Mahmudul Hasan Sohag On OnnoRokom Ambition, Udvash, Pi Labs And Imperatives For Entrepreneurial Success

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag On OnnoRokom Ambition, Udvash, Pi Labs And Imperatives For Entrepreneurial Success

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For those who don’t know Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, he is the co-founder and chairman of OnnoRokom Group, a wildly successful technology company based in Dhaka.

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.

Mr. Sohag is a deep thinker – far more than just a successful entrepreneur. He takes a deep interest in philosophy and learning and is an avid reader. His knowledge has breadth and depth.

Building a consequential business is a lot of thinking job. Conventional wisdom would not take you far. You have to see things beyond the surface and understand that most things are not what they appear to be. You have to make snap decisions and that too right ones. These are not easy jobs.

This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it up into three parts. In this second part of the interview, we discuss Onnorokom’s different ventures including Udvash, Onnorokom Pathshala, Onnorokom Hardware and Software, and Pi Labs, strategies and ambition of these ventures, Onnorokom’s ambition going forward and what makes an ideal entrepreneur.

Check out the first half of this interview here.

Future Startup

We ended the first part of the interview with a brief discussion on Udvash which is one of your initiatives in the education space. Let us continue that discussion, can you tell us a bit about Udvash and what makes it so different?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Education, as I may have mentioned earlier, is one of our core areas of focus at Onnorokom Group. In that respect, Udvash is among our earliest ventures which later extended to Unmesh. We consider them as parallel schools or shadow education centers.

Some might say that we are running a coaching center here. From a conventional perspective, that’s very much understandable. However, Udvash and Unmesh, both of these institutions are very different from what you might call a coaching center in our local context.

For instance, coaching centers are synonymous with shortcuts. Many students attend coaching centers for notes and suggestions. At Udvash, we do not distribute mere hand-notes or suggestions to our students. We teach them. We encourage genuine learning and understanding. The major distinction between learning and coaching, which many people fail to grasp, is that while the former creates capacity the later harnesses it.

Udvash, in that sense, is definitely a learning center. We began our journey with a simple motto: whatever you learn, you must understand. We have maintained it in all our academic programs. You’ll see the truth of it if you look at our main academic program that extends from class eight to college. Besides, we also have our own scholarship program which is very unlikely for a coaching center. We offer this scholarship on condition that recipient of these scholarships would make a similar contribution once they become capable.

We do many interesting things. For instance, we conduct an open-book exam. People used to laugh at it when we started 10 years ago. But they soon realized that it isn’t so ludicrous as it seems. And you must have a clear understanding if you really want to ace in the test.

Now, you might say that model tests for SSC candidates and university applicants are coaching programs; but even there we continuously remind our student to get a clear understanding.

Our commitment is to help our students become better at what they are studying and then become a capable and better human being. If you take a look at the Udvash logo, where we have put four strings of flame, you see the representation of this commitment. These flames symbolize the four main purposes of education, albeit this is how we see the purpose of education.

We believe that education works to create refined individuals who have critical thinking ability, perseverance, confidence, and most importantly morality. We want to help people think about what they are studying and not just memorize it. We want them to persevere and don’t just look for instant solutions. If they persevere and their determination is appreciated, they will gain confidence in themselves. Last but not the least we think that an educated person is also a person of high moral standard, an Onnorokom Manush. S/he holds such values that not only help him/her but advance the society as a whole. That’s the ambition of Udvash and our educational initiatives.

In fact, we consider morality to be the most important aspect of education. Everything else is just part of that. The school’s key responsibility is to build a moral human being. But how do we teach morals, you might ask. Are we going to introduce a curriculum? Write a few books on religious studies? No, that’s not going to be fruitful. For that to happen, we need teachers, teachers whom the students will consider as role-models. Teachers of high moral standards.

To redesign an existing system is a daunting task. It’s easy to talk about these changes but in reality, it is million times more complex than what it seems from the outside. Education is such a system.

More importantly, it is about life. You can’t essentially experiment with the lives of people. In this regard, we are trying to conceive and experiment with our own theory of education.

For instance, we have a lot of extracurricular activities at Udvash like debating, magazine publishing, and many more. We also provide financial assistance to impoverished students who pledge to help someone like her/him once they become solvent. These are unlikely things to do for a coaching center.

In line with the conviction that we need role-model teachers, Udvash maintains a rigorous recruitment process for teachers. New instructors need to go through a series of tests including conceptual and psychological ones. And definitely, we compensate them well enough for their efforts. Fortunately, we have been able to produce a group of teachers here who are full of enthusiasm and passion. Many of them came here to earn and left with a passionate heart.

Udvash passed its most memorable period during 2011 to 2014. But the energy and passion seem to be waning in the recent times. We have successfully made our operation more streamlined and made our service more efficient. But neither Liton nor I have been able to pay enough attention to Udvash due to our engagement in other ventures. This lack of focus has necessitated a rekindling of the vigor.

Running an institution like Udvash is challenging. We now have a social perception in our society that does not perceive coaching as something essentially good. Although I have developed a thick skin when it comes to harsh criticism, sometimes it goes way too far.

One such time was when I was still a student at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and Udvash hadn’t begun to yield any profit yet. I got very disappointed at naysayers and decided to give up the venture altogether. In such a time, Munir Hasan bhai convinced me to keep it going. He has since been our valued mentor. There are numerous little incidents like this that kept me going in hard times.

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It took me a long time to realize the importance of compassion. Compassion is our ability to see a problem from the perspective of the other person. When you are compassionate towards your team, you build relationships. When you are compassionate towards your customers, you design better products. It helps you to better understand the reality of people around you. I think it is a cornerstone trait that everyone should cultivate.

Future Startup

How big is your operation at Udvash?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

We have around 16 Udvash branches in Dhaka and total 18 branches across the country including two outside of Dhaka. In fact, Udvash used to have only four branches in Dhaka from its inception in 2000 to very recently in 2014. We didn’t really expand during that period because our policy dictates that we recruit good teachers before opening up a new branch. Most of the growth has happened after 2014.

Among the branches outside of Dhaka, two branches, Rajshahi and Khulna, are sort of franchise branches. The people who operate these branches are our very close associates. We do not allow franchise branches anymore. The rest of branches are run under Udvash’s direct supervision.

I’d also like to point out that we do not discriminate between students in and outside Dhaka. We provide the same service to students in other areas as we do to students in Dhaka. Teachers who take classes in Dhaka branches travel to different areas and take classes there. We believe that if students from both in and outside Dhaka are paying the same amount of fees, they are entitled to be served in the same manner. Despite being a costly strategy, we ensure the same quality of services to students, regardless of regions.

It’s still not viable for us to offer the comprehensive academic care program to every student due to resource constraints. But we are using other channels to reach them. For example, Onnorokom Pathshala, our online education platform, can be easily accessed on YouTube. Students from all around the country are watching our videos and they are helping them.

Future Startup

Udvash has grown significantly over the years, what are the challenges for Udvash now?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Getting expert teachers are our primary concern now. It’s not like there aren’t enough qualified people in the country, but they aren’t readily available. Besides, as I was saying, there has been a slight downfall in our vigor. So, we need to increase our concentration in this area.

We are thinking of new ways to recruit teachers. For example, we are now encouraging our students from class 9, 10, 11 and 12 to think about becoming an instructor at Udvash. We are arranging demo classes for them where they are trying their knack at teaching.

Another challenge that is leadership. Our group is getting larger and so are our individual ventures. The number of our team members has risen substantially in recent times at Udvash. As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that have helped Udvash come this far is culture. People at Udvash love the place and they are genuinely committed to it. But as we continue to grow it is a concern to bring everyone under the same umbrella and maintain the desired organizational cultures`.

Future Startup

What are the plans for Udvash going forward? At the same time, we have been seeing a growing demand for quality education across the country, do you see an expansion opportunity for you there?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

In my opinion, if you want an organization to provide quality service in a market economy, which is the school in our case, it must be held accountable.

In our country, once a student gets into a certain school, s/he doesn’t leave it unless it’s absolutely necessary. This disinterest stems from the fact that transferring an institution entails real hassle.

It might be a ludicrous proposition, but the government can ease the transferring process in order to force the school authority to be more concerned about the service they are providing.

On the contrary, the current situation is different for coaching institutions. The market is too competitive. If an institution fails to ensure quality, it goes out of business in no time.

There are numerous examples of such failed ventures in our country in the coaching business. In coaching, you have to be really good in order to survive. That’s why we also have to bear an added burden.

We have a number of future plans for Udvash, or more broadly, related to education. We are running a school called Swapnodhara School, managing an online education platform called Onnorokom Pathshala, sell a science DIY kit called Onnorokom Bigganbaksho and books from Rokomari, a publishing wing called Onnorokom Publications and providing academic care at Udvash and Unmesh. We want to expand every line of our operation.

To that effect, we are planning to design a mobile app surrounding Bigganbaksho to provide youngsters with a positive mindset by encouraging them to gain in-depth knowledge. Add to that, we will also enrich the contents available on Onnorokom Pathshala.

We are also contemplating the idea of starting a full-fledged educational center. But there are some regulatory issues. If we want to open up a school, we wouldn’t be able to recruit teachers according to our requirements. We would then have to choose teachers from those who pass the government test.

In this regard, there are much to be done about policy formulation. I believe that the government should not legislate anything if it doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure to implement it. For instance, the government is currently making a policy to ban private tuition. I don’t think it would bring about positive consequences because the existing education infrastructure is far from being capable of serving millions of students on its own. I’m not siding with profit-seekers, but educators who are qualified and really think about the welfare of their students should be allowed to provide private tuition. A government’s role is to penalize the bad actors in the system and praise the good ones. With the low salary structure the government has set for the teachers, you can’t just stop them from wanting to earn their livelihood.

Our ultimate dream is to open up a school that would preach different sort of philosophy. In that institution, we would attempt to eliminate competition and champion collaboration instead. There we would reject the factory-setting of classrooms and design separate environments suited to the needs of individual students.

This school which we tentatively call Onnorokom School is one of our biggest dreams. Once it is established we hope to make it an open-source model that everyone can adopt and open up their very own Onnorokom School.

We believe that education works to create refined individuals who have critical thinking ability, perseverance, confidence, and most importantly morality. We want to help people think about what they are studying and not just memorize it. We want them to persevere and don’t just look for instant solutions. If they persevere and their determination is appreciated, they will gain confidence in themselves. Last but not the least we think that an educated person is also a person of high moral standard, an Onnorokom Manush. S/he holds such values that not only help him/her but advance the society as a whole. That’s the ambition of Udvash and our educational initiatives. In fact, we consider morality to be the most important aspect of education.

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

Future Startup

You have a venture call Pi Labs, could you tell us more about it? How big is your operation there?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

At present, Pi Labs functions as a research and development wing of Onnorokom Electronics. Products that we manufacture and sell at Onnorokom Electronics are conceived at Pi Labs.

Besides designing in-house products, Pi Labs also sells product ideas to other companies and enjoy royalties from them. Some of our key products include the vehicle tracker, Biggyanbaksho, stabilizer and solar charge controller.

As for solo projects, we have successfully helped many companies in Bangladesh to incorporated automation. Digital vehicle parking solution at the MTB Tower is one of our projects.

We are mainly working on electronics, electromechanics, and robotics at Pi Labs right now. We aim to extend our research in areas such as renewable energy, elimination of corruption through digital technology and biomedical technology, bearing in mind the local context.

We have recently come up with a system whereby we can make separate question paper for each and every individual student for any exam. Already we have tested it with 20,000 of our students and we were able to generate a different set of question paper for every one of them. The system can be upgraded and modified to put in use for the mass if the government or any institution so desires.

As for biomedical technology, we are trying to signify a particular sort of lifestyle which advocates the betterment of both physical and spiritual health. We are working on designing a system that would assess your daily habits and would notify should you deviate from the norm. There are already digital applications that can be used to keep track of your health, but we are trying to come up with a system on a broader scale. To that effect, we have created something called Holistic Healing Center at Onnorokom Electronics.

The idea behind this initiative is to provide patients with a combination of treatments and not just with allopathy.

There are many effective medicinal treatments that can be found in many places in the world such as herbal medicine, Chinese medicine and so on. For instance, acupuncture has been considered as one of the very effective ways of treatments in many parts of the world.

We have experts at our center who examine the patients and determine what treatment or an admixture of treatments they should receive. For the record, if the case appears critical, we refrain from taking risks and obviously refer them to conventional treatments.

We have long-term plans with our Holistic Healing Center. In future, we want to provide a comprehensive medical service to our patients. For that, we are gathering their health data in order to better monitor their current physical conditions and predict future health risks in advance. Currently, the center is only for our employees but over the years, we plan to open it up to the broader community.

As for the operation, we have a team of around 25 to 30 people working at Pi Labs now.

A key challenge that we face here is in the fact that it’s hard to retain people in research fields for too long. We have had many talented people who worked with us and left within a couple of years.

Currently, our maximum expectation that someone would stay with us and work is around two years or so. Even so, we have been able to keep a few of talented young people who still work with us at Pi Labs.

We have a number of future plans for Udvash, or more broadly, related to education. We are running a school called Swapnodhara School, managing an online education platform called Onnorokom Pathshala, sell a science DIY kit called Onnorokom Bigganbaksho and books from Rokomari, a publishing wing called Onnorokom Publications and providing academic care at Udvash and Unmesh. We want to expand every line of our operation.

Future Startup

Could you give us an overview of Onnorokom Electronics?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

That’s our electronics products manufacturing business. There are around 200 to 250 people on the team right now. We have a manufacturing plant at Mirpur.

At present, we are producing about 5 to 6 products at Onnorokom Electronics including the ones I’ve just described, i.e. solar charge controllers, vehicle trackers, and stabilizers and LED tubes.

Business-wise, we hope to reach the break-even point at some point this year. Manufacturing is a difficult business. Despite the apparent challenges, we have made significant progress over the past few years. The business has grown significantly.

Besides retaining a proficient human resource pool, there is another challenge that we believe we will be facing in the coming days. That challenge is credit management. Credit policies and practices in Bangladesh hold a grim scene. People purchase products on credit and takes months even years to pay for it. We have been able to manage the cash flow so far. But as our sales volume increases, we don’t think it would remain manageable for too long.

Future Startup

You have a software company called Onnorokom Software. What are you doing there?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

On the initial stage, we used to outsource at Onnorokom Software. The company has grown and become profitable over the years. We are more product-focused now.

Apart from developing independent products of its own, Onnorokom Software develops software backbone for our in-house products. It provides all types of technical assistance to our other ventures such as Udvash and for individual products like the vehicle tracking service, optical mark recognition (OMR), electronic voting machine (EVM) and the likes. It also allows us to build products with both hardware and software integration.

For operational advantages, we have kept Onnorokom Software and Pi Labs separate. But they have many things in common. As a result, we plan to merge them together in future.

Future Startup

How do you coordinate among all of your concerns?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

My partner, Liton, and I share our management responsibilities. Out of our eight concerns, Liton focuses on Udvash, Unmesh, Onnorokom Software and Techshopbd; while I look after the rest of the four: Pi Labs, Rokomari, Onnorokom Electronics and Onnorokom Prokashoni.

Add to that, I also oversee our social projects like Onnorokom Pathshala and Swapnodhara.

At present, Pi Labs functions as a research and development wing of Onnorokom Electronics. Products that we manufacture and sell at Onnorokom Electronics are conceived at Pi Labs. Besides designing in-house products, Pi Labs also sells product ideas to other companies and enjoy royalties from them. Some of our key products include the vehicle tracker, Biggyanbaksho, stabilizer and solar charge controller.

Future Startup

To wrap up our discussion on Onnorokom Group, could you please revisit your ambition for Onnorokom Group going forward?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

I would like to reiterate the kind of vision we want to propagate. When we say we want to create an “onnoRrokom Bangladesh” or a different Bangladesh, we don’t just mean the land; we mean the people. We believe that we can have a changed country only if we have changed people.

It looks like a daunting task given the enormous size of our population. But if you look at it from a different perspective, it seems all too feasible.

We can start with changing one person today who will, in turn, change another person. Soon there will be a domino effect where a changed individual is guiding another individual through change and in a few decades, we will have totally different people. This is how we envision the future at Onnorokom Group, preferring a meaningful purpose over mere profits and numbers.

Future Startup

What makes an ideal entrepreneur?

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

An ideal entrepreneur is the one who solves a problem(s) and has a commitment to the betterment of the masses.

S/he is compassionate and it’s that compassion that would drive her/him through perils. It took me a long time to realize the importance of compassion. Compassion is our ability to see a problem from the perspective of the other person. When you are compassionate towards your team, you build relationships. When you are compassionate towards your customers, you design better products. It helps you to better understand the reality of people around you. I think it is a cornerstone trait that everyone should cultivate.

Future Startup

A few pieces of advice you would like to give to your younger self.

Mahmudul Hasan Sohag

I would ask him to focus and prioritize. At one point of my journey, I lost my focus for a couple of years and pursued too many things at once. Had we not done that, we would have done better in many other areas.

The focus is of extreme importance when you are pursuing an ambition. When you get distracted and pursue too many things at once, you spread yourself too thin and fall short of achieving your goals.

The other thing would be around not thinking of yourself too high and be humble. I had been very competitive for a long time. I now actively try to control that. There is nothing to be too competitive about. Our ego often makes life difficult for us. We should actively try to get over it.

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