OnnoRokom Group, Entrepreneurship, and Life: An Interview With Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, Chairman, OnnoRokom Group (Part 01)

OnnoRokom Group, Entrepreneurship, and Life: An Interview With Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, Chairman, OnnoRokom Group (Part 01)

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There are few entrepreneurs in Dhaka’s technology scene quite as fascinating and inspiring as Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, the Co-Founder and Chairman Of OnnoRokom Group. Over the past years, he and his team at OnnoRokom have built a mission-driven entire group of companies from scratch which continues to experience tremendous growth while staying true to its core vision of building a better Bangladesh. There is an almost unsettling sense of worldliness in many of today’s entrepreneurs. Thanks to relentless Silicon Valley-isation of entrepreneurship, everybody wants to start a company, sell it at some point and get famous and rich. It’s not a problem per se. Getting rich, in fact, is great, but the vision and the pursuit of making a real difference through entrepreneurial endeavor are increasingly becoming a rare thing these days. This is one of the reasons what makes Mr. Sohag’s story and journey important and different. He is in it for a reason that goes beyond mere millions and his journey to where he is today offers invaluable lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs.

On the other hand, the story of Onnorokom Group answers many pressing questions related to entrepreneurship including how to find your co-founder, be relentlessly resourceful, build a great team and company culture, design a great product through iteration, how to persist in the face of obstacle and challenges and so on. Mr. Sohag and his team at Onnorokom has been building one of the most consequential technology companies in Dhaka over the past years and have done important works in a host of sectors. The group has businesses in education, research, and innovation, software, hardware, ecommerce, publication and more.

In part one of this eminently insightful and intellectually satisfying interview, Ruhul Kader sits down with Mahmudul Hasan Sohag to learn about his personal journey to what he is doing today, beginning of Onnorokom Group, developments at Onnorokom Group over the past years and to pick his brain about the strategy of Onnorokom, the state of its business today and ambition going forward, his take on competition and the biggest lessons from his journey so far as an entrepreneur and about the future of business, technology and society and comtemplates metaphysical questions like meaning of life and more.

Future Startup

First off, let us begin with your story, tell us about where you grew up and what was your childhood look like.

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

I was born in Sarishabari, Jamalpur. I’m the youngest child of my parents and had a wonderful childhood. My mother worked in the local post office and my father is a retired school teacher. I studied in Sarishabari until my secondary education. Not to sound boastful but I maintained a fairly upward trajectory in my education life. After SSC examination, I came to Dhaka and got into Dhaka College for higher secondary education.

My college days were full of meaningful experiences. As Dhaka College used to attract students from around the country, I had the opportunity to see and learn a lot of things. There was once an incident when I was hiding away from a pugnacious political leader because I raised my voice against his wrongdoing. Because of this and other reasons, I suffered from frustration throughout the first year of my college life.

I was also not quite satisfied with my academic experience there. When I was in high school, I used to ask a lot of questions to my teachers. It was not a usual practice in a suburban school, as you might wonder, but the teachers – especially the headmaster of my school, Babu Jyotish Chandra Saha, and another from whom I received private tuition, late Chandra Nath, never discouraged me. They were very concerned to the extent that they allotted extra time for satisfying my unending inquiries after school. It was a greatly influential aspect of my life which built a strong sense of responsibility in me.

But when I came to Dhaka College, I saw that most teachers, with a few exceptions, discouraged questions from students in general. The college had many teachers whose reputation ran countrywide. But whenever I asked something, many of my teachers either ignored my call or taunted me. I realized that the relationship we had with our teachers was strictly realized. It was a demoralizing experience for me. Consequently, I gradually became inattentive to my studies.  In fact, it took a toll on my first-year studies and result. While it was a challenging experience for me, it was also where I got the inspiration for the first time, I assume, to build an educational institution where we would encourage students to pursue their intellectual curiosity without any bound which later became Udvash.

Anyways, the next year I turned around and focused on my studies. I was also inspired by others’ expectation of me, especially that of people in my hometown who thought of me with high regard. Often positive external expectation works as a motivation. I soon overcame my deficiencies and as I mentioned earlier, vowed to myself to build an organization someday where members would be encouraged to ask questions because an inquirer is also a thinker. One who doesn’t question doesn’t know how to think and thinking is one of the most important skills you need to learn in life. We will get back to it later. Let’s get back to my college days.

I worked hard throughout the rest of the year. I particularly remember the month of Ramadan of that year when I literally utilized every waking moment. I can’t believe now that I was the one who worked that hard once.  I studied almost all the time.

My labor paid off satisfactorily. I came in fourth in the HSC examination in Dhaka Board which was better than my SSC result. Soon after that, I sat for the admission test for BUET. Although everyone expected that I would top the merit list, I didn’t do very well, but not very poor either. I secured the 141st position in BUET admission test and learned that you have to work equally hard every day regardless of what was your result yesterday.

This was back in 2000. I chose electronics and electrical engineering (EEE) in BUET. After the admission, I had a little short-lived dissonance with my major because CSE was the most sought-after major at that time. But I later realized that EEE was a blessing for me and that decision continues to serve me well even these days.

My admission procedure in BUET was finished in November 2000, and in December the same year, I, along with a friend, opened Udvash that marked the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. There was a year-long session jam in BUET that year. So we had ample time at hand and we found a better way to spend our time – teaching students.

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It wasn’t until I was old enough, I realized that my personality has dual-aspects. I reside in a character spectrum with two extreme ends. I am flexible and, at the same time, very disciplined. I inherited these characteristics from my parents. My mother is a very disciplined person with strong convictions. I learned to value commitment from her. My father, on the other hand, is a remarkably hard-working person. He is a septuagenarian but still runs a school in our village. They also compromised a lot for us. They have been the ideal teachers and parents for me. For example, and I tell this to everyone, my parents never argued in front of us. They saved it for later when we wouldn’t be around. They did it because they knew that how parents’ altercation can badly influence the children. This is how my parents have shaped my life in million different, intricate ways.

Future Startup

It’s easy to define your vision looking back now since you’ve come a long way. But if you look back, do you think that you envisioned everything that Udvash now aspires to be, for instance, as you mentioned, building an institution where asking questions and intellectual curiosity would be encouraged?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

No, not really, to be honest. In fact, we didn’t think that it would become this big. People, you see, can’t plan for future after a point. As they venture through the present to the future, they try to logically connect it with the past. When people do something out of passion, they are driven by emotional energy which was the situation we were in at that time. We didn’t have any concrete plan for our venture. My idea was to start an organization where no one would be discouraged from asking anything as I had been once.

We started Udvash with a mere 6,000 taka total investment. We rented a small room at 800 taka rent per month. That’s how our journey started. It was quite difficult in the early days since we didn’t have adequate resources at our disposal. But I was passionate about teaching. So was my partners. My first partner was a friend, Hamid. Then came Liton and one of his friends. We were four partners in the beginning. After a while, Hamid left Udvash for some personal reasons and the rest of us continued.

Our classes at BUET began in August the next year because of an ongoing session jam, as I mentioned earlier. There I met Pavel who also became a partner in Hamid’s place. The four of us stayed together for the next five and a half years.

Udvash reached its break-even point after eight long years; break-even, in the sense, that at that point we were able to run the organization without any loans. It was all-struggle before that. We had to put in our highest level of effort to take it to that level and that too for a very long time. We worked very very hard and we sacrificed a lot throughout our first few years. This is why Udvash is so dear to our heart.

Udvash isn’t merely a coaching center, as people might say. We tried to introduce a completely different stream of academic care against the traditional coaching centers. When others distributed hand-notes and advertised shortcuts, we focused on imparting proper education to the students who came to us.  Not only that we did not give any suggestion or hand notes to our students, we actively discouraged it. In fact, initially, we had to face difficulties in attracting students for that because parents would come and ask us what are the facilities we provide, do we provide suggestion and notes and we would reply that we don’t. That was a deal-breaking answer for many parents. But for many, it was the answer they were looking for.

Five years after the inception, when circumstances became even more fraught with challenges, two of our patterns quit Udvash. It was a very logical decision. We were about to graduate from BUET and Udvash was not showing any sign of going anywhere soon. They had to attend the call of reality. But Liton and I were determined to see it till the end. This was not a logical decision; then and again, we could’ve never made it this far if we looked at money. This is exactly why I say that you can’t make an enterprise sustainable in the long-run if you’re in the game only for the money. Doggedly pursuing Udvash, at that time, was an illogical decision in terms of money and everything. But we were not concerned about it.

What motivated us at that time was the transformation we were seeing in the students, no matter how small they were in number. There are also many other inspiring incidents. For instance, when we were first planning to open a branch at Motijheel, we estimated that the building that we shortlisted wouldn’t be rented at less than 10,000 taka. It was too much for us which we could not afford at that time. But we went to meet with the owner nonetheless. Listening to our case, he proposed an unusual arrangement. He suggested us to use the half of the space and pay accordingly. The rent was 6,000, if I remember correctly, which was still a financial burden for us.  But the owner encouraged us telling us that we could do it and that he would see the rest. He has been a wonderful support to our work since then.

After much thought, we decided to go with the arrangement. It was back in 2005 and we were getting a thin feeling of growth. We had already been able to attract a group of enthusiastic students from Notre Dame College by then. They spread the good name of Udvash which brought in a lot of new faces to our fledgling institution. Parents of the students also played the role of marketers for us. Slowly, we started to get more students purely through word of mouth. However, our struggle was not done yet. For instance, once we could not pay rent for 8-months. Even then, the flat owner didn’t force us to leave the premise, instead of asking us to leave, he loaned us 100,000 taka. We expanded our operation with the help of these people. Parents of our students used to invite us to their homes and so on. They were and still are the source of inspiration for us.

Udvash isn’t merely a coaching center, as people might say. We tried to introduce a completely different stream of academic care against the traditional coaching centers. When others distributed hand-notes and advertised shortcuts, we focused on imparting proper education to the students who came to us.  Not only that we did not give any suggestion or hand notes to our students, we actively discouraged it. In fact, initially, we had to face difficulties in attracting students for that because parents would come and ask us what are the facilities we provide, do we provide suggestion and notes and we would reply that we don’t. That was a deal-breaking answer for many parents. But for many, it was the answer they were looking for.

Future Startup

Tell us more about your early days at BUET.

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Besides Udvash, I along with two friends – Masum and Mikhail – started an initiative where we planned to make software. Masum was my classmate and a very good programmer. I met Masum when I got into BUET. He was a computer programming buff without a computer! He started programming on paper when he was in school because he did not have a PC at that time.

When I got into BUET, my father bought me a computer and Masum used to program on my PC. We did not know a thing about programming at that time but we were super excited to see Masum working wonder. He was a genius in every meaning of the word and extremely gritty that you may understand from his story.

After a while, we decided to start a software company. This was a different initiative from Udvash where Masum, Mikhail and I were partners. We named our initiative after ZERONE. We would bid for jobs at online freelancing platforms and luckily we got a few really good projects and delivered as well. We carried out a number of international projects and earned a handsome sum of money. Masum was basically the key to that initiative and rest of us were kind of his assistants. But it did work out pretty well.

We continued ZERONE for two years. In that two years, our focus shifted from mere software to electronics, i.e. embedded systems. To resonate that transition of focal area, we changed the name of our company to PI LABS. The ambition was to do something that would have an impact on the lives of the people in Bangladesh. I must say we were quite driven and ambitious at that time and hungry to make a difference. That’s when Mr. Lutful Kabir of IICT, BUET came to our help. When we started working on electronics, our first major project was EVM which was developed under the supervision of Mr. Kabir. It is an interesting idea. When we came up with the idea for the first time, we went to meet Mr. Kabit with our idea and details. Mr. Kabir immediately set up a computer lab for us where we labored and came up with an EVM by the end of our third year at BUET. It was an incredible feeling of achievement for us.

After the completion of EVM project, we received a job proposal at BUET as research assistants. The remuneration was pretty good although it was not a full-time position. So, we joined as RAs and got into working on a project to build a prepaid energy meter.

After my graduation, Mr. Kabir advised me to become a full-time researcher. But I had already decided to be an entrepreneur in life by then. I, as a result, chose to pursue Udvash and Pi Labs. Masum and Mikhail, on the other hand, joined as faculty members at the EEE Department and later went abroad for Ph.D. They used to look after the technical operation at Pi Labs when they were in Bangladesh. But I fell into a difficult position when they left.  To help me with the operation, Liton joined Pi Labs which he wasn’t a part of before then. It was in 2006. From then until now, Liton and I run Pi labs jointly.

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag speaking at a OnnoRokom event

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag speaking at a OnnoRokom event

Future Startup

We will get back to the story of Pi Labs and Udvash in a moment. Before that, tell us about the two teachers who have left deep impacts on your life; what was so special about them? At the same time, do you think there is a connection between the nature of your upbringing and who you are today?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Their depth of knowledge, to be precise. They lived out their lives in the suburbs of Jamalpur but the reach of their intellect was so far-reaching. I still get amazed at their intellectual profundity when I compare to people in the capital, which is supposed be the hub for knowledgeable people.

Chandra Nath sir, to whom I used to go to get private tuition, had a strong understanding of both on science and literature. After finishing a day’s science lesson, he often used to recite verses from Meghnad Badh, the famous poem penned by Madhusudan Dutta.

Similarly, our headmaster, Jyotish Chandra sir, was an epitome of honesty in the locality. People used to refer his name when they talked about honesty and morality. His concern for the good of his countrymen also influenced me a lot.

I also feel indebted to someone else for his literary works, Rabindranath Tagore. Although he was not physically present in my life, his writings influenced me to a great extent. I still get amazed at how advanced Tagore was in his thought. If you read the correspondence between Einstein and Tagore, you’ll see of the former got baffled by the latter’s philosophical wisdom and scientific thoughts.

Last but, in no way, not the least, let me also mention two other people who have contributed greatly to my life – my parents. The family is where we get the most important education of our lives.

It wasn’t until I was old enough, I realized that my personality has dual-aspects. I reside in a character spectrum with two extreme ends. I am flexible and, at the same time, very disciplined. I inherited these characteristics from my parents.

My mother is a very disciplined person with strong convictions. I learned to value commitment from her. My father, on the other hand, is a remarkably hard-working person. He is a septuagenarian but still runs a school in our village. They also compromised a lot for us. They have been the ideal teachers and parents for me.

For example, and I tell this to everyone, my parents never argued in front of us. They saved it for later when we wouldn’t be around. They did it because they knew that how parents’ altercation can badly influence the children. This is how my parents have shaped my life in million different, intricate ways.

It is always helpful when you keep an open mind and take interest in diverse fields. Often what seems distant from outside, does maintain a close tie inside. This is the beauty of knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, when you understand music and software both, you can create better solutions at the intersection than one who is only a tech expert.

Future Startup

Coming back to education, a quick look at our education system would tell us that it follows a strictly linear approach to learning. If someone is studying business, s/he won’t, say, pursue anything related to anthropology or psychology – there is very little interdisciplinary approach. But knowledge is combinatorial in nature and having an interdisciplinary understanding often helps in generating new ideas and innovating better solutions. What is your thoughts on that?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

In this hi-tech era, everything is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Say, for instance, I know how to design a software, but don’t know anything about music. It means that I won’t be able to create a music application which would otherwise be an interesting venture. You see, interesting things happen at the intersection of two entirely different streams of disciplines.

I have personal experience related to this. Realizing this gap, I thought of designing a music app along with a friend, a fellow math-lover and music-nut, Chamok Hasan (you obviously know him). We planned to build the app in such way that if someone inputs a lyric it would compose tunes for that. We couldn’t go much further with that project but I personally understood the underlying mathematics in musical tunes. But someone who studies mathematics wouldn’t know that music contains mathematics; and for musicians, they wouldn’t realize the mathematics in their music. This is where linear education falls short.

Personally, I try to connect my learning to other things in life. For instance, when I learned the intriguing concept of an analogous circuit (AC), it made me understand there are often “analogous” or connecting dots implicit among things that are different on the surface and that we can use the concept in understanding many other things in life and work.

Similarly, when I taught domain theory at Udvash, I also used to tell my students how a great leader should strategize. This is how I think education encompasses numerous different horizons.

It is always helpful when you keep an open mind and take interest in diverse fields. Often what seems distant from outside, does maintain a close tie inside. This is the beauty of knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, when you understand music and software both, you can create better solutions at the intersection than one who is only a tech expert.

Although we are a stable company now, we had to endure our shares of challenges. As a matter of fact, a few days ago when I sat down to list my futile initiatives, I came up with as many as 29 ventures, including both registered companies and projects, without trying too hard. But they didn’t go all in vain. We learned through the experiences.

Future Startup

Let’s get back to the story, you were talking about the time when your partners, Mr. Mikhail and Mr. Masum, left Pi Labs and in their place came Mr. Liton. What happened after that?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

It was probably around 2006 when Mikhail and Masum went abroad for higher studies. We together designed the first electronic voting machine (EVM). But when the government officially approved the device, we needed to reopen the project for further work. Masum and Mikhail had already left Bangladesh by then. We, as a result, appointed a new person to oversee the EVM project, Kanak.

After Masum and Mikhail’s departure, I was feeling a bit lost. So, I proposed my partner at Udvash, Liton, to join in with me at Pi Labs. He delightfully accepted. Frankly, Liton is the best type of partner one can get. Although we are not as famous yet (laugh) but we are like Jobs and Wozniak.

We concentrated a great deal of time and effort in the EVM project once it was reopened. It is still our single best project.  It’s true that we’ve received much appreciation for our innovation, but, honestly speaking, the project also took most of our resources which we could otherwise utilize for other projects. But you, of course, need to give something to have something. Everything has its tradeoff.

We, at Pi Labs, do not believe in competition. We think that competition breeds negative issues. We preach a collaborative work environment. Pi Labs grew in the meantime. We have expanded our operation. Liton has played a tremendous role in that growth. He is a very orderly person which has helped us streamline things and grow.

We split up Pi Labs into two separate operations around that time: one being Pi Labs which deals with research and innovation related to hardware; and the other Onnorokom Software.

Udvash have also grown manifolds.

In fact, Onnorokom eventually became the mother entity or the umbrella beneath which we brought all of our operations. At Onnorokom Group, from being an only 2-member venture, we now have a team of 1,100 people working at the company.

Although we are a stable company now, we had to endure our shares of challenges. As a matter of fact, a few days ago when I sat down to list my futile initiatives, I came up with as many as 29 ventures, including both registered companies and projects, without trying too hard. But they didn’t go all in vain. We learned through the experiences.

At present, Onnorokom Group comprises of 8 different companies: Udvash, Unmesh, Onnorokom Software, Rokomari.com, which was founded in 2012, an online bookstore with 5 partners,  Onnorokom Electronics, which we started in late 2013 with a view to putting Pi Labs more into research projects and hardware innovation.

There was a project we undertook during the last cricket world cup that took place in Bangladesh called Crick Pool. It was a website where we integrated a system which predicted what would happen in a cricket match. The project was undertaken in collaboration with Prothom Alo, and was sponsored by Qubee and Teletalk. It was a huge success and we got over 9,500,000 page views in only 40 days.

The success of CrickPool motivated us to try something online. Rokomari was not there yet and we didn’t start selling books. Then, Jubair, Rakib, and Roni became our patterns in Rokomari, who first proposed the idea of opening an online bookstore.  My Partner Liton liked the name Rokomari very much and he was like we have to do something with that name (laugh). That’s how Rokomari started. At Rokomari, we are five partners and in the rest of our ventures, Liton and I are partners.

We also have our own publication house, Onnorokom Prokashoni. You might have heard about one of our recent publication, a Bengali translation of the book Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I loved reading the book and we decided to publish a translation. We contacted the author and have taken proper copyright permission before publishing. I also wrote the foreword to this book.

There is TechShopBD which We started in around 2013 with an ambition to help students and researchers in procuring hardware components for their research projects that is hard to find in Dhaka in one place. This initiative was a result of personal challenges that we faced during our student life. There was such a scarcity of necessary equipment that we were often forced to change our research designs according to the available hardware. As a result, we decided to open up an electronic equipment shop which will meet students’ requirements. Now, we can say it with pride that TechShopBD facilitates most of the robotic experiments in Bangladesh. Our ambition is to facilitate hardware innovation in Bangladesh. Apart from enabling students find required hardware components we are now working with a handful of research institutions and University labs who rely on us for these components.

As I have given an overview of the span of our operation, now you can connect it to our motto which is working at the intersection of education and innovation and entrepreneurship that will facilitate to realize the dream of an onnoRokom (different) Bangladesh.

Educating people has been our aim from the very beginning. Our companies Udvash and Unmesh, and projects like Onnorokom Pathshala – all are designed to teach people. The innovation part of the motto signifies our emphasis on building a different (onnoRokom) Bangladesh by doing things in a different way.

Last but not the least, we preach entrepreneurship as a mindset that everyone should maintain an entrepreneurial mindset. We advise our team members and people in general to be entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, not mere servants or job-holders. We hope that if enough people are inspired by such an idea, we would get more and more consequential initiatives in the future.

I think culture is at the core of the development of a company. At Udvash, because we had to struggle for a while in the early days and we have been focused on our vision, we have been able to build a culture that facilitates performance of the team. I can give you numerous examples of the camaraderie that exists there. Everyone refers to everyone as brothers at Udvash. In the beginning, for about 5 or 6 years, no one working at Udvash, i.e. teachers and staff, enjoyed any sort of regular weekend. At that time, burnouts were the only reason we used to take leave. It also shows the extent of dedication every one of us put in building the organization.

Future Startup

In the early days, do you remember any particular decision that you took or any particular incident that helped grow Onnorokom?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

When Mikhail and Mamun left Pi Labs, it was a challenging time for the company. But Liton came aboard and helped me keep it together. He and I have a unique chemistry which has played an enormous role in the early days of the company. As I mentioned earlier, Liton is a very orderly type and he organized and streamlined the operation of Pi Labs which he’s got a knack for. We complement each other in terms of skills which helped us to grow in the early days and continues to help us.

Having said that, we had the most amazing early-day experiences at Udvash. We had to struggle a lot at Udvash as I mentioned earlier. At the same time, Udvash has been able to build a community of passionate people throughout its existence. Over the years, we have been able to build an engaging academic and work culture. I think culture is at the core of the development of a company. At Udvash, because we had to struggle for a while in the early days and we have been focused on our vision, we have been able to build a culture that facilitates performance of the team.

I can give you numerous examples of the camaraderie that exists there. Everyone refers to everyone as brothers at Udvash. In the beginning, for about 5 or 6 years, no one working at Udvash, i.e. teachers and staff, enjoyed any sort of regular weekend. At that time, burnouts were the only reason we used to take leave. It also shows the extent of dedication every one of us put in building the organization.

There are currently 550 people working at Udvash, but our HR department has only a 3-member team. We don’t need a bigger team precisely because of our strong foundation. People are so responsible themselves that it does not require much managing and we could afford to run it with such a small HR team.

In total, we pay up to approximately 5,000 people every month.

Future Startup

Can you please give us the overview Onnorokom Group and its current state of operation for our readers?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

At present, around 1,100 people work at different concerns of Onnorokom Group. We also employ people throughout the year on the event and contractual – basis. The number would be in between 100 to 150. Our teachers at Udvash and Unmesh receive remuneration on a daily basis.

In total, we pay up to approximately 5,000 people every month.

As for verticals, we have three main categories as I have already mentioned. Udvash, Unmesh, Rokomari.com, Shopnodhora School, Onnorokom Prokashoni, Onnorokom Pathshala, and Biggan Baksho – these are all educational platforms through which we aspire to educate people. And there are other verticals around innovation and entrepreneurship that I have already mentioned.

From our software business, we used to serve outsourcing clients in the past, but we don’t do it anymore. We are basically building solutions for the local market.

Future Startup

For Onnorokom Group as a whole, what are your plans going forward?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Vision wise, we want to be a content and happy company. Our vision statement can be interpreted as our aim is to build a different, better Bangladesh; and, in turn, be different and better ourselves.

Take Udvash, for example. We are not just providing tuition services to students there; we are also trying to learn ourselves. The majority of the eleven values that we believe in our organization are oriented to self-transformation and ensuring inner peace. These values are our guiding principles and are mostly inward looking in nature.

We do not want skyrocketing economic growth or gather enormous material possession for sake of it. We want contentment. If we assume that our organization is a country, we probably do not want to be like Scandinavian countries or the USA; rather we probably want to be like Bhutan.

On the operational level, we have an ambitious plan. Our aim is to build an ecosystem which will touch every aspect of human lives in areas where we take interest in i.e. education, innovation, and entrepreneurship. We have built sparse building blocks for that but we don’t have a concrete roadmap to get there yet.

For instance, for Pi Labs, we plan to focus on two new windows now: natural medical treatment or natural healing and renewable energy. Both of these projects have the same mission to stay more organic and close to nature. We want to put more emphasis on values rather than numbers which the world seems to be so hooked on.

We have been working on an eBook application called Muthoboi, an entirely homegrown technology that we have built at Rokomari. We have been testing the application for a while now and plan to launch it shortly. It is compatible with both iOS and Android platforms. With this app, we are also introducing a new eBook format, .rok, which will be highly secured. We believe this will make it easier for non-resident Bangladeshis and local reader community to read their favorite books.

Future Startup

You get to manage a host of different organizations, how do you manage and prioritize? And what are the challenges for Onnorokom now?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

My partner and I divide our management responsibilities. Liton focuses on four of the concerns; and, I concentrate on the rest. We work together when there’s a critical decision to make which can affect the entire organization.

As for challenges, the major one is obviously finding the right people for the company. It is hard to find great people these days which is a frustrating reality for us. We have taken up a project to deal with this challenge, more precisely, a training program for those who don’t qualify in our recruitment process.

For the candidates who fail to qualify, we set up a rigorous training program which lasts for 2 months. It is a residential program and we bear all the expenses related to accommodation and food. We do all kinds of weird things in the program and the people who sustain, we offer them opportunities at the company. We are running the 5th batch now and the success rate has been wonderful. We are now working on setting up a similar facility for our teammates.

Future Startup

We would love to know more about the companies individually. First off, please give us an overview of Rokomari of what are you doing there these days.

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

At present, around 130 people work in our Rokomari team. Besides selling booking, we are always thinking about extending our product categories. We used to sell CDs a while ago, but we stopped due to its declining demand. We have added a few small categories i.e. electronics, gift etc.

We have been working on an eBook application called Muthoboi, an entirely homegrown technology that we have built at Rokomari. We have been testing the application for a while now and plan to launch it shortly. It is compatible with both iOS and Android platforms. With this app, we are also introducing a new eBook format, .rok, which will be highly secured. We believe this will make it easier for non-resident Bangladeshis and local reader community to read their favorite books.

As for the daily operation, we receive over 500 orders on an average per day. Our peak season is February and March. Business-wise, we are doing pretty well now and hope to break-even soon.

One other thing which we started just last year is Rokomari Point. It’s been undertaken in collaboration with physical bookstores in localities around the country. A small local bookstore, you see, can’t store a huge number of titles because of space scarcity. We have made deals with them where we will sell books for them and give them a fair portion of the proceeds. So, basically, we are trying to solve the logistical problems small enterprises suffer from. One of the goals for us at Rokomari is to help entrepreneurs across the country. This initiative was part of that ambition.

When in conventional schools performance is measured based on individual excellence, we encourage our students to help each other and celebrate collective success. Initially, it was a little difficult and students found it pretty weird. Eventually, since we have reinforced the value over the years, it has become established and now our students know that collaboration is more important than personal win and collective interest is more important than personal gains.

Future Startup

What are your strategic plans for Rokomari in the long run?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Frankly speaking, we don’t have an exact strategy outlined for the future, per se, in the sense that we want to become the largest or biggest ecommerce operation within a time frame. We are selling books, publishing them, and enlightening people and we love our work. In the process, we also try to facilitate small entrepreneurs to grow.

We are content with what we are doing. We are also aware of the fact someday Amazon or Alibaba might come here and gobble us up. But we want to enjoy our journey and make our customers happy and do meaningful work. That’s what we have been doing for the last couple of years and we believe it has served us well so far.

One long-term ambition for us is to work with small businesses and empower at scale in some form. We are working on it but the plan is not something I can share right now.

Future Startup

Please tell us about Sohag Swapnadhara Pathshala. And what’s your ambition with the school?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

It was not our projects in the beginning. The project was started by some university students who aimed to teach students from impoverished communities for free. Their team leader was Sohag, well, yes sort of my namesake, who later died in a road accident.

Around that time, we ourselves were running an English medium school at Dhanmondi. We couldn’t continue with it much longer due to contractual issues. But we were determined to explore more in this field.

At Onnorokom Group, we have certain ideas about education that don’t fit into the mainstream idea of education. We realized that we can experiment these ideas with children who either drop out of school after several grades or do not get an education at all.

Of course, we don’t treat our students as guinea pigs in a laboratory. We have designed our system in such a way that it doesn’t cause any psychological harm to the students and that they learn meaningful skills in a fun environment that they can use in real life to the betterment of their lives.

At that time, Showkat bhai from BD Venture told us about the Mahmudul Hasan Sohag’s Shopnodhora School. We eventually took over the project when it was on the verge of being shut down.

Over the last few years, it has grown remarkably. Around 500 students, which is our maximum capacity, studies at the school now. Besides regular education, we also emphasize on teaching practical things to the students. We consciously try to cultivate an inclusive and collaborative mindset among our students. For instance, we discourage children to celebrate their individual performance. Instead, we encourage them to be concerned about collective performance.

When in conventional schools performance is measured based on individual excellence, we encourage our students to help each other and celebrate collective success. Initially, it was a little difficult and students found it pretty weird. Eventually, since we have reinforced the value over the years, it has become established and now our students know that collaboration is more important than personal win and collective interest is more important than personal gains.

This ‘being in the shoes of other people’ is also a great virtue of a CEO. Compassion and empathy, these things help in your journey to becoming a good leader. When you try to understand your people, it becomes easier to work with them.

Future Startup

What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

One of the most important things I have learned in life is to be who I really am. It might be a cliché to say that ‘follow your heart’ but that is exactly what I would suggest young people do.

The second life lessons concerns competition. Growing up, I used to be a highly competitive boy. I wanted to be the best in everything that I do. Since I have been quite a high achiever throughout my life in many ways, I suffered from this feeling of superiority and ego for quite a long time.

Over the years, I have come to realize that competition doesn’t bring positive consequence all the time and that ego is always the enemy to our personal and professional growth. Over the past years, I have consciously worked on this part of my personality and I think I’m in a better shape now.

If you do need to compete, do it with yourself. Personally, I don’t believe ‘in survival of the fittest’ because it awakens unnecessary acrimony inside us. We need to look at it from a broader perspective, to ‘survive collectively.’

Future Startup

What does it take to become an effective leader?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Good question. As a matter of fact, I have learned a great deal about leadership and management in the last 2/3 years.

Previously, you see, I wasn’t very good at delegating tasks to others. And, I use to blame others if something went wrong. But I’ve recently come to understand that I also need to acknowledge my share of the blame because the results could’ve been better if I were able to delegate more wisely.

Another realization as a leader that accompanied the previous lesson is compassion. Let me give you an example. When you see someone stealing something, you instinctively decide to punish him/her. But if you know beforehand that, say, this person hasn’t eaten for days, you wouldn’t automatically think of beating him/her up.

This ‘being in the shoes of other people’ is also a great virtue of a CEO. Compassion and empathy, these things help in your journey to becoming a good leader. When you try to understand your people, it becomes easier to work with them.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

I try to take a people-first approach. Personally, I prefer to ‘empower’ people rather than merely ‘managing’ them. It is a lofty aim to achieve, but I consider it as a high priority.

I have recently become a huge fan of Patron Lencioni, a management consultant who promotes and focuses on people-first values.

Life in many ways should be a competition of doing good to others because your time is limited and you should spend it with a sense of urgency.

Future Startup

How does a typical day of you look like? Do you have anything particular that is almost like a personal ritual?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

In a week, I spend two days at the Onnorokom office and the other two days at our factory. Thursday is an especial day in our office because every one of us in the office sits down to read for hours at stretch on this day. Besides that, I attend some scheduled meeting every day. I pray every day, that you may call a constant (laugh).

I try to read books every day. But sometimes it becomes challenging to manage time. Crisis often pops us and disrupts my daily routine.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

In a secular sense, I aspire to be a ‘worthy’ person, that is, I assess myself in terms of whether I have been able to add value to the lives of others as I pass my days.

If the number of people who would feel a deep sense of loss and mourn at your departure doesn’t increase over the years you live, you shouldn’t consider your life as meaningful. This is not about legacy or whether people would remember you after your departure, rather about touching lives of others.

This may sound a bit crazy, but this is how I think about life. There are many other ways of looking at it. But it is all about contributing to the lives of other people. It is all about touching the lives of as many people as possible.

Life in many ways should be a competition of doing good to others because your time is limited and you should spend it with a sense of urgency.

I try to take a people-first approach. Personally, I prefer to ‘empower’ people rather than merely ‘managing’ them. It is a lofty aim to achieve, but I consider it as a high priority.


Notes

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Ashekan

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