siam understands that as the world is going through a technological shift, the retailers and consumers of Bangladesh must move with the times. “Digital literacy is very important,” he says. “However, there does not need to be a drastic shift immediately. We have Mokam partners on the field to take them through it at first.” Siam calls this a journey, and not one where users can learn in a day. “No user can be completely ready from Day One.” Rather than rushing retailers into it, the chief strategy officer of ShopUp wants to guide his consumers at their own pace, until they are comfortable or can ask for the right support.

Role of the Government Support 

Supporting startups is key to a country’s growth trajectory, and governments must recognize and encourage the efforts of those who want to start and invest in promising business models. “I think the government has taken some fantastic initiatives recently. The Startup Bangladesh Summit is a really good example of bringing the startup ecosystem of Bangladesh into the limelight, not just domestically, but also to the foreign investors.” Siam says that upon speaking to some of the foreign investors at the summit, he has the sense that they have a very positive view of the Bangladeshi startup landscape. 

The government has also built the Startup Bangladesh Institute and introduced the Bangladesh Bangabandhu Innovation Grant. With this, they empower between 50 to 100 startups every year, all excellent ways to inspire new businesses to spread their wings beyond ground level. “I think that we are still at a very nascent stage of the startup ecosystem, and more positive examples of successful businesses will encourage local institutions to be involved, even in the investing. Even local institutions will be more inclined to help their home-grown ecosystems if we have more local and regional startups to look towards, as examples.” 

Fertile Ground for Startups in Bangladesh

Startups thrive on investors who believe in them and give them free rein to run their companies. Bangladeshi startups are no different. The only bottleneck, according to Siam, is how new business ideas are pitched. Patriot to the core, Siam feels that Bangladesh is a success story in itself and one that should be told whenever such an opportunity presents itself. “It’s not just our glorious history, it’s the sea of potential in our future. We hear of metrics such as our GDP overcoming that of neighboring countries, and we hear of our industries competing with those in developed nations. When foreign investors hear these stories, they are more eager to invest.”

This is not empty advice- the young businessman puts these words into practice in his own company. “For instance,” he says, “When we pitch our products to foreign investors, we first try to sell them the success story of Bangladesh. Our company just sort of revolves around it.”

As a country that is just starting in the startup landscape, Bangladesh has barely scratched the surface of opportunity, and Siam believes that it still has a long way to go. Companies such as ShopUp, Pathao, and Chaldal that have expanded to build solid businesses do receive local funding. ShopUp has, for instance, received debt and equity investments both, from investors at home.” 

Building Trust for Internet-Based Services

It is a common misconception that internet-based services lack accountability, and it is due to this myth that quite a few businesses lose out. “Building trust simply means that one must deliver on their promise, consistently. ShopUp has been in business for a long time simply because we have been able to deliver on our promises.” 

ShopUp follows best practices from around the world, offering cash-on-delivery payment options for its retailers where they can inspect goods before making the payment, follow up with proper after-sales services, and solve any escalation from merchants within 24 hours. “We have roped in people from Amazon US and India, and Flipkart, India, to build on our platform and ensure the top quality services. The result is more retention, continuous orders across our business, and no leakages or misallocations occurring through our channels. Again, we could never have expanded and scaled up like this, had we not ensured adherence to these best practices.” 

Innovation and R&D as a Measure of Success

A key factor for the success of any business is constant innovation. This is especially true for startups where innovation is not only necessary but also more frequently necessary compared to other mature companies around the world. “We’ve had to risk our place in the world,” says Siam. “The company and its services are constantly evolving, and we are constantly aligning ourselves to the needs of the market.”

Every startup, after becoming a full-scale business, wishes to expand. Even if Siam wishes to do the same, he figures that he has his finger on the pulse of his business. “B2B is the DNA of our business, it is what has made us successful, and knowing what value we bring to the table for the retailer gives us more confidence.” The entrepreneur knows that there is a massive opportunity to work in multiple industries in the B2B model and has chosen to keep doing what is working for them, at least in the foreseeable future. “We aren’t a strictly online establishment yet and are still working through a hybrid model. Eventually, as retailers get more comfortable on the internet, we do wish to achieve 100% conversion into online operations.”

Competition or Community?

On the more general topic of competition within startups, Siam had some motivation to impart. “Even if competition is growing, there isn’t enough of it. We would love more startups across all industries in this country. We need more businesses like ShopUp, Chaldal, and Pathao to come up and work on solving traditional problems. The economic opportunities in Bangladesh are endless and the existing examples of successful startups are heartening to see. “I see how young entrepreneurs are being inspired by the examples we have today. Imagine what heights we can reach once this number goes up!”

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