Life Is The Best Teacher: An Interview With Mahfuz Siddique Himalay, Founder, Humanlab777
Humanlab777 Founder and Author Mahfuz Siddique Himalay on how social pressure and an education in humiliation, suffering, and voluntary practice of detachment helped him to see the meaning of life differently, his path to entrepreneurship and beginning of Humanlab, a new kind of management consulting firm in Bangladesh, explains what went into building Humanlab777 and challenges of building something new from scratch, discusses Humanlab’s services, how it operates as a company, state of its business today and its ambition going forward and reflects on lessons he has learned from his journey and why listening is the superpower we seldom use, why people should live and learn for themselves through practical living and the incredible importance of self-reliance in all aspects of life. We hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did.
When I started interviewing people, I mistakenly thought that I now know a lot about people. But with time, I have come to understand that people are like electrons. If you observe electrons for some time, you will notice that their behaviors have changed. People are the same. We are fluid and always a work in progress. But there are certain aspects of people that don’t change. Just as electrons have a nucleus, I am in search of the nucleus of human beings, not their outside behavior.
Could you please tell us about your background and your path to what you are doing?
Mahfuz Siddique Himalay
I studied Materials and Metallurgical Engineering at BUET. But even before getting into the BUET, I was quite sure that I am probably not an engineering material. That’s why although I completed my degree at BUET, although it took me longer than usual, I never pursued an engineering career after graduation. As a matter of fact, I never subscribed to a career concept throughout my life and don’t carry any accordingly.
I completed my HSC from Notre Dame College. I had quite an awakening while at Notre Dame, largely due to various social pressures. I suffered through sort of an existential crisis and had developed some serious questions about life and living. I had questions regarding our way of living and whether it is much of a dignified process of living. I was young but I made a decision that I would not be overwhelmed merely for earning a livelihood. That’s freed me up to some extent from things most people desire since I could easily discard the need for materialistic success.
Consequently, I started putting more time into writing and became quite a prolific writer, which I have been doing from a pretty early age. So far 6 of my books have been published, and the 7th one is in the queue which is likely to get published at the Ekushey Boi Mela 2020
One of my favorite things is to listen to people and their stories. I have been interviewing people since my childhood. Over the past 23 years, I interviewed 4,500+ individuals from different walks of life.
I enjoy establishing connections with people. I email people I find interesting and sometimes it leads to interesting conversations.
I’m a father of Twin daughters – Unish Mahfuz and Teish Mahfuz.
Was there any particular incident that provoked you to think in a different way about life?
I was born and brought up in Manikganj. I used to be quite a dynamic and competitive kid growing up. I used to participate in debates. I even got a National Award in debating. I have a National Award in an essay competition. I used to organize programs. Do science projects. Organize cricket tournaments, etc. I was a good student and an active participant in extracurricular activities. That was in school.
When I came to Dhaka for HSC, a lot of my views got challenged. I couldn’t adjust to the lifestyle in Dhaka. I found the kids here to be mentally many times matured than me, more materialistic, more adaptive and smarter.
I used to think highly of myself when I was in Manikganj. After coming to Dhaka, I found myself as a common stereotypical character not much different from other kids of my age. It was a shock for me. That’s when I started to write diaries and have a conversation with myself to get out of the shock. As a result, I gradually became detached from everything else. You may call this my complete isolation phase. I became devoid of ambition and goals. I was not any more attracted to success and results and all that.
That being said, I could not escape the matrix completely either. I was still a boy. Due to pressure from my family, I had to sit for the BUET admission test. Luckily, I passed and got into BUET. I was a reluctant BUET student. But BUET proved to be an important phase in my development. I used the time in BUET running various experiments. I was not into studies. I knew that I don’t want to pursue studies. I didn’t buy a single book. I didn’t take notes in the classes. One of my roommates and my lone fiend at the department became a teacher at BUET. I used to listen to his study and have a manageable understanding.
It was a pathetic lifestyle at BUET because BUET is a hyper-competitive place. People compete with each other. Falling behind is bad for your morale. It is humiliating. In total, I failed at sixteen courses. I eventually graduated 1.5 years later than my original schedule, I guess. However, I had an excellent education in humiliation. While most people would like to avoid such an education, it was essential for my development. Once you can stare humiliation in the eye, you have conquered half of the challenges of life. Many of the meaningless pursuits of life are merely inspired by our impetus to avoid being humiliated in the eyes of society.
During my BUET student life, I was a regular blogger. I used to be a hyperactive blogger at “somewherein blog.” I made two films during my time at BUET. I worked at OnnoRokom Group (Rokomari.com being one of its well-known concerns) as a freelance consultant for almost nine years until May 2018. I had a project where we wanted to build collaboration between the universities and the industries. There are lots of students who have a high caliber but do not have any experience in the industry. There are many small jobs in companies that someone who is working part-time could do. I tried to build a platform to connect these two pieces where students could help companies do these jobs on a part-time basis. Thus making it a win-win situation for both the company and the students. As they graduate, they already have some working experience. Plus the companies can also recruit them full-time. I did this project with the OnnoRokom team.
I was also involved in recruitment at OnnoRokom. There are complaints from the companies that there is a lack of quality graduates. I think part of the problem is the recruitment process. To address the challenge, we made some changes to OnnoRokom. We put together a residential program like pre-job training. We would bring shortlisted candidates to the camp. For two months, we would observe them through real-life assignments. The program was designed much like a graduation program on a scale of CGPA 4.
We used to look at three aspects – learning attitude, work ethic, and natural potentials. We used to give them different tasks under these three categories. We designed various tests and training to bring them out of their comfort zones. Many had to deal with their ego. Then based on their results/ GPA, we would offer them jobs and salaries. We also did these for existing employees as well.
I also did some projects related to youth development. One of them was “Team Rokomari.” I managed a cricket team for five years. I made a team that used to play cricket all over Bangladesh. I used to record and maintain a database of potential players in different places.
Could you please tell us about Humanlab? How did the Humanlab come into being?
The idea didn’t just come out of a whim. I have a knack for analytical thinking and writing. When I left OnnoRokom Group, I had to do something. Either work for someone or do something on my own.
I did some personal consultancy for a while but the work prospect was not sustainable. I was also studying management and consultancy companies like Mckinsey and BCG on the side. I found the work very interesting.
I came to realize that there is a lack of similar work in Bangladesh. There has little been done in terms of developing business intelligence space in Bangladesh. I understood that I am good at human resources and human research, which is a problem for many companies. That’s how I thought we may start offering that as a service and Humanlab was born.
We offer both services as well as virtual products.
Could you define Humanlab777? What is Humanlab777?
For anything meaningful to happen, the intellectual foundation is a necessary condition. For revolution, you need insights so that you could see things that others could not see. This is where our works come to use. We work for the development of insight of individuals and organizations so that they could better their lives.
At Humanlab777, we help companies identify their problems, the state of productivity of their people, how much value the company has been able to create from their people, what is the potential of the company, etc. We find out the root cause of a problem and give them remedies to solve it.
One of our key areas is hiring and recruitment. We believe that people make or break a company. If you have great people, you will build a great business. However, we are not a mainstream recruitment agency. We take an unorthodox approach to hiring.
We interview and groom candidates for 3-4 hours, which seems lengthy and stressful, yet we stick to it to scoop the inner self of every individual. Skill is mechanical and to some extent overrated, whereas willingness is the root that can turn a normal guy into a super-efficient one. We try to find the alignment of values between the company and the candidates and through the process we help the companies to hire the best people. For an employee, the first two or three months are the most difficult period. We also design the nurturing system during the first two or three months to make the onboarding smoother.
Broadly, we offer research and insights around people, products, services, customer happiness, etc. There is a severe shortage of operational processes and the absence of a benchmark in many organizations. We help companies design the operational process, develop workplace culture, etc. Culture remains an alien thing for most companies in Bangladesh. We help organizations build the right culture, define core values, and align vision with their core values.
We also provide services to individuals. We have a mentorship program that helps participants develop decision-making, critical thinking, and observation skills.
We have workshops that teach people how to think, plan strategically, how to write, how to review products, etc.
Recently, we have introduced a new brand called “itsonuman.com”. Most of the things that we do are mostly based on the sheer assumption. We have developed our own psychometric test and will keep developing more tools. Most psychometric tests available online are not culture-independent, and hence the score often affects. Our psychometrics tests are totally based on Bangladeshi context and culture.
So far we have developed JOB FITNESS INDICATOR, MANAGEMENT POTENTIALITY INDICATOR, CAREER ORIENTATION INDICATOR, and for the guys aged from 8 to 16- NATURAL TENDENCY INDICATOR.
These psychometrics tests are available both for B2B and B2C. We have 11 more psychometrics tests in the pipeline and we plan to indicate most of the real-life aspects through psychometrics.
We have launched some courses as well. For job holders, we have designed a six months long Growth Program where a full-fledged professional identifies his/her need area and we accompany him/her proportionately in reaching that landmark.
We have also started a PERSONALITY ANALYSIS PROGRAM where we analyze why a person’s thought process behaves in a specific pattern, based on his/her life-data and provides a qualitative and quantitative article.
People fear to listen – to themselves and others and love to talk instead, even the most reticent ones. Without listening we can’t see things at the deepest. Listening is our path to our core. When we listen to someone or something with our whole self, it opens doors inside us that could not be opened otherwise. Since we don’t listen, the insight can’t be developed. We suffer. We end up half-baked. We never develop fully. We are always distracted.
How did you decide to embark upon a journey with Humanlab777?
It’s not something that I decided. I had to do this for a living. Wealth creation is not my ambition in life. I aim for self-sufficiency and self-dependency. I try to make an impact on people’s lives. Writing is what I like. But it’s tough to earn money only by writing unless you are a famous writer. Since I am interested in human beings, I thought this is what I can do for a living.
I am against money-making for the sake of money-making. Money making for a reason, that makes sense. I don’t like excessive wealth creation by individuals. But don’t misjudge me a person with socialism ideology, I’m a pretty Capitalist. I understand and believe in the fact that if you want to create an impact, you have to be financially solvent. Because you can’t produce good work when you are constantly worrying about your future. However, that doesn’t mean you have to have BDT 2,000 crore in your bank account.
There is a demand for thinkers, consultants and business philosophers in advanced markets. Business philosophers are highly paid in countries like the US and the UK. In Bangladesh, however, the concept is not mainstream yet.
The typical consultants provide training and motivational speeches in the corporate houses. But that is not how you create an impact. Our ambition with Humanlab is different. We aim to establish a new paradigm in business and entrepreneurship space in Bangladesh. I have written a business fiction based on business philosophy in the same name which got published under the banner of Adarsha Publication on the eve of Pohela Boishakh.
What went into building the initial operation of Humanlab? How did you manage the initial investment and other resources?
I was brave and mad. These were my capital.
Apart from that, Sohel Bhai, a senior from BUET who now runs his own successful business, gave me office space. I don’t have any full-time team members. Everything is project-based. We do projects and disburse the project money among team members accordingly.
How big is your team?
Recently, Bari vai, a senior of BUET, has joined as my technical partner. He has been taking care of the technological development of intellectual products.
I have a bunch of freelance talents whom I engage on project-basis. As I run short of finance and am still striving to get adequate leads, it seems unwise to operate a full-time Employee concept. However, I have a distaste for the term ‘Employee’, it sounds like slavery to me, rather I am okay with the term ‘Thought mate’. I manage around 10-11 freelance ‘thought mates’ who work for Humanlab777 on various projects.
How many clients do you serve on a monthly basis?
We have been working with a handful of local and international companies on various projects. Among the companies, we have software companies, ecommerce companies, Interior design companies, NGO and an international company.
How do you reach out to potential clients?
The process is simple. We reach out to the CEOs, share our ideas and philosophies. When they agree to explore opportunities, we meet and find ways to take things forward. Currently, we are mostly trying to collaborate with companies from our BUET network since it is easier for us to reach.
As I am a desperate listener and interview persons from various backgrounds regularly, it also gives a sharp edge in meeting prospective lead.
Once someone agrees to meet, we present them with our ideas and how we could help their organizations. Once we agree to do a project together, we go on and work together. We mostly charge on an hourly basis. But in the case of lengthy projects, the charging model differs based on mutual agreement.
Our hourly rate is BDT 2,900. However, since we are a young and unconventional service providing company often people don’t want to pay us a certain rate. In that case, we offer discounts. We don’t lower the price because that would be contradictory to the value we provide. But we do offer discounts to educate and acquire clients. We hope that once people see the benefits of our work, they would eventually come to take our service.
How do your sales and marketing work?
We have LinkedIn and Facebook pages. But I don’t think it will be effective to generate leads for our type of business. Through Facebook and LinkedIn, we get individual customers who want to do personality analysis t and enroll at Growth Program.
We have a child entrepreneur studying in class six who has to read a couple of books and has to interview his teachers. The philosophy behind this is, if we can involve these kids with this sort of task at an early age, this will help them in the future.
For corporate, we are dependent on email marketing and cold calls. So far, what has worked for us is introductions and personal communication.
What are the challenges for the company going forward?
Our culture is a challenge. We do not like to wait. We are not farsighted. We become happy with very little. One opportunity is foreign companies are investing in local startups. Thus the entrepreneurs of the current generation will realize the importance of business philosophy. If I can hold on to for three or four years, probably the opportunities will open.
A majority of the traditional local companies probably would not show much interest in our work because the return is not immediate. Many of them do not even realize that the conventional system is not functioning. Maybe a small group is getting the point but that’s very small.
We have been in the business for a short period. The work ahead is huge.
I myself am the main challenge as well. As I am a dedicated writer, I often face difficulty in making a balance between writing and work, which sometimes creates a genuine philosophical crisis and dilemma.
What are the plans for the next two to three years?
Our first goal is to become self-sufficient.
How are you doing in terms of business? Are you thinking about break-even and similar things?
We are not thinking about break-even at the moment. Operationally we do break in some months and not in others. But we are not worried about that. We are focusing on product and service qualities. Our clients and potential clients need to understand that this service is valuable.
The market is there. I think one hundred and seven Humanlab will be needed to properly serve this big market whereas we have just one. Our target is to grow the business gradually. Our goal for the next 2/3 years is to build a value proposition that would inspire people to try our product and service. Means are as important here as the end. There is some fundamental gap in our understanding of the business. Push sales cannot be a sustainable goal.
We need to create value proposition/ USP in such a manner that, it would create demand for itself. We are educating the market. We are providing a discount so that no client rejects our service on the mere excuse of money.
This is our biggest challenge. We need data to understand both how our products work and what our companies lack or need. But if we don’t have many clients we cannot get reliable data. This is our investment right now. As I have mentioned before, my capital is madness and bravery. And my points of investment are value and impact. The first three or four years will be struggling, I might even get drowned in deeper emptiness and frustration. But there should not be any compromise in value creation.
I don’t like advising. Advice is for the fools. Offering guidelines to people is an afford in rendering them useless. People need challenges and sufferings to bring the best in them. People need to roam around. They need to hear both the good and the bad. They need to use their judgment to identify what is good and what is bad. As we are not willing to do that, we need mentors. Motivational speakers become our idols. We become dependent on their opinions.
What are some of the lessons you have learned?
When I started interviewing people, I mistakenly thought that probably I had come to know a lot about people. But with time, I understood that people are like electrons. If you observe electrons for some time, you will notice that their behaviors have changed. People are the same. We are fluid and always a work in progress. But there are certain aspects of people that don’t change. Just as electrons have a nucleus, I am in search of the nucleus of human beings, not their outside behavior. This is my learning.
People fear to listen and love to talk instead, even the most reticent ones. Without listening we can’t see things at the deepest. Listening is our path to our core. When we listen to someone or something with our whole self, it opens doors inside us that could not be opened otherwise. Since we don’t listen, the insight can’t be developed. We suffer. We end up half-baked. We never develop fully. We are always distracted.
There is little scope for spirituality in our society these days. But spirituality is the ultimate thing. Even an atheist can be spiritual if he/she is connected to his/her core entity. For that, one needs isolation, humiliation, rejection, etc. These are the things that make men more valuable. As people cannot take these, they do not find absolute happiness either. Appreciation and recognition are meant to captivate you as mediocre. People with wealth are in the same state as the one in the condition of destitute. The main reason is that the connection became lost. People tend to express more and communicate less.
People want to earn money but they are not willing to use their brains for that purpose. They look for shortcuts. You cannot be sustainable when you are seeking shortcuts. You need to study, observe, communicate, travel to develop your brain.
There is no better antidote to our challenges than listening. If people have focused on building the habit of listening alone, a lot of their problems would have been solved.
Any parting thoughts?
I don’t like advising. Advice is for the fools. Offering guidelines to people is an afford in rendering them useless. People need challenges and sufferings to bring the best in them.
People need to roam around. They need to hear both the good and the bad. They need to use their judgment to identify what is good and what is bad. As we are not willing to do that, we need mentors. Motivational speakers become our idols. We become dependent on their opinions.
This is no way to a good life. One needs to learn for himself. People need to keep their eyes open and observe everything without being reactive. That will help. Go out. Suffer. Observe. Put your ideas into test. Fail. Life is the best teacher there is.
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