The beginning of a new year is a time for contemplation and putting together priorities for the days and months ahead. We ended the 2010s with fundamental shifts in politics, technology, and society. The world of tech has been going through some major shifts. 2019 was marked by increased activities in Dhaka’s tech scene. At the time, the year saw some of the biggest movements and upheavals both domestically and around the world. What the year 2020 and the new decade ahead have in store for us? How can we better prepare ourselves for the coming years? We have fetched some actionable lessons from our conversation with hundreds of founders that we believe we help us to set better priorities for the new year.
You have to be comfortable taking big risks - Waseem Alim, Founder and CEO Chaldal
“I have learned that the bigger you get the bigger risk you have to take in order to grow meaningfully. It is just a mathematical reality that that is the case. So making massive adjustments and taking bigger and bigger risks is hard as a human being. Because If I lose one thousand taka I could digest that. But if I lose like 5 crore how am I gonna recover it? I can’t be personally accountable for losing 5 crore. So, that is something you have to come in terms with. Like setting up a warehouse in some locations spending a huge amount of money is a big decision, right. But you could not avoid these decisions. What I have learned is that you just have to be comfortable taking these risks. That’s a lesson.
The second lesson is: you see all these economic differences between the growth rate of countries such as Korea, the US, etc. Someone was telling me the other day that the single most important factor in having different growth rate for a country is not the economic starting point or the industry that they start from. The single most important thing is the allocation of capital. I don’t know the details. I have not gone through the study yet but that’s an important lesson that we have to learn as a country – how we are going to allocate capital. Because if you want to have 10% growth rate, that’s something you have to think about.
The other lesson I have learned is that it’s easier to talk to the people at the top than to talk to people in the middle. So, that’s a lesson. I think that’s a hack for any entrepreneur. Like, try talking to the people at the top because of the bureaucracy in the middle would kill your spirit.
My biggest lesson is, you know that Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong will go wrong, that is true. Hundred percent true. If you are going to expand whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Because that is like the strength of the chain is its weakest link. Murphy’s Law basically is that. So, you need to basically neutralize anything that can go wrong in order to grow. That’s the way to build robust systems. Murphy’s Law is true and that is something I have learned recently.”
“More often than not, money is secondary to the success of a business. Your job as a founder is to become that person who makes a business successful. It is about becoming” - Prabeer Sarkar, Founder, and CEO, Dhaka Distributions
“You have to be 50% crazy and 50% organized to succeed. Often starting a business in an act of leap of faith. You can’t foresee everything. You have to be aware of that and understand what you are trying to achieve. Passion is critical at this stage to drive you.
Second, you have to be a responsible person. It is not a game that you start. People depend on you. Your decisions and actions affect real lives. When you promise something, you have to understand whether you would be able to deliver it or not.
Third, there are things that you take on crazy strides. But you also have to have plans to back your stride up. That does not mean you spend all your time planning. Many people have an ideal understanding of starting a business. Business does not happen in boardrooms or drawing boards. Business takes place outside of your building. It is a balancing act. You have to find a balance between intuition and deliberate planning.
Fourth, building a business takes a long time. You have to be patient and stick to what you are trying to accomplish. If you give up, you are finished. The problem with many people is that they give up early. When they see problems coming, the first thought that comes to their mind is how to escape. But you have to resist these urges to quit if you are to succeed. There will be pressures and challenges. You have to build the muscle to bear that burden. If you are someone who can’t handle pressure, you better not get into a business.
Finally, many people complain about lack of money and investment as a reason for not being able to start and succeed in business. But money is seldom the most important thing in business. people is the most critical thing that makes or breaks a business. In the early stage businesses, a lot depends on the person who drives the business. More often than not, money is secondary to the success of a business. Your job as a founder is to become that person who makes a business successful. It is about becoming.”
“Launch fast” - Md Yanur Islam Piash, Founder and CEO, Bohubrihi
“We took over a year to create and launch our website – we shouldn’t have taken this long. Though I justify myself saying we were only 3rd-year students trying to keep up with startup, studies and other extracurricular activities. But still, we shouldn’t have taken this long.
We believe that the % of enrolled students who complete the course is far more valuable a metric than the number of people who bought that course. The course completion rate is the actual currency of eLearning. The whole game changes for you if you think this way.”
“If you hit a wall and can’t do anything about it, give it some time. It will heal” - Mohammad Rassel, Founder, and CEO, Evaly
“If you want to do anything of consequence, there will be challenges and difficulties. Be prepared for them but never lose hope.
Be patient. There are things that you can’t fix overnight. For example, if you break a limb of your body, you have to give it enough time to heal. There is nothing you could do to fix it overnight. It would take time to heal no matter how much treatment and medicine you take. Life is like that. Everything takes time. Everything heals with time. If you hit a wall and can’t do anything about it, give it some time. It will heal. Sometimes I may feel that the problem at hand needs to be solved immediately. But it can’t be done that way. An even better way is to wait and let it go.”
“Get your accounting and financial compliance right from day one. I know, this is annoying to most founders, as this is part of the boring work we usually don’t want to think about. However, never underestimate the power of your financial numbers, they speak more truth than anything else and the sooner you start dealing with them in detail, the better” - Daniel Ciganovic, Co-founder and CFO, SOLshare
“Running a successful business always starts with a problem statement. Many founders get lost because they have an idea first and then search for problems they are actually solving, which sometimes leads them to come up with problem statements that fit to their idea, while they forget to question if the problem is actually a real problem that needs to be solved immediately. The next step is to think about what can happen once you have solved this problem and what are the opportunities you create for your business out of it.
The reason why the energy access problem fascinates me much is that energy is just an enabler, especially electricity. Electricity is one of the purest forms of energy and it becomes more and more important. We already see this today, as information systems run on electricity. If there is no electricity, you can’t charge your mobile phone or run a computer, which is the foundation for modern information exchange systems.
Right now we’re seeing how the transport sector is being transformed through electric vehicles, the next step will be cooking solutions, which are still heavily relying on burning fossil fuels or biomass. These transformations will add new challenges and the sooner you think about them, the better, as this will define the problems you need to solve and the business model you need to provide in the future.
Another very important tip as a CFO, get your accounting and financial compliance right from day one. I know, this is annoying to most founders, as this is part of the boring work we usually don’t want to think about. However, never underestimate the power of your financial numbers, they speak more truth than anything else and the sooner you start dealing with them in detail, the better.
“While building a product, I think we should be more critical and ask tough questions. A good starting point is asking whether people really need this. People give different reasons for startup failure starting from stealing of ideas to the competition but the majority of startups fail because people built a product that no one wanted” - Waiz Rahim, Founder, and CEO, Deligram
Let’s not forget that we all want to make a difference and an impact, but in order to be a business, it has to make financial sense. So for founders, the number one thing to realize is that if you are here to do business, it has to make financial sense.
People often come to starting tech businesses with a rather superficial understanding that we don’t need to be profitable. That Uber is not profitable and so on but what people don’t get is that you have to understand the basics of finance. You have to understand that you have your revenue and then you have your gross margins, you have your operational profitability and then you have your EBITDA. Excluding your all HR and stuff, you should be able to generate positive gross margins. You don’t need to be profitable now but you have to have positive unit economics. Many ecommerce companies overlook this. They consider revenue as the key metric but for ecommerce, revenue is a vanity metric.
While building a product, I think we should be more critical and ask tough questions. A good starting point is asking whether people really need this. People give different reasons for startup failure starting from stealing ideas to the competition but the majority of startups fail because people built a product that no one wanted. Whether there is a real customer need and be able to find that as quickly as possible. And then learning enough about finance to actually figure out models of finances to see if it actually makes sense. These are critical for startup founders.
Third, figure out your funding strategy. The thing is that running a company is capital intensive. Although it looks like you just build a website, you are just using ads on Facebook, but it is very capital intensive. So figuring out your fundraising strategy is critical.
The most important thing is building the right team. Finding the right talents is a challenge in Bangladesh. It is hard to find really smart people who can learn really fast. But you have to find them if you want to build a business. We have focused a lot on building a great team and we have been lucky to have some great people in the team. But we have been very deliberate about hiring people. We spend a lot of time in finding and hiring good people.
“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” - Mahfuz Siddique, Founder, Humanlab777
“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.”