She is just 27 years, and is already the co-owner of a soon-to-be Unicorn startup Zilingo, which has raked in a total of US$308 million funding from the likes of Sequoia India, Temasek, and EDBI since its inception in Singapore in 2015-end. And it is a very rare for an entrepreneur to be successful in the very first attempt, thanks to her experience as an investment analyst with Sequoia and McKinsey & Co.
But it was not without her share of failures, but she emerged stronger from each failure. “If you’re not failing and failing fast, you’ll never be able to innovate or learn,” says Bose, who has now set her eyes on other key markets in Southeast Asia for expansion of her fashion e-commerce business.
Here Bose shares her entrepreneurial journey with e27.
You come from an investment analyst background. How did this experience help you when setting up Zilingo?
Having the opportunity to work at McKinsey & Co and Sequoia Capital has definitely helped me set a good foundation in terms of business acumen, analytical thinking, and a deep understanding of consumer internet and startups. That being said, there’s no ready formula for what makes a successful entrepreneur and leader. Much of what entrepreneurs know is learnt on the ground, running the business day to day, because every startup is a unique experience.
Why did you prefer to launch a startup in Southeast Asia instead of your home country India, which is a much bigger in size and opportunities?
Southeast Asia is a high potential market for internet and technology businesses. Smartphone penetration is higher than in India. About 70-100 per cent of the population owns a device, depending on the country. GDP per capita is higher in key markets like Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. Women across the region have purchasing power; in these countries a large percentage of women work, which is great for fashion and beauty. So we saw a huge market opportunity that we wanted to tap into.
Today, we operate globally across B2B and B2C businesses and we focus on markets that are either high potential consumer markets or excellent manufacturing hubs for fashion and beauty. Australia and Bangladesh, for example, would be key markets for us in 2019.
What were the initial challenges for Zilingo. How did you address them?
The first challenges were on setting up a core team and launching a business in a new country, with no networks, without even knowing the language. It seems daunting but I think it worked in our favour. We solved problems with absolute audacity and zero baggage, so we were able to think creatively and innovatively for our merchants.
To make the business successful, we had to integrate into a new culture every time we launched in a new market, and this wasn’t easy. In retrospect, we developed a lot of respect for localisation, and we empower and trust our local leaders to do what’s best for their market.
Is Zilingo your first startup? What have been some of your biggest learnings from over the past three years?
Yes, this is my first startup.
One key learning was that high-calibre teams are a competitive advantage. If your team is high quality and aligned to your vision, incredible things can happen. We believe in empowering people who are hungry and ambitious, but at the same time value teamwork and collaboration. We’ve been very privileged to work alongside some of the best talent in the industry and we want to keep raising the bar high.
Another key thing is that a sound business model and focusing on building a revenue-focused business that creates value for its users is critical. It’s important to grow, scale and gain market share, but on the foundation of a solid business model with a path to profitability.
Have you ever faced failures and setbacks after you delved into entrepreneurship?
Of course! Failure is part and parcel of entrepreneurship. If you’re not failing and failing fast, you’ll never be able to innovate or learn. The best advice I have is that if you want to run a business, you need to get comfortable with failure and keep moving forward. There’s no way around it!
How do you handle depression, which is common among entrepreneurs?
Anxiety, depression and mental health issues are definitely common among startup teams, leaders and executives on a hyper-growth trajectory. The first step is to eliminate the taboo and stigma that covers depression and mental health. We make sure that our team has access to therapy and medical care whenever they need it and are able to speak about it openly.
What are your pastime hobbies? When not in office, what do you like to do the most?
I love reading and keeping up with trends both in business and in fashion, so you can usually find me voraciously reading news and opinion pieces. I also enjoy coaching young entrepreneurs and leaders, especially women. We didn’t have a lot of women role models when we started Zilingo, so I want to make sure my learnings are being passed on to women and girls around me.
How tough is it to hire and retain talent in Southeast Asia? Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs?
Southeast Asia is not unlike any other competitive hiring market. In our experience, the key to hiring and retaining top talent is to have a compelling and exciting business, have a peer group that challenges each other and collaborates well, and have a leadership team that cares about and values the people in the company.
(Get insights from Ankiti Bose and more at Echelon Asia Summit 2019. Happening on May 23-24 at the Singapore Expo. Tickets are now available at US$10 each)