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07 Lessons From Rabeth Khan On Entrepreneurship

Rabeth Khan is the Chief Executive Officer of MACOMM/Dentsu and MediaAxis/Carat, two of the successful and fast growing advertising and communication services companies based in Dhaka.

From a modest beginning of a 3 person agency, over the past years, he and his team have built an entire group of mission-driven communication companies – having businesses in media buying, creative, music and experiential marketing and digital marketing – from scratch, which continues to experience tremendous growth while staying true to its core values of conducting ethical business.

Mr. Rabeth’s story offers practical lessons into entrepreneurship and venture that aspiring entrepreneurs can use to their advantage and in building their own businesses. In an all-encompassing interview with Future Startup, he shared his thoughts and lessons on entrepreneurship that we believe can help other fellow founders in their journey. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Enter Rabeth Khan:

01. Accept life’s challenges with grace, often our difficulties are our making

The first major turn in my life came while I was doing my undergrad in Singapore. We had a family business – a handicraft business – that my mother used to run. In fact, that was my first close introduction to entrepreneurship and probably where I got the seed of entrepreneurship.

This was a time when women entrepreneurship was not a thing yet. But my mother was doing it full time. She had a special skill set and was working on innovation to create something at the intersection of Jamdani and Nakshi Katha. She attempted to bring innovation at the intersection of the two and in fact, did it to some extent. As you mentioned, women entrepreneurship was not an easy feat to accomplish in those days. When my mother wanted to expand her business, she faced a huge number of hurdles from various fronts starting from finance to execution.

On top of that, business requires you to wear many different hats. She was great at innovation but in order to run a business, only innovation is not enough you need many other things including financial skills, operations skills, management skills, and many other small things. It’s a package that makes you successful. This is one of the challenges that startups often face. My mother, like most startup founder, faltered in some of these areas.

My father was a government job holder – he was a devoted one in that – and he had little interest in business let alone the know-how of running one. I and my sister were too small to help. Naturally, my mother ran into troubles which were too big for her and us. My plan at that time was that after completing my Bachelors in Singapore I would go to the US for further studies.

But life does not follow any plan. There are always turns and twists in your life that are beyond your plans. As the saying goes, life happens when you are busy planning. Eventually, our handicraft business faltered and with it came a lot of issues with financial consequences.

As the business came to an end, a lot of hurdles came to surface. There were bank loans and other issues. I still remember many of those days. That was the turning point in my life because I made a consequential decision at that time that would eventually change the entire trajectory of my life.

My father used to share these family matters with me. When I heard about the problems due to the failure of the business, I decided to return to the country. I had two options at that time: I could either have been selfish and pursued my ambition to study in the US or return to Dhaka and stand beside my family in dealing with the impending challenges. I chose the latter and it made all the difference.

It was a very difficult decision. You usually don’t have that much maturity at that age. People of that age usually operate by emotions but I’m happy that I finally decided to come back and help out my family. I returned from Singapore in 1997 with the intention to support my family but I did not know what to do and how to support my family. I was lost.

I did not finish my bachelors when I returned home and I was doing a major in Marketing for which there were not many opportunities in the market. On top of that, in order to get a job, having previous experience was crucial at that time which I had none. I was at a crossroad.

I realized that until I complete my graduation I would not be able to pursue a full-time career because no one would hire me, which means I have to find alternatives. Instead of sitting idle at home, I spent a few days reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses – trying to find out what I’m good at. I realized that I was good at English.

At that time my TOEFL score was 627, which was one of highest score TOEFL benchmarks in Dhaka at that time. So I decided to continue to pursue operating a fashion and lifestyle magazine Style & Grace which I started before I went to Singapore days.

02. Be Courageous

Of all the things that I lacked, I had an abundance of courage. I had no fear of rejection. If you want to be an entrepreneur you can’t have the fear of rejection, you have to try on. I went to every place where I could manage entry and where I got an opportunity I gave a presentation and gave my offer. And something clicked. Some of the people I pitched to, believed in me and gave me ads and some people did not.

03. If you are convinced what you are trying to do, stay the course

It was difficult to convince my parents that I wanted to pursue my own thing. It was more so at that time than these days. Today’s parents are more open to new ideas. Despite that even these days, there are professions which if you want to pursue people would question you. I don’t know what you tell your family when they ask you about what you do.

I guess they probably don’t get it. This is the first hurdle of being an entrepreneur – convincing your parents and relatives of the importance of what you are trying to do. Anyway, after mustering enough courage, I told them that I want to do something of my own. My parents’ became worried – what happened to their only son. They could not figure out what I was trying to do.

After that, I took a small office in Eastern Plaza – a three-room office. This was 2002. By this time I had saved some money and I invested it in starting the operation. So I hired 3 people and started doing some small works for a few small brands. That’s how my first agency business started.

That’s how I started my journey into the world of advertising. I named the company MMX at that time. The name remains the same as MMX Advertising Communication. To be accurate, the first name was MediaMax, from MediaMax it became MMX. So we had a name and were doing small assignments.

04. Never Stop Learning

I never stopped learning. I believe that you have to continually learn and update yourself and invest in your development. In order to stay in the race, there is no alternative to relentless learning.

05. Find the right people, not the best people

You need to hire people of similar conviction. If your ethical framework is this, then you should hire people with similar values and belief. This cultural fit is incredibly important. In 13 years of my business journey, I never had to fire a person from my company on grounds of corruption or financial indiscipline.

Our organizations have got one of the highest retentions in the industry. Apart from young executives, whom I yet to decipher yet, from mid to senior levels we have got retention of on an average 6-7 years. Our senior heads are here for the last 10 years.

And in addition to the above, one needs to have good mentors for honest guidance and support. One needs to have a few people who believe in you to entrust their business to you even if you are not big.

06. Find mentors

One needs to have good mentors for honest guidance and support. One needs to have a few people who believe in you to entrust their business to you even if you are not big. I have been lucky to have got that through Ram Sehgal sir in the initial years and now Ashish Bhasin, who is a mentor and support system. While due to people like Shaheen Bhai of IOM, Shameem Bhai of KDS, Sanjit of Beehive, Daniel/Chris/Nick of Panasonic Singapore, MACOMM and MediaAxis has come to the stage as it is now.

07. Be a radical optimist

I’m a very optimistic person. If you see my story, you would see that I always tried to go for something above me, something that seemed impossible for me to achieve at that moment. But I went for it nevertheless. That’s the way I am. I think that mindset helps you to get through the troubled period and not give up.

Ayrin Saleha Ria works at Future Startup as a full-time Research Associate. She has a background in Applied Sociology. Before joining the FS team, she worked and volunteered with a number of social organizations. As someone who comes from a social science background, she takes a deep interest in research around important social-economic challenges in our society. A voracious reader, Ayrin is passionate about working for the betterment of society, takes a deep interest in human society and behavioral science, and loves books.

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