Sohopathi began in 2017. We were still students at that time. After graduation, we were doing it on the side with limited progress. In 2020, after one and a half years of trying, we won a competition and received some investment which changed our trajectory. The investment allowed us to start working full-time on the venture.
So although we started in 2017, we formally incorporated the company in 2020 as Mainframe Lab. To that end, Sohopathi is a brand of Mainframe Lab.
Shadman Majid is the co-founder, and CEO of Sohopathi, a Dhaka-based education technology company. Sohopathi. Officially launched in 2019, Sohopathi runs an online education platform where students can take live courses from mentors for a fee and a free questions and answers platform where anyone can ask and answer questions for free.
In an interview with Future Startup published in 2021, Shadman explains how Shohopathi began its journey in 2017 as an entirely different project and eventually evolved into an online education platform with distinct features.
The story of Sohopathi is particularly relevant in the context that stories of successful enterprises are often more complex than they appear to be. And it is often better if you don’t start with a pointed ambition of building a company and instead, start something because you are passionate about it.
The second important aspect is the willingness to change direction or pivot when necessary. Understanding when to stick around and when to quick and move on is a difficult skill but a necessary one. For instance, Sohopathi started as a platform for finding missing people. When the founders saw that it was not getting any meaningful traction, they pivoted to online education. Their online education trajectory is also a result of several minor pivots.
Finally, it is all about being able to stay in the game. Sohopathi this year graduated from Accelerating Asia and is now looking to raise investment. The company is still in its early stage and has a long way to go. But they have managed to survive purely through grit and trying different things. As Paul Graham said, in startups, “if you don’t die, you get rich.”
What was the motivation behind starting Sohopathi? In what context did you start the company? How did you put together initial resources?
Shadman Majid: The early Sohopathi was founded by a group of BUET and MIST students. How Sohopathi came into being is a detour. We participated in mBillionth, an app competition, in around 2017. We created an app where people could post notices for missing people. We built an early version and submitted it in the early stage category of the competition. To our surprise, we won. We all were students and it was a big deal for us. It gave us a kind of validation.
However, the excitement did not last because we quickly found out that our award-winning app has a total of zero users. We received coverage in the newspaper and all that but it did not help with our app user number. We realized that “we are working hard on this product, if it is not useful, it does not make sense.” That was the trigger for our pivot to education.
Being BUETians, we were into teaching students. I have been teaching students since 2013. The same is true for the rest of my co-founders. We taught classes all across the country for different coaching centers. For example, I taught at Udvash and Sunrise. While visiting these suburban and rural places, we saw that the majority of students didn't have access to quality education.
For example, students in Dhaka have access to the best teachers and facilities. But that is not the case for many students in rural and semi-urban areas. In many areas outside Dhaka where we took classes, many schools did not have any physics or chemistry teachers. As a result, students used to value our classes highly — a BUET student coming to teach them was a big deal for them.
That helped us to see a gap in the education market. Although we had several e-learning platforms and students could access free video lessons on Youtube, personalized education was not a common feature online.
The student-teacher ratio in Bangladesh is quite skewed which makes it difficult for teachers to pay personalized attention to students. Contrary to that, many students possess excellent skills who are capable of helping their peers. This was my personal experience at BUET where our best classmates used to help others. We thought this could help address teacher scarcity in the country.
That was the context. We thought since there is a teacher shortage in Bangladesh and good teachers are not equally distributed, we have to connect teachers digitally so that students can get personalized help. Second, we have many students who are capable of teaching others, which we call peer-to-peer learning. If we can give them a platform, they can be useful to others. Sohopathi began as a combination of these two ideas.
We started as a simple Q&A platform where students/anyone could ask and answer questions. We wanted to build a platform through which students from anywhere in Bangladesh could get direct help from the best teachers and student peers.
The beginning of Sohopathi was kind of a pivot for us since our earlier missing people-finding platform did not get much traction. Since we were already popular teachers in different coaching centers, we thought it would be easier for us to attract students aka users, quickly gain popularity and generate revenue from ads.
So you built a Q&A platform where anyone can ask and answer questions? What happened after that?
Shadman Majid: We started in 2017 as a Q&A platform. Initially, as a Facebook page and group. We have always wanted to add a social aspect to online education. To a certain extent, we wanted to build a Facebook for education where anyone can contribute. Students can contribute both as mentors and participants. We created a team with students from top universities to answer questions on the platform.
Since we had some popularity in the student community, we received a huge response. We received so many questions that it quickly became a challenge to tackle everything. We had a team of 60 people, all volunteers, who used to respond to questions. Students have a ton of challenges but there are not many platforms that address these challenges.
We worked this way for a while. It helped grow awareness of Sohopathi. Currently, our page and different groups have more than 2 lakhs of students connected.
After a while, we decided to turn it into a website where students could ask questions and get answers. In two years, we had created a platform of almost 15,000 questions with students from all across the country using the platform. We have changed the platform since.
In the first two years, we did not have a business model, and no paid employees. After one and a half years, we could see that the model was not working. That's when we realized we needed a better model to survive.
That's an interesting trajectory. Started as a social service platform for helping students and then had to change the model to survive. Then what happened?
Shadman Majid: We started to try out different ideas for survival. For example, taking workshops in different schools and colleges. For the first two years, we were hesitant to introduce a paid model. We were not sure whether people would be willing to pay. Running the workshops changed our perspective. When 100 students paid for a programming workshop we took at DU, we were convinced that people want to pay for learning.
That led us to experiment with different models. For example, we introduced a paid online model test feature for university admission test students. It helped us to earn some revenue. But we could not relate it directly to our model.
Then we thought what if we create a product attached to our free Q&A platform where students could get personalized support for a fee. The Q&A platform will remain free but for personalized help, students will have to pay. That's how our online mentor service came into being in the middle of 2019. Students personally or in a small group of 3-5 can learn from a mentor for a fee. Anyone can be a mentor from students of DU or BUET to a peer who understands the subject well.
We started with a commission-based model. The model has since evolved.
We received excellent responses. Our first student, I still remember, was from outside Dhaka. It was a big deal for us. This was before the pandemic. The model worked and generated some revenue. But the volume was not enough for us to sustain.
What did you do then?
Shadman Majid: We were running using the money from workshops, online exams, and other sources. We also took a co-working space around this time at Daffodil Business Incubator Center. With the workshops and other revenue, we tried to bootstrap the business. With a small team, our operational expenses were meager. Despite that, it became a challenge to run the operation. Then we applied to the Grameenphone pre-accelerator in 2019 and got selected. That was a major turning point for us. More so because we failed there. At the end of the accelerator program, we came last among the selected startups. And rightly so.
We did not understand the demand of building a business. We did not have responsibilities assigned among co-founders. Sohopathi was not incorporated as a business at that time. We did not understand that you need to have a weekly plan, a target, and KPI and make progress accordingly. As a result, the three-four months of the GP Accelerator were a big challenge for us. We were having to set and achieve quite big targets every week. But we did not know-how. We did not know how to set these goals and achieve them. Moreover, none of us were full-time. We eventually realized that if we continued working this way, this would not go anywhere. We either have to start working full-time or discontinue Sohopathi.
We all did a reality check on whether we could move full-time or not. That led to some changes. Although we are four co-founders now, we had a few other partners who played an important role at that time but could not continue with us.
In September 2019, we almost decided that we might have to shut down the shop. We applied for several programs and competitions but were not getting any response.
Just 15 days after that we became one of the finalists in a jointly organized competition by Tiger IT Foundation and MIT Solve called Tiger IT Innovation Challenge 2019. Out of 500 startups, we became one of the top 15. The competition was designed such that the top 3 winners would receive investments and business building support from Tiger IT Foundation.
We did not expect that we would get selected as finalists. The selection announcement came on 30th September 2019. We realized that we have to win this thing or go home. It was a difficult competition because a lot of established companies were on the list. We worked hard for 14 days and took an excellent preparation. The final event consisted of a pitch and questions from judges. Since we took good preparation, we managed to respond to the questions satisfactorily. The final was on 14th October and we became one of the 3 winners.
That was a turning point and changed our trajectory. We decided to work full-time. We would now have investment. That's how Mainframe Lab came into being in December 2019 as a company.
So you received an investment from Tiger IT Foundation. What happened after that?
Shadman Majid: Yes. We received an equity investment from Tiger IT Foundation. We started working full-time after a while. We rented an office. We had some people working for us, mostly students, so we brought them under payroll.
While we started with much excitement, the next year was very difficult for us. We did not know that investments take time to get executed. I left my job in January 2020 and started full-time in February. But it took another six months to get everything sorted. Those six months were some of the hardest and most productive months for Sohopathi. We already had an office and paid employees. We were generating some revenue but that was not enough.
The good thing was that the difficult situation pushed us to grow up. We spent time understanding our product and exploring ways to grow it. Using a combination of cost-cutting, investing from our pocket, and revenue generation, we managed to survive those six months. By the time investment came after six months, we already had a roadmap.
We finally received the investment in August.
You received the investment in September and started building a team and further building your product. How much has changed over these months?
Shadman Majid: We did not have a proper operation in September 2020. We have since developed a proper operation where work is defined for everyone.
On the product end, our platform is completely automated now. Students can buy our course, pay online and start taking courses online without any interaction with us. Payments of the mentors also directly go to their bank account without our manual intervention.
We have launched an early version of our app. In the next few years, our goal is to develop and incorporate social aspects into the app that we discussed earlier.
On the sales side, we have an excellent pipeline for finding, acquiring, and onboarding customers. We use SMS, calls, and other acquisition activities. We have over a thousand campus ambassadors — mostly school and college students — who help us with marketing and sales. We offer them a good incentive for bringing leads.
We have made several improvements on the content side. Since we are an open platform, mentors, students, and everyone can submit content. But the content library was not organized before. We now have people for illustration and video editing and have since organized our content library.
We have grown our revenue almost five times since 2020.
This is an excerpt from our interview with Sohopathi CEO Shadman Majid.