Doing Things That Don’t Scale: An Interview Farhan Anwar, Founder and Managing Director, Workd
Workd is a new job search platform that calls itself “Bangladesh’s first AI-powered job search platform. Workd uses intuitive search-and-apply features to filter jobs and effortlessly connect applicants with their suitable jobs. Workd generate a unique matching profile for each candidate based on their choices, searches, and queries.”
In this interview, we sit down with Farhan Anwar, Co-founder and Managing Director of Workd to learn more about his journey to what he is doing, and the inner workings of Workd. We talk about his early life and his motivation behind pursuing an entrepreneurial life while he had other more comfortable options. The origin of Workd, the early days of building the product, putting together the team and resources together, going into the market and convincing the first handful of users, and overcoming the challenges of beginning from the scratch. We talk about the state of Workd’s business today and ambition going forward, reflect on the trials and tribulations of being a founder, the importance of physical exercise, and much more.
Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us, Fahan bhai. To begin with, could you please tell us about your background and your path to entrepreneurship?
Farhan Anwar: I started my schooling at Scholastica from where I did my O Levels. I did my A levels privately. Afterward, I went to Sydney to pursue my undergrad in marketing and international business from Macquarie University.
From an early age, I had this passion for doing something for people and my country. Something that could add value to the lives of people.
Alhamdulillah, we have got a family business, and growing up I have seen how businesses are being run. After returning from Australia, I joined my family business with my Father and I continue to work with my father in his business even these days. But I have always wanted to build something of my own, something from scratch. Workd is the result of that passion.
Workd is something that I’m extremely passionate about and something that I find fascinating and where I see that we could add value to the lives of people by helping them find employment opportunities. It gives me meaning when I see that people are getting benefited through Workd. When an applicant writes to us that thanks bhaiya I have got a job through your platform, it gives me immense motivation. Creating something from scratch on your own gives a meaning that you could not find in anything else.
When did you return from Australia?
Farhan: I returned from Australia in 2017 December.
What happened after that?
Farhan: After returning, I started working in my father’s company from January next year, as an employee, worked with my father and learned a lot. However, I wanted to build something of my own from scratch. Every creation has pleasure and meaning that nothing else could give. I wanted that for me.
After that what happened is that my cousin and I got together. He is the co-founder and CEO of the company. He lives in America. He came for vacation and he was sharing that he wanted to do something in Bangladesh. I also wanted to do something. At that time the local startup ecosystem was just getting started. We came to see the rise of several local startups including Pathao, Shohoz, etc. All these motivated us a lot.
We could see that smartphone and internet penetration was growing fast and realized that this dynamic is going to transform many verticals in the coming years. We did a bit of research and found that although we have a number of job portals in the country, there is room for improvements. Considering the number of people graduating every year from universities and the challenges companies face in hiring the right candidate, we thought that this is a space where there are rooms for contribution.
We studied the market pioneers in the sector who started at a time when people didn’t have access to computers let alone the internet. But we also thought that we could add value to this space. We did some R&D and found out that there are a lot of gaps in the market such as employers struggle finding the right candidates and candidates struggle finding the right jobs, etc.
That’s one of the problems we wanted to address. We thought about how we could solve that problem for both employers and job seekers. How could we build a platform where we could bring both parties, employees, and employers, and where employers will get their desired candidates and job seekers will get their desired job according to their education, skillset, etc. That’s how the idea of Workd came.
We started and Alhamdulillah, we are here today. We have a long way to go but we are growing and we are happy to be where we are today.
2018 January, you and your cousin decided to pursue this idea. You needed resources, a little bit of capital, and other logistics, how did you put these initial resources together? Please walk us through what the first few months of your journey were like and the challenges you faced.
Farhan: After some research, we came to realize that there is an opportunity to do something in this vertical. That’s when I and my cousin started working on the idea. He has a doctorate in Machine Learning from Sweden. He has worked in companies like LinkedIn, Google, and has a deep understanding of the vertical. After some discussion, we finally decided to get started.
I went to my father, shared our idea, and asked him whether he would be interested in investing. He wanted to know more about the business. When we shared the details he was quite impressed and he was like let’s do something. He helped us. My father’s business partner is SQ Group. The founder of SQ Group is my Uncle. He also came on as an investor and partner. That’s how we put together our initial investment.
We then focused on building the product. I did not have any idea about engineering at the time. We did some research to understand what we need and then we moved on to hire our first engineer. He was quite expensive for us at the time. But we thought that since we aim to build a world-class product, we need someone really good. We have been able to build an excellent team. We now have some top-notch engineering talents that the country has.
We then hired two more fresh graduates. Our engineers started working on the project right away. After working on the product for about a year, we built a beta version. We then decided to test the beta version. We would go to different companies and ask them to test our product.
At the time, I was the only operations guy and salesperson on the team. I used to set up meetings, go, and present our product. My cousin was in America and was leading the engineering team. I was doing sales all alone. I would go to different places, pitch the product, ask them to use our product, and give us some feedback. They would use our product, give us some feedback, and based on that feedback our engineers would work a bit more on the product and improve it.
Gradually, I realized that we need a few people in sales. We hired a few people in sales. Then I felt that we need to market our product. We created our FB page and started promoting Workd on social media channels. We then hired a few people in marketing. We then needed people for HR and Accounts. We then hired for these positions. Gradually, the team grew. Today, we are a team of 15 people. In the last few months amid the pandemic, we have experienced excellent growth. We now feel that we need to grow our team. We will be hiring in new positions in the next few months. The best thing is that we are being appreciated by people. People feel that their job search process is getting simpler. Employers are finding that they could hire more easily. Our users on both ends are happy with us.
I want to go a little deeper into your early days, when did you hire your first engineer?
Farhan: In the first few months, for about the first six months, we mostly did research. My cousin, since he was in America, he was not involved that much. But I did a lot of studies. We did a thorough study of every available service in the market to understand the Bangladesh market. We were parallelly working on putting together other resources such as capital. By July we managed to have some investment and get our trade license.
We hired the first engineer in September 2018. By October, we hired two more engineers. We operated like that for a year building the product. In 2019, between June and July, we hired people in sales, marketing, and other positions.
What were the major challenges you faced during this period and how did you manage them?
Farhan: The first challenge was making the early hires understand our vision and make them excited about our vision. These were our engineers and for us to build a winning product, we needed them to own the vision of the company. I did not have any prior experience managing people before coming here. Initially, it was a big challenge for me.
The second biggest challenge I faced when we finally had our beta version and I was pitching to employers. The first response from employers was that you don’t have any candidate in your platform, why should we take a look into it. I wanted help but no one was ready to help me. Then I realized that if I want the help, I need to earn the right to be helped. I have to offer people some value in exchange for which people would help me. People will not help me for no reason. Gradually, we hired some more people. We did some marketing to attract job seekers through Facebook and other channels and managed to have some candidates on our platform. Then I went back to the market and asked employers that we now have some applicants, you can try our product. A few companies came, posted a few jobs, they found some applicants. This entire process of getting some traction on both ends of our marketplace was the biggest challenge.
I have learned a lot from these early days of the journey. The most important lesson would be: not getting bogged down by challenges. Challenges will always be there. It will change in terms of type and intensity but it will always be there. This year my challenge is this and next year I will have to deal with something even bigger. But this is how you grow and move forward.
I took every challenge sportingly. Faced with a challenge, I would go back and think about it at night and try to come up with ideas to address it. It always helped. Every challenge is an opportunity. I draw immense satisfaction when I finally get to solve a challenge. I could then tell myself that I could solve this challenge and I will be able to solve it if I face an even bigger challenge.
You mentioned that when you started Workd, you did not have any prior experience of managing people, which is an interesting observation. A major part of entrepreneurship is managing people. You need to manage people and make sure that everyone is doing their job. What are some lessons you have learned in terms of managing people better from those early days?
Farhan: Initially, I would give random feedback to people without thinking much about what they would think or how they would take it. Eventually, I learned that people are different and everyone needs to get managed differently. Someone is okay with just telling them to do something. Others might need a bit of motivation and yet others a little bit strict rules and so on. I gradually learned these things and managed to apply these lessons in managing our team. We often miss nuances for the sake of efficiency which can be costly in the medium to long run.
We have been able to build a great team over the last two years. I did not want to hire people who would simply say yes to whatever decision we make. I always wanted people who would come up with their suggestions and tell me to do things differently. I always wanted people who would see Workd as their own company, not as a nine to five job, and work towards the same vision.
The biggest lesson for me would be that there would be challenges and issues in a team but your job as a leader is to keep everyone focused on the vision and the common goal of the company.
The second challenge you mentioned is traction on both ends of your marketplace. How did you solve that in those early days?
Farhan: When we had our beta version at hand, we did not have any candidates. So what we did with the product was that we asked around companies to use our product for free. We asked them that please post jobs, we would not charge you anything for the next six months but use our product and give us your feedback. About ten companies agreed to post their jobs and they eventually went on to post some 20-50 jobs. We took it as a challenge that we have to ensure that enough applicants come and apply for these 20-25 jobs through our platform so that employers can hire and see value in our service.
We went to a few universities and did some marketing on Facebook. We also promoted our job posts. People came through that as well. We started to see a small number of applicants come and apply through our platform. I then realized that we might have to increase our free trial period for employers. We then told the employers that they could use our platform for free for six more months. Within those six months, we also brought in 30-40 more companies. More people started coming to our platform seeing more job posts.
We realized from the very beginning that if we go to people and ask them to pay us for job posting on our new platform, they would not. We first have to show some value before we attract users. We also had to figure out how we could offer them better solutions. We then went to these people and asked them to use our platform for free. Previously, they were using FB and other job portals. We asked them to test us. They saw that it makes their life easier, our platform is much simplified and they started to like it.
They can see who are the most deserving candidates in one click. That’s how we slowly started to get some employers and we started to attract some job seekers. That’s how we slowly built our business model and now we have some revenue coming in.
You are calling the Workd country’s first AI-powered job portal. Could you please tell us more about the product, what are the features, and what makes you different?
Farhan: We are a job marketplace for both employers and job seekers. Let me tell you first from the employers’ perspective, what employers get: they need to open an account first, they can post jobs, they can access our CV bank where we already have a sizable number of candidates. Our main differentiator is that when you post a job in a traditional job portal you get a large number of applications – say 10,000 applications. You then review and screen this large number of resumes and then shortlist candidates and then you finally call selected candidates for interviews. We have built our algorithm in a way that when you post a job as an employer you see a rank of candidates who are most fit for your position based on your job description and the skills of candidates. This happens regardless of how many people apply for your job. All you will see is the rank of candidates from one to twenty. Number one candidate is 90% match, number two is a little less, etc, based on your job description and the skills and qualification of the candidate.
This means you don’t need to screen thousands of resumes. It saves you both hassles and time and effort. Our algorithm helps you to find the best candidates based on the match between your job description and the skills and qualifications of a candidate.
For job seekers, they can search for jobs on our platform. At the same time, we also send them ‘jobs digest’ with the most relevant jobs for them based on their resume. We have many people in the market who are not actively seeking to change jobs but they would change jobs if they find something suitable. We are targeting this group of people. When they have an account with us, we send them better opportunities based on their existing jobs. They don’t need to actively seek jobs. All they need to do is create a profile with us and submit their resume. We will do the rest for them. They just need to click and apply for suitable jobs once they find something that makes sense for them.
The current job portal market has some problems. Our goal is to make the whole system easier for both employers and job seekers.
Moving forward, we have many plans. For example, when a job seeker is applying for a job, they want to know about the company they are applying to. They want to know about their HR policy, they want to know their culture, and so on. This is not common in our country. We seldom get to know about the details of companies we are applying for a job at. We aim to address this challenge as well. If we could make sure that people can learn about a company before they apply for a job, it would be a huge benefit for job seekers. If the job seekers get to know the interview process, review from previous and existing employees, it is helpful. We plan to address these issues. Dreams are big. We have just got started. We have a long way to go.
Several local platforms and companies are operating in the recruitment space. There is Bdjobs, being the market leader and pioneer. Then there are multinational platforms just as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Kormo, each offering different value propositions. The space is growing competitive of late. How do you see these developments?
Farhan: Competition is always good for both the consumers and the market development and innovation. Unless there is a competition we would not innovate. Competition helps create awareness in the market. So we don’t see it as a competition, we see every other player in the market complement us.
Second, there are a number of platforms in the market that cater to different segments of the market. At Workd, we want to serve everyone in the market. We want to build a platform that will cater to everyone. We want to serve the entire market hence we are building a platform that can serve the needs of different types of organizations.
There are international platforms that are being operated in Bangladesh such as LinkedIn. While these are excellent platforms, they are not building for Bangladesh specifically. Hence they can’t essentially serve the local market with a product that solves problems of our HR in Bangladesh. On the other hand, we are precisely doing that since we are building for Bangladesh, we understand the market and we are continuously in touch with Bangladeshi organizations. We are trying to understand the wide spectrum of the needs of the market – problems employers and job seekers face and trying to build solutions to address these challenges. This is not the case with international players. They have limitations for which they can’t or would not do this.
There are a ton of problems in this market. From there, if you could choose the most critical one and solve it, people will come to you for that solution and you will be able to create a blue ocean strategy. That is the main challenge for us – how can we differentiate ourselves by solving the actual problem. Not the competition. Our idea is to create a blue ocean strategy where we are our only competition.
What are some challenges in the recruitment space that employers face?
Farhan: There are two challenges that employers face: efficiency and effectiveness. Recruitment for different positions should be different. For example, we hire salespeople and engineers at Workd. So when we are hiring salespeople, we would love to see a 2 minutes video of the candidates who are applying for the position where we could see how they speak and other relevant aspects of communication of that person. For engineers, the requirements are different. So if we can customize these areas when hiring candidates or calling for job applications, it would have been wonderful. This is one area we are addressing. Job applications should be customized based on positions because for different positions you need different information about the candidate. We have all these things in plan and we will be releasing these things one by one.
We did quite an extensive R&D. But we did not launch everything at once. We will be doing so in the coming months iA. We wanted to launch gradually. We started with a basic platform and wanted to validate it. We will launch features, test, and then see what sticks and what does not. As I said, we are here for the long term.
Could you please give us an overview of Workd today?
Farhan: We are four partners. Two of our partners are investors, my father, and my uncle. My cousin and I run the operation. He lives in America and manages the tech team and the engineering side of things. I’m the managing director. I run the day to day operation. I lead the business side of my company: sales, marketing, and business development.
We are a team of 15 people. Of which 8 work in engineering and the rest work in business development. We have launched our operation formally in 2020 February. We have an exponential growth rate in just six months with daily website users over a couple of thousands without any marketing effort. We have all kinds of companies hiring from small to big companies. We currently have over 100 employers hiring through Workd. We plan to take both numbers much higher in the coming days.
What is your business model? How do you make money?
Farhan: As of today, we make money from employers. We make money per job post. We also have subscriptions for employers: three, six, and one year and packages: gold, silver, platinum. We plan to take the revenue model to a different level altogether as we grow as a platform.
We are not charging job seekers as yet but we plan to do that as we move forward by offering them solid value. We have plans to take things forward and change the revenue model as we have more users.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected every business, what impact do you see of COVID-19 in your business?
Farhan: Every crisis gives you an opportunity to work. When you have a problem, then you have something to solve. Due to COVID, many people lost their jobs, which brought us an opportunity to help these people. COVID has helped us to reach more job seekers. Maybe not employers because many employers are not hiring actively but it helped us to attract job seekers. The number of job seekers who came to our platform in the last few months is because a growing number of people are seeking opportunities now, coronavirus helped us in gaining this traction.
We are going to employers as well and asking them that we have these people, you come and post your jobs. We are hopeful that once the pandemic ends, we have a huge opportunity to grow our platform on both ends. The economy has shrunk a bit due to the pandemic but I’m hopeful that it is going to rebound right after the pandemic and companies are going to hire and we will be able to serve people.
What are some major challenges for Workd now?
Farhan: The major challenge now is that we have a lot of job seekers but compared to that we don’t have enough job openings. This is a condition across markets. Companies are not hiring.
The second challenge is that since companies already use existing recruitment portals and solutions, it is often hard to convince them to switch and come to use our platform. People usually don’t want to adopt new things. People are not always open to new ideas and they are happy with what they already have. We are working on that.
We are working all the time to address these two challenges. Everything that we do revolves around solving these two challenges. It is not only about business, life is also about solving problems and challenges. You solve one, the next is ready in the corner. It is important to accept these challenges with a smile and move forward.
Being a founder is a difficult journey. It comes with the territory and there are moments of unexpected highs and lows with unusual frequency. How do you tackle when you are down or stressed?
Farhan: Being an entrepreneur is a lonely journey. You are your only friend. You have to figure out every challenge. This is the journey you have chosen for yourself. So you can’t complain about it either.
I watch a lot of motivational stuff that helps me to keep going. Jack Ma is someone I look up to. When KFC opened in China, Jack Ma applied along with 24 others. 23 of them got jobs and one person was rejected. It was Jack Ma. He applied at Harvard 11 times and he got rejected. When he started Alibaba, he did not get a lot of support. But he persisted and today, he is the richest person in China. All these give me a lot of inspiration. If these people can do it, I should be able to do it as well. I know I can’t control the outcome but I can control my effort. I can give my 200% and see what it brings me. If I give my 200% and after that, if I don’t succeed, I would be happy because I have done everything I could and the rest does not depend on me.
Second, I talk to myself. I’m unmarried. So when I’m alone at night. I talk to myself regarding where do I want to go in five years, where do I want to take my company in five years. I talk and think about the goals and vision of my company. When you talk and reflect on your day, it brings a lot of clarity as well.
I also do a lot of physical activities. I exercise regularly. When you exercise, it helps improve your mood. It is difficult to exercise regularly but once you make it into a habit, it affects many areas of your life.
My father is my idol. I have learned a lot from him. Growing up, I saw how hard he used to work. His work ethic is something unmatched. Growing up, I would see him go to his office in the morning, we had and still have a garment business, and he would come home at midnight after closing the factory. After coming home, he would do the accounting for the whole day. From that to this, Alhamdulillah, we have a good life. I have taken a lot of inspiration from my father. He is my role model. If he can do it, he believes in me, insha’Allah, I can also do it.
That’s a beautiful way to put it. I think you have learned work ethic, dedication to the work, and working hard to achieve your goal from your father, what other lessons have you learned from your father?
Farhan: My father taught me that you need to inject a sense of responsibility in your people. People who worked with my father have been working with him for a long time – 30 years and he has been good to his people. My father has always been very gritty.
How do you stay productive?
Farhan: I started the day with a plan, a list of my priorities, and what are the things that I need to do. When at work, I focus and try to do as much as I can. After work, I do physical exercise. I exercise 3-4 times a week. I catch up with my friends which is a regular part of my routine. After returning home, I spend an hour with myself. That is the time when I plan and reflect and think about things.
What are some lessons you have learned from your journey so far?
Farhan: One lesson I have learned from running a startup is that startup is like life full of ups and downs. One day you feel like you will become the next Bill Gates, the next day you feel like you will become a beggar on the street. Managing these extremes is at the heart of a startup. It is important to manage these ups and downs. Don’t lose your mind when you are up and don’t break your heart when you are down. Be focused. Think long-term.
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