Mentors' Director and CEO Anindya Chowdhury on his journey, the early days of Mentors', how Mentors' has evolved and grown from a small initiative into one of the most prominent private education services companies in Dhaka, how Mentors' operates and its culture, sheds light on the expanding world of Mentors' services, challenges of Mentors' and private education sector in Bangladesh, talks about the state of Mentors'’s business today and its ambition going forward, the hard work and intricacies of building a business, shares his lessons from his journey so far and reflects on why having a detached involvement mentality is critical and much more.
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Could you please tell us about yourself and your journey to what you are doing today?
I was born and brought up in Chittagong. I studied at Chittagong Cantonment Public School, which has played a consequential role in shaping up my life in later years. Whatever I’m today, my school and the education that I received there has a lot to do with it.
As you could imagine, my school had a very different environment. Our principal was from Cadet College system. We grew up in a disciplined and regimented environment. You could say I spent my entire school life in a long training of discipline. I could never flee from school or attend to mischievous activities. There was very little chance of trying those things. Despite some of my classmates tried but I could not because my mother was a teacher at the school as well and breaking any rule was not an option for me.
I was an active student. I participated in every extracurricular activity that was available at the campus. I was a sportsman, participated both in cricket and football, and an active participant at the cultural events. We had a quarterly Wall Magazine. I used to contribute to that. There were endless opportunities to involve yourself into extracurricular activities and I tried almost everything. It was a wonderful balance between learning discipline and empowering yourself to pursue your inquisitiveness.
After SSC, I went to Chittagong College, one of the best colleges in Chittagong. College was like a fresh breath of air for me. There were not as much discipline or restrictions. But the two years of college went fast. I was busy with my academics and was also an active participant in college sports. I have always been involved in sports. And it continues.
In 1996, after my HSC, I got into IBA, University of Dhaka. At the same time, I joined Mentors' as a teacher. Later I became a coordinator and gradually became a part of Mentors'. I never looked for another job rather stayed at Mentors'. Initially, I was just a teacher and was not part of the management team. But I was close to Khairul Bhai and Nasim Bhai, the two founders of Mentors'. They used to encourage me to take initiatives. And eventually, I became part of Mentors'.
Although many people know Mentors' as a coaching center, Mentors' is much more than that. We are a learning hub. In fact, we are registered as a student training and consultation center. Fortunately, over the years we have been able to establish an image in the market which is very different from any coaching center in the country. We deeply care for our students. We go above and beyond to ensure that our students are served well.
Mentors' is usually identified with our program for IBA admission test. However, over the past years, we have expanded into a few verticals. We have Admission Aid programs for BBA and MBA of Dhaka University IBA. We have test preparation programs for IELTS, SAT, and PTE Academic. We have language aid programs where we offer English spoken and phonetics, grammar and writing programs.
We have a Study Abroad program where we help students with higher studies abroad. We have a big team for that.
Outside of Mentors', I am involved with a Sports related startup called Pavillion as a director. Pavilion is the first Bengali sports website in Bangladesh. Pavilion does a lot of things around sports. It has a digital platform, offers digital service related to sports and also offers sports management services. For example, Pavilion is the digital media partner for Rajshahi Kings at this BPL.
I’m also involved in a restaurant business along with my partner called M café in Kalabagan. It is a fairly new initiative and we hope it will get better with time.
In my personal life, I am married. My wife, Shwapna Bhowmick, works at a British company called Marks and Spencer. I have a son, Auritro, who is in 5th grade now. That’s all about me.
Could you tell us more about Mentors' and how and when you got involved with Mentors'?
Back in 1998, I was the coordinator for a single course in Kalabagan branch. At that time, we used to run only an admission preparation program for IBA’s BBA. SAT and TOEFL programs were not there. Initially, I was the coordinator of the BBA admission preparation program for Kalabagan branch. After a year, I became the coordinator for this particular course in every branch. In 2001, I became the central coordinator for all the courses and coordinators of other courses and programs used to report to me. I also started to take part in decision making and other activities in the organization.
That’s when I realized that the founders were preparing me for running the organization. In 2004, they offered me a partnership. In 2006, both the founders left Bangladesh and moved to the UK and I became the sole responsible person for running the organization. Founders stayed connected and active in helping me with the operation but I had to look after the operation. I ran the organization for three years. There were challenges but I managed them well and Mentors' actually grew quite fast during this period. In 2010, we became a private limited company. Around that time one of the founders returned to Bangladesh. He stayed for six years and launched a new Study Abroad Program.
When joined Mentors', it was about 8-9 months old, how big was your operation at that time? Could you tell us a little about your growth journey from there to what Mentors' is today?
At the time, I think we had 2 branches in Dhaka - Kalabagan and Mouchak, and one small branch in Chittagong. Later, we started Uttara and Banani branches and we launched the Mirpur branch 3 years ago. Today, we have a total of 11 branches across the country. In Dhaka, we have 5 branches. Outside Dhaka, we have branches in Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Rangpur, Rajshahi, and Chittagong. In terms of the number of branches, we consciously decided to keep the number limited in order to ensure quality. Scaling is easy when you have some success but scaling quality is not. However, we have expanded our operation. We have increased the number of courses. We have introduced new programs and so on.
One of the key metrics we use in this sector is how efficiently we are utilizing the capacity that we have. For example, we have a certain number of classrooms, so my concern is that from 9 am to 9 pm if all the classrooms are occupied, then I am doing well.
What are the things that contributed to your growth as a company?
We have never compromised with quality. We recruit the best teachers and provide the best teaching materials. We spend a disproportionate amount of time in recruiting good teachers. We have a complex recruiting process where we invest both time and resources to ensure we recruit the best teachers in the market.
This year 27th batch of BBA got into IBA. Our classes will start in May for the next batch. What will happen is that since the fresher batch came, and the sophomores usually apply to get into Mentors', they will start dropping CV. We get around 120 to 150 CVs because almost everyone wants to get associated with us to do something besides studying and to earn some extra money. We call everyone who submits a CV because they all have passed our first requirement which is to get into IBA. A group of 5 existing senior teachers of Mentors' take interview each of the selected candidates. Then they have to take demo classes. We hire about 30 teachers and we ensure that we get the best of the best.
We arrange demo classes for 120-150 candidates and give each of them around 15-20 minutes which takes around 13 to 14 days. Then we make a shortlist of 40-45 candidates who sit for a final interview where I along with a coordinator get involved. From the interview, we select final 30-32 teachers based on the marks of both interviews.
You could see that this is a time consuming and effortful process for us. It is expensive as well. If we wanted, we could select 30 of them seeing only their CV considering their previous results or institutes or our teachers’ recommendations. But we do not take chances. We invest in order to ensure that we have recruited the best teachers that we can possibly find.
Each of the candidates knows that everyone has to go through the process to be a teacher of Mentors'. Once recruitment is done, everyone goes through a training program before taking classes. So I believe the group of teachers is one of the most important things that is behind the success of Mentors'.
Word of mouth is one thing that has helped you attract students but you certainly have to take some initiatives to amplify the result of word of mouth, what other things you do to attract students?
Marketing has changed over the years but in the past, it was mostly print-driven. Today, we spend a lot of resources on digital platforms, SMS and these new communication channels. However, in the early days, we used to do marketing mostly through posters, stickers and newspaper ads.
We used to distribute brochures in front of colleges during O levels and HSC examinations, which we do these days as well. Our brochure design has always been exceptionally good. We pay a lot of attention to designing high-quality brochures because we believe every communication material that we distribute tells a story about us.
On top of all that, we provide excellent teaching materials that have helped to attract students.
Could you give us an overview of Mentors' in terms of courses and programs that you offer and your operation?
Program-wise, we run an admission preparation program for BBA and MBA admission of IBA, Dhaka University. That’s the only admission test preparation course we run. We do nothing else. We have been able to build a great program for IBA admission preparation and our singular focus has helped us to do that.
We run programs for test preparation for IELTS, SAT, etc. Apart from that, we have a handful of English Language courses that are popular such as English spoken, phonetics, writing, and grammar courses. We have also a program for students after SSC English. These are the courses we run.
Apart from that, we have one of the most comprehensive study abroad programs in the country. We have a team of counselors in each of our branches in Dhaka who help students with their application procedure, travel, departure orientation, visa, accommodation in abroad and everything in between regarding studies abroad. We are partners with more than 200 universities from the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, and Malaysia.
We also run test centers for GED and IELTS. We run a Pearson authorized GED test center in Kalabagan. In Mirpur and Uttara, we have IELTS test centers in partnership with the British Council. These are the courses and services we provide.
How big is your team now?
We have roughly 60 people in the team who look after the operation in Dhaka. This number does not include teachers because teachers mostly work based on classes and most teachers are not permanent.
If we include teachers, it would be around 300. We mostly hire teachers from IBA. Students of IBA BBA take classes for like 4 years and then MBA students for 2-2.5 years. Then we recruit new teachers.
How do you operate as a company? How does your culture look like?
Operationally, we have branch managers who look after the operations of different branches, counselor for students and there are teachers. Our study abroad operation works entirely separately from our regular operation. We have a separate team there. There are support staffs.
The branch managers report to DGM of HR and admin. In study abroad, we have DGM and managers. We have marketing, HR, procurement team and team to run test centers. I personally deal with marketing head, branch managers and DGM of HR and admin and study abroad and with the head of the customer service who sits at our Mouchak branch.
We have recently taken a measured approach to decentralizing our operation. We are now placing heads of our different departments at our different branches. It used to be only Kalabagan branch before, which has created a perception that Kalabagan is the best branch since senior leadership sits here whereas the truth is our service and teacher quality remain same across branches. So we have consciously made the decision to place some of our senior leaders in different branches. It offers assurance to our students and parents. As a culture, we work as a team. It is a flat structure. Helpful and open.
Over the past years, you have expanded both vertically as well as in terms of the size of your business. When you decide to expand i.e. expand a branch or launch a new course, how do you make those decisions?
Every industry has some calculations. For us, one of the metrics that we use is the utilization of our space. In many ways, we are in the business of the real estate. When we see there is unutilized or underutilized space that could be used better, we take initiatives to ensure better utilization of that. That’s one. Then there is demand trend in the market. We speak to students, get reports from the team and see if there is a demand for something that we could do better than others in the market.
For example, we are working on a new course that we plan to launch soon. We are recruiting teachers, preparing materials and charting out marketing strategy. This is a big course. I don’t want to share the details right away because of strategic reasons. Many of the organizations in the market already offer this course but we believe we will be able to do something different. We have solid plans. We will take fewer students in each class. We will provide better materials and probably better teachers. We have already done market research where we have seen that the problem with this course is that it is taken in a big hall room without any chance for students to ask questions. We will make the course interactive. We have decided to enter this space because we have seen an opportunity and we have the resources, capacity and market reputation to execute on it.
How do you see the overall industry of skill development and private coaching business in Bangladesh? What’s your take on the competition?
The demand for learning English is an ever-growing trend in Bangladesh because, except for some good schools in the big cities, overall Bangla medium students struggle a lot with English. In fact, we come across students from very good schools and background with excellent academic results to struggle with English. There is a huge gap there and I believe the demand will only grow in the coming days. This reality applies to many other areas as well. From an opportunity perspective, the overall growth potential is huge.
Talking of competition, this is a hyper-competitive market. We do not have one particular competitor rather we have multiple competitors for each of our courses. There are local English centers that offer the same courses as we do. Multiple centers may offer the same course. That creates a competitive environment. In order to do well, you have to be really good.
Good thing is that there is no unhealthy competition. However, one thing we suffer from the most is false commitment. For example, some of the centers say that 7 in IELTS is guaranteed if students study there but how can someone tell how much a student is going to score without knowing the student properly? Sometimes students come to us and ask us why we are not giving such commitments? We then make them understand that we do not yet know them enough to say that. Moreover, it depends on them how well they would score than on the teachers. We never make any such commitment.
Apart from this, I love competitions. Competition pushes you. It encourages you to innovate and do more.
If you look down the line two-three years, what are the challenges for Mentors'?
Digitalization is something we see as a challenge but then and again, we have already started working on it because it makes sense to do so. For many people, it is not always possible to attend classes enduring Dhaka’s traffic jam. Digital learning could be a good alternative to that. Although digital learning and classroom learning can never be the same, still it can work as compliment.
We are spending a lot on building our digital infrastructure. We plan to introduce our mock tests digitally soon.
Do you see a point where a significant percentage of your business move to digital platforms?
Yes! Digital is the future. Rather a combination of digital and in-campus education is the future. When that happens, I do not want to go to someone else’s digital platform rather we want to build our own. So I am working on it. We have already started working on the platform in collaboration with a third party technology team. It may take us 2-3 years to launch our digital service but we are strongly on our way.
There is no alternative to digitalization. 5 years down the line we may have to offer everything online to be able to stay competitive. I believe digital could be a great complementary service to our physical services allowing students to review their courses and materials online after attending an offline class. That is an interesting challenge where we should dive in rather right away than backing off.
What are other challenges?
The regular challenges are same for every industry such as running the operation and making the business work. That is similar for us as well.
One particular challenge we have been going through of late is due to the various discussion around Coaching Center’s role in the overall education system. The government has made a rule that we have to shut down operation during SSC and HSC exams every year, which is over two months a year. This is a challenge that hurts negatively. Although we do not fall under the same category as coaching centers because we are registered under a different category, every time when this time comes up we need to go to the authority and take permission for continuing. It takes real effort to deal with this and it is a recurrent challenge. We are a private limited company registered under RJSC. We pay our taxes. We have done nothing wrong. Despite that when authorities ask us to shut down for 2.5 months a year, which makes no sense, it creates perception and economic challenges for us.
I understand the government also face challenges and that they take these measures for good but what I believe is that measures should be well-thought out and that it should be designed to solve the real problem. The recent high court rule has made it simple. It said that the school teachers cannot run coaching centers but we freelancers can do so. This is something that could solve the problem once and for all. I think we are put into a difficult situation for no good reason.
Coaching is not something new to Bangladesh. Shadow education - coaching and private tutoring, is widely popular many countries across the world including Western countries like the US and Eastern countries like Japan. For example, Kumon, the Japanese after-school tutoring giant, has operations in many countries across the world including Bangladesh. It is nothing but a giant coaching center brand. We hope this challenge of dealing with regulatory issues will not last long for us.
There are other challenges. Finding good teachers is not easy all the time because we employee teachers part-time and many of our teachers, after completing their education, leave the country for higher education. So having good teachers is a challenge.
What are your goals for 2019 and the next couple of years?
As I mentioned earlier, online education is something that we are serious about. In the next few years, we plan to get somewhere on that. Then we want to go paperless. Complete automation is not possible because students counseling needs some human touches but we are trying to go paperless as much as possible.
On the program side, we plan to introduce some corporate courses under a different team. There is a growing demand for leveling up in the corporate sector in Bangladesh and we don’t have enough good organizations offering solutions to companies. We believe we have the experience, expertise, and infrastructure to serve that market well.
Then we are planning to introduce some basic skill development courses such as Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, public speaking and so on. Since we already have spoken and phonetics courses, going to public speaking and other similar skill development courses should not be difficult for us.
What are some lessons you’ve learned?
Working at Mentors' has been a transformational experience for me. It has changed me in more ways than I can explain. This not a lesson exactly, one thing I have gained from my journey is confidence. I do not get puzzled so easily these days.
Confidence is something that you learn over the time when you succeed at small things and then big things. It helps you slowly build your confidence. This is what happened to me. Running Mentors' for these years has helped me to experience things and build confidence. These days small and big hiccups don’t make me anxious. If a branch manager tells me that we are not doing as well as we should in a course, I don’t get anxious. I first look at whether we are making any mistakes or doing anything wrong, if we are not then it is just a bad time which happens in Bangladesh. Then we would run small market research to see what’s happening in the market. This was not how I used to respond to challenges in my early days. I used to become quite upset with small challenges. So confidence is something that you can learn through small wins and gradual momentum.
Second lessons would be learning from mistakes. Over the years, we have developed a robust system to learn from our mistakes. When something goes wrong or we identify a mistake, we assign a team to scrutinize what went wrong, they find out the root causes and then we take action accordingly.
What does it take to build a sustainable organization?
Brick by brick. Organizations don’t get built overnight. For us, we take one step at a time. That’s the strategy we’ve used throughout our journey. We’ve never done more than one thing at a time. For example, 3 years back when we took the Mirpur project, the Uttara branch needed an expansion which we held back for a while because we wanted to concentrate on Uttara Branch and give our best to it. This way of thinking has worked well for us.
We are a small business. For us, it is wise to take one step at a time because if we fail at a project, we can learn why we failed and take the lessons to the next project. When we took the Study Abroad project, we consciously decided not to take any other expansion project. Again, it has helped us to execute the study abroad project at our best.
We operate in a systematic way. Our approach is one thing at a time. Don’t do too many things. Ensure quality in everything you do. I believe it allows us to ensure superior execution, utilize our resources better and stay focused.
Focus is critical for building a sustainable organization. When you are doing too many things with limited resources, your quality of execution suffers. Sometimes you even falter. I have found focus, doing one thing at a time, and intensity of execution to be of extreme value in building lasting organizations.
Building and running a business comes with challenges and stress, how do you deal with that?
Over the years, I have developed more of a zen-like mindset. I do not easily get stressed anymore. This is something that did not happen overnight. This is the result of years of experience and seeing things. When something goes wrong, I try to fix it. I do everything within my power to solve it and then I wait. If the problem persists despite my best efforts, as I said before, if something is not in my hand, then what is the point of stressing over it.
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Updates on August 08 at 1:26 PM: The name of Mentors' has been udpated. The name of one of the founders of Mentors' has been updated.