Mostafizur Rahaman Sohel is a Dhaka-based serial entrepreneur and tech community organizer. He is the co-founder and CEO of three very well-regarded technology companies, Advanced ERP, Sigma Systems and recently founded Shaadibazar.com. A Director of BASIS, Mr. Sohel has 20 years of experience in technology, finance, and management as a Software Architect, Consultant, and Entrepreneur.
He has been working relentlessly to develop local software market to its fullest capacity. He has been a director in charge of Standing Committee on Digital Commerce, Standing Committee on Local Market (Market Creation) and Standing Committee on Members Welfare of BASIS.
Mr. Sohel has also been a member of the Standing Committee on Telecom and ICT of DCCI for many years. He was the National President of Junior Chamber International (JCI) Bangladesh in 2013. He is a Rotarian and has become Charter President of Rotary Club of Dhaka Radiant.
Future Startup: Briefly tell us about yourself and your passion.
Mostafizur Rahaman Sohel: I was born and grew up in Narayanganj. I did my higher studies in Singapore.
Singapore was an extraordinary experience for me. It completely changed my view towards life. I came to see that there is a sea of difference between young people in Singapore and Bangladesh and how these two groups think and act.
In Bangladesh, I came to realize, young people possess a very blur and somewhat romantic idea about life unless we are exposed to difficulties and responsibilities of life which seldom happen before graduation for most people.
I also came to realize that we lack ambition and sense of responsibility. The lifestyle and perspective of Singaporean youths suddenly struck me hard and opened my eyes. I started to see a serious disparity between the lives we led in Bangladesh and that they live in Singapore.
Fortunately, though, I was shocked but it helped me to develop my attitude towards life. I was surprised to see their approach towards life, how they value time and ambition, their sense of responsibility. These people take responsibility for their own life from their 21st birthday and seldom depend on their parents.
It was a completely different experience for me. We had a culture in Bangladesh to continue a life without taking any responsibility till 30, back then and in fact this culture exists even these days.
Long story short, I completed my graduation in 1995 and returned to Bangladesh. I always wanted to build my career in Bangladesh. Moreover, I am a homesick type of person and very close to my family. After returning to Bangladesh, I joined at "OPEN SESAME COMPUTER SYSTEM (BD) [PVT] LTD.
From my early life, I have a strong desire to be the best in whatever I undertake. And when I started, my vision was that “I have to be at the top of the company.”
However, I always wanted to start my own Business. Finally, in 2005 I started my first business along with my two partners.
[blockquote source=]It is easy to get distracted with trifles when you start a company but be aware of distractions. Focus is the key. I think one should develop a certain level of discipline and be focused[/blockquote]
FS: Please tell us about Advanced ERP.
MRS: We deal with ERP product that is Enterprise Resource Planning Software. The process is simple: we develop software for our clients, help them to implement it, and train their people so that they can run it properly.
We get the requirements from our clients then customize the product according to the requirements and deliver it. Finally,we train the people and implement it for the sake of the client. That’s the way we work.
We are working with many private firms including Abul Khayer group, Meghna Group, Myone Electronics, Social Marketing Company, Heidelberg Cement, Partex group to name a few.
Advanced ERP is rooted in Singapore. We have this business in other countries like Malaysia, Philippines. In Bangladesh, we have a strong foothold in the market.
Sigma Systems have a strong clientele in Bangladesh with its range of products. It has also started exporting software solutions to the Middle East.
FS: Briefly tell us about your early days. How was the first one year of your company?
MRS: As I said, Advance ERP is rooted in Singapore. We started with a quite large client portfolio. All we had to do was to make people understand that if you use this platform you can do better business.
From the very beginning, my main target was not money but to create a loyal and satisfied customer base. Our strong belief, since inception, is that we are happy when our customers use our products. We are not happy when the customer is not using our software although he/she is paying us.
We continue to talk to them. We ask them whether there is any difficulty to use the software. We care about our customers and we believe that if the customers use the software they will talk about it with others and we will get the client in the process.
Initially, making people understand about ERP was a challenge. It is still a challenge these days. Once people agree to use our product and purchase it, then many don’t bother to use it regularly. Then we had to make them convince about using it.
FS: What were the few major challenges you faced during first one year?
MRS: As I said, educating customers to use software was one of the major challenges we faced in the early days. We had to educate people that why they are in problem, why they need software, why they should use our software. It took a lot of effort to make people understand the need of ERP and how it could help them.
[blockquote source="Mostafizur Rahaman Sohel"]Passion, believing in oneself, focus and never give-up mentality, these are the ingredients that one must inculcate into oneself to survive and eventually be successful.[/blockquote]
FS: How did you manage initial fund?
MRS: We, I and my partners, put our own money into the company. That was part of the initial fund. Then, we were lucky to have some clients who actually paid advances to avail our service which we used as initial capital.
FS: What it takes to survive as an entrepreneur? What do you think, what is the secret to entrepreneurial success?
MRS: Passion, believing in oneself, focus and never-give-up mentality-these are the ingredients that one must inculcate into oneself to survive and eventually be successful.
I especially want to emphasize on focus, you can’t overstate the importance of focusing on something that is important.
FS: We have seen many entrepreneurs from Steve Jobs to Samson H. Chowdhury of Bangladesh. These people come in great variety, some are crazy and outright extrovert, some are calm and deeply introvert and for some, you can’t find a category. Do you have an ideal view of a startup founder?
MRS: It is hard to define an ideal founder. You can find all different kind of successful entrepreneurs. However, I think you need to be a little crazy because only crazy people can take something challenging, risky and unrealistic as normal. I think a startup founder is someone who loves his initiative too much and crazy to make it happen.
Being said that, flexibility is also an essential trait of a great entrepreneur. You get to evolve a lot over the years as an entrepreneur. You get to adjust, learn, unlearn and go through different kind of difficult situations and more. Only people who are ready to break and then build themselves can survive such a journey.
Another important thing I follow is reading. There is no alternative to knowledge. As a bookworm, I read a lot and get inspiration every now and then from different books. A book named ‘How Starbucks Saved My Life’ by Michael Gates Gill has been one of my best companions while in serious distress.
FS: What it takes to start and build a successful software company in Bangladesh?
MRS: Not only to a software business but in every case, if you want to be an entrepreneur: you have to know what you want to do, what you want to achieve and you have to be very clear about that. It is a huge advantage to start with domain knowledge in your sector.
My background was IT. I knew the ins and outs of this sector when I decided to start a software company. It helped me a lot. My clients and other stakeholders could not confuse me. If it was a garments factory, I doubt I would be successful. I hardly know about garments and how it works.
I’ve seen many software firms and entrepreneurial initiatives and many of them had huge investment but ultimately failed just because of lack of expert know-how in their field. So, it is a prerequisite to have domain expertise in the sector you are going to start.
In fact, I would suggest not to start in a sector with huge profitability and potentials that you don’t understand but to start in a sector that you know well but don’t present as potential as the other one.
[blockquote source=]Not only to a software business but in every case, if you want to be an entrepreneur: you have to know what you want to do, what you want to achieve and you have to be very clear about that. It is a huge advantage to start with domain knowledge in your sector.[/blockquote]
FS: What advice you would give to someone who is just getting started?
MRS: It is easy to get distracted with trifles when you start a company but be aware of distractions. Focus is the key. I think one should develop a certain level of discipline and be focused.
Start with a smart plan, smart in the sense that your plan must be measurable, specific, achievable, and realistic and time oriented.
You need to set milestones to achieve time to time. Start with what you want to achieve in a 6-month time frame and measure your achievement. Then continue doing it.
Once you make a decision be confident and work hard.
FS: If you get another chance to start all over again what are a few things that you would do differently.
MRS: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think it would be fun to be back there!
There are many things that I would do differently. But most importantly, I would pay equal attention to both software development and marketing and implementation.
It is not enough to just make a great product, you get to market it well and ensure that people know about it.
FS: What do you think, what are the major obstacles for entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, especially for early stage startups and how can we overcome those obstacles?
MRS: There are some government bodies where things are very lethargic and bureaucratic. You have all the motivation and passion; you want to jump start your business, but just a round through these bodies is enough to beat you up. There are lots of problems with systems and infrastructures. I think, that is one of the main challenges to developing entrepreneurship in Bangladesh.
Then there is this general lack of information. Access to organized information is still a problem. “What should I do”, “Where should I go’, answers to these questions should be readily available in an organized form.
Then the lack of finance. We don’t have a proper financing structure in place yet that supports the early stage entrepreneurs. There is a growing VC industry but it is just getting started and it will take time. Moreover, everyone does not get the VC fund.
Banks does not finance early stage entrepreneurs, especially IT entrepreneurs because there is nothing that you can mortgage to the bank.
Since I am involved with the BASIS, we have been in talk with Bangladesh Bank and other stakeholders regarding designing a more practical financing model for early stage entrepreneurs and IT entrepreneurs.
Banks often ask for collateral and interest rate is very high. I think these among many issues but if we could fix these problems we should have a great start.
From BASIS, we have been successful to crack a deal with one of the major financial institutions in September 2015 regarding financing IT companies. It gives me a pleasure to see our member companies have started getting benefit out of it.
By seeing this breakthrough, other financial institutions have started showing interest which is a positive sign. I am happy to announce through this platform, we have almost finalized a deal with one of Government banks with the help of ICT division, which will be announced shortly. I personally see it as a major step forward, because the traditional mindsets of our bankers have been evolving.
[blockquote source=]Flexibility is also an essential trait of a great entrepreneur. You get to evolve a lot over the years as an entrepreneur. You get to adjust, learn, unlearn and go through different kind of difficult situations and more. Only people who are ready to break and then build themselves can survive such a journey.[/blockquote]
Interview by Omar Faruk