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Meet the man behind the ‘Amazon of Southeast Asia’

An office worker browses an on-line site in Manila.
Jay Directo | AFP | Getty Images
An office worker browses an on-line site in Manila.

From political unrest in Thailand to a typhoon in the Philippines, running a business in Southeast Asia has thrown Maximilian Bittner, founder and CEO of e-commerce site Lazada, several curve balls over the past year.

Lazada, which is billed as the "Amazon of Southeast Asia", is the fastest growing online department store in the region, offering products ranging from consumer electronics to clothing in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

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Despite the challenges, Lazada has made great strides in establishing its position in Southeast Asia – a market that is home to over 600 million consumers and a rapidly growing middle class.

The site's sales have more than doubled in the last six months, while traffic has grown 70 percent to almost 1 million visitors a day over this period.

"I expect it to only accelerate from here, as people get more used to shopping online," said Bittner, a consultant-turned-entrepreneur, noting that online shopping makes up just 1 percent of total retail sales in Southeast Asia. This compares with 8 percent in China and over 10 percent in the U.S. and U.K., according to the Centre for Retail Research.

This presents a huge growth opportunity, he said, noting that the company still has a "long, long way to go."

"When you look at companies like Amazon and Alibaba, the sheer size of what they've built is an extremely exciting opportunity," he said.

While Lazada shares a similar business model to Amazon, both selling their own inventory as well as allowing third-party merchants to sell their products on their websites, Bittner says launching an e-commerce business in Southeast Asia presents different challenges.

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"When Amazon started in the U.S., it didn't have to think about how it would get the package to the customer – there was UPS for deliveries," he said.

Lazada has established its own fleet of couriers in each of its markets, which covers 30 percent of overall orders, he said. "In our market, we're not only dealing with logistics, the payment network is different. Our largest payment method is still cash on delivery," he said.

"One of the challenges is really guiding the customer through the shopping experience. For example, we send them a text message to say we've received the order. There's a lot of educating the customer through the whole shopping experience," he added.

Nevertheless, having the ability to make it more convenient for consumers in far-flung areas of Southeast Asia to purchase products that they would otherwise have to drive hours to buy, is highly rewarding, said Bittner.

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Another source of gratification is seeing the trust that investors have in us as a team, he said. Since its launch two years ago, Lazada has attracted investment from the likes of JPMorgan and most recently U.K. retail giant Tesco, which acquired a minority stake in the company in December.

"At the same time it's humbling because they clearly expect something for their money also," he added.

While Bittner's impressive resume includes Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Company and e-commerce focused venture capital firm Rocket Internet, he says there are a few things that working at blue-chip companies can't prepare you for when it comes to entrepreneurship.

"One thing I wasn't taught is the people aspect of running a business, being able to manage big, big teams," he said. Lazada, which currently employs around 1,500 people across five countries, started with a core team of just 5.

"Also, what you don't expect is how much work it is...there's no weekend," he said.

"You can be prepared for a certain aspect of entrepreneurship, but in the end, what it really comes down to on a day-to-day basis is trial and error. Constantly improving and adjusting what you're trying to achieve, and having a flexible approach in the way you fulfill your vision," he added.

Contact Entrepreneur Asia

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