Quazi Zulquarnain launched and currently leads Uber in Bangladesh. Prior to Uber, he headed Kaymu Bangladesh, a Rocket Internet owned e-commerce platform that subsequently merged with Daraz to form Daraz Group, which eventually got acquired by Alibaba in 2018. He has also spent seven years working in the nexus of private sector development and investment advisory with the International Finance Corporation in Bangladesh and Vietnam.
Since joining Uber in 2016, Mr. Zulquarnain has been instrumental in spearheading the launch of Uber in Bangladesh and subsequently growing the service to 100,000 drivers in two and a half years. Uber was officially launched in Dhaka in 2016 with one service UberX and a team of three people. Today, about 205 people use Uber app every minute in Dhaka and Uber has built a solid portfolio of services.
In this immensely insightful interview, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader sits down with Mr. Zulquarnain to learn more about his journey to what he is doing today and to dig deeper into the state of Uber’s business in Bangladesh, contributors behind Uber’s phenomenal growth in Dhaka, Uber’s ambition in Bangladesh, Uber’s strategy going forward, how Ubermoto is doing, his take on growing competition in ride-hailing space, culture at Uber, some of the biggest lessons he has learned from his journey and much more.
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.
What is your background? Could you tell us about your journey to what you are doing today?
I'm a Bangladeshi. I was born and brought up here. I went to school here. I attended University here. My school was Scholastica. After School, I went to North South University where I studied Economics. After graduation, I started my career at International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, working with the manufacturing sector on investment advisory. I started working at IFC in 2007 and worked there till 2013.
I worked closely with the Bangladesh textile industry focusing on the environment, safety, corporate governance, health standard so that these companies could become investment ready. I worked closely in both Bangladesh and Vietnam because both countries are quite similar in many ways. It was an exciting time to be at IFC. I worked with smart people and it was a great working environment. I learned so much.
Textile industry was a great place to work at that time. The industry was growing very fast. During my time at IFC, we have invested in a couple of big textile groups. DBL group and Ananta group were some of them. Overall it was an exciting time for me and a lot of learning opportunities.
Around 2013 I started thinking about what is the next thing that I could pursue. I was always fascinated by the business of internet or digital services such as eCommerce that you could say has a lot of potentials just by looking at the basic metrics of it all. The scenario was changing across the country. In 2013, IFC made an investment in Grameenphone in 2013. IFC was an early investor in Grameenphone. In 2013, they invested in Grameenphone for the second time to help GP expand the 3G network. It was yet another signal for me that this sector was just about to boom. I thought that I should work in a sector that is just getting started. I wanted that experience. I was looking for the best options. That’s how I ended up working with Rocket Internet. I was leading one of their enterprises in Bangladesh called Kaymu Bangladesh, which later merged with Daraz and became Daraz Group. I worked there for almost two years. Great experience and very different from what I did at IFC. I learned a tremendous amount in terms of how to acquire users at a large scale in a marketplace business. At one point, we had a hundred thousand sellers on the platform and we had to figure out how to keep them happy, how to get them sales, and so on. I learned a lot in that business.
In around 2016, I had this wonderful opportunity to join Uber and I thought to myself that this is kind of once in a lifetime opportunity, let me take this opportunity. And I did and I have not looked back ever since. I would say that joining Uber was the best decision I have ever made so far.
For me, the last two and a half years have been exceptional. Professionally, it has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I had the experience of starting something from scratch and build it from there. From literally zero pieces of business to impacting the lives of millions of people within the span of a few years is an amazing experience.
You launched Uber in Bangladesh in 2016, how much has your operation evolved over the last two and a half years?
When we started in Dhaka we were a small team of three people - Utsav, Paras and I. We did not have an office at that time and were mostly working out of my house. We had a startup experience. We worked out of coffee shops and all that. We trained drivers personally. I have personally trained drivers. Some of these people have been on the platform for the whole time. We have helped some of the people who have never used a mobile phone before.
It has been a wonderful journey so far. From the operations standpoint, our operations have always been super lean. Even these days we have 10/12 people working on the team. We are always trying to find the best people in the market who can add a lot of value to our business. Putting together the team has been one of the most instrumental tasks for me over the last two years.
Obviously, we have had a lot of people who helped us with our data entry and all that but our operation has always been lean. That's one of the reasons why we have been a little bit under the radar but I would prefer it to be that way rather than being bigger.
It is easy to scale by using people but I have learned from my experience at Daraz that is not always the right answer. Having a leaner team where people are stretched and working really hard to find the right solution, it often works.
How do you ensure that level of efficiency? How do you ensure that everybody in the team is working hard and delivering at their best? What does your culture look like?
It is just about being as engaged as possibly you can. The way we look at it is that the people we hire are essentially problem solver. If you give a problem to solve, they will try to solve it as well as they can. The problem that we are solving at Uber is an exciting problem and it is impacting people's lives on a daily basis. So if you index enough time in finding the right kind of people and get them the right problem to solve, they would not disappoint you.
It is not only about efficiency. It is also about finding the right problem that motivates people. So far I can say we have an excellent balance with regards to that.
My mantra is that you stop calling it work when you enjoy your work to a great extent. We try to find people who are good at problem solving and passionate about solving interesting problems. Once you find them, everything else falls into place.
That's probably one part of the equation that you have really driven people in your team. At the same time, you probably have to have an organization that that allows people to perform at their best, what are those things in the case of Uber Bangladesh?
Giving the people autonomy and independence to be able to do their best. At Uber, each person operates like an entrepreneur like I own this vertical and I'm going to run this as well as I want to run it and we will all be sounding boards for ideas and will challenge each other and the best ideas always win.
One of our core values is - everyone acts like owners. Everyone act like this company is mine. I will take decisions with that basis in mind. There is a lot of drive and passion and focus.
We spoke briefly about the evolution of the company. Over the last two and a half years, you have grown from 3 people to 12 people, you have over 100000 drivers on your platform, could you tell us about that journey?
Operationally, it has been a wonderful journey. More than 100000 people depend on our platform for their livelihood. I'm also equally excited about what we have done in terms of growing users. We are enabling a large number of people to move better in three cities in Bangladesh. In February, as we speak, every minute 205 people use Uber app. For me, that's an astounding number. If we are speaking for 10 minutes, like 2000 people already used Uber. That is exciting. That for me is the product market fit.
There is a huge need for this service in Dhaka. To me, Uber and Dhaka is a match made in heaven. From a basic product-market fit to population density, lack of basic infrastructure, scarce transportation facilities - when that's the situation we are making your car available within 4 minutes or five minutes.
We see a lot of impact of our work as well. Last year was the year when car ownership went down for the first time in a long time. I strongly believe that that’s correlated to our success in this market. If you can find a car within five minutes, why do you need to own it? Uber has brought about this overall battle of car ownership that you don't need to own a car and that you could use existing resources more efficiently.
We have evolved a lot as a team. Finding the right people at the right time to deal with the right business problem is something where we have indexed a lot of time. We have done many hiring sprints in Dhaka. We've evolved into a team with which we are very confident now.
We have also index time in finding innovative ways to launch in new cities. We used some very innovative model to launch in Chittagong and in Sylhet. We have a partnership, for instance with Robi, which is a spot marketing partnership where we use some of their existing real estate to onboard our driver partners. That's proven to be one of the biggest unblockers of this market, particularly in Dhaka. A lot of people followed through on replicating the same model. We have managed to make a lot of right decisions at the right time because of learnings that we have been able to gather from many other markets where we operate.
The overall education has been super exciting. If I look back to 2016, we are a completely different operation today. Uber is one of the few companies where you get to experience vastly different thing on the same day. I tell people during hiring that Uber is a place where you train a driver partner on how to use a smartphone and also meet like a Minister on the same day. It is a very rare experience. The same person doing the same thing on the same day. That's kind of the experience that a company like Uber can provide to its people.
One of the things that many startups struggle with is growth. Uber has grown pretty quickly in Dhaka. From your experience, what works for growth and what does not? To frame it differently, how do you grow a business?
To answer your question in the simplest possible way, once you have product-market fit, you just need to hustle, a lot.
Is there any list of things or hacks that people can try?
There is not a list per se. It is like if you have product-market fit, you know there is a need for this service and there is a lot of people who want this. Then you need to ensure that you put all channels in place and you do an exercise of really working very hard.
Changes are always going to happen. You need to make sure that your work is adding fuel to that velocity. If you see that something is going to change in three years, you need to think and work hard and come up with strategies to ensure that that happens within three months. Your values and operational structure should come in to help make that happen.
There is no shortcut to growth. You try something, it does not work, you try something else and you continue that process. You increase the number of trials and thus find the one thing or several things that move the needle in the process. It is all about working hard and smart once you have the product market fit.
It is about trying five things and if you try five things, one thing will stick. It is that you have to try the five things faster so that you find your one thing as quickly as possible. Once you find your one thing, it is about ensuring that you double down on doing that so that change happens as quickly as possible.
Could you give us an overview of Uber Bangladesh in terms of business and operation?
I can't give you an exact number but I can try to give you an understanding. One of the main focuses for us in Bangladesh right from the beginning has been ensuring a strong product portfolio. Right now, with Uber if you open up the app, there are six things you can choose from - you can take Ubermoto if you want to get somewhere fast and cheap, you can take an Uber X ride, if you want a better ride experience you take Uber Premium, then you have other things such as you have Uber XL, which is a product that allows you to request a Toyota Hayes or Toyota Noah, if you have a big family get together or a going somewhere you need that. We have a product called Uber Hire which allows you to keep the car for the extended length of time if you want to do three to four things at once and don't want to call a car every time. We also have a product called Uber Intercity, which is a very exciting product for us which allows you to take a ride from Dhaka to adjunct areas to all resorts in the north and these factories in the south.
The most important job for us is to find a solution for every market need. For us, the ambition is to become everything transportation. When people think about transportation, they think Uber. As our Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said we want to be the Amazon of transportation. So that broader perspective is applicable for us as well.
We are still small if you compare us to transportation in general. I feel like the growth potential is massive if you look at the things that we could potentially do and the things that exist in other markets.
We have Uber Pool in many markets and we have other existing products in many markets that we could bring to Dhaka. We have done integration with public transportation systems in many markets. We have a product called Uber Pass in another market. We have these really exciting projects going on in other markets that you could look at and say is this applicable here. Maybe, maybe not but you try and constantly evaluate things and sometimes you reach the right answer and then go for it.
How are you doing in terms of profitability and business in Dhaka?
I don't want to compare us with any other player in the market. I would say one thing that we are 100% where we wanted to be with our business. Bangladesh has immense growth potential. Almost 25% of South Asia's growth will come from Bangladesh. That's how we are indexed as a market globally. The focus is not on profitability, of course, that is the end game of any business, but also ensuring that we are getting consumer fast enough, providing the service the people need, ensuring superior quality service in a way that improves lives of people and so on. Once we do these things well things like profitability is like the next step in the constant evolution of that process. If you look at our cars business and then our Ubermoto business, each of these is a slightly different business but our success at both of these business exceeds our expectations completely.
In terms of competition, moto is a much more competitive market than cars. How are you doing on bike?
You could actually say that. It is a competitive market. We are growing extremely fast on moto. We are the single largest moto market in the Uber Universe in the world. Dhaka is like the moto capital of the Uber world. Obviously, this segment is growing very fast and a lot of people are putting money into it and the price point is very attractive for consumers. It solves a very specific need because you could get somewhere really fast when there is high traffic.
I don't see moto or any single product as the end game for us in Bangladesh. I view ourselves as a portfolio player where you can open the app and find seven things which you can't find anywhere else.
Uber's focus across the globe is on ensuring that you have an immense selection - whatever I need there is something there for me in Uber. That's our focus in Bangladesh market as well.
We don't concentrate on a single product play which is moto but concentrate more across seven or eight things which can give us an advantage in the market.
To that end, you are trying auto rickshaw in India and electric bikes in some other markets. You bought a couple of companies, you allowed one company to use your app to distribute their product to your users, do you plan to get into that market - last-mile transportation, in Dhaka?
Honestly, that's not something on top of mind. If it's interesting and exciting, and since it’s something that we are playing in a few other markets obviously there is a chance that those things getting replicated here as well. We have Jump across the world. We have bought stock in another company that provides scooter services as well.
I think that the market is still open. But for me real play still on improving our service on cars, moto and building our existing portfolios. That's where my immediate focus is on. Sometimes I think we get caught up with things that we could fire ahead instead of focusing on executing very well on the things that you already are doing instead of always looking for what's the next big thing. Obviously, that's also very important but that should not take away focus from what needs to be done. We think there is room for a lot of improvements in the existing products so our priority is set at least for now.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned?
For me, the biggest lessons is that marketplace businesses are the future. Especially in a market like ours where there is a huge population and a basic lack of infrastructure if you have technology that can connect those two pieces there is no reason you would not be successful.
Some people think that it is only technology but it is a mixture of technology and operation that can build a solution that can affect the lives of millions of people at scale.
These can be applied to every industry where you have similar problems - a lot of people and a basic lack of infrastructure. When we were launching Uber in Dhaka, many people were skeptical about it. Although I was completely convinced, you sometimes get influenced by people. But when we finally launched I was amazed to see the product/market fit at work. I think if people could identify and work hard, there can be Uber for everything.
In terms of life, one lesson is that you have to work hard. That's the only lesson. You have to work hard and smart. There is a thing that if you work smart, you don't need to work hard but that's not true. You have to work smart and hard. One of the core values of Uber, when I joined, was, you work hard and you work smart.
I think in order to succeed in this business what you need is a lot of focus on critical thinking, a lot of focus on logic, structure, and data. Those are the things that will make you successful in an internet business. This is my perspective. It is a very subjective opinion and people might have a different perspective. These are skills that are not built through formal education. So sometimes you have to go out of your way to try to build those skills.
The biggest lesson for me is that the traditional skills using which we have succeeded in various business could be applied to these internet businesses to some extent but it wouldn’t suffice because there are certain new things that you need to learn. Because the dynamics of business is different here.
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.
Update on March 20, 2018: The interview has been updated with new information to reflect the early days of Uber in Bangladesh.