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The Genius Of TBBD: An Interview With Kashef Rahman, Founder and CEO, TBBD

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Apr 17, 2018
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Travel Booking Bangladesh (TBBD) is one of the few startups in Dhaka that you can conveniently put as a textbook example of how to build a successful company from scratch - start small, test the market whether there is a need for your product, work hard, get some early traction and go from there.

The story of TBBD answers many pressing questions related to building a sustainable business and that too with growing your revenue instead of running after venture capital investments. It is also a perfect case study for people who are looking for opportunities to build a business while having a full-time corporate career and often feel like it is infeasible to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor while working full-time. That’s simply not true. That’s one aspect of the story.

Another aspect of the story is the growing travel market in Bangladesh. Travel is a $7 trillion dollar industry globally. In Bangladesh, it has been seeing a steady growth over the past couple of years, an increasing number of Bangladeshis are now traveling overseas (formal outbound travel expenses was $436.4 million in FY16) and the industry is just getting started, in every meaning of the word. Put that together with OTA, the future of OTA business can only go one direction and that’s exponential growth.

In this excellent interview, Founder and CEO of Travel Booking Bangladesh Kashef Rahman speaks to Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader about how he started TBBD, what went into building the initial operation of TBBD, how has TBBD grown over the years, the current state of TBBD business and its ambition going forward, the challenges of entrepreneurship, how he deals with stress and challenges that come with being a solo founder, and contemplates on the future of travel business in Bangladesh and why hard work is an antidote to all the challenges of building a business.

Future Startup

What's your background - where did you grow up? And from there tell us about your journey to what you are doing today.

Kashef Rahman

I was born and brought up at Puran Dhaka. I was schooled at Udayan and went to college at Notre Dame. After HSC, I attended North South University where I initially studied Computer Science but later changed my major to Economics.

I graduated in 2004 with a degree in Economics and started to look for a job. After a couple of interviews, I was offered a few positions but mostly outside Dhaka which I declined because I did not want to leave my parents and comfort zone. Now that I look I can see that I was being immature to make such decisions.

I continued to apply for other opportunities. After 2 months or so, the interview callbacks ceased. After graduation, the expectation from friends and family rise. There was this pressure to get a job and so on. This was a difficult period. Then I came to know about a contractual job opportunity at GrameenPhone. This time I had few options at hand. So I thought it's better to do something than not. So I went on and applied. After a few days, I received a call for an interview.

The interview session was very unusual - they asked me my name, where I studied, whether I would work outside Dhaka - I reluctantly agreed to this condition as well - and where my hometown was. That's it.

After about three days, they called me and said I got the job. There was a 03 training program after that where I attended along with 60 other people. They were going to send each and everyone out into different fields. After the training, we were sent to a SAF management office, sort of, in Bashundhara City. Some sent to different fields. Our job was going through a huge file of SAF subscription forms and sorting those out. It was a tedious job.

I would not say I took it very positively all the time. I did not. At times, I did think about my degree and the fact that I graduated from a reputed university and thought of quitting. But then I also corrected myself and took it as an opportunity to learn. There were challenges from co-workers and so on but I kept my head down and worked hard to my best ability.

Looking back, that experience taught me so much. Never belittle any job. Have patience and do my job better whatever job that be.

After about 7 days, I was shifted to call center. I was trained for 2-3 months and when I learned handling call center properly, I was then transferred to corporate call center since my English was good. I worked there for a month and a half, and from there I was transferred to Relationship Management to handle corporate accounts.

I worked at Grameenphone as RM for about 11 months and then joined Banglalink in sales.

A Pakistani guy was the director of the department. He just joined and wanted to revamp the whole thing. When he joined, the total sales team was about 40 people. Within six months, he made that to 400. I worked at Banglalink from 2006 to 2014. I started as an Executive and when I was leaving in 2014, I was a Postpaid Channel Head.

I started TBBD as a side project while working at Banglalink. It was not part of a deliberate plan but it soon started to receive good traction. So I left my job in 2014 and started working full-time on TBBD.

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A Message From Biyeta

Biyeta - a muslim matchmaking platform in Bangladesh

Bringing simplicity and smartness into arranged marriages!

At Biyeta, we believe finding the right match in an affordable, simple and dignified fashion for any wannabe bride or groom is a human right. We, the people behind biyeta, strive to make that happen. Our job is never done until we bring simplicity and smartness in arranged marriages. Learn more about Biyeta here.

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Future Startup

Can you please tell us more about the early early days of TBBD? How did you come up with the idea? What was the motivation? And then how did you really get started?

Kashef Rahman

I have been travel buff throughout my life. I got married in 2007 and after that, it became more frequent. I used to travel a lot with my wife. Even when we were short of money, we still made two big trips a year. People took notice of it and many of my colleagues and friends would come to me for help with their travel itinerary. I loved doing that.

I was doing it all for free. Soon it became a huge pressure. Making travel itinerary is a time-consuming affair. It was taking up a lot of my time.

That’s when the thought came to me that probably I could try this as a business. The next thing I did was opening up a Facebook page and experiment. When someone asked, I would tell them that it was my company. I bought a separate mobile number, since I couldn't use the company number, and started working on it on the side.

My first customers were some of my colleagues from Banglalink who were aware of my traveling habit. I created packages for them. Gradually, I started receiving more and more requests from people.

In the first month, I managed to earn the amount of about 4 tickets to Bangkok. Then I created a couple of packages, I created a Google Doc and promoted it on Facebook. This was completely new at that time. No one did that. I got around 400 to 500 queries. I was floored.

I took 2 days off from work and answered all the queries. Out of 400 people, 40-45 of them confirmed their booking and I realized the serious potential of this and decided to take a risk.

This was 2014. After much thought, I decided to I leave my job. I took a small office of 400 sq ft and hired 03 people to help me in the process. That’s how we started.

Today, we're a team of 35 people. We have a separate technology team. We're probably the only travel booking agency in Bangladesh that has their own tech team.

Today, we are a one-stop solution for all travel related services in Bangladesh. We have invested in building out our digital platforms as well.

I surmised that hotel booking would be more in demand in the coming days. You can book hotels from our website with a local credit card and so. Going forward, we plan to invest even more in R&D to offer new and better services to our customers.

Future Startup

What went into building the initial operation? Have you raised any external investment?

Kashef Rahman

I started with my own savings. We had a few clients at the time so starting was not a challenge.

Later we raised three rounds of investment. I raised a seed round after working full time at TBBD for a while - a small amount of investment for 15% of the company. For our second round, we got an IT company with us, Ice9 Interactive, who basically invested in the form of technology support. The majority share, 70%, is still with me.

We have experienced phenomenal growth over the last couple of years. We have grown almost 400% compared to our early days.

We moved from an office space of 400 sq ft to an office of 1250 sq ft. In 2016, we moved here to 27,00 sq ft and we're moving again because there's not enough space. We also have our 2nd office in Kemal Ataturk Tower.

My corporate experience and connection have helped me come this far. I have built a sort of trusted rapport with everyone that has come to know me. That really helped in kickstarting the customer flow initially. Since I have been an avid traveler, I could understand and serve other travelers well. I could understand their needs and all that have helped us to serve our customers better and grow.

I started TBBD as a side project while working at Banglalink. It was not part of a deliberate plan but it soon started to receive good traction. So I left my job in 2014 and started working full-time on TBBD.

Future Startup

Initially, when you started what were the major challenges?

Kashef Rahman

As I told you earlier, TBBD started in a natural way. I have been travel buff throughout my life which eventually led to the starting of TBBD. Initially, it was a side project while working full time at Banglalink. And then when workload became really challenging I decided to leave my job and give it a full time try.

I had a good customer base from the day one. So I did not have to face growth-related challenges in the early days. However, later we had to deal with several challenges. But initially, it was a relatively smooth journey.

My policy is different when it comes to working with my team. I'm open and everyone knows what’s happening and how at the company. In the past, we had suffered from intellectual property theft issues where our team member left the company to start their own. Now there are 7 - 8 companies started by ex-TBBD employees. We don’t mind this kind of thing, rather feel really good that our former colleagues are doing well.

People often think starting a travel agency is simple. You start a shop and people start coming to you. But that is not true. This is a pretty difficult business.

That was a challenge. There were other incidents as well that cost us quite a bit.

Kashef Rahman & family | Photo by TBBD
Kashef Rahman, Sadia Haque & family | Photo by TBBD

Future Startup

What do you think about competition? There are a few pretty serious OTAs now in the market and the number is likely to grow in the coming days.

Kashef Rahman

The competition has been growing in the market over the past few years. There are few serious OTAs there now that are investing heavily. Having said that, we are not concerned about competition because as long as we serve our customers well, they will keep taking our services.

The travel market is huge in Bangladesh. It has been growing pretty fast over the past few years. Disposable income of the people of Bangladesh has increased. The ticket market alone is worth 350 crores. There is room for a handful of serious players in the market. We maintain a good relationship with other players in the market. I think we are in the growth phase now and we have to work together to grow our business.

Future Startup

Please give us an overview of TBBD including the services you offer as well as the size of your operation.

Kashef Rahman

Firstly, we are a one-stop solution for all kinds of travel needs in Bangladesh. We provide services related to visas, tickets, hotels, airport pick and drop, daily tour, packages et. In simple, we offer all the necessary services one needs when traveling abroad. We are sort of one-stop shop for your all travel related services in Bangladesh.

We offer uniform packages as well as custom packages according to the demands of our customers.

We're a profitable company and doubling our growth every year. In fact, our monthly revenue is quite unexpected for a company of our size.

A significant percentage of our business comes from our offline operation. There is much scope for growth there. Consequently, we are not giving much effort in growing our digital business yet because people still prefer to come over to our office to book packages and take our services.

Having said that, we already have invested heavily in building our digital platforms including web, and app. Important integrations have also taken care of. We plan to do more in the coming days.

We have a very good customer base. 60% of our clients are returning customers. A good number of them travel at least 4 or 5 times a year and take our service.

Future Startup

How have you attracted customers and grown your business?

Kashef Rahman

TBBD has been an extremely customer-centric company. Everything that we do we put our customers at the center. This has resulted in a lot of happy customers who not only take our service repeatedly, they also refer us to their friends and family. Hence, referral continues to be the biggest source of growth for us.

Travel is a referral driven business. People usually ask each other for suggestion before making a travel plan. That’s where the biggest growth opportunity lies. If people suggest your service to their network, you have a huge business right there without doing much.

Communication-wise, we have been very active on Facebook from the beginning. It has been one of the biggest acquisition channels for us. We started investing in Facebook since 2013 and it has paid off well.

TBBD is the only agency that has a public channel on Viber which is growing daily. We work hard to ensure presence on every mobile platform where we may reach out to potential customers.

Apart from that, we have sponsored cricket matches too, particularly, corporate cricket tournaments. We were the travel partner for Rajshahi Kings in the last BPL. We have also sponsored a corporate tournament and the teams were the likes of HSBC, SCB, GP, Robi, Banglalink, BRAC Bank, EBL etc. We try to invest judiciously.

We have an app where we have 3000++ plus downloads combining Android and iOS. We spend a bit on Adwords and so on.

The most important for growth, to my understanding, is ensuring that you are serving your customers best. There is no other way to grow. Sustainable growth only comes from serving your customers better than anyone else in the market.

Future Startup

How does your sales and communication work?

Kashef Rahman

TBBD’s growth has largely been organic. Word of mouth has played a big part in our sales. It has been the case since our beginning. Even these days, referral is our biggest growth driver.

That’s the case for our corporate sales as well. We have corporate clients who take our services on a regular basis. Corporate clients usually travel often. When you can ensure retention, it brings a recurring business.

Apart from that, many travel agencies take services from us as well. That's another channel through which we sell our service at scale.

No journey is a bed of roses. No matter how smooth it may look from the outside, every one of us come across brick wall and struggle. There will be hiccups. There will be difficult times and challenges. There will be failures. You will lose money and be heartbroken. But as long as you keep pushing, there is no end.

Future Startup

How do you internally collaborate with your team? Please tell us about the organizational culture at TBBD.

Kashef Rahman

Our operation is divided into small functional teams. For instance, we have a flight team who are responsible for tickets. We have a visa team. We have a package team who are responsible for daily tours, transfers and hotel accommodation. There are accounts team, a technical team, and a product team. These teams work independently as well as work in collaboration with each other.

For communication, we work with an agency who prepare the materials and campaigns and we then execute it.

TBBD is a pretty flat organization. People work with a lot of freedom. Having said that, we also ensure a certain sense of accountability so that people get things done.

For collaboration, we use an internal software developed in-house. Everyone in the team has access to and use for collaboration, setting goals and getting things done. It also works as a team-wide accountability tool.

Team TBBD with Shakib Al Hasan | Shakib is the Brand Ambassador for TBBD for 2018
Team TBBD with Shakib Al Hasan | Shakib is the Brand Ambassador for TBBD for 2018

Future Startup

What are the future plans for TBBD?

Kashef Rahman

We have been working on a new version of our web platform for a while now. We already have hotels on our platform. We will soon launch our completely revamped flight booking website which we hope will make the lives of our users easier.

TBBD’s growth has largely been organic. We have invested in digital platforms including Facebook promotions but that was very casual in nature. We plan to put more effort into communication.

We have just signed Shakib Al Hasan as our brand ambassador for 2018. This is first such major move for us. In fact, for any travel agency in the country for that matter. I’m a die-hard cricket fan and cricket continues to dominate our national consciousness. We are planning to involve more with cricket, promotions, and sponsorship.

The other priority is to grow our OTA business. We have all the components of an OTA. We have our app, website, our own tech team - we now need to promote it vigorously, which is on the horizon.

Over the next couple of years, our singular goal is to grow our market share in every direction. I'm willing to spend the necessary marketing needed for this.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for the industry?

Kashef Rahman

It's remitting money. It's very challenging to remit money from Bangladesh. It does make our work difficult. It is likely to hinder the growth of our industry in the coming years if we can’t find an effective solution to this challenge.

Future Startup

You have come a long way in life. You worked in major corporations in the country, struggled at the beginning of your career and then built a very successful business from the scratch, what are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far?

Kashef Rahman

If you are a hard-worker, an honest person, and believe in Allah, you will be successful. Be honest and success will come. Allah (SWT) is there and you receive what you give. These are some of the most important lessons I have learned.

While at Banglalink, I used to work really hard. I was deeply curious and used to ask a lot of questions that drove my boss crazy. I would dig into things until I understood it at its core.

The sales team that I had built in the beginning at Banglalink, I was intimately involved. I knew all the processes, how they worked, what had to be done and everything. I made an automated internal software to speed things up. I was very paranoid about getting things done and driving results. Consequently, I had progressed pretty fast in my corporate career. These are the things that I also do here as an entrepreneur.

We have an internal software at TBBD as well. It shows everything. Our performance as a team. What’s happening in the company, who is doing what and so on. These things I've learned from working with corporates. They don't have a budget constraint. I had opportunities to experiment with anything I wanted.

At the same time, things also take longer than usual in a corporate setting. Decisions take time to make. You had to be very precise about what you want and what would be the outcome of your work if you want something approved. It helped me to be organized and patient. Understand things at their core.

Superficial understanding would not take you far. Your understanding has to be crystal clear. We live in a shallow age. We are always scratching the surface. That’s a dangerous approach when you are trying to build a business.

The other important lesson for me would be work ethic. This is a rare thing in Dhaka. People often slip and fail to deliver on their promise. During my time at both GP and Banglalink, I was one of the few people who received promotions consistently and that too within a short period of time. When you get quick promotions it often raises questions, but I never paid attention to anything. I was and is a workaholic. I used to work almost all the time. That’s what I do now. It always pays off. Work hard. People who do well in life work extraordinarily hard. A rock solid worth ethic is what makes all the difference.

You should respect people regardless of who they are - your team members, colleagues, subordinates, your boss - regardless. Respect goes a long way. There is a growing lack of mutual respect in our society. This is not good for us.

No journey is a bed of roses. No matter how smooth it may look from the outside, every one of us come across brick wall and struggle. There will be hiccups. There will be difficult times and challenges. There will be failures. You will lose money and be heartbroken. But as long as you keep pushing, there is no end.

The world is full of good people. There are bad people too but you have to believe in something, otherwise, you couldn't run a business. What I'm running now is completely in good faith.

Let me tell you something, I don't have much of a social life. Apart from work, I spend some time with my children. Play cricket on the weekend and spend some time with the family whenever I can manage. My wife has gotten used to it. Our relatives have gotten used to it. Then no more invite us to social events because they know we would not make it. So why try!

Future Startup

What does it take to be an effective CEO?

Kashef Rahman

Personally, I don't think I'm an effective CEO. I’m learning every day and trying to improve daily.

The upside for me is that I work very very hard. I work almost all the time. I still attend to almost everything that we do at TBBD. This is not a good thing and I’m not proud of it. However, we are a young company. It is often challenging for me to shed many of these responsibilities and delegate yet.

So, working hard is important. You should lead from the front. Leaders, particularly who are building a startup, should take a hands-on approach to doing things.

The other principle for me is going slow. As an organization, TBBD is not aggressive at all. We are deliberate about what we do and how we make decisions. It allows you to make judicious decisions.

Wherever we are and whatever we have achieved, I'm thankful. As I said I’m learning every day and that’s at the core of how I try to lead. Intellectually curious and not playing that I know everything.

Future Startup

You have built a profitable business from scratch, what are a couple of things startup founders should be mindful of while building a company?

Kashef Rahman

Develop a deep understanding of your business - what are the imperatives, how it works, market, competition, other intricacies and so on. Domain expertise is critical to the success of any venture. For instance, you are 3 active partners - one work in sales, another in marketing and so on. I would suggest, work interchangeably and develop interdisciplinary capacities.

This has many benefits. Apart from apparent business benefits, it strengthens relationships between your partners. If there's any scuffle or misunderstanding, you can weather it because of your better mutual understanding.

Build a good team. In my case, I had no active partners. Hence I had to learn and do everything by myself. Building a business is hard. Being a solo founder is even more so. It is always better working as a team than working alone. You grow faster and handle challenges better and so on.

Future Startup

How do you deal with the stress that comes with being an entrepreneur?

Kashef Rahman

Let me tell you something, I don't have much of a social life. Apart from work, I spend some time with my children. Play cricket on the weekend and spend some time with the family whenever I can manage.

My wife has gotten used to it. Our relatives have gotten used to it. Then no more invite us to social events because they know we would not make it. So why try!

The business has been growing rapidly. We are not at a stage where we can afford one less person in the team, especially me when I have been intimately involved in everything that we have built over the years. Our clients often want to work with me despite the fact we have an entire team who work dedicatedly with our clients.

These are some of the challenges that come with being an entrepreneur. I don’t consider it as stress. I love working hard. I love working with the team TBBD. In fact, work is my antidote to stress and challenges. When things get difficult, work helps.

We take many things for granted in life. Especially things that come easily or we have at the moment. While at university, we tend to overlook the importance of studies. But that’s not something that you should be proud of. University is for studies. Everyone should take their studies seriously not only because result matters but also because it is important to understand things deeply. Learn things profoundly and develop perspectives. When you take your time at university seriously, you tend to invest in developing critical thinking ability. You become discipline and industrious. These qualities are the bedrocks of a good life.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Kashef Rahman

I'm friendly with my team. I'm ruthless as well. Performance is important to me. It does matter who you are, your work should speak for yourself. I try to find a balance between these two traits. At the end of the day, we humans are fallible. We need to put boundary for ourselves.

I prefer when people love their work. You should love your work. If you don't find satisfaction in your work, you will not be happy in your regular life. I encourage my people to own their work.

Helping people when they need a little push, understanding what motivates them and investing in their development - these are some of the things that I do at work.

Future Startup

3 advice you would give to your younger self.

Kashef Rahman

I should have studied harder at my undergrad. That's one thing that I'd like to do differently. It was all cool at that but looking back I realized that had I studied a little more, I could have had a better start, career-wise.

We take many things for granted in life. Especially things that come easily or we have at the moment. While at university, we tend to overlook the importance of studies. But that’s not something that you should be proud of. University is for studies. Everyone should take their studies seriously not only because result matters but also because it is important to understand things deeply. Learn things profoundly and develop perspectives.

When you take your time at university seriously, you tend to invest in developing critical thinking ability. You become discipline and industrious. These qualities are the bedrocks of a good life.

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A Message From Biyeta
Biyeta - a arranged marriage matchmaking platform in Bangladesh

Bringing simplicity and smartness into arranged marriages!

At Biyeta, we believe finding the right match in an affordable, simple and dignified fashion for any wannabe bride or groom is a human right. We, the people behind biyeta, strive to make that happen. Our job is never done until we bring simplicity and smartness in arranged marriages. Learn more about Biyeta here.

[su_divider top="no" divider_color="#adacab" link_color="#edde29" size="1"][/su_divider]

The other important lesson for me would be work ethic. This is a rare thing in Dhaka. People often slip and fail to deliver on their promise. During my time at both GP and Banglalink, I was one of the few people who received promotions consistently and that too within a short period of time. When you get quick promotions it often raises questions, but I never paid attention to anything. I was and is a workaholic. I used to work almost all the time. That’s what I do now. It always pays off. Work hard. People who do well in life work extraordinarily hard. A rock solid worth ethic is what makes all the difference.

-
Notes

1. Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Shabiba Benta Habib

2. Further reading on the future of travel in Bangladesh here.

3. Cover photo: Kashef Rahman and Shakib Al Hasan, Credit, TBBD by Studio Cheesecake

4. Part of the introduction is reproduced from this interview here.


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