ZEENAT CHAUDHARY: How does Extreme Commerce (EC) work?
SUNNY ALI: EC was launched in 2017 with the goal of empowering Pakistanis, especially young people, by helping them to become financially independent and injecting over one billion dollars into Pakistan’s economy. EC is an e-learning platform that teaches Pakistanis how to conduct online trading on Amazon and eventually turn into verified and reliable online sellers on the world’s largest online retail platform. Because Amazon is not present in Pakistan, we teach individuals how to legally open a virtual shop and expertly sell products on Amazon. A huge part of this is due to Amazon’s Fulfilment By Amazon (FBA) service which stores, ships, picks and packs items for online sellers. This way, online sellers (or FBA traders) from Pakistan and other countries do not have to go through the hassle of managing their stock.
ZC: After training, how do individuals go on to become online sellers?
SA: We have created an ecosystem on the platform which consists of both students and investors (mostly overseas Pakistanis). Once the training is completed, students have the opportunity to partner with an investor and open shop on Amazon. And investors are needed because the average cost to start an FBA business is $2,500 and young people do not have that kind of capital. EC students are 18 years old and above; however, if someone over 35 approaches me, I ask them to become investors in an EC student’s business rather than an online seller – it is harder to learn new things, especially becoming an online seller on Amazon, after a certain age. The solution for them is to partner with a younger individual who will learn the tricks of the trade while they invest the capital. Surprisingly, we have more investors than students in our network!
ZC: Do these online sellers sell specific products or services?
SA: No, we simply focus on demand and supply. We look at the numbers, do the research and then decide what to sell. Products which have a high demand and low supply are the right products to sell and we source these products from China (from maternity belts to household items and more), because Pakistan doesn’t produce these products on a large scale.
ZC: What barriers has EC faced so far?
SA: Online sellers find it difficult to deal with losing money when they first start the FBA business. They will invest up to $20,000-25,000, and once their product is ready to be sold, it goes through a ranking process in which you ‘bleed’ money – you give away products for free to gain customers. This causes losses but is important in order to build an Amazon account and reputation. The rule of thumb is that you should not expect any major profitability in the first year. Another major bottleneck is having the products approved by Amazon, which is a lengthy process.
ZC: Are students shortlisted, and of the number of students who join the platform, how many actually become online sellers?
SA: We shortlist those applicants who have the attributes a potential seller must have. It is not easy to become an online seller because it is a complex business and requires multiple skills, along with a lot of patience. Keeping the above in mind, our acceptance rate is 24%. Also, people who qualify for the training and earn less than Rs 50,000 per month are taught free of cost. Currently, 90% of our students are trained for free. If a student is not shortlisted but still wants to learn, we offer free online videos and a Facebook discussion group which they can access. These individuals, as well as those who enter the official training programme but find it difficult to continue, can use these learning tools to become freelancers (for Amazon-related services such as helping someone launch or look for a new product to sell on Amazon) on online marketplaces such as Upwork and Fiverr. Of the number of students who join us, 60% of them go on to become online sellers and those who fail to do so are encouraged to switch to freelancing.
ZC: What milestones has EC achieved so far?
SA: Pakistanis are excelling at full speed these days. If you visit Upwork or Fiverr and look for freelancers under Amazon related services, you will be amazed to find that it is mostly Pakistani freelancers providing those services. This is the result of our hard work in the last three years that Pakistan is the only country right now which can provide these services.
ZC: What are EC’s goals going forward?
SA: We have created financial activity worth $350 million in the last three years and our goal is to inject over one billion dollars into the economy via FBA traders and freelancers. Once Amazon is fully enabled in Pakistan, we will see a sudden currency influx.
ZC: What is preventing Amazon from coming to Pakistan?
SA: Until 2012 Amazon was open to Pakistan but Pakistani sellers were not able to meet Amazon’s customer service standards, and as a result, so many Pakistani accounts were suspended that in the end Amazon decided to suspend the entire country. To become a successful seller, one needs to provide excellent customer service and through EC, we are training people to work on the basis that if a buyer is not happy say: “No problem, here is your refund,” rather than “No. It’s not my fault.”
ZC: Will Amazon come to Pakistan in the near future?
SA: I am working closely with the government over policy changes related to international e-commerce, and I am working on trying to set up meetings with major e-commerce players abroad.
ZC: What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?
SA: The younger generation spends too much time on hardcore academics and too little on skill development. They should start working while pursuing their degree instead of waiting to graduate. Younger people are also very impatient – you cannot become a millionaire overnight; set realistic goals and have patience.
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