Most journeys are nonlinear in nature. You don’t go straight from A to B. Rather you take a circuitous route - first go from A to C and then to B. For entrepreneurs, this is even more so. People who start companies don’t do it overnight. It is not like you to come up with an idea some morning and then go on to build a multimillion-dollar company overnight. Everything is a process involving multiple steps. Starting a business does not happen overnight.
You come across an inspiration that triggers something in you. You hesitate. Take some time to prepare. And then after some back and forth, you finally muster enough courage to start up. Often ideas evolve when they come in a touch of reality. You start with an ambition to build one thing and then end up building an entirely different thing. Understanding these nuances and then maintain a flexible outlook to accommodate these changes is critical for any successful entrepreneurial journey.
The story of LightCastle Partners, a research and consulting firm based in Dhaka offers an excellent case study of all these things in practice.
Founded in 2013, LCP has grown to become one of the most important new-generation research and consultancy firms in Bangladesh. In an interview with Future Startup, published in June 2018, Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish, Co-Founder and Managing Director of LightCastle’s Partners shared how LCP was founded and the early days of LCP. The story, which is an excerpt from our interview with Mr. Ivdad, is packed with practical lessons for founders.
After completing the ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level, I went to the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka, to do a bachelor’s in business. While in IBA, I felt a passion for doing something for Bangladeshi businesses. That was the origin of a passion for entrepreneurship.
During my bachelor’s, we had a course on branding taught by Syed Ferhat Anwar sir. In that course, we were divided into groups and asked to brainstorm an idea to brand Bangladesh as a country. It was a mini-competition within the class. So, we did. While some of the groups emphasized our heritage, the others wanted to focus on tourism; our group came up with a bold idea: promoting Bangladesh as the Next Investment Frontier. We wanted to position Bangladesh as a prospective commercial hub. The project became a hit in the class. The best part was we topped the charts!
That experience was a further impetus for entrepreneurship in all of us who were on that team including Bijon, Zahed, Saif, and I. We determined to do something in that area. After graduation, everyone headed in different directions, though we remained in our key area of interest. I myself joined Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC), Bijon joined Citi NA, Zahed joined HSBC.
Although we went on to work for different organizations after graduation, the passion for entrepreneurship was always there. After three or four years when I took a break from work to apply for MBA abroad, my friends and I got together. After lengthy discussions, we decided that we should do something on our own. Although I wanted to pursue my career after completing my master’s, seeing that the time was ripe and everyone was enthusiastic about the decision, I decided to join the team.
While LightCastle was formally launched in January 2013, the brainstorming sessions started way back from mid-2012. Over coffee hangouts or late night ‘addas’, we’d end up sharing our individual frustrations of dealing with subjective decisions across various organizational levels.
In our experience, we have seen that businesses in Bangladesh – regardless of their type – suffer from a lack of data in decision making. As a consequence, there is a culture of making decisions at whim. Consequently, businesses end-up making sub-optimal decisions. We wanted to break that culture by simplifying the process of making decisions.
And for that to happen, you’d need reliable data, easy-to-understand visualization tools, and actionable insights. That’s how LightCastle Partners started. And as they say, the rest is history.
It’s been more than 5 years since we have been running LightCastle, where every moment spent is a moment of joy for all of us who deeply believe in the cause that we’re trying to serve in Bangladesh and beyond.
We initially set up our office in a small room in Elephant road at one of our co-founder Saif’s technology firm and thenceforth the journey of LCP commenced.
We used to do everything by ourselves in the beginning. But as the business grew and the number of clients increased, we had to expand our team and look for investment. Since we mostly serve the private sector and development sector clients, we thought in order to make a mark in the market we need to have an office in a good location. As a result, six months into the business we raised our first, and till now the only round of investment.
In our early days, we faced some serious challenges. We started LCP with the vision to educate the local market about the significance of data in day-to-day business decisions. We didn’t think it would be too far-fetched an idea provided that the rest of the world was already experiencing a sort of data-wave at the time. But sadly the market wasn’t ready. Data wasn’t as big a deal as it should be here. So, we had to pivot in order to survive.
While we pitched our data solution, local companies were approaching us with requests for conducting market research. We realized that our core business idea needs a little “fine-tuning” considering the current level of awareness among our target group. Therefore, in order to establish our footing in the market and create credibility among customers, we decided to cater to the existing market need and keep our vision in the background for the time being.
Soon after our inception, we were able to develop our own research tool: LightCastle Data, which was recognized both by Facebook and Microsoft as one of the top innovations in Bangladesh at that time. With that program, we began to build an information network by accumulating data from enumerators around the country. Our tool provided a set of services including data collection, analysis, and presentation.
In doing market research, we saw that people were fairly satisfied with our performance and they were making inquiries as to how they could apply the research findings in their business. Simply put, they wanted our consultation. Consequently, we decided to provide consultation service as well which included value chain analysis, business model development, strategic assistance, investment advisory among others.
Our company took on a new positioning during 2014. The verticals were getting into a firm shape. We began to work closely with various organizations in the public sector and the development sector. Several international players like the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ricardo Energy and Environment started collaborating with us.
Later on, besides the research and consulting services, our customers started to request us to help them with implementing the strategic decisions. So, that became another product vertical for us. We provide assistance to companies with resource acquisition, capacity building, and efficient training programs and so on. One of the largest implementation projects that we have been doing includes Unnoty, a robust SME accelerator program, supported by USAID Agriculture Value Chain.
While running the SME accelerator program, we realized that most of the current startups in Bangladesh are technology-focused, and concentrated in and around the capital. But Dhaka isn’t the whole country, and the small and medium enterprises that are spread all across Bangladesh actually comprise the lion’s share of the economy. We wanted to bring these SMEs into our network and provide them services to help scale up their businesses.
To start with, we chose to work on agro-SMEs. We decided to apply our very own business model, Smart Capital that we developed for SMEs in line with the Silicon Valley model. Therefore, as a new vertical, we opened up LightCastle Impact, an impact investment arm that aims to accelerate the growth of the small and medium businesses through smart and growth-oriented capital and ecosystem development. It was started in late 2017.
Another initiative that we have undertaken recently is LightCastle Center for Advanced Learning (LCAL). While working with private and development sector organizations, we observed a need for awareness of analytics among the professionals. We understood that we could educate the workforce about the significance and basics of data analysis and communication by introducing a training program, that is highly quantitative in nature. LCAL came as a result of such an endeavor where we are currently offering courses on business and market analytics, project management, financial modeling among others.
At the beginning of our conversation, I said that our ultimate vision is to work on big data. That vision has just started to materialize. Working with tech firms for years has given us the necessary experience and resources to design our own analytics applications.
We have already created a separate unit, LightCastle Analytics, to work in this area. Currently, we are working with a few development clients on some exciting and emerging technologies including machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Going forward, our vision is to provide cutting-edge digital and analytics solutions to organizations for simplifying complex decisions, leading to higher efficiency, increased revenues and greater impact.
Read more: Read our coverage of LCP here.