Fashion's Darling Enabler

by Li Haohan
Photography by Chino Sardea
03 Oct 2017

Zilingo was set up in 2015 with a few hundred merchants and a small band of dreamers. In just over two years, it represents over 5,000 mostly small merchants across Asia, including Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea

When I asked where she places herself on the fashion scale, Ms. Ankiti Bose, CEO and co-founder of Zilingo, gave herself a modest six, which I thought was surprising, if disarming, given that her e-commerce platform sells fashion, and that she was wearing a chic ensemble for our shoot: A pair of knee-high boots, a brown mini-skirt, and a dark blue top with a scoop neckline – all from Zilingo client brands, of course.

But I remembered that Ms. Bose has spent three years in venture capital and management consulting firms Sequoia Capital, and McKinsey & Company before founding

Zilingo with Dhruv Kapoor, who is now the company’s CTO. At Sequoia, according to an official communiqué from her office, Ms. Bose specialized in consumer Internet and e-commerce opportunities on mobile platforms. At McKinsey & Company, she worked on strategy and operations across various industries.

It’s no surprise that she heads Zilingo where her significant experience and knowledge network on the mobile ecommerce space find use in operational and strategic decisions.

“Zilingo stands for the getting zillions of people onto Zilingo as both sellers and buyers, and also it has a nice ring to it,” Ms. Bose beams as she explains how she came up with the name for her business venture.

She was traveling with a group of friends in Bangkok a few years ago when she ventured into the large local markets. “There was such a large variety of products crafted by so many different designers. Despite being situated in these markets, it was unfortunate to see that the sellers had little to no access to digital platforms apart from Facebook. We were inspired to create a platform for these small sellers to showcase their products to customers from all over the region, and Zilingo was born.”

Ms. Bose recalls that back when they started there were no other companies focusing on this underserved market in Southeast Asia either from the consumers’ or the sellers’ side. They took inspiration from e-commerce pioneers Amazon, Etsy and Alibaba, and have been fortunate to meet and learn from leaders at big e-commerce companies in India. “Southeast Asia is a beast of its own though, and has to be taken on in a unique way. So I would say, we’ve still had to blaze the trail ourselves for the most part,” she explains.


Over the Hurdles

Zilingo started out with four people from four different corners of India, in a small Airbnb, in a country whose language they didn’t speak, to set up a business from scratch. “So the challenges started right there on day one! We have a team represented by eight nationalities, spanning six offices today, and to maintain speed and efficiency while navigating a myriad of cultural differences is definitely not easy. When building the networks and ecosystem required to run an e-commerce business smoothly, whether it’s payments or logistics or cataloguing, this is still a developing region for e-commerce and so it comes with its own set of hurdles.”

Together with Mr. Kapoor and three other friends, the team made it their goal to spend time with the small sellers, learn their stories, and eventually create a product suitable for them. “After pooling together all our savings, we managed to gather a sum of USD$10,000 to start the company. We started by hiring engineers from Bangalore to build Zilingo, and acquiring sellers from Thailand to build our database.”

Holding the belief that small sellers should be given the same opportunity as big brands to go online, they aimed to provide these small-time sellers with the necessary tools to do just that, and help them with their journey from offline to online.

At least 60 per cent of lifestyle and fashion retail come from these small-time stores outside of Singapore. However, more often than not, these small sellers can only speak in their native languages and can only make transactions in their local currency. They recognized this as a problem that had no solution except by building a bridge that would join the gap between these sellers and their target consumers. At the same time, they took away the localization problems, which also included sizing. For example, sizes in Thailand run smaller than the average sizes in other countries.

A simple technological solution could solve this problem. “We needed a platform that aggregates the products from these small time sellers without any standardization, and at the same time allow users an access to these small-time sellers,” Ms. Bose elaborates. “Although there are platforms that are similar, small-time sellers were still left behind and that is where we come in.”

Merchants on Zilingo carry a wide range of products, with some offering products of mainstream or even high-end brands. To ensure quality control and to prevent the listing of imitation products on Zilingo, the team has devised a screening process that all merchants have to go through. Before selling on Zilingo, merchants have to submit a sample of each product that they are going to list for inspection by a member of the Zilingo team.


A Business Proposition

”We started Zilingo in 2015 with only a few hundred merchants, and a small band of dreamers,” Ms. Bose says. In just over two years, the number of merchants on the platform has grown to over 5,000 from various countries across Asia, and today includes Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea.

“We closed a US$8 million Series A round in 2016, led by Sequoia, Indonesia’s Venturra Capital, and Hong Kong-based Susquehanna International Group (SIG). Prior to the Series A funding, we raised a seed funding worth US$1.88 million,” Ms. Bose enumerates.

“We’ve also just closed a US$17 million Series B round in September this year, with lead investors from Sequoia Capital India and Burda Principal Investments.”

Ms. Bose thinks that it is still to early for Zilingo to consider an IPO. “I think it is fair to say that for now we are focused on growing and building a great fashion e-commerce company with very healthy unit economics, and building a lot of value for our users, merchants, employees and investors.”

The company currently monetizes its operation by charging 15 per cent to 30 per cent commission from their sellers, but they are also on the lookout for new ways to earn money as they scale the business.

Small vendors of fashion and lifestyle come with a unique set of challenges when scaling their online business, Ms. Bose points out. As a service that caters to this group of businesses, it’s Zilingo’s core competency to build an ecosystem that supports and accelerates the way small enterprises sell online. “We help sellers with a multitude of subsidized third-party services – everything from next-day delivery, to warehousing and packaging services, cataloguing, video production, photoshoots to even business consulting and skill-based training.”

Most small sellers face capacity issues because they are unable to get working capital fast enough to meet higher demand. On one hand, Zilingo is generating more and more demand for sellers through aggressive seller-focused advertising across SEA and abroad; on the other hand, they provide sellers access to low-cost capital that can help them ramp up production swiftly without breaking the bank.


Making A Difference

One of Zilingo’s Indonesian sellers, SkyRose, has been passionate about women's apparel and design and had even contracted with some manufacturers. But they were unsure about making their modern and contemporary designs reach the young and trendy audience in Indonesia. Behind the label is a young, ambitious entrepreneur who is struggling with launching her business despite having great products. SkyRose started selling with Zilingo in February this year and has seen three times month-on-month growth in sales, according to Ms. Bose. “The owner, Elysabeth, actually told us how happy she was that she could reach such a wide range of customers in Southeast Asia, and greatly raise awareness of her brand through our platform. It’s the success and happiness of such small business owners on our platform that also help to drive us forward every day.”

At Zilingo, the success of the brands on their platform is measured through back-end systems that track a seller’s sales figures. “We share weekly reports with them, highlighting products that sell better than others, and then sharing what they could do to improve their sales numbers. We have sellers on Zilingo that have grown 100 times in terms of scale and revenue, and we have young labels who are selling online for the first time through us. It’s a very diverse group of businesses that work with us and so the results are also equally diverse.”

Moving forward, Zilingo wants to be the household name, and the go-to place for customers when they think about a fashion and lifestyle marketplace.

“On top of that, we want to focus more on cross-border purchases,” Ms. Bose says. “It allows us to put these smaller sellers on an international platform and allow our customers more accessibility to even more indie brands.

“It’s a continuous process of fortifying our supply base across the region and expanding our reach to more markets over time.”