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The G&R Story: The Untold Story of A Bangladeshi Startup

It was September 2005 when I first realized that websites could be made by ordinary people like me. Before that I imagined that making websites was similar in difficulty to building spaceships. I have always been very relaxed at work, but when I discovered the ease and beauty of website development — when I realized that this spaceship was easily attainable — I knew I’d discovered the secret to a long and happy life.

I was always good at maintaining pixels. This practice began on the first day of design school, where most of my friends were far better than me at drawing. I knew I couldn’t compete with them with my drawing skills alone, so I began using graph paper to make design plans and layouts. This helped me learn the manual process of using pixels. Over time, I became a pixel dancer. This helped me grab the attention many influential people.

Planning a Bangla font set - an academic project of 2007
Planning a Bangla font set - an academic project of 2007

One fine day in 2009, I received an unexpected email from London. A man I’d never heard of wanted to meet me to talk about the current status of the Internet in Bangladesh. At the time, his queries were irrelevant to my work. I was busy consulting for overseas clients who paid me an hourly wage. I had even been tasked with redesigning The Daily Star website! But I really never thought that the Internet could bring any change to Bangladeshi society.

The man from London had an extensive knowledge about the Internet and had even spent time working at Google. He taught me to see the potential of the Internet in a completely different way. I was extremely excited and finally felt that I could finally be a useful creature in society.

The G&R logo, simple and easy. It represents the colors of Bangladesh, as does the name Green & Red
The G&R logo, simple and easy. It represents the colors of Bangladesh, as does the name Green & Red

We had our first discussion about the Internet in Bangladesh in March 2009. G&R received the certification for incorporation in July 2009. Ours is an amazing story.

Our very first days at G&R were spent doing nothing but exploring possibilities. Early on, we decided to partner with a software company called eBizzsol for technical support. We held several brain storming sessions and drank a few hundred cups of tea. We were trying to find a single solution that would solve a few hundred problems. The word ‘localization’ was on top of anything. We started following the tagline, ‘Your local site!’

G&R launched it’s first product, Goromcha, in January 2010. The aim of Goromcha was to become a daily site for all Bangladeshis with lots of local, useful information.

Goromcha is one of my favorite brands. I tried to put all of my creativeness and passion for design into this one brand.
Goromcha is one of my favorite brands. I tried to put all of my creativeness and passion for design into this one brand.

It was a complex project and I learned a lot planning out all of the different functionalities. The system was built from scratch with great attention to detail. Every single icon was designed with Goromcha branding! We hired an official team to maintain partnerships and to manage content. G&R’s first official employee, Ayub, started his career as Partnerships Manager. He is still on the team with a leading role. We gathered information directly from business owners, publishers, job seekers, and general Internet users. This helped us develop strong partnerships with many different people. The underlying theme of Promoting the Bangladesh Web was born here.

Goromcha is my favorite failure project. The making of Goromcha helped us understand the ins and outs of the Internet in Bangladesh. We struggled with hundreds of obstacles, but at the same time recognized many great opportunities. One of these opportunities ended up being too big to pass up.

In May 2010, I started working full time at G&R with a very unspecific job role. I had to switch my designation twice during the first few months. My friends knew me as a designer. My colleagues knew me as a product manager who could sleep and design at the same time. The accounts team believed I had all of the answers about company expenses. Most of our clients (we designed and developed a few websites to cover costs) thought I was a kind of a junior executive who wouldn’t mind even if they kept me waiting a few hours. I was careless about my dress and that was probably one of the reasons people were confused about my role. In June 2010, we hired a full time software engineer and increased our team to four, including another partnerships executive.

In October 2010, we broke ground with the idea of Bangladesh’s first online advertising network. At the time, the term wasn’t very clear to me, and it certainly wasn’t very clear to the average Bangladeshi. We spent almost one and a half years researching, testing and trying to better understand the concept.

2011 was a year composed of many starting points, both professionally and in my personal life. In January, G&R rented its first physical office — a shared space with four cubicles and one table in a rooftop room in Banani. The first few months were exciting and unforgettable. The whole summer we roasted in the direct heat of sun.

The wedding card, designed by two amazing designers — the bride, the groom!
The wedding card, designed by two amazing designers — the bride, the groom!

In March I married Tirana, a girl I had known for 10 years, but whose potential impact on my life it took me a while to realize. We were in the same department and her name was called right after mine. I was 201 and she was 202. Together we started a life of love and lots of experiments.

For G&R the initial plan was to become an advertising technology company with ad network services. We already had some experience building customer websites and thought this was a good way to extend what we were already doing with a new focus on driving results. We also wanted to bring some different ideas to creative execution for online marketing.

We started pitching clients from the 1st quarter of 2011. In the 3 months before the product launch, we were able to reach more than 30 clients, including some top telcos and FMCGs. After each meeting we had to revise our product plan and requirements.

G&R brought some very basic online advertising terms to the Bangladeshi market for the first time. These include acronyms such as CPM (Cost Per Mille), CPC (Cost Per Click), CTR (Click Through Rate), etc. Instead of selling or buying fixed ad positions, which was the only definition for online advertisement at that time, we started talking about the real value of an ad. Changing the way people thought about online advertising was not easy. Many people laughed at us, advertisers rejected our proposals, and publishers removed our code from their sites. But we never stopped dreaming of establishing a world standard ad network in Bangladesh.

One lucky day in July 2011, the first ads from the G&R Ad Network were served on vistaarc.com and ajkerweather.com. After successful testing we received permission to place our ad code on the Prothom Alo website. G&R will always be thankful to Prothom Alo for allowing us to serve millions of test ads for free. In that same month we signed our first publisher agreement with Somewhere In… Blog, and the rapid growth of G&R’s publishing network began.

In August 2011 we hired another Software Engineer. Only a month later, we lost our first engineer. At the time I considered this loss to be one of the biggest turning points for the company. However, our second engineer eventually became the key successor of G&R and is now serving as it’s CTO.

Also in the month of August, we attracted our first advertiser with a campaign worth 30,000 BDT. It was a very exciting time for us. We also started paying our publishers that the same month.

One happy winter evening in our old office where the ad network was born. This is almost the exact same team you can still see at G&R.
One happy winter evening in our old office where the ad network was born. This is almost the exact same team you can still see at G&R.

This cash injection helped us find a more sustainable way to grow the company. We revised all of our software stacks over the following three months and built a much better and more efficient ad engine. In October we signed on our first big client, HSBC, and our publishing channels grew rapidly. In November 2011, G&R hired it’s first sales person to accelerate client pitching. Before that, our engineers also use to accompany me for client meetings. Adding a sales person to our team was exciting, as this was the first time we were confident enough to sell our vision. During this period, we started to increase the size of our engineering team. Tirana also joined G&R as a Product Manager and we started a whole different conjugal life, both at home and in the office. Those were long stories!

2012 was a big year for G&R. I took on the role of COO and focused all of our efforts towards achieving something that we were still not quite sure about. We were a team of 12 and no one of was concerned about proper office hours or had any kind of discipline. But we were really excited about what we were doing. Often we all went together (at least 4 people) to client pitches, no matter how big or small the client was. We spent hours helping them understand what we were trying to do. Mentally, the hardest part was that very few of our meetings seemed successful.

By the end of the first half of 2012, we had became experts in understanding - within the first ten minutes of the meeting - whether or not that client would start a campaign with us. This understanding helped us prepare our sales strategy more efficiently. For each client we spent time describing our product and features and helped them understand how they could maximize their ROI by utilizing our dashboard effectively or by designing better banner ads. We invested time in describing the effectiveness of online advertising with local and overseas success stories. Now, two years later, I can see that those meetings were the best investment of G&R’s time. Many of those early prospects are now on our client list.

Sometimes it impresses corporate clients when a sales pitch is in English but I have always loved talking in Bangla. I feel good about it. It’s natural, easy and more importantly, this is the only language which actually lets me express the exact thing I want to say. Maybe this is also why my English is so bad. From the beginning I only used Bangla for client pitches. I believe this was a very fruitful way of positioning G&R as a local brand.

Also, in the last few years, I’ve had chances to talk about G&R at several tech events, often as the only Bangla speaker. Technology is a global term and everyone, of all languages, contributes. With Bangla, I had the words to explain and sell it. This is the same philosophy we’re keeping in designing and developing our tools even today.

Sometimes it impresses corporate clients when a sales pitch is in English but I have always loved talking in Bangla. I feel good about it. It’s natural, easy and more importantly, this is the only language which actually lets me express the exact thing I want to say. Maybe this is also why my English is so bad. From the beginning I only used Bangla for client pitches. I believe this was a very fruitful way of positioning G&R as a local brand.

G&R presenting at a GBG Dhaka event at the GP House in February 2013.
G&R presenting at a GBG Dhaka event at the GP House in February 2013.

The most rewarding part for G&R was the ability to pay our publishers. By the third quarter of 2012, G&R publishing channels grew to over 500 in number. This actually became one of our biggest challenges. We had never had enough ads to utilize all of our inventory on websites. Most of our publishers kept very high expectations of us, and our partnerships team always had to answer to them. From the beginning, we’ve kept a strict policy of paying our publishers on time. We have hardly made any exceptions to this, no matter how long it takes to collect payments from our advertisers.

To keep publisher payments running smoothly, we had no extra cash to spend on marketing. G&R remained a relatively unknown brand. We often had problems making our relatives understand what we really did. Some people couldn’t even pronounce our brand name properly. Today, this is often still the case. We comfort ourselves by saying that this is the beauty of any tech startup, especially one originating in a country like Bangladesh.

The G&R team after winning a cricket match.
The G&R team after winning a cricket match.

From October 2012 to March 2013 there were some quick changes in G&R leadership. We also started looking for investments, which once again proved the potential of our business. The renowned local media personality Daniel Rahman joined G&R as it’s first CEO in October 2012. I started working with the product team