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Md Saimum Hossain: Six Lessons from Six Years of Selling Investment and Business Consulting Services in Bangladesh

So it was mid-2013 when I, along with my longtime business-comrades, founded a small, totally unheard of business consulting company called GEEKY Limited (not to be confused with GEEKY Social Limited which came into being about a year and a half later and belongs to a completely different industry. That’s a story for some other day).

What was this company’s endgame? Simply put, we wanted to help companies grow by providing data-driven consulting in a country where there was (and still is) a dire shortage of trained and professional business managers.

We saw firsthand how local Bangladeshi companies (especially the ones that had started operations only recently) were struggling with structuring their operations, streamlining marketing and sales, securing funding from investors, managing their finances, and overall, planning their businesses in a holistic and long-term-centric manner.

We wanted to help them do certain parts right. So, with training from trainers across the globe and our own experiences as first-time founders under our belts, we took a leap of faith on our abilities to address the prevailing gap in the market between the capabilities of companies to solve certain business problems in-house and the supply of trained, critical-thinking human resources.

The past 6 years have been an uphill battle for us, to say the least. Apart from the fact that we were trying to solve a problem that few Bangladeshi business owners and managers were ready to acknowledge in the first place, just like the companies we were trying to help, we ourselves were also plagued with certain managerial and organizational structural issues. But what differentiated us from a lot of them was the ability of us to see complex business problems clearly and taking a systematic, methodical approach to solving them.

Today, after 32 successful consulting engagements, 17 clients, and facilitating c. 20 crore taka in committed fundraising later, GEEKY Limited has a premier positioning in the market with its consulting brand bluKonsult GLOBAL (bKG) as a leader in business, finance, and investment consulting space.

During accomplishing these milestones, I have curiously observed certain issues that are commonplace among the Bangladeshi businesses. In this piece, I surmise them in six (anecdotal) lesson points:

1. Founders need to revisit their business models every month; every fortnight if possible

This is true for both early, growth-stage and matured ventures. Business model, the blueprint of how a company makes money, is something that keeps evolving on a continuous basis; especially in a frontier economy like that of Bangladesh where challenges are abound.

Reviewing the business model on a regular basis helps founders identify possible weak points, vulnerabilities, and fault-lines that are hard to pinpoint due to being bogged down with regular day-to-day operations. It is only when a business leader takes repeated looks at the value chain and the business model; he/she can fathom these loopholes that could tank the business.

A useful tool that I whole-heartedly preach and teach everywhere is the Business Model Canvas. Effective and repeated use of this canvas has the potential to help a manager map out and then avoid pitfalls way before they become eating into their performance metrics.

2. Hiring right makes the biggest difference for the business’s long-term sustainability

I cannot stress this enough: I have seen firsthand how businesses go bust only because they couldn’t hire people with the right set of skills and personality traits. This is even more challenging for first-time founders but no less important for seasoned leaders as well.

Oftentimes what I have seen Bangladeshi managers do is hire people on an ad-hoc basis without any regard to the bigger hiring picture whereby a synergistic outcome is generated from every planned hiring. People with overlapping skill sets are hired whereas key skill areas are overlooked only because nobody at the top took the time or initiative to plan ahead.

In addition to this ad-hoc/mismatched hiring practice, Bangladeshi managers are prone to not delegating enough and implementing a proper succession plan whereby second- and third-generation leaders are created systematically.

Indian companies are decades ahead in this practice and therefore, it’s no wonder that India is probably the single biggest source of international-level managers for the world. This is a different story to tell altogether as well though.

“Sales” is often the most talked about metric in Bangladeshi companies but probably the most misunderstood as well. I have seen founders with the finest of technical/coding skills but they lack big time in terms of an understanding of firstly, how to effectively let the customers know that the product/service they’re trying to sell exists, and secondly, how to get the customers to buy it.

3. Sales is key – at least one of the founders/owners needs to have a comprehensive idea as to how to get the product/service to market and get people to buy it

Like my other points, this is also applicable to both early-stage and matured businesses.

“Sales” is often the most talked about metric in Bangladeshi companies but probably the most misunderstood as well. I have seen founders with the finest of technical/coding skills but they lack big time in terms of an understanding of firstly, how to effectively let the customers know that the product/service they’re trying to sell exists, and secondly, how to get the customers to buy it.

Oftentimes what happens is that the business leaders do not come from sales backgrounds and therefore struggle with probably one of the most important metrics of all. Especially, if it is a digital product that the founders are trying to sell, there is outside help available in terms of the development of go-to-market strategy, development, execution, and management of digital marketing and sales funnel, tracking and monitoring of data and analytics, etc.

Founders can reach out and receive this kind of professional help from a few sources in this country that won’t break their banks.

4. Financial control – accounting recordkeeping and financial management are real ball-busters

There is a popular saying among the management/leadership quarters that you cannot manage something that you cannot measure. This oft used epigrammatic expression has found its relevance in the field of finance and accounting way more than any other field.

Accounting is frequently touted as the language of business and very rightly so. With proper bookkeeping starts the process of a full-fledged financial control system that serves as the heart of understanding how a business is doing.

Whether founders and business owners are looking to raise money from investors, receive credit facility from banks and financial institutions, trying to ascertain how much money they have stuck in working capital investment, or even how much short and long-term liabilities their company has to outside parties, a proper financial control system is a must. However, even something as basic as “bookkeeping” or basic accounting/financial record keeping is vehemently underappreciated in this country.

My take is simple: founders undercut the importance of this function at their own peril. Successful founders employ a team of one/two accountants along with relevant software in-house and then they hire an external tax and auditing consulting firm to cross-check and facilitate the records kept in-house to be submitted to the external parties as per the laws of the land.

Most of the founders simply lack either the awareness or the willingness to direct their resources for this “mission critical” support function that ultimately leads to nothing but their own demise.

5. Fund is available for you provided you have access to investors and got the right set of documents ready at the same time

This one is closely tied with #4. I often hear early-stage founders complain that “financing” is their biggest roadblock to success. However, in my experience, funds are actually available provided you have at least two basic things right: access to the people with the funds, and documentation for getting the funds disbursed when you can convince the investors that your business model makes sense.

Although a lot of founders can get these things done – accessing the investors and convincing them of the viability of the business models; it is often the case that the investment is not finally made because the founders lack the basic set of documentation for due diligence by the investors: an investment profile with financials, up-to-date financial statements, and books of accounts, bank statements, revenue source documents – all of these combined create an impression of reliability on the part of the founder(s) and investors feel more comfortable putting their money at risk with the founders.

6. Something as basic and obvious as Cost-Benefit Analysis is by and large neglected in most corporate decision-making processes

Everyone in Bangladesh LOVES to talk about this point but very few, in my experience, take a systematic approach in undertaking this as an essential exercise: I am talking about the simple yet effective concept of Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA).

Whether it is a new market a company is contemplating to enter into or whether it is a new product line or a new marketing campaign or even a new R&D project – everybody loves to talk about the (incremental) “benefit” the company will have to have.

However, barring the exceptions of a few systematically run companies (most of them being multinational ones), I have come across little evidence that Bangladeshi business owners/founders/managers actually take the time and effort to undertake the right kind of CBA in their decision-making process.

I don’t mean to make it sound like a generic allegation but I must say, with utmost frustration, that slapdash decision making rather the norm and not the other way around. Converting the business plan into numbers through forecasting, capital budgeting analysis, scenario, and sensitivity analysis – even these basic tools are by and large under- or unutilized.

Md Saimum Hossain, CFA is an investment consultant (Managing Partner, bluKonsult GLOBAL), entrepreneur (Co-founder and Head of Business, GEEKY Social Ltd), and academic (Assistant Professor, Department of Finance, University of Dhaka). He can be reached at saimum@blukonsult.com

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