Alfa Bumhira is the co-founder and CEO of ProSpark, a Singapore-based e-learning platform for businesses. Founded in 2018, ProSpark provides a flexible all-in-one business-to-business learning management system (LMS) that helps large enterprises, SMEs, and gig firms in training, reskilling, and upskilling their staff, partners, and customers online. The company currently operates in two Southeast Asian markets: Indonesia and the Philippines and aims to expand into more markets in the coming years.
In this wide-ranging interview with Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader, Mr. Alfa talks about his path to entrepreneurship, the origin of ProSpak, the early days of building the product, putting together the team and resources, offers a peek into the state of ProSpark’s operation today and its ambition going forward, shares his take on growth, leadership, and running an early-stage company, reflects on the critical importance of determination in building companies and much more.
Interview by Ruhul Kader, Composition by Tithi Chowdhury. Naziba Ali contributed to this story.
Future Startup: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start at the beginning of your journey. Could you please tell us about your background and path to entrepreneurship?
Alfa Bumhira: Thank you Ruhul for this opportunity. I was born in Zimbabwe and came to Singapore for the first time to visit my brother almost three years ago. I was scheduled to stay for a few days, but SouthEast Asia captivated me. I was traveling throughout the region, from Singapore to Bali to Manila to Bangkok, and I fell in love with the people, culture, and energy of the region.
During my trips, I saw a large number of young people and a digital transformation taking place in the region. The technology sector was teeming with e-commerce, ride-sharing services, edtech, and fintech, among others. And it was difficult to ignore the region's spirit and potential to become a digital hotspot. Thus, instead of spending a couple of days in Southeast Asia, I stayed. For three years now.
During this time, I reconnected with my co-founder Subash Gopinathan, who is from Singapore. We spent a significant portion of our careers in corporate America, where we gained experience and information on how to empower people and better their lives in our own countries. Coming from emerging economies, we are passionate about education, technology, and empowerment.
There was a significant skill gap in the workforce, yet there were limited opportunities for reskilling and upskilling in the region. Entrepreneurial skills, creative capabilities, and analytical skills all had sufficient room for improvement. We realized that investment in a skilled workforce was a prerequisite for ensuring and accelerating the region's ongoing development curve. So, we decided to create ProSpark, a Learning Management System, that now assists large enterprises, SMEs, and gig firms in training, reskilling, and upskilling their staff, partners, and customers. It’s been two years since we started our venture in Indonesia. We have recently expanded to the Philippines and we are very optimistic about our growth strategy and prospects.
Future Startup: That’s an inspiring journey. You were born in Africa and pursued your education in the US and started your career there. Then you came to Southeast Asia. Could you tell us more about your journey and how living in different parts of the world has shaped you as a person?
Alfa Bumhira: I was born in Zimbabwe. At the age of 17, I left my country and moved to the United States and lived nearly 21 years there. I had the privilege of attending one of the world's best business schools, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I also obtained a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and worked in Silicon Valley at Apple Inc. Despite such accomplishments, my mind was constantly preoccupied with developing market concerns. While growing up in Africa, I witnessed the challenges and the growth potential of a rising economy. I have always dreamt of working in a developing nation. Regardless of culture or government, the difficulties tend to be the same in all growing economies. People in these areas, in general, require clean water, education, less pollution, a quick delivery system, and so on.
The US economy is already developed. However, in terms of access to education and other areas, developing countries still have a long way to go before they can catch up to the more developed countries. To fuel economic growth, countries must invest in their people and technology.
Southeast Asia had always piqued my interest. While working at Apple, I went to China on a business trip. Meanwhile, my brother was in Singapore, working at Johnson & Johnson. In terms of development, culture, and demographics, I found many parallels between this region and Africa.
Over the years, Southeast Asia has progressed as a result of local investments in the ASEAN region and other countries, such as China. Living in Southeast Asia and learning about its economy has been an incredible experience for me. I believe that emerging economies should be given a fair chance to succeed in the same way that industrialized economies are. We've already started exploring the Bangladesh market. There are many parallels between the market in Indonesia and the one in Bangladesh. We're also looking towards African nations like Nigeria and Kenya. But for the time being, our primary concentration is Southeast Asia.
Future Startup: What went into building the initial operation of ProSpark i.e. how did you put together initial investment and other resources to get started? Could you please walk us through the first year of ProSpark?
Alfa Bumhira: We had a problem-driven theme in mind and we spent six to eight months traveling across Southeast Asia speaking with different people from distinct backgrounds, such as enterprises, HR professionals, conglomerates, training companies, government officials, schools, etc. For most businesses to close the training and skills gap, a new solution and process had to be implemented from the inside out, rather than the other way around. Companies required a basic platform that would allow them to curate their own content, upload them, assign training, and do other different things in order to run their L&D operations. We realized that firms required an internal system to administer and manage their L&D rather than all of the external platforms that were being pushed to them.
People must be able to do the fundamentals first, before resorting to external "one-size-fits-all" solutions, which most companies are not prepared for. If you consider market localization and flexibility, Indonesia and Bangladesh are different. They share some characteristics, but there are key distinctions that solution providers should be aware of. So we identified a need that could be filled quickly by focusing on the professional development sector at the enterprise level, specifically the HR and L&D space.
We saw an opportunity there because there are so many other platforms, such as Moodle (an open-source system), that are costly to maintain for companies, because they have to hire people to maintain them. Also, the clients are already shifting from such platforms to ProSpark, which is a turn-key easy to use option.
As a result, we are targeting organizations that are new to LMS and have used systems such as Moodle or an in-house legacy system and are now searching for a system that is easier to administer, more user friendly, and engaging. We also target clients who own or use expensive systems that are less localized and adaptable to local markets. Such systems can be purchased for $5+ in the United States, but in Indonesia, that is considered expensive. These are the goals we're aiming for. The local market is looking for a flexible, localized, and affordable solution that is tailored to their culture and needs, and ProSpark has a competitive advantage in this regard.
If you look at our journey, you will see that we have followed a very unconventional way to grow this company. We did not start with venture funding. We bootstrapped for almost two years. We raised our first pre-seed round in January 2020. The road has been difficult for us, but it has also provided us with many valuable experiences. We persevered in the face of adversity because we believed in our concept. The problem we are solving is massive, and we received a very positive response from clients who were interested in the solution we were offering. Suppose you have 100 people from five different locations in Indonesia. You do not need to fly them to Jakarta. You can do your two-day training online through our platform, saving time and money and also driving productivity. Our value proposition was easy to understand for the enterprise clients.
Since our pre-seed round, we continued scaling up our platform and going where we aimed to go. We have closed our seed round and till date we have raised more than $1 million. For now, our holding company is in Singapore and our largest market is Indonesia. We have recently started commercial operations in the Philippines. That’s our journey so far.
Future Startup: You provide two things: one is an LMS platform for companies which is the basic thing as you mentioned that companies can use to run internal L&D operations and second, you provide professional services such as custom training programs, custom content creation, and other stuff related to content. Suppose I have a company, how will I use ProSpark? From a product perspective, how does ProSpark work? How do you work with your partners and customers?
Alfa Bumhira: Our features are quite simple. Ensuring ease of use is very necessary for clients to quickly comprehend and adopt the product.
After the customers sign up with ProSpark, they can have a free trial and after that, if they like the product, we proceed to the proposal stage. After they sign up, we provide licenses for each of the employees of the company. Suppose someone has 5000 employees in their company. Then we will provide 5000 licenses for the company. It’s a self-service portal. You can have separate logins for the HR director, Admin, users, trainers, supervisors, etc. Admins run the platform. They can create and save courses. They can build online learning communities, create gamified learning journeys on the platform, and social learning tools thereby creating an environment for people to learn and share knowledge. You can run all your L&D operations using the platform.
Users can log in from any OS and get access to the product. We have a SaaS pricing model selling licenses for users which give them access to the product for a year. Typically, it takes one to three months to close a deal depending on the client. So this is how we operate.
Future Startup: If I use ProSpark, can I add courses from external platforms on ProSpark?
Alfa Bumhira: Of course. You can upload all of your existing content on ProSpark and you also get access to the ProSpark marketplace since we work with some great content partners. We have three content partners: one from the US, one from Europe, and one from Southeast Asia. If you buy ProSpark, you will also be able to buy a license for usage. We provide you with a single signon one-stop-shop from day one. Users can select the courses they want to do after logging in to ProSpark or you can upload your courses for your people.
ProSpark provides users with live online classes regardless of the location. You can take attendance, share screens, and all the other things that will help you to create a fun and engaging learning experience platform. We have options for self-assessments and virtual learning.
We are pushing a lot of features to the ProSpark community, where every client can have access to the ProSpark ecosystem and interact with each other. Through our platform, you can share libraries, forums, articles and even create your small learning groups. We are trying to build an ecosystem of learning and sharing knowledge and skills.
Future Startup: Do you produce on-demand content? Suppose if someone wants to create customized content for his company, do you do that as well?
Alfa Bumhira: ProSpark is more on the technology side and we are not trying to go deep into developing in-house content. It is not our expertise and we do not intend to do it. But we have partners such as eWyse, Verztech, and Go1, who are the content experts and can help to make custom or generic content. So if you have any specific content needs such as a course on risk management, banking 101, etc, we can work with our partners to give you the customized contents you need.
Future Startup: It means any edtech company that works with content can become your partner and upload their content on your platform. How does your relationship with content partners work?
Alfa Bumhira: The partnership is based on a revenue-sharing model. Our whole system is subscription-based and we charge licenses for use per head. If you have your content on our platform and a customer buys your content, you share a part of your revenue with us. It’s all consumption-driven.
Future Startup: How many partners do you have now on your platform?
Alfa Bumhira: We have three content partners as I have already mentioned. We are very selective when it comes to choosing partners. We consider the vision and positioning of companies before partnering up with them. We do not just work with anybody.
Future Startup: How many clients do you have now?
Alfa Bumhira: We have 30 clients.
Future Startup: From what I gather, you are a subscription business. How do the subscription packages work? Do you have monthly or yearly packages?
Alfa Bumhira: Typically, we make a one or multi year contracts with our clients. They pay us six months or a year upfront for each of their employees.
Future Startup: Suppose a company has paid for its 5000 employees and then the number of employees goes up to 7000. What happens then?
Alfa Bumhira: Then we will simply change the contract value and the company will have to pay for the new employees.
Future Startup: You ran the company for almost two years without raising external investment. Building a company is tough as Elon Musk said it is like eating glasses. What kind of challenges did you face in the early days of ProSpark and how did you deal with them?
Alfa Bumhira: Since I am not from Southeast Asia, it was difficult for me to understand and adapt to the local culture at first. Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam are all distinct from one another. So understanding the local culture as well as the business culture was one of the biggest challenges for me. Moreover, it is not easy to set up local infrastructure in some of these markets. Sometimes you will have to go to 10-15 different offices to open up a company.
But of course, the biggest challenge for us is to find the right people who can help us get to the next level. We are competing with some of the biggest players like Gojek, Tokopedia, etc for talent in the Indonesian market. Getting the desired talent is never easy. So for us, the biggest challenge to scaling up is people. People make or break a company. If you have great people, they will figure out things and find ways to grow. For example, if we enter the Bangladesh market, our success will depend on the people we will retain, our engineers, who will drive our technology roadmap and our local commercial team. So talent is what we need to continuously invest in to make sure the right talent is in the right position.
Future Startup: If you look back, what are some of the things, apart from finding the right people, that have worked for you and helped you to grow your business and reach where you are today?
Alfa Bumhira: We have spent a lot of time understanding the local market and market dynamics. We spent time understanding the problem, analyzing if the problem exists, and understanding the scale of the problem, and figuring out if the problem is solvable. We spent more time traveling, looking at the developed markets of the world, and learning from them. It helped us to identify the gap in the emerging markets. This was the key to our initial success.
We were not afraid to get accustomed to the local culture. Spending time with the local people to build your product is the only solution. I am sure there are a lot of entrepreneurs who came to Indonesia to open a company and communicated with only a few connected people, instead of the everyday local people. Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country. To understand the local culture, I regularly spend time with my friends and sometimes go to the mosque. Before starting a business in a market, it is necessary that you understand the local people, what keeps them going, what excites them. There are differences between a learner in Indonesia and a learner in Bangladesh or one in the USA. So I spend time with local people, eat their local food, share stories and live like a local, which helped me get a grasp of the local culture. In this way, we are not separating ourselves from the very problem we are trying to solve in local communities.
Besides, building a network is also important. I went to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business which helped me to build a vast network. In Bangladesh, I know amazing people like Sonia Bashir Kabir, Founder of SBK Tech Ventures and Hussain Elius, CEO of Pathao. I have been actively trying to build a network. People in my network have been super helpful throughout my journey. They have provided us with useful advice as well as connections to grow our business.
While building a company, it is critical to surround yourself with the right people from the very beginning. You need people who believe in you and are willing to go above and beyond for you. We followed this method from an early stage. Our advisors, friends, and people from my network from the Chicago Booth, who understand the Southeast Asian market, have helped us a lot.
I think it's all about building relationships, understanding the market, and staying close to the problem you are trying to solve. Most importantly, make sure that the solution you are providing is clear and address the problem on hand.
Future Startup: These are some great points you have mentioned. Having people who understand the market and are willing to help you is important.
Alfa Bumhira: When I visit Bangladesh, I cannot claim to be an expert on the local market simply because I have achieved success in Indonesia. I need the assistance of those who understand the market far better than I do.
I believe it takes maturity and leadership to acknowledge that you do not know something and ask for help from others. If as a founder you think you know everything, that is a wrong approach. When entering a new market a founder should know that he does not know anything about the market as he or she did not live there. So I have the desire to learn every single day. And learning is a continuous process.
Future Startup: How have you attracted users and grown ProSpark? Could you tell us about strategies and activities that you carried out to achieve the growth?
Alfa Bumhira: We have spent $0 on marketing till now. We now have 30 corporate clients and many on the way without spending a single penny on marketing, simply because we never had enough money to spend on marketing. Hence we always tried to do more with less and make the best out of it. Many companies fail because they are not used to running with little resources. When I used to live in Africa or even the US, I did not have much. I had to maximize whatever I had and make it work.
We are getting new users through word of mouth. When you provide your customers with a good product they trust you and are willing to renew the service. Our current growth comes from our existing customers talking about us to other potential customers. If my existing customer becomes my ambassador, I love that. Because this is the best kind of validation you can get for your product.
Recently, we have started advertising on a small scale on platforms such as Google, Facebook, etc. But what excites us is the organic growth we have achieved so far which is based on the experience of the existing users.
Future Startup: Right you are. One of the signs of product-market fit is you don’t need to spend much on acquiring customers.
Alfa Bumhira: We are still a work in progress from PMF. We believe we have something interesting and people are willing to pay for it. We can improve and make it even better. We aspire to get to the ultimate PMF where we will be able to scale up significantly.
But right now, we are happy where we are as our customers believe in our product, love our product, and most importantly, talk about our product with others. We will continue to build on that.
Future Startup: You have operations in multiple countries and are planning to expand further. How big is your team and how do you manage the operation across the multiple markets of Southeast Asia?
Alfa Bumhira: 90% of our engineers are in the Philippines and Indonesia. We have some engineers who started working with us here and then they had to go back to their home countries, Peru and Brazil, due to COVID-19. We have a big team in Indonesia and in the Philippines.
I look after ProSpark’s growth, strategy, commercial, and fundraising, while my co-founder looks after our technology and operations. It helps that the time difference between the Philippines and Indonesia is simply one hour. When Ramadan starts in Indonesia, we have a team in the Philippines which is capable of supporting our operation. And when our team members in the Philippines go on vacation during Christmas our team in Indonesia can keep our operation going.
Our approach has been - if we are building a product for the market of Southeast Asia, we need to have a team from this region. You need to stay close to the people and the market you are building the product for. I could have gone back to the US when the pandemic started, but I decided to stay in Indonesia. I decided to take advantage of the changing dynamics during this period and help companies adopt new learning technology (ProSpark) during this difficult time. I spend time talking with our users to know why they like Prospark and how we can improve. We, the co-founders, have split our roles in the company to make sure everyone focuses on what they need to focus on and keep the company going.
Future Startup: The pandemic has pushed digital technology adoption to a new level. Businesses are more open to remote work and online learning than at any time before. At the same time, companies are cutting costs due to demand slump and uncertainty. It means the pandemic has been a mix for most businesses. What kind of impact are you seeing in your business now?
Alfa Bumhira: When COVID started companies had to cut down their budget to keep the company running. Initially, we saw a decline in spending with us from our B2B customers. We knew that companies would have to get used to this new situation. So we continued to talk with HR organizations, training companies, etc and it paid off. Now companies come to us saying that whether COVID ends or not, working from home culture is here to stay. And you still need to hire people and train them. Now companies understand that they need an online platform for this and they need to invest in platforms like ProSpark.
If you do the math, face-to-face training can cost you up to $1-200 per person per training session. If you do 2-3 training programs a year, it will cost you more than $1k including the transportation, materials, venue, and other costs. Contrary to that, on a platform like ProSpark you can have the same benefits, in fact, more, by spending a fraction of that training budget.
We are seeing a growing interest in our solution. The last quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of this year have been amazing for us. The second quarter has been incredible so far.
Future Startup: The coronavirus pandemic has changed consumer behavior across the market. People are adopting video conferencing and online learning across the board.
Alfa Bumhira: Right. COVID has changed the landscape in many ways. Companies now understand that they do not need their employees at the office every day. Besides, coming to the office and going back home can cost several hours of productivity due to traffic. If someone works in the office three days a week and works from home two days a week, that’s great. You can save electricity in the office, reduce traffic as well as pollution, and maximize your productivity.
The same goes for the training programs designed for employees. People are now getting more comfortable on online platforms. It also helps that you can train any number of people at any given hour. It is far more cost-efficient than offline training.
Future Startup: What are the challenges you are facing now and also what kind of competition are you seeing in the market?
Alfa Bumhira: I have already mentioned platforms such as Moodle, SAP, Talent LMS, and others, whom we are competing with.
One of the biggest challenges as I have mentioned is finding the right people who can help us grow and reach the next level. We need to invest in skills so that we can find the right talent for the right position.
Future Startup: What are your plans for this year and the next year?
Alfa Bumhira: For this year, our main focus is to grow our business in the Philippines and Indonesia. Both of the markets are huge and we have so much room to grow. We are also looking into the Vietnam and South Asia markets.
We grow with our local partners. For example, if we have a partner in Bangladesh we will listen to their needs and explore the market. So we plan to grow using our channels such as HR consulting companies, HRIS companies, recruiting companies, and other companies we can work with.
Future Startup: What are some mistakes you’ve made, if any, that you want other entrepreneurs to avoid?
Alfa Bumhira: One of the mistakes we made, in the beginning, was introducing a product that was made in the US and trying to push it in the local market. It was a disaster. The lesson we learned from that was not to think that our assumptions are always correct. We realized that we did not know the users and the problem we were trying to solve. So we started talking with the users.
The second mistake was being late to hire a local country manager. If you need to understand and get accustomed to the culture and people and reach out to local investors, you need a local country manager.
Future Startup: Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous in the process of building ProSpark?
Alfa Bumhira: The most important thing is determination. Building a company is tough. Make sure you understand that when you are starting. What will keep you going through the ups and downs during this journey is your determination. Suppose you want to solve a problem and things didn't work out as you expected. You should not say “Bye”. Find a problem you can relate to and are passionate about and find a solution for that.
Also, finding the right people who are not afraid to tell you that you are wrong and are willing to guide you in the right direction is important. If you only hire people who agree with you in everything, you will fail.
Future Startup: As you mentioned, being a founder is tough. How do you deal with the challenges of being a founder? How do you stay productive?
Alfa Bumhira: I love watching soccer. I am a fan of Liverpool F.C. Also, I have been traveling to different places in Indonesia and going hiking. I love local foods here and nature. Coconuts are my favorite. In the US, we do not get coconut water easily.
So find activities that refresh you. You cannot work every day. During the first year of ProSpark, I thought I could work 18 hours a day and in the process, I burned myself out. It’s impossible. Maybe you can. But at a certain point, your productivity will plummet. Find an activity that keeps you going, motivated, and keeps your energy level up, and add it to your routine.
Surround yourself with the people who are going through the same journey as you are so that when things go bad you can pick up the phone and call them. Sharing your thoughts and ideas with like-minded people always helps.
Future Startup: Any book you enjoyed reading of late and would like to recommend to our readers?
Alfa Bumhira: I am not the type of person who will come to you saying that you need to read a bunch of business books to succeed in building a startup. Many people read business books and try to copy them. I read business books but I try to avoid being a bookworm when it comes to execution. I try to take away ideas I can use in my situation and try not to be enamored with the idea of doing it by the book. Solutions are contextual. Different books have different ideas that can confuse you. It is good to read books. But too many ideas can be confusing. That’s why when I read books I try to find the solution to a problem I am facing at the moment rather than focusing on the whole topic of the book.
I have recently finished reading The history of Goldman Sachs by Marcus Goldman. It’s an interesting book about how Goldman Sachs was founded. While reading the book, I tried to understand how these people built a huge organization. It gave me an understanding of how I can prepare ProSpark for the next phase and how I should be thinking about the future.
Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela is one of my all-time favorite books.
Another of my favorite books is In The Fog of The Seasons' End written by Alex La Guma, an African author. In the book, the author talks about the development of society and the impact of colonization on a country.
I love reading biographies. Julius Caesar is one of my favorite books.
I think you can learn a lot about yourself if you read books written about other people and their lives. My determination comes from the different types of books I read. I love biographies. Because great leaders and entrepreneurs have something unique about themselves.
Great people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Jack Ma, Strive Masiyiwa, Steve Jobs, and Mahatma Gandhi had one thing in common which was ‘how can I empower the society and how can I be selfless so that I can make sure that the society is being driven for the common good.
If you have these values and hold these ideas in your DNA, these things can keep you going for a long time when it comes to building a startup. Because building a startup is hard. You will face problems like your employees quitting, running out of funds, etc. The challenges are endless. I think only the people with a foundation of values, those who believe in something bigger survive this journey. You have to believe in something. That will be your foundation, the anchor, for the good times and the bad. Biographies of great people offer you a peek into their lives and the great struggles they went through to pursue their mission and thrive.
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