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

Muhammad Nazimuddaula on building an Ad network in Bangladesh

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 exclusively and took on the role of Chief Product Officer. I was one of the first with this title in all of Bangladesh, though I wasn’t clear about what exactly a CPO does. This was the beginning of another dimension of my career, which was mostly spent learning what it meant to be a product manager.

Daniel’s involvement took G&R to new heights and we signed partnerships with several local ad agencies. Apart from our core ad network, we were also delivering other creative and technology services. Around this time G&R became one of the market leaders in delivering the finest quality social media content, including Facebook apps.

The core planning for ad manager was to offer a superior technology for websites with huge traffics and advertisers care for effective ROI.

The core planning for ad manager was to offer a superior technology for websites with huge traffics and advertisers care for effective ROI.

We also launched ground breaking ad management tools for big publishers and our highest spending advertisers. Prothom Alo started managing all of their inventory and campaigns using the G&R Ad Manager in December 2012. However, after serving around 1 billion ads over 25 days, the system collapsed due to some server side issues. It took a few sleepless nights to bring the system back. This was a huge lesson for us. Once again we revised our software stack to ensure the redundancy of our cloud servers. If one collapses now, there is always a backup. Now our ad engine has a 99.99% uptime guarantee.

Technically our system is writing thousands of new lines of history every second about the Bangladeshi Internet. We’re witnessing the growth of mobile users from the point of view of thousands of websites, rather than looking at whatever research numbers we can find from external sources. From January 2013, we started developing technology to incentivize Bangla mobile websites and app developers.

This is an older brand iteration of G&R. The product is now merged with the core ad network.

This is an older brand iteration of G&R. The product is now merged with the core ad network.

The initial plan for G&R mobile ads was to create a different platform dedicated to mobile-only properties. But later we merged it with a core system and now it is an integrated feature of the ad network. Recently we’ve also started developing mobile applications with the aim to popularize Bangla user interfaces in hopes that it will inspire other app developers. We’re also working on an integrated ad manager solution that allows mobile apps & websites to seamlessly manage direct sales, G&R ads and other 3rd party ads.

2013 was another big year for me — for my personal life, as well as for my professional life. On the 2nd day of the year, I became the father of a son! You can only understand the happiness of being a father by being a father. This new experience let me discover the next episode of my life, which combines a regular life with learning lot of new things, everyday!

From March 2013, G&R’s new era began. There was another change in leadership to reach a wider and higher goal. Nash Islam joined G&R as the new CEO. He brought with him a developer team from his previous venture, ManGoes Mobile, and an extensive understanding of technology and business. He gained much of this experience working for several years for Google and AdMob, both in the US and in Singapore.

Just after we rented our current office. Nash is guiding us in a Yoga Class. It was really good!

Just after we rented our current office. Nash is guiding us in a Yoga Class. It was really good!

Nash’s first initiative at G&R was to streamline the product development process. From the day one, G&R wanted to be a ‘Product Only’ company. But, to cover the costs we used to provide technology services to our clients such as mini website development, Facebook app design and development, and other creative consulting services. From April 2013, we stopped offering these extra services. This decision had a big impact on our monthly revenue, but it made our life easier.

From his previous experiences working at top tech companies, Nash introduced a stronger office culture and work process. Though I was the Chief Product Officer since before Nash’s arrival, I still hardly knew any of the true responsibilities of this position. I started taking lessons from Nash — I learned to write a Project Requirements Document and started using different tools for project management.

From June 2013, we moved to a new place — a place with lots of rooms, a kitchen, playground, etc. The new space let us think more independently in an organized manner. We started redesigning our whole ad network system once again. This time I took pencil and paper and drew around a hundred sketches to determine the new features.

G&R 2.0 was launched at the beginning of October 2013 with a campaign from OLX, which was the biggest campaign in G&R history until that time. This version of the ad network was the shortest-lived because our business was evolving so quickly. Within a few months, G&R won several big clients with big budgets and advanced targeting requirements. At the same time, our product roadmap was changing almost everyday and we had to revise our stack often. G&R 3.0 needed to come quick.

The G&R 2.0 site dashboard plan from 2013. Around 100 sketches were drawn to prepare the prototype.

The G&R 2.0 site dashboard plan from 2013. Around 100 sketches were drawn to prepare the prototype.

While I was preparing the sketches, I was taking inspiration from different web UIs. Before this, the design and wording in G&R’s account dashboards was simple, but non-standard. The fact was — the first version of the G&R ad network was built from our local knowledge and some imaginary thoughts we had about other ad networks.

Now we have many clients who are the power users of our product. After launching G&R 2.0, we focused on the feedback of our internal account managers and regular public users of our product. Based on their feedback, we started developing a roadmap of new features to help advertisers & publishers more efficiently manage their accounts.

In the process of standardization we had to learn and adopt a lot of new things. We also understood the importance of localization, which led us to redesign a whole new ad network.

If you visit the G&R website right now, you’ll see a whole new design we’re calling G&R 3.0. In this latest development, we’ve tried to focus on G&R’s unique market proposition. The best part is that now we’re not alone. There are other ad networks, including global players, who are also helping to grow the market. G&R aims to lead them with superior technology and better, localized user experience.

Welcome to G&R 3.0! This is the new user dashboard, which allows advertisers and publishers control their assets more efficiently. You can check out our 3.0 launching video.

Welcome to G&R 3.0! This is the new user dashboard, which allows advertisers and publishers control their assets more efficiently. You can check out our 3.0 launching video.

For G&R 3.0, we’ve developed more than a hundred new features that we believe will help both advertisers and website or app owners. We’ve also incorporated several payment solutions so that advertisers from anywhere can start a campaign anytime they want. Now perhaps we will have some time to relax and celebrate it.

I was not always very happy in working at G&R. I actually attempted to quit several times and plan my career in a whole different way. But somehow I wasn’t able to do that. Love often causes pain and for some strange reason, we always accept it, and often enjoy it.

I started writing this article in March 2014. It took around 5 months to come to this point (and the 3.0 release ☺). The last 5 months were very important for G&R, and lot of things have been modified during this time. All through my career I’ve received one common piece of feedback from my colleagues and bosses — don’t be too emotional in your professional work! Well, I agree with them (sometimes) and always try to keep it in my mind.

I was not always very happy in working at G&R. I actually attempted to quit several times and plan my career in a whole different way. But somehow I wasn’t able to do that. Love often causes pain and for some strange reason, we always accept it, and often enjoy it.

Now G&R has a bigger and better team. We’ve developed professional working processes, we’re using advanced tools, and we’re getting better salaries. But inside, I sometimes still feel like the same confused person who started at G&R in 2009 – a person who is not so ambitious, wears the same old clothes and tends to sleep a lot while working. Maybe that’s why I’m still dreaming.

Note: This story originally appeared in G&R blog.

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