Life’s Work: An Interview With Dr. Shahadat Khan, CEO, SureCash

Life’s Work: An Interview With Dr. Shahadat Khan, CEO, SureCash

Founder and CEO of SureCash, Dr. Shahadat Khan reflects on his early life and career and how courage and risk shape our life, how our teachers and mothers determine our future and how curiosity, ambition, and hard work drive us, his takes on mobile banking in Bangladesh and vision for SureCash, working culture and growth of SureCash and his plans for the fast-growing mobile payment platform of the country, and the importance of acceptance when we are wrong and our courage to find the right path.

Future Startup

I want to start at the beginning of your story. Where did you grow up and how was your early life?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

I was born in Bikrampur, Dhaka in 1967 and spent my early childhood there. I was the 6th child among eight siblings – two sisters, and six brothers. We came to Dhaka in 1972 and spent rest of my childhood in Khilgaon. I attended Khilgaon Govt. High School and then Dhaka College.

Future Startup

Tell us more about your education and student life.

Dr. Shahadat Khan

As already mentioned, I went to Khilgaon Govt High School. This was a great school at our time with a lot of inspiring teachers such as Khan sir, Faruk sir and Razzak sir led by our headmaster Abdul Bari sir. My school teachers contributed most to my educational foundation and confidence.

Time at Dhaka College was short and fun. We had excellent teachers at Dhaka College including Noman sir as Principal, Zaman sir for math and Abdullah Abu Sayeed sir for Bangla. At that time, a lot of students were more regular in private tuitions than college classes. I went to college regularly also attended classes. Sometimes I used to play chess at the cafeteria and have a fun time with friends. College life gave me a taste of freedom and Dhaka College area was good to use or abuse that freedom.

After HSC, I was not very sure what I wanted to study. I gave admission tests for both Dhaka Medical and BUET and got accepted for both. I did not go to any coaching for admission test but one of my friends helped me a lot because I had to tutor him.

I had chosen BUET over Dhaka Medical was because I loved math and was weak in memorizing. I studied Electrical and Electronic Engineering at BUET. I am glad I had made that decision because EEE was a lot of fun and easy for me due to my knack for math.

The best thing about BUET was (probably is) that it was very fair. If we gave a good exam, we always knew we would get a good grade. Exams were tough and merciless but were fair.

Dr Shahadat Khan

Dr Shahadat Khan, SureCash

Future Startup

Our life often changes when we come across some sort of catalyst. It can be a person, a book, or an event. Who has inspired your most in your life?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

The most important person who influenced shaping my life was my mother. I lost my father when I was in grade eight. Mother was very kind, very simple. She was not formally educated but she was a person with a clear vision. She knew what she wanted from us. She guided us towards education and helped us thinking simple and big.

She did not have a lot of money but she never let us worry or any trouble to touch us. She always told us, you do your study I will take care of everything else. I did not always need her money because I was always on some sort of scholarship, I went to Canada with Canadian Commonwealth scholarship, but her assurance always gave me the courage.

I don’t know, I don’t understand even these days where did she get her courage. She was a very strong source of inspiration for me.

Future Startup

Any interesting story from your early days that you often go back to.

Dr. Shahadat Khan

It is a story from my school life which inspires me a lot even these days. The headmaster of our school Bari sir one day called me to the teacher’s room and inform all the teachers and declared, ‘Shahadat is an extraordinary brilliant boy and if all of our teachers help him, he will be in the national merit list in SSC’.

For a student of grade 9, this was very inspiring. And It was the most inspiring event of my life. That small statement boosted my confidence a lot and I started receiving a lot of attention from all my teachers at school.

One byproduct of that additional attention was that I had to stay extra time in school to improve my handwriting under the supervision of Khan sir even though I was already the top student of my class. (I still do not know whether that was a good thing or just a punishment! My team members at SureCash do not think it worked.)

The most important person who influenced shaping my life was my mother. I lost my father when I was in grade eight. Mother was very kind, very simple. She was not formally educated but she was a person with a clear vision. She knew what she wanted from us. She guided us towards education and helped us thinking simple and big.

Future Startup

After graduating from BUET, what did you do?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

After graduating from BUET, I became a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering Department. It was a dream job for me. It was good pay, very prestigious and was also good for opportunities for higher studies.

After teaching over a year, I received the Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship for 5 years of graduate studies and went to the University of Victoria.

A study in Canada was a great experience. After studying at BUET, studying in Canada was a much easier. I learned a lot in Canada in school, but mostly outside the classrooms.

I had the chance to share experiences with friends and co-students from many countries including Greece, Japan, India, Mexico, USA, and Canada. I also started hobby photography while in school, and Victoria is a beautiful place for that.

I started working in a small company and became Chief Technology Officer of the company in 3 years. I had the opportunity to work in many countries and learned a lot. I traveled over 45 countries and some countries for many many times.

As a chief technology officer, I used to give talks in conferences. It was an opportunity to come across and know many top minds in the world of technology. In one fine morning, I had the opportunity to speak along with the vice-president of Oracle and then next morning with a distinguished engineer at Cisco and then with the CTO of Sony. There was a lot of good experience working there. We developed some software which, fortunately, also did quite well.

While I was working as a CTO, I hired a lot of Bangladeshi people in Canada and then I brought the company to Bangladesh, a branch of that company at the end of 2006. I started with a team in Grameen Bank building and later brought that to Mohakhali DOHS.

At one point, I realized that I was among the luckiest one. I’m the only person from my EEE batch who went to software. Many of my friends are very accomplished and now work at Intel and big hardware giants but I went to CSE and very much became a software person.

Many of my friends started at big companies whereas I started at a small startup but went to become the CTO very quickly. The advantage of working at a startup is that you have to take big responsibilities whereas at big companies you get good money and stability and all that but not much opportunity to learn or experiment.

After working for a while it occurred to me that I have been able to achieve all this in my life not because I deserved but because I got some opportunities that helped me to move forward in life and learn from experience. And my country has given me so much and made me who I’m, and at one point, I felt, I may be able to make a small difference by sharing some of my experiences.

Then in 2006, we got a big Japanese project with a stringent timeline. I told my boss that I could not do this project on time in Canada but I could do it in Bangladesh. He said why you could not do it in Canada but in Bangladesh. I told him I would not be able to hire these many people within this short time in Vancouver but I could do that in Dhaka. I told we have great talents in Bangladesh and I know teachers in BUET and top people would be happy to work with me. He was convinced.

Within a short notice, I came to Bangladesh. I called my teacher and lifelong well-wisher Professor Dr. Mohammad Kaykobad. I said, “Sir, I need 10 people within 72 hours. Is that possible?” Sir said, “Yes possible.” He asked a few of his students to come and meet me. Then within probably 24 hours after my arrival in Dhaka, I hired eight people, 5 of them were still undergrad students. This turned out to be a very strong team in time.

We worked hard day and night for the next six months and delivered a high-quality product to Fujifilm in Japan. Japanese are very quality conscious and meticulous nation. It was a very good experience and gave me confidence that we can build good software in Bangladesh.

Future Startup

Why did you come back to Bangladesh after living in Canada for 18 years?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

Living in Canada and working as a CTO has given me the opportunities to have great exposures and valuable experiences. I felt a responsibility to give back to my country. Bangladesh provides a great working opportunity. For example, our work in Primary Education Stipend Project will create 10 million active SureCash customers.

For most of the countries in the world, the total population is less than 10 million. This is just double the population of Singapore. Our country has a great development potential and is already recognized as a role model around the globe. Our vision of the Digital Bangladesh has been appreciated globally and has gained many opportunities locally and internationally for us to work on.

SureCash Office

Future Startup

How did SureCash come to exist?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

I always wanted to start a technology company in Bangladesh. When I was working in the R&D center of Eye Ball Networks, I realized that we were developing software in Bangladesh but that software was used in other countries such as Japan, USA, Thailand, and the UK.

At some point, I started thinking about what products we can build that can be used by the people of this country. In Bangladesh, most adults already have mobile phones but only 30% of the people have financial services. Therefore, we wanted to build a financial services product using the mobile phones. And that triggered the conception of SureCash.

Future Startup

SureCash enables banks to offer mobile banking services and provides a platform to other payment partners. Can you please tell us more about SureCash?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

SureCash is a mobile payment platform involving people, businesses, and government in Bangladesh. We offer a complete payment solution for our customers and payment partners. Currently, customers can make and receive government payments, pay school and college fees, pay utility bills, pay for goods and services, and make person-to-person (P2P) transfers and we are deepening current verticals and expanding into new channels.

SureCash is one of the fastest growing Fintech companies in Bangladesh. We have created an open payment network in partnership with 5 local banks, including one of the largest state banks and more than 550 payment partners. We gave developed our own proprietary technology initially focusing on connecting schools, colleges, government education programs reaching the last mile and utilities that touch most lives.

Our business model is similar to VISA. We provide the platform, switch, backend support, distribution channel, joint marketing campaigns and business plans. We manage the network. You can co-brand with banks such as Rupali Bank SureCash and FSIBL First Pay SureCash.

We are a common, shared mobile banking and payment platform. We have built the software and platform from scratch in Bangladesh, we maintain the common agent network and take care of the all other aspects of the platform.

Our plan is to be the leading mobile payment platform in the country. We want to make doing payment from your mobile phone easy and simple, be it paying bill, salary or shopping or getting remittance or for the government disbursing money or collecting the taxes.

Future Startup

You started in 2010, raised $7 million from Osiris in 2014. How much has the company evolved over the past years? How is the growth? How many people are using SureCash, how big is your agent network?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

I started SureCash from our Khilgaon home in 2010. After a couple of months, we took an office in Mohakhali DOHS and hired two people. We became four people including our driver.

We are expanding significantly every year. From two employees and our driver in 2010, today we are hundred times larger. We are now 250 people directly and then indirectly there are around 1000 people working full time for us.

We are currently working on some very big Government project like Government disbursement project for the Bangladesh Sugar Corporation. We are disbursing payments for 14 sugar mills in the country. When somebody sells sugarcane to the sugar mills, they are paid through using SureCash. All the sugar mills are automated now like that so you can track where money is going and how much is spent and where. It is very simple for the sugar mills: upload the spreadsheet and pay a thousand people.

We are also working on another project, the largest payment digitization project in the country, the primary school stipend disbursement. Here we are working with the government to disburse stipends to 10 million mothers distributed in 80,000 villages in this country.

Currently, SureCash has more than 100 thousand retail agents across the country.

We are at the very early stage but I think it will become the default mode of payment in the near future. Currently, people mostly use cash except for the large payments which they do through banking channels. We have just started and it is just tip of the iceberg. I think the payment industry will go digital and mostly mobile. It is safe, cost effective, and efficient. I think future of payment is cashless.

Future Startup

What are the channels and mediums you are using to reach out to your customers and pushing the growth?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

SureCash uses a marketing strategy for building scale through network partners in phases. The service is co-branded with banks and a good part of the growth is driven through payment partners. For instance, we are working with more than 470 colleges and schools in this country. We collect payments for all these colleges.

In colleges like Dhaka College, Eden College, and Azizul Huq College, students are paying using SureCash. Students can check how much is due, college can check how much they received and all from their mobile phones. This makes life easy for students as well as management.

SureCash employs an integrated marketing approach including digital marketing, trade marketing as well as TV, radio and print media. As internet users are growing in Bangladesh, online and social media such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and tweeter are getting more importance. We also use ‘word of mouth’ promotion through the large partner and customer network that already use SureCash for their various payment needs.

Our partnership program is quite strong. As I said, there is still room for us to grow and in 2017 we plan to work harder and do a lot more than earlier.

Future Startup

We are talking a lot about digital payment but to our understanding it is still very hard to pay digitally in Bangladesh. MFS products are quite complicated when it comes to shopping and other payment experience. But it can be so much easier. It should be something like this: you receive money into your mobile from your bank a/c or your salary or payment and then you pay through your phone when shopping something, paying rent or anything else. And, to some extent, it can be a completely cashless experience.

Dr. Shahadat Khan

Thanks to the services such as bKash and Rocket, Bangladesh already has made huge progress with mobile payments, and has become one of the leading countries in the world for this. A person in any part of the country can now pay another person safely and instantly using the mobile phone.

SureCash already provides a very simple, flexible and complete payment product for both offline and online payment transactions. We have also integrated with a few e-commerce sites in Bangladesh. For people, we provide one of the easiest, simplest e-commerce payment experience you can expect. For example, you can purchase a bus-ticket on busbd.com. To complete the purchase, you just need to enter your wallet number at the online-shop and enter PIN in your phone. You will get instant confirmation both on the website and via SMS.

We have a concept called ‘Kotha Koite Koite Commerce’ (K3C) that we have already copyrighted. This allows a customer to call a hotel in Cox’s Bazar, select a room during the call, and make a SureCash payment to confirm the booking all while talking. Merchant just sends a payment request to customer’s phone and customer completes the transaction using his/her PIN. We believe a safe and easy payment platform will be able to drive ecommerce business and expedite our journey towards a cash-less society.

We have a very simple API to integrate to any e-commerce sites and there is this two-factor authentication. We are not sacrificing security. There are a couple of sites who are using it and we are also working with payment gateway and all that.

Our app download number is not that great, probably 5000 downloads but more than five hundred thousand college students already use it. In 2017, our plan is to reach out to more people and increase the engagement and usage. We are also working on some digital campaigns.

SureCash is a mobile payment platform involving people, businesses, and government in Bangladesh. We offer a complete payment solution for our customers and payment partners. Currently, customers can make and receive government payments, pay school and college fees, pay utility bills, pay for goods and services, and make person-to-person (P2P) transfers and we are deepening current verticals and expanding into new channels.

Future Startup

How many banks are using your platform currently?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

Five banks are using our platform now. We are also working with other payment partners. For instance, if we pay 20 million salaries every month then these people would use it for all other purposes.

Our target is, for instance, there are twenty thousand colleges in the country and we want all of them to use SureCash to collect payments. We want ten thousand companies to use our platform to pay salaries. We are working with utility companies for bill payment.

There are other use cases as well, we are working with banks to connect your SureCash account to your bank account so that you can load money from your bank account to your SureCash account. You can connect your credit card. The whole idea is making payment simple.

Future Startup

The number of players in the MFS space is growing. What do you think about competition?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

SureCash is a complete payment service for people as well as businesses and government. We ensure best customer experience for making or receiving money using feature phones or smartphones.

We are the market leader in payment collection and disbursement sector in Bangladesh. We have developed a very robust and flexible software platform that can be customized to meet the requirements of even very demanding payment partners.

SureCash introduced a great smartphone app that enables customers to make any payments easily by using a simple swipe and touch interface. One of my colleagues told us that he earned a bet for free dinner last month by just making a SureCash payment transaction in less than 5 seconds!

Please note that bKash and Rocket are great MFS products primarily providing person-to-person payment and mobile recharge services. Since SureCash works in a broader payment space, we are not in direct competition with other MFS providers.

Bangladesh is a market of 160 million people and 56 commercial banks. The market is large enough for a few MFS and payment players to sustain and grow.

Future Startup

What do you think about the current state of digital payment in the country?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

We are at the very early stage but I think it will become the default mode of payment in the near future. Currently, people mostly use cash except for the large payments which they do through banking channels.

We have just started and it is just tip of the iceberg. I think the payment industry will go digital and mostly mobile. It is safe, cost effective, and efficient. I think future of payment is cashless.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for SureCash going forward?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

People are not aware of different payment solutions that are available in the market. One challenge would be to build the awareness. Whatever payment they need to make, they can have multiple options. So the awareness piece is a very big work.

The nature of thing is that people take time to adapt to the new things. SureCash is kind of a network.

At the beginning, it takes time to build the network but once it reaches a certain point it grows very fast. Going to that size where it catches fire is a challenging work and it takes time. Reaching that tipping point as fast as we can is our main job.

Future Startup

How do people work at SureCash? Tell us about your culture.

Dr. Shahadat Khan

At SureCash, we have a very open culture where we appreciate open communication, invite people to bring their ideas and try things, and build their dream organization.

SureCash has an equity pool for the employees, for everybody. We like people to take more and more ownership of the company.

We are a very flat kind of organization. We take and accept an idea because it is good not because of your position. Your position does notrather we put importance on your work.

Even a few months ago, I did not have a door in my room and most people still don’t. Many people even don’t have an office.

Open communication, exchange of best ideas and less bureaucracy are a couple of values we practice.

We respect talent and try to attract the best talents and work hard to bring the best out of our people.

We experiment quite a bit. We learn when we fail when we succeed we celebrate. Every time we do it we try to do it a little bit better.

Future Startup

Do you have any plan to raise further investment?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

We are working on our series C funding and hope to close this sometime this year.

Future Startup

What are your Plans for SureCash going forward?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

Our plan is to be the leading mobile payment platform in the country. We want to make doing payment from your mobile phone easy and simple, be it paying bill, salary or shopping or getting remittance or for the government disbursing money or collecting the taxes.

We are growing our partner network and aim to be the network that handles most payment transactions of the country.

Future Startup

How do you pull yourself up when you feel down or come across a big challenge?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

We are working on some exciting products with a very smart and energetic team, and whenever there are some challenges, we just face them together. I usually do not feel down because of two reasons – I enjoy my work and I am just too busy to feel anything. Luckily, I have a loving family, a few great friends and a couple of mentors to help me when things are really difficult.

I think every person is born with the possibility to become a genius. I’m not saying that there are people with greater merit but the thing is, I believe, nurture has a greater role to play when it comes to defining the final product. Nature has definitely certain extent of role but I think our environment and all the opportunities that we get and hard work we do shape our lives.

team SureCash

Future Startup

You have over 26 years of experience including university teaching, research, and development, product marketing, technology consulting, Travelling and building companies. What are the biggest lessons from all those years?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

Learning is a lifelong process. Like most people, I’m still learning every day.

If you like what you do and if you want to do a good job, you always can do a good job. That’s all takes. It is all about putting hours, rest will always follow.

I think this is the best time to be young in the history of the world. If you want to learn anything in any area, any discipline and you can learn from the best minds and schools. Everything is available and for free. You can equip yourself and compete.

We have a lot of talents in this country and the only thing I would say dream big and work hard. You can achieve whatever it is you want. That said, don’t follow your dream blindly. Do your research. Don’t hesitate to accept when you are wrong. Try finding the right thing for you.

I think every person is born with the possibility to become a genius. I’m not saying that there are people with greater merit but the thing is, I believe, nurture has a greater role to play when it comes to defining the final product. Nature has definitely certain extent of role but I think our environment and all the opportunities that we get and hard work we do shape our lives.

Future Startup

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

Dr. Shahadat Khan

A very big question for a small guy like me! We want to make SureCash successful, and then I want many of colleagues to go out and create 10 companies, each bigger than SureCash.

We have a lot of very smart people in this country, and we should be able to win our fair share of the knowledge-based global economy in this millennium. I would like to believe that I can play a tiny role in that transformation.

Image courtesy: SureCash

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