Demystifying Rokomari and Digital Platform Questions
Rokomari was launched in 2012 with a small team, about 10,000 books, and a handful of publishers on its platform. Over the past 8 years, the company has grown into one of the dominant players in online commerce — particularly in books, introduced a long list of interesting features, and practically changed book culture in Bangladesh. Today, it has a staggering 200,000+ books on its platform and works with thousands of publishers. A 100% locally built and managed company with no external investment, Rokomari is easily one of the fascinating digital commerce companies in Dhaka.
Over the past several years, Dhaka has produced some fairly notable ecommerce companies such as Daraz, Chaldal, Pickaboo, Ajkerdeal among others. But few players have managed to build complete category domination as Rokomari. The only other company that comes to mind is Chaldal in the online grocery vertical.
While Rokomari has become the destination for books on the internet — an advantage that the company could leverage to expand into other verticals, it has so far deliberately stayed away from premature expansion. For growth, it uses an unorthodox strategy. Operationally, it has devised a model that is unique and efficient. It has built a people-first culture where every member of the team takes ownership and enjoys the authority to take initiative.
Most importantly, it has helped the book industry to take off, creating momentum for the publishing industry, and fostering a new reading culture in Bangladesh. In the coming days, as the company further solidifies its position in the book category, it will certainly expand into other verticals.
Rokomari has an interesting beginning. As we will see, it is a story of going off the road and landing somewhere other than where you had planned. To that end, Rokomari offers an interesting strategic and inspirational guidance for entrepreneurs building digital platforms in Bangladesh and an interesting case for navigating the complex world of building digital platforms aka aggregators with the power to influence the market.
The ambition of this report is to look into the intricate operation of Rokomari and its online platform. From the outside, we see that Rokomari sells books, stationeries, and several other products. While it appears simple from the outside, a complex technological and operational process works behind all of it. There are multiple aspects to this technological process.
On one hand, there are the pure operational decisions that revolve around the single question of serving customers better — how Rokomari can better serve its customers aka providing both the best value and faster delivery. Being a technology company that deals with physical products makes these decisions ever more complex.
Rokomari needs to ensure customers are having an optimal experience interacting with its online platforms: be it the Rokomari website or app or social channels. The company constantly tussles with the challenge of how to offer an optimal experience to its customers across these platforms. The second aspect to this is delivering books to customers at the best price on time. This involves logistics, warehouse, working with publishers, sorting and packaging books, and a long list of other works.
Then comes the question of how the Rokomari platform operates — both from the efficiency point of view and the policy point of view. When digital platforms rise to prominence, they gradually gather the power to drive demands and consumer preferences. To that end, platforms like Amazon and others play a significant role in dictating which books or gadgets get to the most people and which do not. The same applies to Rokomari or Chaldal or others — what products appear on the top, which product to sell and which not to, etc.
For most platforms, broadly speaking, these decisions come down to simple commercial algorithms meaning the most popular ones go to the top. In Amazon and across tech platforms, reviews dictate ranking a lot. Books with the highest number of reviews and sales go to the top and the question of what to sell and what not to sell usually comes down to the idea of what is legal to sell plus popularity and business interest. Many digital platforms have introduced arbitrary guidelines of late regarding what can be shared and what cannot be, such as Facebook purging discussions critical of vaccinations or American elections. Others such as Amazon stay away from making such rules and distinctions.
Popular items getting the top spot, however, are not unique to the online world. This is precisely what happens in the offline world as well. In shops, you put the best selling product in the front. This is to some extent what is called Matthew effect referring to the Bible: “For unto every one that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance”.
The challenge with online is that the impact of this skewed nature of the world gets exacerbated on the internet. The Internet is a medium of extremes. Both good and bad get noticed for going viral. This is not the case with the offline world. Offline, it is a single shop. Since online allows aggregation, it can change the entire dynamics of the market as it happened in 2014 with Amazon and its disputes with several publishers. It is a complex problem with moral, legal, and other questions involved and for an online platform to answer all of them correctly is not feasible. Similarly, while platforms are powerful, power stops being power as soon as you have to use it.
To that end, value-neutral metrics such as sales and reviews serve all well. After all, when most votes win, almost everyone wins.
For us at FS, Rokomari is one of the companies that we see with fascination. We have always wanted to get deeper into the operational mechanics of Rokomari. This report aims to do that. In this report, we want to address a simple question: what is Rokomari, and how Rokimari works. You can call it a teardown of Rokomari’s operation, growth trajectory, platform strategy, operational model, and business.
1. Origin and overview
Rokomari is one of the youngest ventures in the portfolio of local conglomerate OnnoRokom Group. The official name of the company is OnnoRokom Web Services Ltd (OWS). And Rokomari did not start as Rokomari. The predecessor to Rokomari was an idea similar to LinkedIn, which failed. The story of how OWS came into being is quite an interesting one.
In December 2011, Rokomari’s team started working on the platform to launch the website before Ekushey Boi Mela 2012, which takes place in Dhaka every February. As the team developed the website, they contacted publishers simultaneously. Additionally, the company entered into a partnership with the Sundarban Courier Service as its logistics partner.
“Initially, publishers didn’t take us seriously”, says Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, Chairman of OnnoRokom Group. “They would tell us that many people get interested in books before February and they leave the market just as fast. We had to work hard to convince them.”
After completing the basic setups, Rokomari officially launched on 19 January 2012 with a team of around ten people. The launch event took place at a school in Dhanmondi. Musa Ibrahim, Author and Journalist Anisul Huq, and a few publishers attended the event. Prothom Alo published a feature on the company right after the launch giving it a necessary initial boost in those early days.
The team built the Rokomari website and software in about a month. It did not have a back-end order management system at the time, which became a challenge when the number of orders increased. “Those early days were an uphill battle,” recalls Rokomari CEO and Co-founder Khairul Anam Ronnie.
Rokomari didn’t have a separate office and was operating out of a small space in the OnnoRokom office in Kawran Bazar. After a few months, the team moved to a small 400-500 sq ft. office in Motijheel previously used by Udvash, OnnoRokom’s education venture. The team was so small that everyone was multitasking.
Gradually, the company added other divisions such as tech, accounting, HR, etc. Moved to a larger space. And opened an office in Bangla Bazar to closely work with the publishers. In 2019, Rokomari moved to its current location in Motijheel.
The company was relentless from day one. It was lucky to have a dedicated team. “One of our boys, Tushar, who now lives abroad, used to spend his entire day in Bangla Bazar wearing a Rokomari t-shirt”, reminisces Mr. Sohag. “He was so persistent that people in the Bangla Bazar area nicknamed him Rokomari.”
A few months into operation, Rokomari introduced cash on delivery (COD) — the first such feature in Dhaka’s ecommerce industry in those days. The company saw a need for the service and went on to launch it. Rokomari worked with its logistics partner Sundarban to build out the COD feature. The feature was an instant hit and is now being adopted across ecommerce in Dhaka.
Rokimari has operated using an organic model throughout its existence. The company started without a grand plan — “we had no idea about the future”, says Mr. Ronnie. The business grew slowly and with that, the challenges. The fascinating thing about Rokomari is that the company has been consistent throughout its journey.
The company’s tech is 100% built in-house. A culture of open learning and allowing mistakes have helped the company to develop features through a process of experimentation.
Gradually, the team grew and new ideas got added. For example, in the early days, Rokomari predominantly served the B2C market. Later it added the corporate section.
The product — the website and the app — has evolved. In the beginning, you could view the title and the name of the publishing house of a book on the website. Later came summaries of the books. One of the noticeable changes that have been made on the product end is the launch of the “Look Inside” feature in the website, where users could read a few pages of a book before purchasing it. The feature shot conversion through the roof right after launch.
The company has been delivering books throughout the country from day one, which was unique in its early days. After a few years in operation, the company started delivering books outside Bangladesh.
Over these years, Rokomari has also transformed its supply chain by streamlining processes, introducing automation and new systems.
On the logistics end, it has made changes to keep pace with the increasing orders. It has partnered with several courier services and started working with regional logistics companies for deliveries outside Dhaka, particularly in remote areas across the country.
The company has introduced wider automation across operations introducing barcodes and QR codes. It has deepened collaboration with publishers. In the early days, the Rokomari team used to put book information manually on its website. It now provides an admin panel for publishers to enter book details by themselves. The Rokomari team simply approves when a publisher adds book information and adds to the website. Publishers can also add feedback while updating any information.
2. Into the complex world of selling books
Rokomari runs one of the most complex ecommerce operations. With over two lakhs unique products, it is an inventory juggernaut and requires extraordinary operational innovation to tackle the day-to-day challenges and improve customer experience.
Several interdependent teams handle different parts of the operation. For example, the product department ensures books are available, information is updated and contacts and collaboration with publishers are maintained.
The composition and functionality of teams are not fixed. It changes with a constant feedback loop from the operation. “There are a lot of changes that have been made in our teams”, explains Mr. Ronnie. “ For example, in the early days, we had a brand team. We later added a PR Team. Recently, we have changed the entire structure and created a multidisciplinary team called the Growth Team.”
Growth is an interdisciplinary affair at Rokomari. The team, consisting of talents from marketing, products, tech, and hacker, looks after wide-ranging jobs including branding, PR, digital marketing, feature development, and other product and growth-related initiatives.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Rokomari has developed a robust social media strategy. “We did not have much of a social media strategy before the pandemic,” says Mr. Ronnie. “COVID has changed that. Today, we have a comprehensive social media strategy developed organically in response to the changes caused by the pandemic.”
Rokomari has a sizable customer service team that directly interacts with customers. The team confirms new orders where necessary over the phone and assists customers with information. Over the years, the team has gone through several evolutions. Initiatives are taken regularly to improve efficiency such as introducing automatic order tracking for customers on the website so that they don’t need to call customer care for updates.
The Purchase Team looks after buying books from publishers. The team keeps track of the inventory and records the books that are needed to be bought. The supply chain team — one of the teams that are directly involved with order fulfillment — collects books from the Rokomari warehouse order-wise, checks the books according to the list, packs them, and sends them to the courier team.
Once the Courier team receives the books, it then decides the delivery strategy. For orders within Dhaka, Rokomari’s in-house logistics team delivers the products. For outside Dhaka orders, it sends the parcels to regional courier services. Rokomari has an in-house logistics operation that manages deliveries inside Dhaka. The company works with several third-party logistics companies for both deliveries within and outside Dhaka. The company provides same-day/24 hours delivery within Dhaka. Outside Dhaka, it takes 2-3 days.
The Courier team is responsible for ensuring timely delivery of products. If a customer doesn’t get a package on time, the courier team is responsible for that. Since Rokomari does a lot of cash on delivery, the Courier team is also responsible for collecting payments from logistics partners.
The company has an export-import wing that mainly deals with international books, particularly from India. The “Purchase Team” buys books from local publishers while the “Export-Import Team” buys books from other countries.
The Rokomari corporate team deals with B2B orders, mostly from schools and colleges. B2B customers receive special pricing for bulk orders. The Export-Import team works with the corporate team when there is a requirement for importing books.
The company has a growing tech team that develops and manages tech assets of the company and works on operational challenges across the organization such as fulfillment, inventory management, automation, and so on.
While each team operates independently, all teams interact with each other because of the interdependent nature of the operation. For example, the software team collaborates with every other team in the company because they develop tech solutions for different operational areas. The company has built systems to streamline these collaborations.
Customers come to Rokomari through different channels. In the early days, the company used to spend a lot of time on physical campaigns. It now focuses more on digital marketing such as Facebook, SEO, email, SMS, etc.
An excellent analytics tool, built in-house, helps collect data and glean customer intelligence. The Rokomari system has gotten smarter over time. Now when a customer visits the Rokomari website, he is likely to see a customized version of the webpage based on his interest and previous behavior. Customers who bought fiction previously are more likely to see fiction on their next visit and so on. The company has been investing in developing an intelligent recommendation engine that would allow it to better understand users and offer relevant recommendations.
Over the years Rokomari has developed a cultural orientation for results. Every action and decision is being tracked and measured against outcomes. This obsession resulted in many seemingly radical decisions such as building a multidisciplinary growth team. Doing more rarely gets as much encouragement as achieving greater results with doing less.
3. Your book has a Rokomari story
From the outside, how Rokomari functions appear simple — when you place an order, Rokomari collects the book and delivers it. In reality, however, the process is much more complex and fascinating. Let’s take a rough look at the life cycle of an order from beginning to completion in delivery.
The first step is you go to the Rokomari website or the app and place an order. It then goes to the customer care department. The customer service team uses an automated process to check whether you are an existing user. If you are, then your order goes to processing without further delay. If you are a new customer, customer care calls you and confirms it if necessary, particularly in the case of a wrong address or other errors in the order.
Your order then goes to the supply chain department that checks the availability of the books. If some books are not available or out of stock, you are being informed accordingly. And the Purchase team buys them and brings them to the warehouse. The Purchase team could run into challenges buying the out-of-stock books such as books out of print or the publisher closed on a certain day. These contingencies affect the delivery time.
Every book gets a Rokomari barcode when it enters its inventory. Once the Purchase team sends the books to the supply chain, the invoice gets printed. Then books are taken from the warehouse according to the invoice and checked if the right books are taken. Books are then packed and sent to the courier team.
The courier team checks whether the customer has paid or not. If the customer has already paid, the courier team doesn’t have to collect the money. The package gets sent to the courier service and gets delivered to the customer.
In cases of cash on deliveries, the Rokomari courier team collects the money from the courier services after the delivery and sends that to the accounting department.
For contingencies, the Rokomari team has developed strategies over the years. “We have prepared a list of scenarios and our response for each of those scenarios,” says Mr. Ronnie. “For example, if a publisher tells that the book will be available after a week, the Purchase team updates the customer service with the new information and the customer service ask the customer if he/she is willing to wait for a week to get all the books together or want to receive the available books instead of waiting.”
Messaging to customers is clear and straightforward. Rokomari makes sure you don’t get confused about the availability of books while placing an order. For books that are not in inventory, you see a message at the time of placing an order, usually telling that the availability depends on the publishing house. If a book is out of print, the site mentions it and provides a “request for a print” option.
Rokomari takes customer service seriously. Although the company has automated a large part of its customer service and relies on message, email, and chat for communication, it maintains a strong 15 people customer service team who work in three-shift 24/7.
A telemarketing team does direct sales. The team informs regular Rokomari customers about the latest books and other deals and solicits interest from customers.
4. Working with writers and publishers
For Rokomari, publishers and writers are two important partners. A good relationship with these two groups is critical for the company.
Businesswise, Rokomari has to maintain a mutually beneficial partnership with the publishers. Publishers are the merchants for Rokomari. To that end, Rokomari has a dedicated team that maintains constant communication with publishers.
“Rokomari’s relationship with publishers goes beyond traditional business relationships,” says Mr. Ronnie. “We maintain constant communication with publishers. Apart from the marketplace, we have introduced a slew of new products to help publishers grow.”
For example, Rokomari now allows publishers to take pre-orders for upcoming books. Pre-order was not a thing in Bangladesh before. Any publisher can take pre-orders for books meeting certain requirements. Several paid services have also been introduced for publishers such as publishers can promote their books using a special promotional path, there is SMS and digital marketing services for publishers. The company says it has been working with several publishers to design better supports for publishers and is committed to improving its service for publishers.
Publishers rely on Rokomari to sell books which was not the case in the early days. In the early days, Rokomari had to convince publishers to work with it. Today, publishers not only trust Rokomari, they consider Rokomari a key partner for book success. There are shops in Bangla Bazar that sell books only on Rokomari. This is a new thing for the industry.
On a side note, although Rokomari has grown over the years, offline retail remains the largest market for books. Rokomari and other online players have a lot of catching up to do.
Rokomari maintains a varied relationship with publishers when it comes to payment. Some publishers get paid in cash immediately or in advance and with others, it has more flexible payment terms such as monthly or bi-monthly payouts. Many publishers credit Rokomari for a significant increase in their sales.
The company has built a separate panel and an app for publishers where they can add book details and manage their collaboration with Rokomari. To tech-enabled publishers, Rokomari has developed software for publishers. Most publishers, however, are not tech-savvy and don’t have the resources to manage their online presence in platforms like Rokomari.
While Rokomari does not have a business relationship with authors, books are about authors. There is a humane aspect to books that is about the writer.
Rokomari has several programs for authors such as author interviews, allowing writers to publish updates, reviews, and thoughts on the blog, etc. Several social features to improve engagement with writers and allow readers and writers to interact on the Rokomari platform are in the making. If these features come to life, it will introduce a new social element to the Rokomari platform.
We have a misconception in the market that people do not read books. The reality, however, has changed. Today, more Bangladeshis read books and their reading list is quite diverse. According to Rokomari data, there has been a steep rise in interest in non-fiction books. Although certainly a result of the global influence, this is a new development for Bangladesh. The market for translated books has also grown meaningfully.
5. Rokomari’s tech stack
Rokomari is obsessed over how users interact with its tech platforms such as the web and apps and regularly makes small and big changes. Rokomari’s user-facing techs are never the same from one day to another. For example, Rokomari has markedly improved search on the web over the years.
“Search is something that our users use a lot”, says Mr. Ronnie. “Hence we have improved it a lot.”
The company is fine-tuning a feature where the website will change for every user based on their past behavior and preferences. The users who like non-fiction books will see a home page predominantly with non-fiction and so on.
In the past, keyword search would suggest books with that keyword in titles regardless of their availability and popularity. Now when a user searches for a keyword, he/she is shown books available in stock and popular in that category. These are highly complex features and require significant technological power. The company says helping users to find the books they are looking for is a priority.
“A customer needs to like the product before they buy it,” says Mr. Ronnie. Now, if he/she doesn’t have a specific thing in mind to buy when entering the website, what should we do? Our team found out that we need to present our books in such a way that every user/buyer can find the type of book they are looking for. The preference, however, varies from person to person. We are building the homepage so that it will adapt to the preferences of each user.”
The company works hard to ensure the smooth running of its tech assets. “Building a scalable solution is the key challenge for us at the moment,” says Mr. Ronnie. As the company grows, it is increasingly serving an ever-larger group of users. During events like Ekushey Boi Mela, users go up many times creating significant technical challenges for the Rokomari tech team.
“I won’t say that we’ve many distinct features”, says Mr. Ronnie. “If you visit amazon.com, you’ll see the ratings and review options. Once you select a product to buy, it gets added to the cart. These are the basics for any ecommerce website. On the inside, however, the whole system is much more complicated. And user experience depends on small things.”
To that end, Rokomari has been adding features that make the lives of users easier. For example, the company has added an option in the web and app where users can save their addresses so that they don’t need to enter an address every time they shop.
The tech philosophy of Rokomari. Rokomari has adopted an approach where it leans towards common sense and simplicity.
“Whenever we design a solution, we make sure it is simple, intuitive, and easy to use,” says Mr. Ronnie. “Our operations are governed by this philosophy. In communication, we are straightforward. When there are discounts on certain categories, we ensure that it is pronounced and clearly communicated. Our policy is to give a clear message to our users.”
Second, the company takes an experimental and growth hack approach to everything it does. Not spending a lot of time thinking and deliberating about decisions. Instead, implement a feature and then improve it based on the user feedback.
“When it comes to the implementation of new features, we don’t overthink,” explains Mr. Ronnie. “We test our ideas. If we get positive feedback, we make them permanent. If our users don’t like a feature, we start over.”
Rokomari has a 15-person tech team that looks after the tech across the organization. Tech sits at the center of the organization. As a result, the tech team needs to interact with the rest of the organization. “Communication, however, is asynchronous because constant communication is not essentially good for people who do deep work”, says Mr. Ronnie. The company tries to find a balance where the tech team is not bogged down with relentless intrusion from external communication. “We try to keep the surprises for the tech team to a minimum.”
Tech operates at an intersection. The tech team manages the regular operation of the company such as developing and managing the tech side of the platform. “It requires frequent changes, but it is not challenging,” says Mr. Ronnie. The team also works on complex operational challenges such as supply chain, order management, automation, logistics, and other intricate operational issues, etc. While many of these challenges have already been figured out by companies like Amazon, it remains context and market-specific. Rokomari has been building its own solution here in Dhaka.
Rokomari has a unique strategy and tech requirement for the supply chain. For example, the company has changed how it manages orders using a combination of automation and barcode systems. Every book that enters the Rokomari inventory gets a unique barcode, recorded across systems.
This has made the entire operation simpler and improved speed.
Now knowing whether some books are in stock or not is just a search away in the system. Before when an order came, the team used to print the invoice for the order sequentially and then go to the warehouse to find the books. That is no longer the case. Now orders come, the supply chain team presses print invoice, and invoice automatically gets printed for the available books.
Barcodes and QR codes are now the modus operandi to record things which have brought down many complex operations to simple scanning and putting things together.
Most of these solutions are the result of operational challenges and problems Rokomari faced over the years.
For example, the barcode system, now widely used across Rokomari, is a result of several challenges Rokomari faced in operation as the company grew.
In the early days, it was easier to find books manually because the company was dealing with a limited number of books. The complexity increased exponentially with the expansion of operation and the number of book titles. This created various challenges such as books would go missing despite the Purchase team’s confirmation that the book had been purchased or the team would not know whether a book is in stock or not. Deliveries would get delayed or canceled because the team could not check the availability of the book. Everything came to a breaking point during the 2018 Ekushey Boi Mela that eventually led to the introduction of the barcode system. The system eventually got implemented across the organization.
While Rokomari has both iOS and Android apps, website traffic dominates its sales until now. However, this is about to change as the company takes a more forceful approach to growth in the coming days.
Finding a balance between developing technical capabilities and features and developing customer-focused solutions has always been a challenge for Rokomari tech. The biggest challenge, tech-wise, for the company is building scalable solutions.
“I think technologically, the biggest challenge for us is scaling our solutions,” says Mr. Ronnie. “We have to make sure our system can serve millions of people.”
There were cases when Rokomari’s web and online platforms failed due to excess traffic and users. While technology is much stable today, tech is not a problem that could be solved once and for all.
“It is a never-ending loop”, says Mr. Ronnie. “Because when we optimize our service we cannot optimize it to an infinite scale. The level of our service has been optimized upto a certain point which will be crossed someday for sure. We have to run a little bit faster to keep pace with this.”
The Rokomari tech team is always working head down building features for improving customer experience. The company equally emphasizes building solutions for streamlining operations such as automating various operational processes, developing new tools to build better predictive systems so that problems could be identified ahead.
“Customer experience remains a priority”, says Mr. Ronnie. “For example, if a user places an order for a book and the book is not in stock, we must find this issue before we confirm the order. We are focusing on a monitoring mechanism to tackle these challenges. When we get too many orders we can assign extra people for arrangements, but we can not manage extra laptops and code scanners for that. So we are developing apps and systems for both supply chain and courier service teams so that it can be automated.”
6. Rokomai and digital platform question
Rokomari sells several hundred thousand titles — when it comes to books — and on top of that, the company has slowly been delving into several other verticals. Most of the items that Rokomari sells, it does not make. They are on Rokomari but not by Rokomari. There is a huge difference. Rokomari is a retailer in the true sense of the word. Albeit a different kind in that. On the internet, your shelf-space and leverage can be infinite.
Since Rokomari is a tech company too — where barcodes and QR codes rule the system — everything is 0 and 1 to the company. Its supply chain team does not collect books per se, they collect barcode numbers. The courier does not deliver books or CDs or other items, rather weight and products — that could be anything.
To that end, the Rokomari marketplace is more like a telecommunication service for its users and sellers. Neutrality is a must. Favoring one publisher or writer arbitrarily based on some value-judgment creates a lasting challenge for all the other writers and sellers and as well as readers.
Being a tech company, Rokomari also runs on an algorithm that dictates what users see, which books get to be on the bestseller list, and so on. The majority of these decisions are impersonal and amoral in nature. Like most other online retailers, be it Amazon or Chaldal or Pickaboo or online platforms such as Facebook and Google, most popular items get the top spot because, generally speaking, on the internet popularity is both virtue and value and businesses exist to maximize return.
Now, these decisions have implications for the broader society as does Facebook allowing the spreading of hate speech against minorities or youtube showing conspiracy theories. This has promoted a hot discussion around content moderation on digital platforms. But nobody in their right mind would support a decision on banning or artificially downgrading anyone on a social media or digital platform if the social media platforms are considered to be and claim themselves to be apolitical and a mere carrier.
This poses several questions for Rokomari and online platforms. What should an online bookstore do about content moderation? Should Rokomari really read every book it sells as long as it is legal to sell it? What books, exactly, do we want Rokomari to ban, or to downgrade? Who decides? There is no settled consensus.
If Rokomari is an open platform, I would opt for Rokomari not making a value judgment on a book. It should remain value-neutral. The decision should rest with the users.
Of course, an online platform or bookshop is under no obligation to provide everyone with a platform. You can go to other platforms if one does not provide you with a platform. On the internet, however, aggregation is possible, and a few platforms can become very powerful — look at Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.
To that end, what does it mean if a dominant platform bans your product or deliberately holds your products back by some artificial means such as moderation or algorithms and does not give you an equal opportunity like everyone else?
The sensible solution would be basing these decisions on value-neutral metrics such as popularity or profitability as most commerce platforms do.
Over the years, Rokomari has come under public scrutiny over decisions for dropping certain books while putting certain others on its bestseller list. The company, however, maintains that it neither promotes nor deliberately holds any product back by artificial means. That Rokomari sells books of publishers and authors of all types and does not have any relation or does not support or subscribe to/with the content of the books it sells or authors or publishers it works with and does not take responsibility for the contents of the books it sells.
The company says it does not sell books that are illegal, banned by the Government of Bangladesh, attack or hurt the sentiment of the Bangladesh Liberation War or the interest of the state of Bangladesh, hurt religious or group sentiment. In the past, the company has pulled books of several authors after receiving complaints against them.
Much discussed Rokomari bestseller ranking on Rokomari website, the company says, is based on commercial metrics such as popularity and sales. A sophisticated Rokomari algorithm makes these decisions, which often does not read the book it sells.
The model makes sense for a digital platform like Rokomari until it breaks. Because arbitrary value judgment frameworks such as quality of a book or genre of a book are often a bottled gene. Once out, it is hard to put it back. You want to apply value judgment to one category, it means you are opening it up for all other categories. And who defines the quality for everyone else?
7. Looking ahead
When Rokomari launched in 2012, the ecommerce landscape of Dhaka looked much different than it does now. Bangladesh’s digital commerce market has grown over the past few years. The market has become much more competitive. Alibaba-owned Daraz and a host of local players are pushing the market with a combination of aggressive marketing and discount efforts.
Rokmari has always taken an unconventional approach. Although the company has been pursuing growth through various strategies, it remains strategic in how it does so. Instead of freely investing in growth through discounts and cash backs, it has used content, loyalty programs like user points, gift vouchers, email marketing, and various growth hacking techniques.
While it has been able to achieve meaningful growth using low-cost yet effective growth hacking techniques, the company made little progress towards expanding beyond books. This, however, is about to change. Moreover, ecommerce at scale is an aggregation business. In order to be able to compete with other big players in the long run, Rokomari has to expand.
Expansion is never easy. Digital platforms starting from ecommerce to services, everyone followed a rather focused approach to expansion across markets. You first start with one product, build a strong position in that vertical, and then gradually move into other relevant verticals using the knowledge and expertise. This has been the case with Amazon and many other successful digital companies across the world.
However, this trend has played out differently in Bangladesh. Most digital platforms in Dhaka started with multiple verticals from day one. If you look around, this has been the case with most ecommerce companies in Dhaka. Started with multiple verticals. Few verticals do well and not doing-well verticals drag the company down.
Rokomari remains an exception. While it saw through some expansion experiments with mild successes, it has remained focused on books.
The company, however, is now eyeing expansion both vertically into new categories and horizontally into new segments of books such as academics.
Rokomari’s vertical expansion plan. In an interview with Future Startup last year, Rokomari co-founder Mahamudul Hasan Sohag told us that the company is exploring expansion beyond books. However, the company wanted to approach expansion differently.
As opposed to expanding into a vertical as a whole and independently, it is expanding alongside books as a related product. This is an interesting strategy to approach vertical expansion for Rokomari. While the risk remains, the cost of failure goes down and upsides are many.
“We are exploring new ideas for category expansion,” says Mahmudul Hasan Sohag. “We have tried to add new product lines along with books in the past. This time we are trying it differently. Instead of introducing new categories of products, we are exploring it in a way that makes it much more relevant by introducing relevant products with different books.”
The company says it has already started doing it with about 100-150 categories on a limited scale. The idea is to suggest some associated products that would be useful for the readers of the books that they purchase using machine learning and AI.
Horizontal expansion. Rokomari has also been working on plans to go deeper into books. The company has been able to establish itself as a go-to place for books in Bangladesh over the past years, but it has not been able to penetrate all categories equally. Currently, the company is targeting new categories such as academic books, jobs, and test preparation books. Compared to existing fiction and non-fiction segments where Rokomari dominates, these segments represent huge markets.
“While we have done well in some categories, we have not been able to penetrate some of the more interesting categories,” said Mr. Sohag. “We haven’t been able to penetrate the textbook category yet. For example, the test paper market is huge. This is a market of several hundred crores. We only penetrated some portion of it. If we compare it to other categories like fiction, the volume is incomparable. The academic book is a major segment that we have not explored yet. Then there are job-and-career-related books which is a huge market.”
Rokomari is not loud per se when it comes to doing things. For example, it silently launched a beta version of its ebook app Muthoboi a year ago. It launched a loyalty program and gift voucher product of late without much fanfare. The company wants to execute well rather than make noises.
Being a leader in books means Rokomari can expand deeper into the education space as well. The company tried expansion in the past with limited success and some failures. This time around the company does not want to repeat those old mistakes.