How Field Buzz Plans To Revolutionize Field Operations Using Smartphones

How Field Buzz Plans To Revolutionize Field Operations Using Smartphones

An Interview With Field Buzz Co-founder Habib Ullah Bahar

Field Buzz co-founder, Habib Ullah Bahar, reflects on how he started into entrepreneurship, what initially drew him to mobile and internet focused ventures, how he met his co-founder Alexis and started Field Buzz, a field information management solution provider, early days of Field Buzz, how it works, the biggest challenges and important lessons from his journey and the future plan for Field Buzz.

Future Startup: Briefly tell us about yourself and your passion.

Habib Ullah Bahar: Yes, sure. I am Habib Ullah Bahar, co-founder of “Field Buzz” (officially Field Information Solutions GmbH/Ltd), which we started in 2015 for companies that want to manage their field operations, manage and track employees working in the field.

I love to solve problems for organizations which are working to improve the socio-economic condition of developing countries like Bangladesh. If you don’t find me at the office, probably I am cycling or trekking somewhere.

FS: How have you started into entrepreneurship?

Habib: Family! The urge to become an entrepreneur was initially inspired by my family. Everyone in my family tried to start a business, although most of them stopped, but I remained hopeful. However, I was not aware about this ida “entrepreneurship” back then.

I chose Computer Science and Engineering as my undergrad subject at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology [BUET] because I wanted to go into the software business. From the very beginning, my classmates used to call me “The Businessman”.

After graduation in 2009, I joined a software company just to experience how an organization works, then left after 3 months to start PROGmaatic Developer Network, my first company.

I struggled big time, largely because I didn’t have any management or sales skill. I was thinking about leaving the country for higher study, but around 2011 I decided to try again. I co-founded 6Degree Communications Ltd, to manufacture high-end Android tablets in Bangladesh.

From my 6Degree days, I have learned how to maintain finances, sales and run an organization, thanks to my awesome colleagues and co-founders then.

Then I re-started PROGmaatic again from scratch in 2013 and by 2014 we had big clients like Samsung, Lenovo, Yamaha, Olympus, Symphony and more. We were offered a good amount of investment locally and abroad. But I realized that for long term survival, we needed our own product and branding, so I started experimenting with enterprise product development.

I was looking for a co-founder with good business skill who can complement my technical skill set and together we could solve existing problems for enterprises.

Fortunately, I met Alexis, thanks to the Startup Cup Bangladesh and Minhaz vai (Minhaz Anwar), and we cofounded Field Information Solutions GmbH in 2015.

Field Buzz is a software system that uses smartphones to help organizations manage their remote or dispersed operations. Field Buzz is flexible enough to be used for most typical “field worker” activities such as registering customers or beneficiaries, tracking which products or services have been delivered where and to whom, tracking payments and credits, conducting surveys and evaluations/inspections, etc. We help customize the system for each organization’s specific needs.

FS: What is Field Buzz? How does it work?

Habib: Field Buzz is a software system that uses smartphones to help organizations manage their remote or dispersed operations. As you know very well, in Bangladesh, and in many other countries too, large companies and NGOs used to have a large number of employees and agents who travel around in the marketplaces or in the villages and seldom maintain a fixed workstation. We call these people “field workers”. The nature of their work makes it hard for them to maintain a standard reporting procedure, unlike people who use office or a permanent workstation.

Most of these people are still using pen and paper to report their work. It is hard for managers to track their field workers, thus there is almost no transparency which makes entire operation very inefficient. The data often comes very late with mistakes or gaps, or even fraud.

Sometimes also the field workers are not really doing their job seriously, or maybe some of them are only working half the day. But it is hard for the CEO to know what is really happening in the field and thus make good decisions. It results in a lot of waste for the companies and NGOs. There is resource being wasted and the customers or beneficiaries, who should be receiving important products or services in rural areas, often are not being reached.

This is where Field Buzz comes into play. We have built a software platform for these kinds of organizations. Our system uses smartphone apps and mobile internet to keep the field workers in touch with the headquarters.

The Smartphone apps are connected to a web-based management and reporting platform. Field workers use the apps to plan their working day and to record their activities. The managers in headquarters or in regional offices access the system through a web-based reporting and management interface which allows them to guide and monitor ongoing field activities.

Field Buzz is flexible enough to be used for most typical “field worker” activities such as registering customers or beneficiaries, tracking which products or services have been delivered where and to whom, tracking payments and credits, conducting surveys and evaluations/inspections, etc. We help customize the system for each organization’s specific needs. So the smartphone app gives the field worker exactly the information and the workflows which he needs to do his job, and it is easy to use.

Then the manager can see exactly which customer received which products or services when and where, from whom, and they get many useful reports such as maps, graphs, summary tables, data-mining tools for doing analysis, alerts about problems or unusual data, target-tracking, and other smart ways to manage performance. And of course, our software is specialized for what we call “low-resource” environments, which means, for example, getting good information back from rural areas where the internet is really slow and breaks down often or from field users with a low level of education, etc.

We have thought of many clever ways to make the system work in even the trickiest environment. We have systems now for clients in really difficult places like Afghanistan, Burundi, and Haiti, as well as several systems in rural Bangladesh of course.

Field Buzz-co-founders: Alexis and Bbahar {from-left-to-right}

Field Buzz-co-founders: Alexis and Bahar {from-left-to-right}

FS: What are the services you offer now? Why is Field Buzz important?

Habib: We provide a full-service solution to the organizations which ask us to help them. We don’t just build the software, we also do the hard work of understanding what they need, designing the right system for them, and then, when the software is ready, helping them to push it through their organization. This last part is actually one of the hardest things.

You know, it is quite likely that there will be a lot of resistance or difficulty to adapt to the new system among some or many of the employees, because you are taking an organization from a situation of low transparency to a situation of complete transparency, and that is a big and scary change for a lot of people. We call this the challenge of “change management.”

You really need a good strategy about how to introduce and then enforce the software, with a lot of training, piloting, being patient, and then using positive and negative incentives – things like bonuses and HR discipline – to encourage people to use the software system properly.

It can take six months to one year, or maybe even more, to get the organization to fully accept the software, and possibly some employees will need to be replaced along the way. That’s a big challenge, and a CEO doesn’t want to screw it up, or he (or she) will be the one who gets replaced instead.

We help the client organizations to think through the steps and to implement them. We have a lot of experience in this by now. Also, my co-founder Alexis is a former management consultant who, before starting Field Buzz with me, helped many organizations gets through difficult situations like this.

Of course, some CEOs might say “You know what; maybe this is too difficult, let’s just stick to our current way of doing things.” But when you have seen the huge benefits of increased transparency and efficiency from using a system like Field Buzz – you know, we are talking big here, big numbers of improved financial performance for companies, and increased social impact for NGOs – then usually you will be convinced that if you don’t change, then soon your competitors will start taking your customers, or your donors will stop funding you.

I really think that mobile IT is going to completely revolutionize field operations over the next few years, in the same way that desktop computers revolutionized office work in the past.

FS: How did you get the idea? When did you decide to move forward with the idea? Also, tell us about your co-founder and early team.

Habib: With my previous startup, I was already focused on mobile and web-based applications for enterprises. We built systems for Yamaha, Olympus, and more than 20 Android apps for Samsung. But it was mostly as a subcontractor, so I didn’t have much control over how to strategically develop the product and the customers.

Then I met Alexis in mid-2014, and he was also looking at how to solve the same kinds of problems – helping organizations to do their field work better – but he was coming at it from the other side, as a management consultant. He needed the software developers, and I needed the management consultants… So we were a perfect match.

Very quickly, just a few weeks after we started working together on a contractual basis, we looked at each other and said: “OK let’s do it, let’s become business partners.” Basically, my existing team from my previous company – about 10 employees – slowly switched over to building Field Buzz instead of working on other subcontracting clients and projects.

I think the thing that really allowed us to bootstrap for a long time was that we had – and still, have – very good financial discipline. We were very very careful about not wasting money, and we worked really hard.

FS: How did you manage your initial funding?

Habib: We bootstrapped. We started with a small investment from our own savings, then over the course of 2015 we saw that our product and market had huge potential but it was hard to get those first few clients, and it was taking a lot longer time than expected to sign the deals and get the cash, even after an oral “Yes” from our first clients. And of course our prices were really low at the start, so we were losing money on every project that we sold.

So we had to make loans to our own company. Over the course of 2014 and 2015, we ended up lending basically all of our own retirement savings to the business. We are just now starting to pay ourselves back. But we always knew that we would be successful. We were not worried at all. All the potential clients that we were talking to were saying “Yes, we need this product”, and they were spending a lot of time with us, so even when it didn’t work out with a new target client for whatever reason, we were thinking “OK, next time”. In fact, I still think that many of the companies and NGOs that we spoke to in 2014 and 2015, and who didn’t become our clients then, will become our clients in 2016 or 2017 or 2018.

Of course, we were lucky that we had some of our own savings to put into the business. But I think the thing that really allowed us to bootstrap for a long time was that we had – and still, have – very good financial discipline. We were very very careful about not wasting money, and we worked really hard.

FS: What are the few key lessons from early days?

Habib: Probably the biggest lesson for us was that we really followed the “lean startup” approach, and it worked really well. We made a big effort to try to understand our customers and their problems, including spending a lot of time “in the field” in rural areas, and we changed our product and business model radically during those first few months in response to what we were hearing from our customers and experiencing in the field.

I would advise fresh entrepreneurs not to spend too much time writing a business plan or running after angel investors or doing marketing and self-promotion, but to just go out there into the real world and test a prototype with some real customers.

Build a “minimum viable product”, test it, measure, learn, and iterate until you find the winning formula. Then the business plan will write itself, the investors will come to you and the media will promote you.

We are still evolving, by the way, just by continuing to listen to our customers, learning from our experiences in the ongoing projects, and working out what that means for our company strategy and for the development of our product and service.

But we are now starting to see and understand what our company will look like in 5 years, and how big it could be, and how much positive change we can help to bring about to rural and under-served areas. Last year we really had no idea about these things, we just needed to experiment and see how our clients would respond.

Another key lesson is to find a co-founder who is complementary to you. If you are an engineer, find a management or sales person. If you are a management person, find an engineer. And if you can’t find the right person at the start, just keep going alone, keep moving forward and keep looking. Sooner or later you will attract the right kinds of people for you.

One more lesson and this is probably the most important one. Don’t quit, but also LISTEN and adapt to what people tell you about your idea. Everything will take four times longer than expected, and be twice as expensive, and bring you only a third of the money which you need, but you can always find ways to make it work out: you just have to be creative and persistent.

But also if people give you advice or if you are wondering if something makes sense, stop and think about it. Are you wasting a lot of time on a dead-end? Maybe you need to pivot your idea? Ultimately, I am a strong believer in “gut feeling”. But you have to make the effort to stop and listen to that gut feeling deep inside you, which maybe is trying to tell you “I am making a mistake, I need to change something, quick”.

It’s really easy to ignore it for a long time, just saying “I am an entrepreneur, it’s normal that I do crazy things”, and then by the time you realize your mistake, you are exhausted and you have wasted a year or two, and that’s when you will probably quit, even though it is only now that you have just found the real solution. So make sure that you stay flexible and that you can pivot before you get to that point of exhaustion and depression!

I would advise fresh entrepreneurs not to spend too much time writing a business plan or running after angel investors or doing marketing and self-promotion, but to just go out there into the real world and test a prototype with some real customers.

FS: What have been the greatest challenges?

Habib: We have had many of the normal entrepreneurial challenges: like getting to the end of the month without knowing how we would pay the team’s salaries; like investing a lot of time and effort into a prospective client, including building demo applications, for a project which never happens; or like having to make really hard decisions about employees a couple of times. But honestly we never really had doubts about Field Buzz long-term, so we were always thinking “short-term pain for long-term gain”.

But yeah, sometimes you do get depressed about how difficult everything is, and nobody seems to understand or care, and you can’t really share the tough parts anyway because you have to maintain the façade that everything is going really well and that it is a huge success.

Having a cofounder really helps for this. At least you can share with one other person. And of course close family and friends are very important too, but in a different way. They help to give you a sense of perspective that life is about more than just your startup.

Field Buzz at work

Field Buzz at work

FS: Tell us about your team. How many people work at Field Buzz now?

Habib: We are 14 people now and growing. We will probably be hiring another two or three people in the next three to six months. We are split between two offices. All our software engineers are in our office in Dhaka, but we also have three people in Frankfurt in Germany, managing things like international sales, business development, needs analysis and implementation support.

Build a “minimum viable product”, test it, measure, learn, and iterate until you find the winning formula. Then the business plan will write itself, the investors will come to you and the media will promote you.

FS: Who are your target customers? How do you reach out to them? What are the strategies you use?

Habib: Our target customers are mostly large organizations with extensive networks of employees or agents in the field. We are especially interested in clients and projects through which we can achieve a positive social impact, so, for example, helping to make development projects in rural or slum areas to become more effective.

Up to now, we have used mostly our personal networks from our career experience, and then referrals from those first clients to other similar organizations. It is very helpful that we have developed a few “niches”, some markets and needs that we understand really well. One of these is what we call “last-mile distribution”.

By now we have about five or six clients who are all trying to sell products to low-income consumers in difficult-to-reach areas. So we have developed modules and features in our Field Buzz platform which are especially useful for them. Things like point-of-sales, inventory management, route management, QR-code identification of shops or customers, etc. We now really understand this market, and our clients are some of the leaders in this sector, so it helps us to sell more projects to others with similar needs.

But of course, we are always looking to expand the product into other “niches” and sectors. Our basic software platform is extremely flexible, so we can fit pretty much any kind of “field work”. Apart from sales of consumer goods, we have clients in sectors such as infrastructure, construction/installation and maintenance, insurance, and NGO “territory officer” management.

FS: Can you please give us an idea about your business, numbers like revenue, clients, growth ETC?

Habib: I can’t talk about financial numbers but I can tell you who some of our clients are. On the corporate side, we have managed to sell projects to some large international companies such as Danone, Unilever, and Munich Re (one of the world’s largest insurance companies). We also have some Bangladeshi clients like Foodex (part of Paramount Group) and Crown Cement. On the NGO/development side, we have clients like the World Food Programme, Care, the Clinton Foundation and KFW Development Bank / Aga Khan Foundation.

By the way the differences between our projects for large companies and for large NGOs are not that big: the large companies that we work with are trying to find a way to do “inclusive business”, with a positive social impact, and the NGOs are trying to find ways to use private enterprise and best-practice management techniques from the private sector to increase their effectiveness and social impact.

These are some big names, and of course, we hope that first successful projects in one country will lead to additional projects in other countries for the same clients, and will also inspire other similar companies and organizations to start talking to us.

But we are also working on some versions of Field Buzz for smaller-sized clients, who maybe can’t pay the full price of a customized solution but who would be satisfied with a more standardized version. We are also evolving towards “software-as-a-service”, so that instead of paying a big set-up fee up-front to buy the software, a client pays a sort of monthly rental fee based on the number of users. But we are not quite finished with our building and testing of these new models yet, so I can’t really give you more details about that.

Sometimes you do get depressed about how difficult everything is, and nobody seems to understand or care, and you can’t really share the tough parts anyway because you have to maintain the façade that everything is going really well and that it is a huge success. Having a cofounder really helps for this. At least you can share with one other person.

FS: Lessons you have learned from your journey so far.

Habib:

1. Stop reading TechCrunch, forget about crazy Silicon Valley and focus on the real needs and potential solutions that are all around you. Find a real, serious problem that you know and understand, try to solve it, and then try to build a company around solving that problem.

2. Every small success takes a lot longer than expected, and when we finally get there, it doesn’t feel that exciting anymore because we have been waiting for it for so long. But then when I look back at where we were six months ago, or a year ago, I think “Oh, wow, we made huge progress during this time!” So I try to celebrate the good things as often as possible.

FS: What is the future plan?

Habib: We will continue to develop the product and to try to help our clients.And I think we are in a good position to keep growing for the next few years. Let’s see what happens!

Image by Field Buzz

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