How LightCastle Partners Has Grown From A Small Operation To A Full-Fledged Data Analytics and Impact Investment Solutions Company With Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish, Managing Director, LightCastle Partners

How LightCastle Partners Has Grown From A Small Operation To A Full-Fledged Data Analytics and Impact Investment Solutions Company With Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish, Managing Director, LightCastle Partners

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LightCastle Partners Co-founder and Managing Director Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish on LightCastle’s journey from a tiny one-room office to a team of over 30 people, how LightCastle tackled product-market fit in its early days by adapting to the needs of its customers, the art of business model and how to use flexibility in your business model to survive and grow your business, how LCP has used a combination of personal network, content marketing and efficient execution to grow its business, LCP’s business today, its expansion into multiple verticals including impact investment and its ambition going forward, how LCP operates as an organization and how it has built a learning culture, how to choose a book and reading as an antidote to life’s challenges, why execution is the key to success in anything you do, and why we should approach life with a sense of gratitude and a simple strategy to know whether your life is on the right track or not.

Future Startup

Thank you for doing this interview with us. First off, tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing today.

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

Thanks for having me. I grew up in a middle-class family in Dhaka. After completing ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level, I went to the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka, to do a bachelor’s in business. While in IBA, I felt a passion for doing something for Bangladeshi businesses. The passion for entrepreneurship was, in fact, grew up inside me at that time.

During bachelor’s, we had a course on branding taught by Syed Ferhat Anwar sir. In that course, we were divided into groups and asked to brainstorm an idea to brand Bangladesh as a country. It was a mini-competition within the class. So, we did. While some of the groups emphasized our heritage, the others wanted to focus on tourism; our group came up with a bold vision: promoting Bangladesh as the Next Investment Frontier; that is we wanted to introduce it as a prospective commercial hub. That project proved to be a hit in our class and the best part was we topped the charts!

That experience was a further impetus for entrepreneurship in all of us who were on that team including Bijon, Zahed, Saif, and I. We determined to do something in that area. After graduation, everyone headed to different directions, though we remained in our key area of interest. I myself joined Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC), Bijon joined Citi NA, Zahed joined HSBC.

Although we went on to work for different organizations after graduation, the passion for entrepreneurship was always there. After three or four years when I took a break from work to apply for MBA abroad, my friends and I got together. After lengthy discussions, we decided that we should do something on our own. Although I wanted to pursue my career after completing my master’s, seeing that the time was ripe and everyone was enthusiastic about the decision, I decided to join the team.

While LightCastle was formally launched in January 2013, the brainstorming sessions started way back from mid-2012. Over coffee hangouts or late night ‘addas’, we’d end up sharing our individual frustrations of dealing with subjective decisions across various organizational levels.

In our experience, we have seen that businesses in Bangladesh–regardless of their type– suffer from a lack of data in decision making. As a consequence, there is a culture of decision-making at whim. Businesses end-up making sub-optimal decisions. We wanted to break that culture by simplifying the process of making decisions. And for that to happen, you’d need reliable data, easy-to-understand visualization tools, and actionable insights. That’s how LightCastle Partners started. And as they say, the rest is history.

It’s been more than 5 years since we have been running LightCastle, where every moment spent is a moment of joy for all of us who deeply believe in the cause that we’re trying to serve in Bangladesh and beyond.

We initially set up our office in a small room in Elephant road at one of our co-founder Saif’s technology firm; we brought our own laptops and thenceforth the journey of LCP commenced. We used to do everything by ourselves in the beginning. But as the business grew and the number of clients increased, we had to expand our team and look for investment.

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Future Startup

What went into building the initial operation of LightCastle Partner (LCP)? Also, could you please give us an overview of LCP today?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

When we started LCP, we were four people on the team. We didn’t need much in the beginning. Knowledge was the raw material and the Internet was our main supplier.

We initially set up our office in a small room in Elephant road at one of our co-founder Saif’s technology firm; we brought our own laptops and thenceforth the journey of LCP commenced.

We used to do everything by ourselves in the beginning. But as the business grew and the number of clients increased, we had to expand our team and look for investment. Since we mostly serve private sector and development sector clients, we thought in order to make a mark in the market we need to have an office in a good location. As a result, six months into the business we raised our first, and till now the only round of investment.

In our early days, we faced some serious challenges. We started LCP with the vision to educate the local market about the significance of data in the day-to-day to business decisions. We didn’t think it would be too far-fetched an idea provided that the rest of the world was already experiencing sort of a data-wave at that time. But sadly the market wasn’t ready. Data wasn’t as big a deal as it should be here. So, we had to pivot in order to survive.

While we pitched our data solution, local companies were approaching us with requests for conducting market research. We realized that our core business idea needs a little “fine-tuning” considering the current level of awareness among our target group. Therefore, in order to establish our footing in the market and create credibility among customers, we decided to cater to the existing market need and keep our vision in the background for the time being.

Soon after our inception, we were able to develop our own research tool: LightCastle Data, which was recognized both by Facebook and Microsoft as one of the top innovations in Bangladesh at that time. With that program, we began to build an information network by accumulating data from enumerators around the country. Our tool provided a set of services including data collection, analysis, and presentation.

In doing market research, we saw that people were fairly satisfied with our performance and they were making inquiries as to how they could apply the research findings in their business. Simply put, they wanted our consultation. Consequently, we decided to provide consultation service as well which included value chain analysis, business model development, strategic assistance, investment advisory among others.

Our company took on the new positioning during 2014. The business verticals were getting into a firm shape. We began to work closely with various organizations in the public sector and the development sector. Several international players like the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ricardo Energy and Environment started collaborating with us.

Later on, besides the research and consulting services, our customer started to request us to help them with implementing the strategic decisions. So, that became another product vertical for us. We provide assistance to companies with resource acquisition, capacity building, and efficient training programs and so on. One of the largest implementation projects that we have been doing includes Unnoty, a robust SME accelerator program, supported by USAID Agriculture Value Chain.

While running the SME accelerator program, we realized that most of the current startups in Bangladesh are technology-focused, and concentrated in and around the capital. But Dhaka isn’t the whole country, and the small and medium enterprises that are spread all across Bangladesh actually comprises the lion’s share of the economy. We wanted to bring these SMEs into our network and provide them services to help scale up their businesses.

To start with, we chose to work on agro-SMEs. We decided to apply our very own business model, Smart Capital that we developed for SMEs in line with the Silicon Valley model. Therefore, as a new vertical, we opened up LightCastle Impact, an impact investment arm which aims to accelerate the growth of the small and medium businesses through smart and growth-oriented capital and ecosystem development. It was started in late 2017.

Another initiative that we have undertaken recently is LightCastle Center for Advanced Learning (LCAL). While working with private and development sector organizations, we observed a need for awareness of analytics among the professionals. We understood that we could educate the workforce about the significance and basics of data analysis and communication by introducing a training program, that is highly quantitative in nature. LCAL came as a result of such an endeavor where we are currently offering courses on business and market analytics, project management, financial modeling among others.

At the beginning of our conversation, I said that our ultimate vision is to work on big data. That vision has just started to materialize. Working with tech firms for years has given us the necessary experience and resource to design our own analytics applications.

We have already created a separate unit, LightCastle Analytics, to work in this area. Currently, we are working with a few development clients on some exciting and emerging technologies including machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Going forward, our vision is to provide cutting-edge digital and analytics solutions to organizations for simplifying complex decisions, leading to higher efficiency, increased revenues and greater impact.

This is how LCP has evolved in the last couple of years. We are now a team of 30 people and growing. From 2013 and onwards, we have worked with around 150 clients. There are about 25 projects that we are working on at present.

As I have described, we now have four verticals: research & consulting, training, impact investment and analytics.

Future Startup

Could please you give us an overview of your analytics business? On the analytics side, how does your business model work? Do you have any SaaS product or it is also project-based?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

We have one product which has several modules. We serve our customers depending upon their requirement and we customize it according to the needs of our customers.

We haven’t yet shifted to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. At this point, we are still working on a project-basis.

In our early days, we faced some serious challenges. We started LCP with the vision to educate the local market about the significance of data in the day-to-day to business decisions. We didn’t think it would be too far-fetched an idea provided that the rest of the world was already experiencing sort of a data-wave at that time. But sadly the market wasn’t ready. Data wasn’t as big a deal as it should be here. So, we had to pivot in order to survive. While we pitched our data solution, local companies were approaching us with requests for conducting market research. We realized that our core business idea needs a little “fine-tuning” considering the current level of awareness among our target group. Therefore, in order to establish our footing in the market and create credibility among customers, we decided to cater to the existing market need and keep our vision in the background for the time being.

Future Startup

How does LCAL, your training institute, work?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

LCAL in effect has two business models: B2B and B2C. Under the B2B model, we partner up with companies and provide training to their staff. Under the B2C model, we run training programs for individuals where our in-house experts are the trainers.

On a monthly basis, we do not conduct more than one training program since they are comprehensive in nature and we need to set up the schedules on weekends so that professionals can join in without hampering their work.

The B2C has another variation where we affiliate with university faculties, industry experts, and legal consultants to conduct sessions on various aspects of the business. So far LCAL has received great response from the market. However, many participants do face challenges to physically attend the training which has been a challenge for us.

We are now looking into preparing online courses that our participants would be able to access from anywhere apart from attending our classes.

Future Startup

Going back to the early days of LCP, to a more granular level, what’ve helped you to grow the business?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

Before starting LCP, the four of us who founded the company used to work in different organizations in different fields. Some of us worked in the banking sector while others worked in the nonprofit sector. During our time in those organizations, each of us tried to build up his own network. So, when we came together to build LCP, all of our networks were combined and we got a huge base of potential customers. That’s how we actually acquired our initial customers.

Another thing that helped us grow in the early days was great mentoring. We have been blessed to have great mentors who provide valuable advice on every occasion and guide us through tough times.

Our personal networks and great mentoring gave us the initial traction that the business needed. Then we soon realized that since we are in the knowledge space, we have to establish ourselves as a thought leader in the industry in order to attract more customers which eventually led us to invest in content. We started creating great content, which we continue to do even these days. We began partnering with various organizations and organizing business-related events. For example, we affiliated with the government’s Access to Information (A2I) project to conceptualize, design and co-develop the first ever Open Government Portal of Bangladesh.

We also took it upon us to keep working on important publications such as Business Confidence Index. With such affiliations and endeavors, we wanted to advocate a culture of thought leadership and position ourselves in the market as a source of reliable data and analysis. And if the clients need more, we are happy to help. These small initiatives helped us to get attention in the market and move above the noise in the market. Content continues to be a core marketing and customer acquisition strategy for us.

In doing market research, we saw that people were fairly satisfied with our performance and they were making inquiries as to how they could apply the research findings in their business. Simply put, they wanted our consultation. Consequently, we decided to provide consultation service as well which included value chain analysis, business model development, strategic assistance, investment advisory among others.

LCP Founders - Zahed, Ivdad, Bijon (from left to right)

LCP Founders – Zahed, Ivdad, Bijon (from left to right)

Future Startup

Given your business model, your revenue is tied to the number of projects you do at a given time which means your growth also increases your cost significantly because in order to implement new project you have to hire new resources. How have you increased your revenue over the time?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

Let me answer that question with referring to an interesting analogy that I recently learned while reading a book. I forgot the name of the author. It’s on the startup model in India where the author describes the startup models in both India and US in terms of their respective national trees. Large companies in the US mostly focus on one vertical just like its national tree, Sequoia, which is narrow and tall. But in India, companies have a portfolio of products reflecting its national tree, Banyan, which is short, thick in nature and spread itself.

It tells us that as a neighboring country of India, Bangladesh’s startup models won’t be too far away from that of India’s. In my opinion, the Banyan model is quite appropriate given the local context. You can’t just focus on one product here. You have to have multiple verticals which would open the door to capturing a bigger share of the market and generating more revenue.

While reading the book, I realized that all along we’ve been adhering to such a business model. If you refer to my recollection of LCP’s history, you’ll know that although we began with only one vertical, we soon moved to a number of spaces with unfolding opportunities which has helped us to grow our revenue over the years.

Future Startup

Could you please tell us a little bit about the Impact Investment Fund?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

Right now, we are trying to position ourselves at the intersection of the business accelerator services and impact investment. We have raised our first impact investment fund which we will start deploying in the market soon, as I mentioned earlier.

Since there are regulatory issues related to managing a fund, at this point we are co-managing funds provided by other investment organizations. We are managing the investment process and the deployment of the fund. Our aim, of course, is to move up the ladder in the future.

Future Startup

What were the challenges for LCP in the early days; and what are the challenges now?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

In the beginning, we hoped that we would have a reciprocal relationship with our clients; that is if we provide good quality service they would not hesitate to return the value. But we soon realize that that’s not the case – especially with some of the companies in our private sector. Credit, more than anything, became and still is one of the biggest challenges for us. It makes it challenging to maintain the cash flow.

Another challenge that we faced early on with the presentation of our reports. Our clients were satisfied with the quality of our findings but they were complaining about our visuals. To tackle that, we have hired a group of professional UI and UX experts. And if you check out our latest reports you’ll surely notice a significant improvement in terms of design.

Networking is very important. It’s important to build and nurture personal networks. My experience at home and abroad has taught me that even a great resume alone can’t guarantee jobs for you. Professional relationships ultimately matter. I would say everyone should pay attention to this. It has helped us a lot throughout our journey. I would say build relationships. This does not mean that you take resort to unethical means. Build relationships based on values. It helps build trust and eventually lead to collaboration.

Future Startup

You are a largely B2B business. How does your marketing work? How do you reach out to your customers?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

From time to time, we run promotional campaigns by organizing events where we showcase our products and educate the customers about our work.

Content has been a strong pillar for us. Creating useful content has helped us to create inbound demand. At the same time, building relationship with stakeholders has also been helpful for us.

Future Startup

What are some lessons you’ve learned?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

The most important lesson I have learned as an entrepreneur is about the team, the people you work with. In an organization, individual performance only matters when combined with the collective contribution. It’s important for a leader to find out whether her/his teammates dream the same dream, whether they share the same mindset and equally value their organization.

Secondly: innovate and market. Everyone in this highly-competitive market is doing something similar to others. So, if you want your market offering to be so special and attractive you must be innovative. You need to always improve your products. Otherwise, you won’t have any competitive advantage.

Networking is very important. It’s important to build and nurture personal networks. My experience at home and abroad has taught me that even a great resume alone can’t guarantee jobs for you. Professional relationships ultimately matter. I would say everyone should pay attention to this. It has helped us a lot throughout our journey. I would say build relationships. This does not mean that you take resort to unethical means. Build relationships based on values. It helps build trust and eventually lead to collaboration.

Future Startup

How do people work at LCP? Could you please give us an insight into your culture?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

Since we have moved into multiple verticals now, we have different departments to look after different parts of the operation. We now have an analytics team, a research consulting team, impact investment team and so on. Although each of these teams has their unique agendas, they collaborate with one another whenever necessary. And it happens all the time.

At our organization, we champion a culture of continuous learning. In each of the training programs we arrange from LCAL, at least one of our employees joins as a participant. We have set up a library, which we encourage our employees to use regularly.

We are a value-driven company. Every one of us here shares a common goal. We would like to keep it that way.

Content has been a strong pillar for us. Creating useful content has helped us to create inbound demand. At the same time, building relationship with stakeholders has also been helpful for us.

Future Startup

What are the major goals for 2018 and 2019?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

Our main priority going forward will be to strengthen what we have built so far. We will keep on innovating.

We are working on putting our footing in the global market. The types of services that we are providing have markets outside Bangladesh as well. As an organization, we are still lagging behind in that respect. To that end, we have initiated talks with organizations in countries like Nepal, Pakistan, and India. We hope to see some developments soon.

While we are actively working on the expansion, that’s not to say that we would defocus on our onshore operation. Bangladesh will always be our first priority. This is our headquarter.

Future Startup

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous while building LCP from the scratch?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

Yes, efficient execution. In business, you see, it’s important to think and make effective decisions. But you also need to execute it efficiently. From the beginning, we have been determined to take our ideas to the world and not just sit around with them. So, when we have an idea, we test it in the market, talk to our customers and try to understand its viability.

An attitude toward continuous learning has also helped us as an organization. I’ve told you about our trouble with the visuals. The same mindset was reflected in technological assistance which we used to outsource in the past but now provide internally. We have built an entire tech team who take care of our tech-related requirements.

And, lastly, content marketing really proved to be a boon for us. In addition, to provide data analysis, we stepped a bit forward and offered insights into the market. Many people found these content useful which has helped us to grow and attract a lot of attention.

Every day when I wake up from sleep, I ask myself whether I’m looking forward to the new day and whether it excites me to jump into the world. And, then, at the end of the day, when I come back to my home, I again ask myself whether it was a well-spent day and whether I enjoyed my work, learned something new, had fun and be of use to others. If I get positive replies to these questions, I know my life is on the right track; that I’m doing fine. That’s actually how I measure life. Alhamdulillah for everything!

Future Startup

What advice would you give to the early-stage founders?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

My first suggestion to everyone would be to focus as much on execution as on ideation. It does not matter how great an idea you have if you fail to execute.

Secondly, you need to build a personal network as an entrepreneur that you can rely upon. People you can open up to and rest your shoulder on. Building a business is difficult, there will be tough times. Having a personal network would help you to carry through these ups and downs.

And finally, a good team. Great companies are made up of great people. So, if you can bring in like-minded, passionate people into the organization and inspire them to dream the same dream as yours, you can hope to build up a great company.

Future Startup

As you mentioned, building a company from scratch is a challenging job. It involves a lot of daily ups and downs. How do you tackle stress that comes with being an entrepreneur?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

As a co-founder of a company, it’s always been a concern for me to gauge whether all of us–the founders–have a mutual understanding of what we want to achieve. The more LCP grows, the tougher it becomes for us to plan and coordinate our activities and maintain constant communication. Communication helps. To that end, we try to have regular communication with our team members to see whether we are all on the same page. And we founders, now try to catch up on the weekends since we could not manage time during the weekdays. It helps to recharge ourselves.

Personally, quality of our work has been a concern for me. It’s next to impossible to ensure 100% good quality at all-time especially when there is time and resource constraint. Even if you put in your best effort and commit wholeheartedly, the product may not come off as expected. Often time’s clients don’t try to realize such complications and blame it on us. It is a major reason for my stress.

To tackle that, we try to keep our clients updated throughout the process so that no gap occurs between what s/he expects and what we plan to produce. In that way, clients can have a feeling that they have collaborated themselves in that particular job and co-created the end product.

From the beginning, we have been determined to take our ideas to the world and not just sit around with them. So, when we have an idea, we test it in the market, talk to our customers and try to understand its viability.

Future Startup

You are among the people I know who read voraciously. How do you choose what to read? And also, would you like to recommend a couple of your favorite books to our readers?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

I love to read, honestly speaking. Despite my busy schedule, I try to read at least for 1.5 -2 hours every day. I read on the road while I’m not driving; I read during the breaks in office, before going to bed; and on weekends, I try not to leave the sight of books.

In our organization, we take into account books suggested by business leaders like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. Online platforms such as Goodreads is another useful source of suggestion.

We also recommend books to each other. It helps that each one of us have a different area of interests. Zahed is a non-fiction geek; Bijon fancies fictions, while I am into both. If one of us reads a great book, he suggests it to others.

Reading is what keeps us going. To everyone who wants to be an entrepreneur or otherwise, my advice would be to read as much as you can; read voraciously.

I would love to recommend a few books to the readers of this interview. The first one is the biography of Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, titled Shoe Dog. I would also recommend Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. And, thirdly, Educated: A Memoir penned by Tara Westover which is an absolutely brilliant read.

Future Startup

What’s your take on life?

Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish

I’m a religious person. I believe life is a gift from the God. I think we need to get the most out of it.

I try to live my life on simple terms.

Every day when I wake up from sleep, I ask myself whether I’m looking forward to the new day and whether it excites me to jump into the world. And, then, at the end of the day, when I come back to my home, I again ask myself whether it was a well-spent day and whether I enjoyed my work, learned something new, had fun and be of use to others. If I get positive replies to these questions, I know my life is on the right track; that I’m doing fine. That’s actually how I measure life. Alhamdulillah for everything!

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Ashekan

Photo credit: LightCastle Partners

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