Inside WebAble’s Phenomenal Five-Year Run and Beyond: An Interview with Ovick Alam, Co-founder, and Chairman, WebAble Digital

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Jun 22, 2019
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WebAble Digital has turned five in February this year. Surviving five years is a huge feat for any startup. And if you could find the product/market fit and grow, you must be very lucky. WebAble has managed to do both. Started as a tiny operation, it has managed to maintain steady growth throughout its five years of existence. Most importantly, it has done so without any external investment.

Founded in 2013, the early days of digital communication in Bangladesh, WebAble has helped shape the digital communication landscape in Dhaka in many ways and its journey as a bootstrapped success has a lot to offer to aspiring entrepreneurs about how to approach the challenging act of building a company.

Digital marketing is a precarious and ever-changing space. A steady torrent of new companies enter the digital marketing space every year and perish at an equally fast pace. New trends replace old ones every other day. What worked yesterday quickly becomes obsolete tomorrow. Established players routinely give way to new rookies. It is relentless.

WebAble has managed to find a sustainable strategy that works - hustle. It has managed to achieve steady growth through relentless innovation, replenishing its positioning time and again, and building a strong company culture that fuels creativity and innovation. Today, WebAble is a team of 75-people and works with a long list of clients spanning multiple industries. It has expanded beyond social media marketing to content, community building, lead generation, digital production, analytics, event activation, and much more.

Today, WebAble offers full-service communication solutions with ATL, BTL, and digital teams. With the growth of the business, naturally, WebAble has grown ambitious. It is now busy setting up goals for its next five years.

In this excellent interview with Future Startup, WebAble Digital Founder and Chairman Ovick Alam illustrates the growth journey of WebAble from a small team of 6-people to a leading integrated communication services company and lays out WebAble’s game plan for the next five years.

This was a much longer interview. So we had to break it down into two parts. This is part one of the interview. Please return later this month for the next installment of the interview.

Ruhul Kader

When we interviewed you last time in 2015, WebAble was a small digital communication company and digital marketing was yet to be a mainstream thing in Dhaka. How much has WebAble evolved over the past years?

Ovick Alam

When we last spoke in 2015, we were about 8 people in a tiny office at Lalmatia offering social media and web design services. Today, WebAble is a 75-people strong team offering integrated communication solutions, from running social media campaigns to organizing global events like the Fashionology Summit.

We started operations in a nascent market. We have helped many organizations go online for the first time. Today, digital is an essential mix of communication for brands. As one of the pioneers of the industry, we believe we have played a small role in this journey.

Back in 2014, the entire idea of digital marketing was Facebook-centric. Today, Youtube, Instagram, Viber, Messenger, etc. have become common go-to platforms. A significant portion of the digital budget has shifted to display advertising, content marketing, influencer marketing, and digital PR.

The rise of video consumption has increased the importance of digital storytelling. While some brands have resorted to posting TVCs online and buying media aggressively, many are adapting to the new era of digital content consumption. This is why WebAble has focused on being excellent at storytelling for digital natives with a sound understanding of the changing dynamics of content consumption behavior of the audience.

We have created the first interactive short film in Bangladesh - an interesting experiment with content and technology. We have also created an international award-winning storytelling project that humanizes the RMG workers of Bangladesh - Made in Equality. Today we are effectively using storytelling for social and behavior change communications for UN, ActionAid, CARE, WaterAid, etc.

In the early days, we used to focus on awareness. Today, we focus mostly on engagement, conversions, and changing behaviors. In digital, we can deliver and measure ROI. This shift in our strategic planning has helped us acquire customers, sell products, and drive profitability for our clients.

While focusing on digital in the early days, we saw a unique opportunity in the market: integration of real-life, immersive human experiences with digital media. Powered with simple consumer insights from emotional truths, we can create end-to-end human experiences offline that translate to online. That’s why we have entered events and activation business. We hired seasoned professionals and built our expertise in this space. The results speak for themselves. It created a new revenue stream and improved our digital work.

To offer clients a one-stop solution, we have hired top creative advertising talents with 10+ years of experience in the industry. Today, we offer full-service communication solutions with ATL, BTL, and digital teams.

In early days, we used to focus on awareness. Today, we focus mostly on engagement, conversions and changing behaviors. In digital, we can deliver and measure ROI. This shift in our strategic planning has helped us acquire customers, sell products, and drive profitability for our clients.

Ruhul Kader

I would like to go back to your early days to 2015. In 2015, you were an 8-12 people team, had an office in Lalmatia and then from there you have grown to a company of 75 people, you serve over 50 clients, and so on. Could you shed some light on that journey?

Ovick Alam

Back in 2015, we were serving 6 to 7 clients. Primarily, we were working on social media marketing and website development. We bootstrapped in my tiny living room in Lalmatia. We recruited and trained people. It was a hustle every day, and we did some iconic work back in the day. Selling 3,500 Dell laptops online in two months in 2014 seems hard to believe even today. We had beginners’ luck and we were ambitious.

Early in 2015, we added a senior design professional to our management to drive growth. It was a huge investment for a one-year-old company. Naturally, expectations were high. But we did not see the results. Eventually, he left WebAble after nine months. That was a setback. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. In the following months some of our employees, who we trained so hard for two years, were persuaded to leave the company. They joined with him to start a new, competing firm.

We made drastic rearrangements in 2016 to deal with this setback. The whole team worked extra hours and took additional responsibilities to ensure smooth service to clients. It was a difficult time knowing an outside party may be working tirelessly to persuade your employees. But we didn’t make panic hires. Slowly we recruited good people. In six months, we were back on our growth trajectory. This made us stronger.

Towards the end of 2016, we started experimenting with scalable products and platforms. In early 2017, we started using messaging and conversation funnels for lead generation for our clients. Seeing the initial success, we decided to build a conversation automation platform - ChatLeads.

In 2017, my primary focus was to put the right people in the right place so that they can run the show. We had a four-people management team. Shadab started building ChatLeads. Monoshita started focusing on the development sector, especially on social and behavioral change communications. Her storytelling work on the RMG sector was featured in The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and at an exhibition in Hong Kong.

Anis stepped up to oversee the creative operations while I coordinated between the three of them besides overseeing digital media strategy. All of us built our own teams with Anis leading the biggest of them - creatives. His work won numerous local and international awards over the past few years. In 2018 we added ATL and BTL talent to our team. We have been steadily growing ever since.

Ruhul Kader

How have you attracted customers and grown your business? Could you deconstruct your growth story?

Ovick Alam

We often consider growth to be something that happens suddenly and that there is one single inflection point. But that is seldom the case. Growth is often the result of doing small things consistently that add value and momentum over time. For us, we have tried to do these small things well and consistently.

Our philosophy has always been to get great people, grow steadily, and make ourselves future-ready. We hire/retain the best people with a proven track record, growth mindset, and dedication to excellence. Right people are the prerequisite of growth for WebAble. We are lucky to have some inspirational leaders in the company outside the founders. They set very high standards. Only the best survive and thrive in our culture. To retain the right people, we give them flexibility and space to work on what they actually like. We also get them all resources (people, training, technology, and tools) they need to succeed. We offer a great work environment, amazing colleagues, and job security. We pay our people well and pay them on time.

In mid-2017, we made a big investment for our people - we shifted our office from Lalmatia to Gulshan because it is convenient for most of our employees to commute. Also, we do an annual iftar with all employees and their families. This is a wonderful way to connect and bond.

Another strategy for steady growth is to work with the right clients and partners. Wrong ones stifle progress and morale. Thus, we are careful about picking the right clients and finding win-win projects. We put in extra time and effort to ensuring the right fit between our team and clients. This creates a collaborative mindset and sets both teams up for success. When the right clients have a great experience working with us, they recommend similar clients to WebAble. Word-of-mouth recommendations have significantly fueled our growth.

I can tell you one interesting story. We’ve been working with a big conglomerate since 2014 on various projects. They are one of the leading bus/truck/van importers in the country and have never done any digital campaigns for that division.

In 2017, their visionary management asked whether we could help them sell trucks online? We had never done anything similar before. We told them that we could try and see how it goes but we could not guarantee anything. So they gave us three months and a budget. We started experimenting, running A/B tests, filtering audience, geographies, testing different messaging, and platforms…

At the end of the first month, we had our first conversion! So we dug deeper into what's working and what’s not, to our surprise, most of the traction came from outside Dhaka! Our analytics team directed us the right way and after three months, the experiment was a runaway success. We created audience sets that sell an average of ~20 buses/trucks/vans online, every month! This client started a call center just to manage online leads!

When it comes to growth, quality beats quantity. That’s why in mid-2016, we took a step back, reflected, reviewed our priorities and skill-sets. We found WebAble is good at driving conversions - analytics, optimization, ROI-driven campaigns, sales campaigns, etc. Then we sat together and mapped out industries and companies that would pay for result-driven work. That exercise has changed the trajectory of the company since.

Today we work with some of the biggest and most successful companies in the niche we identified. We sold 200+ buses, trucks, and pick-up vans, 1 lac cubic meters of industrial glass, 25 apartments & commercial spaces in Dhaka, hundreds of cars, and thousands of cement bags through digital-only campaigns. We also generated BDT 93+ crore credit card transactions for a leading bank in a weeklong campaign.

These results inspired us to run conversion campaigns in regional and global markets - we started with our own product, ChatLeads, and helped it acquire customers and partners in Singapore, South Korea, Canada, USA, Myanmar, etc. Through these successful experiments, we are finally ready to offer global digital marketing solutions to our clients in Bangladesh and beyond.

Back in 2015, we were serving 6 to 7 clients. Primarily, we were working on social media marketing and website development. We bootstrapped in my tiny living room in Lalmatia. We recruited and trained people. It was a hustle every day, and we did some iconic work back in the days.

WebAble Founding Team
WebAble Founding Team | Photo by WebAble

Ruhul Kader

If we consider WebAble Digital as a group of products, how much have you evolved in terms of services and products that you offer to your clients?

Ovick Alam

As mentioned, WebAble offers ATL, BTL, and digital communications services. We are increasingly focusing on social and behavior change communications. Besides this, we have started two interesting things.

In early 2017, we realized that messaging has become an important mode of communication. Whatsapp, Messenger, WeChat, Viber, IMO, etc. have become part of our daily lives.

We have helped many clients take advantage of this new trend and turned messaging into a channel to drive sales conversion. Seeing messaging become the most popular mode of communication, we invested in developing a messaging automation platform that will radically change how brands use conversation as a medium of communication and customer conversion across the world.

Earlier this year, we have put together a small team that works with original music and video content - How’s That?. Along with producing videos for our clients, we are also creating content independently. This is helping our creative people express themselves better and do more innovative work.

Ruhul Kader

How do you work with clients?

Ovick Alam

We work with clients in two ways: creative retainers and ad-hoc projects (events, activations, digital campaigns, websites, apps, etc.). Now we have around 50 clients. Usually, 40% of our clients are on a retainer contract. However, almost 80% of our revenue comes from ad-hoc projects.

Ruhul Kader

Running an early startup and running a company of your size are two different things. Organizational and management challenges are different. One of the biggest challenges for most startups is evolving the organization as the business grows. How did you manage that? How do you operate as a company? Could tell us about your culture and how people operate at WebAble?

Ovick Alam

We faced hardship while recruiting people as we scaled. We often failed to recruit the right people. We went through lots of trials and errors to find the right fit. It cost us a lot of money, time, headache, and sometimes heartache. Having the right people in the team is key for your culture - and we didn’t compromise here. We persist until we have the right people in the right role. It’s a work in progress. We have been lucky to have some great leaders in the team who own the values of the company.

As we grew, we have changed our operating structure a few times. It is something that we have worked on a lot. We have kept our organization flat to cultivate creativity and collaboration. It has its own downsides too. We try to keep things tighter at the top and flexible at the bottom. We kept an openness so that ideas can flow from the bottom to the top quickly and unfiltered.

Culture is important for any organization. While founders’ culture of openness and honesty, demanding excellence, and horizontal accountability has passed on to all levels, with growth, new subcultures have emerged in the company which the top level cannot control. Thus we remain observant and always ready to listen. Some of these subcultures are good and others are not. We try to socially reward the good ones.

We empower our people and allow them room so that they could operate independently. We mentor and coach employees personally. We also demand excellence from them. Our management formula is to look for good behaviors, ideas, and practices - then reward them.

We often consider growth to be something that happens suddenly and that there is one single inflection point. But that is seldom the case. Growth is often the result of doing small things consistently that add value and momentum over time. For us, we have tried to do these small things well and consistently.

Ruhul Kader

What are the challenges for WebAble Digital?

Ovick Alam

There is downward price pressure in the market - a lot of new entrants (and digital shops of large advertising incumbents) start with a predisposition that offering lower prices would help them a foot in the door and eventually build a sustainable business. But it does not work that way in advertising. We have seen many such companies complete this suicide mission by shutting down eventually. This is a short-term challenge that exists in the industry now.

There is a growing tendency among companies to turn the digital operation in-house, which results in retainers turning into ad-hoc clients. While I believe that this trend will reverse soon, it does pose a short-term challenge to us. We are working to figure out strategies on how we could add more value to our clients and move up in the value chain so that we become indispensable to our clients. We are diversifying to tackle these challenges.

Cash flow management is a problem because it is hard and extremely expensive to get financing in advertising and IT. We have an unhealthy practice in Bangladesh where businesses take an undue amount of time to clear bills. It creates real challenges for companies like us.

Ruhul Kader

WebAble Digital has turned five this year. What are the goals for 2019 and the next 5 years?

Ovick Alam

Our goals for the next 5 years:

  • Be the first name in clients’ minds when they think of customer conversion, analytics, and ROI-driven work in digital
  • Create an original content business to drive the future of advertising
  • Be the best agency for impact communications in the development sector
  • Build and grow products in messaging space globally
  • Enter new regional markets with products and scalable solutions

In 2019, we will be working towards these bigger goals.

We empower our people and allow them room so that they could operate independently. We mentor and coach employees personally. We also demand excellence from them. Our management formula is to look for good behaviors, ideas, and practices - then reward them.

(Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Sadia Tasmia)

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