In this wide-ranging interview, we sit down with Sheikh Shourav, Founder and President of Apploye, to learn more about his journey to what he is doing, and the inner workings of Apploye, the global SaaS company he is building out of Bangladesh. We talk about his early life and his motivation behind pursuing an entrepreneurial life. The origin of Apploye, 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 discuss the state of Apploye’s business today and ambition going forward, reflect on the trials and tribulations of being a founder, the importance of measured pessimism, building a process-driven operation, stoicism, and much more.
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us. I wanted to start at the beginning of your journey, could you please tell us about your background and path to entrepreneurship?
My Entrepreneurship journey started from my university dorm room in China by selling stuff online, manufacturing products in China, and selling them in the US through Amazon and other channels.
I completed my secondary and higher secondary education from Rajshahi Cadet College. The person I’ve turned out to be, my cadet college life has a lot to do with it. My cadet college life taught me a lot about leadership, discipline, personality, and hard work. The second inflection point is my education in China. In 2013, I went to China for higher studies after receiving a fully-funded Chinese Government Scholarship under China’s ministry of education. In China, I studied software engineering in Chinese as a medium of instruction which is a rare thing to do for international students. Scholarship students need to meet some conditions, language is one of them. During my First-year, I had to stay in Shanghai to complete a course on the Chinese language. From next year, I was in Guangzhou where I studied Software Engineering at the South China University of Technology. Since I could write and speak the Chinese language, I had better access to Chinese socie. As a result, I was in close contact with technological development in China. I saw and experienced their massive growth.
To give you an example, when I went there in 2013, Alibaba’s payment platforms and fintech in China were in their nascent stage. When I returned to Bangladesh from China in 2018, by that time the startup ecosystem of China had become super advanced. When I went there I used to pay using the card and when I was leaving China, there were automated facial recognition payments in stores. This transformation took place within five years.
I did not aspire to be an entrepreneur in my early life before going to China. When I came to see the entrepreneurial ecosystem in China, I got convinced that the highest possible impact I could make with my efforts for my country would be through entrepreneurship. I could see what one person like Jack Ma could do for his country in China. I always thought that if I use my skills in computer science and build a product then I could bring in revenue from all over the world to my country, help build an ecosystem, and serve the country.
When I was in cadet college, I was in a closed environment. When I moved to China, it was like I was thrown from a pond to the sea. The huge condominiums, large construction projects, and large companies, these things influenced my motivation and I thought that I would try to become an entrepreneur and take the opportunities that the startup scene in China has to offer.
This first happened when I was a second-third-year student. I did not have much expertise in software to build anything during that time. So instead, I started an e-commerce business. I tried a few other small things before but this e-commerce venture was my first successful initiative. I created an outdoor recreation brand where we used to sell products for outdoor activities such as camping, going to the beach, etc. I used to make products under the brand name in China and sell them in the US. I was an Amazon vendor in the US and I also had my website.
That was my first experience working on e-commerce. To run the e-commerce business, I had to purchase different subscription software every month like CRM, amazon data analytics, keyword research, etc. That's when I first came to learn about the SaaS industry that this is such a huge industry, how the industry works, and so on. Since then I have wanted to work in SaaS.
An important thing to me is that a business must be halal. In many traditional businesses, it is difficult to maintain a fully ethical operation. Many components are difficult to maintain ethically. In SaaS, I came to see that I create value, people purchase it and pay us a monthly fee. There is no complication and it is a simple contract. And it is scalable.
Then I started working on small apps for the Shopify platform. I still have three apps on the Shopify platform. Shopify is an e-commerce website. Since I was using several apps, I was making apps where I could not find an alternative. I had a small-scale success there. Then I decided to quit the Amazon business. It was a very good and profitable business. Although my initial business success came from there, I decided to quit the business because I learned that it was not a scalable business. I was working all alone in China. I had just one Chinese assistant to manage this operation
There are several challenges in this business, which I think you are aware of. For example, supply issues: If a supplier fails to supply products on time. we get negative reviews on Amazon and our ranking goes down. Many problems like this were beyond my control. My passion for the software business also grew at the time. I wanted to explore the world of SaaS. Gradually, I shut down that business and then started working in software full scale.
Initially, I started working on making small apps. Then came graduation time and I completed my degree. After returning to Bangladesh, I started working on Apploye. We started by raising some small seed investments from friends and family. I wanted to build something big. So we raised some money. At the same time, I did not want to raise from formal VCs. My previous entrepreneurial journey helped me in this journey, especially in areas like how the international market works, how people purchase SaaS, I had an idea about these things because of my previous experience in e-commerce.
When I started my entrepreneurial journey, I was given an opportunity from my university where they gave me access to our university incubator as the first foreign student team. I was given office space, access to the internet and other office utilities, and mentorship.
This was a big thing for me because when my university recognized my work, it was a huge appreciation. It is one thing working as a freelancer and it is quite another thing getting institutional support and working out of an incubator. It was a huge inspiration for me. Usually, universities don't encourage these things and instead put importance on academic learning. When my university recognized and encouraged me, it was a big thing for me. I'm grateful to my university for this.
The other important aspect of my life in China is that I was on a Government Scholarship. I did not have to worry about anything monetary. As a result, I had the freedom to focus on other things. This was more like universal basic income.
Ruhul: Why did you decide to return to Bangladesh right after graduation?
Shourav: Now why I returned to Bangladesh. When I decided to work on SaaS, I thought we have a lot of talented software engineers in Bangladesh who are leaving the country and many of them are working at companies like Amazon and Google. There is a small number of people who are staying in the country because of either family or other reasons. They don't want to leave even though they have the opportunities. These people have a limited scope for working on an international scale. We have a lot of IT companies but we mostly provide services and rarely make products. I'm not saying providing service is not good, service is a critical vertical and there is a lot of demand. But my point is that we are making a lot of products for international companies. They are then selling that product. So why can't we do that? When I started doing business on Amazon, I had this idea for the first time. I was making these products under my brand name from China and selling them in the US. I also thought about the fact that we make garments for all the big brands across the world who buy cheap clothes from us and sell them at a big margin, whereas we don't have any international brand. This is when I thought we have a lot of talented engineers in Bangladesh. If I could do this business from Bangladesh, I will be able to provide opportunities to these amazing talented software engineers and it would give me a competitive advantage as well. I have doubts regarding marketing talents in Bangladesh, but I think we have world-class computer engineering talents. Our software engineers can easily build SaaS products that can compete with any other international competitors. The second reason is family. I wanted to be close to my family after so many years. These are some of the reasons why I returned to the country.
Ruhul: How has your childhood and upbringing shaped your work and worldview?
Shourav: Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by building things. My plays were mostly around building things of some kind. My father has always wanted me and my siblings to do well in life and do great things. We are six sisters and two brothers. We are a large family. In our hometown, we are kind of an educated family where everyone has a master's degree at least. Sometimes I say jokingly that I'm the least educated person in my family in terms of degree. I'm the only one with a bachelor's degree, the rest of my family members all have a master's degree.
My father died in 2012 before I went abroad. Allah may grant him Jannah. He had a dream that we do well in life and serve the country. He was a government employee. My father never put any limit on us that you have to be this or that. Instead, he used to tell me to do things that I find interesting and things that I love to do. Listen to everyone but at the end of the day you have to make your own decision, he used to tell me. This thing gave me a lot of courage I can choose well.
My values and principles come from my family. But I did not have the ambition to become an entrepreneur before going to China. This is something I learned from staying in China and seeing their startup scene.
Ruhul: Tell us about your experience of growing up in a large household?
Shourav: Although I was inspired by the tech and business scene in China and became passionate about it, it is not all that simple. Since I lost my father early, I wanted to take on some of the responsibilities of the family in absence of my father. I always wanted to contribute to the family. Since I did not have to worry about my personal finances in China because of scholarship stipends, Instead, I could think about whether I could start a small business as well and support my family. That I guess has had a profound impact on me and taught me to take responsibility early on.
Ruhul: Why did you choose to work in the time tracking space?
Shourav: When I was running my e-commerce business I had a remote part-time team from several countries including the Philippines and Bangladesh. Initially, I used to manage them using Upwork and Upwork charged a 20% fee.
I could not avoid Upwork fees because if I were working outside of Upwork, there were issues with accountability and making everyone productive. If I had a team of 7-8 people, at least two of them would be slacking and not doing their job or doing two jobs at once.
Many people think that Apploye makes time tracking software and it is too harsh on employees, etc. It is not like that. A founder who is running a remote operation with limited resources, we enable them to run their team efficiently. I had experience with my remote team and it happens regularly that there were people who were doing two jobs at the same time and billing both clients.
To manage my remote team and prevent these types of behavior, at one point, I started using multiple tools. That’s how I came across the time tracking software.
There are several tools in the market. These tools have some challenges. First, many of these tools are quite expensive. Secondly, customer support is often non-existent. It takes 3-4 days to glean a response to a problem from them. Thirdly, I could not find many of the things that I was looking for. Many features were missing and the way the app was designed was not suitable for an agency owner. From there, I identified this problem. I realized that this is a good problem.
Why did I start working on this after returning to the country? That is a good question. I had several ideas for a few SaaS products. Some of them were in big industries competing with Zoho and Freshdesk. I did not pursue those industries for various reasons.
First of all, building a global SaaS from Bangladesh is an experiment. I did not have anyone to look up to. Probably there are SaaS companies from Bangladesh doing excellent work, but I could not find any when I was starting. So this is an experiment and if I do it in an industry as big as that of Zoho then it becomes a bit riskier. Number two, to move into these types of industries you need a lot of investment. For example, by the time I started working on Apploye, Freshdesk raised north of $150 million. For me to break into such a market, I at least have to raise some capital close to these businesses whereas raising one-tenth of that capital is a challenge for us in Bangladesh.
That's why I thought that it would be better to get into an industry where competition is not that high and there are opportunities to access these markets from Bangladesh. From that perspective, I started working on Apploye.
We have been able to build a winning product that is better than our competitors and is less expensive. I think we have more features than our competitors. Our USP is that it is cheaper, faster, and better.
I did not get into a segment where I would not be able to compete effectively. Say, for example, we have built a product where we have more features than Time Doctor, which is the leader in this market, but our price is almost half of Time Doctor.
Now when you are looking for a product, compare different products and you see that these guys have better features but the price is lower, you would be inclined to try us. We don't have a marketing budget. Many of our competitors have millions of dollars in funding which we don't have. I understood that if I want to succeed, I have to provide something, some value for which people will choose us. When someone comes to our site, he/she must take our product, that's what I wanted to achieve.
My business role model is Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu. People have different role models. Many entrepreneurs like Elon Musk as their guru but I don't because Elon does not go along with my ecosystem. Such Big disruptive dreams are only possible in the US and probably China. From where I am operating aspiring to start the next Car/rocket company won’t work, but building the next big SAAS silently like l Zoho should work. So he is my role model. I follow his work and stoic philosophy. Besides There are similarities between India and Bangladesh on so many levels Which makes me hopeful that such a global reputed SAAS company can also be built from Bangladesh.
In my personal life, Rasulullah (PBUH) is my role model.
So why time tracking? I thought that if I could provide cheaper, faster, and better products and solutions and still I would be able to build a profitable business. The big reason behind this is that since our cost of lifestyle is less than what it is in Silicon Valley and other similar places I can hire engineers with a reasonable salary which my competitors can't. So I can save costs and still provide better solutions because we have the same engineering talents as those companies. If these companies respond to us by reducing their price to half, still they would not be able to compete with us. This is something that Zoho does. This is why I choose to play in this market.
Time tracking is a large industry but it is not that large that I would need a lot of resources to operate and succeed in this industry. It is neither too small that I'm pursuing a business in such a small market. I had three ideas and I chose this one because I faced this problem and I used these tools and as a result, I know this industry better.
Ruhul: What went into building the initial operation of Apploye? How did you put together initial investment and other resources to get started? Please walk us through what the first few months to one year of Apploye and your journey were like.
Shourav: I already had a small team in Bangladesh which I used to maintain when I was running my business from China: making apps on the Shopify platform. I had 3-4 developers for the apps I was making for e-commerce. So when I returned to Bangladesh and decided to start Apploye, I gathered the team.
Initially, I decided to start and run the business through self-financing. But when I started working, some of my close seniors from Cadet College and my network showed interest in working together. I also thought that since I know very little about the Bangladesh ecosystem, it would be useful to have some partners. So I took two partners, one is an investing partner and another is an advisory partner. That's how I got started. This was in the first few months.
Then I hired the rest of the software engineering team through referral. Since I already had a small team, I asked them to refer to other people and through that, we hired a few more engineers. We made several hiring mistakes which cost us dearly in those early days. It is hard to find good technical developers. Since our product requires us to work from the OS level, we need people who are good at what they do. Initially, we could not find really good engineers to hire. So instead we hired two people from Armenia, one from India and one from Pakistan. Again the remote model. These people helped us to build the initial product. We also had a Bangladesh team and then a global team. Slowly we also hired fresh graduates and trained them to an extent so that they could deliver. When our local team became strong, we gradually reduced the remote team. Now we don't have any remote team. We are now a full office-based team in Dhaka.
As I did not know much about the Bangladesh market and how to hire people I worked the way I used to work before which is hiring developers from abroad and working with them initially. Gradually, we have built our local team.
Ruhul: You hired a team, took an office, onboarded two partners, what happened after that?
Shourav: Then we started product development towards the end of 2019. It took us almost 8-9 months to develop the initial version. We launched our first version in August 2019 on an international platform. From there, we got about 250 customers. That was our first launch.
When we launched we launched in an interesting way to create buzz. We put forward a limited offer where customers could crowdfund us for lifetime access. Initially, we raised 250,000 dollars from friends and family as an investment.
Then we raised some funds from customers, which is quite interesting. We raised crowd-funding from customers. We told them that this is an initial version of this product, we will launch these features in the coming days. If you back us up here, similar to Kickstarter, you can use this product for a lifetime but the price will remain the same for you. A lot of people bought our product at the time.
This was interesting for us because at the time our product was not at a stage where someone would pay full price for using it. Because early versions are often buggy and there are a lot of areas where you need feedback to build on it.
We sold around 50,000 dollars through crowdsourcing. We got our initial customers from here. These are savvy users. A large percentage of these users offered brutally honest feedback throughout our development phase. If there was any flaw, they would simply tell us that. As a result, I could see that these users kept our people under pressure. I did not have to do anything to motivate the team to launch features or improve on the product. These users are motivated because they have an incentive that they would use this product for a lifetime, which is at least 5-7 years, and they have an incentive to help make this product better. Many customers from this early batch gave us important feedback and asked for new updates and so on. As a result, we have always been busy as a team and our product improved rapidly. It has helped us to quickly get to product-market fit. To give an example, our nearest competitor, it took them almost two and a half years to get their first paying customer.
We are now about two years old and now we have a total of 1200+ businesses using our product. Although this is not a huge achievement, about SaaS, if we compare ourselves with our international competitors, we are much ahead of them as a starting point. One major reason behind this is the early feedback that we have received from our users.
Ruhul: Excellent Strategy. You have some customers, started building out the product, could you tell us about the journey after that?
Shourav: We then hired some people for marketing. I have always struggled to hire people for marketing in Bangladesh. So instead I hired people for content writing. We have a blog and we have invested quite a bit into it.
If you go to our blog today, you would see the contents that we have are decision stage articles. For example, someone is thinking about using Time Doctor or Hubstaff, and at this stage, they would search for Time Doctor alternatives, or what are other tools like Time Doctor, we have created content around this. As a result, when people search for this content, they come to our website and can see comparisons between us and other products.
We could create content that can bring readers to our blog such as remote team management and so on. But we don't do that. Instead, we create decision stage articles first so that we could generate results easily.
Our target is to get to the users who already understand time tracking and are looking for a solution. The rest will need education before they go for time tracking and we will do that later. We got some results from there. We have not gotten into paid campaigns yet.
We will go for paid acquisition from 2021. We will first target the people who are already using a time tracking solution and then we will move into other areas.
Ruhul: Could you please give us an overview of Apploye today in terms of products and services you offer, the number of users you have, the size of your business and operations, etc?
Shourav: We are a team of 17 people. We don't have any free plans. We have three plans: time tracking, field track, and remote track. Time track deals with managing a general team where you can pay employees an hourly basis, do scheduling, task assignment, project management, etc. There are no employee monitoring issues. If you don't need to monitor your employees, to that end you can use this feature.
Field track is for teams where you have a combination of outdoor teams i.e. construction team, hospital, sales or marketing team, any type of field tracking where you need geofencing, and location tracking type of services, this is for teams who need tracking field operation.
Finally, the remote track is for remote teams or if you have freelancers working for you, you can use this feature to have proof of their work. The remote track is a different application where you ask your people to use the software on their PC and through that, you can see where they spend their working hours.
Many people consider us as the only employee monitoring software. But we are a time tracking software. Employee monitoring is one of our add-ons. We are not an employee monitoring tool, we are a time tracking software.
So these are our three plans. Pricing for these plans is $4, $5, and $6 respectively per employee.
Currently, 1200+ companies use our product in 66+ plus countries. We have been doing well and our growth has been good so far. When we begin paid acquisition in 2021, we will grow even faster.
One advantage we have is that companies keep on growing. For example, we have acquired a customer who has only two employees for now but he would not stop there. He would grow his business and eventually will grow his team. It means if we could acquire and retain a customer for a long time we can grow our revenue per customer as they grow their team size. To that end, it does not matter if our customer acquisition cost is a little higher initially, our per customer revenue always goes up.
If we provide good support to our customers, and they stay with us, our revenue will certainly grow as their businesses grow. To that end, one of our goals is that people who are using our product should succeed in their business. We publish guides, we have a Facebook group for customers where we regularly share tips and tricks of best hiring practices. Our success depends on the success of our customers.
The majority of our customers are small companies with employee numbers between 10-25. These are small agencies that rely on their people for their growth. If their teams are productive, they will grow. So our goal and everything that we do is around this: helping them to grow. This is not true in every industry. For example, in SaaS where an employee could be unproductive or not producing anything in particular in a day because you spend a lot of time thinking. But there are industries where this is very important that everyone in the team is delivering every day. Our product has huge relevance for those industries.
In industries where employee productivity is directly tied with the revenue of the company, we operate in those industries. After onboarding customers, we always try to find ways to help our customers more.
Ruhul: What are some strategies and tactics you used in achieving the growth?
Shourav: When I was running my e-commerce business, I used to spend a lot of time in digital marketing and marketing in general. When I started working on Apploye, which is a product company, it has become difficult for me to focus on marketing because product development is a tricky job and it is often all-consuming.
Since I'm a solo founder, product development takes up a lot of my time. Moreover, I enjoy product development work. As a result, I can't give a lot of time to closing deals.
Any constraint is almost always good. So now that I don't have a lot of time, I pay attention to deals that would bring me the highest return. My team is doing their jobs. They are producing content, making cold calls, and so on. For me, I look for high-impact deals.
For any startup, one deal is enough to give you a kickstart and put you in a strong position. It depends on the size of the deal. For example, If I launch the software and I make a partnership with SalesForce, that's enough for putting me in a strong position. So I figured out what I could do to that end where a few deals would make a lot of difference. So I started onboarding different launch partners who I realize if I onboard them would promote my product. I then started to find partners and affiliates who already have Facebook and Youtube channels and have a large subscriber base in my industry. It is difficult to build a partnership with them but if I could do it, it is a big win for me.
I try to find the highest impact deals but not spending a lot of time pursuing low-quality deals. Some of these deals might take 3-4 months to close but they are impactful and make sense from that perspective.
Initially, we worked with some launch partners that helped us to bring the highest results. The couple of hundred users that we got from the initial launch then helped us to grow through word of mouth. When there is a discussion regarding time tracking software and people are asking each other what they use, our users say that we use Apployee and it has helped us a lot to attract new users.
We got the initial 400-500 customers through launch partners. The rest of the customers are through word of mouth.
With that our content has also played a good role in helping to attract new customers. Almost 10-15% of our leads come through our content. For time-tracking-related information, our blogs rank pretty high in search results that allow us to attract new users. We had to work a lot to prepare these contents and work pretty hard on SEOs.
For example, our entire blog is built on Gatsby. People usually use WordPress for blogs. We made it in Gatsby because we came to see that the leaders in the SEO industry such as MOZ or Ashref are using Gatsby. We thought there must be some reasons behind this. To make it in Gatsby, we had to work on it for two months. But it has paid off and we could see the result. In terms of SEO, we could not do a lot of things such as link building and similar things. But we work hard on the technical SEO side. We maintain the guideline by Google when writing our blog posts. As a result, we have a consistent result from content and SEO.
We are also present in Capterra and similar review sites. If you search Capterra Apploye, you would see that we have pretty good reviews on these review sites. We collect reviews on these review sites early.
Ruhul: What are some of the challenges of building a global tech product from Bangladesh?
Shourav: There are obvious things and non-obvious things. Let me tell you the non-obvious things.
One is integration - with how many apps and platforms you have integrated your product. This offers better discovery for your product as well as brings you, free users. For example, we are now thinking of building an integration for Zoom's newly launched app ecosystem because we think it will help us. That's one.
The second is design. The majority of our local products are poorly designed. We don't take UI and design-related positions as something critical. In many markets, a senior UX designer earns double that of a senior web developer. Because they value design. Especially if you look at the European products, they are very well designed. Their UI and UX are of high quality. You could see this if you take a look at sites like Transferwise and similar European sites. One of our biggest investments was hiring our head of UI. To my understanding, he is one of the best UX designers in Bangladesh. This is an investment that a product company has to make.
Your product might have a lot of features but you have to understand where people click and where they don't. Our goal is to make sure that people spend time on our products. Now if I can't build a product with enough understanding of the color sense and similar things then that doesn't make sense for us.
UI and UX are different things. We have to invest in research when building a product to see if what we are building is good enough. I think we are not good at design and we don't take design as something necessarily critical. We have to understand that design is half of a product.
Ruhul: How do you operate as a team and manage your team?
Shourav: We use the scrum model in our company and every two weeks we have a scrum. We then take a break for rest and work relatively slowly and then we get into another scrum.
The team does their scrum themselves. I follow up on a daily and weekly basis. We use some tools such as Slack to communicate and update.
Our engineering team is quite strong. We have not been able to build our marketing team as yet but our engineering team is world-class and is at par with any of our competitors.
Ruhul: Could you please us about your culture at Apploye? What builds culture in your experience?
Shourav: I think that the first 5-15 people define the culture of a company. We are now 17 people. We have stopped hiring intentionally for the last six months.
The message we sent to the team is that this is COVID time, so we want to be cautious. Second, the team we have now must be able to lead. The new team who will come will learn from this existing team.
Our culture is built in a way that trust is vested in the system. There are checks and balances in the system that allows for smooth running.
The other thing we consider is that everybody is replaceable including me. It does not sound great but it has some wisdom. If I leave the company tomorrow, Apploye has to run like it was. If this is not happening, then I have not built a company rather just a personal project that depends on me to function.
This is what happens in our country in many instances. We have a lot of Person driven companies where everything is dependent on one or two people but not in the system Companies don’t scale if it’s dependent on particular people.
At Apploye, we want to be a process-driven company where nothing relies on a single person. If someone does not come to the office or I don't come to the office, things will run themselves. We have told everyone that if you feel like you are indispensable, the next thing you should do is don't come to work the next day. This is hard talk.
The soft talk is that I believe in work-life balance. We have office time and we don't take up the time of our people after office hours. We don't call anybody after office hours. Some employees stay late in the office willingly. Apart from that, we try not to give any work to our people after office hours. I encourage people to take these breaks so that they feel energized when he comes to work the next day. He should enjoy time with family and the weekends and so on.
Then when he would return to work the next day, he would be happy and excited and rested and would be more productive. My theory is you work fewer hours but you work well for those hours. Working all the time is not that productive. When someone stays in the office all the time, it does not help with his mental and physical energy. It creates a disturbance in the family. It causes disturbance in their regular life and it eventually negatively affects their productivity. He then becomes a liability for the company. We encourage work-life balance in the company.
Then every month, the entire team goes out to eat together outside. Sort of a team retreat. We dislike too much celebration in the company, at least at this point. We might like it in the future.
Many companies in Dhaka try to work like Google or at least what we can see from the outside - unlimited travel, food, vacation policy, and so on. These generate two things. There is nothing called unlimited vacation in the world. In our company, our normal leave excluding government holidays is 25 days a year. Now when a company claims that they are offering unlimited leave, they are not offering these 25 days leave even. There is nothing called free. Google we use for free but it is not free, because you are the product. When I'm saying that you have unlimited vacation, I can also demand that you have to work extra hours and extra days even when you deserve a vacation, sometimes unlimited vacation means no vacation at all. This happens in many instances. It is not that everyone does this. But these terms are problematic. When something is not defined, it can be used anyway.
Then there is no official time. You come whenever you come and work at your pace. This also has negative effects. Because when you don't have a defined office time, it means, the office is open all the time. We have seen while working remotely that people are working till 9 pm into the night. So we have decided that there would be a remote work option but also you work out of the office.
Nobody wants to work at 9 pm. People like the time that we now have. If I don't keep the attendance system and don't have office time, it means all time is office time. If my office does not close at 5 pm, it closes at 10 pm and I can call you at 9 pm. This is not useful because it creates subconscious stress that I can be called to the office any hour and he never enjoys his down hours.
We don't celebrate too much. Because we have not reached that stage yet that we have to celebrate every day. This is better for employees as well. If you become a profitable company, you can pay your employees better and can ensure their job security that would make a huge difference in their life.
We have a fixed office hour. Team members have to create certain output during this period. I will not make someone work after office, s/he go and live their own life. The office is part of your life, not your entire life.
The pressure eventually comes. In many funded companies, initially, there are perks and flexibility but then come the deadline and pressures from investors and raising money and then hitting some target, then you need to work hard and almost all the time. Everyone in the team needs to work extra hard and there are no weekends. It is not good for the employees, neither for the founders and the company. It is not good for mental health either. So a balanced approach with discipline is way better than too much flexibility and then too much hustle
Ruhul: How do you build a process-driven company?
Shourav: Since I work with HR tech, I'm passionate about these things. We have two things at Apploye. One is the normal HR book, which is about what would happen when we hire someone and fire someone and other relevant HR policies and issues.
Apart from that, we have SOPs for every division. We divide our company into three divisions: close deals, ship code, and management. Ship code is the technology team. I believe a technology company needs only two wings: ship code and close deal. You simply ship code and close deals. The close deals team is our marketing team. The management team is HR and other functions including me. It is a very small team.
Every division has an SOP. What our FB post would look like, what we could share and what we could not, and what tools we could use and what we could not, everything is written.
We have an SOP called Charter of responsibility that illustrates the responsibilities of each employee. One is only responsible for his responsibilities. We manage our project on Clickup. I learned the concept of SOP from my cadet college life. Everything is written so that people are at the same pace.
You become process-driven when everything is in writing and things take care of themselves. I think startup founders should spend a significant amount of time writing SOPs on how their company will operate so that if even I'm not here, the company can run.
We have policies for how our finance will run if I'm not here who will take over, and where you would be able to access things, etc. When I think of my company, I think of it as a set of SoP, not in terms of people or customers. The rules book is my company and guiding principles.
Ruhul: What are some lessons that you’ve learned from your journey so far?
Shourav: You know entrepreneurship is stressful. You need to ensure payroll every month, things can go wrong at any moment, you make difficult decisions all the time. All these things add to your stress level. What happened over the years is that I have become fascinated by the ideas of Stoic philosophy. That everything is about expectation. If you could manage your expectation, you could manage anything.
The sacrifices you need to make in the process of building an enterprise are pretty huge. You have to sacrifice sleep and relationship and so much more. Whatever success I have achieved and the sacrifice I had to make, if you ask me if I've agreed to make this sacrifice, I would say no if it were only for the success. I agree because I have a mission and I want to contribute. If it were for only money, I would not have been motivated to do this. Of course, now that I'm playing this game, I must make money because there are incentives for different stakeholders involved. Moreover, I need money to do what I want to do. So I have an incentive to earn money.
But if anyone starts a company for earning money alone, it will likely fail. Because earning money by doing something else is much easier. Entrepreneurship demands a lot more which you would not be able to give if you do it for money alone.
While dealing with these dichotomies, I have found a connection between Stoic philosophy and my religious practice. I'm a practicing Muslim. I have found a relationship between my religious practice and stoic philosophy and it helps me to cope with stress, grounds me, and allows me to live mindfully.
I am a measured pessimist. I don't take things at their face value. I try to see both sides of everything. I don't get excited about the positives or see only the negatives. I try to see both and prepare for bad situations. This is one of the reasons I emphasize systems and processes because people can change but systems don't. If you put together strong systems and put that into words, it could save you time and effort and ensure sustainability regardless of people.
Ruhul: Could you please share some of the mistakes you’ve made in your business that you think other founders should try to avoid?
Shourav: If we had introduced product management earlier, it could have been helpful for us and saved us some time. Since we came to this conclusion through trials and errors and since this is how you learn things, I would not say it was a mistake necessarily. I learned about product management through this process. I think founders should gather experience in product management, be it through a job or any other means. This is an important aspect because engineers are expensive. So if you make product mistakes, it is usually a lot more costly than any other challenge. I think it would have been useful for us if we could bring product management concepts to our company earlier.
If you want to target the local and global market at once, I would suggest you do it separately. In our journey, we tried the local market for the first six months. But we keep the price for the local and global market the same. We could not offer a special price for the local market because some of our resources are quite expensive. That's why we eventually shift completely to the global market. Today, only 5-7% of our customer base is Bangladeshi customers.
If you plan to pursue two different markets, have two separate websites for each market, and offer different pricing. Your brand should be different if you are offering a low-cost option for the local market. Otherwise, if your global customers somehow discover that you have a low price option, they would be unhappy and might leave you. If you are targeting the Bangladesh market, you better make the website in Bangla. Targeting two markets at once and offering different prices for two markets is a mistake.
Ruhul: How do you deal with the challenges and stress?
Shourav: Stress happens from time to time. When I'm stressed I try to pray for additional supplications and practice mindfulness - paying attention to the presence. I also try to change my focus and pay attention to work. Ultimately, I try to address this challenge by improving my relationship with God.
I have accepted that there will be challenges and trials in this life. I see this as tests from God and I try to be patient and pray for additional supplications. I’ve found it to be the best way for me to deal with stress.
Ruhul: How do you practice measured pessimism or stoic philosophy in reality?
Shourav: The first thing I do is try to validate whatever assumption I have regarding the person. If I assume that someone is not working well or performing well, I try to validate that assumption whether it is true or not because until I check it in for real, it is still an assumption.
If I find it as the truth, I then try to talk to the person and find a solution. If we fail to find a solution, we mutually part our ways without maintaining any personal bitterness. I try not to maintain any personal bitterness and deal with it. I don't blame the person and I try to be understanding of the fact that we all have limitations. I try to make the person understand this and try to part gracefully.
I had to fire a few people since I started the company, an experience I did not have before. This is a very difficult job. Firing is a very bad experience. When I need to part ways with my partner or employees, I try to do it with grace. I never do it in a bad way. I try to maintain the relationship and simply solve the problem with grace.
Every time I have to let go of someone, I try to find him a suitable opportunity outside. Almost everyone who left Apployee went to a better position. I have tried to help every one of them.
I try to not keep a personal vendetta against anyone. A person can behave in a certain way for many reasons. He is probably having challenges in his personal life or had a difficult childhood and other psychological challenges. If you have personal anger against someone, it usually drags you and that person down. I always try to part ways gracefully because I also know that if I don't solve it, it would keep dragging me down.
Ruhul: How do you stay productive?
Shourav: I use our app, Apployee to track where my time is going. I always try to end my workday within office hours but there are days when I end work at 10 in the evening. But I try not to waste time. I use a blocker to block distracting websites and all that.
Like everyone I struggle with productivity as well. When I'm unproductive for some time, I by default come to understand that maybe I'm doing shallow work. We do two types of work: shallow and deep work. Shallow work is where we are mostly in external communication with people. Deep work is when we are tackling a complex problem or working on a project for a prolonged period. I would recommend Deep Work to everyone.
When you are doing a lot of shallow work, your brain would resent deep work. If you try to do anything difficult, your brain would run from it. When this happens, I then switch mode and do something tough for a couple of days to reorient the brain. I try to do a difficult project or read a book.
Facebook, newspaper, youtube, etc are constant dopamine hit and it does not take you much hard work. But reading a book is very different because you have to wait for the gratification till the end of the book. This trains your brain in delayed gratification, which is critical for pursuing difficult projects and goals.
Ruhul: A couple of books you enjoyed reading and would like to recommend for our readers?
Where can I go to learn more about Apploye?