With an experience of more than 28 years in investment & commercial banking and global securities operations, Irfan Fazli is an Enterprise Risk Management expert who has led several full cycle implementations while working with leading global banks and financial institutions such as Deloitte and Royal Bank of Canada.
Being someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, Irfan decided to take the plunge and start his own venture to provide governance, risk & compliance, and Anti Money Laundering solutions with the mix of technology. That is when Benchmatrix was born, a 110 people strong firm with its operations spread across 4 regions and 16 countries.
Recently, we got the chance to speak to him in person, and this is what he had to say.
Give us a brief background about your journey as an entrepreneur and the professional experiences you have had. How did OctoberNow start and what is it all about?
Passionate to give back to my homeland, I had the vision to digitize Pakistan and create employment opportunities. I saw a major gap in the e-commerce industry in Pakistan in the field of online grocery shopping. As someone who has worked with multiple companies and numerous customers from across the world, I have always wanted to provide convenience to people of my country and that is when I came up with the idea of forming an online marketplace for grocery where a common Pakistani is given the ease to shop with the comfort of a click. That is how OctoberNow has conceived three years ago.
The company currently offers people the option to shop groceries & food online and has recently expanded into the pharmacy vertical. OctoberNow app lists down nearby grocery stores with an in-app price comparison feature enabling our customers to buy their products of preference at prices they are willing to pay.
Built on cutting edge technology, we allow our users to search for specific restaurants and cuisines along with grocery and home essentials from the vendor of their choice. With the recent addition of the OctoberNow in-app e-wallet feature, our customers have multiple payment options to choose from. Soon we will enable our users to shop from the convenience of desktops/laptops as well.
Growing at a rate of 30% every month, OctoberNow currently has 363,000+ downloads with an active customer base of more than 70,000. Right now our users have an average basket size of Rs. 2000 to 3000 at the rate of 600 orders per day on average.
We started off as a company of 40 people and now we’re a family of 250 plus people with a rider force of 90 plus spread across Karachi and Lahore. Currently operational in Pakistan and Canada, we aim at expanding to the UAE and KSA in the coming year.
What are some challenges you first faced when starting OctoberNow? Was there any market-specific challenges related to the Pakistani market?
Altering buying behaviours and adapting to new ways of purchasing had always faced resistance first. Similar was the case in Pakistan. When we started off, the Pakistani market was very nascent. There were hardly any players in the field and the concept of not stepping out of your home to buy groceries was still very new to the masses. They would prefer shopping by physically going to grocery stores so they are sure of the quality of the products that they buy. I believe the first and the foremost challenge was to create awareness around the idea of shopping from home and gaining their trust in terms of quality of products and transparency of services provided.
Expanding our operations across the two metropolitan cities with a small team of  people was another big challenge but I would say that the challenge brought out the best of our people – the biggest strength of any company. So it was not really a challenge; it was an opportunity to strengthen our execution.
What makes the MENA market the best next market for OctoberNow to enter? What trends and market gaps do you see in the MENA Ecommerce markets?
Consumers in the MENA region are among the most connected and digitally savvy in the world. Within the MENA region, UAE and KSA have some of the highest levels of the internet, smartphone and social media penetrations globally while Egypt has one of the highest levels of time spent online.
Why is the MENA market the next best place for OctoberNow? Well, the MENA region has the most promising online grocery market in the world. During the pandemic, the e-grocery market has benefited substantially and to date remains the fastest-growing segment of e-commerce. Specifically talking about the Middle East & KSA, the online grocery market is growing twice as fast as the region’s overall e-commerce market.
According to RedSeer, the e-grocery market increased by 300% in the third quarter of 2020 and is now worth $1.1 Billion in the UAE alone. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s market grew by 500% to $530 Million.
What are some major differences between the market and customers in Pakistan and MENA region?
The first major difference between the two markets is the expanding middle class and lagging offline shopping infrastructure in Pakistan. While the expanding middle class in Pakistan is an open opportunity for the tech startups to tap into at the same time the growing consumers’ inclination towards tech-savvy platforms in the MENA region makes it a high return opportunity for tech companies to enter.
Secondly, where the MENA region has shown a significant rise in the e-commerce vertical, Pakistan has shown remarkable growth in the past 18 to 24 months. 2020 has been an incredible year for the Pakistani startup ecosystem having moved up the ladder to 75th position worldwide and 2nd in the South Asian region, as revealed by the recent Global Startups Ecosystem Index 2021.
Pakistan is the 6th most populous country which makes it one of the largest e-commerce markets for groceries in the world. The country’s e-commerce market size posted a growth of over 35% in the first quarter of the fiscal year 2021 to PKR 96 Billion compared to PKR 71 Billion over the corresponding period of last year. Pakistan is also the 46th largest market for e-commerce with a revenue of US $ 4 Billion in 2020, placing it ahead of Peru and behind Greece. With an increase of 84%, the Pakistani e-commerce market contributed to the worldwide growth rate of 26% in 2020 with revenues for e-commerce continuing to increase.
Over the course of the past 18 months, Pakistan’s technology ecosystem has come to life in an unprecedented fashion. E-commerce is one of the fastest-growing industries in Pakistan. As a country of 222 million people with 64% of its population falling below the age of 30 who have grown up in the age of computers, the internet and smartphones, Pakistan’s e-commerce ecosystem carries an immense potential of growth and makes its startup’s high-potential contenders for investment.
How much is OctoberNow raising currently and what are the main goals to be reached using the funds?
We are looking to raise USD 1.3 million. These funds will be used to establish our brand in KSA.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs in general and entrepreneurs in Pakistan specifically?
Entrepreneurship is a mindset. If you are an entrepreneur, you will face many failures before you succeed but if you have focus, resilience, passion and the empathy to solve a problem, there is nothing that can stop you. For entrepreneurs based out of Pakistan, I would advise that this is the right time to start your own venture. Change the lens with which you look at problems around you; they are not problems, they are opportunities waiting to be explored.
Thank you for joining us!
FI Sense 2021