On Building Things From Scratch: Q&A With Sajid Islam Of hubdhaka
Sajid Islam – a serial entrepreneur, startup evangelist, and an avant-garde angel investor – is the founder of hubdhaka. Hubdhaka is the first coworking space in Bangladesh – a members-only work & social club for entrepreneurs, freelancers, startups, innovators, and independent professionals to convene, work and collaborate. It is the venue for the assembly of like-minded independent professionals who have agreed to conform to the high standard that they have set for themselves where groups of three or four sit and work together with the occupants rarely disturbing the others.
A wanderlust turned globetrotter, Sajid manages hubdhaka remotely when he travels frequently to attend events around the world. Sajid firmly believes that entrepreneurship is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. It is what advances human welfare while uplifting communities from poverty.
In this interview, Sajid shares his experience in the establishment and the running of hubdhaka, discusses problems and opportunities extensively that we have in Bangladesh, talks about his own share of struggle and argues that passion is the key for every entrepreneur.
Future Startup: Why hubdhaka? What was the inspiration behind starting it?
Sajid Islam: In May 2013, I replugged myself back in Dhaka with a vision to participate and fast track the transition of Bangladesh from a labor-based to a Digital and Knowledge-based economy. In line with that vision, I decided to launch a startup accelerator program and organized a pitching contest called ‘Pitch2Win’.
Back then, I did not have an office space, since I had just arrived in Dhaka. I used to sit in restaurants and coffee houses to work and conduct meetings. There usually are many inconveniences associated with using such areas as a workplace: There is a lack of space to sit, converse and get work done; Power outlets (to charge laptops and so on) are poorly spaced; Internet facilities are barely available, and if available, have slow speed connections. The background noises in such areas also tend to be distracting. This list goes on and on!
It was impossible to find a place in Dhaka where one could just show up and start working on their project, without having to worry about office setup, administration or logistics. Neither could I find a community of like-minded people.
While the original goal was to run a startup accelerator or mentorship program, but I realized that without a community workspace such as hubdhaka, it is not possible for a startup ecosystem to flourish. Therefore, I decided that the accelerator program had to wait while the foundation was being built.Sajid Islam
Simply put, the coworking experience that I was familiar in the United States was missing here in Bangladesh, and I could tell that people were missing out on many opportunities. I realized that for Bangladesh to truly move ahead as a Digital and Knowledge economy with a thriving startup ecosystem, this deficiency needs to be satisfied.
Also my research showed that very few people in Dhaka were aware of the coworking concept, there was a need for a place for entrepreneurs, innovators, and go-getters to convene, work and collaborate. This was my Aha moment, or so to say, the main inspiration behind the development of hubdhaka. So in November 2013, during the closing session of StartupBashbd event I announced my intention to start hubdhaka.
While the original goal was to run a startup accelerator or mentorship program, but I realized that without a community workspace such as hubdhaka, it is not possible for a startup ecosystem to flourish. Therefore, I decided that the accelerator program had to wait while the foundation was being built.
FS: You mentioned digital and Knowledge economy. What is it?
SI: We define a Knowledge economy as the production and services based on knowledge-intensive activities, which contribute to an accelerated pace of technical and scientific advancements, as well as rapid obsolescence.
The key component of a Knowledge economy is a greater reliance on intellectual capabilities than on physical inputs or natural resources. In a Digital economy, we replace manual transactions or paper-based data into digital data facilitating easy storage and transfer of data. Furthermore, in a Digital economy, ‘data’ and information is a commodity.
Since gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh has had a great run. The economy has grown leaps and bounds and has turned us into a middle-income country. The credit goes to our RMG Industry and Wage Earners living abroad.
However, for us to become a developed country we need to create more jobs, optimize and grow our revenue. All these will be possible through the adoption of the Digital and Knowledge economy. I like to say, “Labor took us where we are today, and Digitisation and Knowledge will take us to the moon.”
FS: Tell us more about the journey of building hubdhaka after you decided to open a coworking space. How did the idea finally take shape?
SI: The easy part was taking the decision to build hubdhaka: a coworking space. The challenge was turning the idea into a reality, and the most important question I found myself asking was, “where should we locate hubdhaka?”
I had plenty of options: The uptown areas such as Gulshan and Banani, being the second largest business sector hubs of Dhaka city, brings in almost the entire employed/office going population. There also was Dhanmondi, which is full of schools, universities, and shopping malls.
Then I noticed Mirpur. There were aspects of Mirpur which caught my attention: the population density and its transportation convenience. It also is comparatively less expensive than other regions of Dhaka and has very little problem with respect to traffic.
Once we decided on the location, we focused on the type of construction that would suit hubdhaka. We wanted an easily accessible, commercial building, where space would be open with no walls unlike in residential buildings. The idea was to break boundaries and build relationships.
We eventually found an open, unfinished commercial space in Mirpur. A lot of work had to be completed from this point, and with a lot of focus, we solved our problems one at a time, and finally got to where we stand today. Definitely not a bad start at all!
Here is a good example on how we approached problems in hand. During our opening as well as first event “Startup Weekend Dhaka 2014”, we had the budget for only two air conditioners (ACs). And this would be only 40 percent of the capacity required for our space. Being on the top floor, facing direct sunlight it was also extremely hot. Instead of giving up or postponing our event, we decided to think outside the box and ended up using ice blocks with stand-fans behind to cool down the space.
All in all, it was a good start, and I must pat us on the back for overcoming the challenges that we have faced along the way.
Once we decided on the location, we focused on the type of construction that would suit hubdhaka. We wanted an easily accessible, commercial building, where space would be open with no walls unlike in residential buildings. The idea was to break boundaries and build relationships.Sajid
FS: Like you said earlier, the idea of coworking was new to Bangladesh and you were the first one to give it a try. How did you deal with and overcome challenges during those early days?
SI: Since coworking was a new concept to Bangladesh, initially, we spent a lot of our resources educating individuals on the importance of working in a collaborative environment. Often, individuals tend to work from home, limiting themselves to the four walls of their room and to their imaginations only.
In this situation lies a fallacy; while we think we are saving more energy and time working from home, allowing ourselves to be more productive, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Research indicates that when you are working in a like-minded communal environment, you not only set parameters to get your work done, you also live off the energy of the people around you who boost or encourage your own productivity.
Humans are social animals; we like to live in a community, we like communicating with each other and we thrive the most when we are put together (akin to bees in a beehive structure). It was difficult initially to make people realize this point, and this was the most crucial challenge that we had to face. Technologically advanced companies like Facebook and Apple today are spending billions of dollars building new campuses to take their community growth to the next level.
Hubdhaka is a second home for innovators, achievers, go-getters, freelancers, startups and any productivity-seeking individual. I personally feel that it is time for Bangladesh to open the door to such opportunities, and now is as good a time as any!
FS: Any other challenges you had to overcome?
SI: Absolutely! Another huge difficulty I had to face was re-acclimatizing myself back to Bangladesh, after having spent almost 19 years in another country. It was definitely hard especially because I had no prior professional experience in Bangladesh even though I had worked in many countries: North America, South America, Canada, Europe, and even India. But Bangladesh was completely different: in terms of its culture, its work-life balance and its people.
One of the hardest tests, I faced in the beginning, was hiring the right people. Since we were the new kid on the block and not yet a brand, very few people knew hubdhaka, and it was tough to attract talent.
There is a saying in the startup world “hire slow, fire fast”- basically translates as – don’t hire the second best candidate; always wait for your first choice. Even though I am a firm believer of this saying, I broke my own rule and got into trouble. I ended up hiring the second and third best candidates and decided to train them and improve their skills. And I was wrong! Turns out these people were not interested in improving and growing. All they wanted was to clock in and clock out and receive a paycheck by the end of the month.
Furthermore, I experienced that at the time of hiring, candidates seem to just say yes to everything just to get the job and if they do get the job while working, they actively search for other placements.
We learned our lesson, and right now getting into hubdhaka is a multi-step process to ensure we are onboarding the right individual. We go through various levels of assessment starting from phone screening, written assessments, to personal interviews and finally a small project. Looking back I think we’ve come a long way. We are selective now and all these experiences actually have helped us grow.
Hubdhaka is a second home for innovators, achievers, go-getters, freelancers, startups and any productivity-seeking individual. I personally feel that it is time for Bangladesh to open the door to such opportunities, and now is as good a time as any!Sajid Islam
FS: How did you manage to get the initial investment?
SI: In the beginning I had considered raising funds, but later I decided otherwise. At the time, this was a new concept, and I had to personally test it and validate it, before asking someone else to invest in it. I also had to consider the fact that raising funds was an expensive and lengthy process and I couldn’t afford to lose time or money in the initial stage.
Being a firm believer in my own initiative, I felt I should put my money where my mouth is. So, I decided to bootstrap hubdhaka and started funding it personally. Initially, we saved a lot of money since we had volunteers supporting us. My heart really goes out to them. I want to thank them and all the friends, partners and well-wishers, who helped us spread the word in our initial phase. We couldn’t have come so far without them.
After two years of progress, today, if we were to raise funds for future expansion, it would be much easier since we have the track record, revenue model, and the growth rate.
There is a saying in the startup world “hire slow, fire fast”- basically translates as – don’t hire the second best candidate; always wait for your first choice. Even though I am a firm believer of this saying, I broke my own rule and got into trouble. I ended up hiring the second and third best candidates and decided to train them and improve their skills. And I was wrong!Sajid
FS: What kind of facilities does hubdhaka provide?
SI: The first and most important facility that we provide is a community: an open collaborative community where members benefit from each other.
People sometimes mistake hubdhaka as a cheap office space, or something similar to a cyber cafe, but that’s not who we are. We take our members very seriously, and if a certain member cannot be participative and value an open community, we ask them to leave. We have a very thorough member screening process, and we select the ones who understand and value coworking.
In addition to the workspace, we offer uninterrupted high-speed internet (WiFi), which is backed up by multiple internet providers; we host monthly events and workshops sponsored by hubdhaka where we bring the community together; we have meeting rooms for holding team meetings; members can even host their own event using our resources such as the projector, sound systems, comfortable chairs, a fully air-conditioned workspace, lockers and storage, white boards and refreshments.
FS: Who are your target customers?
SI: Our target customer is anyone who wants to be productive and successful; who wants a work-life balance; who believes in benefitting from a community and networking; who does not wish to confine themselves within the four walls of their room.
Indeed, startups and freelancers are our biggest customers, but I don’t want to limit or categorize our customer base to just that.
Let’s just say hubdhaka is a second home to innovators, collaborators, go-getters and achievers. Whoever they are, wherever they are, if they seek productivity and likeminded open collaborative community then we seek them!
The first and most important facility that we provide is a community: an open collaborative community where members benefit from each other.Sajid
FS: How has your experience been so far?
SI: The experience so far has been very positive. Running a business isn’t easy: it is full of challenges, hiccups, and uncertainties. That being said, it also has its perks. There are days when I ask myself “why?” as if why I started hubdhaka. Then I look at our members and their achievements and how far we’ve come, and this gets me motivated and keeps me going.
We do face a lot of uphill battles and challenges, but so far we haven’t faced any issue that couldn’t be solved. We are just moving forward.
FS: How do you manage hubdhaka remotely since you don’t live full time in Bangladesh?
SI: People often ask me this, and I’ve always told them that this situation is a positive aspect. I am in Bangladesh 40% of the time, so yes, I end up managing hubdhaka remotely. And I think the experiences of managing teams from my previous jobs held in Silicon Valley companies such as HP have helped me a lot. The teams were spread out across the globe with diverse culture, starting from California to Bangalore to Austin and all the way to Europe. There I managed communication by following certain policies and processes while setting clear goals and this helped us in empowering our team globally.
At hubdhaka, I have adopted some of the same policies. I’m pushing my team members to achieve problem-solving capabilities. For example, when someone makes a mistake, I do not frown on or reprimand. Instead, we hold a one-on-one discussion, looking for the lesson in the mistake and how such mishaps can be deflected in the future.
This methodology of mentorship grooms, empowers and boosts the ability of my team to take on and execute decisions with minimal assistance.
Often we do not know there is a problem until we see the solution. For example: before the invention of shopping carts, people used baskets to shop from grocery stores and when the shopping cart inventor introduced the new and efficient cart, they thought it was unnecessary. So the inventor went shopping at the grocery store, carrying the cart around and showcased to everyone on how convenient it was, and within no time, it became a necessity.Sajid
FS: Tell us about your previous ventures including work experiences? Did they help you? How?
SI: Excellent question! Yes, it definitely has helped a lot. I’m actually glad that I started hubdhaka with a lot of cross-cultural working experience; it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
I learned to manage and motivate people, to put them in performance track, to reward them, to develop an annual review plan and so on.
I also believe that my higher education has helped me in more than one way. For example, learning about music and history seemed of little value back in my college days. However, these pockets of knowledge come to the rescue, when I need to talk and connect with people during networking events. Constantly talking about work and business can be boring and exhausting.
I am a firm believer that each day I am alive is an opportunity to learn and grow myself, and I will be a life-long learner!
FS: What are the future plans?
SI: We are cooking up a lot of interesting ideas in our lab right now. But one thing I want to do is to spread the word about what coworking and the endless opportunities it offers.
Often we do not know there is a problem until we see the solution. For example: before the invention of shopping carts, people used baskets to shop from grocery stores and when the shopping cart inventor introduced the new and efficient cart, they thought it was unnecessary. So the inventor went shopping at the grocery store, carrying the cart around and showcased to everyone on how convenient it was, and within no time, it became a necessity. The same people, who once did not embrace this new invention, could now not imagine shopping without the cart.
Coworking is similar. Today, technological advancements have made us somewhat anti-social. It is important to force us to connect with human beings in person again.
We have also received inquiries on making hubdhaka a franchise, and if we find someone with similar beliefs as ours, i.e. someone who believes in the power of a community, we will definitely explore that option.
I am a firm believer that each day I am alive is an opportunity to learn and grow myself, and I will be a life-long learner!Sajid
FS: What’s your advice for someone starting out a new company?
SI: Follow your passion and always remember the three W’s:
What is the problem you are solving?
And before you start, make sure you have the knowledge and skills to execute. Do not try to run a full marathon unless you’re physically fit, have the stamina, the capacity and the endurance required to finish the marathon.
Similarly, if you’re planning a startup make sure you have the work experience, the market knowledge about your field, and the ability to follow through building a business. There are a lot of things that goes behind the execution of a business. Make sure you have the necessary skills and a strong foundation; otherwise, you could fall and crumble.
Lastly, try to surround yourself with successful people. Get mentors and advisers. Make an effort to connect with these people personally and not just on social media. There are too many people on social media today, and it gets very noisy out there. Don’t let your voice get drowned in that noise. Make sure your presence is felt and go for it!
And before you start, make sure you have the knowledge and skills to execute. Do not try to run a full marathon unless you’re physically fit, have the stamina, the capacity and the endurance required to finish the marathon.Sajid
About the sponsor: This story is made possible in part by our friends at BetterStories Limited, a premium future building agency that works in the areas of Information Technology, Strategic Consulting and Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Building, based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. Thank you, BetterStories, for teaming up with us in 2016.