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The DataSoft Story, How A Business Model Tweak Helped DataSoft To Achieve Faster Growth And Life With M. Manjur Mahmud, COO, DataSoft

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May 23, 2018
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M. Manjur Mahmud, Director and Chief Operating Officer, DataSoft Systems Bangladesh Ltd, on his childhood and how his upbringing in an ambitious middle-class heartland of the 70s shaped his life, influence of his father on him, his journey from the Elephant road to the Fergusson College in Pune to what he is doing today, how he ended up at DataSoft, how DataSoft has grown from a 50 people team to over 1000 people team having offices in the US, Japan and Europe and serving clients from over 22 countries, how Datasoft changed its business model from a project-based model to SaaS and fixed its cash flow challenge, why execution is the key to growth, the relationship between achievement and discipline, how habit improves our lives and much more.

The interview is a sublime, insightful, and intellectually empowering read in its entirety. Enjoy the conversation!

This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it up into two parts. This is the part one, please check us back for the second part of the interview and subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get our stories directly in your inbox.

Future Startup

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Could you please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing today?

M. Manjur Mahmud

I had a wonderful childhood. To be honest with you, my life isn't a tale of rags to riches. I grew up in a fairly privileged home in the Elephant Road area in Dhaka. It was a middle-class heartland during the late '70s with all its pros and cons.

It was a very aspiring and competitive environment. My friends were competitive. I was schooled in competitive, popular institutions. Since the middle-class populace was back then leading in the academia and cultural scene, I was exposed to a great many things that have shaped my life.

We had plenty of playgrounds. We had plenty of libraries around. We had a lot of mentors - that boro bhai (elder brother) you just go and talk to.

It was very different world than what you see today. Everybody wanted to do well. Everybody had a color or feather in their hat to say this is what he is and good stories to tell. Someone’s brother has become this, someone’s cousin stood first in SSC exam and so on.

The aspiration level in people was very high. The drive for doing good was palpable. We also had all the fun. Sports were a part of our everyday life. I was an active basketball player. We kind of lived the life to the fullest. That was the kind of environment I grew up.

I can't really recount my childhood in a chronological manner. Please excuse my anachronism. My journey into the world of technology is also quite an interesting story. My father once brought me a small BBC microcomputer which I used to connect with a television set and do a little bit of programming. I have been fascinated by information technology (IT) ever since I had that computer. And technology has since become my lifelong passion.

The computer was bought for me around the year 1981. At that time, there was an annual science competition called National Science Fair. In one such competition, I send one of my projects. Surprisingly, I won the first prize in that competition. National Dailies including The Daily Ittefaq, which was the most prominent Bengali Daily at that time, covered the news and called me a khude biggani (tiny scientist). That wave of appreciation further intrigued me. That was the point when I determined that I would do something in the field of IT.

Coming back to my family, I had a very enlightened father. He was an English Literature major from the University of Dhaka. A civil service officer turned a private professional in the later period. He used to travel a lot around the world; and for his sake, my siblings and I also got the chance to know plenty of things. He used to buy us a lot of books. Our horizons were broadened because of him.

After I passed college, I went to India to study Computer Science and Engineering at the Fergusson College in Pune. It was one of the top engineering colleges there. I had a very colorful life in India. It was a good decision to go to India for study at that time given that India was increasingly becoming an innovation hub with topnotch IT experts teaching in educational institutions. We received a good education. All my alma mater are now working in leading technology companies around the world. We had a diverse class with students from many countries. That experience opened my eyes. Pune as a city was culturally rich as well. We had the opportunity to hobnob with many cultural celebrities as well.

After my study, I began my professional life in India in 1990 at a small software company. I worked there briefly and then returned to Bangladesh. There were only two companies doing software development at that time where a computer engineer could work: CSL and IBCS Primax. These were two places where people with computer science background could actually work. I initially joined CSL and worked there for a couple of months.

Afterward, I moved to IBCS Primax. I was fortunate enough to play a part in building their Oracle team almost from the scratch. I also became the first Oracle certified professional in Bangladesh. This was back in 1994-95. Oracle had just started this certification process. Then I became an Oracle man and did many consulting projects around the globe. I went to Singapore to work on a Shell project which was also an Oracle project. I worked in a couple of banking projects in that region to help these companies build their databases and that sort of things.

As my career progressed, I realized that it's important to properly organize your life. You have to organize yourself in order achieve things in life. You have to disciplined. One of the important organization is self-organization. How do you manage yourself? How do you organize your own sphere? To that effect, I focused mainly on self-organization, arranging my private affairs in an orderly manner.

I realized that it is important that I take care of my mental and physical health. One of the things I believe is that you need to maintain your health by living a balanced life. To me, a balanced life is a disciplined life.

Early in my life, I understood that I'm a mediocre person with no super-genius ability in particular. I have to be disciplined to reach the next level. That's why I have attempted to build up a few lasting personal habits which would enable me to do something significant, keep me healthy, happy, and enlightened.

Over the years, I have developed two-three habits. I try to maintain a highly disciplined day-to-day life. Extreme discipline to commitment is one thing that I maintain. For me, 9 o’clock is 9 o’clock. Shall be delivered is shall be delivered. If I promise something, I try to fulfill it by every means necessary. That’s one thing that I have cultivated over the years.

Continuous personal improvement is also a habit I strive for. I try to improve things every day. For me, New Year’s resolution is actually resolution which I track over the years on a regular basis and measure my progress.

I try to be punctual in everything that I do. I’m a morning person. I get up pretty early in the morning, freshen up and catch up on the day's news. Then I go outside and do some exercise. I’m into Yoga, Taichi and a lot of running and walking. I spend one and half hour purely on myself in the morning. I do my rituals. Usually, I'm the first one to come to the office. After reaching the office, I do my catch ups. By the time, the rest of my colleagues are here, I’m already done with most of the tasks which I’m supposed to do in the office.

For mental health, I have realized that reading helps. I'm a regular reader. I carefully choose what to read. Typically, I read about two books every month. One book is related to my business. Another is fiction, poetry, ideas, books on philosophy and so on. It keeps me going.

I believe in order to pursue any good portfolio you need a lot of energy, both physical and mental. The only way I can keep doing that is through proper utilization of time, resources and cultivating a solid habit.

Philosophically, I believe that human being has three stages in life. One is your career. Second is your next generation, which is taking care of your family which is very important. The family is like the pillar. The third part is your life after death or spiritual aspect of life. I’m a spiritual person. My feet are on the ground. I thank God on every occasion. These three aspects of life I find very important to manage. Managing your life well, your family well and your life after death. And doing good things for people and the society.

It was a very aspiring and competitive environment. My friends were competitive. I was schooled in competitive, popular institutions. Since the middle-class populace was back then leading in the academia and cultural scene, I was exposed to a great many things that have shaped my life. We had plenty of playgrounds. We had plenty of libraries around. We had a lot of mentors - that boro bhai (elder brother) you just go and talk to. It was very different world than what you see today. Everybody wanted to do well.

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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

Tell us about the rest of your journey.

M. Manjur Mahmud

After that, I worked briefly for different corporations as IT Head and IT consultant. And then I started my own company called Orient Technologies (OTN) in 2003. Eventually, we merged with Datasoft in 2005.

In the meantime, my family was in Australia. They came back in 2005 and joined me in Bangladesh. We finally decided that nothing like home.

Our goal at OTN was mainly to work in Port and logistics related technology solutions. Long story short, we wanted to do a private port in Chittagong which did not happen for some legal issues. After a while, my partner at that time left for the US and ultimately settled in Canada. So I was kind of orphaned. Suddenly a company of 150 people became a company of fewer than 20 people. That’s a separate story. We had built a huge team to do this private port project, since it did not happen we had to reduce the company.

Around that time, I met Mahboob Zaman bhai, the founder of Datasoft, while participating in a training program at Indian Institute of Management (IIM). That’s where one of our course instructors at IIM suggested that both of us should merge our businesses since we have complementary skills.

We eventually merged Datasoft and OTN in 2005 and became Datasoft. We were fairly small companies when we merged but with considerably lofty dreams. The rest I think is history.

Mahboob bhai is an amazing entrepreneur. A very committed person. He has given me a lot of freedom to work. We have built portfolios which other people never heard of. Before the merger, we worked together on small projects. We worked on cultural fit and all that. It was a well thought out decision.

We carried out an absolute merger including people, technology, clients and everything. I joined Datasoft board. The number of employees taken together rose to around 50 people at that time.

We were very ambitious in our plans. We came up with five key areas to work on in order to build a strong brand. When I joined, we were like everything and anything. If you ask us to do anything we do it for you, be it a banking software or a POS or a Garments software. We realized that it was not a good strategy. We have to stand for something. If we do something, we have to be known for it. If Datasoft builds banking related technology solutions, then it should be like great banking software means Datasoft.

The first decision we made was to stop being a jack of all trades. We decided to concentrate on a small list of areas and be a leader in those areas.

Secondly, as a technology startup, we decided that we have to be technology-agnostic. That we should not say we only do Java or .NET. We are a technology company and language should not be a barrier for us.

We also realized that to build a great company we need great human resources. So we started hiring good people. Building a great team became a priority. We are very serious about our people.

The fourth course of action was to become a process-driven company. We realized early on that if we want to build a consequential and lasting company, we have to be process-driven. To that effect, we have implemented Capability Maturity Model (CMM). Eventually, we got certified. In 2003, we became a CMM level 3 company. Today, we are a CMM level 5 company. We thought that process is one thing that could take us to the next level.

The fifth thing that we did was the most important one - reinventing our business model. We were struggling to manage our cash flow with the existing business model. We were growing fast but we could not support that growth because of the limitation in our model. That's when we began to experiment with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model. Perhaps, we are one of the earliest companies to adopt SaaS as a business model and pursue that, which eventually solved most of our cash flow problem.

We were a project based company before which was not solving our cash-flow problem, rather contributing to it. We reinvented our business to solve our cash flow problem. Now many of our solutions generate cash for us regularly.

I try to be punctual in everything that I do. I’m a morning person. I get up pretty early in the morning, freshen up and catch up on the day's news. Then I go outside and do some exercise. I’m into Yoga, Taichi and a lot of running and walking. I spend one and half hour purely on myself in the morning. I do my rituals. Usually, I'm the first one to come to the office. After reaching the office, I do my catch ups. By the time, the rest of my colleagues are here, I’m already done with most of the tasks which I’m supposed to do in the office.

Future Startup

Now when you make a software for a client you get into a SaaS model instead of a project-based work?

Manjur Mahmud

Yes. SaaS or PaaS, platform-as-a-service, model. Now we have a couple of SaaS and PaaS platforms.

That’s how Datasoft has become cash rich. We solved our cash problem forever.

Future Startup

How do you convince your clients because most clients would probably go for a project-based solution, make me a software I pay you at once?

Manjur Mahmud

We say that you don’t have to invest a dime in it. I’m investing in making the software or the platform and I get paid per transaction or whatever the process for a certain period of time.

Initially, it was very challenging. It remains a challenging job even these days. But eventually, we have managed to build a couple of platforms to show our success which has made our job a lot easier.

Future Startup

When did you start to change your business model to a SaaS and PaaS model?

Manjur Mahmud

We started in 2007-08. Today, we have many SaaS and PaaS projects both in Bangladesh and other markets where we operate.

For instance, in Japan, our entire project is a PaaS project. It's an IoT project in the form of platform-as-a-service.

The fourth course of action was to become a process-driven company. We realized early on that if we want to build a consequential and lasting company, we have to be process-driven.

Future Startup

How much has Datasoft evolved, if you compare with say DataSoft of 2006-07?

M. Manjur Mahmud

I mean this is a totally different type of company. It is an iconic company in Bangladesh in terms of many things.

Every year we do strategies and we successfully execute some of our strategies well. It adds up.

We surely sit for a yearly strategy meeting. Every year, Datasoft goes for a strategy meeting twice. One in January when we formulate the strategy for the year and then again in June to evaluate the progress and take corrective measures. We change our portfolio if required, or reinforce some of the portfolios. And we do this as a team.

We are a very execution-focused company. When we decide to do something, we immediately create a task list, a responsibility matrix, a deadline and a reporting mechanism. Everything is tracked, reviewed and then reflected upon with an intention to improve.

Future Startup

Could you give us an overview of Datasoft? How big is your team?

M. Manjur Mahmud

Datasoft is a CMM level-5 company which means that we are an efficient organization that continually seeks to improve the process, performance through both incremental and innovative technological changes. There are only 300-odd companies around the world of our stature.

We are currently a team of 378 people. Then we have contractual people working all the time. We have an office in Chittagong. We work extensively with banks and microfinance institutions. So a lot of our people are embedded with them.

We have an office in Japan, two offices in Europe, and one office in the US. We have a couple of affiliates in Singapore and Malaysia.

We currently serve clients from more than 22 countries. We have a very diverse portfolio ranging from the Internet of Things to banking services to microfinance.

Culturally, we have a lot of small startups within the company. Our people work on a lot of small initiatives, iterate them, and then when they see a product-market fit, they quickly launch it. That’s the model we have followed always - empowering our people to explore their ambition. There is a small team who work hard on commercializing whatever new project we come up with.

Future Startup

Could you give us an insight into technologies and sectors that you are currently working on as well as if you have a list of priority sectors that you plan to focus on?

M. Manjur Mahmud

Our portfolio is divided into two basic parts. Traditionally, we have been into port and logistics sector, banking and microfinance, and we are also into product development such as Smart Enterprise which is our ERP and other products. This is our traditional portfolio.

Besides that, every two or three years, we define some new portfolios, exclusive target areas, and set directions to work on those areas.

The emerging portfolios are like IoT, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), blockchain technology, data analytics, and so on. These are all emerging technologies.

Emerging also has a few phases. Some of them are emerging but has already been commercialized. For example, IoT has already been commercialized. Augmented reality has already been commercialized as you know these technologies are already being used by Nissan Motors and some of the big motor companies globally. VR has been in the process of commercializing.

We have been working on a few of these areas for a while. In fact, we have been able to commercialize a number of projects around IoT, AR, and VR.

Future Startup

As you said earlier, employees at Datasoft are encouraged to experiment with new ideas, that is to say, intrapreneurship is an integral part of your culture. People start small projects and then eventually turn them into independent products. How does that work?

M. Manjur Mahmud

Very simple. We try to cultivate such a culture by doing a few things. For example, people working at Datasoft can choose their area of work - which sector, what technology etc. This is to give our people freedom of work.

The second thing is that everybody has their pet projects - small projects our employees do which we showcase every now and then. We call it Entrepreneurs Within. We assess merits of these projects once in a while and, if appears viable, we proceed further with investing in it and then commercializing it. For example, the VR Lab that you saw is one of the initiatives like that. This group of people realized that VR has got this amazing future. These are the projects that we could do. We said let’s go and do it.

We also do a lot of university collaboration. Our IoT lab, for instance, was set up in collaboration with a professor from the Columbia University. That also enables us to stay updated with emerging technologies.

We get a lot of opportunities to know and understand what’s happening in the western markets in terms of technological developments. This is what, I think, differentiates us.

We always try to adopt new technologies as early as possible, train our people and then allow them to play with it.

We continually prepare for the changing business landscape. We just don’t encourage people to explore new areas, we help commercialize these new technologies and projects. That’s where our strength lies.

The fifth thing that we did was the most important one - reinventing our business model. We were struggling to manage our cash flow with the existing business model. We were growing fast but we could not support that growth because of the limitation in our model. That's when we began to experiment with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model. Perhaps, we are one of the earliest companies to adopt SaaS as a business model and pursue that, which eventually solved most of our cash flow problem.

Future Startup

You mentioned part of your business model is SaaS model which means you essentially build either product or platform that generate revenue for a long time. Do you also work on project-basis?

M. Manjur Mahmud

Yes, we do projects as well. We have products and then we do projects on a regular basis. Some of these projects are of SaaS or PaaS model.

Future Startup

How many products do you have now?

M. Manjur Mahmud

We have about 5 products. We have some products in ERP space, some products in financial compliance space.

We are the market leader in whatever space we are in. For instance, some of our ERP products have hundreds of installations. We work in the microcredit sector and we alone have the 62% of the market.

We go both vertically and horizontally. For example, for micro-finance, we work with the regulators, MFIs, and all other stakeholders. When we enter a segment, we try to capture the whole ecosystem so that we can create a strong competitive moat.

Future Startup

How do you make strategic decisions like which technology or sector to focus on next? What informs your strategic decisions?

M. Manjur Mahmud

As I said, we do multiple strategic meeting every year. It is an intense exercise. 30-40 people take months of preparation before the meeting.

We attend seminars, big technology shows, events where we get insights and predictive direction about the industry.

We consult Gartner Report and major trend analysis and what others are talking about etc.

In short, we are always active and looking for new ways of doing things, new trends, and technologies. It is a continuous process.

Future Startup

You have experienced a phenomenal growth over the past decade, what has helped you to grow Datasoft?

M. Manjur Mahmud

Well, I’ve told you part of the story. It is about devising the right strategy and the executing them. Strategy alone would not take you far. It has to be matched with equally astute execution.

The knowledge itself must prevail in the management. They must know what they are doing. This is where everything lies. Leadership is very important.

It was not without bumps either. We stopped a lot of portfolios and businesses. You have to make difficult decisions. Building a company involves a lot of tough decisions. The number of decisions you make every day is critical for moving forward.

As you make more decisions two things happen: one is you get a lot done and the second is you get better at making decisions. We try to make quick decisions and try to be right about most of them.

As my career progressed, I realized that it's important to properly organize your life. You have to organize yourself in order achieve things in life. You have to disciplined. One of the important organization is self-organization. How do you manage yourself? How do you organize your own sphere? To that effect, I focused mainly on self-organization, arranging my private affairs in an orderly manner.

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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.

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Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription By Rahatil Ashekan


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