Chat Commerce Platform Zbooni Enables Businesses To Sell Products Over Mobile Apps
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According to Crowd Analyzer’s 2018 report, Instagram reigns as the most used social media platform by the e-commerce industry commanding 77% of the market, while Global Media Insight’s 2018 report noted that WhatsApp continues to top the UAE’s list as its most popular messaging application. It’s no wonder then that businesses in the region are seeking more ways to engage with customers on a personal and social level, giving way for the rise of chat commerce- a process of selling and buying goods or services over chatbased platforms.
Taking a bite out of this opportunity is chat commerce platform Zbooni, which enables entrepreneurs to manage their business transactions over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Instagram, making the process of completing a sale over chat as seamless as possible for both the buyer and the seller. “When we think of how a digital transaction can occur, we consider a point of sale (PoS) terminal that can read your card in a physical format, or an e-commerce transaction wherein a customer is interacting with a website,” says Ramy Assaf, co-founder and CEO of Zbooni.
“The new space we see is messaging-based interaction, where there is typically no way to capture a transaction. As mobile communications evolved, the idea of a consumer and business chatting on WhatsApp or on any other channel has become mainstream.” However, the tools to empower commerce over that channel, says Assaf, have not become as ubiquitous- and this is the problem his startup aims to solve.
Founded in 2016, Assaf, whose entrepreneurial and venture capital background stems from enterprises like Friendshippr, Laimoon, and Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP), started the company with Ashraf Atia, who is Zbooni’s Chief Commercial Officer and brings his experience from years of management and business development roles in NetApp, NetScout, and Accenture. The idea for Zbooni started when Assaf took a closer look at his wife’s online business of selling custom-made hats, which had developed almost solely on Instagram. “They were able to build up an audience interested in buying their products,” he recalls. “However, most of their customers were coming through WhatsApp and Instagram Direct Messages. As each order took a bit of customization, it seemed that the customers were more interested in that type of direct engagement, instead of being sent to a website."
"At the same time, setting up an e-commerce site with the ability for each customer to make their custom order, add payment functionality, and set up logistics, was a barrier for them as business operators.” He noticed how customers tended to be more comfortable in dealing through chat, with the direct engagement leading to orders. “This was the ‘aha’ moment– the idea that commerce and chat had converged onto the same channel. The problem was clear- these orders were not ‘connected’ to any kind of system to manage or streamline the commerce flow for a merchant.”
That initial idea has since evolved over two years into Zbooni’s current state. Today, businesses can download the Zbooni app to set up their account, add the products available for purchase with price and description, and then the link with customers through chat. Without needing to download the app, the customers can then view the item and price, or talk over adjustments, followed by the payment page, which is directed to their web browser. Both parties receive automated invoices, as soon as payment is processed. The app contains various features such as managing conversations, sharing products, keeping track of orders and customers, having access to shipping tools, as well as the provision to accept credit card payments.
Primarily targeting SMEs, Zbooni’s key offering, says Assaf, is that the platform has changed how businesses accept payment from their customers. “We’ve reduced the time and pain it takes, for a small business especially, to begin accepting credit cards from their customers.” It also caters to two types of merchants: the casual lifestyle user, such as people who have a social media following, and are looking for a way of selling items, without setting up their own website or e-commerce store, as well as those who have a primary business, who are looking for more convenient way of payment with self-service e-commerce. “The average conversion rate is 2%- Zbooni enables higher conversions, with 84% of shared baskets being converted,” Assaf states.
All of this is not to say Zbooni’s launch has been easy to begin with- Assaf recalls that one of the team’s biggest hurdles was in being a new player to the market. “We aren’t a cut-and-paste type of model, where we can see exactly what an American or European counterpart does to emulate. We are pioneering this space, and writing our own playbook. This is dangerous, and mistakes can be costly.” The startup tackled it by remaining focused on the needs of the merchants, and matching feedback with data to support decisions being made, as well as risky moves. “A few months spent on the wrong path was enough to wipe our business out. Fortunately, we have made it through our product-market fit phase, and we’re now looking at how best to scale.”
The team felt validated with Zbooni’s viability as they hit a few milestones, which included when one of their earlier merchants completed 500 successful orders through the app. The startup was also invited to be incubated for five months by Facebook at its headquarters in California, where the team participated in the accelerator program FB Start 2.0, and received US$50,000 as part of it, as well as other benefits like workshops and mentorship opportunities. After taking more than six months to build the first iteration of Zbooni, another 10 months were needed to build the second major iteration of the product- a process that has bode well for them in the long haul. “We learned exactly what featured mattered most to our merchants, and have actually spent a lot of effort on removing features that are not directly associated to that.”
As of writing, nearly 25,000 businesses have signed up for Zbooni across the MENA region, and the startup now has a team of 14 people, plus it also has a key partnership with MENA online payment gateway PayFort. The app is free to download and use, with its business model based on a transaction basis, wherein Zbooni takes a small fee on credit card-based transactions, making it easy for small businesses that are not able to sign up yet. With investors including B&Y Venture Partners, Chalhoub Group, and MEVP, Assaf states that he and his team have raised “around $3.2 million” for the enterprise so far. On their customers, the duo says they take a lot of pride in serving SMEs such as bakeries, gyms, salons, dance studios, and fashion designers- which, Assaf points out, makes Zbooni stand out from other competitors that focus on large clients.
Assaf recalls that for the startup’s first set of customers, the team took an organic approach of word-of-mouth and direct marketing to promote the platform. “We literally went on Instagram, started creating an index of potential customers, and started contacting them directly. It wasn’t the easiest to scale, but it helped us reach our first 1,000 customers.” Currently, the startup relies on traditional advertising channels and key partnerships built from strong relationships to grow their reach- one example is Fashion Forward in Dubai, an entity that represents more than 1,000 designers in the region, with whom a partnership has been made to extend Zbooni as an offering to its network. They are also working with government entities that are interested in supporting small businesses in the UAE.
When asked on the Zbooni team’s work process, Assaf explains they focus first on what’s best for the merchants and what helps drive their bottom line, and second, on one or two issues at a time to create short-term measurable goals and working in sprints. On the MENA’s ecosystem, Assaf says that though there have been improvements, there are still prevalent issues in setting up a small business, and finding investors willing to take risks. These are problems that the Zbooni team is keen on helping alleviate, as Assaf comments on the startup’s role as an ecosystem enabler, which can be from lending, to re-marketing, or even helping them scale by connecting merchants together. “We see ourselves becoming far more entrenched in empowering SMEs to grow,” he declares. “Our mission is to enable other businesses to grow and capture more customers and sales.”