Shopfront helps automate social commerce in Bangladesh

11 January 2017
ITC News
Bangladeshi start-up company Shopfront aims to make social commerce affordable for small and medium-sized businesses.

As the founder of Shopfront, a Bangladeshi start-up that aims to make social commerce affordable, Siffat Sarwar learned an important lesson early on: Everyone must fail. It is that realization, she says, that enabled her to achieve both success and recognition as one of the country’s top female entrepreneurs.

‘The difference between a person who has failed and who has succeeded is that the successful person never gives up,’ Sarwar said. ‘They fail, and then they learn and get right back up. That is what we should all do.’

Taking her own advice helped Sarwar snag the top spot among female participants in the 2015 Dhaka round of Seedstars World, the global seed-stage start-up competition for emerging markets. She won a fully sponsored trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka, for the 2016 World Export Development Forum, the flagship event of the International Trade Centre (ITC).

In between, Shopfront also benefited from targeted activities of the ITC Netherlands Trust Fund III (NTF III) programme, which builds export competitiveness in Bangladesh’s information technology (IT) and IT-enabled services sector. The project, implemented in collaboration with the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI) and funded by the Dutch Government, helps women gain more leadership positions in the tech sector, ensuring gender equality in a country that traditionally scores low in the United Nations Development Programme’s gender-related development index.

Doing business on Facebook

And that meshes beautifully with Shopfront’s raison d’être of supporting young and women entrepreneurs who have limited capital and are running their businesses through Facebook. Shopfront helps some of the roughly 5,000 such entrepreneurs in Bangladesh automate their e-commerce business – automatically managing inventory and orders, accounting and customer databases, so owners can focus on product development and procurement.

‘Since 2013, with the advent of 3G, my friends and I observed that due to the increasing penetration of Internet and social media, hundreds of people who were struggling to get a job were suddenly making a living by selling things online,’ Sarwar recalled.

She added: ‘We did basic research and understood that while the businesses were quite profitable, the entrepreneurs faced significant hurdles in managing their businesses manually. They were also unable to migrate to websites, which have a complex backend. We realized that there was a huge market for a solution that could automate social commerce in Bangladesh.’

Last year, Sarwar quit her job to build a team to create this solution. She has never looked back.

Tapping into social commerce

In February, Shopfront launched ShopUp – the first product in Bangladesh built purely to boost social commerce. The application facilitates the purchase of goods via Facebook by installing a catalogue, cart and checkout system on the Facebook page, and providing the basic features of e-commerce right on Facebook.

What many will find surprising is that Shopfront provides these services for free. ‘We are only charging for additional services such as marketing and delivery,’ Sarwar said.

But what many probably will not find surprising is that Sarwar sees ‘incredible potential’ for her company in Bangladesh and beyond. ‘Our product is being constantly modified to develop a user-friendly interface that even women and children in rural regions can operate easily,’ she said.

Adapting to overcome challenges

Stakeholders also see that potential today, though they took some convincing.

‘The biggest challenge so far has been to communicate what it is that we want to develop, and what purpose the solution would serve to investors and the government,’ Sarwar said.

Shopfront overcame this obstacle by organizing meetings between Facebook entrepreneurs and representatives of investors and the government ‘to help them better understand the problem, and to show that there is immense potential for a solution like ShopUp to not only change lives of entrepreneurs who are doing business online, but hundreds of people who have not been able to start an online business due to the hurdles inherent in the existing system’.

That’s not to say she’s unaware that there may be more potholes in the road ahead.

‘Challenges are a constant when you are doing something that has never been done before,’ Sarwar noted.