Face To Face With Minhaz Anwar Of Better Stories

Face To Face With Minhaz Anwar Of Better Stories

Minhaz Anwar on life, entrepreneurship, failure, startup, business, lessons learned and more.

Minhaz Anwar is no stranger to the Bangladesh startup scene. He is the founder of Better Stories-an ideas agency based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Minhaz calls himself a startup activist and he is one of the pioneers of Bangladesh startup movement which has been abuzz across the country of late. He has been working on business incubation, startup mentoring and opportunity brokering for the last 5 years through his dream venture BizCube, Bangladesh’s first incubator proper. He is the licensee of the Bangladesh StartUp Cup and host of this 7-month long mentorship driven business model competition in Bangladesh. Minhaz believes that it is the young entrepreneurs of Bangladesh who will change the game for Bangladesh.

One fine evening I sat with Minhaz in a local restaurant over a drink to talk about his journey to the world of entrepreneurship and his experience with entrepreneurship, startup, and life. Life is a pretty interesting journey and it only makes sense when you keep doing what you love and if you have faith you will always get lucky. Keep making things happen. ~Ruhul

Please briefly tell us about yourself and your passion.

Probably that’s the most difficult one-talking about yourself. Although I call myself a startup activist, basically I help people when they want to start something, when they want to help their community and country, especially in Bangladesh. I help people to start their businesses and grow. At the same time I’m helping global companies to come to Bangladesh-that’s something I started doing very recently.

My passion is to learn new things and try to find where the big gaps are and try to solve problems that seem too big of a challenge and when most of the people would shy away from them and would say that’s totally impossible and too big a thing and let’s not try it or aim for it. I want to tackle those problems.

For example, in 2008 and 2009 I started working on business incubation – as you know BizCube is Bangladesh’s first business incubator proper. When I started off, a lot of people said this is not going to work in Bangladesh. Yes, it did not work in the beginning and it took a lot of time to come to the stage where we are now. It took five or six years. But I think that’s what it is like all the time. As an entrepreneur I don’t like to tackle something that people have already found the solution for. I want to add value. I mean it’s alright if there is an existing solution but what value I can add or how can I add a new angle that could be more efficient. So that’s my passion: learning new things, braving new challenges and always trying to add value. And everything I do I always keep Bangladesh in mind. How it’s going to help my country. I’m fully aware that this country despite whatever resource shortages it has, it has given me a lot. I want to pay back.

I went to Cadet College. We were extremely privileged and I went to a public university. I know how privileged I have been all my life. I know how difficult it was for my parents and family to bear the cost of education as well at the time when they were paying for my education. So I thought I should do something that serve the whole country in general to the best of my abilities.

I firmly believe in the concept of Asian Century, that this century is for Asia. And I also believe that in Asia,Bangladesh is the future of the world for many reasons that include geo-political location, the kind of human resources we have and the potential demography. I think Bangladesh is the future.

My passion is to learn new things and try to find where the big gaps are and try to solve problems that seem too big of a challenge and when most of the people would shy away from them and would say that’s totally impossible and too big a thing and let’s not try it or aim for it. I want to tackle those problems.

All of these together give me the drive to do something that has not been tackled in the past.

I came from the most beautiful place in Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar-the longest sea beach in the world. I was brought up in an environment which is near the sea and totally into the environment where people would go for vacation. I personally developed a very candid and also a very calm approach to life because of that. I’m usually not stressed. I’m very calm as a person and I think my upbringing in this kind of environment has a lot to do with it. We’rebrought up in a family which is extremely value driven, I would say. So right from the very beginning of my life I would start respecting people around us and try things on our own.

At the age of 10 or 11, I went to see a court room proceeding and a lot of lawyers and judges said that would be too outrageous for a child of that age to be in a court room and they asked me why I came. I said I came here to learn and that was not what they expected.

My father was totally focused on giving us the proper education to start with and also to equip us to navigate through the world. The world is tough, you not only need to have lot of skills but you also need to learn how to play the game of the world on your own. I think from the very early stage of life we’re taught to be able to play the game of the world. I’m very grateful that we had that opportunity.

We have a very humble background. We were not wealthy but we came from a typical middle class Bangladeshi family and I think we had the best kind of childhood one could get. We are a family of four brothers and four sisters. We had a lot of fun inside the family and lot of energy and a lot of support-helping each other. Yes, that was fun and also a lot of practicalities from the side of my father.

Until my standard seven I was in Cox’s Bazar then I went to Foujdar Hat Cadet College Chittagong. After graduating from Cadet College I attended the University of Dhaka.

I firmly believe in the concept of Asian Century, that this century is for Asia. And I also believe that in Asia,Bangladesh is the future of the world for many reasons that include geo-political location, the kind of human resources we have and the potential demography. I think Bangladesh is the future.

Minhaz-Quote

Minhaz-Quote

How do you think coming from Cox’s Bazar and having the childhood that you had, shaped your life?

From the very beginning I think we had one very extraordinary license which was the license to make mistakes. We were never asked why you have done something that has never been done before. So, I still remember when I was in class four that time there was a book published of Zafar Iqbal titled Hat Kata Robin-that book described how a boy managed a lot of the things with a team of his friends. And he was a student. The main character of the book formed a club named the Sputnik Boys club and it influenced me a lot and I kind of reflected myself with him and formed a club as well of the same name.

From the very beginning I think we had one very extraordinary license which was the license to make mistakes. We were never asked why you have done something that has never been done before.

I remember we had a proper committee with a finance secretary as well. We were able to raise around 23 taka from the members of that club. Our first investment from the club was to print a book of money receipts so that we could formally accept contributions from the members. We went to the press that we used to see on the way to and from school. With my finance secretary I went to the press and met the owner of the press and we said sir we have 23 taka and we want a money receipts book printed. Then he said go and buy one from the market, if you have only 23 taka you can’t have something in your name. Then we said we need that with our name printed, is there any way we can get that our way? Then he said there might be a way: if I got order from other people to do exactly the same thing like yours then I might make something that would not be the same thing as yours but would work for you as well but I’m not totally sure. What you could do, you could give me the money and I could try for you and you come back in a week and we would talk then. So, we trusted him and gave him the money. After a week we went back to him and he gave us a money receipts book with our name printed on it. You would be surprised that at that age we designed how our money receipt would look and when we got it we had the courage to say that-well this is good but not what we exactly wanted. He said this is too costly boys, I gave you it because you said you raised the money for this purpose. Now go and use it and raise more money.

Screenshot_Better Stories

Screen shot_Better Stories

Briefly tell us about Better Stories. How did you get the idea? How did you manage the fund and put all the dots together?

Better Stories as name suggests was our way of saying to the world that Bangladesh is not all about the floods and cyclones. Bangladesh has the potentials to be the future of the world and we wanted to show the rest of the world how capable we are in general. I always believe if we can put our mind and act together into something we can accomplish almost anything and we’ll be very best in that work. That’s why we started with media and communication- an area which I’m really strong and good at.

When I started Better Stories, clearly the objective was to generate revenue to do longer term things like incubation. In 2008 we started off and we got formal registration in 2009. We were very small. I started by taking one of the rooms in my house and I repaired 3 chairs and my wife was throwing away a table so I kept it and my mother in law was kind enough to give a nice table cloth and my wife also gave an old computer-at that time it was a 6/7 years old computer-and that was how I started. One day I got a call from one of my outside junior friends. He called and said Minhaz bhai I need to talk to you. I said I was also thinking the same. I think that was the month of September and we met and talked and decided to start right away and from October 2008 we started out. We were actually building the company during the 2009. We were still doing our day jobs and doing Better Stories part time. It took us almost two years to reach at a stage when I could leave my job and start working at Better Stories full time.

I learned something that way. No matter how much effort you give to build your company in the evening or during the night, you have to commit full time to your business if you want to make it a success. Otherwise you will never be a success. I should not have waited that long. I should have started full time as soon as I could like from the day one because one thing your client will ask you-are you committing your full time in this? If you say no-they know your heart is somewhere else and they will not commit to you. And I would do the same. If I could see someone is only doing things part time and not committing their full time I don’t feel comfortable giving something important.

Minhaz-Anwar.2

Minhaz-Anwar.2

If I would get another chance to redo the whole thing,I would begin with a lot less resources. I think it’s very important to keep the cost extremely low. I think in Bangladesh we have this funny assumption that you have to have a big office, a big team and a lot more show off. I think showing off kills a lot of potential businesses in Bangladesh and I learned that the hard way and my advice to everyone these days is as long as you can work from your home, work from your drawing room and work with one or two people. You don’t have to have the whole country working for you to build a big business-there will always be time for doing that. The difference you can make is in the business model not in the size of your team.

For example, these days the business model that I have for Better Stories is a collaborative model. At one point of time in 2012, for our type of company, we were extremely big. We were about 15 people and 15 at a very intellectually rigorous level I would say. Having 15 people and having a big office at that level is a big expense of its own. You don’t need to have that.

These days what we have: we have identified a number of consulting startups who are good at one component each. So we outsource or we collaborate on those components with a particular startup. For example, we need a lot of infographic support and we don’t need to do it ourselves. We outsource it to one of the startups that we have found are extremely good at it. Another one is to develop presentation and so on. I don’t outsource core work itself but there are certain things that you don’t have to do yourself so I outsource those things.

I learned something that way. No matter how much effort you give to build your company in the evening or during the night, you have to commit full time to your business if you want to make it a success. Otherwise you will never be a success. I should not have waited that long. 

What did the first two years look like? What were the challenges, opportunities and learning?

The biggest challenge was obviously to find the first set of customers who would believe in us and give us work and pay for it. The first job that we got was in January 2009 (we started in October 2008). We got the work because someone failed to deliver something at the very last moment and they called us and said this is very short notice but can you do it? We were like waiting for anything and everything and at that moment we were hungry for work and we said yes of course. It was a press launch for an innovation fund and it was a very interesting project to work on. And I think we did a great job. We did all the things within three days. It was an extremely busy deadline. Luckily I had a car at that time and we had to give very frequent visit to our client office and were not getting time to work. So, we set up everything in the car and started working on the street and on our way to and back from meetings!

At that time we were only 4 people working on that project including my driver, co-founder, one proper employee who left us right after the project and me. It was so much stress and pressure. But I was really grateful because she did not leave us before we delivered it! At that time I was still doing my day job. I could do this only because I could take a short term leave. This project was done in three days time and I took only three days of leave.

Then our wait for next project started. While waiting for our next job and we started to take people in, we started to behave like a big organization but I was not there for most of time. I was only coming after my day job was over. For the next job we had to wait until July or August 2009. This time it was quite a big project. For that project to deliver we hired new people, capable people and my perception was, if I have good people, great team and proper planning I could do anything. But I was only half right. The key learning from that experience was: you have to involve yourself. You have to be involved full time. If you are the founder of an organization, if you are the person whose vision is crucial you need to be actively involved there, especially during the days of formation before you could give your dream and vision to the company.

I started full time from 2010, a year from the day we got our second project. The good thing was when I decided to be full time I also realized that I need a pipeline of clients as well to make sure that the company survives.

I was very lucky, I would say, by the time I became full time I had one project signed up, two more on process and then we never had to look back. I think becoming full time was a real blessing. I learnt other lessons as well, but I think committing full time is crucial.

Market access is a major challenge for startups all the time. Briefly tell how startups can tackle this problem from your experience with Better Stories.

Whenever people say they don’t have a job, or project at hand I challenge them because I don’t get enough people to help me to take more work and accomplish things. There is a clear gap in matching the demand and supply, obviously.

So, you need to be different to survive. I think startups should look at one thing they are good at. Most of the time the mistake they make is they think of one thing that makes the most money and they go for it, they don’t look at what they are good at. So, I think the starting point is to look out for the major strength and then find if there is a market for it.

I would say find something you are good at and go out of your building and your comfort zone and try to sell it. Throughout this process sometime you will find that you need to adjust your price, or you need to adjust your customer segment or you need to change your offering itself. It might happen that you could think your product has a good market demand but in reality it might not be the case. You might have started with a lot of assumptions but until you put those assumptions into the market and test them, you are way far behind.

If you are given a chance to redo everything of Better Stories from the beginning, tell us about a few things, if any, that you would do differently.

First of all I would commit myself full time from the very beginning. Although we started very humbly but at some point we had a huge amount of regular expenses and I think I would not do that anymore. I would keep the cost really low. I would not have a big team on my payroll but instead I would try to find a more collaborative business model like we are doing now.

You call yourself a startup activist. What does startup activist mean to you?

The global startup failure rate is quite interesting. Only 2% of startups get investment, finance and help while the rest go on to fail. So, there is big gap in market. It means 8 out of 10 businesses that start will eventually fail within the first year of starting. This is a huge waste and it happens because people are oblivious and apathetic to these big gaps, to the need for startups to be supported. I have also seen many Bangladeshi startups crashed by so called mentors. Not that we lack support in our eco-system but we are also very good at de-motivating and crashing people while despite the various odds they are trying their best. It is immensely difficult to start a business in Bangladesh; it’s culturally difficult and it also difficult because of regulatory surprises. It’s like working against a moving goalpost. In that kind of situation I thought I needed to take a strong side not only when raising a voice for policy reformation but also regarding startups having fair deals while working with mentors and investors. That’s kind of my whole point of calling myself a startup activist.

Like a doctor many people come to me for help with their startups. Surely I often can’t help all of them. But people find it useful to share their struggles with someone who listens to them, gives one or two ideas and who keeps it confidential. That is also a major source of knowledge for me. My current activities of policy advocacy are also directly linked to my exposure to the startups. Although I was not sure how all these things were going to help me but my daily exposure to startups gives me the confidence to take their side infront of the policy makers, media, service providers, mentors etc.

Like a doctor many people come to me for help with their startups. Surely I often can’t help all of them. But people find it useful to share their struggles with someone who listens to them, gives one or two ideas and who keeps it confidential. 

What are the major challenges for a startup at the beginning?

They don’t get enough support. 98% of startups fail and that remains the fact. That’s the number one. And then it’s twice as difficult. Cultural barriers are still big barriers. Our parents don’t want us to be an entrepreneur. There are problems with policy, legal issues and more. Even on the day you go for the trade license you will face difficulty. But anything you want to do in Bangladesh is doable and it’s an emerging market so there are lots of opportunities as well.

Have you had any mentor along the way? Do you think everyone should have a mentor?

Yes. I think you need to have people to look up to. Everyone will not be your role model but you need someone to go to when you are in despair, to share your struggle, and to take advice. You need to have your own sound board before venturing out with your own big thing. I think you always need someone who will listen to you and if not give you advice, courage and inspiration. And you need those kind of people to keep going.

Are your family and friends supportive of what you’re doing?

I think it’s a given fact that you need support of people around you. It’s unlikely that your friends and family will support you in terms of exactly what you are doing but sometime support means they would probably believe in you. They might not agree with every step you take but they would say we know you are capable to do this, and we know you are someone who is on a mission but we are concerned that you might not make enough money to make your living.

So I want to separate these two things.

I think your family and friends will be the first to recognize your potential and talent and at the same time they are also concerned for your welfare. In my case I could say if my family were not supporting me I would have never come to this part and my friends particularly my professional colleagues. I distinctly remember one of my colleagues from DFID who was also a private sector adviser repeatedly saying to me that he believed in me, ‘I believe in you and you are going to make it’ he would say. In one moment of despair I called him to say that I don’t think I could make this and I’m going to quit but he said give it another chance; I know you are going to do it really well.

Have you ever failed throughout your path? Please tell us 1 story of failure from your journey and the lessons you learned.

Many times. The nearest story of failure is that I invested a huge amount of money, time and other resources to offer physical incubation in Bangladesh which was ahead of the time. I was not looking into the market demand. Instead I was looking into what I wanted to do. But the ball games always start with the consumers in mind, what consumers want and not what I want to start. That was the first big mistake. I did not look at the market reality while I started the incubator and I would not repeat the same mistake. Talking about business model: letting your expenses grow while having very limited growth prospect is another mistake we made and I would never repeat that again also. Rather what I would go for is collaboration and micro management.

What do you think about failure?

One thing that shaped my childhood is the ability to make mistakes. If you don’t have that license you are not going to innovate-that’s for sure. So, failure in that sense is not a bad thing. But there are mistakes that are avoidable and you must avoid those mistakes. It’s okay to make mistake and fail but if you repeat the same mistakes a second time, I would say that’s a sin. In an organization one should empower people to make mistakes otherwise stagnation will rule. We need to have a culture that will accept and encourage occasional failure. Many people in Bangladesh don’t start their own venture because of fear of failure and we must get rid of this cultural apathy towards failure. We need to build more acceptance towards failure in our culture if we want to see more initiatives.

One thing that shaped my childhood is the ability to make mistakes. If you don’t have that license you are not going to innovate-that’s for sure. So, failure in that sense is not a bad thing. But there are mistakes that are avoidable and you must avoid those mistakes. 

If a young person comes to you and asks for advice on starting what would you tell him?

I would share the lessons that I have learned. I would challenge them whether what they are trying to sell is the thing that the market wants to buy from them. Doing something you love is good idea but to make it a business you need to have demand for it in the market.

Thanks to Samantha Morshed for editing this interview.

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