How To Start A Startup: 06 Lessons from Ridwan Hafiz, Co- Founder and CEO of Analyzen
After graduating from BUET, Ridwan Hafiz took up a sales job at Banglalion while working part-time on Analyzen to make the company stable enough so that it could afford him. After a few years of struggle, from 2011 things started to get better and since then team Analyzen never had to look back. “Things often change. Good days come. It takes time but it certainly comes. Your job is to endure and stick to it”, says Hafiz.
How Analyzen came to be where it is today is a true story of courage and entrepreneurial grit, here are a few lessons from Analyzen story assembled from our interview with Analyzen Founder Ridwan Hafiz. You may read the full interview here.
Enter Ridwan Hafiz:
01. Start, it will lead to somewhere
Many people do not know that I am actually a graduate from BUET where I studied Computer Science and Engineering. I was not good at programming. In my first year, I did a terrible performance. I got C grade in my ‘C Programming’ course, C+ grade in my ‘C++’ course and I managed to fail successfully in my ‘Java’ Course.
By the time I made it to 2nd year at BUET, I realized that engineering is not my thing. I started looking for other opportunities. In that time, my friend Sumit Saha and I, we used to work part-time. In 2008, we thought that whatever we’re doing at the part-time jobs we could do it ourselves and make a business out of it which led to the idea of starting our own venture.
To be honest, we did not have any grand vision when we started. We knew that Sumit could make websites and I could sell them. That’s how Analyzen came into being in 2008, which happens to be the first digital marketing agency in Bangladesh and the largest to date in terms of portfolio.
Initially, we mostly offered technical services like web-based solutions. This was, to some extent, the early days of digital marketing. We could see that the internet would be the thing and every business would have to digitize themselves. Our first service was website building.
The early days were very tough. We had to endure a lot of trials and tribulations. We were young for doing a business. The industry was different for us. We did not know much about how to run a business and the things.
In 2009 – the year I graduated from BUET – our business was not that stable yet. Naturally, I had to find something to do. So I took a job. For the next three years, I worked at Banglalion, which was a startup back then, for one year and at Qubee for 2 years.
Although I had an engineering degree, I worked, in both the companies, mostly in sales. It usually raised a lot of eyebrows. People used to ask me why, after having an engineering degree, I work in sales. But my plan was very simple – I needed to learn sales.
While working at Banglalion and Qubee, I was working on the side at Analyzen. I knew that eventually I would return to Analyzen and work full-time. And I needed to learn sales not only the technical know-how but also the practical experience of selling things and creating a brand out of nothing. By 2012, I realized that I have learned things that I can use to help my business to grow.
Analyzen was also in better shape. So I decided to leave the job. In 2012, I left my job at Qubee and joined Analyzen full-time. In 2010 – 2011, we made a video series called ‘REXposed’ in collaboration with Samsung which became a huge hit, it was, in fact, one of the earliest video series made for any Bangladeshi client for online marketing.
When we started, I and Sumit Saha, we had two other people from BUET with us. We did not have an office. We used a shared office space. We also used my father’s office after they closed it or even we worked from BUET dormitory many nights.
Today, we have a 3-floor office in Dhaka. We have operations in Singapore and Myanmar. We have partner offices in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
From 4 people, we are now a team of almost 100 people. Our ambition is to become the best in the world. This is something that we love. Analyzen is not a job for us. We are not a typical startup. We are not here to make money or exit when we find a buyer. We are here for the long-run.
02. In The Face Of Challenges, Be relentlessly resourceful
When we started in 2008, startup culture was very different. Today it is relatively friendly and cool. A lot of things are happening around startups ad all. Our society now, more or less, has started to appreciate the fact that entrepreneurship is something important for society.
But it was very different before. People used to think when a graduate could not find a job only when they start a business. It was seen as a sign of lack of ability rather than an inspiring endeavor.
Finance was a huge problem. The bank loan was not a feasible option. Banks usually don’t give loans to startups. Then VC funding was not a thing yet in 2008. So we had to find a way to earn and then invest.
The biggest challenge we faced, however, was convincing our families that doing business is a good thing. For me, it was relatively easier because my father is a businessman and he supported me a lot but other members of my family did not take it as something positive. Many wanted me to go abroad for higher studies where others to pursue a better and safer career path. It was challenging mentally but we endured it.
When we started, digital marketing was not a thing yet. Many people could not understand our work. It was hard to convince people about the importance of digital marketing.
Another even bigger challenge we faced was convincing our clients that we are capable of doing the work and that we have expertise. Being young was a disadvantage for us. Many of the companies have told us that they could not give us work because we’re too young. Others objected that we’re a local company.
Many people used to take my managing partner title, which was written on the back of my card, lightly. In fact, many found it funny. Our age was a huge disadvantage for us.
As a defense mechanism, we came up with a strategy. We decided that we would have a flat management hierarchy without any formal title for people. To date, none of us at Analyzen has any formal title. We have some cool nicknames but no managing partner type titles.
I dropped my managing partner title and instead took the title The People’s Champ and my friend, Sumit took up The Rainmaker. Eventually, we have got titles like a Man of Steel, a Jedi Master, a Rapunzel, and many more fictional characters. This has turned out to be a good thing for us because it piques curiosity in people. People often ask questions about our nicknames which led to interesting conversations with many clients. Our small initiative turned us from a rookie in the industry into an interesting startup with cool nicknames that people could talk about.
There are two ways to look at challenges. One is they are brick walls and they are there to keep us out and another is they are brick walls but they are there to bring best in us. The only way to overcome any challenge is through.
When we started working in the digital marketing industry, it was only us in the country. We went to almost every agencies and tried to convince them that digital marketing is the next big thing in marketing.
We tried to convince people about the changing content consumption pattern of young people that they are not interested in TV and newspaper, they are into Facebook and digital platforms. So Facebook and online platforms have to be the destination for your marketing where people from all backgrounds are.
I must say that we were not taken seriously. The reason was simple, it was hard to see the future. It always is unless it happens. Educating the market was a huge challenge for us.
But we persisted. And as we have gained more and more clients and could show some success stories, many other clients got interested. Success is the best form of advertisement. The clients saw that digital marketing works and it allows them to target people they want to reach in a cost-effective and efficient manner.
Gradually, we started to receive more queries from interested clients. After the initial one and a half years, we started to receive queries from interested clients which were completely different before. In fact, many times we could not serve inclined partners due to our limited capacity.
Things often change. Good days come. But it takes time. Your job is to stick to the game, endure and do your job with love regardless of the outcome. If you do good work, you will get noticed.
03. Accept that you know little and be a relentless learner
The digital marketing industry is an entirely different world. This has changed the entire paradigm of brand marketing and communication. The way communications work is very different today. In the past it was one-way communication, brands used to talk to customers through TVC, press ad and other mediums and customers had very little opportunity to talk back. But now things are different. Customers have platforms where they can talk back and they are in fact talking back. This has created a whole new dynamics for brands.
In the digital world, you are directly interacting with your customers, competitors and other stakeholders, in a personalized manner. In today’s world, customers have the power to push your brand to a different height and also pull it down to the lowest as well. This is a whole new world. That’s one of the key lessons.
Another critical aspect is that it is always changing. It is a very fast-paced world and new things are happening all the time. This demands a new kind of skill from the brands.
In the past, you usually planned things for months or weeks before acting but now you have to do both at once. You have to think and plan and act simultaneously. For example, there was a huge trend of photo uploading contest on social media in the early days. People used to participate like crazy in those contests.
But no more and if you try it today you are likely to fail miserably. Because new things have come and people are busy with that. Moreover, people used to play a lot of games like Mafia, Candy crush, Sims, Clash of Clans, etc. But now people do not spend much time in playing games. Over the past years, the video has become a thing in digital. Video viewership increased by 6 times.
The biggest lesson that I have learned from the digital marketing industry is that you have to know your brand well and understand the trends to utilize it in building your brand. You have to have a keen eye to observe the changes in the market and respond accordingly.
Another key lesson is that complacency has no place in the digital world. If you think you know enough then you are about to fail. The market and the industry is changing every day and new trends are replacing old ones daily. You have to be open-minded and be vigilant so that you can change yourself with the changes in the market.
Even though I have been working in the industry for a very long time, I don’t think I understand digital that well. I’m learning every day and I intend to do so in the foreseeable future.
04. Build a healthy culture
As an organization, we are horizontal in nature. We are more like a family. We work together, hang out together, and celebrate together. From the very beginning, we have tried to build a festive and colorful culture at the company that cheers you up and boosts your mood. The celebration is a core part of how we operate. We celebrate whenever we get a new partner and we also celebrate whenever we lose a partner. All of our members work very hard for their brands and work with a sense of ownership and dedication.
Over the past years, we have actively resisted the idea of office politics that often embroils growing startups causing unnecessary problems. We maintain an open door policy and empower everyone to speak up and come up with ideas. We believe that everyone is equal and ideas can actually come from anyone and anywhere.
05. Compete with yourself
We don’t think much about competition, rather we believe in doing our best and every time when we do something we try to outperform our own standard. Our competition is with ourselves.
The digital marketing industry is quite large and the possibilities are endless. There are so many things to do. We still scratching the surface and there are many interesting areas that we are yet to explore.
Our goal is very simple: instead of competing with other companies and agencies, we want to compete with ourselves and grow into a more skilled and more resourceful agency. Our relentless focus is on developing ourselves and our capabilities so that we can serve our clients better.
That said, we maintain a good relationship with other agencies in the industry. We believe that being a relatively new industry, which digital marketing is, competition is good. It pushes you further and to do more. We have high regards for other players in the space. In fact, I see realistic potentials of collaboration between/among agencies in the industry.
When we started in 2008, digital marketing was not a thing yet in Bangladesh. Today, so far our count, we have over 114 agencies serving in this space. That said, I don’t think our competition is with other agencies, rather I think the only competition for us and for other agencies in the space as well as is lack of awareness in the market about the importance of digital marketing.
Our market is quite big, but in order to realize the full potential, our brands need to understand the value of digital marketing and the changing landscape in the market. I think that’s a more worthy a challenge to tackle than worrying about the competition.
06. Give a sense of ownership
We believe in finding joy at work. We try to encourage people to love their work and help in the process because if you don’t enjoy your work it becomes difficult to carry it out for a long time. Contrary to that, when you love your work it does not feel like work.
I believe in taking ownership of your work. At Analyzen, no one works for Analyzen, rather everyone works with Analyzen. That is how I feel about management.
When you are asking people to take ownership, you also need to give them some authority so that they can make decisions and take initiatives. I tend to allow people to do their work. I empower people which is the central trait of my management style that informs how I manage things and people.