Unpacking Field Buzz’s Business, Strategy And Ambition: An Interview With Habib Ullah Bahar, CEO, Field Buzz

Unpacking Field Buzz’s Business, Strategy And Ambition: An Interview With Habib Ullah Bahar, CEO, Field Buzz

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Field Buzz is one of the few startups in Dhaka that you can conveniently put as a textbook example of how to build a technology company from scratch. The story of Field Buzz answers many pressing questions related to building a sustainable business including how to find your co-founder, build a great team, build a great product through iteration, how to persist in the face of obstacle and challenges and so on.

Similarly, its two founders, Habib Ullah Bahar and Alexis Rawlinson, are the kind of founders young people, who are trying to build companies in Dhaka, should try to emulate for the amount of determination and resourcefulness both of them have shown in the past few years in the runup to turning Field Buzz into a sustainable business.

We have been following Field Buzz from the very beginning of its journey, we first interviewed Habib Ullah Bahar in 2016, you may find the interview here. Field Buzz started operation in 2015 with a team of 9 people and one client, that too was not a paying client at that time. It took the company one entire year to get its second client and it never looked back after that. But the interim one year was the ultimate test of entrepreneurship and building a business for the Field Buzz founders and the team.

Since then it has evolved significantly. The team has grown to 26 people. It has now clients on multiple continents and has just got the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund for developing its SaaS subscription product for SMEs in Bangladesh and beyond.

In this fascinating interview, Ruhul Kader sits down with Habib Ullah Bahar, co-founder and CEO of Field Buzz, to learn about the developments at Field Buzz over the past years and to pick his brain about the strategy of Field Buzz, the state of its business and product today and ambition going forward, his take on competition and his biggest lessons from his journey so far as an entrepreneur and contemplates what future may bring for the tech industry in Bangladesh.

Future Startup

Let’s start with an overview of Field Buzz, how much has the company evolved since we last spoke?

Habib Ullah Bahar

When we founded Field Buzz back in 2015, we were a small but dynamic team of 9 persons. Since then, the number of employees has almost tripled: now we are a 26 member team which keeps growing.

In terms of profitability, we, fortunately, reached our break-even point by the end of 2016 – and our business continues to follow this trend. We are now reinvesting most of that profit in our operations and growth.

Our client base is relatively small in number, but that doesn’t mean that we have a small business here. In fact, our individual client value is pretty high because we mainly deal with international organizations and multinational corporations which implement large projects in many regions including Asia, Africa, and South America. This requires to constantly develop our product as well as internal processes and human resources.

We have managed to continuously improve our product and to diversify the use cases. Right now, our clients are using Field Buzz software for multiple purposes. In the past three years, we have developed multiple “flavours” of our product, among these sales, infrastructure monitoring, microfinance, traceability of agricultural value chains and data collection and analysis.

Since 2017, a large part of our R&D activities focuses on making our solution modular so that it becomes more flexible and easy-to-use for laypersons. In this way, slowly but surely, our software will be available as a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model which would also help us to reduce costs and scale our business. We have successfully accomplished 50%-60% of that goal last year. We hope to achieve the rest of our target within 2019 and become a configurable drag and drop services like SalesForce and others.

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Our product has been implemented in many different sectors and scopes by now: sales and distribution monitoring, infrastructure monitoring, microfinance, traceability of agricultural value chains and data collection and analysis. We call these flavors. To enter into a regional market, we focus on single flavors first. For instance, in case of Bangladesh, we are currently focusing on the sales and distribution monitoring. And then we will rollout other flavors as per market demand.

Future Startup

Can you please give us an overview of the product, what does your product look like now? To put it in context, I want to read back part of your last interview: “Field Buzz is a software system that uses smartphones to help organizations manage their remote or dispersed operations. As you know very well, in Bangladesh, and in many other countries too, large companies and NGOs used to have a large number of employees and agents who travel around in the marketplaces or in the villages and seldom maintain a fixed workstation. We call these people “field workers”. The nature of their work makes it hard for them to maintain a standard reporting procedure, unlike people who use office or a permanent workstation. Most of these people are still using pen and paper to report their work. It is hard for managers to track their field workers, thus there is almost no transparency which makes entire operation very inefficient. The data often comes very late with mistakes or gaps, or even fraud.” And your product helps to effectively deal with it. How much has the product evolved?

Habib Ullah Bahar

Our key focus hasn’t changed much when looking at the main purpose of our business: we still want to offer solutions for the same basic problems. But our product has gone through some technical changes and developments as well the overall company has matured in the interim period.

First off, we understand the business much better now. We have a deeper regional understanding of our customers and typical bottlenecks in their operations.

Last year, we stroke a major deal with Neumann Kaffee Gruppe (NKG), the world’s largest coffee trader in the world. We are working with coffee farmers in Uganda under this engagement.

Through our system, the farmers can apply for in-kind fertilizer and cash loans and repay these loans through actual coffee deliveries. Our system tracks all these transactions and ensures that the sales proceeds, net of loan repayment, safely reach the farmers. By implementing this project, our client wants to ensure its customers that by purchasing NKG coffee, they are contributing to sustainable development in rural Uganda’s agricultural sector.

Our software tracks all transactions and the farmers’ status at different points and – through our web-based management interface – makes the data collected in the field available to managers. Because of its success, we are now contemplating to expand into Kenya, Tanzania, Brazil and other South American markets.

Our product has been implemented in many different sectors and scopes by now: sales and distribution monitoring, infrastructure monitoring, microfinance, traceability of agricultural value chains and data collection and analysis. We call these flavors.

To enter into a regional market, we focus on single flavors first. For instance, in case of Bangladesh, we are currently focusing on the sales and distribution monitoring. And then we will roll out other flavors as per market demand.

We have managed to continuously improve our product and to diversify the use cases. Right now, our clients are using Field Buzz software for multiple purposes. In the past three years, we have developed multiple “flavours” of our product, among these sales, infrastructure monitoring, microfinance, traceability of agricultural value chains and data collection and analysis.

Future Startup

What is your business model now? You were talking about launching a subscription product, have you done that?

Habib Ullah Bahar

Up to now, despite the need for customization, the core of our product is still the same. Due to our clients’ large and dynamic operations, the degree of changes is high. But the core system is around 70% to 90% same for each implementation.

In order to introduce a subscription service that will offer a standard set of features with easy customization, we will be needing more funds. Having said that, we have already started working on a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product for SMEs in Bangladesh. We are working on the solution and planning on launching it for selected customers by May 2018.

Our aim is to spread our service throughout the country within mid-2019. GSMA supports us on this journey through the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund – Field Buzz has been selected as one of the 15 lucky startups for 2018 Innovation Fund.

Future Startup

How have you attracted clients and grown your business?

Habib Ullah Bahar

It was quite tough to acquire customers at the beginning for both of us, me and my partner Alexis. Earlier, we divided our responsibilities where I focused on product development and Alexis on sales and client management. This functional separation of divisions has proven very successful.

Alexis and I get along extremely well and it has been a tremendous collaboration throughout our journey.

Provided that we were just a startup and had no real leverage, it was tough to attract large corporations to buy our service in the early days. One of the first organization that had the courage to work with us was JITA Bangladesh. They didn’t initially pay us for the product but helped us enormously to understand the market and customer needs. The product we designed for them served as a prototype for our later developments. We then worked with Care Bangladesh and Danone.

After JITA, which was our first client, it took a year to get our second client. It was a struggling period for the company. We had to make difficult decisions, e.g. in the field of human resources.

Since we are in B2B business, our sales process is rather lengthy and takes significant effort. Before our second client, we approached many clients and every sales pitch required huge work and preparation. It was painstaking. After acquiring the second client, the clientele began to grow on its own.

We have always paid extra attention to making sure that our product is the best in the market. And, indeed, we are very confident that Field Buzz is the best last mile management software in the market. We offer relentless support to our customers and give customization support wherever needed.

Key factors for continued growth and success have been first, the fact that we are solving real problems our customers face, and second, that we provide world-class personalized service. This has helped us to build a satisfied customer base, however small the base is, and grow our business largely through references and expansion within the existing network of our customers.

For instance, we work with KfW now, the German development bank. When we started working with them, our product was only used in KfW’s Afghanistan operations and after a while, we have started working in other KfW project countries and sectors.

Many of the organizations that we work with are multinational in nature and once we have successfully proven that our product can meet their needs in one market, they buy Field Buzz for other markets as well.

Future Startup

With your existing product, do you have plans to serve the local market?

Habib Ullah Bahar

Actually, from the end of 2016, we have gotten many sales leads from local companies. But we found out that the price we were offering didn’t match their expectations regarding pricing.

This is one of the reasons why we have decided to introduce a cost-effective SaaS product to cater the local market and smaller organizations abroad. Right now, almost all of our revenue comes from the international market.

After JITA, which was our first client, it took a year to get our second client. It was a struggling period for the company. We had to make difficult decisions, e.g. in the field of human resources. Since we are in B2B business, our sales process is rather lengthy and takes significant effort. Before our second client, we approached many clients and every sales pitch required huge work and preparation. It was painstaking. After acquiring the second client, the clientele began to grow on its own.

Future Startup

How does sales process in the international market work?

Habib Ullah Bahar

Our marketing strategy has been fairly the same from the beginning. But now we have got a competitive advantage.

Let me give you an example: one of our product flavors allows the overseeing of certain operational processes like road construction, building construction and so on. We developed this variant while working with KfW in Afghanistan in 2016. Because of security concerns, it was not always safe to monitor the progress of construction projects physically in Afghanistan and our product helped to do it remotely.

Our system was designed in such a way that project inspectors would input data and pictures from the site, paired with a GPS tag, and then it would be conveyed to the management for evaluation.

This development provided us a leading edge in the field. We got high exposure in the international market. From Afghanistan, we went to Nepal, Iraq, Mali and to many other countries.

As I mentioned earlier, our growth, as well as sales, has been organic in nature.

Future Startup

What do you think about competition? How is your service different from the others?

Habib Ullah Bahar

We think our key edge compared to potential competitors is our deep understanding of the customer needs. We have been providing solutions for problems related to sales and distribution in Bangladesh’s context and other developing countries for the last 2-3 years and since the beginning, Field Buzz is designed specifically for the circumstances in low-resource contexts, like rural and/or conflict-prone regions.

We have presented convenient features for people who are very good salespersons but only understand numbers. We offer best customer service and customization support whenever our clients need it.

Our smartphone application is – in my professional opinion – the best of its kind in the market in our category and price range. This shows our commitment to providing a user-friendly service which gives us a competitive advantage over others.

On the other hand, in terms of the market size, it is quite big. There are many opportunities which are still untapped and can provide room for multiple competitors. So we are quite relaxed when thinking about competition.

Future Startup

What are the major challenges for Field Buzz now?

Habib Ullah Bahar

Scalability, without a doubt. In case of expansion, we have to think on an international level. This challenge comes with two other challenges: 1) investment and 2) expertise.

At present, we have our consulting arm based in Germany with my co-founder Alexis, outside of Bangladesh. But in order to tend our other foreign clients in Asia, Africa, and South American regions we need local consultants there. It poses a great challenge to build and manage a local workforce.

We are currently on the lookout for impact investors who will not only provide us with investment but can also help us with international expansion expertise.

We think our key edge compared to potential competitors is our deep understanding of the customer needs. We have been providing solutions for problems related to sales and distribution in Bangladesh’s context and other developing countries for the last 2-3 years and since the beginning, Field Buzz is designed specifically for the circumstances in low-resource contexts, like rural and/or conflict-prone regions.

Future Startup

As you mentioned, it is challenging to manage international workforce, how do you collaborate with teams in different places?

Habib Ullah Bahar

It often time gets quite difficult managing transnational teams. We use productivity tools like Slack, Redmine, Skype, and emails.

Slack is our primary communication tool, for voice calls we jump into Skype. And anything important including client communication happens mostly over email. We use Redmine for project management.

Everything was a bit chaotic in the beginning. But we have started to streamline our operations by formulating new policies. We still have issues like different time zones and varying holidays which we are trying to resolve, but which are also an inherent part of working with an international team.

Field Buzz-co-founders: Alexis and Bbahar {from-left-to-right}

Field Buzz-co-founders: Alexis and Bahar {from-left-to-right}

Future Startup

What are your biggest lessons from the past couple of years?

Habib Ullah Bahar

You need to focus and stick to a decision once it is made. That’s focus and that’s discipline. Never spread yourself too thin and pursue more than one thing at a time.

People matter. It’s important to retain talented people in the company even with a higher compensation. I have made this mistake in my previous company and would never do it again. Without great people, it is impossible to build a great company.

I have learned the importance of saying no. If you give too much, people will take it as an opportunity for exploitation. It is often hard and makes me feel bad to say no, but you have to say no in order to be effective and get things done.

Work comes first. When you are running a business, give your 100% to it and avoid all kinds of distraction.

It is hard. As I mentioned earlier, it took us one long year to onboard our second client. Meaning, it is hard and takes time to build a company. You have to be able to deal with both: endure difficulties and patience.

Future Startup

Although you have already mentioned some, what are the future plans?

Habib Ullah Bahar

For the next two years, our major goal is to design and launch the first SaaS product which we are calling Field Buzz Sales.

Another target is to make our service more modular in nature. We hope that achieving these two targets will allow us to expand our business to a greater degree.

Everything was a bit chaotic in the beginning. But we have started to streamline our operations by formulating new policies. We still have issues like different time zones and varying holidays which we are trying to resolve, but which are also an inherent part of working with an international team.

Future Startup

What advice would give to your 25-year self?

Habib Ullah Bahar

As mentioned earlier, saying no when it’s the right thing to do. I’d also advise him to get a good business partner as soon as possible.

Future Startup

What are your personal resolutions for 2018?

Habib Ullah Bahar

In 2018, I want to focus on my health more. I have decided to run 30-35 kilometers every week. I also want to spend more time with my family and travel more places.

Also, start helping early-stage companies in Bangladesh with my experience and investment.

Work comes first. When you are running a business, give your 100% to it and avoid all kinds of distraction. It is hard. As I mentioned earlier, it took us one long year to onboard our second client. Meaning, it is hard and takes time to build a company. You have to be able to deal with both: endure difficulties and patience.


Notes:

1. Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Ashekan

2. Further reading on Field Buzz including a previous interview with Mr. Bahar here.

This story is made possible in part by our friends at Dhaka Bank, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. Dhaka Bank has introduced an excellent mobile banking app, Dhaka Bank Go. Dhaka Bank Go gives you secure access to your Dhaka Bank Accounts and Credit Cards and other exciting facilities from your mobile devices anytime, anywhere. Explore and enjoy the infinite opportunities. Learn more here.

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