Shamim Hasnath is the founder and CEO of Ridmik Labs and CTO of DataBird. Shamim created the Ridmik Keyboard in 2012 when he was a second-year student of Computer Science at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Today, Ridmik Keyboard is one of the top communications apps in Bangladesh with over 50 million cumulative downloads and 25 million monthly active users.
In 2018, Shamim joined DataBird and together they launched Ridmik Labs to build Bangladesh’s leading consumer Internet mobile apps. Today, Ridmik Labs has a number of popular products across news, ebook readers, messaging, and communication.
In this excellent interview, we talk about how Shamim made his way into building popular tech products and entrepreneurship, the state of Ridmik Labs and its many products and services, how different products of Ridmik connect with each other, Ridmik’s ambition going forward, and his lessons on building successful tech products for the local market in Bangladesh and much more.
I want to begin this interview by learning a bit about you. Please tell us about yourself, your background, and your journey to what you are doing today.
I was born and brought up in Mymensingh. Attended my School and College there. After college, I went to BUET where I studied from 2011 to 2016.
I started working on Keyboard, which is now Ridmik Keyboard, in 2012 for the first time. I was in my second year at the time. We had a month-long Ramadan vacation and I worked on the keyboard throughout the month as a practice.
Once it was ready, I sent it to a few of my friends, seniors, and juniors. I did not think much about it. Since I made it, I wanted to share it with people in my network and wanted them to test it. Just that.
After testing it, my elder brother encouraged me to publish it. He helped me to publish. It immediately received some attention. I started to get a lot of emails with feedback and suggestions from users.
Omi Azad, who is prominent for working on promoting Bangla on the internet and technology, has been very helpful. He has done some wonderful work in the space. He provided me with a ton of suggestions in the early days. He was an avid android user and he could see where we could improve. He was using the keyboard a lot. I was new to android at the time. I did not have a phone before launching the keyboard. He gave me a lot of suggestions, mostly best features and practices from different keyboards, and I implemented many of those suggestions on the keyboard.
I used to work on the keyboard sporadically. I did not have a plan or ambition per se. But I could see that a lot of people were using the keyboard.
That’s such a fascinating story. You launched quite a scrappy version of the product in 2012, people started to use it, what happened after that?
Initially, I never used to give regular updates but later I started to get a lot of feedback. So between 2012 and 2015, I started giving updates quite regularly. These were the early days. But later it became yearly - sending updates about once a year.
That was because you were not serious about it or did not think that this could become something big or interesting?
Not exactly. I could see the response and traction. But at that time, I could not see how many more things could be done with a keyboard. At the same time, I did not have a lot of time after working part-time and academic studies. The keyboard was not my sole focus. I was a full-time student and was also working part-time.
The keyboard was running smoothly since there were not a lot of problems. As a result, there was a three years gap in sending updates on the app.
I always wanted to make sure that the design remains intact. People ask for many things, design-wise but I always tried to stay true to the design. And if you don't want to experiment and change the design, then there is not much to be done with a keyboard.
In 2018, when I started working full-time at Ridmik Labs, we gave a pretty big update. After that, we continue to see regular updates.
You were a second-year BUET student when you created the Ridmik Keyboard. Were you thinking about monetization at some point?
We never thought of monetizing the keyboard. That was one reason I did not think of building a business out of it because we did not want to make money out of it.
We don't have any plan to monetize the keyboard in the future. When we started as a company, we did not think about starting with monetization. We have other plans but monetizing Keyboard is not one of them.
You graduated in 2016, working on the keyboard on the side, what happened after that?
After graduation in 2016, I worked in two companies full time: Infosapex Limited and Dingi Technologies Limited. I joined Infosapex right after graduation in 2016. I joined Dingi in 2017 when the company launched. I left the job before starting Ridmik Labs in 2018.
Could you please tell us about the early days of Ridmik Labs?
We started Ridmik Labs as a company in August 2018, when we teamed up with DataBird, with a team of 3 people. We then started to hire slowly. Today, we are a team of 25 people, about half on the tech front.
When we started, we just had the keyboard. In 2018, we started working on the News app. Then we started working on our ebook reader Boitoi app. We started with raising a seed investment from DataBird with strategic backing from Skycatcher in 2018. There is a twist of the story somewhere here.
I was preparing to go for higher studies. In 2018, I made almost all the preparations to go for a master's in the USA. I resigned from my two workplaces and was tying up the last-minute preparations. Around this time fate happened.
Siamac Kamalie, our investor, was in Dhaka and he sent me an email saying that he wanted to meet me. He did not mention much in the email regarding what he wanted to talk to me about and so on. This was in April 2018. I had time at hand since it was almost two and a half months ahead of my schedule for going for master's. So I went to meet him.
I had the experience of meeting people before regarding collaboration for Ridmik Keyboard. People wanted to do different things. Most people wanted to use the name or monetize the service and so on. Siamac was different. He did not give me ideas about monetization. He told me that he wanted to help us build a company and build more products. I shared with him that we do have the ambition to build more products. After a few discussions, we agreed to work together. I then scrapped my plan to go to the US and started Ridmik Labs.
How much did you raise?
Since we are a part of DataBird, we raised together where we have ShareTrip as well. In total, we raised US$5 million in seed and we are now looking for Series A investment.
Could you please tell us about the evolution of Ridmik Labs in terms of product-wise evolution?
When we started Ridmik, I discussed with Siamac what other areas we might explore. I showed him the Ridmik News MVP, which we already had built to some extent. He agreed and we got into the news. We discussed making an ebook reader and decided to pursue it as well. I knew the whole cycle of building the product. As a result, it did not take us much time to finally launch the product. We could launch it within six months.
We launched news within four months of founding Ridmik Labs. We were three people at the time. We launched news in January 2019. We then launched Boitoi in July.
We have been working on a Messenger app for a while now. We are calling it Ridmik. The product is ready and is now being tested by a small group of beta testers. We are calling the beta testing program Ridmik friends+ program.
We have a friendship app called BondhuBuzz, which also is in beta. We launched it in April but we are working on the product. We want to build this friendship app for the Bangladesh market by taking into consideration the local culture and customs. We are currently trying to understand consumer insights in the market. We want to make sure that people don't misuse or misrepresent the service. There are many issues here. We are not working on it aggressively as yet. We are trying to understand the market dynamics.
Our news is doing fantastic. We are growing every month. We are now working on original high-quality content. We started as a news aggregator. But we are eyeing to expand and add more features and content types and so on.
These are some of the products we are working on.
If I talk about individual products, in Keyboard, we are currently working on some new features such as introducing new themes where people could customize their themes. For example, many people want to use their photos as a theme. We have introduced a theme where you could do that.
We have never marketed the keyboard. It has grown completely organically. Our monthly active users are north of 25 million. The total download is over 50 million.
In Ridmik News, we have one and a half million downloads. Every month, 250k people read us.
In Boitoi, we have about 200k downloads and about 40k people use us monthly and 2.5k daily.
As I said, Bondhu Buzz is in beta.
These are some excellent numbers. Could you tell more about what has contributed to achieving the growth?
Keyboard has grown completely organically. However, to me, three things have helped us: 1) it is completely ad-free, 2) easy to switch from English to Bangla, and 3) multiple ways of typing - Ridmik Keyboard has all the typing options including Avro, Jatiyo, Provat, and so on. You can use all the keyboard formats that are available out there.
When I started working on the keyboard, I wanted to make a layout that is easy to remember. I then started doing some research and came to see a number of these works such as Unijoy, Jatiyo, and I just put them there. It was a good decision because people were already used to these keyboards and they could easily use that. I believe it has contributed to the growth.
Your product has these inherent advantages that have helped with growth, anything else, outside of that, that has contributed to the growth?
To be honest, we did very little to push growth with the keyboard. It resonated with people and grew from there. However, whenever there was a problem, we addressed it as quickly as we could.
We had one problem, in android, when you download the keyboard app it shows a warning sign that this keyboard may collect data and so on. This is basically a generic warning from the Android system shown before enabling any third-party keyboard. As a result, many people would not download and install it. To address it, we made a small change. We put a notice in writing that we don't collect any data and it is completely secure and safe. That probably helped to bring in people who were not using the product before.
Could you tell us more about Ridmik News?
Initially, our plan with Ridmik News was that it would become an official aggregator for all news apps and portals in Bangladesh. We studied the market a bit and we came to find that we have about 38 mobile apps for news. The total installs for all apps together is 1.3 million, of which one app alone is like one million. The rest together is 300k.
This is quite natural because everyone does not have a team to push updates and improve the app experience. I contacted several publishers. They have a small tech team who looks after the website and also works on the app. As a result, nothing is working well. To develop and maintain a good app you need people. But most news portals don't have these setups.
We wanted to build an official aggregator where all publishers will have a presence and users will be able to read all the publishers. But the thought being new to many industry patrons, not everyone is still comfortable in being part of such a plan. We tried in many ways. We spent almost six months pursuing this ambition. Only four publishers agreed to try. That too as an experiment. They want to see how it goes and so on.
After trying for six months, we decided not to pursue it anymore and instead be an aggregator. It is like when you open news in our app, it opens in our in-app browser from the news portal’s website.
We have also started investing in producing original content. We hired a small team of freelancers who write a summary of the news. We now have 38 freelancers. We wanted to build a feature where you could get instant news. For that we hired freelancers. We made the process simpler so that we could churn in news quickly.
We have several people who write feature articles on historic events, complex and interesting topics such as the US election, and so on.
We are no more a mere aggregator. We are also doing original content and we aim to double down on that in the coming days.
You have hired professional journalists who write on these topics.
Yes. We have hired a small team of good writers who work on producing original content.
How do Keyboard and news connect?
When we launched news, we added a tiny button on the keyboard called news, where people can click and go to Ridmik News.
If you compare yourself with other competitors in the aggregator space such as Priyo.com, what makes you different?
One advantage is that you are getting instant news which our freelancers are working on all the time. If you are interested in any particular topic, you can follow the topic, get notifications.
You can listen to audio news. For example, you are traveling and don't want to read, you can listen to all the news just by pressing a button.
We have a quiz feature where you can take this quiz after reading about a topic and check how much you know about it. This is a pretty popular feature among students. The quiz is a separate section that takes place every week on different topics and events of that week.
You aggregate from newspapers. What is your relationship with these newspapers?
We are not aggregating news per see. We give the summary of the news and if you want to read the full news, we give the source link and you can click and go to the link and read the full article.
How do you plan to monetize Ridmik News?
We are not monetizing news as yet. We are working to improve the user experience. Advertisement is going to be one of the ways of monetization for us. We have done some work there. But we are not bringing it to the app as yet. We want to show ads in such a manner that it does not hamper the reader's experience. We want to keep the reading experience intact and then serve native ads that match the user interests
We have several plans for Ridmik news. We want to bring video content. We have built some interesting features such as we test topics from time to time to see the response of our readers. When we see that people are responding well to a particular topic, we then go on to explore it deeper.
Could you please give us an overview of Boitoi and how it works?
Boitoi is a specialized Bangla eBook reader. When we started Boitoi, in the initial days, the content was a struggle. We did not have many books in the early days. This is a complex space. To bring a book to our platform, we need to deal with both writers and publishers. It is vital for the publisher and the writer to be on the same page for an ebook to be published. Although there are very good examples worldwide of the popularity of e-books, we are still new to this concept. Our main work in addition to developing products is also to continue to manage these complex dynamics.
Many publishers we work with have books by many famous writers and if we want to bring these books to our platform, we need to contact both parties and come to an agreement which is a time-consuming process.
Despite the market challenges, we have been able to on-board a long list of famous writers. We have Jafar Iqbal Sir, Anisul Huq, Sumantha Ashlam, Selina Hossain on our platform. A lot of publishers are now joining us such as Anupom, Anonna, Addon, and a growing number of publishers.
We have a lot of new writers who are publishing books only on our platform. More like self-publishing. We have a publishing option on our website where you could write and publish a book by clicking a few buttons. Our app has the same feature in beta where you could write and publish. A lot of people are writing on our web and app.
We have a web-based editor where you could write and do the formatting. We have some built-in themes that you could use. You will have to do the book cover yourself. Apart from that, you could do almost everything on our platform. You could structure the chapters, format, and highlight different parts of the book.
We have several writers who are not going into physical books. They are solely publishing on our platform. For example, a few days ago a female writer became hugely popular with her cookbook and she has now given us another book to publish. A lot of new writers are now coming to our platform. These are some of the examples that show that we adapt to changes and are getting accustomed to digital products and services.
We have a lot of challenges. We are just scratching the surface. The good thing is that we are making progress amid these challenges. Boitoi is growing every day.
Boitoi as a platform works with these three groups of people: readers, writers, and publishers. How do you work with each of these groups? What does each group get from you?
As a reader, you could read books. We have 300+ free books that you could read for free. We have books that you could buy and read.
For paid books, you have to buy a book to read it. Many apps require you to download the books to read them but we have a streaming feature where you could read as you go. You simply click on a book, it loads as you read through it. You essentially don't need to download it to read. We have studied all the ebook readers and we have added all the good features here. On top of that, we have added several Bangla fonts that you can choose from and apply while reading a book.
Boitoi books are optimized for reading in the Boitoi app, which means your experience is likely to be better. You get the chapters well organized.
We have several features such as if the author wants he can add meaning to a word. An author can add audio for a text if he wants. These are customizations that we have brought taking into consideration the requirements of the customers.
We also have some interactive books such as you could take BCS quizzes from within a book. You could see the score as well.
Our ambition is to create an ebook reader that can serve all your reading purposes. You would not have to leave the platform.
For publishers and writers, our platform is highly secured and encrypted. Many ebook readers have security issues where anyone could simply copy a book and paste somewhere and publish it. In Boitoi, you can't do it. Ours is per user encrypted. People can't take it from one device and read it somewhere else. You can download it but unless you pay you can't read. Many publishers and writers fear that if they put their book with us, people would download it and read it without paying. That can’t happen given the security features we use.
How do you work with publishers and writers?
We have a portal for publishers and writers where they could see all the transactions and information regarding their books. Generally, writers and publishers decide the price but we always encourage keeping the price affordable.
We make money on commission. There is no uniform rate as yet. It depends on many things from how a publisher works with us to the popularity of the author and the book. But we always want to make sure that our publisher and writer partners benefit from it.
Writers own the copyright. We allow writers to share promo codes with friends so that they could read for free.
We usually work with books that have some sort of digital text. We then convert them into books. We have people in the team who work on preparing books.
Boitoi is currently a team of 5 people. We currently have over 1800 books in our app. We have 40,000 monthly users. 40% of our users buy books from us every month. We have about 80 publishers and 100+ writers. We have all major publishers in Dhaka.
What are the plans for Boitoi in the coming days?
We have several plans. We are currently working on two features: audiobooks and short stories. Audiobooks will be the audio versions of the physical books. You can buy and listen to these books. Similar to services like Audible.
We are calling the short story feature Sholpo Golpo, where writers can write short stories in the app and publish them directly. A writer can write regularly as series, say a monthly or weekly episode. We have all these features worked out but we have not launched these features as yet. Short stories could be paid, ad-supported, or free. It depends on what the writer chooses. If you choose ads as an option, readers will see one ad per chapter.
We have a plan to launch a subscription service. It is a little complicated in Bangladesh but we want to do it. We are working on building the inventory for this and trying to onboard some publishers. We would go ahead with a subscription service as soon as we have a substantial base for this model.
Boitoi can also be accessed from the keyboard.
You are working on a Messenger app, which appears to be the most important piece of your overall strategy, could you tell us more?
This is a messaging app with audio and video calls, we are calling it Ridmik. This is our next major focus. The product is ready. We are currently beta testing. We have over 60 outside beta testers who are using the product and we are increasing the number of testers every day. We are seeing how people use the app and what they find useful and based on their usage we are looking to optimize the whole service.
We added several features that are unique to Ridmik. The features will be a value addition for our users which will bring more traction to our platform.
We have introduced over 50+ sticker packs and GIfs. These are all made based on local needs, tastes, and behavior.
We are introducing a digital currency, which we are calling Bits. When you write a word, you earn a bit. If you use our keyboard, you get double bits. You can use these bits to buy internet data packs, stickers, and share bits with others. This is part of a loyalty program to encourage people to use the app and stick around. We have pretty interesting features around bits that you will see as we launch the app in the market in the coming months.
Messenger is tough but we take it seriously. We are hopeful that we are onto something big and local.
When do you plan to launch?
We have not fixed a date for launch as yet. But we are working hard and optimizing it. We are doing some small things such as bringing more colorful themes and stuff. We plan to take the beta testers to 1000-1500 in the next few months. We will analyze the user behavior and then finally go on to launch publically.
Messenger is a critical piece of our overall strategy at DataBird, so we are taking it very seriously. We will keep on improving the product as we want to launch a great version providing a seamless experience.
There are several messenger products in the market. You will have to compete with giants like WhatsApp, FB messenger, Telegram, and so on.
We have to launch in the market to see how we fare and how users respond to what we have to offer. We have some upsides of course such as we already have built some popular products on the keyboard, news, travel, and eReader space. So we understand the market a little. Most importantly, we are building for the Bangladesh market.
We are bringing some new strategies and features. We are bringing gamification. Bits, our digital currency is part of that strategy. We want to make people habituated to digital currency. We have a few more similar initiatives that we hope will make a difference.
The messenger is connected to our future mobile payment product, which is another key vertical for DataBird. Hence, the messenger is our priority. We want more people to use our messenger.
Everything that we do is connected with everything else. Bits plays a lot of other roles in the Ridmik universe such as you could use bits to buy ebooks in BoiToi and so on. Our intention is to make all our brands independent yet connected through common traits and benefits.
From Databird’s perspective, we are looking into it from two angles: one is the transactional platform and another is the user platform. Messenger is one of the places where these two platforms interact for DataBird.
We are working on a few fascinating things that are still in the planning phase and will be made live as soon as they are ready.
What are the challenges for Ridmik Labs now?
Content and moderation are two major challenges for us in our news and boitoi platforms. We are constantly working on these areas. Content has both an upside and downside. We need to be able to identify good contents that attract readers and encourage them to come back for more related content. Finding the balance between the good or right content and creating the association with the relevant user base is a big struggle.
What are some lessons you have learned in the process of building tech products for the Bangladesh market?
We are learning every day. I would share one lesson that stands out to me. Tech is a global space. We are building products in verticals where, in many cases, there are already global giants operating with excellent products. It means we have to build world-class products to succeed in these verticals.
For us to succeed, everyone in the team has to be equally motivated. We are a team of 25 people including 11 developers. The rest of the team works in different areas of the operation including contents and marketing. We don't have a hierarchy in the organization. We are a horizontal organization. We don't have bosses. This is because we believe unless everyone in the team owns the vision and gives their hundred percent, we would not be winning this game. That’s my most important lesson, you have to have buy-in from everyone in your team to build world-class products and enterprises.