Update: This interview was originally published on September 19, 2018
Tamzid Siddiq Spondon is the co-founder and Managing Director of Zanala Bangladesh, a leading communication services company based in Dhaka. Mr. Spondon has a brilliant story to tell. Over the years, he and his team at Zanala Bangladesh, have built an empire from scratch. What started as a scrappy software development company in 2001, today, Zanala has businesses in communication, hardware and software development, tourism, pure food, and much more.
In this empowering and immensely insightful interview, Mr. Spondon tells us about his early days and how his upbringing helped him in enduring the myriad challenges of entrepreneurship and life, how he ended up being an entrepreneur - first in his family, how Zanala Bangladesh came into being, Zanala Bangladesh journey to what it is today, what it means to be an entrepreneur, how he and his team have grown the business and built an empire from zero, lessons he has learned so far, and much more.
This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it up into three parts. This is the first part of the interview. Please come back later this month for the second part of the interview. Happy reading!
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Let us start with your story. What is your background? Could you please tell us about your journey to what you are doing today?
Tamzid Siddiq Spondon
I had the opportunity to attend some of the best schools in the country. I started my schooling at St. Joseph Higher Secondary School in Dhaka where I studied till my SSC and then went to Notre Dame College for my HSC. After HSC, I took admission at North South University where I did a few credits before transferring my credits to the National University of Singapore (NUS) from where I eventually completed my BBA in 2003. I did not pursue a master's degree later which makes me an anomaly in my family where a master's is the minimum educational threshold (laugh).
Although I finished my BBA in 2003, I started working way before that. 1997 to be precise. I worked for a company at that time. However, it was nothing like a formal job. You could say I don’t have any formal job experience in my entire career, which is 20 years now.
In 2001, I and one of my School friends started Zanala Bangladesh. And we continue to be the two partners at Zanala Bangladesh - I’m the Managing Director and he is the Chairman. When we started Zanala, I had not finished my graduation yet. The business was new territory for me. I was the first person in my family to pursue entrepreneurship as a career. We are five siblings. My father was a bureaucrat. He retired as DG, IMED. Although my parents eventually came to accept and appreciate our work, initially, they did not support my decision. My father wanted me to join the government service or get a proper and secure job.
Business was not encouraged in society. People did not expect someone with a university degree to start a business. There was a negative connotation attached to it. People did not see a businessman in a positive light. This perception continues to reverberate in our society even these days. However, the situation has improved a lot. In our time, it was way more intense. We had to endure many social challenges.
We started Zanala Bangladesh with almost zero capital and literally out of a garage. We had one computer and a team of 5 people! So it was not feasible for everyone to work at the same time. We would work on a rotation basis because since we did not have computers for everyone on the team, we would schedule our work and time and manage it somehow. All five of us started as partners, which means we did not have to pay a fixed salary to anyone and did not have much overhead. However, it did not continue in that vein for long.
After a while, when we decided to form a company, the rest of the members decided not to continue except me and my partner now. They realized that the business would not go anywhere and sticking around would eventually result in nothingness. It was a logical decision on their part, which made perfect sense at that time. Two of us decided to stick to it and see it through to the end. Although this sounds like a pretty straightforward decision today, it was not at that time. It was a difficult decision. We had to muster every bit of courage that we had. Moreover, things did not improve after that decision. Rather opposite. We had to go through pretty much all kinds of struggles. Finance was a challenge because we did not have investment, and we did not take any bank loans, in fact, to this day, we never took a bank loan, we have grown completely organically. One of the reasons, of course, we don’t understand banking that well. We are learning about it. Sometimes, it is tough to take a business to the next level without investment.
I would suggest to the new entrepreneurs that they invest time and effort in understanding these financial intricacies. We had to endure many strenuous situations for our lack of financial knowledge. There are many issues related to taxation, VAT, and many other things which if you don’t know you would end up losing money. We made all those mistakes for which we had to pay extra fees which we could have avoided if we were a little more prudent. After twenty years of business, we understand these things now. Young entrepreneurs should take these small and boring things seriously and pay sufficient attention to these areas from the very beginning.
The business has a fun part, it also has bitter parts. We often talk about fun parts and overlook the challenging aspects of it. I suggest you tread the not-so-glamorous part of the business with greater deliberation.
Zanala Bangladesh started as a pure software development company. Many experienced and well-known programmers worked with us in our early days. We worked with many international clients including Australian La Trobe University, Victoria University, etc and as well as local clients.
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Things got worse in 2003 when we lost one of our Australian clients, which was our biggest revenue source at that time. Consequently, we did not have much earning for the next 4-5 months, which led to other difficult challenges. Some of our best people left us at that time because we could not afford them anymore. We could not pay our rent on time. It sounds interesting, even inspiring today but when you go through it, it is not a pleasant experience. You start with a big dream and then you stumble and even could not pay your office rent. Your best people are leaving you. You are struggling to pay the bill. People are saying bad things about you. And despite your best effort, you could not manage. It is hard to endure. I would say that almost every entrepreneur goes through this phase and these challenges. This is when most founders give up, most ventures die and entrepreneurs decide to pursue something else. This phase is critical. If you could endure this phase, nothing would scare you anymore in life.
Today, Zanala Bangladesh is a communication company and you have a tech company called Zanala Systems. But when you started, you were a software company, how did your transition from a pure software company to a communication company happen?
Tamzid Siddiq Spondon
At one point in Zanala Bangladesh's journey, we became bored with what we were doing, developing software for clients and earning money. We were not enjoying our work. Business was doing well but we’re missing the joy at work. That’s when the thought of trying a change came to our mind for the first time.
We spent some time mulling over it. We spent hours contemplating the fact that we chose entrepreneurship as a career because of our passion so that we could do what we enjoy doing. Since we are not finding joy at work anymore, we should change. That’s how we decided to shift our direction to creative work because we have always been passionate about creative projects. Gradually, we pivoted to a communication company.
We started by slowly shifting our focus to new areas, increasing our range of offerings, and shifting towards more specialized development. Eventually, we decided that Zanala Bangladesh would work only in digital content, content development, content management, and digital communication.
We gradually separated our software development component and turned it into another company called Zanala Systems Limited to work mainly on device-based solutions such as a kiosk for the financial sector, retailers, and others.
Today, Zanala Systems is the only company in Bangladesh that makes these products completely locally. We do everything, from hardware to software, in-house. We have our own production facility where we do the manufacturing. Although small, we do everything ourselves at Zanala Systems.
To date, Zanala Systems has over 450 installations all over Bangladesh. We have a small office in Nepal as well, where we are going to have installations soon. We started Zanala Systems in 2009. So you could say that from 2001-2009 we went through this shift.
Could you please tell us more about the challenges you had to go through in the early days?
Tamzid Siddiq Spondon
When we started Zanala Bangladesh our only capital was passion. We had almost zero capital. On top of it, initially, our families were not supportive, which means we did not have anyone to guide us. And when you don’t have a mentor, you make mistakes. You make small and big mistakes alike. We had to learn the hard way. We screwed things up and then we learned that we should not have done that in the first place.
As I mentioned earlier that financial management was a big challenge. We made a lot of financial mistakes. We spent a lot of money without thinking much. We wasted money on things that we should not have. We made all these mistakes. Despite that, we survived because our business was generating revenue. But things got worse in 2003 when we lost one of our Australian clients, which was our biggest revenue source at that time. Consequently, we did not have much earnings for the next 4-5 months, which led to other difficult challenges. Some of our best people left us at that time because we could not afford them anymore. We could not pay our rent on time. It sounds interesting, even inspiring today but when you go through it, it is not a pleasant experience. You start with a big dream and then you stumble and even could not pay your office rent. Your best people are leaving you. You are struggling to pay the bill. People are saying bad things about you. And despite your best effort, you could not manage. It is hard to endure.
I would say that almost every entrepreneur goes through this phase and these challenges. This is when most founders give up, most ventures die and entrepreneurs decide to pursue something else. This phase is critical. If you could endure this phase, nothing would scare you anymore in life.
The other thing is personal. I got married in 2003. That was also the time when our business was going through a rough patch. I did not have much income at that time. I used to walk to my office. My wife was doing her master's at that time, she used to walk to her campus most days. Every day we tried to save every penny that we could. That was a really bad time.
Many people would give up in such a situation. I had my doubts and had opportunities to explore other options but eventually, I decided to stick to them. That’s when determination is critical, telling yourself that this is what you want to do and that you would stick to it no matter what. The mental pressure and psychological abyss of this period require a lot of courage and determination.
It took us almost 4 years, from 2003-2007, to come out of that slump. To today’s young people, 4 years is like an eternity. But if you are into building anything of consequence know that it is going to take a long time. Success is rarely overnight. This is something I would like young people who are starting out today to be mindful of. It would never happen that you start something today and tomorrow you would build a huge business.
What helped you to endure and survive those difficult days?
Tamzid Siddiq Spondon
My wife was very supportive during this period of time. We suffered together. I got tremendous support from many people around me for who I’m grateful today. That helped me to stay the course.
The other thing was probably my willpower and the way I was raised. In my School and College, I was an involved kid. I was into every possible type of extra-curricular activity, starting from debate to sports and so on. It helped me to develop many important life skills.
I would like to highlight the aftermath of that difficult phase of my life. That journey of hardships and difficulties has been a tremendous help throughout my career. Nothing scares me anymore because I have seen the worse. I have become resilient. It was good training for me. It taught me not to be afraid of any situation no matter how challenging the situation appears. This is not something that I inherited or was born with. You develop willpower through practice. When you get to this point, everything becomes easier.
Let’s go back to your business challenges. You lost a big client in 2013 and fell into a crisis, how did you survive that crisis and then return to growth again? What are some lessons you’ve learned from that crisis?
Tamzid Siddiq Spondon
After losing that client, we made some major decisions and gradually changed our strategy. We learned that never put all your eggs in one basket. We realized that depending on 2/3 clients was a big mistake. So we decided to diversify, both our clients and services and focus on growing the number of clients. That was an important lesson - diversifying our business.
We learned to pay greater attention to retaining clients. Instead of running after new clients, we realized that growth is all about retention. We have to ensure that we are giving the best services to our customers. We have to be a people-driven company and a customer-centric company.
I want to make a point here. We often say that customers are king. I agree with that sentiment in the sense that you have to delight your customers. At the same time, I also think that in order to build great products and deliver the best services, you have to train your people. If you don’t train them they would not be able to serve your customers well. You have to invest in your people. It is people who make or break a business. When your people own the company and are happy, they will serve your clients well.
After 2003, we started to serve local clients, doing small projects. And slowly we started to get some traction.
It took us almost 4 years, from 2003-2007, to come out of that slump. To today’s young people, 4 years is like an eternity. But if you are into building anything of consequence know that it is going to take a long time. Success is rarely overnight. This is something I would like young people who are starting out today to be mindful of. It would never happen that you start something today and tomorrow you would build a huge business. You will go through challenges.
We struggled for four years. And finally, we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel in 2007. Then we built another company, Zanala Systems. Almost ten-fifteen banks currently use our product.
Fast forward 2010, I was elected as the General Secretary of BASIS. Working at BASIS gave me an opportunity to see the industry from a different perspective. It gave me industry-wide exposure. Before that my exposure was basically within the work of my company. After working at BASIS, I got an opportunity to see the industry as a whole which was an important learning curve for me. You grow when you get to learn new things. After BASIS, I started to see my entire business from a different perspective.
Initially, it was not easy. In the first few years, it was very difficult to get clients. We tried everything in those days - from cold calling daily to using the personal network, reference, virtually anything. Our first client that we worked with was probably 20th prospect that we approached. Previous 19 prospects rejected us. That was sort of the average success rate - if we had called 20 people, we used to get one client.
What happened after that?
In 2013, I started to look at the travel and tourism industry. I’m an avid traveler. I take a deep interest in our history and culture and believe that we need to go back to our roots and own them and be proud of them. I was involved in music in the past. I was the founding guitarist and vocalist of the band BLACK. I left BLACK in 2003 because I could not give time to the band. I was and am a very passionate musician.
Long story short, this passion for travel and our history, culture, and heritage has led to the founding of BASE CAMP, a travel and outdoor activity-focused company. Our tagline at Base Camp is ‘unleash your inner tiger’ which comes from a personal belief that every one of us has immense potential.
BASE CAMP believes that everyone has great possibilities but we are not exposed to it. People explore themselves when they get inspiration from their environment. But our society does not encourage going the extra mile or exploring new things. There are too many restrictions. You can’t do that, do this, is a common predicament we grow up with. This culture of inhibition pushes us to suppress our inner inclinations. We accept our situation and give up on our dreams and spend the rest of our lives trying to fit in. That’s the inspiration behind starting Base Camp. We wanted to break free from that mentality and inspire people to pursue more.
When we started Base Camp, we did not take it as a business. We did it out of passion. We had a place that we could use and we wanted to make a difference.
But when we finally started Base Camp, we found out that tourism is an important form of learning and education. So we took it as a process of education and self-development that’s when we realized that there is a huge opportunity in the space. We found out that nobody was actually addressing it. Everyone was doing what is conventional and what everyone else was doing. That’s when we thought that yes, we could make a meaningful difference here.
Travel broadens the mind. When you travel, you learn new things and expose yourself to new experiences. People always change after every new trip. Since I myself is a traveler, we thought that we want to inspire traveling and self-exploration.
Since then we have started a host of other initiatives from BASE CAMP. We have a project called NEW CAMPERS, which takes place in Saver with an ambition to give people a sense of family, community, bonding, and living in nature. We have also started working on Community Tourism in a village in Bandarban called MUNGLI Para. We have included every family of that village in our business ecosystem and we share revenue with them. We are doing a couple of these community tourism projects now.
We have also been organizing a handful of events. Last year, we did Dhaka Challenge 2017, a half-marathon, a very well-managed event where people from 7 different countries attended. Then we did a Marathon. Before that, we did the longest walk of 100km in Cox’s Bazar.
We’ve begun working on another venture, an organic and safe-food venture, called NEO FARMERS with an ambition to provide safe food to everyone. NEO FARMERS, which is yet to launch, is currently working with 57 products. We are also bringing back our own lost food products. We are working with farmers from remote areas in the county.
Apart from business initiatives, we invest in CSR as well. We have a social organization called Spriha Bangladesh. We run a school in Bandarban from Spriha. We do tree plantation. We work closely with the community to promote sustainable living. Our community there makes organic fertilizer from waste. We also have a solar management system and are working on a water purification system. We are providing training on organic farming to our community members.
How have you attracted customers and grown Zanala Bangladesh?
Tamzid Siddiq Spondon
We have always strived to provide the best possible services to our customers, which has been our key strategy from day one. When you serve your clients well, they tell others about you.
In B2B business, this is something very important. If you provide great service, people will certainly tell others about you. This has been one of the strongest growth engines for us.
How did you attract clients in the early days because you did not have the credibility, which you have now, at that time? How many prophets did you approach before getting your first client?
Tamzid Siddiq Spondon
Initially, it was not easy. In the first few years, it was very difficult to get clients. We tried everything in those days - from cold calling daily to using the personal network, reference, virtually anything.
Our first client that we worked with was probably the 20th prospect that we approached. The previous 19 prospects rejected us. That was sort of the average success rate - if we had called 20 people, we used to get one client.
It was very difficult. Rejection does not feel good but we persisted and over time people came to know about our work and it has gotten easier.
However, those early days helped us to develop resilience in the face of challenges and difficulties. That lesson in perseverance continues to serve us well.
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I would like to highlight the aftermath of that difficult phase of my life. That journey of hardships and difficulties has been a tremendous help throughout my career. Nothing scares me anymore because I have seen the worse. I have become resilient. It was a good training for me. It taught me not to be afraid of any situation no matter how challenging the situation appears. This is not something that I inherited or born with. You develop will power through practice. When you get to this point, everything becomes easier.
Cover photo credit: Zanala Bangladesh