Life’s Work: An interview with Prabeer Sarkar, Founder and CEO, Dhaka Distributions (Part 01)

Life’s Work: An interview with Prabeer Sarkar, Founder and CEO, Dhaka Distributions (Part 01)

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Prabeer Sarkar has seen it all in life. He lost his father when he was 13 years old. “I terribly miss my father even these days when I see a child walking on the street holding his father’s finger.” Life was tough but it was kind as well. His mother, who remains one of the biggest influences in his life, sacrificed a lot to ensure a good education and a good life for Prabeer and his sister. After graduating with a degree in English Literature from Dhaka University, he started his career as a banker in 1986. Two and a half years into banking, he became a programmer. He then left his banking career to become a full-time programmer at a World Bank-funded project. After leaving the World Bank project, he worked for a private technology firm for a brief period before starting his own venture. In 1994 with 19 thousand taka in pocket, he ventured out into his own entrepreneurial journey.

From a student of English Literature to a banker to a programmer to an entrepreneur, Prabeer has taken anything but a traditional path. This nature of defying convention is unsurprising as it serves as a defining thread of Prabeer’s life, including his endless transitions from one way of living to another, getting into one uncharted territory after another, his fascinating for cybersecurity and his contribution as one of the leading software and cybersecurity entrepreneurs in Bangladesh.

Prabeer Sarkar is the founder and CEO of Dhaka Distributions, a cybersecurity company in Dhaka. In this interview, he reflects on how his early life experiences shaped his future, his journey to what he is doing today, beginning of his entrepreneurial journey, the impetus behind starting Dhaka Distributions, the current state of Dhaka Distributions, its business and ambition going forward, his future plans for the company, talks about his management philosophy, biggest lessons from his journey so far and how he looks at the idea of leadership and life and how a strong sense of our own limitations can help us live a meaningful life.

The entire interview is sublime, insightful, and intellectually empowering. We believe Prabeer’s story will elevate you and inspire you to choose life over mere living. This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it up into two parts. This is part one of the interview. Please come back later this month for the final installment of the interview.

Future Startup

Tell us about yourself. The early years.

Prabeer Sarkar

I am from the 60s. Born in 1961. My father was a banker. Posted at Karachi in the then West Pakistan with the Central Bank. I spent my early childhood in Karachi. We were repatriated to Bangladesh in October 1973. I was about 11 years old at that time. My life has been essentially about transitions. Guess the repatriation was my first transition. The second was the day my father passed away. He died February 1975 and I was only 13 at that time. Life was not easy those days. The struggle continued while I did my SSC from St. Gregory’s High School, HSC from Ananda Mohan College and finished my bachelor’s and Master’s in English Literature from Dhaka University.

My first job was with a nationalized commercial bank. I joined in 1986 and left in 1992. If you ask me, I have to admit that my journey into entrepreneurship was not exactly what I had dreamt or planned for. It happened. Life takes us places. I am not the legacy technology entrepreneur with the computer science background. I am a literature person. And I came with a completely different perspective of the technology business. And I pretty much enjoy doing it.

I am from the 60s. Born in 1961. My father was a banker. Posted at Karachi in the then West Pakistan with the Central Bank. I spent my early childhood in Karachi. We were repatriated to Bangladesh in October 1973. I was about 11 years old at that time. My life has been essentially about transitions. Guess the repatriation was my first transition. The second was the day my father passed away. He died February 1975 and I was only 13 at that time. Life was not easy those days.

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Future Startup

Was it a deliberate decision that you wanted to be a banker?

Prabeer Sarkar

It was the fulfillment of my mother’s wish. With my father, she had seen the golden days of bankers back in the 60s and 70s, and she carried that image inside her. She wanted me to walk that path. I did owe that to her. She has sacrificed so much in bringing me up. And my father is still to this day my idol. I chose the beginning of my career in honor of both.

Future Startup

That’s understandable. Let’s come back to your story. You graduated, started your career and then what happened?

Prabeer Sarkar

I was with the bank for around 6 years. I had started as a general banker, but around the end of 1988, I received a surprise call to sit for an aptitude test for the upcoming Computer Division of the bank. I was lucky. Don’t ask me how or why, but I did very good in the test. I got selected as a Programmer. This was the third transition in my life. I landed into the realm of technology.

I left the bank in 1992 and joined a World Bank-funded project as a Programmer. The fourth transition in my life. I worked there for a year. Around that time, I came across a friend who was supplying computers to the project. He was working for his brother’s company and he invited me over to meet his brother. Meeting him, was my fifth transition. He offered me a GM’s position in the company. I don’t know why, but I accepted. And I landed myself into the world of business. Unfortunately, the company failed within a year because of internal partnership issues. And I ventured out to the sixth transition of my life.

I had 19 thousand Taka in my pocket. A load of confidence. And had started to dream. It was a daring attempt. But I started Technics Computers Pvt. Ltd. It was August of 1994.

The IT industry was in its early years those days in Bangladesh. System Integration was more or less the core business. I targeted foreign organizations to keep away from the competitive market. I have to say here that we, the IT business community in Bangladesh, started off wrong in the early years. Fighting in lowering prices in the name of competitiveness. It should have been a competition of quality. It came out as an insane battle of prices and compromise of quality. The years of being an SI were not easy. Nor dreamy. I had a big team. Mostly technical. I was doing maintenance contracts and I made sure I had happy customers.

The period taught me one valuable lesson – in the technology business tech support is vital. I have remembered this lesson today and will not forget. I guess, with Technics I ventured into the technology trade. Not entrepreneurship. I refuse to call opening an IT firm to sell hardware and do networks as an act of entrepreneurship. That had to come later. My seventh transition.

I had 19 thousand Taka in my pocket. A load of confidence. And had started to dream. It was a daring attempt. I started Technics Computers Pvt. Ltd. It was August of 1994.

Future Startup

You were an SI and you came out as an entrepreneur. How did that happen?

Prabeer Sarkar

Around 2006, I began to think. Rather started looking around for a way out to continue in this business. The SI business was average. No future. There was no excitement in it. And it’s not easy when you feel stale with what you do. You crave for new challenges.

Now when you start looking for a business it’s not just as simple as that. I was never a genius. Nor a great thinker or planner or even a dreamer. I define myself rather as an opportunist. Seeking an opportunity if it existed. I was not a core businessman and IT was the only place I knew. Incidentally, around that time I came across two things – a book on Blue Ocean Strategy and an order for Anti-Virus Software. I saw my opportunity.

I realized that with the internet growing so fast, the malware factor will follow even faster. After all, the world is full of bad people and the Internet was one place where people can do bad things without physical involvement or be at a place to do that also. Online was a great place to be good and bad. The good did not concern me of course. The bad did. So, there it was, my blue ocean strategy defined – security software business. If you want to call me an entrepreneur, call me one only at this stage where I started my journey in the cybersecurity business. A business with a vision.

In January 2008, I formed another company – Officextracts. Launched Kaspersky Lab as a distributor in Bangladesh. It was a pioneering moment. At this seventh transition, I triggered off a series of reactions in the local IT market – sales of legal software, a battle against software piracy, awareness of cybersecurity, and the ease of software distributions in Bangladesh. For 11 years I stayed a leader with Kaspersky Lab in Bangladesh. It has been a unique experience. The branding for the product reached every nook and corner of the country. Yes. I was successful with the product. Unfortunately, only last September 2018, I had a difference of opinion in business issues with Kaspersky Lab and I terminated the contract. I guess, that itself is a historic step as I am one distributor in Bangladesh who had the courage to terminate the distribution contract at the height of the business itself. I haven’t come across anyone else yet.

Technics, on the other hand, remained as a distributor for Barracuda Networks as I continued to experiment with cybersecurity products and solutions.

So, September 2018 I was facing my eighth transition. The final, I hope. I think I have evolved into some form over that journey in business over a period of 24 years. I found myself my own space – cybersecurity. I am passionate about it. And this is what I want to do. Last December 2018 I floated Dhaka Distributions. The company was already there for 4 years. I revived it. Brought in a sleuth of top-notch cybersecurity technologies and services and now focused totally into making the company a leader in cybersecurity business in Bangladesh.

I have been through a journey. A journey that took eight different turns. All have been for the better. Was it destiny? I don’t know. But I know that one paved the way for the other for my passion which I developed only during the time I worked within the business itself. I fell in love with what I did. And I followed my heart and my mind both into the journey. I have a great team with me. A team that I am so proud of. They have put their faith in me. And in that, they have put me in an obligation that I have to do better and better. My life today or my performance is not about me alone but my team as well. We all journey together.

In January 2008, I formed another company – Officextracts. Launched Kaspersky Lab as a distributor in Bangladesh. It was a pioneering moment. At this seventh transition, I triggered off a series of reactions in the local IT market – sales of legal software, a battle against software piracy, awareness of cybersecurity, and the ease of software distributions in Bangladesh. For 11 years I stayed a leader with Kaspersky Lab in Bangladesh. It has been a unique experience. The branding for the product reached every nook and corner of the country.

Future Startup

That should give one goosebump. I have a long list of questions related to your work. Before that, I want to go a little back to your personal story. You lost your father at a young age. You had to endure your share of trials and tribulations. How did your upbringing and childhood experience shape your worldview?

Prabeer Sarkar

I had a very good life when my father was around. I was friendly with my father. Even these days when I see a child holding his father’s finger walking on the street, I terribly miss my father. I want to go back to that stage.

My father was a strong and principled man. I learned that from him. Growing up after him was not easy. My mother had to struggle and suffer a lot to ensure a good education and a good life for me and my sister. My mother had a huge influence on me.

After my HSC, I mostly lived away from the family for my education. I lived with people. People from diverse backgrounds. It helped me to develop great people skill. One of my hobbies is actually people – observing people. I love to interact with people, particularly younger than my age because they see the world differently. My children are my very good friends. I share a lot of things with them.

I have learned a lot of things from the street. It is not an academic education that makes a man. I would say that the street smartness is very important. It is the experience that makes a person. I have been through many stages, many phases both good and bad, and that have contributed to who I’m today.

Future Startup

We will get to Dhaka Distributions in a moment. Before that, I want to go back to the early days of your entrepreneurial journey Technics Computers because it might give other entrepreneurs a framework to think about venture building. You worked at a bank for a few years. You became a full-time programmer from a banker. Worked at an international organization. Then one fine morning you thought you wanted to start a company. You had 19,000 taka in your pocket and decided to start a business. How did you make that decision? Could you tell us about the early days of your entrepreneurial journey?

Prabeer Sarkar

To be honest, I was foolish enough to do that. I was too young to understand the magnitude of starting a business. But when I formally started, I went into it with a lot of confidence. That helped.

Nowadays starting a business is a lot easier. Helps are available. You can get the information and support regarding how to start, manage your banking, manage your HR and so on relatively easily. That was not the case when I started. We did not have access to any of these facilities. Options to get support was limited. Regardless, we started. It was rather an intuitive decision. If I tell you now that I started with a proper plan, doing projections and all that, it would be a lie. It was more like following a dream. I followed my confidence.

I have been through a journey. A journey that took eight different turns. All have been for the better. Was it destiny? I don’t know. But I know that one paved the way for the other for my passion which I developed only during the time I worked within the business itself. I fell in love with what I did. And I followed my heart and my mind both into the journey.

Future Startup

What went into building the initial operation of Technics?

Prabeer Sarkar

I took a small 800 Square feet office in Segunbagicha. There were about five people who also joined me from my previous company. They took a chance and endured the challenges with me. We started in a lean manner. It was not a fancy office. My first computer in the office took me six months to get. I used to send handwritten quotations to clients in the first few months. But business did not stop, we did deals at that time!

Prabeer Sarkar

Prabeer Sarkar

Future Startup

How did you get your first client? How long it took you to get?

Prabeer Sarkar

I think we got our first mentionable customer after one and half months of starting our operation. I had a friend who was an IT manager. So he put his bet on me. That was about seven or eight computers.

Future Startup

You did that SI business for a while. Started working with international clients. After a while you realized that this is a tough business and competition is fierce, you have to find something better and eventually you came across blue ocean strategy and ended up getting into the endpoint security business. How did that transition happen?

Prabeer Sarkar

I guess I’m very convincing. I can talk to people and make people talk to me. This is one of the things that I have. I can continue a discussion.

As I mentioned earlier, after multiple rejections, I eventually came to work with Kaspersky Lab. What genuinely drove me was the confidence that I could do whatever is required to establish this business in Bangladesh.

Customer service has always been a priority for me. I have maintained it throughout my career. If I sell something it will be supported by proper technical people. My support service is unique. That is a commitment that I keep. I never take a customer for granted. Honesty has to be visible. When a customer comes to you, the customer has to have that faith that you are honest in what you are saying. I have always put things bare on the table. I have not tried to overprice things or take opportunities, I’ve always delivered whatever I promised even if it costs me my margin or cause me a loss.

I remember with one customer, we sold him a computer. After a week or so the hard disk failed. There was no warranty for the hard disk. At that time, hard disk was quite expensive. The customer returned with the PC and the problem. I could have whined about it. I did not. I paid the money from my pocket. The customer came to know that I had paid it from my pocket. He became a good friend later and told me that ‘because of this gesture you would go very far’.

I believe that if I sold you something it is my responsibility to ensure that you get what you paid for. I can’t whine about it. That’s one of the things that I followed.

The other thing is I look at the entire scenario whether I can do it or not. In order to get business, promising everything under the sun and the moon is not a very good idea. I would promise exactly that much that I’m capable of doing.

People like it when you are open and honest. I’m always ready to talk to my client that this is my costing and this what I need in order to offer the service.

Later on, when I came into Cybersecurity, I would say a lot comes from studying. I study a lot. I still study at least two-three hours a day. Studying has become easier these days. Internet has made it simple to access world-class materials. I always keep myself updated on what’s happening in the cybersecurity space. I can talk for days if required on cybersecurity.

Future Startup

Dhaka Distributions is your eighth transition. This takes you towards a new journey. How do you define this change?

Prabeer Sarkar

I summarize this as metamorphosis. My evolution. My company’s evolution. And my team’s evolution. In fact, a collective evolution that includes experience, skills, and visions. I started off as an SI. And 24 years later I am dedicated to cybersecurity. I was lucky to have started my business during the early years of Information Technology. I grew with the industry.

I believe that every transition during this journey has been for the better. The pains and depressions of a changing environment are acceptable. The end results have been better. For a decade I was working for a very preliminary aspect of cybersecurity. Endpoint security. But in this final transition, I came out as a cybersecurity entity. The first company in Bangladesh actually that is uniquely all about cybersecurity. And at the moment I am capable of addressing nearly all the vectors of this business. The industry has matured. The market has matured. I am happy that I have been able to keep up with the pace and ready to cater to demands.

Future Startup

What are some lessons you have learned?

Prabeer Sarkar

You should be driven by passion. Without intrinsic motivation and drive, you would not be able to go far.

Second, you have to believe in what you are doing, in your ability. Unless you believe in yourself, you can’t achieve anything. That’s the biggest lesson I have learned in my life.

Third, people are essentially good. Have faith in people.

Future Startup

You have a pioneering role in the software and cybersecurity market in Bangladesh. How do you evaluate yourself in this perspective?

Prabeer Sarkar

I started the business of selling original software and basic cybersecurity products in Bangladesh. I don’t know if that makes me a pioneer. But I did that when no was willing to bet a business solely on selling that. I learned along the way.

I have one fundamental belief in life – people in this country are essentially good. The majority. The mass. I was hell-bent to get out of the hardware business because it was heading for a disaster. Software was my only choice left. And I took the leap.

I made software affordable for the mass. I gave them local support. And that clicked. I have realized over the years that given the opportunity and affordability the people of this country do act in conscience. What I did create new areas. A market buying legal software. A big no to piracy. Awareness for cybersecurity. And above all the trend of international software brands creating partnerships with local companies. Before this, the companies were all trying to do business with partners based out of neighboring countries. The dimension and impact have been quite remarkable. I took the step. The market was ready. It was there in front of all. Only that I took the call. Not a dream. But a mathematical action.

Future Startup

Your journey. Was it destiny or a deliberate move?

Prabeer Sarkar

I think that selection call to join the computer division at the bank back in the early years was more of a destiny for me though it was undoubtedly a calculated call by the bank authority. What followed has been more or less deliberate or planned on my part. The question of destiny and deliberation in a person’s journey through life will perhaps always be a debate. My safest answer here is that it is a combination of both. And I will also add that without deliberation the call of destiny would fail. Destiny alone can’t lead a person to any destination. It is the right thing to do at the right time.

You have to believe in what you are doing, in your ability. Unless you believe in yourself, you can’t achieve anything. That’s the biggest lesson I have learned in my life.

Future Startup

What makes an entrepreneur? How do you summarize it?

Prabeer Sarkar

A conviction, a deliberation, and a passion to follow that conviction make an entrepreneur. Not dreams. Anyone can dream. Only a few pursue to fulfill.

Musicians or artists are not made on hypes, symposiums or lectures. It’s the talent. Business is an art. A creativity. People generally see money in it only. And that takes away the aesthetics of the performance. My summary of entrepreneurship is simple. It is a creation, a work of passion, a belief, a near-madness pursuit to achieve that belief, and a process that has an impact on the economy, trends, and development. For the entrepreneur, I guess Steve Jobs said it all – be hungry. I just want to add – be stubborn and don’t ever give up. If an aspiring entrepreneur can’t adapt and change its futile to try. The road to any sort of success is not a rosy one. You have to toil for it.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Prabeer Sarkar

Life should not be a rat race. Today, we live in a world where consumerism run amok. Every day we are after more and more. There is no end to our demand and wants. It is not a very nice idea to live a fulfilling life.

Life must have limitations. We should have lackings. If everything is fulfilled, it is not a life. There should be lacking in life for which you want to fight for. That’s the fun of it.

It is important that we give time to our loved ones.

Enjoy whatever you are doing but it’s not like you make millions and millions. I don’t have that ambition. I want to have a decent life. Be a regular person. That’s it.

Together With Flight Expert

A Message From Flight Expert!

Flight Expert, being the most prominent Online Travel Agency (OTA) in Bangladesh, is making life easier for every traveler around the globe. From booking domestic and international flights to reserving hotel rooms for your trip, Flight Expert has it all in one place, within the reach of your fingertips.

We Provide:

  • Flight Booking
  • Hotel Reservation

Enjoy:

  • Instant booking
  • Book Now Pay Later
  • Pay with EMI

Support:

  • Get 365 Days dedicated Customer Support

Contact us:

Flight Expert – all about your journey!

Please visit us here!

Life must have limitations. We should have lackings. If everything is fulfilled, it is not a life.

Photo courtesy: Dhaka Distributions

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