On Starting And Working Hard: An Interview With Zamilur Rashid Of RITL
Can you work for 70 hours a week?
Zamilur Rashid is the Founder and Managing Director of Dhaka based IT firm RITL (Rupam IT Limited). RITL is a “scalable and agile software development team” that focuses on web, mobile or integrated hardware solution. RITL is a partner organization of World Bank Bangladesh and has closely worked with institutions like University of Dhaka, Bangladesh Army, RHSTEP. RITL’s subsidiary CEMIS Ltd (Circle Education Management Information System Limited) is currently working with educational institutes to provide end-to-end integrated solutions.
Mr. Zamil started his career in 2010 on research and business incubation and has experience of working in different projects funded by World Bank, SNV-ADB, Save the Children, British Council and the University of Dhaka. He has a vision of solving problems of developing sectors through ICT.
The first thing that I would ask him is whether he is ready to start the business. What I meant by readiness is that, can you work for 70 hours a week?
Please briefly tell us about yourself and your passion.
I grew up in Dhaka. My school and college were Ideal School and Notre Dame College. In late 2008 I went to UK for Higher Studies. I first attended David Game College and then University of York where I studied Economics. I returned to Bangladesh in Mid 2012.
Since my early days, I wanted to be an industrialist, as I grew up seeing my businessman father. I dreamt of running industries where I will be working with thousands of people.
And I am very passionate about photography and cooking. I like to read, travel and of course, eat a lot!
Briefly describe your path to becoming an entrepreneur.
In 2010, after my first year at university, I did three months internship at BetterStories Ltd under Minhaz Anwar Bhaiya. In 2011, I again came back for another internship with BetterStories and we worked on various development sector projects and during that time we were also trying to develop a business incubation center in Dhaka. The result was BizCube the first ever incubation center of Bangladesh. And, then in Mid 2012 I finally came back.
In late 2012, I worked in few IT related projects such as working as a mentor at the first Hackathon (Sanitation Hackathon) under World Bank (WB), Researcher at Promoting Child rights through ICT, Digital Bangladesh, ERP prospects etc. There I came across many brilliant ideas. The solutions were good but there was no one to take those ideas to the next level. What was disheartening to me is that only 40-50% ideas become practical project, rest goes into oblivion. Such rampant loss of ideas leads me to think of my own venture RITL. Our initial goal was to solve developing sectors problem through ICT. However, now we serve all kinds of clients from corporate to international.
There I came across many brilliant ideas. The solutions were good but there was no one to take those ideas to the next level. What was disheartening to me is that only 40-50% ideas become practical project, rest goes into oblivion.
What was your underlying motivation to become an entrepreneur? Entrepreneurship is a long, lonely, and risky journey. As you have a foreign degree, you could have chosen any other profession easily in our socio-economic context.
I worked with a retired secretary for three months as a part of an assignment and what I saw is that the moment you retire, all your importance is gone. It is not like that the impact of job is trivial but to me entrepreneurship is a time transcending journey. If you are an entrepreneur, it does not really matter where you stop, the next generation can start from there. Second thing is that you are free to do the things that you love.
Tell us a bit about RITL and what are you doing here.
At RITL, we provide web based services and we are also designing our own products. The main difference is we are almost like two separate entity: while serving clients we are also working to develop our own products. We take care of normal businesses, we do outsourcing, we work for clients and then we use almost 70% of our resources for building our own products. Even we are building products that don’t have any immediate clear business goals. Most of my programmers asked me how we are going to make money from these products. Most of the products that we are making are futuristic and those products do not have any revenue source right now. At present, we are working on a hospital management system, which has been implemented in 29 hospitals. We are also developing a comprehensive educational management system (CEMIS), which runs in 4 schools.
At RITL our aim is to become a holding company that is we will hold shares in many other startups and we have already started it. For example, CEMIS is the result of RITL investing in another Startup for equity. We also invest in other startup if the idea is promising. Right now, we are working on investment deals with two startups. So, if anyone comes with a brilliant idea and need help in IT or finance, then we can finance, take share and start building.
How did you get the idea and manage funding and connect all the dots together?
I used to work as a consultant. From my 1.5 years of working I saved around six lacs taka. When I started I borrowed another 4.5 lacs from my sister (Dr. Fahmida Kamal) and brother in law (Mahmud Bin Alam) who has provided not only the financing but also advice and support for my venture. With this money I started this office in a very small scale. And another mention goes to Umar KBin Alam (ICT Consultant World Bank). He has been the on and off short-term lender for RITL. What his support does is, it enables me to take long term projects as these projects gives return after a certain period of time. I started with one programmer and an admin officer. And 1.5 years later we are a team of 15 people.
Tell us about your first few months. What it was look like at the beginning?
The biggest obstacle that I experienced is access to work. Everywhere you go NGOs, INGOs or government institutions, they will ask for at least three years of experience unless you have any good personal connection. No matter how much talented you are, it does not really matter in Bangladesh. At the beginning it is very difficult to develop a product in Bangladesh because you need financial freedom to do so and financial freedom comes when you have sufficient works.
In Bangladesh it is very difficult to get work from Bangladesh government. Although we have everything ready and we are capable to do the job but they are unwilling to take us in just because we do not have three years of experiences as a firm. Personally, programmers of my firm have three to five years of personal working experience. Since, we do not have three years of experience as a company we even don’t get the chance to apply in many of the projects, even for a simple website.
Access to finance is another major barrier. Although we have BD ventures and all these strands, still it is not formalized. We do not have a food chain where startup can go to venture capitalists. And getting work from reputed vendors remains super difficult as a startup. How are you going to survive for three years if you do not have any work?
What do you think, how startups can overcome this problem?
There are two ways we can solve it. The way we solved it at RITL is we partnered with another firm, to apply for big projects. That is the way we survived for three years. Since I worked in many places, I have connections. But if a fresh graduate or someone from university wants to start a business how will he know all these big firms?
The second thing would be to look at the international market. International market wants to see your portfolio, your compliance issues, whether you are working for any big projects or your past experience in this particular matter. They are not bound by any time frame like three years. They will ask for what sort of project you did regarding that particular field. As we have very specific interest in education and health, we have built our portfolio around that field. Even we worked for free. We tried to work as many projects as possible in order to build our portfolio. When our portfolio is ready, we submitted it to the international market and got few work. Our target is to sustain in this model for two years and then we can officially bid for projects in Bangladesh.
As an entrepreneur I fail almost every day.
What do you think about failure?
As an entrepreneur I fail almost every day. I like to keep my business as up to date as possible. And whenever you are doing something that very few people have done before the chances of failure is of course very high. But what is important is to be rational even while taking chances. One more important thing is to always have Plan B and C. And you also have to make sure that about 2/3 of your decisions are right and they don’t fail. And at times nothing goes right, and you may have to start over. My first venture was a failure. But business is all about taking risks, so no complain.
What are the lessons you have learned from the failure of your previous company?
From that failure, the first thing I have learned is how to deal with the employees. It is one of the most difficult tasks. People always think that handling clients is difficult, but, it is nothing compared to the dealing with employees.
The second thing would be maintaining finances. You may generate a lot of revenue but you need to budget yourself and that is very difficult.
It is not like that the impact of job is trivial but to me entrepreneurship is a time transcending journey. If you are an entrepreneur, it does not really matter where you stop, the next generation can start from there.
If a young person comes to you and asks for advice on starting what would you tell him?
The first thing that I would ask him is whether he is ready to start the business. What I meant by readiness is that, can you work for 70 hours a week? You will also have to be excited about what you want to start and you will have to work for late hours every day at least for 5-6 years.