Affan Mahmud, the CEO of Notionhive (formerly Boomerang Digital), is an interesting and enormously persistent person. Founder of multiple companies in sectors as diverse as technology to hospitality to café and restaurant to digital marketing, he is a master networker.
In a conversation that ranged from his early career days to transition to entrepreneurship and how he and his partner bootstrapped his Digital marketing company Boomerang Digital and launched a couple of other businesses including a hotel, two cafés, and restaurants to how Boomerang works to his take on competition, Affan takes us through quite a journey of understanding how entrepreneurship works. He made a lot of good points — points, in many cases, that we are still thinking about, week after our discussion.
What follows here are edited excerpts from our conversation. This is part one of our conversation, please come back later for the second installment of the interview.
Future Startup: Tell us about yourself. You have started multiple companies in diverse sectors including hotels to café to digital marketing. You've also been in HR and consultancy. Tell us about the journey. How has it been?
Affan Mahmud: There is a personal reason behind the journey that I'm currently on. I was in an English medium school for 14 years until my A level. That is when my father was diagnosed with a terminal disease. While many of my friends pursued further studies abroad, I decided to stay in Bangladesh to take care of my father.
I went on to do my HSC at RAJUK College. It was a big challenge, given that it was a Bangla medium institution and I've passed a fair share of my education life in the English medium. It was a huge shift and required great adjustments on my part.
It was like my world suddenly turned upside down. What was "acid" to me all my life suddenly changed to "amlo"; and "alkali" became "khar."
The struggle was very real. Besides, the system of education in Bangla medium felt quite different to me. I was used to an applied form of education, but here education was more theoretical.
I sat for my Higher Secondary Examination in 2001. I remember my father was comforting me saying not to be disheartened should the grades turned out to be bad. Many people shared the same notion and that included me as well. It was not that I didn't study at all. It was that I couldn't manage to grow any confidence in me. So, I was baffled when the results came out and I got letter marks (80+) in 2 subjects and star marks.
After the result, I applied to a couple of universities and finally got into the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka. I completed my bachelor’s degree in business from there. Upon my graduation, I did an internship at Standard Chartered Bank for a few months. During my internship, they offered me a position at their HR department and I took the job.
There is a funny story here. When I had already worked for Standard Chartered for 8/9 months, we got a new Indian head of HR. We went for a meeting with him in India. In Kolkata, I discovered that my passport was somehow got mistakenly exchanged with one of my colleagues. That incident led me to get stuck in Kolkata for two days without any agenda.
As I look back now, those two days were a turning point in my life. People, you see, don't often get the "right" time to look back at their lives and reflect on what they have achieved so far and how things could have been even better.
In those two days, I got the time to think what I have been doing all my life and whether I really want to do what I was doing. I had absolutely nothing to do. I didn't go to shopping or movies. I just ate and slept and thought.
And soon after my return to Dhaka, I gave my resignation to Standard Chartered bank, because I felt that if I put the same effort which I am putting in a corporate structure for myself, I would definitely be able to do something different, something for myself.
That is how my journey began with a funny twist.
The later struggles were quite typical in nature given that I was a first generation businessman.Many of my family members and relatives were famous personalities in the professional world. From Chief Justice to University Vice Chancellors, from famous Doctor to 3rd generation Pilot, I had it all in the family. But there was no businessman in our family.
As a result, I didn't get much support from anyone. But I realized that I have the desire to work harder and innovate whereas others got money but not the skill set or the idea. So, I combined our means and started several ventures with different partners.
FS: What was your first business? How did you get the idea for that?
AM: My first company was TxPro IT which is now Boomerang Digital. It is an interesting story. As you may know, I was brought up in Sylhet. Some of my aunts were living in the UK. Whenever they came to visit us in Bangladesh, they used to bring just 500 UK pounds with them. But when they went to money exchange, they used to bring back a lot more money.
This was immensely interesting to me as a child. I had no idea how the money exchange actually works. But I realized at that time that using foreign currency to do something in Bangladesh could result into something profitable. This was a simple realization of a child. I didn't act on it, of course. But, it struck me again when I grew up. I had an idea of exporting IT services from Bangladesh which I thought has considerable potential.
I always tried to do something unique or different with other businesses. For example, Uttara is on the outskirts of Dhaka. It is somewhat a neglected area but has a huge population. So, we thought that if we could target this population and cater to their need, we could establish a successful restaurant business in Uttara. And, as you can see, we were technically correct.
FS: So, you began with an IT company. Then, what? Help us connect the dots.
AM: A lot of things happened since I started my first business. When you become an entrepreneur, not everything happens as per your plan.
I was part of a garments factory called Fashion-Connection Montreal LTD. for some time. It was a Canadian-Bangladesh joint venture.
I was involved in it for two years. The personal benefit of setting up a garments factory is that you learn how to establish and run a big system. It is quite tough, but I managed to do it. But unfortunately, the industry didn't quite seem to agree with me. So, I eventually left.
FS: Tell us more about TxPro IT? Why and how did you rebrand the company?
AM: After leaving the garments business, I focused on developing TxPro IT. First of all, we realized that we need a new name because the current one was a bit weird. So, in 2015, TxPro IT was renamed to Boomerang Digital.
We have chosen Boomerang because it is fun and easy to pronounce and we had to add digital to the name because we were gradually including digital agency, digital marketing, and other similar services to the company.
Initially, I and my partner oversaw the operations at TxPro IT. The office was not that fancy. We worked under an outsourcing model. But, we soon realized that we need to build a strong team if we are to grow the business.
So, in 2015, we recruited two new people in the company. Just in a year what used to be a small room with a handful of people has changed into 2 apartments and 30 people at present. That was the journey of Boomerang in short.
We are currently working with several global and local companies. Our clientele currently includes giants like Grameenphone, BKash, Telenor Health, Metlife Singapore and more. We developed the platform for Tonic and whatever you see on Grameenphone's website, it was designed by us. GP's recent project, EShop, is also one of our designs.
FS: What are the services your company offers now?
AM: I always try to find what they call a "blue ocean," a new and uncontested market space. I try to find a simple way to do that. I observed that no digital agency is providing the full array of products; some are making good videos, some are doing excellent community management, some are just great at design and developing websites.
But I could hardly find a one-stop destination for digital works.
So, we thought if we could tap this market and provide every kind of services from a single organization, we could become a unique company. We have been trying to do that.
Let me give you an example. Suppose, Future Startup has multiple communication channels; and, the website is the largest of them. If you choose our service, we would design your website and develop the visual contents that are to be put on there. Your other channels might include Facebook and LinkedIn pages. We would manage them on behalf of you as well.
After a while, you might think that a mobile app can increase the simplicity of your service and raise the level of interaction with your customers. We would then design and develop a mobile app for your company. Moreover, we would also take initiatives to promote the total package on, say, Google and Facebook.
To put simply, our primary focus is to manage all of your assets (communication channels) so that you need not run to different places for your varying digital needs.
FS: It means you provide 360-degree service for anything digital. When you first started Boomerang Digital, as you said, you were only a two-member team, but now you have grown to be a 30-member team. You obviously needed some sort of investment. Tell us how you managed the initial investment.
AM: We have largely bootstrapped since the early days. We tried to utilize our regular cash flows, provided capital assets from our personal possession, and request credit from our vendors. It was a tough job.
Bootstrapping is hard but it worked for us so far well.
FS: We work with early stage companies at Future Startup. We have heard people saying that it is very difficult to run a business without external funding. But, in light of our own analysis, we don't take it to be always true. I mean, one can bootstrap and build a business doing so. From your experience, what would you suggest someone who is running a self-funded business to keep in mind?
AM: My first advice would be: don't look at the personal gains. An early-stage entrepreneur should not take profits from the business because generally, businesses don't generate enough revenue at that point. They should only take remuneration like other employees of the company.
So, when a business faces a downturn, the owner might have to give up his share of remuneration to make way for his employees'. This is a sacrifice an early-stage businessman must be prepared to make.
Prioritize. We often focus on the small things while we lose sight of the bigger picture. We must learn to identify and prioritize the more important things over the less important. Say, we direly need a laptop for work at Boomerang within the next month, and we also need a new and stylish chair to give our office a more sophisticated look.
But, we, unfortunately, don't have provisions to buy both. So, what we would do is we would prioritize the need for a laptop over the chairs because we can still sit on the worn-out ones we currently have but we can't do without the laptop.
This is one example how we try to prioritize our requirements. One other thing we have always kept an eye on is ensuring regular cash flow. For instance, we have a standard company policy of collecting a certain percentage of every invoice in advance.
We do this to avoid credit-related problems in the future. We do business with people who agree to our policies, and people who do not we, unfortunately, have to let them go even if we have the intention to work with them.
But, truth be told, all these seems very idealistic because, in reality, things don't always go as planned. We too have faced difficulties in our journey. But, luckily, we survived and still going strong.
FS: Alright. Let's talk about challenges. Tell us about the challenges you faced in your early days and what you are facing now.
AM: We used to earn modest revenues in our early days because we were only two partners and the operational expenses were much lower! We didn't have to think about paying salaries to employees as well. It was, you know, simpler in that regard. But, bootstrapping is always a hard job.
I remember that it took me nearly 4 months to get my own visiting card. There were also problems with getting works due to our lack of recognition and experience. I soon realized that I needed to first search for work within my familiar circle.
So, I asked some of my acquaintance to hire us. We offered them late payments so that it was much less risky for them. We used to have very tight schedules. We didn't have a big team. So, it was very tough for us to maintain both quality and short deadlines. But we excelled nonetheless.
These were some challenges we faced in our early days.
Now challenges are different in nature. We face challenges like team dynamics and logistics services. Managing as big a team as ours is a little complex. The competition has obviously increased. There were very few companies doing the same kind of works as we do in the past. But now new businesses are entering the market at an exponential rate.
There is an unhealthy competition in the market. It is similar to what garments factory previously faced. Instead of working together for collective success, we reduce the industry by working only for the purpose of one's own benefit, which is often short term. I'm not saying this as a complaint, it's the reality.
Moreover, we have difficulties explaining people as to why do they need our service. Companies to a great extent believe that they can manage their own communication channels without the help of professionals. So, it took a lot of effort on our part to make them understand what we, as professionals, can bring to the table.
Other challenges include payment delays, availability of the resources, and so on. It is extremely hard to find good people in the digital space.
In my experience, I have observed that dealing with foreign clients is way easier than our local ones except for some big businesses. We don't have any bad debts but also need quick revenue to sustain ourselves.
The industry, as you can see, is still at the very early stage. So, we also feel the need to streamline our processes and make them more standardized so that the industry falls into a structure and everyone involved benefits from the system.
FS: You were saying that the competition is on the rise and every day new companies are entering the market.Many of these companies also offer the same or similar services that you do. So, how do you differentiate yourself from the other digital marketing companies?
AM: I think our first competitive advantage is that, as you said earlier, we provide 360-degree digital services. We are trying to facilitate value-driven service and I feel that is not possible in a strictly cost-effective model.
We don't offer a commonplace service nor is it too expensive. We believe that every good work shouldn't go unappreciated. From that perspective, we are different from the others in the field.
It is evident that the competition is on the rise. But the market is growing with it too, and quite rapidly, I must say.
Our ultimate goal is to work not only with the local companies but also with international players. Luckily, we have already got international exposure through our website and we have worked with Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies.
FS: If you could tell us a little bit about your target customers, the type of customers you are serving. Also, share us the strategies you use to reach out to them.
AM: Funny thing is Boomerang has always been very PR-shy. If you visit our Facebook page, you will notice there is not much to see. In fact, this is one of the first interviews I am doing. I think, my partner and I are by nature like this.
Actually, we get our customers mainly from our personal networks. One thing I have done throughout my entire career is that I did extensive networking and luckily got to know a lot of people. So, it was easy to convince them with the offer of effective services. That has helped Boomerang a lot with customer acquisition.
Another thing that plays in our favor is Word of mouth. We get a lot of customers through word of mouth. I think the percentage will be as high as 50%. And, luckily, we have managed to retain almost our entire customer base till now.
FS: Do you consider maintaining customer lifetime value as a challenge, given that your work is, to some extent, one off in nature?
AM: Yes, initially, it was a challenge. But, we are working on multiple levels now. For example, many companies are now asking us to design mobile apps for them besides building websites. Many of them also seek help with digital marketing and promotional contents.
For instance, we worked with a company on something as simple as their logo; and, now, whenever they need something digital, they come to us. I think they are doing so because we have fully delivered what we have promised.
Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Rahat, Image by Boomerang Digital