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Meet The Entrepreneur Building Bangladesh’s Largest Online Property Marketplace [Part-I]

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Sep 20, 2016

Muhammad Shahin, Founder and CEO of the country’s largest online property marketplace pBazaar.com, reflects on his path into business, his serendipitous journey to the tech world, how pBazaar came to exist, struggles of the early days, growth and current state of pBazaar, competition, the greatest challenges and lessons from his journey and his plan to take pbazaar.com to the remotest users of the country.

What follows here are edited excerpts of the interview. This is the part one of our conversation, please come back later this month for the second installment of the interview.

The idea of someone buying and selling, say, a cell phone or daily necessities just by sending short messages fascinated me.

Future Startup: Tell us about your journey to entrepreneurship.

Muhammad Shahin: By education, I majored in CSE and started my career as a junior instructor at Computer Department at Rajshahi Polytechnic Institute in late 1997. I used to teach computer there. This was very early days in computer education in Bangladesh.

However, it took me no time to realize that if I want to grow and do something big Rajshahi is not the right place for that. Although Rajshahi Polytechnic Institute was one of the pioneers in computer education in Bangladesh, there was not much to do in Rajshahi with a computer degree.

But I wanted to do something big, something different and I felt that geographic location matter for the kind of things I wanted to do. So, I left Rajshahi and took a job at a private company in Dhaka called Maestro Private Limited. It was one of the biggest software companies in Bangladesh at that time. In the meantime, I took an MCP (Microsoft Certified Professionals) degree in 2000.

At Maestro, my job was programming, but soon I realized that I am much better at marketing. When I joined, Maestro was still a startup company and because of that, it was hard to get customers.

It was a huge challenge to convince customers as to why they needed software. And I was quite good at convincing people. So, on my Managing Director’s advice, I shifted to the marketing department. Thus, my technical career ended and my new career commenced. I worked at Maestro for the next 4 and half years as the head of marketing.

At Maestro, we were designing ISP billing software to SMS gateways. At that time, Kamal Quadir bhai founded CellBazaar Inc. It was primarily started with an SMS system, and you may also remember the number 3838. The process was, initially, you have to send an SMS to buy or sell anything on CellBazaar. We were discussing to support CellBazaar to set up the system from Maestro.

One day Kamal bhai asked me to come over and explain how the process really works. So, I went to talk to him and tried to explain. Somehow, he got very impressed with me and offered me to work with him.

The idea of someone buying and selling, say, a cell phone or daily necessities just by sending short messages fascinated me. Besides, there was also this thrill of working with an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) graduate. I took his offer and joined CellBazaar in June 2006.

In our early days, we had to work very hard for almost everything. It was a relatively new technology, a new form of commerce, and a new industry. The most challenging task was to persuade people of the utility of our product.

Long story short, we never gave up. In September 2006, we launched CellBazaar with about 3,500 data entries. Initially, it was an SMS-based platform, which was later morphed into a web-based system.

I worked at CellBazaar until 2010 and that is where I learned about and understood e-commerce. It was an incredible journey and opportunity for me to learn and grow myself. However, I was getting more interested in doing something of my own.

CellBazaar was dealing with over 100 products by then, mainly tech products. But, I wanted to work on something more mainstream, like everyone’s basic needs. You see, technology is subject to constant changes- computers replaced typewriters, laptops replaced desktops and now android phones are replacing them. Contrary to that, basic needs always remain the same. So, after a lot of brainstorming, I decided to concentrate solely on property dealings.

I left the job and started working from my home. It was a difficult decision and a difficult feat to pull off. I formed the company, developed a website and registered at the Joint Stock Exchange Corporation. It was quite a rigorous process. I remember working a stretching period of 21 days on the logo. Then, everything preparatory was completed by December 2010.

I also had the help of my colleague, Ratul Paul. Before launching, we researched about a lot of examples related to e-commerce and property business around the world to understand the nature of such ventures.

We learned that in many countries, like UK, USA, even in India, no one sells properties without the presence of an agent. We were a little confused over this whether we should choose to be a marketplace or an agent service, because building a marketplace requires a considerable amount of investment, as I had observed while working at CellBazaar. But I didn’t have that option due to limited financial resources.

I had to choose such an alternative in which I could both establish as a successful business and generate revenue. So, considering all the possibilities, I decided to start with the agent model initially and then gradually grow into platform later. We started with three areas: Gulshan, Baridhara, and Banani.

We launched formally in April 2011. We were getting fewer deals but managed to keep us alive out of them. I was able to pay salary to my programmer and hire a new guy. We rented a 500-sqr.ft. office at Gulshan. We were a three-member team: me, my developer and another team member Lipson Chiran for data collection. But once we started, we saw the demand and soon we grew to four persons and now we are a 28-member team.

I left the job and started working from my home. It was a difficult decision and a difficult feat to pull off. I formed the company, developed a website and registered at the Joint Stock Exchange Corporation. It was quite a rigorous process. I remember working a stretching period of 21 days on the logo. Then, everything preparatory was completed by December 2010.

Muhammad Shahin-with- former US-Ambassador-Dan-Mozina [from-left-to-right]
Muhammad Shahin-with- former US-Ambassador-Dan-Mozina [from-left-to-right]

FS: You have been quite entrepreneurial from your early age. How were your childhood and early life?

MS: I was born and raised in Rajshahi. I finished my primary and high school there. After my SSC in 1993, I went on to study at New Degree College, Rajshahi. Unfortunately, I was the only one at New Degree College and most of my friends were at Rajshahi College. So, I used to bunk my own classes and join classes there unauthorized. One day my mother found out and I got punished accordingly. She engaged me with 5 individual private tutors - physics, chemistry, and math and so on.

During my intermediate years, I got admitted into Rajshahi Polytechnic Institute. We were the first batch of CSE there. I got a diploma in Computer Science and Engineering degree in 1997. Later on, I have completed my graduation on CSE and MBA from a private university.

During my post-high school days, I was teaching computers at a training institution called Supreme Computers in the city. We had DOS operating system at that time. There were no hard disk drives. Instead, we had 5” inches long floppy disks. I still have the first computer I used back at my home in Rajshahi.

FS: In the 90s, computer science was a new field of study in Bangladesh. People generally didn’t opt for CSE at that time and it was not available as well. So, what did particularly interest you to study computer science?

MS: There’s a funny story behind it. I started using computers from 1993. In 1994, Dhaka Polytechnic Institute, Dhaka Girls’ Polytechnic Institute, and Rajshahi Polytechnic Institute opened up Computer departments. Before that, only BUET offered a CSE degree.

When I discovered that there was an opportunity for me to study computer science and engineering in my own hometown, I started to dream of getting into Rajshahi Polytechnic Institute but told no one.

I bought three guidebooks that would aid me through the admission process with the pocket-money my father used to give me on a regular basis. I had to keep it as a secret because my mother would get very angry if she had known as she is always wanted me to be a doctor. I filled up the admission form with the pocket-money as well. I sat for the test and came out placing 8th on the merit list.

Then came the hardest part: convincing my mother to allow me to study computer science and engineering. I approached one of my uncles to persuade her. Luckily, he was successful and I got into RPI in 1994. Although, I had to continue both my higher secondary and computer science and engineering studies at the same time; but, fortunately, I came out first in the first semester at the institute and continued to top the class until the 4th semester.

Soon people in Rajshahi began to recognize me as a person with great computer skills. There was this Army School of Physical Training and Sports (ASPTS) in Rajshahi Cantonment at that time. One day, I got an offer from them to teach the officers and soldiers using computers. I accepted their offer. It was a quite interesting experience.

Once a computer broke down at ASPTS, unluckily, the Chief Instructor, a colonel, was supposed to come that day to attend a digital presentation of the participants of the course. So, the captain in charge of the training program promptly sent for me. When I got there, I saw that the problem was with system booting. I fixed it quickly. The captain in charge got so awfully happy about it that he gifted me 500-taka and said to me, “You have saved my job, Shahin bhai.”

I worked with the military for two years until 1997. My job was not only limited to Rajshahi. I went to Dhaka, Khagrachari, Bandarban and other places to teach computers to the military personnel there. This is how my career in computers started.

I also started a training institute called Website International in 1996 where we used to offer computer courses. That business was started with only one computer, a printer, and a rented shop. But I soon managed to increase the numbers of computers to 10 and a permanent air-conditioned office.

From that time of my life, I dreamt of building something that everyone could use, something like a SaaS (software as a service) model. I think that thought has led me to my current venture.

FS: In Bangladesh, a job is considered to be a much safer and respectable career choice than starting your own business. So, when you first decided to start your business, were your friends and family supportive of your decision?

MS: Not at all, not even my parents. No one was happy when I left a secure job at CellBazaar. That was a very tough time for me. I can tell you one thing from my experience, every startup goes through struggle at the beginning. It is inevitable.

Now, one may succeed or one may fail. But, an early-stage entrepreneur most importantly needs mental support from his/her family, from his/her friends and of course from his/her partner. Otherwise, s/he will be crushed under enormous pressure.

Muhammad Shahin
Muhammad Shahin

FS: Tell us about your experience with pBazaar in the early days.

MS: It was an extremely difficult one. I started alone and used to work from my home. Initially, I used to collect rent/sell data alone and make calls to owners. I was doing everything and It was a very difficult job. Then I hired my first employee after a while to help me with data collection. It’s an overwhelming task to establish a whole new type of business platform in Bangladesh. But we were doing exactly that.

When we had no office at the beginning, we used to work outdoor. We used to collect information of vacant flats around Gulshan, Baridhara, and Banani. Then, we used to sit somewhere in Gulshan Park and make calls to flat owners to propose our deal.

People were hesitant to work with us and dubious of whether we could really manage clients. It was an overwhelming challenge. We had a little help on managing clients, on the other hand, CellBazaar helped us a lot. There was property category on CellBazaar website. We got a few clients by placing ads in that category.

Soon, I began to focus on getting corporate clients. Suppose, a multinational company’s expat comes to Bangladesh and needs a flat to stay. In that case, we would help to get her/him one and also try to make more corporate connections through that person. With this networking strategy, our business grew quite rapidly.

Today, we have more than 100 corporate clients and organizations like World Bank, American Embassy, Swiss Embassy, Span Embassy, Indian High Commission, Canadian Embassy, Asian Development Bank, H&M, Ericsson, and many big brands work with us.

We also had to endure hardship in client satisfaction. Clients usually came to us with their individual expectations and requirements. It was very hard for us to satisfy all their needs and find them the perfect home. But this was, and still is one of our competitive advantages too.

We used to persuade tenants by saying that why don’t you give us the responsibility of finding a safe home and relax? Let us bear the hassle.

Finding a recurring model was one of the biggest challenges at the beginning. The small portion of commission we used to get from the deals was our only revenue. But, fortunately, we have managed to build a funnel and a system that helped.

We have now developed a fully automated website. We have also managed to establish the agency model, at least in Gulshan, Banani, Dhanmondi, Niketon, Baridhara, and Uttara.

When we had no office at the beginning, we used to work outdoor. We used to collect information of vacant flats around Gulshan, Baridhara, and Banani. Then, we used to sit somewhere in Gulshan Park and make calls to flat owners to propose our deal.

FS: How did your team grow?

MS: As I mentioned, I started all by myself. But I soon realized that managing both the flat owners and tenants is a hectic job and I had to collect data as well. So, I immediately hired a data collector who moved around Dhaka city and collected contact details of vacant apartments. But collecting vacancy notice was just a small part of the job. You get to know more about the flats and apartments. And information about those apartments was also needed to collect from the owners. So, I employed another person who would call the landlords and collect details about apartments.

The team growth was very organic and we hired as we go and when we felt the need for an additional team member.

The number of visitors on our website was very low at the beginning mainly due to lack of advertisements. But the number soared as the business progressed. Then, we needed a programmer.

We were collecting a huge amount of data and they needed to be properly arranged, processed and analyzed. So, I began to hire people and now we have a data quality manager and a great team who vigorously take care and ensure the best quality of data.

At the beginning, I was solely responsible for managing clients and brokering deals. But it soon became very hectic. I, as a result, started looking for new people to help me with this.

Agency requires credibility and reliability. It was tough to find trusted agents. But we, luckily, managed to find a few who met our criteria. So to speak, I think we are the first company who established agency as a professional field in Bangladesh. Like, the other day I went to H&M Bangladesh office. They said that they acknowledge us as the first professional agency service in Bangladesh and that they would vouch for our agency service quality. They also sent us a mail afterward praising our service. These are proud moments for us.

FS: Tell us about investments. How did you manage the initial investments? Have you raised any external fund?

MS: No, we still don’t have any significant external investment. There is only one person, a friend of mine and founder of Inflection Ventures Limited, Singapore, who has invested in pBazaar till now.

From my experience, I will suggest everyone to focus on revenue, not on fund-raising. I think, it's a total waste of time. Some people might get offended by this, but I'm speaking from experience.

When I first started my company, revenue in the first month was Tk. 100,000. Next month it increased to Tk. 120,000 and roughly within 2 years it was 1.5 million in Bangladeshi taka.

Then, in 2013, I was approached by Lamudi when they came to Bangladesh. The next three days I engaged in endless negotiations with a team from Rocket. At last, they gave me the offer to invest and that the name pBazaar would be replaced by a new one. But it did not work out later. They launched Lamudi with the intelligence they collected from us!

When I was running my business on my own, the number of employees in my company was constantly on the rise. But when I started to look for external investments, I got distracted from my main plan and recruitments came to a complete standstill.

My operation costs, as a result, got higher but revenue didn't because I didn't have enough people. If I had focused on growing my revenue instead of running after investments, today VCs would have come to us, not the other way round.

From my experience, I will suggest everyone to focus on revenue, not on fund-raising. I think, it's a total waste of time. Some people might get offended by this, but I'm speaking from experience.

Note: Please check us out later this month for the second installment of the interview.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Rahat, Image Courtesy, pBazaar

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