G&R is one of the most important tech entities for understanding Bangladesh’s tech ecosystem. It is one of the earliest tech startups to get funded and one of the earliest to get acquired.
Muhammad Nazimuddaula, Co-founder and CEO of G&R, spoke to Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader about how G&R came to exist and its journey till date, building and managing a great team, and his serendipitous journey as a designer and entrepreneur.
Future Startup: Describe your journey to becoming what you are doing today.
Muhammad Nazimuddaula: I was born in Rangpur. My paternal home is in Lakshmipur, Noakhali. I was in Rangpur until class three. Then, my family moved to Noakhali where I completed my class five, six and seven. Then, I moved to Dhaka in class seven. When I came to Dhaka, I was almost living without a family.
As I think of it now, it taught me to think independently. I used to think once that I have absolute freedom. But, that freedom, in turn, allowed me to understand my responsibilities as well. I was always bad at studies. But, luckily, there wasn’t much pressure from my family.
But, one thing I did passionately was reading the newspaper. I also used to write in newspapers. I didn’t have to face any condemnation from my family if a semester had turned out to be a complete disaster. But, my first major breakthrough came when I did terrible result in my HSC.
FS: When did you pass your HSC?
Nazimuddaula: I passed my intermediate in 1999 and I came out with the worst result of my life. And that, I can say, was a turning point for me. No matter what dreams we cherish from our childhood, we can’t decide with certainty until we reach a certain age and attain our mental maturity.
For me, this life-defining moment came when I got my HSC result. I did a terribly bad result and I did not even qualify to get into any university or medical college for my poor grades. Instead, I got into Dhaka College, but I always had a dream of studying at a public university.
In my first year, when I was in Dhaka College, one of my friends there left for the Fine Arts Institute (Charukola) of the University of Dhaka [now Faculty of Fine Arts (FFA)]. I asked my friend about it and he provided me a lot of information. Before that, I knew nothing about the Faculty of Fine Arts. Among the subjects they offered there, graphic designing particularly interested me. Then, I took preparation and got into FFA the next year.
Now when I look back, I find it quite amazing that I never had the intention to pursue fine arts, but somehow the dots got connected and I was studying graphics designing.
FS: When did you graduate from FFA?
Nazimuddaula: As you may know, session delay was a common thing at FFA those days. So, it took me till 2010 to complete my Masters. But I started working from 2004-2005. Back then I worked with a couple of firms.
I worked for an advertising agency for around two years. From 2005, I used to design website mock-ups for that company. The people work in the web design back then was largely techies. They were very good at tech but not that good at design and aesthetics.
I tried to do the both. After working there for 3 to 4 years, I realized that I have developed some sort of product or project management skill.
I never really thought about doing something for Bangladesh’s internet sector. But when I met my co-founder of G&R, he influenced me to do something in this field. He used to think about the internet sector from a totally different point of view.
FS: How G&R came to exist?
Nazimuddaula: We formed the company in July 2009. One of the friends of my co-founder provided the initial funding. We were a small team and I was working part time because I had to continue a job to pay my bills.
Our first product actually was Gorom Cha (hot tea!). We wanted to build a platform that would become an everyday destination for people in Bangladesh. We thought of something a little ahead of what you see as classified websites now.
The problem with working on GC was that it was an expensive project and we did not have that much investment. Another problem was monetization. It was a kind of project, we realized, that would take time to pay off.
Unfortunately, GC didn’t grow bigger. Selling fixed online ads was a hugely difficult task at that time. We realized online ad is a big problem in and of itself. So, we started another project, an Ad-Network, with that thing in mind. With the ad network, we looked for solving the very problem we faced with GC.
Before starting the ad network we got the opportunity to analyze the viability of our idea using our existing network, our investor company helped a lot. We learned a lot at that time. This was equally a good and bad thing, bad in the sense that we got some false hope. But, eventually, we learned how to deal with it.
The product we wanted to sell was and still is new in Bangladesh. The budget for digital is still nominal. We can certainly hope for it to grow in 5 to 10 years. But, when we went to talk to people about our idea, most of them were not even familiar with terms, like- CPC or CPM.
Initially, this problem took a lot of our time. I, in fact, always tell my teammates the only thing we can always invest in our market is time because you can’t expect publishers to make a deal just by visiting your website. Time is essential in building a long-term relationship with clients.
It took some time for G&R to become G&R. We launched the ad network in August 2011. We struggled and learned a lot in those initial years. We failed and had gathered invaluable experiences; and finally, after much toil we were able to develop a basic model.
However, one thing we never wanted to do with G&R all these years was that we never wanted to introduce a new foreign model in Bangladesh and profit. We were determined to localize our services from the day one. And, that is where we struggled a lot and we struggle even these days. We also believe this is what makes G&R unique.
FS: Tell us about your transition from a designer to a co-founder and full-timer at G&R.
Nazimuddaula: Starting full time at G&R was not an easy decision. It was a pretty big risk for me. The company I was working for before moving to G&R was an established company.
On the other hand, G&R had only a two-member team with no office setup. I joined G&R as full-time employee in May 2010 and we got a physical setup in January next year.
Switching to G&R was a difficult and risky decision for me, career-wise but, I was still a student and I wasn’t particularly looking for money. That difficult decision, needless to say, later paid off.
FS: What were the key challenges for G&R during those early years?
Nazimuddaula: The biggest challenge was always to educate the market. I don’t know whether people recognize it or not, but G&R contributed a lot to introducing the concept of digital media budget in Bangladesh.
FS: It is hard for startups to build, maintain, and retain a team.
Nazimuddaula: Actually, considering the teams I have in G&R and used to have in other companies, I can humbly say that, team management is a skill that I have grown over the time. I have a kind of non-standard process of choosing teammates.
And it has served me well. I can frankly say that if I face any crisis, my colleagues will be the first ones I will seek help from.
The people in G&R feel proud about our team consistency. We are really connected to each other. There is no bossing or hardcore hierarchy in our company. Everyone can assign work to anyone here.
I think this particular aspect contributes to the overall efficiency. No one, not even the CEO has a separate room in our company. We work together. I think this is one of the silver linings of startups- you don’t have to face a lot of bureaucratic processes.
Yes, there is the hierarchy at G&R, but there is also room for flexibility. And yes, anyone can overlap someone, but everyone cares about their job as well.
FS: What do you think about failures?
Nazimuddaula: We say at seminars and events that failing is great. But in reality, it’s difficult to afford failures. Not everyone can stand up again every time they fall. Failures are expensive and it takes a lot of courage to handle them. I try my hardest not to fail.
FS: What is the most important insight you have developed about life over the years?
Nazimuddaula: Everything that you want in life takes time- be it a relationship or career or building a company. You get to learn and accept that. I am still trying to properly distribute my time to everything I hold dear.
FS: What would you tell to someone who is just getting started?
Nazimuddaula: Please don’t get too high about your idea from the very beginning because it might very well result in utter disaster. Bangladesh’s market or market, in general, is highly unpredictable. So, one needs all the resources he can gather to enter into a new business. Be prepared, as they say, preparation is what makes us lucky.
Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Rahat | Interview date: December 31, 2015
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly abbreviated the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka as FIA. It has been corrected.