Calling All Student Entrepreneurs: Tell Us About Your Startup

On Becoming A Better Founder With Waseem Alim, Founder and CEO, Chaldal

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Jun 30, 2019
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People say building a startup is like eating glass. Waseem Alim, co-founder, and CEO of Chaldal says, “I think it is pretty tough.” It takes everything you have got to build a successful startup. It is a rollercoaster ride for most founders. A ride that most founders enter without knowing much and come out as transformed human beings.

In this second and final installment (part one here) of our interview with Chaldal Founder and CEO Waseem Alim, we go deep into the job of a founder, making decisions, hacks to make your life easier as a founder, decision making, and management. He then shares his lessons from the journey so far, his thoughts on the growing startup ecosystem in Dhaka, what could have been better, higher-order priorities for him these days, his reading list and how he choose books to read, how he deals with the challenges of being a founder, deals with the general problem of motivation that plagues many of us, his thoughts on higher-order priorities for early-stage founders and much more.

This is a brilliant read in its entirety and could be a short guide on your way to building your startup.

This was a much longer interview. So we had to break it down into two parts. This is the second and final part of the interview. You can read part one here. (Note: the first question is a repeat from part one.)

Future Startup

How much have you changed as a CEO over the last few years?

Waseem Alim

It is hard to say. It seems like a long day for me since we started this company. So, you know, you don't change a lot in a day. I'm sure I have changed.

I still pick up my phone calls. Sometimes I miss but I try to pick up every call. Previously we didn't have leaders in the company. Now we do. So, I used to be more focused on getting things done. Right now, I am more focused on making people be better leaders and solving political issues that may arise. We are a 600 person company, political issues arise. Preserving the culture has become more of my role.

I don't think I have changed a lot as an individual. The task at hand is immense. I have a greater appreciation for Bangladeshi businessmen than I did back in the day. I have met some very interesting people who are working in Bangladesh. I have become humbled by seeing these personalities. I have become a bit lazier perhaps. I spend more time with family now that I have a daughter. I appreciate family time more. Those are the changes. Previously, it was more hardcore, cut and dry. Number, no number. Now, I have softened up a bit.

Future Startup

What does your daily to-do list look like?

Waseem Alim

To be honest, there are not many things on my to-do list. I just go and randomly do some work.

I was telling someone that there is only one thing left on my to-do list right now which is sending a planning email to the team. That's my to-do list for the month. I ensure that everyone knows what the plan is and that there are systems to ensure that everyone delivers.

Future Startup

Is there a list of things that you check on or do you have a list of priorities?

Waseem Alim

I don't have to check on things. People check on things themselves.

Future Startup

Do you check on people who check on things?

Waseem Alim

Occasionally.

Future Startup

What are those areas?

Waseem Alim

I still look at finance - structuring and deal-making, etc. We are making more inroads at having more partnerships. Partnership with companies and development organizations, etc.

Future Startup

What kind of partnership?

Waseem Alim

Vegetable Network was launched in partnership with BFPB. Working with a company could be a partnership. I am looking more into those sectors. We are working also with the Government.

Within Chaldal, the information flow is fluid but when there are two organizations, there is still a gap. I want to be the person who reduces the gap between the two organizations when two organizations are coming together. This is not something I would have expected to do three years ago.

I also focus on the efficiency of management at Chaldal. Where are people wasting time? How do you reduce that time? Processes and policies. Our decisions are soft decisions. If someone is not fitting in, you need to figure out why that is happening.

Future Startup

What does a typical day of yours look like? How do you start and finish your day?

Waseem Alim

I wake up and start my day. I am trying to pray a bit more these days because it brings discipline to life. I pick up my daughter from school at 4 pm. I'm usually in the office by 10:30 am. In the first half, I take random meetings. Once meetings are over, I just walk around. Sometimes I go to a random warehouse and just talk to people.

At 4 pm, I go home with my daughter. I spend a few hours with her and then at 7 pm or 8 pm, once my wife comes back, I am back in the office for a few hours. During this time, I look at the numbers and strategic things. Then I go back home. If there is something that needs absolute focus I do it in the middle of the night. But those things are getting very rare. Finally, I will read a book or play chess and fall asleep.

Future Startup

Books you are reading now.

Waseem Alim

I am reading a biography of Richard Feynman “Surely You Must Be Kidding Mr. Feynman”. I find that most books get boring fast. I start with many books but don't finish all. Writers should say more in fewer words. Many books should just be blog posts.

Future Startup

So, you are kind of hard on the writers. Do you have any list of favorite books or you would like to recommend to our readers?

Waseem Alim

I love Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes. I love Glimpses of World History by Nehru - I read that twice although it is a very fat book. I appreciate the knowledge of history because you can see patterns. People undervalue history lessons. Knowing what happened in the past helps you make better decisions. I think history can teach a lot about leadership. I like biographies in general. I read some of Einstein's general (non-Physics) writings last year and really liked them.

I have started reading more math books of late. I am not very good with mathematical notations, so am trying to get better at it. I am currently reading a book on the Riemann Zeta Function. It deals with predicting a prime number. Prime numbers are a big thing in math. Prime numbers are spread randomly but people feel that there is some pattern.

Riemann Zeta Function is something that tells you whether a number is prime or not. It's an interesting way to look at it. I don't understand it fully. But Reimann was one of the marvelous mathematicians of the last two hundred years. He wrote about four or five things and each of them defines a lot of things. Einstein's theory of relativity was inspired by Reimann's dimensional curvature. Hence our modern view of the universe is shaped by Reimann. He studied non-Euclidean dimensions.

I would like to go much deeper into these things but I am not that smart. Perhaps I can retire in five years and study math.

Future Startup

After that what you want to do?

Waseem Alim

I want to be a student of mathematics. But I don't want to leave unfinished business. In five years, if we have Chaldal really sorted, I can retire as Chairman Emeritus. I think a decade on Chaldal should be sufficient work. This is something I have planned subconsciously. If you don't have a deadline, you don't really work very hard.

Future Startup

How do you pick a book? Do you have a set of things that okay I want to read this book and it has to be this way or that way?

Waseem Alim

I read Wikipedia a lot. I also read a lot of bullshit, even though I am trying to avoid them. At times, I need some knowledge for work. For example, we use the State Machines concept actively in Chaldal. It is a concept from Systems Engineering. When something is work-related I try to go deep. If I don't understand one book, I will pick another book.

The other way is that there are personalities I like. When I research a personality, I go to his wiki quote and I read their quotes. Then if I like their quotes and I go and pick up a book about them. Very rarely I go into a bookstore to browse. I used to be into finance books but these days it's mostly math books that I like.

Future Startup

Many people say that building a company is like eating glass. Elon Musk said it. Do you feel like it is a tough job?

Waseem Alim

I think it's pretty tough.

Future Startup

How do you handle it?

Waseem Alim

By having friends. I have two favorite quotes, both of them are from telco advertisements. One is “Bondhu Chara Life Impossible” (life is impossible without friends). We have lots of friends in the company. The second is “Jole uthun apon shokhtite” (Ignite the power within). That's what I keep telling all my leaders. You have to have your own energy.

Future Startup

That's helpful. But when you come across a tough problem, how do you reconcile with yourself? Do you have any mechanism?

Waseem Alim

I solve the damn problem. There is no reconciliation. Either you solve the problem or you don't.

Future Startup

How do you get the energy to solve it?

Waseem Alim

You solve the problem or you die without solving it. It is not even a valid question. Someone said, probably Camus, that there is only one important question in life “whether or not to commit suicide”. I always choose to not commit suicide and then figure out the rest. Once I know that I am not committing suicide, I get the energy to figure out the solution to the problem.

Future Startup

Now, coming back to running a company. What should be the priorities of a founder or CEO running an early-stage company?

Waseem Alim

There is a very good talk by Damodaran who is a valuation professor at NYU. Basically, every company has a life cycle. In the early stage, you are innovating a lot, and then you are at the growth stage where you are growing very fast, and then you have a stable stage where you are cash flow positive. And finally, you have a decline, where you are basically trying to cash out from the company. In the early stage, when you are innovating, the most important thing for you is to find a product-market fit and you shouldn’t sleep until you find a product-market fit.

Once you have the product-market fit and a profitable model you must grow that model. Chaldal is in the growth stage. Growth basically comes down to a set of equations. To go this much, you need this much on the supply side and this much on the demand side.

You need an equation for the demand side: that if we spend this now then we can earn this much money. Channel by channel you need to understand this. You have very specific people focusing on each metric. That's what we are doing now.

Previously, it was to figure out product-market fit, figure out the product or die. You just keep focusing on one thing. Now we are focusing on multiple things. The CEO is a coordinator among different people who are focused on specific things.

I have only gone this far in my leadership cycle. I understand the next stage is stability where you are trying to figure out how to use the talent that you have and go into other businesses, or you are trying to maximize the cash flows. The stage after that is the decline where you are trying to sell the company or find new levers for growth. I don't want to go there. When the stability stage is over, I want someone else to deal with dismantling the company.

To build a company that lasts 100 years, we need to understand how we continue to innovate. It's very hard to be original in this world. There is no sustained originality but you get a little bit of originality from time to time. In my opinion, the key to innovation is culture.

How do we have a culture where people can pursue new ideas is something that I will have to work on. We still don't have many visionaries in the company. People are barely able to see how the thing grows. We don't want to ever go into the decline stage. We want to hold on to the growth stage forever.

Future Startup

How do you make decisions?

Waseem Alim

A sub-optimal decision is often better than a no-decision. You must decide after taking into account the available information. Army people are good at making decisions because they cannot afford to overthink. I usually consult with a few people, who may be affected, and people who understand the situation. It is often more important to make the decision rather than wasting time on collecting more information.

Future Startup

How do you learn and stay updated?

Waseem Alim

Whenever I am stuck with a problem, I try to find out who are the experts in solving that problem. Then I try to meet them. That's one way of learning. I enjoy talking to people who are experts in their fields.

As you go up in the organization you have a better filtering mechanism where less bullshit knowledge to you. If you set it right you can get very efficient input of knowledge. For example, if I talk to Tejas I know what is going on in technology. If I talk to Asif Khan, I will know what is going on in finance.

I have a few people who I trust for information and they give me a very distilled version of the information. I also read a lot of Wikipedia myself. Also, 99% of my information gathering is purposeless. I collect a lot of information. I decide what to remember.

Future Startup

What do you think about overall startup ecosystems in the country? I would like to give you a couple of cues though: one, not a lot of investments are happening, two, we don't see a lot of international investors are coming into the country which is happening en masse in many other markets such as Indonesia and India. And on the other hand, there is probably a problem of diversity of companies - we don't have enough number of people starting companies, and then there is a lack of diversity in terms of types of companies ...

Waseem Alim

A few things about the startup ecosystem we should remember. We compare us to India or China. India and China invested heavily in technology in the 70s. They set up all these institutions. India has these IITs and China a lot of state universities of science and technology. They set these up. So they had these engineers. Then 20 years later these engineers worked in the US, they came to see all these startup things. After seeing all these startups and tech things, they decided to come back and do their own startup. Maybe some of them got rich from options from working at other successful startups in the US.

Bangladesh is still not, after 20 - 30 years, into the process. We don't actually have a lot of founders who know how to work with software. We have very few founders who are great technical people.

Now the question is, okay, do we need to wait another decade to do it? That’s one.

Then few mechanical things are missing in the ecosystems. One mechanical thing is that there is no format. Like you want to form a company you have to do your own bloody homework. There should be templates somewhere that say this is how we form a company. This is how we give out share. This is what percentage to give out to you angel and so on. So, the founder doesn't have to negotiate with the investors. Investors know what to do and founders know what to do.

Secondly, I think people want a lot for their money without realizing that money is becoming less and less valuable in this world. That's a problem. That means that the psychology of the investors needs to change. Again, that might have something to do with the founders not being of good quality. It's a chicken and egg issue but usually what people forget is that they try to compare a founder who has been in the business for five years with someone who starting on day one. They should not be comparing a founder with say, me. That's not the right way to do it. They should compare it with me five years ago, right. The startup looks very different. People have not seen that. So, that's a problem.

Another thing I would say is the responsibility of leaders who are in a position of influence. I would call out names. I think Kamal bhai, Elius, and a lot of other founders who have made a difference, these guys need to come forward and help our founders. Start investing in startups. Make their presence visibly felt. But I think we are all too engrossed in our own companies to be doing that. Not enough of the founders are working towards making the ecosystem work for new founders.

I think in mechanics we need more documentation help like this is a document that fifteen people worked on for making deals and then get that document and get three best lawyers in the country to come and understand that, understand what is the founder need and what investors need and come up with the document. And then let's use that document to do lots of deals.

I think on the government side government is investing a ton of money in IT. They are giving infrastructure. But with that infrastructure what will happen, if people don’t have the basic needs fulfilled? I think at this point the government should invest. They should give small funds to startups. There will be frauds there. The process has to be strong. But you know the government can empower certain people. The government can empower people who can take on the responsibility of investing. You should say if these three people recommend you, then you will get the investment. Because these are people in the ecosystems that we can trust. That more or less works for Singapore and why not for Bangladesh?

Financing is a challenge. I think there need to be some seeds funds that come up locally. I have spoken to some top business leaders in the country. They are positive. But they simply don't have time to make a ten lakh taka decision. There need to be some guys whose job would be to run a seed fund and raise like five crores from some of the top businessmen and then distribute it. You raise five crores from the local market and five from the international market and then invest in a certain number of startups.

Future Startup

What are some lessons you have learned?

Waseem Alim

I have learned that the bigger you get the bigger risk you have to take to grow meaningfully. It is just a mathematical reality that that is the case. So making massive adjustments and taking bigger and bigger risks is hard as a human being. Because If I lose one thousand taka I could digest that. But if I lose like 5 crores how am I gonna recover it? I can't be personally accountable for losing 5 crores. So, that is something you have to come to terms with. Like setting up a warehouse in some location spending a huge amount of money is a big decision, right. But you could not avoid these decisions. What I have learned is that you just have to be comfortable taking these risks. That's a lesson.

The second lesson is: you see all these economic differences between the growth rate of countries such as Korea, the US, etc. Someone was telling me the other day that the single most important factor in having a different growth rate for a country is not the economic starting point or the industry that they start from. The single most important thing is the allocation of capital. I don't know the details. I have not gone through the study yet but that's an important lesson that we have to learn as a country - how we are going to allocate capital. Because if you want to have a 10% growth rate, that's something you have to think about.

The other lesson I have learned is that it's easier to talk to the people at the top than to talk to people in the middle. So, that's a lesson. I think that's a hack for any entrepreneur. Like, try talking to the people at the top because the bureaucracy in the middle would kill your spirit.

My biggest lesson is, you know that Murphy's Law - whatever can go wrong will go wrong, that is true. Hundred percent true. If you are going to expand whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Because that is like the strength of the chain is its weakest link. Murphy's Law basically is that. So, you need to basically neutralize anything that can go wrong to grow. That's the way to build robust systems. Murphy's Law is true and that is something I have learned recently.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Waseem Alim

There are two philosophies. We are a company that does a lot of delivery. For us, one important thing is to be on time. Otherwise, the delivery would be late. To maintain time, delivery men who are on the road, we don't provide them lunch. So, nobody in the company gets lunch. So, I try to keep a balance between what our basic worker gets and what we are doing. That becomes a hard balance to maintain.

In terms of giving people objectives, I think I have said this last time that you give people one thing and make sure that they get the one thing done. I give people two, three things because I may be not that discipline, I give them 2/3 things and make sure that they get that done. Usually, these days they do.

Most of the people at Chaldal have been here for 3/4/5 years. So they know our styles very well. I don't really have to manage them that much. I set a vision. I set like who needs to achieve what. People usually end up achieving them.

Future Startup

You mentioned one hack for getting things done: reaching out to people who are at the top. What are other things that you have found helpful or advantageous in the process of building the company?

Waseem Alim

Don't get discouraged with no's. You will hear a lot of no's. It is important to know where you are coming from. It is important to know that you are not insane. I think that's a very important thing to know. That you are not completely insane.

Future Startup

What do you mean by that?

Waseem Alim

Like, when I first said about this company to some people they said that, oh the revenue is 50 thousand taka, and then what? 50 thousand taka is not a big revenue. But at that stage, it was encouraging for me. But they laughed it off but you can't get discouraged with that. At the same time, you also need to know that this 50 thousand taka can become like 50 lakh taka per day. And then it's a big company. So, that's what I mean by knowing that you are not insane is important.

I think it's also important to not get too caught up and to realize the worst that could happen and to come to terms with it. I think a lot of bad decisions or dishonest guess decisions get made because people can't come to terms with the worst that could happen. I think in those kinds of situations, honesty is critical. Don't make dishonest decisions because you are trying to keep the cycle going. So, that's not a hack but that makes your life simple. Because truth doesn't need an explanation. So, you maintain your consistency and sanity that way.

The other thing is that although nothing is impossible is a big statement, it's possible to do things that people think are impossible. It's possible to make people do impossible things. Basically, when you look at a person, you look at their education qualification, where do they come from, etc. I think what's more important than any of that is putting a belief in them that something can be done. So, we look for hardworking people who are also honest. Those are more important qualities that we value as number one right now than like background or anything else.

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Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Ayrin Saleha Ria.

The interview was taken in March 2019.


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