Two Bangladeshi startups, Barikoi and Thrive EdTech, have made it to the latest cohort of Singapore-based Southeast Asia-focused accelerator program Iterative. Iterative runs a Y Combinator-style accelerator program. It operates two cohorts per year and invests between $150K to $500K in each startup upon admission.
Previously, Iterative backed two Bangladeshi startups: GoZayaan and Kludio.
Iterative announced its summer 2022 cohort of 19 startups on 15 July 2022. In an announcement, the program writes that this is the biggest batch it has ever run. The program says it has received over 430+ applications, spent over 200+ hours on interviews, and finally picked 19 startups.
The startups will go through a three months program where they receive extensive venture-building support and an opportunity to present their companies to a select group of investors at the end of the program.
“We invest $150K to $500K each in a batch of startups, twice a year,” writes the program on its website. “We invest the full amount upon admission. We then work with the founders closely on their idea for 3 months during the cohort. After 3 months, they present to a select group of investors with the goal of raising a larger round of investment.”
Bangladeshi startups have become a regular presence in the regional accelerator programs. As I’ve written before in Regional accelerator programs become key players in Bangladesh’s growing startup ecosystem: “Several regional and global incubator and accelerator programs have come to play an important role in Bangladesh’s fast-growing startup ecosystem. Programs like Accelerating Asia, Iterative, and Surge have supported and funded a good number of Bangladeshi startups over the last several years.”
These programs have helped Bangladeshi startups to attract greater attention from regional investors. As Dhaka's startup ecosystem grows, more companies will go to these international programs for access to early capital, know-how, and network.
The two startups in the latest Iterative cohort: Barikoi and Thrive EdTech
Barikoi has built mapping API’s and solutions for Bangladesh. Iterative writes: “Having accurate geocode for mapping is a basic need of all internet services - we need goods delivered to the right locations, we need to know where our fleets (e.g. ambulances, buses) are, we need to know where to go for an open house.
In Bangladesh, this infrastructure just hasn’t been done properly. Google Maps doesn’t even get you close. Not only has Barikoi built this dataset and infrastructure, it goes even further and integrates direct solutions into companies that don’t have the engineering muscles to do it themselves.” We’ve previously featured an interview with Barikoi founder Al Amin Tayef here.
Thrive EdTech aims to provide personalized tutoring at scale. Iterative writes: “Thrive’s mission is to educate the masses at a fraction of the cost. Today, they do this with a personalized study app targeted around major vocational and educational tests in Bangladesh. With features like weakness identification, targeted practices, instant photo-based solving, and data-driven cohort classes, Thrive’s product speaks for itself. The gap for high-quality digitalized (and personalized) learning products in emerging markets is still huge - Thrive’s solution is one of the best we’ve seen in the category.” Read our coverage of Thrive here.
Iterative was founded in 2018 by Brian Ma, Hsu Han Ooi, and Hsu Ken Ooi. The program has so far invested in 58 companies and has built a community of 126 founders.
Iterative says it aims “to build the strongest and most supportive network in the region for early stage founders.” “Southeast Asia needed a better way to support and develop founders”, the program writes on its website. In response to the challenge, Iterative has created a program that is run and supported by former founders. The program has tried to differentiate itself as a program that is designed and run by founders.
Singapore has become a hub for regional entrepreneurial activities over the few years. Several prominent incubator and accelerator programs including Accelerating Asia, and Entrepreneur First among others operate out of the country. Iterative says it “differentiates itself with partners, mentors, advisors, and investors who have all previously started, sold, and operated startups.”
Iterative founders explain that they have been through the startup journey. They understand the trials and tribulations of founders. They understand the relentless ups and downs of being an entrepreneur. They know the challenges, and pitfalls, and how to navigate them. Iterative in a way is an attempt on their part to share their journey and give back to the community.
“We’ve started from 0, multiple times”, the program writes on its website. “We’ve worked out of the proverbial and literal basement. We’ve been told by investors that our idea was too small, too big, or just dumb. We’ve gone from thinking we would be the next Facebook to wondering what we were doing with our lives. We’ve been you.”
That’s powerful. Entrepreneurship is a nonlinear journey. While there are a lot of similarities between different entrepreneurial journeys, each journey is unique and probably happens once. So it is hard to codify the success formula for founders. Moreover, entrepreneurship is a lonely journey.
What helps is that when founders come together, it makes one less lonely and you feel encouraged and almost ready to take on the world. Iterative in my reading has tried to put that understanding of entrepreneurship as its core offering for founders. You learn the fundamentals of building a startup, understand the general dynamics of the journey, and find a community and access to support.
Iterative has modeled itself after Y Combinator. It in fact mentions itself as a YC-style program designed for and by the founders. The founders themselves went through YC with their startups. That’s where funding in batches comes from. The program also adopts many of the YC lingos.
The company writes: “We fund startups in batches. We believe this works better for everyone. It allows us to run the program more efficiently, and the startups probably learn just as much from each other as they do from us.” This mirrors what YC founder Paul Graham said about why he started by backing founders in groups when he started YC.
Psychologically the logic of funding in batch makes perfect sense. Ambition is contagious. Humans are mimetic animals. When we are put together with a bunch of hard-working, ambitious people, we emulate their traits. Our ambition rises. As Tylor Cowen said raising the ambition of people can change their lives. When founders come together, peer pressure works as an ultimate motivator for success.
At the beginning of an Iterative batch, a startup is tagged with a lead partner based on needs and expertise who looks after everything about that startup. “The first thing you and your lead partner will do is set goals for the end of the program,” writes the program on its website. “Where do you want to be at the end of the program? Typically this involves growing your primary metric 5% to 7% every week for the batch duration.”
Startups participate in various events throughout the three months program. Dedicated weekly meetings with the lead partner focus on progress, challenges, priorities, and next steps. These meetings allow founders to unburden themselves, seek advice and develop strategic clarity.
Demo days are a common component of accelerator programs. Iterative hosts a demo day after 12 weeks of the programs where startups present their ideas to a select group of investors and stakeholders to raise capital.
While demo day concludes a batch, Iterative says it does not “really end after 3 months. We continue to give advice and make introductions as long as our startups need—and so does the informal network of Iterative companies. We think of our batch program as just orientation into the larger community.”
Accelerator programs like YC and Accelerating Asia have prided themselves on their strong alumni network. In the case of YC, the alumni network alone offers incredible value for new startups. Iterative is quite explicit in its ambition to build a similar community of founders and stakeholders.
Iterative writes on its website that it aims to “increase the GDP of Southeast Asia through entrepreneurship”. And the program says it is on a mission to “build the most vibrant, supportive, and intellectually honest community of founders.” This is a timely and worthwhile ambition.
The number of active incubator and accelerator programs is an important indicator of the maturity and growth of a startup ecosystem. Programs like Y Combinator in the US have changed the startup landscape in silicon valley and across many markets. Some of the biggest startups in the world today are products of these incubator programs. YC is not alone. There is a long list of prominent incubators and accelerator programs that have played a significant role in the growth of startup ecosystems in the US, Europe, China, India, and other markets.
Compared to that Southeast Asia and South Asia do not have anything equivalent built locally, despite a genuine need and huge demand for such programs. The absence of such programs has left a void in the market and the impact of it can be seen in the relatively slower pace of startup growth in the region.
Knowledge is contextual. South Asian markets are different from European markets or American markets. It is only logical to operate out of that understanding. A regionally-built cohort of incubator programs can help accelerate the entrepreneurial growth of the region. To that end, programs like Iterative are doing indispensable work.