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Making of Audacity and The Art of Entrepreneurship: Abu Bakkar Siddiq, CEO, Audacity

Abu Bakkar Siddiq is the co-founder and CEO of Audacity IT Solutions, a Dhaka-based fast-growing technology services company that provides mobile apps, websites, and tech products design and development solutions to local and international clients. 

In this wide-ranging interview, Mr. Siddiq talks about his path to what he is doing today, how he has grown Audacity from a small team of 3 people to a fast-growing enterprise, on company culture, growth, money management, sales and marketing, jobs of a founder, the state of Audacity today and ambition going forward, and much, much more.

Interview and edited by Ruhul Kader, transcription and prepared by Tithi Chowdhury.

Future Startup: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us. I want to start with learning a bit about you, could you please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing today? 

Abu Bakkar Siddiq: To begin with, I’m going to share a few things that have shaped who I’m today. My father was a brilliant student at his youth. He used to be considered an example of brilliance in his village. Unfortunately, he could not go far in his education. He got married at an early age, had to go abroad to earn a living and support his family. Every parent wants to provide their children things that they could not have for themselves. We are two siblings — me and my sister. My father did not want us to face the same fate. He has always made sure that we have all the support to pursue our education and dreams. 

My father was working abroad. My mother was here taking care of us. Children need both of their parents to have a balanced early life. While we had everything growing up, we did not have that. We grew up under the sole care of my mother. As a result, my mother has been the biggest influence in my life. She is a wonderful courageous woman of strong character. I have never seen her lie or break a commitment. These are some of the wonderful character traits I have received from my mother. I can’t lie and never break my words. She was also conservative and not good with money. I developed these limitations as well. I’m sharing these stories because they make me who I’m today and are connected with what happens next in my life. 

I was born in Bikrampur. I studied there till class 6. I was a good student, second in my class. But I ran into a challenge later when I found out that my math teacher gave me extra numbers despite me doing poorly in math because I was getting tutoring from him. I did not develop my math skills which I came to face when I shifted to a new school in class seven and failed a math exam. Since I was getting good marks I was not worried about my math skills. After that, I went to our math teacher in my new school and asked him to help me with math. He tutored me and in the next exam, I got ninety-one percentile marks. After that my fear of math was gone till my intermediate exam.

This has been a recurring pattern in my life. I could achieve anything I put my mind to. I, however, have to go through a period of trials and struggles to reach my goal. 

Different people learn differently and I learn from my failures and struggles. 

I was an attentive student until my SSC exam — dedicated to my studies and wanted to make my parents proud. After SSC, I came across some bad company, got distracted, got into troubles in my personal life. I did not study much. When my intermediate exam came along, I was sure I was going to fail. 

My father returned from abroad after my HSC exam. Naturally, he was expecting me to do well in HSC. When the result came, I received a 3.91 out of 5. It was good enough for me. But my father was disappointed and angry. So much so that he told me to go abroad to work, instead of continuing my studies. This was an important event that taught me the importance of education. I requested my parents to give me another chance and I promised them that I would do well. My parents agreed and I eventually got into AIUB in CSE. 

This time I did not screw my chance. I knew it was my last chance to prove myself. From the beginning of my university life, I started to study hard. AIUB used to attract mostly students from the upper class of the society at the time. I got kicked out of a group I was part of and wanted to be with because they did not see me as their equal. It was a hurtful experience for me. I decided at the time that I have to improve my life, which became my ultimate goal. 

I looked for jobs. It was the time when click farms and Facebook likes buying were a thing. Many people were doing these freelance works where they created Facebook accounts and harvested Facebook likes. I started doing that along with a few of my friends from Narayanganj in around 2011-2012 and was earning decent money. However, I soon realized it would not help in my career in the long run. Instead, I decided to improve my skills. I was not good at communications and English. I wondered what I could do to improve my skills in those two areas. Eventually, I took a part-time salesman job at Aarong. Working at Aarong outlet allowed me to develop my communication and English skills. I enjoyed that job. However, after a while, I came to see that it was negatively affecting my studies and left the job. I learned a ton from that job and it helped me a lot in my entrepreneurial journey as well. 

Then I decided to do something relevant to my education which was CSE. I started to participate in various web development and hackathon contests with one of my friends. It was the beginning of the popularity of mobile apps. I became fascinated with mobile apps. I took it on myself to learn mobile apps development. After class every day, I used to go to my uncle's place to learn android app development. I started to develop several apps and started working on the freelancing platform Upwork.

This has been a recurring pattern in my life. I could achieve anything I put my mind to. I, however, have to go through a period of trials and struggles to reach my goal. Different people learn differently and I learn from my failures and struggles. 

Around this time, I and some of my friends started planning a business. This was around 2012. Eventually, we founded Audacity — we were a seven-person team, all close friends and my uncle. We started the business on the rooftop of my house. We would reach out to different educational institutions and garment manufacturers in Narayanganj. In some cases, we used to offer free website development to clients to promote our work. The market was not ready at the time. The website was a fancy thing. We were targeting a segment of the market that was not interested in the service we were providing. The response was lackluster. The business did not fly. Consequently, we lost several partners because apparently, pursuing something that was not working did not make sense. 

We started the company with big ambition. The name Audacity IT Solution came from the idea of creating a company that would take risks and do important work. After a while, I could see the market in Narayanganj was not ready. I decided to focus on Dhaka instead. Between 2012-2015, we moved our business to Dhaka. After moving to Dhaka, we did some good work for several clients including Nielsen, British American Tobacco as a third party, and was doing freelance work on the side. It was a difficult journey and I was earning as much as a typical software engineer would earn after working for 1-2 years.

My dream was to build a company, not to become a freelancer. The business was not growing. It was a slog at the time. So I thought I probably need some experience before I push this business any further. After that, I turned Audacity into a side project and joined a full-time job. I worked in two companies around this time: GenWeb2 and Augmedix. I would do my job full time in the day and focus on my startup during the night. 

I set some targets such as to move full-time to my business before my salary reached 6 digits. So that I would not become too comfortable with that lifestyle.

I got a job in Genweb2 with a handsome salary without any internships. In Genweb2, I was the most junior and had the opportunity to work with experienced people from whom I have learned a lot. After Genweb2, I joined Augmedix, a silicon valley based company, as a member of their core team. Working in these two companies I developed a thorough understanding of how to run a startup. At Augmedix, I used to get a good salary. I had a comfortable life. I had a team of two people at Audacity who were doing some client work. I was managing these expenses from my salary. 

Audacity did not have any revenue at the time. We would try different things. For example, I and my wife would try direct sales to retail outlets and restaurants in different shopping malls such as Jamuna Future Park. We would go there and ask restaurants randomly whether they would need a website, etc. In most instances, we got rejected outright but those experiences taught me how to interact with people and deal with rejections. 

Towards the end of 2014, I decided to leave my job. By that time, I had been able to build a network, know some people to start the business anew. 

Q: What happened after that? 

Siddiq: Around this time I came across a pitching competition called Pitch to Win organized by Sajid Islam, Founder of Hub Dhaka. We participated in that competition. Although we did not win anything, one of the judges liked our pitch and eventually became a mentor for Audacity. Later I and my wife met him. He gave us some work. I am always thankful to him for that. Later he became an angel investor in Audacity. Without him, Audacity would not be where it is today. We had a lengthy collaboration before he invested in our business. He helped us with our pitch deck and business model. 

In 2015, when I left my job I had zero savings. The plan was to get investors and grow from there. Our mentor helped us a lot to get there. He helped us to prepare for fund-raising. At one point, we asked him to invest in Audacity since he knew Audacity more than other investors. He asked me to give him a pitch and eventually agreed to invest in Audacity. I did not know much about investing at the time. It was my first time dealing with an investor. I made a ton of mistakes, which would eventually come to bite me and jeopardize our relationship. They did after a few years. And there was a time when I was so frustrated with all these things that I considered quitting my business.

I'm an emotional person. When we entered into our partnership with our angel, it was an emotional decision, which I think was a mistake. Nothing excess is good. I, being too emotional about every decision, brought about several disasters for us later. Many new entrepreneurs make this same mistake while building partnerships. Business should be operated with both emotion and logic, which I have learned eventually.

Our angel investor suggested that I quit my job and focus on my business. I decided to leave my job. At that time, I called three people, my wife, one of my friends who started his business from university life, and my mother. Two people supported my decision. My mother told me to think again before leaving my job. I was expecting my mother to support my idea. Although she did not fully agree with me leaving the job and although I was sad momentarily, I knew she loved me. Just because your parents don’t support you starting your own business does not mean they don’t want the best for you. They don’t want their children to go through any uncertainty and struggles. I got angry initially. I eventually came to understand the actual reason behind this.

When I left my job, I told my wife and my uncle to continue their jobs until our business became stable. I knew that this would be a difficult journey and didn’t want to put everyone in a difficult situation. We had some tiny business but revenue was broadly non-existent. I was trying to raise investment. But raising money always takes time. I requested my parents to help me financially. They did not agree to do that which was unexpected for me. It was not that, they did not want to help me. They might have wanted to wait a little more. Amid that, I worked with other organizations. Around this time, we got featured by the daily Prothom Alo. My parents were the proudest when they saw my photo in the newspaper.  

In the meantime, my wife Suraiya and my uncle managed to get a small amount of money from their families which helped us to sustain our business for a few months and distribute our shares. We then received our investment from our angel investor. He became the chairman of the company. 

I started working full-time in Audacity in December 2014. We got our first installment of investment in April 2015. 

The early days were super tough. We did not have an office at the time. We were using the living room of my home as our office. Around this time we hired our first employee, a junior I knew from before who lived and worked with me at one point. We told him about Audacity and he got interested. We interviewed him and recruited him. 

We eventually moved to a new office in 2015. Our team grew bigger gradually. We worked for several foreign companies. In the beginning, we were taking a minimum amount of salary to the extent we were barely getting by. In 2016, we joined GP Accelerator. 

We began with mobile applications and UI/UX. From the beginning, we were doing well in both segments. My colleague and I worked on mobile apps previously and had a strength in both mobile apps and UI/UX. We were working on some product ideas along with providing service to our clients. We have worked on three products so far. Although all our products failed, we learned a lot from our failures.

One of our products was Kandy, which was in GP Accelerator. We got an investment for that. The marketing was good. It did not work out at the end of the day.  

After GP Accelerator, we faced a financial crunch. Our service team became unstable as our revenue became unsteady. One of our co-founders, my uncle, was facing some challenges. We had some disagreements over how to run the company such as having rules versus having more flexibility. In the early days, we used to do coding all night and play video games. I eventually realized we have to operate like an organization if we want to grow and we need rules and systems. These disagreements challenged our partnership and my uncle eventually decided to leave the company. 

To new founders, I would suggest it is critical to have partners who are aligned with your values and priorities. If the values of partners are different, the partnership will not work no matter how much they try. 

When my uncle left Audacity, he was the CTO of the company — the key role of a software company. This created a lot of challenges for us. 

When we started our company, three co-founders focused on three different areas: I focused on business development, my uncle focused on technology, and my wife, Suraiya focused on the operation. My uncle leaving Audacity affected our functionality. It was towards the end of 2016. After that, we had to build a new team from scratch. 

Once my uncle left the company, I started providing some support in the technical area. We had one person who was responsible for the technical aspects of things. We were doing good. But then we came across a major dysfunctionality in the team. I noticed our tech team operates like a separate group within the company. They were working for other companies while delaying our projects. The person who was in charge of the technical side was responsible for this. We asked him to leave the company.  

To date, we have built our team three times. This is our third team. We, Alhamdulillah, have an excellent team now. We have done some excellent work for a long list of stellar clients including Dynamic Homes, FestFriends, MixedTape, Grameenphone, Rokomari, HungryNaki, and so on. We have made changes to improve our operation and performance. We have hired managers and restructured the team over the past months. Today, our operation is much more streamlined than anytime before. 

We have gone through many challenges. Every step of my life has taught me something profound. It occurred to me that having some prior experience is useful for founders. 

In 2018, we worked on some excellent projects, and then we ran into a problem with our investor. We faced some financial challenges while working for Bioscope. We needed some new cash infusion. I shared that with our investor, which led to some problems regarding our terms and conditions of our investment. 

I came to learn the importance of having a lawyer when entering into a serious agreement such as partnership and investment. There were terms in our investment agreement that created new issues for us. It was my mistake that I did not pay enough attention even though our investor asked us many times during the investment signing to consult a lawyer. This was a new low for me as an entrepreneur. I even thought of shutting down Audacity and starting all over again. 

Since I was under pressure, I made more mistakes. As I said I’m quite emotional when it comes to these matters, I was rude to my investor in some instances, which I now regret as I look back. I could have handled the matter more maturely. That being said, I also felt being taken advantage of and it was more difficult for me because I relied so much on our investor and he was so supportive of us throughout the journey. Despite me being rude, our investor was supportive throughout these discussions. That experience taught me that it is critical to take your paperwork seriously. 

We have this understanding of business and reality that once we get to a point it all will get easier and everything will settle down and we will enjoy the ride without any bumps. For some people, that might be true. But that has not been my experience. Being an entrepreneur is fraught with challenges and challenges never stop, you just get better at dealing with them. In fact, with time, these challenges grow. But you become stronger to deal with even bigger challenges. 

When we look back today, the problems we faced in 2015 appear quite small compared to the problems that we have now. It proves that we are growing. I feel good that we are learning from our struggles.

From 2015 to 2018, we mostly served Bangladeshi customers. After a certain time, we realized we were not strong financially. We identified two challenges. First, companies don’t want to pay much for website or app development. Secondly, many clients think website maintenance should be free of charge. Although the market has changed to some extent over the years, these remain some key challenges in our market. 

From the middle of 2019, we started exploring the international market. By the end of 2019, 60% of our client was Bangladeshi and the rest was international. In 2020, it became 50%-50%. 

The international market is demanding. Clients demand better quality. They are process-oriented. Working with international clients has been a great learning curve for us as a team. We are still learning and growing. 

We have made some changes strategically. We are paying a lot more attention to the design and quality of our work. We have realized that design is a critical piece in tech. We want to create beautifully designed products for our clients. To that end, one of our ambitions is to become a design-focused technology firm that creates beautifully designed products for clients.

2020 was the most successful year for us in all aspects. In the last quarter of 2020, we had to reduce our client base. We realized that if we want to serve our customers well, we can’t serve a large number of clients. We have to be selective. Our goal now is to work with 7-8 clients at a time, who will give us revenue of 20-25 clients. 

We have changed our salary structure. We are paying our people more than before. 2021 is like a fresh start for us. We have a client base we love working with. We are planning to build a design agency. We plan to expand internationally. By 2022/2023, we plan to have our first international office in Canada. 

Over the last five years, we have worked on some 300 projects. We have grown as a team in terms of skills and capacity. When we see a mobile app, we can say that we can build it ourselves. 

Future Startup: That is a story. I want to go back to your early days to clarify a few things: you left your job in 2015 to work full time in your business. You had your wife and your uncle as your partners. But you needed other resources such as some capital, could you tell a bit about that — how did you put together those resources? You had other people on the team? 

Siddiq: We neither had a stable team nor money at that time. As I mentioned earlier, two people were working for me. After a certain time, when there was a shortage of investment, I told them to find other jobs. So they left.

My uncle and I used to do all the technical work. I used to work on website backends while my uncle used to work on mobile apps.

We made our first hire in 2015. After that, we gradually hired people for other functions such as design, operations, etc and the team grew. In the beginning, there were only three of us.

When you struggle with money you make wrong decisions because you don’t have much time to think through a decision. Every bad decision I made in business was made in a time I was going through a money crunch. If we had a reserve fund to overcome financial issues, we would have not made those mistakes. Reserved cash is like fuel for your business to overcome difficulties. 

Future Startup: Did you have any clients when you left your job and started working full-time? 

Siddiq: We had several potential clients who were interested to work with us and some of them were working with us. 

Future Startup: If you could start all over again, what are a couple of things you would do differently? What are some suggestions you would like to share with other founders who are probably just getting started? 

Siddiq: Don’t be entirely emotional or logical. Find a balance between emotion and logic. Otherwise, founders will stumble in many points of their journey. Being too logical has its downsides. Because in business you need passion. If I could start all over again, I would try to find a balance between my emotion and logic.

Second, be good with numbers such as projection, money management. I was not good with money when I started as an entrepreneur. We have a cultural notion that money is evil. Parents keep their kids away from money, which I think makes most people inept in dealing with money. 

I started learning money management around 2028 and started implementing some of my lessons in my business in 2019-2020. Had I started working on the things earlier, we would have been in a much better position today. 

Future Startup: What do you mean by good at money management? 

Siddiq: Finance is at the core of any business. Great product, great service, great team — these are critical but if you could not manage your cash flow well, manage your finance well, you are likely to go down no matter how great your product is. So many founders make terrible mistakes with money. 

For founders, good money management is mostly basics: you plan how to spend your money, don’t overspend, and be mindful about every penny you spend. Being thrifty is an extremely useful skill. 

Second, you should save money as a business. There are examples of founders who prioritized saving as much as a year's worth of runway. Savings are useful when hard times hit your business. Hard times come inevitably. 

When you struggle with money you make wrong decisions because you don’t have much time to think through a decision. Every bad decision I made in business was made in a time I was going through a money crunch. If we had a reserve fund to overcome financial issues, we would have not made those mistakes. Reserved cash is like fuel for your business to overcome difficulties. 

Third, be strategic when spending on growth and business development.

As a founder you should not think your CFO will take care of everything regarding money management, you don’t need to worry much. That is usually the wrong line of thinking. You need to be smart in money management. 

Simply, businesses die when they run out of money. Money keeps you alive and it is a must for you to get good at money. 

We have this understanding of business and reality that once we get to a point it all will get easier and everything will settle down and we will enjoy the ride without any bumps. For some people, that might be true. But that has not been my experience. Being an entrepreneur is fraught with challenges and challenges never stop, you just get better at dealing with them.

Future Startup: Could you please give us an overview of Audacity today: services and products you provide, operation, and size of your business, etc? 

Siddiq: Audacity is a digital technology services company mainly working in the areas of mobile applications and website development and UI/UX. We have a small team of 20 young and energetic people and serve both local and international clients. 

We provide services and help our customers build their products. The success of our customers is our success. I, Suraiya, and my partner Mamum look after the operation. Mamun is the new addition to our leadership team. He is now one of the partners of Audacity. He looks after almost 80% of our operation. 

We serve on-average 10 clients monthly and about 25 clients per year. 

Over the years, we have developed a unique culture — a balance between a typical corporate culture where everything is strict with little flexibility and a lot of bureaucracy and a startup culture where everything is too flexible. We have processes and systems and rules. We are equally flexible. 

We pay a lot of attention to finding balance in everything we do. We believe in work-life balance. We encourage our employees to enjoy family times. We have been lucky to have an excellent bunch of people who are hardworking, dedicated, and good human beings. Many of our former employees are now working in big organizations, which proves that we hire quality people and help them grow.

We have designed our culture to amplify the learning of our people. We allow our people to try and make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. 

We have built a strong financial foundation to sufficiently take care of our people. In the last five years, we have never missed a salary day. While many companies went for salary cuts and similar measures amid the coronavirus pandemic, we did not implement any salary cut. 

We are a transparent and honest company. We have tried to build a culture where people are honest and maintain their commitment. I have personally maintained these principles. To me, if I give you words, I have to meet them. Trust is something I believe to be of great importance. 

Making of Audacity and The Art of Entrepreneurship: Abu Bakkar Siddiq, CEO, Audacity
Suriya, Siddiq, Mamun (from right to left)

Future Startup: How do your marketing and sales work?

Siddiq: We do not have any sales team as such. We have a distinct approach to marketing and sales. We don’t sell to our clients. Instead, we offer consultation and support to our clients and guide them to make the right decisions. This has been an effective strategy for us. 

Mamun and I mainly look after the sales and marketing. We focus a lot on networking and building relationships — that is at the core of our sales strategy.  

Future Startup: What are some of the things that have helped you to grow Audacity?

Siddiq: Having the right clients — selecting the right clients at the beginning of your business and providing them with quality service is important. Now selecting the right clients could appear to be a difficult thing to do for most early-stage companies because the general perception is that in the early days you do whatever you get, being choosy is not an option. To my experience, however, having the right set of clients is critical for your growth. Even if it means losing some business. We have been lucky to have some excellent clients who have helped us to grow. 

Networking with the right people has been critical for us as a company for our growth. Even before starting my business, I used to meet a lot of people. I would go and meet people and try to learn from their journey. 

If I wanted to meet someone I did not know, I would request someone in my network for an intro. I have learned that it is not useful to reach out to people directly when they don’t know you. I would never contact someone I don’t know personally. Because if I want them to trust me, I need someone who they know and is willing to introduce me to them. While making new connections, I make sure that I enjoy interacting with them and they are not egoistic. These connections have always been useful for me. 

For new entrepreneurs selecting the right target group of customers is important. Before looking for a client, make sure what are the characteristics you want in a client.

The second thing that has helped us at Audacity is technology pivoting — changing your business according to the changes in the market. Don’t resist change. In business, there will be times when you’ll have to change yourself as a business. An entrepreneur has to be able to understand these shifts in the market and be able to adapt to that change on time. There is a right time to pivot — not too early that no one gets you or too late that you are late to the party. 

Finally, having advice and perspective of people from diverse backgrounds. It is useful to listen to people who have walked the path before you and try to learn as much as possible. We have tried to do this at Audacity by building our advisor network. Over years, we have been able to build a strong advisory board that offers us insight and support that have been instrumental for our growth. 

Future Startup: How many advisors do you have now in Audacity?

Siddiq: We have four advisors total: Nazim Farhan Choudhury is our growth advisor, Mahmudul Hasan Shohag is the cultural advisor, Jossie is the technical advisor and Hadee is the financial advisor. We also routinely take advice and feedback from a stellar group of well-wishers and industry veterans. 

Future Startup: You talked about the right time of pivoting. How do you figure out when is the right time to pivot? 

Siddiq: I would say understanding what’s happening in the market at this moment, what are the major trends in your industry, and then visualize the future — these are the keys to identifying the right time to pivot. The current market condition, past events, and trying to peer into the future could offer an understanding of where the market is going. 

For example, from the beginning, we focused on the design though many software developing companies of our country did not prioritize design at that time. We understood by analyzing the international market that in the future design would be important.

We are now working on Flutter. We saw some promising Flutter apps coming into the market in the past few years. We are seeing major platforms and companies are adopting the technology. So by observing the signals in the market, you figure out the change in the market. 

Future Startup: How do you convince people to be your advisors?

Siddiq: First, do not rush to get advisors. Before getting someone as an advisor, try to understand their psychology and perspective — whether they are aligned with your values and principles. Understand their passion and see if it fits with your business. 

For different advisors, different things motivate them. From my observation, I can say that they do not expect to be paid in return. Because they already have that. They want other people to grow by implementing their advice. That is my personal opinion. But before giving them anything in return be thankful.

The people who are my advisors never expected anything from me. In that regard, I’m very lucky I guess.

I would like to share an incident with you. Although I said earlier that 2020 was the most successful year for Audacity, we were facing some financial issues in March. So I contacted 7 people I know to ask them if they would lend me a large amount of money if I needed it. Four out of seven of them told me that they would help me. That assurance gave me mental support. This type of people who help you in the time of need is important and I am lucky to have people like that who help me and guide me. 

Future Startup: What are some of the decisions you made that helped you to reach where you are today?

Siddiq: Knowing why you have started your business is important. I have a certain goal in life and Audacity is a part of that. Many people start without knowing what they want. Do not do that. Entrepreneurship is tough. Unless you are doing it for the right reason, you would not survive the journey. Mental toughness is necessary and it comes from having the right reason. 

I explored different areas before starting. Start when it is the right time. When you’ll feel that you are prepared enough then start. At the same time, it is important to understand that you will learn many things only by doing. Most of the things I learned I learned by doing and making mistakes. So don’t wait too long. 

Finally, challenges and difficulties are a part of life. Our trials help us to become stronger. When you start working out, you’ll feel muscle pain in the first few days. If you can overcome that stage your muscles will grow stronger. Expect more struggles and uncertainty, so that you can be better. If you are not facing any problems it means you are not growing.

Update at 30 March 2020 at 9:32: Updated with new information. One of the judges of Pitch2Win competition liked Audacity's pitch and eventually became a mentor, not Sajid Islam, who was the organizer.

Update at 30 March 2020 at 9:40: Misspelled name of Mr. Abu Bakkar Siddiq, it has been updated.

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