How a trip to a Thai market inspired the launch of an almost $1bn start-up

Zilingo, an e-commerce website that connects local traders to a global audience, has reached near unicorn status in just four years

Ankiti Bose, co-founder and CEO of Zilingo, poses for a photograph in Singapore, on Monday, Feb 11, 2019. Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg
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At only 28, Ankiti Bose is running a fashion e-commerce venture with a valuation just shy of $1 billion (Dh3.67bn).

The co-founder of Zilingo, a platform based in Singapore, through which small fashion retailers and textiles traders can sell their products, Ms Bose says the idea for the company came to her during a trip to Thailand.

She was at the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, the world’s largest weekend bazaar, jam-packed with thousands of stalls and vendors selling their wares – ranging from clothes to consumer electronics to pets.

The main reason holding this industry back and [why] the wrong people were making all the money, was because there was no technology and no digitisation.

Ms Bose, then 23, and a self-confessed fashion fan, was impressed by the clothes on offer and realised there could be a huge demand if they were sold online. Most of these merchants, however, did not have the means or skills to secure a web presence themselves.

"The main reason holding this industry back and [why] the wrong people were making all the money, was because there was no technology and no digitalisation," says Ms Bose, the chief executive of Zilingo, speaking at the Singapore FinTech Festival last month.

She wanted to level the playing field to make sure it was not only big brands with deep pockets that have the opportunity to grow their businesses.

"So we built a business across three pillars – Sass [syntactically awesome style sheets], FinTech and data – that connects everybody from the farmer to the mills to the manufacturers to the brands, that builds transparency across the whole supply chain, and then we provide financial services and other services on top of it," Ms Bose, from India, says.

Today, Zilingo is valued at $970 million by Bloomberg sources, putting it almost in unicorn territory, where a privately held start-up has a value of more than $1bn. The company raised $308 million in January from investors such as Temasek, Sequoia Capital and Singapore investment fund EDBI, including $226m to fund its expansion into Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines.

When the inspiration for the company first came to Ms Bose, she was working as an investment analyst at the global venture capital company Sequoia Capital in India's tech hub, Bengaluru. Before that, the maths and economics graduate worked as a management consultant with McKinsey. She had been tracking the explosion of e-commerce companies such as Amazon and India's home-grown rival, Flipkart, and recognised the value of the clothing market. Globally, the apparel market is worth about $1.34 trillion, according to Euromonitor International. For Ms Bose, it was too big an opportunity to miss.

A few weeks after her trip to Thailand, Ms Bose met Zilingo’s co-founder, software engineer Dhruv Kapoor, 24.

The pair instantly clicked, realising they were on the same page when it came to business ambitions. They gave up their jobs and invested their savings to bring the idea to life.

Getting the start-up off the ground involved Ms Bose travelling across South-East Asia to meet vendors and convince them to join her online platform – something she continues to do today. While Ms Bose secured clients in Thailand and Cambodia, Mr Kapoor, the company's chief technology officer, worked on building the platform. The graft certainly paid off.

Fast forward almost five years and Zilingo has more than 75,000 merchants and 6,000 factories in its network.

The start-up is multinational and has offices in eight countries with 800 direct employees.

The name of the company is a reference to “the zillions” of merchants that Ms Bose wants to connect.

“She realised that while small and medium-sized enterprises had a lot to offer and were hungry for growth, these businesses were ill-equipped to scale or compete with large global players without the right tools and software,” a spokeswoman for Zilingo says. “As a result, she set out to level the playing field.”

Listing products on the website is free of cost to merchants. Zilingo generates revenue by charging a commission on orders of between 10 per cent and 30 per cent.

Shailendra Singh, the managing director of Sequoia Capital India, said he admired Ms Bose’s “sense of ambition, first principles thinking, and ability to dream about disrupting a market”. He was speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit in New Delhi in October.

“Just the sheer size and scale of companies in India and South-East Asia and the quality of founders, their ambition, their ability to execute at a global scale is just remarkable,” said Mr Singh.

He said he has noticed a transformation in India when it comes to entrepreneurship. "In our 14-year journey in India, it's only in the last four or five years that companies like this have really started to come into their own. I think we had a good ecosystem before that, but after 2013 we've seen a very dramatic shift in the pace of company creation and the size and scale of start-ups."

Ms Bose “did not follow a known model” but created a “new model” and “disrupted” an existing industry through the use of technology, he said.

This is an example of how technology is being used to transform very traditional industries and serve consumers better, Mr Singh added.

The e-commerce economy of South-East Asia is expected to exceed $100bn this year and triple by 2025, according to an October report by Google, Temasek Holdings and Bain & Co.

But Zilingo is now expanding outside the Asia region to tap more markets.

In October, the platform announced an investment of $100 million into its operations in the US “to digitally transform the fashion supply chain” after opening offices in New York and Los Angeles this summer.

Ms Bose frequently talks about the major ethical challenges that plague the fashion industry, including the exploitation of workers in developing countries, child labour and poor working conditions.

She hopes that technology can play a role in solving some of these problems, by cutting out middlemen and offering traders a platform through which they can reach consumers.

"The fashion industry is exploitative, wasteful and, frankly, completely broken," Ms Bose said in October. "We're a technology
company at heart, and firmly believe in the power of technology to improve business and the world. We're bringing technology to a supply chain that hasn't changed since the industrial revolution.

“Zilingo levels the playing field in fashion so that businesses – no matter how big or small – can have access to a fair, transparent, affordable and fast supply chain.”

While Ms Bose has made it to the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list and the Fortune 40 Under 40 list of entrepreneurs, she says her journey has not been easy and it can be tough for women in India to break through as an entrepreneur or even have the confidence to start their own business.

“Ms Bose firmly believes that these achievements are an important milestone for female entrepreneurs and reiterates that women can dream big,” Zilingo says.

“Having faced the challenges that come with being a woman entrepreneur in a highly competitive, male-dominated space, Ankiti champions gender equality and diversity in the workplace.”

While Ms Bose is an inspiration to other budding entrepreneurs looking to build the next unicorn, she says her journey is far from over.

“There’s a long way to go,” she said at the recent WEF summit in New Delhi.