When Chorki launched in 2021, it set itself a grand ambition — to become the one-stop entertainment destination for not only 180 million Bangladeshis but also for more than 300 million native Bengali-speaking population around the world. Over the last two and a half years, the company has shown a masterful ability to execute.
In these two and a half years, it has amassed a staggering one million monthly active users, built a growing viewership from 194 countries, and is well on its way to becoming the go-to entertainment platform for Bangla-speaking people across the world. The company says it has experienced 100% year-on-year growth throughout its existence, doubling its revenue every year, and witnessed a 4x increase in viewership over the last three years.
Chorki currently has operations both in Bangladesh and India.
It also set off a string of firsts in Bangladesh’s OTT industry — the first video-on-demand platform investing heavily into producing high-quality original Bangla content; the first to experiment with a number of subscription options such as pay-per-view, monthly and yearly subscription, and ad-supported free viewing; and the first to eventually settle on a full-fledged subscription play.
Setting the Stage for Things to Come
For the uninitiated, Chorki is the leading Bangladeshi subscription on-demand video streaming platform focused on providing world-class Bangla language content for millions of Bangla-speaking audiences around the world. The company says it has a large collection of Bangla and foreign content including original movies, web series, short fiction, and other entertainment on its platform.
Chorki has yet again proven that excellent businesses have simple formulas—find the one thing that you can be best in the world, obsessively focus on it, find an economic model that supports your model, and the rest will take care of itself. This formula for Chorki involves an obsessive focus on providing high-quality content, attracting and growing an excellent talent pool, and then backing it up with excellent execution.
Chorki partly benefited from the timing. It received a meaningful tailwind from the coronavirus pandemic-induced acceleration of digital services adoption in Bangladesh. Moreover, being part of Transcom Group, one of Bangladesh’s largest and diversified business conglomerates, has helped the company capitalize on an already strong presence in the country’s media landscape.
On-demand video streaming is not an easy market. There are multinational global players such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Consumer taste is constantly changing under the pressure of a global media landscape where people are constantly exposed to content from all across the world. Endless free online content demands an extremely high standard from anything that is behind a paywall. The whole dynamic makes it a challenging market for the local and smaller regional players. Bangladesh has seen a series of failures in the vertical in Third Bell, Iflix, Addatimes, and Chorki CEO Redoan Rony’s own earlier venture Popcorn Live. A number of other players have also struggled to scale such as Grameehphone’s Bioscope.
The reasons behind the struggles of many of these players are rooted in the reality of the on-demand video streaming market in Bangladesh that we briefly touched upon earlier. If you look at the narrative on the surface, the Bangladesh market is poised for an on-demand video streaming revolution. Smartphone penetration has been growing. Internet penetration continues a consistent upward trend. An increasing number of people rely on digital platforms for entertainment. International streaming players such as Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime all have a sizable audience in Bangladesh. Given the changing consumer behavior and the digital landscape, this market obviously can go only one way—up. But every narrative has nuances that we often either miss or willfully overlook. Subscription video streaming service in Bangladesh faces a combination of challenges that come from a few areas: 1) infrastructure 2) fragmented audience taste 3) free accessible online content and 4) an absence of high-quality local entertainment content. Many of the previous and existing OTT players who struggled apparently overlooked these nuances that have proven costly for them.
Chorki has apparently taken a different approach. The company has created a self-reinforcing growth flywheel based on its obsessive focus on high-quality Bangla content that can compete with any other international content. That focus has set off a virtuous cycle—quality content brings users, and more users mean more entertainment industry stalwarts and studios are interested in working with Chorki which results in even better quality content, leading to more consumer love and the cycle continues. The entire model starts off a virtuous aggregation flywheel that reinforces itself and one node strengthens the other in a perpetual rhythm.
Today, after three years of testing the water and building a solid growth flywheel, Chorki is now putting together a grand strategy for its next stage of evolution.
“The long-term view of Chorki is even more exciting,” shares Zaraif Hossain, Head of Strategy and Transformation at Transcom Ltd and the President, Head of Strategy of Chorki. “The capital of Bangla content for the world is now Dhaka, it is no longer Kolkata. Bangla content itself is actually really good content! In the long run, the content that Chorki puts out will not be limited to the Bangla-speaking audience but instead has the opportunity to take our culture, our talent, and our country to every audience. Not speaking or understanding Korean at all, I was glued to the screen watching Squid Game. Chorki has the vision to do the same with Bangla content.”
All in all, Chorki is a fascinating company. To understand how Chorki managed to build a solid business in the ever-fraught on-demand video streaming vertical, we take a look into the history of the company, explore its playbook, and look into its future ambition. You can call it a teardown of Chorki’s operation, growth trajectory, and strategy. We do it in a few parts including an overview and the theoretical framework of Chorki’s business, the origin story, thesis, and early foundation of Chorki, Chorki’s operations—escaping innovator’s dilemma, Chorki playbook, and future plans.
The Thesis—Six Forces Shaping an OTT Revolution
Great businesses are built in forward-moving markets where the market pulls the product forward. While entertainment is an ever-changing and ever-challenging market, Chorki came into the market as an on-demand video streaming platform providing original Bangla language content at a time when a number of major trends are fast reshaping entertainment consumption patterns among the Bangladeshis and Bangla-speaking population across the world.
We believe a number of market forces are supporting a strong case for a Bangla-language entertainment platform. We take a look into the forces below:
A growing Bangla-speaking population looking for high-quality content in their native language. Bangladesh, a country of around 180 million people, is a reasonably large market. If Chorki can build a leading market position in Bangladesh alone and hold it, it can build an excellent business. But the company has a much bigger opportunity. There is a growing Bangla-speaking population across the world estimated to be about 300 million. Combinedly, this makes for a massive consumer base. In the current landscape, there are not many options for high-quality Bangla content on the internet. A significant percentage of these people use Netflix/Amazon/YouTube etc, but still feel the void of good Bangla content.
Growing digital adaptation in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a growing tech ecosystem with digital services seeing an increasing adoption. Internet and mobile phones have seen consistent growth in Bangladesh—50% smartphone penetration and 95% 4G coverage. While there are nuances to these numbers, the market for various digital services has undoubtedly grown. And entertainment has shifted to digital more than any other service over the last decade. Today, more people consume content online than any other time before.
A Growing Economy. Bangladesh has demonstrated a strong track record of economic growth over the last decades, with GDP growth surpassing the 7% and 8% milestones in FY 2015-16 and FY 2018-19, respectively. The size of the GDP has expanded from about $253 billion in 2014 to $460.2 billion in 2022. With a GDP per capita of approximately $2,800 and a growing middle class, the consumption pattern is expected to change.
Changing consumer behavior. With the ubiquity of handheld devices, access to the internet, and consistent push from platforms like Google, Facebook, and digital media platforms, video consumption has shot up over the last five years. Today’s entertainment can be defined by: endless choices, global, and online. These changes in consumer taste and tendencies have given rise to online video streaming. While Bangladesh has seen a long list of players entering the space over the past few years, the market for video streaming still is in its infancy and has a huge room for growth.
High-quality Bangla content is changing consumer preference. Bangladesh historically has had an aspirational consumer base that favored international products and brands. As we mentioned earlier, this was and is a major challenge for local and regional streaming players because people consume a lot of Bollywood and Hollywood content. However, we are seeing a number of shifts in consumer perception where Gen Z and millennials increasingly own the idea of being Bangladeshi. Non-resident-Bangladeshi artists are making music in Bangla for Bangladeshis both at home and abroad, instead of for a Western audience. Bangladeshi artists are becoming increasingly popular in communities abroad as well. “The Bangla content zeitgeist is real,” says Zaraif. This trend has been further aided by a growth in high-quality Bangla content by platforms like Chorki.
The readiness of the entertainment industry. There has been a gradual shift toward high-quality content across the entertainment industry in Bangladesh. “When Chorki started in 2021, the entertainment industry in Bangladesh was at a low despite a high density of amazing talent across the spectrum,” explains Zaraif. “Bangladesh always had talented actors, directors, producers, writers, etc, they just needed the right outlet to display it.” This has coincided with Chorki offering an excellent opportunity for industry talents to do high-quality work.
In a nutshell, the Bangladesh market is poised for an on-demand video streaming revolution and that’s the context Chorki came into being.
The Origin—The Dream of Taking The Bangladeshi Culture to The World
Anything worthwhile takes a long time to happen. Chorki is no different. The story of Chorki goes back to 2016. Redoan Rony, CEO of Chorki had been close to the Transcom Group and Prothom Alo editor Mr. Matiur Rahman for some time. Rony was building an OTT platform called Popcorn Live. We wrote about Popcorn Live in the past and the platform failed to break into the market. Around 2020, Rony started a conversation with Jabed Sultan Pias, the Chief Digital Business Officer of Prothom Alo about his vision to build an OTT platform from Bangladesh to take Bangladeshi content to the next level. That idea eventually received backing from Transcom and became a subsidiary of Transcom Group.
“Chorki, then still at the idea stage, came to my notice towards the end of 2020,” explains Zaraif. “When formulating the Chorki idea at the Transcom office, the initial intention was to start small and build gradually over time. Seeing the passion and vision, I was immediately hooked. I suggested that Chorki was not meant to have a humble beginning, but rather needed to enter with a bang and revive the Bangladeshi content space.”
The company put together a small team and the team worked hard to put together a strategy, a long-term vision, and a product roadmap. “From the pricing, competition mapping on a 2×2 matrix, and identifying unfair advantages, to product strategy, we did it all in those months,” says Zaraif.
The company also invested heavily in building an intuitive UX/UI that was easy to use, especially for its target Bangla-speaking audience. It spent months developing wireframes and mockups before settling on a front-end design. That initial preparation and ground work took about a year and Chorki finally launched on July 12, 2021.
Building the Foundation
Chorki started with a clear product strategy with a decision to focus the first two years on content. The idea was to put out great content that the Bangla-speaking audience around the world would love and see how people receive the content. If they love the content and ask for more, that is an indication of product-market fit for the company.
The Chorki team took that as a make-or-break metric. In fact, the company went to great lengths to maintain its singular focus on content. The company outsourced the backend technology development in a SaaS model that provided the total OTT tech infrastructure. That allowed Chorki to focus fully on content.
“I knew that a startup in its early days needed a sharp focus and the first and major decision for Chorki was to focus totally on quality content,” explains Mr. Zaraif. “We decided that rather than building expertise in tech or product, Chorki needed to put out great content.”
This obsessive focus on high-quality content didn’t take long to pay off—Chorki started producing hits very early on.
When you are in the business of entertainment and you have high-quality content that people love, it makes everything else easier. Once Chorki figured out a playbook for producing hits, it then started focusing on the other aspects of its operations.
The next round of challenges for Chorki was mostly around building a solid business model around a fantastic product. The first hurdle came from the relative reticence towards the subscription model in Bangladesh. While there are a lot of internet users in all parts of Bangladesh, the users are not as used to paying online, especially for video content given the proliferation of YouTube and many other platforms that offer free content.
Chorki had to figure out a strategy to overcome this challenge. As usual, the company started by doubling down on content quality, making content people would love enough to pay for. The company then began with a combination of three business models: AVOD (content for free, with ads), TVOD (pay to watch a specific content), and SVOD (subscription). It took Chorki a while to figure out what model to focus on. It has eventually pivoted the business model to focus almost entirely on subscriptions. Chorki currently has a subscription-based model where customers can choose 6 months, 12 months, and yearly plus subscription options. The company says it has since been able to overcome the initial reticent of customers and a growing number of customers are now comfortable with subscription.
“Customers are already caring, and they love it,” says Zaraif. “That’s what keeps everyone going. Bangladeshis enjoy content that is made in their country, content that is relevant to how they see the world around them.”
The second challenge Chorki had to overcome was developing talent. OTT is not a big industry in Bangladesh yet. Chorki pioneered many aspects of producing Bangladeshi content for OTT. This means the company has to shoulder a large part of the responsibility to build the ecosystem for the industry.
“We don’t have the option of poaching from a whole host of companies, so over time hiring has been done from a diverse set of industries with a sharp focus on grooming talent within the Chorki system,” says Zaraif.
When Chorki started in 2021, the Bangladeshi entertainment industry was in a trough. Over the last three years, Chorki has played an important role in reviving a vibrant entertainment production studio scene in Bangladesh. The company’s obsession with quality has also lifted the overall quality across the industry.
“Chorki is clear about the content being of top quality, the strategy was never to create “clickbait” or cheap content just to gain traction,” explains Zaraif. “This meant studios that produce content for Chorki had to match high standards, raising quality for the overall industry.
At the same time, there have been multiple studios that have been created focused on working with Chorki. The company has also built a series of strategic partnerships with telcos and corporates to leverage their distribution to bring subscribers to the platform. Being part of the Transcom ecosystem has also been a huge strength for the company in building collaborations.
Chorki Operations—Escaping Innovator’s Dilemma
Chorki is structured as a subsidiary of Transcom Group. Being privately held allows Chorki to enjoy the benefits of not having external stakeholders to deal with and enables Chorki to take long-term bets focused on building a solid business.
Operationally, Chorki is designed to be lean and nimble with a horizontal management structure. The company has built strong functional teams across content, marketing, and business/partnerships. While it currently has a small tech team, the company plans to eventually build its own engineering and product teams as it enters the next stage. A lean operation structure has helped Chorki operate with a singular speed and focus on what matters, which is content.
Being part of a large company has both its advantages and limitations. The advantages are rather obvious such as access to resources, connection, and expertise. Chorki gets support and resources from the Transcom ecosystem for administration, business, finance, technology, HR, etc. While the limitations of being part of a large company are not as obvious, they are insidious and can be much more damaging.
When you are part of a large business, it creates challenges of expectation. Your existing business is so successful that you don’t feel like investing in a new product that is not bringing large enough success in a short enough time. Even though the second product can become a huge business in the long run, decisions are often viewed and made through the lens of the parent’s business. Late Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen called this problem an innovator’s dilemma, which is the reason for a lot of corporate innovation failures.
Christensen illustrated this in his 1997 management classic Innovator’s Dilemma. In the book, Christensen offers a compelling argument about why successful incumbents fail to innovate:
“The reason [for why great companies failed] is that good management itself was the root cause. Managers played the game the way it was supposed to be played. The very decision-making and resource allocation processes that are key to the success of established companies are the very processes that reject disruptive technologies: listening to customers; tracking competitors’ actions carefully; and investing resources to design and build higher-performance, higher-quality products that will yield greater profit. These are the reasons why great firms stumbled or failed when confronted with disruptive technology change.
Successful companies want their resources to be focused on activities that address customers’ needs, that promise higher profits, that are technologically feasible, and that help them play in substantial markets. Yet, to expect the processes that accomplish those things also to do something like nurturing disruptive technologies – to focus resources on proposals that customers reject, that offer lower profit, that underperform existing technologies and can only be sold in insignificant markets– is akin to flapping one’s arms with wings strapped to them in an attempt to fly. Such expectations involve fighting some fundamental tendencies about the way successful organizations work and about how their performance is evaluated.”
The good thing about Chorki is that although it is a subsidiary of Transcom, it operates as an independent company. It has its own independent office and team and functions as an independent company with complete freedom.
Transcom has a history of allowing its subsidiaries independence. The company owns two of the largest media brands in Bangladesh — The Daily Star and Prothom Alo—and both companies operate with ultimate independence, an example of excellent corporate innovation. Chorki has enjoyed complete independence since its early days. This has allowed the company to chart its own trajectory, make its own mistakes, learn from them, and operate accordingly.
“Transcom is there to provide capabilities to Chorki but it essentially operates like a startup but has the strength of a large business house,” illustrates Zaraif.
An Industry in Transition
We are living in an age of perpetual entertainment. People are constantly consuming all kinds of content. With generational shifts in our society—the rise of individualism coupled with transformational technology, we are seeing a pervasive presence of entertainment for all kinds of purposes. For Chorki, that trend is further amplified by the void in the market for quality Bangla content.
“The universe for us is not just the population of Bangladesh, but every Bangla speaker in the world,” asserts Zaraif. “Not just that, but the scope once we’ve established ourselves with Bangla content, is to take Bangla content to the non-Bangla speaking world as well, much like Korea has done. The sky’s the limit.”
Chorki claims that it has built a dominant position in Bangladesh. The company enjoys a strong bond with the entertainment industry in Bangladesh which means it has better access to talent and other resources. Similarly, its tie with the Transcom Group puts it at the center of the media powerhouse in Bangladesh.
While there is strong competition in the on-demand video streaming space, the structure of the market makes competition less than a clear-cut matter. On the one hand, Chorki faces competition from international OTT players such as Netflix as well as free online platforms such as YouTube. Similarly, these platforms offer opportunities to collaborate in the long run. “Content is the unique IP that each platform creates,” explains Zaraif. “Ultimately content is there for the audience, which means Chorki’s content can be distributed on other platforms and vice versa.”
The major direct competitor for the company is Hoichoi. The Indian OTT platform has been quite aggressive in Bangladesh and counts the market as its second-largest market outside India. However, Chorki doesn’t necessarily see HoiChoi as a competitor. “They’re not just a competitor, the opportunity is there for Chorki and Hoichi to even partner to provide the combined audiences with great content,” indicates Zaraif. “Ultimately, when the consumer wins, we win.”
We can summarize Chorki’s unlikely rise as a combination of dogged focus on quality, operational excellence, strategic advantages, and a bit of luck. To understand how Chorki managed to build a solid business in the ever-fraught on-demand video streaming vertical, we take a look into the Chorki playbook. It involved an obsessive focus on content, a deep-rooted connection with the entertainment industry, and Transcom synergies.
Obsessive focus on content. Chorki’s core product, apart from the platform itself, is the content. The focus has always been quality content that customers want. Chorki has so far avoided making content merely to gain subscription numbers. Instead, the company has invested in creating high-quality content that the audience wants. For instance, the company stayed away from streaming sporting events such as the football or cricket world cups until now. The logic is that sports viewers usually do not stay loyal to a platform after the event or tournament is over. “Chorki’s strategy has always been long-term, never for short-term gains,” says Zaraif.
Deep-rooted connection with the entertainment industry. Chorki has a strong connection with the entertainment industry in Bangladesh. Chorki CEO Redoan Rony himself is an acclaimed director with a number of successful Bangla films under his belt. The company has the backing of Transcom Group, a local conglomerate with a deep presence in Dhaka’s media scene. A deep-rooted network in the Bangladeshi entertainment industry brings credibility and access, allowing Chorki to work with the best talents out there in the country.
Transcom synergies. Access to resources can make or break a company in its early days. Being part of Transcom means Chorki has reliable access to resources and can access support with team building, funding, and other capabilities. Transcom owns some of the most important media businesses in Bangladesh. Being part of Transcom allows Chorki access to these incredibly powerful platforms.
The most interesting part is that although Chorki is a subsidiary of Transcom, the company operates independently as a startup. Transcom has shown enough corporate innovation maturity to separate its outside bets into independent organizations in the past which has allowed it to escape innovator’s dilemmas. That allows Chorki the freedom to experiment and operate with its necessary cadence while also making the Chorki team solely responsible for its success.
“We have been able to strike a balance between Chorki functioning like a startup coupled with the strength of a large business group,” asserts Zaraif.
Challenges for Chorki
However, the journey ahead for Chorki is not devoid of challenges. Chorki faces a series of unique challenges because it operates in an industry that is unique and constantly changing.
The requirement of upfront investment. Content is king in the OTT business. It is the main investment and will always be. That means Chorki will always have to invest heavily in content. “Chorki’s first impressions would depend on the quality of the content,” says Zaraif. “Even before a solid business model was proven, or any significant revenue came in, the requirement to invest in good content was a must.”
The unpredictability of hit and miss: Similarly, when you are producing content in an ever-changing world where consumer taste is changing all the time, there is always a chance to miss and fail. Chorki has so far shown an uncanny ability to produce hits. If the company can create a playbook to consistently produce hits, it can offset some of the challenges for the company. Chorki apparently understands this reality. “The reality is content, the main product of Chorki, can be hit or miss, so we need to be ready for both hits and flops,” explains Zaraif. “The good news is that Chorki has figured out mechanisms to deal with this unpredictability.” However, regardless of how accurate your understanding of the market is, there will always be a miss in the creative world.
Creating talent. The OTT landscape remains in its early stages in Bangladesh. It is not yet an established industry and the ecosystem for it is still underdeveloped. This means there is a lot of industry building that is required of the players in the space. This also means Chorki could never quite hire ready-made talent and invest in developing talent within the organization. As it figures out the industry and builds its own business, the company also has an equally important role in contributing to building the OTT ecosystem in Bangladesh.
Growing Competition. Chorki faces a complex competitive reality. The biggest competitor for the company is of course Youtube and significant free content available online, which makes it difficult for every OTT platform to attract paid subscribers in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi audience is not necessarily used to paid subscriptions. The second group of competitors includes multinational players in the space such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and a number of Indian players that provide international content. Finally, it also has to compete with other Bangla-content-focused OTTs in the market. As the market matures, it is only natural to expect more players to enter the market and further complicate the scene. Chorki claims that it has a head start over its competitors and it hopes to maintain the lead in the coming years.
Chorki has a three-pronged future plan to maintain its market position as well as to take its business to the next level. The plan involves creating its own studio, creating a Chorki multiverse, and finally, taking Bangladeshi content and culture to the world.
“Chorki has a clear roadmap to take Bangladeshi entertainment across the world, and to do that we have a roadmap beyond just digital content delivery”, explains Zaraif. “In the future, we will have to set up studios and production facilities of our own.”
Chorki thinks that content can bring more opportunities than merely creating a hit TV series. “With great content does not just come an opportunity to create a sequel or a season 2, but an opportunity to stretch popular characters as well. Chorki has an opportunity to use characters it creates across multiple media formats,” illustrates Zaraif.
That said, the company has an even bigger vision. Chorki essentially sees itself in the business of culture and aims to do it as best as it can. “The grand vision of Chorki is to do what other countries like Korea have done. Take Bangladeshi content globally, to even those who don’t speak the language,” explains Zaraif. “The reality is that Chorki is on a path to continue creating great work, and it will only get better over time. So we envision a future where the idea of being made in Bangladesh for the world comes true, through Chorki.”
Cover photo: Chorki CEO Redoan Rony and President and Head of Strategy Zaraif Hossain (from left to right) | Photo by Chorki