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Tuesday, December 12, 2023

We will be able to cover the whole of Dhaka city by December and hope to make maids smartphone-ready eventually

Photo: Arif Mahmud Riad

Started operating as a maid service business only seven months ago, Hellotask has been evolving and reshaping itself constantly. Within its short lifespan, the Dhaka based on-demand maid service has connected hundreds of verified maids with local customers through its mobile application. Fintech talked to the company’s co-founder and CEO Mahmudul Hasan Likhon at the company office in Jhigatola.

FINTECH: You were originally called ‘RobotDako’. Why did you change the name?

The name created confusion, apparently. Whenever I would go to any program, even at the GP Accelerator program for instance, everyone would ask why I chose that name. People seemed to think it had something to do with actual robots. Even worse, some thought it was dehumanizing to the women working as maids. Even with the investors it was a problem. They said they wouldn’t invest if I didn’t change the name. So, we kind of had to change it this year in August.

Officially, we started the business from September 25 last year but we were working on it from June. The app was launched on September 25. Basically, we had three categories of services: delivery service, maid and babysitting. We are mainly providing the maid service and working to set up the babysitting. We have not launched the babysitting service yet but we hope to do so soon in the same platform.

We started the maid service from February 29 this year. The funny thing is we never imagined we could operate a business of maid service. The delivery service was not doing that well and we couldn’t really organize the whole operation like the way we wanted to.

We wanted to do product delivery service with all kinds of products, just like what Pathao has started recently. They are now providing delivery service for daily-need products like cigarettes, sanitary napkins, etc. We also had this service but we couldn’t set it up properly, as we didn’t have the right experience. Then we realized that we should discard it and start the maid service. The simple reason is that there are real demands that need to be met. We started with two maids on our roster.

Gradually we recruited more maids and expanded reach. If I want to bring 200 maids tomorrow we can do that easily. We have a concrete plan in place now on how to better design our products and how to effectively deploy in order to cater to the market demand. We have developed reliable products and the system is functioning. But we are also constantly improving and revising things.

FINTECH: So, just to clarify these maids are actually employees of Hellotask?

Yes, we recruit them and provide training. Actually we are in the process of changing up the ‘recruiting model’. As of now, we bear liabilities and responsibilities, as the service providing people are employees. We have to take that responsibility if we want to ensure quality. The maid service is extremely sensitive, particularly because of security reasons.

FINTECH: What does the verification process entail?

It’s a bit complicated. We require national ID of the person who will work, as well as IDs of two local guardians.

FINTECH: Which area you started operating in first?

We started in Mohammadpur and then Dhanmondi. We now cover New Market, Kalabagan, Farmgate, Science Lab to Kallyanpur and Shyamoli. We will move towards Mirpur and Uttara this month. We are progressing and expanding. It will take around three months more to cover the entire Dhaka city.

FINTECH: Is the recruiting process challenging and do you have enough maids for meeting the current customer demands?

It is quite challenging. You can recruit people if you go to the right places. The challenge we face in getting these people onboard is convincing them about the whole model. So for example, we pay a salary of Tk12 thousand per month. For amount, that person will need to work in three to four homes, which is 7-8 hours of work. But the thing is they don’t have to work that way. With us they will get a salary of Tk12 thousand plus bonus pay for extra work.

We have a rating and review system. We pay extra according to that, like Pathao. People are not used to this and often they think it’s a scam. It’s really hard to earn the trust and convince them that we are doing a legitimate business and we are trustworthy.

We even have a loan scheme for maids on our payroll. They can take out a loan of Tk20,000 from us without any interest. We deduct the amount from their salary. This is given as a facility. Even then they are still unsure and have trust issues. Many of these women have returned from the Middle East. This is the big challenge for us in recruiting.

FINTECH: How much have you expanded since launching?

We have expanded to cover one fifth of Dhaka city. In two months, we will be able to cover Gulshan, Baridhara and Uttara areas. We have completed a lot of work and waiting to do an announcement.

FINTECH: Why you don’t use freelance workers and opted for only employees?

We tried that actually. The problem with freelancers is that everyone is busy on Fridays, but free on Wednesdays and Thursdays, for instance. On those days they would come and wait for calls. If they see there’s no work they would leave. That became quite problematic for us.

FINTECH: What about live-in maids?

We had thought about the live-in maid service but that is really risky for us. For a service like us, a maid living at the customer’s house is very risky.

FINTECH: Is the current model working well for scaling up?

We were not sure about scaling up for quite some time. It was because the salary of the recruiter must be paid at a certain date even though sales were uncertain. The current model we have is a result of learning from that experience. We believe this is working. But I don’t want to go into details, as we are still developing it.

FINTECH: What sort of training do you provide?

We have modules and trainers. They are taught using different videos. After they finish, we see if they are making any mistakes or not. Depending on the result we train them again.

FINTECH: Did you feel the need for market research when you started? What type of data did you collect and how much of it did you apply?

We didn’t do any systematic market research. We took the decision kind of instantly. We just relied on the common knowledge about demands in the market and assumed that the market was ready. However, we quickly realized that demand is always greater than our supply after we commenced operation. Later we conducted a survey to understand the conditions better. People with “chuta bua” face more problems than those who have live-in maids or ‘badha buas’. Chuta buas tend to miss work regularly or they are late to work often and late to join work after a leave. These are common problems. That is why our instant maid service is so popular.

FINTECH: How does the bonus payment work?

Their working hour is from 8 in the morning to 6 in the evening, divided in two shifts. We are looking to change that to 9 to 9. We used to get maids to work for 8-10 hours in the beginning. But that’s not really productive, because it can be tiring, especially for older women. It is not possible to work for 10 hours for them. So, we set it up as two six-hour shifts. If someone works more than her shift they get overtime payment.

FINTECH: All startups inevitably face problem with funding. How have you dealt with that?

Yes, of course we also had to struggle with funding. We started by taking out a loan and we are still depended on loan. Our loan is from Mercantile Bank. Actually they have a project called ‘Udayan’ that finance startups. We received a decent amount when we started. There’s supposed to be an investment this month. But it’s not been finalized yet. We are actually still in a sole proprietorship. We are not a limited company yet. But we hope it will be done by this month. However, we are still looking for further investment and hoping to find good investors.

FINTECH: Have you started making profit?

No, we haven’t. And it’s not expected either. Bigger companies like Pathao bear sizeable loss in its food delivery segment every month. That’s very normal. We haven’t started making profit. It will take some time.

FINTECH: Do you see a potential for growth out of Dhaka?

The prospect of growing outside of Dhaka is pretty good. We are extremely optimistic that by using our current model we can make the service available in places like Chittagong and Sylhet. We are set to reach all areas in Dhaka by December. Next year, we will have the capacity to move outside of Dhaka.

FINTECH: Do you have any mechanism in place for dispute resolution? And do you have any third-party insurance?

No, there is no insurance policy. Formally, we could not move that way but we manage security informally. For example, early on we had an incident where a maid was accused of theft at the customer’s house. Then, police was called, there was the Detective Branch all over our office. That was a nightmare. It was later established that the maid didn’t steal. From then on we started an acknowledgement system. After the service ends you get a message on the app asking you to confirm that you have checked your belongings. If you click on the message, it means that you cannot blame the maid for any damage. there is also a physical form that customers have to sign. This is good security, because the customer is careful to check and the maid is also aware that there will be a checking before she can leave.

We also look after the security of our workers. We only provide the service to family houses and to mitigate the likelihood of harassment or other problematic incidents. The service is not provided to bachelor-messes.

FINTECH: Is there any text or chatting service for customers? And what are you doing for promotion?

For text and chatting, we use the Facebook Messenger. It’s is easy and most people are on the Messenger too. We are totally Facebook oriented for promotion and have some B2B portals as well. We are working with Chaldal, beauty parlours and Mercantile Bank from the beginning. This was a good move. We provide service to beauty parlours and in return they give us a promo code. Using that code, you can get a discount up to Tk200.

FINTECH: What is ahead for Hellotask? What you see happening in the near future?

Our next plan is to set up an instant service model. Right now a lot of what we want is not possible just because women that typically work as maids are not ready to use smartphones. Our main aim is to make them smartphone-ready so they can be contacted directly like what you have with Pathao. This is our ultimate goal. It’s not attainable immediately. It will take some time to develop the human resources for this.

But I think we have done quite a lot still. The maids that work here feel that they have a proper job, as opposed to working as a ‘bua’. They don’t have that inferior feeling about their work. We are opening bank accounts for them and they are getting all sorts of new facilities. Slowly but surely they are getting there.

We will continue working on the babysitting service too. We will bring in professional people and work with them. But there are still some things that we need to figure out. We are also working on developing a service that will involve students, who will then work using our platform.

Saqib Sarker

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