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What To Work On In 2020s

There are some general principles regarding what to work on. 

You should work on something that you enjoy. Something working on which brings you alive. Something that gives you job satisfaction and interests you. Something that you are passionate about, probably. Although I’m not a big fan of passion. 

The second principle is that you should work on something that you are good at. Something where you can add remarkable value. Something where you have skills that other people don’t have. Something where you have a natural advantage. 

Third, you should work on something where you could make an impact, a difference if you will. At the end of the day, most pleasures are transient. Money comes and goes. Wealth evaporates after a few generations. But if you can touch lives, that remains forever. By impact, I mean the number of people who will be affected by your work and to what degree. 

Fourth, how difficult a problem is. It is important to work on a difficult problem for two reasons: one, you will face limited competition, two, the return will be likely high because most difficult problems have some market demand. 

Fifth, you should work on something for which there is a need in the market and you should have a plan about how you want to enter the market, reach out to the customers or the users and encourage them to use your product or service. 

These are some arbitrary principles regarding what you should pursue as a career or if you want to build a startup, what kind of problems you should work on. But these principles are not something set on the stones. These are arbitrary as I said. The best thing will be if you can create your own principles and conditions for working or not working on something. 

This was a preamble of a sort. What I wanted to write about today is what kind of companies you should aim to build as we enter 2020 as a new year as well as a new decade. 

There is a wonderful saying - the days are long and the decades are short. The 2020s will be gone sooner than you can realize. It is good to be mindful of time. Then there is another saying that we overestimate the short term impact of almost everything and underestimate the long-term impact of almost everything.

Humans are mediocre long-term thinkers.

We always overestimate what we can do in a day but invariably underestimate what we can achieve in a year. It is better if we become mindful of these fallacies. 

If you take a long term view and try to do justice to a new decade, I believe there are a handful of verticals that offer excellent opportunities. Before flashing out the verticals I want to explain where I’m coming from. 

One, the world we are living in today is changing rapidly. Capitalism and globalization are under tremendous pressure worldwide. Capitalism will come under increasing scrutiny in this decade. There will be more walls and boundaries and borders than before. Nations will seek to find a balance between opening up and controlling their own markets. While last decades helped create companies like Google and Facebook exploiting a lack of apparent global technology policy and regulation, in the coming decades it will be different. 

Two, automation is real and it will create a lot of new opportunities and challenges. 

Third, climate change is going to become a real and imminent threat. It will require all of us to respond to it. 

Fourth, income inequality and the negative consequences of the western model of capitalism will be felt more real in the context of Bangladesh. The pressure and need for ensuring equal opportunity for everyone will increase. 

Fifth, technology will come for more and more of the mainstream businesses creating new opportunities and challenges for entrepreneurs. 

Sixth, consumers will grow more demanding which will greatly affect more important verticals such as healthcare, transportation, food and so on. 

Seventh, the struggle between the political class and the public will grow across the world. A new class of leaders will emerge from this struggle which will affect everything we do. 

Eight, we will have more concrete technology policies and concern over data and privacy will grow as an important topic of discussion. 

Ninth, surveillance by companies and the states will grow. Consumers will lookout for ways to fight this rise of surveillance. There will be business opportunities on both ends - helping companies and states to conduct surveillance as well as helping consumers to avoid it. 

If we consider all these macro-trends, we can broadly come to find a list of verticals that will offer the biggest opportunities in this new decade. 

1. Health: Our healthcare system is primitive at best. In fact, there is very little care in the entire health care in Bangladesh. Affordable quality healthcare will continue to grow in demand. There are very few tools available to the public to learn about their health. We know very little about our health from things like genetics makeup to our regular heart condition. As technology evolves, there will be tools available to consumers that will enable us to learn more about their health and it is likely to change how we avail medicine and healthcare services.   

2. Work: We spend a large sunk of our lives at work. Office, home, coffee shops and everywhere in between. But there are not many local services serving people at work. I’m certainly not talking about slack or more chat channels. There are many more things to do at work. 

3. Local tech solutions: Bangladesh is a unique country. Many people compare us with India, Indonesia, and many other similar countries but in reality, we are a very different country. Take one example, according to world population review, we are the 12th most densely populated country in the world. We are more similar to Singapore and Maldives in terms of density than India and Indonesia. We are a homogeneous nation. There is enough diversity but Bangladesh is more similar overall that we are different. We do have local cultures and cuisines in each region and probably regional dialects as well but we are nowhere near what are the differences in India or in many other markets. 

The path to technology adoption happened very differently in Bangladesh than in many other markets. We are a market where mobile is more prevalent than a PC or laptop. A large number of Bangladeshi started their computing journey with mobile. To a large number of Bangladeshi, the internet remains limited to Facebook and Youtube. Moreover, Bangladesh is not Dhaka. In fact, most of Bangladesh is very different from Dhaka which perfectly works backward. Building exclusively for this market offers an opportunity. 

4. Education and learning: Education is going to be quite different in the coming decades. We will need more quality institutions in the existing model. At the same time, new models of learning will emerge due to the failure of the traditional model of education. There will be a growing demand for technology education. The existing model of certificate focused education will render insufficient. That’s why I’m talking about learning instead of mere education. 

5. Transportation: Not Uber or Pathao but transportation models that will address the challenges of population density, price, sustainability and a lack of infrastructure in Bangladesh. People will need to move fast. And there will be increasing public initiatives such as metro-rail, speedy train and so on. New transportation models will emerge to enter a new era of high-speed transportation in this decade. 

6. Local knowledge: How much money Bangladesh startups have raised in 2019? What are some of the major trends in tech? Data remains a major challenge for Bangladesh. There is scarce data about our market and companies. There are ample opportunities to build solutions in this space with a long-term view. At FS, one of our ambitions is to fill up this gap in the market. 

7. Travel: More are traveling today and even more, people will join the race. Building Expedia or booking.com is one aspect of travel but there are many more aspects of travel and escape service for urban people that will offer opportunities. 

8. Community: Our society has gradually been breaking apart over the past few decades. This will need fixing. There will be a need for building communities of different types. These communities could be at the intersection of both offline and online. 

9. Cities and urban life: Some 110 million people, about half of Bangladesh’s total population, are expected to live in urban areas of the country by 2035. The infrastructure and services needed for this huge population will give way to new models and services and reshape many industries. 

10. Real estate: Bangladesh is a densely populated country. House rent has been skyrocketing in most urban cities in the country for the last few decades. Owning a house remains out of reach for most people. There are many things that could be done here. Low-cost housing, new models similar to Zillow and Open Door and many more. 

11. Money: We are not talking about financial services and fin-tech alone but money as a unit of the economy. A large number of Bangladeshi people do not save or invest. People seldom keep track of spending. Banks are struggling. SMEs are struggling. Consumers are struggling. Bangladesh needs companies that will address these challenges.  

12. Consumer: There are multiple fronts to this change. Today’s consumers are more demanding and more informed and they have means to speak back to the power of brands. There has been a steady growth of demand for pure and healthy food, sustainable products and so on. This trend is likely to accelerate. 

13. Climate change: There are a few things to consider here. One opportunity is definitely how can you help fight climate change and can you design technologies that would help the cause of saving the planet such as solar energy and sustainable living and son. Second and more relevant for Bangladesh I think would be finding ways to help people survive the adverse consequences of climate change that we are already seeing to some extent such as changing routine of rain and winter and seasons. I can probably go on for a while on this. Broadly, there are many rooms for building meaningful and high impact ventures here. Not nonprofits, however, please. 

14. Kids and mother: This is an underserved market in Bangladesh even today’s standard. Imagine what will happen when today’s youth become parents. 

Predicting the future is a fool's errand. But it is an interesting exercise that enriches you. I hope this list will make you think and ponder. If you are making your own list, I would love to hear about them. You can find my email below.

We are entering a fascinating time. The decade is likely to be a turbulent one around the world. However, it has been proven again and again in the past that turbulent times produce the best innovations and accelerates productivity. Stability is not always good for progress. That being said, peace is a necessary condition and I want to be hopeful and optimistic at the dawn of this new decade that the future is going to be interesting.

Related reading:

1. Fred Wilson published an excellent piece on the same topic here. An absolutely brilliant read.

2. Fred's annual prediction piece is equally fascinating, here.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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