How was Zilingo born?
Zilingo is basically a fashion e-commerce brand.
It was founded by an ex-Mckinsey & ex-Sequoia employee, Ankiti Bose, and her partner in crime, IIT grad, Dhruv Kapoor, in 2015.
The idea was born on a quaint afternoon when Ankiti was shopping in Bangkok. The markets of Bangkok were filled with more than 2000 stalls selling anything and everything — from Thai clothing, artwork, and furniture, to herbs, soaps, and more!
These products were high quality and any lifestyle brand would kill to sell them. But, Ankiti realized that all these sellers could only reach the people visiting the market.
On top of that, these shops didn’t have the knowledge, resources, or expertise to scale their business.
Ankiti was positive that these problems could be solved by technology. So, she and Dhruv left their jobs and invested all their savings into building Zilingo!
The evolution of Zilingo’s Business Model
Now, initially, Zilingo’s business model was limited to being an e-commerce website. So, essentially, it would feature all the South-East Asian shops in that marketplace.
But, over the years, Zilingo has evolved a lot. You see, the problem Zilingo tried to solve was 2-fold:
- Helping small businesses reach more customers
- Helping these businesses make their processes more efficient to yield higher output
The e-commerce front took care of the first problem, but Zilingo had to create a B2B vertical to solve the 2nd problem. So, they did exactly that.
They pivoted into the “seller-focused services” business. This included operational, sourcing, and financial solutions. For example,
- They provided capital loans and insurance from partner firms like Singapore’s United Overseas Bank
- Created solutions to help manage stock and planning
- Offered guaranteed sales volumes with Zilingo even offering to buy back their excess inventory if the periodic targets are missed
- They also provided ace supply chain solutions that would rival the biggest e-commerce firms in the world
This worked well for the business overall because the team realized that the spending power of their e-commerce consumers was not very high. But, the opportunities on the B2B side were endless.
Ankiti describes Zilingo’s vision best — “Zara on an API” — as Zilingo’s solutions are essentially plugins that turn local shops into efficient fast commerce businesses.
The rise of Zilingo & almost reaching a $1B valuation!
On paper, Zilingo’s solutions were a hit. When shops just go online, they yield 3 times more transactions. And reducing the production time and improving the supply chains can only do good.
Plus the Southeast Asian commerce market was huge. Investors obviously saw that and were eager to give Ankiti millions in funding.
- In its first round, they raised $1.9M from Sequoia Capital.
- In the consequent rounds of Series A, B, and C, the startup raised $8M, $18M, and $54M.
- In 2019, it reached a valuation of $970M by raising its Series D funding clocking at $226M!
With this money, they were boldly expanding to capture the entire SEA market! They onboarded 50,000 merchants and brands. And, on the supply chain side, they worked with 5,000 factories!
Investors of course were extremely bullish on the startup. Zilingo, as a B2C startup, was already propped to be a billion-dollar company. But, now with the B2B and financial lending vertical, investors were convinced, the startup had multiple billion-dollar businesses in hand.
Investors in closed circles were in fact talking about big exits and future IPOs.
So it was obviously surprising when the startup couldn’t make it through its 7th year and was shut down in 2022!
So, why did Zilingo fail?
The main issue Zilingo was dealing with was simply the fact that they were not profitable. For instance, in 2019, the company’s financials looked like this:
- Revenue ⇒ $98M
- Loss ⇒ $234M
So, what caused this issue?
1) The e-commerce style cash-burn
Zilingo, although an aspiring B2B startup, its core was still B2C e-commerce. And, sadly it was not immune to the e-commerce-style cash burn tactics that hugely dictate the sector.
The e-commerce wing was essentially a sinkhole with low margins, sucking in all the good money coming from the B2B side. The rationale to continue the B2C way was to attract more merchants and scale.
But, Zilingo was competing with giants like Alibaba-backed Lazada, Shopee, Tokopedia, and others. And, none of these companies were turning a profit.
Zilingo also dappled in crazy cash burn schemes, discounts, and marketing spending to cover ground and compete with these giants.
- Ankiti spent $1M on influencers aiming to acquire 1M users. But, they could only get 10,000.
- They were apparently burning $7-8M per month on their marketing efforts.
The team admitted that they were sucked into cash-burn strategies and that they realize that in the game of endless spending, only companies with the deepest pockets win.
So, they wanted to shift focus to their B2B business more. They knew they would be dead otherwise.
2) B2B tech startup with a very buggy tech
Although Zilingo had a SaaS wing, it didn’t have any internal software to manage its 2 very diverse and huge wings — e-commerce marketplace & merchant solutions.
The operations were in a complete mess, with tech missing for features as basic as client onboarding during the early years. Many processes were apparently manually performed. And, on a micro level, the company didn’t work efficiently.
Quite ironic for a company that is selling “efficiency” to merchants.
3) The US move and the pandemic
In 2019, Zilingo was making a move to the US, from its predominantly Southeast Asian presence. Ankiti and the team had high hopes, but they had to quickly roll back the entire move.
Covid struck in 2020 with everyone under lockdown. This not only derailed Zilingo’s growth but also made their losses worse.
4) The final blow: ‘Scandal’ and Ankiti’s suspension
With the company's finances already in a terrible state, any further blows would have totally unravelled Zilingo. And, that’s what happened. 
In 2022, Zilingo’s board suspended Ankiti Bose on accusations of financial irregularities. Ankiti denied the accusation entirely and accused the company of sexual harassment.
With the CEO gone, more important people started jumping ship. The investors were obviously salivating for an exit, so they pushed to liquidate all of Zilingo’s assets.
Ankiti and Dhruv still having faith in Zilingo’s B2B vertical and its ability to turn profitable, offered to buy out the company at half its $970M valuation. The verdict is still not out and the faith of Zilingo is honestly anybody’s guess.
What do we learn?
Now, Zilingo was in no way a lost cause. They were aware of the dangers of endless cash burn and had a promising vertical that could alone have been a great business.
But, its financials were too messed up with losses outpacing their revenue and millions of dollars of debt piling up. And, with their main captain gone (who called most of the shots), the ship could do nothing but sink.
So, here are a few things we can learn from Zilingo.
- On B2B vs B2C → Build B2C startups for fame, B2B startups for profitability.
- On scaling up → Startups not only require you to learn, but ALSO un-learn all the lies popular media has told you about building it.
- On chasing growth → Startup battles are regularly won by people who can run longer than those who can run faster.
- On startup idea → DON'T build startups based on popular trends. Build one that solves real customer problems.
- On leadership → Startup founders: Your leadership doesn’t have to be "perfect", just "genuine".
- On unicorns → All startups don't have to become unicorns. Buildd something that can give you the lifestyle you desire and the happiness you seek.