Sarjeena Maodud is the co-founder and CEO of Sheraspace, a tech-first home improvement services company based in Dhaka. Founded in 2019, Sheraspace offers a number of services related to interior design, including online interior design consultation, complete end-to-end interior design solutions, and custom furniture design for full interior design projects.
In this fascinating interview with Future Startup, Ms. Sarjeena walks us through her early life in Moscow, growing up in Dhaka, education in UCL, moving back to Dhaka, founding and building a tech-first interior design company in Bangladesh, talks about the state of Sheraspace, services Sheraspace provides, and its ambition going forward, discusses her experience of building a team, growing the business, shares her take on company culture, dealing with challenges of being a female founder and much more.
Future Startup: Could you please tell us about your background and your path to entrepreneurship and what you are doing today?
Sarjeena Maodud: I was born in Moscow and my parents decided to move to Dhaka shortly after. I was raised in Dhaka and completed my O and A levels here, before moving to London to pursue higher education. I completed a Bachelors in Computer Science and a Masters in Technology Management from University College London, finishing in 2017.
After my Masters I was on track to pursue a career in IT Consultancy and was comparing offers from different companies in London, when one enthusing phone conversation with my father one day, inspired me to move back to Dhaka – the capital of the land of opportunities – Bangladesh.
I started my career with a remote job in Business Development with a health-tech start-up based out of Los Angeles, and at the same time was exploring opportunities for innovation in various industries in Bangladesh.
I knew at that point that I wanted my work to contribute to the growing economy of Bangladesh and entrepreneurship would be the ideal path in doing so. My involvement with a start-up at that point and exposure into the inner workings of a company growing from scratch, further fed into this aspiration.
Future Startup: When and how did you come up with the idea of Sheraspace and get started?
Sarjeena Maodud: A personal experience led me into the world of interior design. After moving back to Dhaka in 2017, I experienced the process of interior design first hand, during a home renovation project for my new house. Of course, what I wanted was great interiors, but instead what I got was a rather unpleasant experience characterized by delays, lack of cost transparency, design expectation, and design delivery mismatch, and overall, a service that lacked accountability, transparency, and quality.
My conclusion was that as a consumer, it was almost impossible for me to be sure of the end result of this interior design process, despite investing huge amounts of time, money, and effort into it.
My curiosity about the industry led me to research further into its inner workings. At the time, I shared the idea with my then co-worker Nizam Farid Ahmed, who joined along in this quest to collect data, conduct focus groups and eventually conceptualize a tech-first home improvement platform – Sheraspace.
Future Startup: What went into building the initial operation of Sheraspace i.e., 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 Sheraspace and your journey were like.
Sarjeena Maodud: We registered Sheraspace as a limited company and launched operations in February 2019. We started with a team of 4: My co-founder, 2 recruits, and myself. We funded the company with personal funds in the initial months, until securing angel investment on our 6th month of operation.
With a round of funding and a decent understanding of the market, the team grew in size to around 10 people and picked up some pace after crossing the 6-month mark. We received a modest response for our end-to-end interior solution offerings in the first year.
I must say the business model Sheraspace operates on today is much more evolved from what we were following at that point in time. The service lines have been transformed greatly too, to fit the elicited needs of the market.
Future Startup: What were some major challenges you faced in the early days and how did you deal with them?
Sarjeena Maodud: In an industry typically dominated by male contractors, a young and female lead for a company in that industry came as a shock to many. I’ve lost count of how many emails I used to receive that addressed me as “Mr. Sarjeena” or “Dear Sir” in the early days! Must say, we’ve come a long way from there.
Deciding to start a novel initiative in the interior sector was frowned upon by many industry professionals. Some were of the opinion that I shouldn’t be running a business in the interior sector as I wasn’t an Architect or an Interior Designer myself. However, I have always seen this as an advantage because not belonging to the industry is what has enabled me to see it through a different lens that is free of status-quos and allowed me to identify areas of innovation in the sector.
I do, however, thoroughly value the input of my Design team members in our journey. The aim was not to teach Designers how to do their job, but rather to make their expertise more accessible, efficiently delivered, and appreciated by the mass Bangladeshi audience. I have also learned so much from the many interesting encounters and discussions with talented Designers and Architects in Bangladesh.
Apart from the above, it also came as a shock to friends and family around me, that with a degree in Engineering and another in Management from a world-class institution, I had deliberately decided to leave behind the option of a career in IT Consulting in London to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor in Dhaka.
The whispers and disapproving opinions of people weren’t the most encouraging back then for sure, but the very same people have come to appreciate Sheraspace now. Let’s just say, I prefer to let my work speak for me.
Future Startup: What were some of the things that worked, strategically, in the early days that helped you to grow the business and become sustainable?
Sarjeena Maodud: Dynamism and agility have played crucial roles in allowing us to navigate the rocky roads of the early days. Business is always uncertain; however, the uncertainty of the early days is of a different level, altogether.
Our test and learn approach to operating came as a huge benefit, as we never shied away from tweaking what wasn’t working. It was important however to have the team be aligned with our ultimate vision and understand the changes that were necessary to keep moving towards that direction.
Future Startup: Could you please give us an overview of Sheraspace today, i.e., an overview of your products and services, business model, how your operation works, size of business, etc?
Sarjeena Maodud: This question calls for a little bit of context. So, there’s a pre-existing notion in Bangladesh that interior design is for the affluent only and an interior project requires an extensive investment of time, effort, and money. This is exactly what Sheraspace challenges today.
We are working to democratize interior design by making it accessible to everyone through an affordable, short-term, and hassle-free solution that consumers can avail from the comfort of their home. We do this through our Online Interior Design Consultation service.
This service is aimed at individuals who need professional interior design guidance, but do not necessarily wish to invest in a lengthy interior project. They would avail the Online Interior Design Consultation and implement the design plan on their own and at their preferred pace.
For those who are looking for logistics and execution support for their interiors, we also offer full end-to-end interior design solutions that include installation services.
The Online Interior Design Consultation service certainly has a much higher sales frequency, as its flat-fee pricing and ease of obtainability are highly appealing and practical for consumers. The full interior solution service has a relatively lower sale frequency, but a much larger ticket size, of course. These are our main sources of revenue generation.
As for the business size, we are a team of 25 at the moment across 6 departments. To serve surging consumer demands though, we are currently going through a team resizing and looking to grow the Sheraspace family to around 35 team members by the end of August.
Future Startup: From a product perspective, how does Sheraspace work? How do you work with your partners and customers? How does the tech part work?
Sarjeena Maodud: As I mentioned earlier, Sheraspace offers 2 services:
We maintain a database of items from various partners and vendors, which our designers utilize when creating mood-board design visualizations for our clients.
To further diversify the product range offered on the design mood-boards, we are now looking to build a full department around partner acquisition.
I’m glad you asked me about the tech bit. As we navigate this era of digital transformation, the use of technology, of course, is not an option anymore. We see it very much as a necessity and it sits at the core of our internal operations.
At Sheraspace, we have our native CRM and project management tool through which every touchpoint of the consumer journey is facilitated, monitored, and controlled. Starting from receiving a lead to nurturing and converting them, sending invoices and receiving payments, flagging project issues, and logging client requests – everything is handled centrally through our project management, product sourcing, and customer helpdesk software. This has been integral in ensuring that we are able to keep up with the soaring demands for our services and continue to provide an efficient and seamless experience to clients.
As for the consumer-facing end, we are working on an Augmented Reality feature, solely to facilitate the efficient delivery of our services. We shall reveal more about it in due time.
The aim going forward is also to make the Project Management tool available to consumers, so they are able to track real-time project progress updates. Digital twin simulation is also a super fascinating concept we look to explore to enable instantaneous visual project updates for clients.
Future Startup: How have you attracted users and grown Sheraspace? Could you tell us about strategies and activities that you carried out to achieve the growth?
Sarjeena Maodud: I am thoroughly inspired by Steve Jobs’ take on an “epiphany experience”. An epiphany experience occurs when a need that the customer never knew existed, becomes fulfilled by a service or a product. Seeking out a gap in the interior industry led us to creating an epiphany experience for consumers through our Online Interior Design Consultation.
Of course, being the first to market is a great advantage. Furthermore, utilization of the right distribution channels is what has helped us in spreading the word about Sheraspace. Upon communicating the service to the right masses, it wasn’t then too difficult for the consumer to realize that this was a need she/he has always had, yet was never consciously aware of!
Our focus is always on providing unparalleled service – not only in terms of the design plans we offer but also customer service, efficiency, and professionalism. The nuanced details, like addressing clients with appropriate mannerism, to the bigger aspects, like providing them with the right design plan to match their needs – every touchpoint in the consumer journey is thoroughly researched, planned, and constantly improved as we collect feedback from our deliveries.
A major portion of our consultation client base is generated via word of mouth. I believe that goes to show that our obsession with sound customer service seems to be working well for us!
Future Startup: How much has Sheraspace evolved over the past months i.e., how would you compare Sheraspace today with the Sheraspace from early days?
Sarjeena Maodud: We’ve gone through a couple of pivots and I am always very transparent about them. In 2019, we started with the concept of building an aggregator platform to connect clients with interior designers. We then progressed to become an end-to-end interior solution provider. We eventually evolved to become the first Bangladeshi company to offer a revolutionary virtual design service to customers in an affordable, short-term, and hassle-free involvement.
One has to start somewhere. Every business will take on its own journey towards success, but what’s important is that we take that first step to start. The challenges, the roadblocks, and the learnings are what have molded Sheraspace to become what it is today, but what I’m most glad about is the fact that we decided to start when we did in February of 2019.
One thing has remained the same throughout the journey though – every space we design, we always aim to deliver the best, hence creating a ‘shera’ space for every individual who does business with us. It is a core value of our company.
Future Startup: The pandemic lingers on: what kind of impact is the pandemic having on your business and how are you dealing with it?
Sarjeena Maodud: The first wave of the pandemic-driven movement restrictions of early 2020 did come as a shock for our business, as it did for several others.
Our offline interior operations had to be put on halt until further notice, meaning all means of revenue generation had to be plugged off. It was an extremely stressful time, perhaps the most difficult I have faced in my career so far.
But I strongly believe every dip brings with it an opportunity to rise higher than ever before and this was no different. The pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise for us, in that respect, as our Online Interior Design Consultation service was born as a disruptive answer to the pandemic’s disruption. Meaning, our service is pandemic proof, and the subsequent movement restrictions have not hampered the revenue wheels so much. In fact, we are seeing a steady rise in sales figures over the past quarter.
As for the internal operations, we maintain a flexible, tech-savvy, and employee-first work culture at Sheraspace. Hence, remote work has never been much of an issue for us. Everyone is trusted to get work done and do so with the help of KPI-driven assignments and Kanban sprint plans. So, lockdown or not, the show keeps running!
Yes, my team members do miss coming to office though – the coffee break chit-chats, the lively work atmosphere, and the overall spirit of the team in physical presence is surely unmatchable in the Zoom world.
Future Startup: What are some mistakes you’ve made if any, that you want other entrepreneurs to avoid?
Sarjeena Maodud: Oh, so many! I’ll share a couple of the notable ones.
One of my biggest learnings has been the correct execution of task delegation. It is important to know what needs to be perfect and which aspects could do without painstaking perfectionism, so that team members have some space to make errors and learn from them.
For the founder to hold on to everything and do it all by themselves not only paves way for them to become overloaded and overly stressed but also takes away skill-building opportunities from team members.
Another misstep was not crediting marketing with the level of attention it required in the early days. Taking an analogical example here – if the business is a vehicle, then marketing is the headlights that light up the path ahead for the vehicle to keep moving. It was a mistake to not invest appropriately in marketing early enough, as it is one of the most important functions of the business. We did however make appropriate amends, later on.
Future Startup: Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous in the process of building Sheraspace?
Sarjeena Maodud: Like I mentioned before, being the first mover in a market has its advantages. We have introduced the concept of an Online Interior Design Consultation in Bangladesh for the first time.
Now, I personally believe in leading vs following – I would much rather create a new, disruptive solution to an old problem than get into price wars over an existing solution. As we were not battling it out on a price point, we had the space to learn and experiment and work with a focus to cater to the needs of the consumer. This in turn enabled us to establish a strong brand presence and garner customer loyalty.
Future Startup: Could you please tell us about the interior design market in Bangladesh? How big is the market? What are the major trends? What are the challenges and opportunities in the sector?
Sarjeena Maodud: The interior design market is massive. Based on real estate market data from the past years, we could easily be looking at a billion-dollar market for interiors. However, it is a highly fragmented sector with several small players and no established industry standards to follow when serving a client. This allows many to get away with substandard quality of services without any accountability.
However, if I speak of the possibilities, I see a very bright picture. There is so much creative talent in Bangladesh and there is a lot of market demand. It creates a fantastic place for one to innovate in. It is important to build that bridge between demand and creative solutions with a service that is of quality and reliability. And I’d say I see Sheraspace being well capable of leading the way here.
I also believe more innovative endeavors will contribute to establishing a standard in the industry, which will shape consumer expectations. This will automatically eliminate substandard services, thereby developing the market, overall.
With positive economic growth prospects and rising consumer buying power, the backbone of the Bangladesh economy is set to grow stronger, which consequently creates more opportunities for us to serve these people.
Future Startup: How do you deal with the challenges and stress that come with being a founder?
Sarjeena Maodud: I have a simple approach to dealing with challenges and stress – I keep an open mindset. I am always open to failure and this outlook has helped me greatly in navigating unpleasant situations.
I am unafraid of experimenting, as I have gathered much greater learnings and wisdom from my failures than I ever have from any of my successes. This enables me to avoid impulsive decision-making, especially in stressful situations. I always try to look at errors with curiosity and decode insights and learnings from them to apply in the future.
So, stress and challenges aren’t so bad after all – they are opportunities for growth! I also try to maintain a habit of reading, learning, and taking courses – the knowledge from which often helps me traverse stressful situations.
Future Startup: How do you stay productive and positive as a founder?
Sarjeena Maodud: I optimize my calendar and plan my day every morning – so I am always committing time and energy to what needs to be done. There is a stark difference between keeping busy vs. being productive. Delegating tasks to the right team members and trusting them to get it done not only allows me to be productive and focus on the bigger vision but also instills a sense of empowerment within my team. I stay away from micro-management, at all costs!
It is surely never a smooth sail and we do run into roadblocks from time to time. But on the difficult days, I take solace in knowing that I am working towards my vision. It is encouraging to have the support of my co-founder, Nizam Farid Ahmed, and team members whose diligence and perseverance always serve as a reminder of their love for and faith in Sheraspace.
My family is also my biggest source of encouragement. Although it took them some time, initially, to understand what I was trying to do with Sheraspace, they have always empowered me to chase my dreams, and that for me is a great blessing. Their unwavering support and belief in me are invaluable and I am always grateful for that.
Gratitude, in general, has played an instrumental role in keeping me going through this journey, every day.
Future Startup: 3 books you would like to recommend to our readers.
Sarjeena Maodud: Whether one is an entrepreneur, aspiring to be one, or looking to garner more meaning and clarity in their life, the following three are some of my all-time favorite reads:
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
The Code of the Extraordinary Mind by Vishen Lakhiani
Start with Why by Simon Sinek