Bukalapak:Enabling Business, SMEs, and Communities to Thrive

Bukalapak:Enabling Business, SMEs, and Communities to Thrive

As Bukalapak takes off in Indonesia, we talk to the company’s VP of growth and data, Bima Tjahja about company culture and the magic of data...

Bima Tjahja is a numbers man. As a Vice President of Growth and Data for Bukalapak - an Indonesian E-commerce and business services company that was founded in 2010, his work with the swiftly expanding startup is a mixture of mathematics and behavioral science.

Bukalapak is an online marketplace that enables small and medium enterprises to utilize essential online services and has expanded to support smaller traditional family-owned businesses throughout Indonesia. Positioning itself as a facilitator of services between supplier and customer, Bukalapak has achieved extraordinary success by actually helping small businesses thrive, rather than bulldozering through them, large corporation style.

Tjahja, who has led the marketing efforts of the company and helped compile its strategy, is understandably proud of Bukalapak’s success. But his background, which started off in software engineering, seems a far stretch from his current role. 

During his 12-year-stint in Australia, the self-confessed data whizz moved into the banking sector and became a data scientist, where he honed his skills on the cutting-edge of cybersecurity. examining fraud detection, money laundering, and criminal behaviors. 

Now, as the leader of a team that examines the business relationship between data and marketing, he says his time spent in cybercrime has been incredibly valuable. 

“When I worked at Commonwealth Bank in Australia, I led a data science team that specializes in fraud detection, which is very far from my current role. How does a guy that used to manage data science teams to detect credit card fraud, money laundering end up working in marketing? Well, it’s really all about data and behavioral science,” he says.

“As the VP of growth and data in Bukalapak, there are two parts to my role. There is the growth part and the data part - and traditionally, these disciplines are not combined into one department.”

However, Tjahja explains, by looking at growth strategies as demand generation, these two areas of business are inextricably linked. Bukalapak facilitates commerce between suppliers and what is commonly known as mom-and-pop shops - which essentially are small family-owned businesses that make up the backbone of Indonesia's economy. 

By providing a service that enables businesses to expand their offerings to customers and help them to deliver better service, Bukalapak is generating better business practices and encouraging the use of technology at the heart of community businesses.  

Tjahja says, “my team is responsible for generating demand, so most of our products are either B2C or C2C products. Essentially we match-make between suppliers and sellers so that our customers can come in and find the things they want, and we also inspire them to buy or to use things that they weren't using before because they had no idea of the value. This encourages them to expand their offerings to customers by providing online purchases; they could purchase online, for example, but the growth side is essentially responsible for generating demand.”

Part of Tjahja’s role is also to combine online experiences with marketing. To examine customer behaviors, preferences and generate strategies, the team devises ways to market products to Bukalapak’s network of customers. “We use promotional campaigns and gamification to keep customers engaged with the platform,” he explains. “They are not really games in the ordinary sense but we create games in the purchasing experience so that clients become more engaged with the platform.”

Following the data

In terms of predictive analytics though, data is king, says Tjahja, who explains why his background in cybersecurity has stood him in good stead. “I look after performance marketing where every view and every click means something. That is very data-driven in terms of experimentation on certain things and certain behaviors. 

“Back in the Commonwealth Bank, I studied customer behaviors a lot. When you look at fraudsters and you examine genuine customers transacting on the platform, a lot of the detection comes down to logical consumer behavior. You can instantly recognize when a transaction is out of the norm - for example, how did someone use their credit card they have logged in in a totally different area of the city from where they last used it?

“That’s an obvious example - but the point is that every action tells you something about a customer and demand for goods or services. And reading and analyzing data is unbelievably valuable.”

In fact, Tjahja is so convinced about the value of data, that he champions the use of it in every department - and wants to make sure every employee understands its value. “I always remember, in one of my past roles, I was told in no uncertain terms that there was information our senior-level staff had, that was not the concern of employees further down the ladder. I’ve always felt that attitude is incorrect. If we are all working for the same cause, it’s very important that every member of my team understand the challenges I am facing - and the company is facing. That way there is more of a chance to find solutions.”

Leadership culture

Nurturing an agile and flexible mentality is also essential to Tjahja, who is fully behind Bukalapak’s company philosophy of inclusion. “When it comes to hiring, first and foremost I like to have a good mix of people that are essentially smarter than me in their areas of expertise. It’s important that they know their job well so that my job is more about unlocking their potential and providing them with opportunities, rather than just directing them. If you hire people who can challenge you and push the boundaries of what they do, then you stand a much greater chance of driving innovation.”

The hiring process and what TJahja looks for in his team members is also an example of making the most of Bukalapak’s human capital. “My philosophy for hiring boils down to four keywords,” he says.

“Trust - I need to be able to trust my team members to carry out their work and innovate. Transparency - because everyone should be aware of what our goals are and where our challenges lie. I don’t believe in withholding information. As a leader, it's also my job to be open with my staff so that they feel they can be open with me.”

Empathy for his staff is another essential part of managing a successful team. “It’s really important that your people know that you have their back when things go South. They must trust that you won’t toss them under the bus or hang them out to dry when things happen. Everyone has different challenges and difficulties in their life. It’s important to remember that.”

Finally, vision is the fourth component. “Having an innovative team that can visualize and contributes to the direction of the company is so important - and must also be encouraged,” he says.

Bukalapak community

Valuing their people is a trait that spills into the Bukalapak business model, which, despite its state-of-the-art technology-based platform, is heavily invested in its community of customers. Tjahja explains, “In Indonesia, the business culture is very different from the west. When I was in Australia, I experienced a business environment that had a lot of trust in big government institutions. 

“Your life is basically centered around your bank - from bills and rent to savings and financial transactions. But in Indonesia, there is a natural distrust for big corporations. The population generally is very supportive of small businesses and communities, which is why mom and pop shops have become the lifeblood of our economy.”

Tjahaj says that this unique business environment, therefore, presented several marketing challenges for Bukalapak. “In the west, you would simply run social media campaigns and contact influencers to get the word out. But in Indonesia, community and more specifically, community leaders are the key to doing business. It sounds very untechnical, but in order to reach our customers, after exploring several other avenues and realizing they weren’t going to work, we hired teams of reps to go and visit the communities we wanted to do business with. 

“We spoke to the community leaders, people who are influential in their locales and showed them our offerings. Once they gave the products their seal of approval, other businesses in the community were keen to come on board.”

With that in mind, we create many approaches in doing our business. Hence, we are not only focusing on Marketplace, but also we focus on our O2O Business, Mitra Bukalapak. These lines of business are focused on supply chain management, as our business presence is to bridge all of our users with the principal and to provide our customers with more products and services, and harness the power of technology to boost their offerings to their customers. It is this respect for small businesses that sets Bukalapak apart from other global trading platforms that have disrupted the small business layer in other countries. 

A marriage of partnerships

Working with strategic partners as closely as they work with their community of business customers, is essential for success, explains Tjahja. 

“Don't go at it alone, is another core philosophy for our business. It’s important to do our part - but we shouldn’t try to do everything. We work with a great bunch of partners - such as Microsoft and we use their services to make sure that we can do things better.

“Back in the day when you talk about data platforms, people tended to just go open source and build things themselves if they needed something done. But it's counterproductive and expensive and it delays the market delivery times. So, it slows up business. By working with expert partners, we are able to make use of their vast data wealth and knowledge, without having to create something for ourselves. And that is an incredible advantage. 

“For example, Microsoft’s cloud platform provides a lot of our data services banking. We also rely on our tech partners with their ton of experience in the data world. So, why would we try to build our own database system when we can partner with the best? Our partners allow us to enable things - to do things faster.”

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Bima Tjahja