It was mid-March.
Rahim was passing days in excitement at the thought of getting his hands on a brand new Bose headphone. He had just ordered the product on AirBringr and a traveler was supposed to bring that to him from the US in a few days.
Quite suddenly, he encountered a news saying that all flights between Bangladesh and the US had been cancelled because of the Covid-19 spread. The pandemic played spoilsport and he had to wait three long months until he was finally able to get his hands on the headphone.
The situation was indeed depressing for Rahim, but what about the company – AirBringr – that depends on air flights as travelers fetch the products from the US to Bangladesh?
As March 2020 came, the US was reeling from increasing coronavirus cases and the death toll was rising rapidly. In the face of unknown, the US started to impose travel restrictions. Lockdown was imposed all over its states. Air flights from highly infected countries were also suspended to prevent the spread of the virus.
AirBringr – a peer-to-peer marketplace which began its journey in 2018 – also had to brace difficult choices in this period. At one point, the company even pondered to close its operations entirely.
As AirBringr's functions are based on cross-border shipping where international travelers make use of their unused luggage space to deliver local customers their desired products, Covid-19 brought them to an uncertain future.
The entire business operations depend on traveling. You might find this demonstration useful. Ejab is a Bangladeshi university student who wanted to buy a Kindle e-reader from Amazon last year. But Amazon was not available (still not) in Bangladesh.
He browsed in some big tech stores in Dhaka, and found out that the price of the product is much higher than the original price given in the Amazon website. After a little bit of research, he found out about a website called AirBringr.
AirBringr connected him to a traveler who would be coming to Bangladesh very soon. He paid for his product via PayPal. The traveler landing in Bangladesh 12 days later notified him to pick it up from a designated spot. It is delightfully simple.
For customers, the incentive for using the company is the lower price. "But what is in it for the travelers?" You may ask. Well, the travelers are getting the chance of having instant cash every trip. They could make up to 300 US dollars every trip. So, it is a win-win situation for all the involved parties.
For a small but promising startup venture like AirBringr, 2020 came with a blow.
"We were optimistic that 2020 would be our best business year," said Ashik Noon, founder and CEO of AirBringr. "We grew promisingly in 2019 and had a great Black Friday sell-off. And then the pandemic struck."
"At first we thought that we have to halt the business altogether. At a time when traveling is restricted, the whole business model seemed out of the place."
CEOs all over the world countered overwhelming and unprecedented challenges as this is uncharted territory. Many big and medium businesses laid off employees and even had closed operations altogether.
"My company took a different path in dealing with the crisis. We did not let go of any employees," said Ashik proudly. "But this also entailed that we do business differently. Adapting to the crisis was the biggest challenge AirBringr faced yet in its two and a half years' life-cycle."
"Due to the travel ban, the honest communication with the customers explaining our inability helped to a great extent," he continued.
From mid-March traveling stopped due to American ban. As a result, customers who had placed orders earlier did not get their products. Usually it took less than two weeks to ship the product to the customer.
"We promised our customers that we would deliver those as soon as the air flight opens," said Ashik. "We are also fortunate that from the customers' end we got cooperation. I think this is the main reason that our company sustained through the struggling period."
During April, the company came to a realisation that the current situation may persist for a long time, and since their USA operations were almost non-existent, they had to do something drastic for their business to survive and they had to do this locally.
"We put our heads together and started brainstorming on ideas that we could immediately enforce to survive; with a dynamic team like ours, we were always confident of executing something new," said Ashik.
They realised that since people's movement were restricted due to a nationwide shutdown, the most significant difficulty they were facing was getting necessities delivered to them, such as grocery, medicine, etc. Thus, the decision to move to a new venture dubbed "FreshBringr" came about.
It is true that a number of e-commerce sites already exist. But according to Ashik, they had a loyal shopper base and by using this base they were able to turn around the most difficult phase.
"Surely, the idea of FreshBringr is not unique in the Bangladeshi market. But, as both the AirBringr and FreshBringr are largely similar in functioning, this was our only hope."
This project is still in the alpha stage. A full-fledged FreshBringr will come soon, but it allowed them to sustain their business during the US travel suspension without laying off any employees.
As soon as the flights resumed, they returned to their original function. As of right now, they are able to ship the product in around 45 days, whereas before the pandemic it took less than two weeks. They are also exploring the option to shipping products from Bangladesh to the US.
But what if Amazon or Ebay join the ranks in Bangladeshi e-commerce?
According to Ashik, AirBringr can still sustain with their business model.
He explained, "For example, if you want to buy a Laptop at a Black Friday discounted price, you have to buy it from the Amazon US market, because Amazon BD market will only sell products at a local price tag. So, there will still be a significant price difference. Buying the product from US would still be cheaper than in the local market.