There are few entrepreneurs in Dhaka’s technology scene quite as fascinating and inspiring as Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, the Co-Founder and Chairman Of OnnoRokom Group. Over the past years, he and his team at OnnoRokom have built a mission-driven entire group of companies from scratch which continues to experience tremendous growth while staying true to its core vision of building a better Bangladesh.
In an all-encompassing interview with Future Startup, he shared his thoughts and lessons on entrepreneurship that we believe can help other fellow founders in their journey. This is an excerpt from our interview:
From Mahmudul Hasan Sohag:
I was also not quite satisfied with my academic experience. When I was in high school, I used to ask a lot of questions to my teachers. It was not a usual practice in a suburban school, as you might wonder, but the teachers – especially the headmaster of my school, Babu Jyotish Chandra Saha, and another from whom I received private tuition, late Chandra Nath, never discouraged me.
They were very concerned to the extent that they allotted extra time for satisfying my unending inquiries after school. It was a greatly influential aspect of my life that built a strong sense of responsibility in me.
But when I came to Dhaka College, I saw that most teachers, with a few exceptions, discouraged questions from students in general. The college had many teachers whose reputation ran countrywide. But whenever I asked something, many of my teachers either ignored my call or taunted me. I realized that the relationship we had with our teachers was strictly realized. It was a demoralizing experience for me.
Consequently, I gradually became inattentive to my studies. In fact, it took a toll on my first-year studies and result. While it was a challenging experience for me, it was also where I got the inspiration for the first time, I assume, to build an educational institution where we would encourage students to pursue their intellectual curiosity without any bound which later became Udvash.
Anyways, the next year I turned around and focused on my studies. I was also inspired by others’ expectations of me, especially that of people in my hometown who thought of me with high regard. Often positive external expectation works as a motivation. I soon overcame my deficiencies and as I mentioned earlier, vowed to myself to build an organization someday where members would be encouraged to ask questions because an inquirer is also a thinker.
One who doesn’t question doesn’t know how to think and thinking is one of the most important skills you need to learn in life. We will get back to it later. Let’s get back to my college days.
I worked hard throughout the rest of the year. I particularly remember the month of Ramadan of that year when I literally utilized every waking moment. I can’t believe now that I was the one who worked that hard once. I studied almost all the time.
My labor paid off satisfactorily. I came fourth in the HSC examination in Dhaka Board which was better than my SSC result. Soon after that, I sat for the admission test for BUET. Although everyone expected that I would top the merit list, I didn’t do very well, but not very poor either. I secured the 141st position on the BUET admission test and learned that you have to work equally hard every day regardless of what was your result yesterday.
We didn’t think that Udvash would become this big. People, you see, can’t plan for the future after a point. As they venture through the present to the future, they try to logically connect it with the past. When people do something out of passion, they are driven by emotional energy which was the situation we were in at that time. We didn’t have any concrete plan for our venture. My idea was to start an organization where no one would be discouraged from asking anything as I had been once.
We started Udvash with a mere 6,000 taka total investment. We rented a small room at 800 taka rent per month. That’s how our journey started. It was quite difficult in the early days since we didn’t have adequate resources at our disposal. But I was passionate about teaching. So were my partners. My first partner was a friend, Hamid. Then came Liton and one of his friends. We were four partners in the beginning. After a while, Hamid left Udvash for some personal reasons and the rest of us continued.
Our classes at BUET began in August the next year because of an ongoing session jam, as I mentioned earlier. There I met Pavel who also became a partner in Hamid’s place. The four of us stayed together for the next five and a half years.
Udvash reached its break-even point after eight long years; break-even, in the sense, that at that point we were able to run the organization without any loans. It was all-struggle before that. We had to put in our highest level of effort to take it to that level and that too for a very long time. We worked very very hard and we sacrificed a lot throughout our first few years. This is why Udvash is so dear to our hearts.
In this hi-tech era, everything is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Say, for instance, I know how to design software, but don’t know anything about music. It means that I won’t be able to create a music application that would otherwise be an interesting venture. You see, interesting things happen at the intersection of two entirely different streams of disciplines.
I have personal experience related to this. Realizing this gap, I thought of designing a music app along with a friend, a fellow math-lover, and music-nut, Chamok Hasan (you obviously know him). We planned to build the app in such a way that if someone inputs a lyric it would compose tunes for that.
We couldn’t go much further with that project but I personally understood the underlying mathematics in musical tunes. But someone who studies mathematics wouldn’t know that music contains mathematics; and musicians, wouldn’t realize the mathematics in their music. This is where linear education falls short.
Personally, I try to connect my learning to other things in life. For instance, when I learned the intriguing concept of an analogous circuit (AC), it made me understand there are often “analogous” or connecting dots implicit among things that are different on the surface and that we can use the concept in understanding many other things in life and work.
Similarly, when I taught domain theory at Udvash, I also used to tell my students how a great leader should strategize. This is how I think education encompasses numerous different horizons.
It is always helpful when you keep an open mind and take an interest in diverse fields. Often what seems distant from outside, does maintain a close tie inside. This is the beauty of knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, when you understand music and software both, you can create better solutions at the intersection than one who is only a tech expert.
The second life lesson concerns competition. Growing up, I used to be a highly competitive boy. I wanted to be the best in everything that I do. Since I have been quite a high achiever throughout my life in many ways, I suffered from this feeling of superiority and ego for quite a long time.
Over the years, I have come to realize that competition doesn’t bring positive consequences all the time and that ego is always the enemy of our personal and professional growth. Over the past years, I have consciously worked on this part of my personality and I think I’m in better shape now.
If you do need to compete, do it with yourself. Personally, I don’t believe ‘in the survival of the fittest’ because it awakens unnecessary acrimony inside us. We need to look at it from a broader perspective, to ‘survive collectively.’