Putting a digital spin to logistics experience

Putting a digital spin to logistics experience

He was only 13 years old at the time but budding entrepreneur Vaibhav Dabhade was already turning a tidy profit hawking kites for hours on end in the middle of a large playground in a village in India.

Mr Dabhade, now 38, spent four years selling his kites, which he made at home on the weekends and after school.

"I had more money than most of my friends, and even my brother. I was independent; I could buy things with my own money," he says.

Mr Dabhade went on to become an electronics engineer and came to Singapore in 2003, and worked as a software engineer for Welcome Real-Time, a global loyalty solutions provider for financial institutions.

With encouragement from his wife Vaishali, he quit that job and started e-commerce logistics firm Anchanto in 2011.

The Singapore-based firm recently raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Japanese firm Transcosmos, a global e-commerce services provider.

Anchanto enables e-commerce clients to scale their business by offering services such as warehousing, order processing and delivery.

It manages a 56,000 sq ft warehouse in Pasir Panjang and with partners in Malaysia, Indonesia and India, has access to about 500,000 sq ft of warehousing space in total.

Anchanto helps over 380 online sellers deliver goods to customers in Singapore, Malaysia and India. It also helps e-commerce stores in Europe and the United States manage cross-border deliveries.

Around 40 global brands list their products on marketplaces such as Q0010, Lazada and Zalora, using Anchanto's channel management technology and services.

"When I started Anchanto, the objective was to create something magical, an enchanting experience. That's why I coined this name," says Mr Dabhade.

However, the business did not take off immediately, and then, the money ran out.

"We had to survive, so the team was divided into two groups - one to earn money, the other to burn money, so to speak."

The "money earners" started offering software development services to other companies to "keep the lights on", while the other team focused on developing new technologies, and came up with an order management system for e-commerce operations.

Anchanto also secured business from some "early-adopters", such as My Life Inc, The Wine Connection, Robinsons and Groupon, which enabled the firm to grow.

To cope with manpower shortages in the early days of the business, Mr Dabhade, who lives in the Bukit Merah area, also offered jobs to "uncles sipping tea and reading newspapers" at coffee shops, to pack goods.

Today, the firm counts among its clients several well-known names, including L'Oreal, Asos, 3M, Maybelline, New Look and The French Cellar.

Growing up in the village of Parola in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Mr Dabhade always knew he wanted to start a business, and logistics and entrepreneurship run in his blood.

His grandfather started a logistics business for trucks in 1942 in India, which was then handed down to his father and, later, to his eldest brother, who is still running the business, near central Mumbai.

But Mr Dabhade preferred to strike out on his own by putting a digital spin to "two generations of logistics experience".

And one important lesson he learnt from his father is to "give everything" to the venture. "You do not have Plan B as a safety net because once you have a safety net, then your exit during difficult times is a no-brainer. You would say: 'That's enough, I am going out.'"

At one point, Mr Dabhade, a father of two boys aged eight and 12, said he sold his house and wiped out his savings when the business went through a rough patch.

With the support of his early clients and by tapping on the patience honed during his kite-selling days, Mr Dabhade began building up the firm again after he saw that there was a "market for a shared logistics service for e-commerce companies running on very slick technology".

What made Anchanto stand out, he says, was its push for innovation and the decision to build its own technology and software, and customise that to client's needs.

For example, Mr Dabhade says the firm has a patent approval pending for a new product that "changes the way we do delivery". He declined to elaborate further, but would only say that the approval could come at the end of March.

In the 18 months up to November last year, Anchanto processed over 1.27 million inventory units, amounting to more than $27 million in gross merchandise value.

Singapore accounts for about 90 per cent of revenue but Mr Dabhade says he plans to have revenue evenly distributed across the four markets - India, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia - by early next year. The firm employs about 70 people in total in the four countries.

He also hopes to list Anchanto on the Singapore Exchange in the next three years.

Mr Dabhade is optimistic about the future of e-commerce, saying it has scope for growth, since the online retail market is very small, or about 1.5 per cent, compared with the bricks and mortar sector.

"The critical point will come when this crosses 10 per cent to 15 per cent, and the surrounding services around e-commerce, the innovation around it, will definitely come in," he says. As online shopping grows, the offline retail model could also further evolve.

However, e-commerce, often cited as the bogeyman for retail stores, will not render malls irrelevant. "That interaction with customers will continue but the model will change. Stores will become more like showrooms, or touch points, which are not sales oriented," says Mr Dabhade.

When the stress from driving an enterprise business mounts, Mr Dabhade turns to acrylic and watercolour painting, something he picked up in school.

Apart from painting, Mr Dabhade says he enjoys taking walks in the Central Business District in the wee hours of the morning, drawing inspiration from Singapore's transformation from Third World to First.

"It's like a big start-up, built from scratch. It converted every disadvantage to a sustainable advantage."


This article was first published on Jan 18, 2016.
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