Zilingo Co-Founder Ankiti Bose On Pivots, Resilience And “Pathological” Optimism
Gen.T’s podcast Crazy Smart Asia, which explores the unexpected stories of Asia’s disruptors, is back for a second season.
After our first episode with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, this week I speak with Ankiti Bose, co-founder of e-commerce startup Zilingo. A B2B fashion platform, Zilingo provides tech-enabled supply chain solutions to small merchants across Asia, handling an annual sales volume exceeding US$1bn.
During the conversation, Ankiti is straight-shooting and refreshingly honest. Not one to shy away from the big topics, she gives anything but the sanitised soundbites as we get into some of the realest challenges facing entrepreneurs today.
We discuss the potential “curse” of the near-unicorn tag, tackling misogyny head-on, the mental health struggles entrepreneurs deal with, and the tough decisions she faced at the beginning of the pandemic, when Zilingo had to restructure to weather the storm.
“We realised that the problem that had to be solved was a slightly different one than what we thought, so we made a very brave decision to pivot. This was after we had raised a bunch of capital, but we said, ‘Look, if you want to become a sustainable business that is profitable in the long term, that is solving a real problem, then we've got to make these brave decisions and take a few brickbats along the way.’ As you know, I’ve taken many. But I really stand by those decisions.”
“It's great to raise capital. Valuations are great, private market valuations are great. But those are running shoes for the marathon; you've not won the marathon.”
Tackling misogyny with deeds, not words
“I used to tell myself that if I want to fight every single battle and if I want to win every single argument where a man thinks a certain way, or gets comfortable by putting me down, then my mental bandwidth will be so occupied in fighting those small battles that the big picture, the war will be forgotten. It'll be much easier to change the world if I actually get to any degree of success. Everybody has their form of activism—that’s my form of activism. When there are more women in leadership positions, things will automatically change, because the demographic that is holding all of the power, if the way it looks changes in terms of gender, race and so on, automatically some of these things will shift.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t call out wrong things when they happen to us, we should. But we shouldn’t let it completely occupy us mentally rather than take a longer-term view. I think that's a more effective way, but it requires an incredible amount of patience.”
Taking the leap into entrepreneurship
“Two words: foolish courage. I think if I had over analysed and made a framework to look at the situation in a logical way, it would not have worked out because it just required a leap of faith, a burning desire to see an opportunity and build something for it. I think if I didn't scratch that itch at that point, maybe I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. So I'm glad I did it, but I think there's a lot of foolish courage involved. There's a lot of serendipity in some of this stuff. Despite having a relatively analytical background, I think I was guided by sheer passion at that point in time. And had I not been guided by sheer passion, I don't think I would have taken the plunge.”
Dealing with no
“You can have a string of nos and still come out on top. The most important thing is that you learn from it. Every no is a lesson. Every success and every yes actually doesn't teach you anything, it just takes you to the next level of difficulty in this game of life we’re all playing.”
“Pathological optimism to me is a very practical thing, and I really do practise it on a daily basis. It doesn't mean just thinking everything is going to work out. It means that it doesn’t matter what has happened in the past and what brought us to this point. If we want to create the outcome that we want to create from here, then we can. You can’t control the story that's already done, but you can control the story that begins now, and perhaps end at an outcome that you would like. To do that you have to have a very clear path and plan—and to create that plan you need to have positivity. That’s why I think every founder has to be pathologically optimistic. Otherwise, it's very easy to get bogged down by everyday failures, because we see so much failure on a daily basis, which nobody else sees. The world doesn't see it, the press doesn't talk about it, we don't talk about mental health and the trauma around it, but you do face it on an everyday basis. So you have to have this optimism that you can figure it out because you can control what happens next.”
“If your business touches a lot of other businesses, the sense of responsibility you feel is extremely high. Any SME aggregation platform, no matter how big or small, I'm sure the founder is not just thinking about themselves; they're also taking on the added pressure of so many people: employees, merchants—everybody's livelihood depends on my ability to be my 100 percent best when I show up in the morning. So I don't have the choice to not show up, because I'm not just responsible for myself.”
Taking care of your mental health
“If you don't lean on a support system and you take all of this pressure yourself, it can be extremely overwhelming and actually very counterproductive. More people have good intentions and want to help you than you think. I have learnt that the hard way, but when I learnt it I really learnt it: there are enough people and resources out there to help me, you and everyone get through the tough times. It's really important to focus on mental health, and I think more and more the stigma around it is going away, which is just fantastic because there shouldn't be any stigma around it. This is an unreal level of stress that you're handling as a young entrepreneur, and you should just raise your hand and get help. Please don't think that you're alone in this.”
Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.
Listen to the episode and subscribe using your preferred podcast platform on the Crazy Smart Asia hub page.