Affan Mahmud On Focus, Risk and The Hard Work Of Building A Business [Part-II]
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.
This is the part II of our conversation, you can read the part one here.
You have a hotel chain, two cafés, and restaurants and a consulting firm besides Boomerang Digital. Building a company is not an easy feat. It’s a demanding job and requires an extraordinary amount of time and effort. How do you maintain focus and manage your time?
I didn’t start any two of my companies at once. For most of my companies, I started one after another. Whenever I started something new along with my partners my primary focus was particularly on that new venture at least for a certain period of time. Each of my ventures, in almost all the cases, maintained some sort of sequence.
For example, when I first started George’s Café, Veni Vedi Vici didn’t exist, nor did Richmond Hotels and Suites. I even remember waiting on customers at George’s Café for a while. It may sound quite unusual, but I was an outsider to the industry and I had to learn how to run a restaurant properly.
I never tried to do everything by myself. I’m lucky to have great partners. I only look after areas where I’m good at such as marketing, sales, and strategic knowledge, so it was never me alone.
I’ve been trying to employ automation a lot both in my private and professional life lately as I am kind of an untidy person with things. For example, I use a set of mobile task management applications to help me get things organized.
Simply put, if you can manage to establish an efficient operating system, you’ll be able to run a business successfully.
However, going forward instead of diversifying, I want to expand my existing businesses. For instance, George’s café began with only one branch, and now we are about to open our 4th outlet.
Tell us about the growth of Boomerang Digital.
We have worked with more than 150 clients from a number of countries including Bangladesh, Singapore, Canada, USA, and several countries in the Middle East to date. We are planning to expand further into Asia. Overall, Boomerang has an estimated year-on-year growth of 50%.
What does it take to build a successful digital marketing company?
Let me answer from a more general point of view. The core things required to build a successful business are of the same nature across the world. Firstly, you need a good idea and a deep understanding of your market.
Secondly, a great business is all about great people. If you don’t have the right partner(s), employees and even right clients, and if they don’t sync well with each other, the ultimate result won’t be satisfactory. I am lucky to get a very talented and passionate team.
Thirdly, an effective system, which is still largely absent in most local companies in Bangladesh. It is hard to design an effective process but if you can build one, it worth the hard work.
It is important to follow-up. Suppose, you have made a business proposal to someone who you expect would respond to you shortly. But, you would be disappointed and find that he would not get back even within months. But it is important to hang on and follow-up.
And finally, you need to have a lot of courage. Our society does not appreciate entrepreneurship yet. It is considered to be riskier than anything. Access to fund is a critical factor for a business to operate and grow which is quite difficult here. Which means when you are getting into the world of business your stake is high and challenges are enormous. Only courage can help us to get over such a situation.
Have you had a mentor along the way? How important it is for people to have mentors?
I was unlucky because I haven’t had any formal mentor in my early days. Eventually, I have come across great people and learned a lot. But that initial disconnect, on the other hand, has given all the more reason to offer my own mentoring to other early-stage entrepreneurs.
As a young country, we have very few examples before us to learn from. We need a culture of mentoring to nurture entrepreneurs in our country in a more systematic, structured fashion.
I think the government has a part to play here. We need mentoring at the school level. Why don’t we ask our successful entrepreneurs to share their stories with the kids and have fun? It won’t be much of a surprise if some kid becomes inspired listening to the struggles of an entrepreneur and decides to create a business of his own.
What is the biggest risk you have taken both in your personal and professional life to move forward?
Unlike Boomerang Digital, we were not so sure about how George’s Café would turn out. There were some valid reasons to be concerned about. First of all, we chose such an area where big brands were already there. The competition was high. Moreover, coffee was not still something people drink regularly.
So, starting a coffee shop was quite an over-the-top idea given that Uttara was predominantly inhabited by middle and lower middle-class families. We were initially anxious about whether people would actually come to our café. So far, it was one of the biggest risks I have taken and fortunately the efforts have paid off.
Are your friends and family supportive of what you do?
Yes, very much, actually. I have 3 ladies in the family whom I hold very dear to my heart: my mother, my wife, and my sister. They have always been by my side whenever I needed them. Some of my friends also lent me helping hands.
How important this sort of support is for early-stage entrepreneurs?
It is very important, especially in a country like Bangladesh where people are greatly influenced by social factors.
Suppose, I want to start a business but my family and friends don’t support me, instead give a cold shoulder, how can I hope to step any further? Yes, the financial risk is higher, But, supporting someone doesn’t always have to be in monetary terms; support can be moral in nature.
You have started a number of companies and you are quite successful. Do you feel any responsibility to do something bigger than yourself?
Yes, I try to contribute in whichever way I can. As an entrepreneur who has passed a considerable period of time in the business scenario, I try to mentor newcomers, entrepreneurs who are at the very early-stage.
I’m also the co-manager of GBG (Google Business Group) Sonargaon for more than two years now. I’m trying to contribute as much as I can to the overall entrepreneurship ecosystem of the country.
As for my future plans, I want to be a motivational speaker. I’ll try to help people to understand how important it is to do good and grow for their own sake and the country.
Tell us about your plans for Boomerang in the next, say, 5 to 10 years.
I want to see Boomerang as one of the top digital media companies both regionally and globally.
I think Asia is on the verge of change. Within the next 10 years the global economic center will be Asia; and, when that happens I want to be a part of that metamorphoses.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
In my experience, I have seen a lot of people coming into business without adequate preparation. Starting a business requires human resources, access to finance, the core business idea, and the entrepreneur herself/himself and more. One needs to understand how all these ingredients will come together.
There are now tools to help entrepreneurs to gather everything together. For example, surveying was a difficult task in the past. But now you can survey a large number of people just within 24 hours or less, thanks to tools like Google Forms, Form Bakery and more.
My first advice is “do your homework before starting your business.” One needs to understand that the business s/he intends to start actually agrees with him/her. An entrepreneur needs to understand why s/he is doing a particular business and channel energy to the right direction.
Take my case for instance. I wasn’t an IT student but I did start a digital advertising company. Why? Because I knew that if I could organize the elements myself, my partner who was an IT specialist would be able to successfully engineer a service mechanism. And, fortunately, that was exactly what happened. I did do my homework before I came into the industry.
Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Rahat, Edited by Nezam Uddin