Saleh Ahmed, co-founder and CEO of ExonHost, has an incredibly inspiring and equally poignant story. He is one of the many entrepreneurs in Bangladesh who had struggled to their breath to keep their head above the water and keep going. But Saleh is not the kind of person who easily gives in to the despair or hardship. Rather he is opposite, and thrives in either condition. Despite enormous personal struggle and coming from a humble background, he managed to build a profitable company. His company ExonHost (former HostPair), a hosting service provider based in Dhaka, is one of the few trusted hosting companies in Bangladesh.
Saleh was born and raised in Habiganj, a place located in north-eastern part of Bangladesh. "I was born in 1986 and studied in local school and college. I got admitted in Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) for graduation in Social Science and did my masters from there", Saleh told FS.
Despite being a younger child in the family, Saleh has been juggling family responsibilities beyond his capacity since his childhood. "My father was semi-unemployed all the time and we had to keep the family going. So I used to do different things to earn the living.", Saleh said.
Hardship has some serious upside. It makes you unusually strong and courageous and pushes you to do more. This probably was true for Saleh. He has always been tenacious. In fact, trying many things from early life may have led Saleh to entrepreneurship. He started his hosting business back in 2009, during his freshman year, under the name Obosor. "I started out of my passion for technology. When my business got some popularity, I thought of doing it seriously", Saleh was reminiscing.
Despite not being a student of Computer Science or any technical subject, Saleh was drawn to a business that was providing infrastructure for technology business. "I was an avid reader of computer section of newspaper in my childhood. I searched for computer magazines and read them cover to cover and am very passionate about technology. I was studying Science till SSC, but could not continue due to financial and other crisis", Saleh said.
In 2012, Saleh registered a company under RJSC named Purple IT Ltd. along with his partner Masumul Haque. "I fell sick several times in 2011 and had to get admitted to hospital. It was very difficult for me to provide support services to my customers and I was very worried about that. That’s when I felt that I need to find a partner in order to ensure smooth operation of my business. In 2010, group chat was a huge thing and I met Masum bhai via one of such chats. We then discussed the issues of starting something together and that's how we got started".
We started the hosting business under the brand name 'SoCheap Host'. Interestingly many of our customers did not like the 'cheap' thing in the name. So we re-branded it into 'HostPair' in 2013", Saleh said.
However, recently they have re-branded it again as 'ExonHost' due to a legal dispute with the word 'pair' in their name. Saled said, re-branding has downsides too, "We did not face problem when migrating from SoCheap Host to HostPair, But this time, when migrating from HostPair to ExonHost, it is taking heavy toll on our sales and our website traffic has dropped as well".
ExonHost is now a team of 09 people including 03 people who are outsourced staffs. The company sells Domain, Hosting (Shared), Virtual Private Servers, Dedicated Servers, SSL certificates etc. They occasionally sell technical support too, to non-customers.[blockquote source="Saleh Ahmed, CEO of ExonHost"]There is a widespread misconception that making money is easy in hosting business, which is wrong. The provider must know the technicalities first before offering service. This is a service business. Like every service business, it is extremely tough to satisfy your customers. [/blockquote]
"We usually rent dedicated servers from different US data center. We then install necessary operating system and control panel and other necessary software to make it customer-usable. We then sell the hosting to customers and provide support from this office", Saleh said.
Emphasizing the role of support in this business, Saleh said, "we ensure 24/7 support and have dedicated support staffs to whom we outsourced our support work. . We offer 24 hours online ticket support and live chat support during office hours. We strictly maintain a 60-minutes response time to any ticket". He confidently informed us that 24/7 seamless customer support service is what differentiates his venture from other competitors.
Word of mouth has been the biggest driver of customer acquisition for ExonHost so far. “Customers refer other customer to us, as our existing customers are satisfied with our service and this has been our primary source of new customer", Saleh said.
Besides, ExonHost promotes their brand through offline and online marketing. "We put advertisement on offline mechanizes, mostly related to computer and technology, and online community blogging sites focusing on technology. We are also sponsoring different programs that helps our brand visibility. We are heavily emphasizing on branding of ExonHost, we plan to do more in the coming years", Saleh said.
70% of ExonHost’s marketing budget goes to online media and rest is for offline effort. To reach clients in countries other than Bangladesh, they spend money on popular online community site such as Webhosting talk or LET. Besides, they invest in email marketing as well.
The company does not have any direct sales force targeting corporate customers yet. Saleh, however, said they will go for corporate customers after setting up their own call center.
Corporate space is a little competitive in Bangladesh. Early players like Technobd and other early movers have an edge over others in terms of corporate clients. "They started early in this market and have strong relationship with technical staffs of major corporate houses which give them competitive advantage", Saleh said.
Sales revenue is the primary growth metric for ExonHost. "We also look at the website traffic, achievement of monthly target to measure our progress", Saleh said.
Since hosting is a kind of subscription business, Saleh put more importance on new customer acquisition for now as they are in growth spurt. "We are being a bit agile in acquisition and we are acquiring hosting companies lately. We bought Tutohost in 2014 and Sitenamebd in 2016. This is, in a sense, buying their customer base."
Saleh has built a revenue-first company from its early days. "We have invested around BDT 1.50 million initially and we did it from our own sources. To date, we have not raised any investment and we are running profitably from the revenue we generate".
The company now has 3000 customers and they recently reached six figure yearly revenue (in USD). Majority, around 97%, of their customers are retail customers.
ExonHost, interestingly, has an outward focus when it comes to growth and expansion. "We want to reach customers in the USA, UK, Australia and Canada in next 02 years. We have some new products in mind for these new markets", Saleh informed.
Saleh plans to launch hosting related software product and solution for affiliate marketers. However, in order to develop and launch these products, ExonHost will need further investment. "We are aiming to raise BDT 150 million to build a development team for this project", Saleh said.
Saleh is very happy with his partner as he did a very good job in going for right people. "In my dealing with Masum bhai, I understood that he is a total honest person and his words goes with his works", Saleh said. A right partner can take any initiative to right direction and is very crucial, Saleh emphasized.
Finding and onboarding new customers and customer awareness about quality hosting are two major challenges for ExonHost now. Saleh said “Till now people suggest foreign company when it comes to buying hosting, because they had bad experience with local providers”. Saleh recently initiated a forum of Hosting providers namely Bangladesh Domain Hosting Providers Association, which is yet to get government approval and plans to promote customer awareness, raise skill of local providers and make this business an industry through this platform.
Learning is key to success and you can’t overstate the importance of learning in business and life. "There is a widespread misconception that making money is easy in hosting business, which is wrong. The provider must know the technicalities first before offering service. This is a service business. Like every service business, it is extremely tough to satisfy your customers " Saleh observed. Be patience and make sure that you are offering best possible service to your customers, Saleh told.
Saleh also put importance on getting out of building and getting into the work field instead of analysis-paralysis when it comes to building a business.