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Building a global software company out of Bangladesh: An Interview With Parvez Akhter, Founder, ThemeXpert and ThriveDesk

Parvez Akhter is the Founder and CEO of ThemeXpert and ThriveDesk. Mr. Parvez is a serial entrepreneur. A self-taught programmer, he founded his first company when he was in college along with three of his friends. Naturally, the company didn’t survive its young founders. Mr. Akhter moved to freelance and then went to Malaysia to pursue a degree in computer science while freelancing and building his second business ThemeXpert on the side. A while into his CSE program, he realized he basically doesn’t need a CSE degree. The next thing, he drops out of University, comes back to Bangladesh, and officially launches ThemeXpert, a company that builds premium responsive Joomla templates, and extensions for global customers.

ThemeXpert, a bootstrapped company through and through, didn't take long to find a path to growth. A few years into the business, ThemeXpert launched its first no-code/low-code drag-and-drop website/page builder Quix, which has since crossed 100,000 installations. It is one of the most popular Joomla page builders in the world. 

Mr. Parvez is currently working on his third act. He and his team are building an all-in-one customer support management platform called ThriveDesk, targeting startups and small-medium-size companies.  

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Parvez. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

We talk about his journey to entrepreneurship, making of ThemeXpert, the business of themes, templates, and plugins, ThriveDesk and its ambition, his entrepreneurship lessons, culture, management, mistakes founders should avoid, what it takes to build a successful company, and much more. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed doing it. 

Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you please tell us about yourself and your journey to what you are doing today? 

Parvez Akhter: I came to learn about web development through a senior brother while working part-time at his company in around 2006. I didn’t start university as yet but I wanted to learn. As my interest grew, I eventually learned about the CMS market, WordPress, Joomla, etc. These were the early days of technology and web development in Dhaka. I learned quite a bit while working there. 

The company of my senior didn’t survive. So I had to leave. Then three of my friends and I started a web development company. We did quite well initially. We worked with some big-name clients such as Diamond World, Silicon Properties, etc. But we didn’t know much about how to run a business, which eventually caught up. After running for about two years, we shut down the business and went our separate ways. 

I joined the world of freelancing, which I continued until 2010. After a few years into freelancing, I decided to build products that I could sell to clients. I spoke with one of my friends about whether he would be interested in learning web development and joining me in the business. It was not a company. And we didn’t work as partners. Instead, it was more like he would work with me and get paid. 

We launched the first template of ThemeXpert in 2010. We didn't know much about how to sell such a product at the time. My friend used to ask me about how we would earn money and my answer was simple “I have no idea”. I was not worried much about earning money because I was still earning good money freelancing. 

We launched the product in some online community forums. On the very first day, we made a sale. I still remember that the first theme that we sold was priced at $16. I was beyond excited. At around 11 pm after the first sale, I saw a bug in the template of the product, I immediately fixed it and contacted the client. I would remember that feeling forever. 

I’m talking about 2010. Selling products online was not a commonplace thing. It is hard to communicate it in 2022 but it was very usual. The fact that we managed to sell a product meant huge to me. We gradually grew. A lot has happened in between. And today, we are here and have just completed 12 years of ThemeXpert.

Ruhul: I want to go back to your story. How did you learn coding in the first place?

Parvez: I’m a self-taught programmer. I was a student of the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar Govt. Boys’ High School. The IDB Bhaban also known as Computer City was near my school. I used to go to IDB Bhaban often and was really fascinated by computers. 

Around this time, some of my friends bought computers. I used to go to their houses to use their computers. My interest in computers gradually grew. I wanted to learn more. I would research web development and coding. Flash was very popular in those days for making animations and videos. I quickly learned Flash and started making animations. It was fun and enjoyable. My interest continued to grow and I eventually became more interested in web development. That’s how my passion turned into my profession.

My mother bought me my first computer after my intermediate exam in 2005. I learned programming simply out of interest and passion.

Ruhul: This is interesting. Was there anyone who particularly inspired you to get into programming?

Parvez: My friends who had computers mostly used computers to play games. Their conversations would always revolve around games. I used to enjoy playing games too, but I had a passion for computers and learning. But I never really had someone whom I saw as an inspiration. 

Unlike today, there was little to no craze for computer engineering in those days. Computer engineering was not a hot subject yet. Very few people used to choose computer engineering and most of them would go abroad. So I don’t think I had anyone who inspired me in programming. But I would say the senior brother I mentioned earlier played a role in accelerating my learning. 

Ruhul: Considering the fact that when you started, not many people were working on the theme marketplace. How did you come up with the idea of ThemeXpert? I’m assuming Theme marketplace and similar ideas were not mainstream yet in Dhaka. 

Parvez: The CMS market came after WordPress and Joomla. Before that developers used to build HTML websites using Adobe DreamWeaver and Flash. The senior I started working for suggested I learn about Mambo, another CMS software before Joomla. Initially, he did not give me much instruction. For instance, if I asked him how to install Joomla and WordPress on the local computer, he would give me broad instructions and I would still have little clue how to do it. We didn’t have YouTube or other learning platforms back then. So to learn I went to a computer fair in the NAM Bhaban and bought a domain hosting for BDT 2000 BDT. After a lot of trial and error, I eventually learned how to install the systems on the local computer. 

When my senior saw my passion, he offered me a job and taught me how to install Joomla on the local computer and other things. 

Back then people didn’t know much about websites. So website developers had to make websites first and then do a presentation before the customers to convince them to buy the product. Developers would have to work for months without the certainty of selling the product. 

I used to go with my senior to visit customers and present them with website demos. That experience taught me both web development and business development to some extent. 

Ruhul: Wow, that was such a different world. Did you ever feel hopeless and thought I probably shouldn’t go this route because it was difficult, I’m assuming most things usually did not work. 

Parvez: We didn’t have access to technologies like the GenZ has now. We were less complicated. If we found something fascinating, we would do it. Our life was simple. We used to make films with Windows Movie Maker or animations using Flash. We’re not thinking about monetary gain. We rarely did. We’re enjoying something that matters the most.

Ruhul: Why did your senior’s company fail? 

Parvez: These were the early days of the web in Bangladesh. People didn’t know much about websites and their importance. Hence, we had a hard time attracting clients. It was difficult to make people understand the necessity of a website. Eventually, my senior got a job and shut down the company.

Ruhul: As you said, these were the early days of tech in Dhaka, how many software companies were there?

Parvez: Very few. Some of them are still around such as BDjobs, Somewhere in…blog, etc. Many of these companies were service-based.

Ruhul: So you left the company. 

Parvez: After my senior’s company was shut down, I and three of my friends launched a web development company called Sphotik IT. We did quite well earning some BDT one lakh per month in that market. But the company had operating costs and had to pay its employees. After the expenses, each of us could not even get 10,000 BDT per month. Despite that, earning one lakh per month was fascinating considering how little people cared about websites those days.

Ruhul: That’s amazing how four college-going kids started a company at that time when it wasn’t very common. Were four of you of the same age? What was the reaction of your families?

Parvez: We were of the same age. Like any other parents, our parents told us to focus on our studies. Despite that, we continued the business along with our studies. The challenge was we didn’t know much about running a business. So eventually we had to close it.

After that, I started freelancing, earning good money. Then I taught web development to one of my school friends and we started working together. We made a theme, uploaded it to ThemeXpert’s website, and sold it for $16.

Ruhul: How did people come to know about your website?

Parvez: We sold our theme on 2Checkout.com, a kind of marketplace for themes at the time. After that, we shared a free template and a pro-template on Joomla’s online community forum. The free template became popular quickly. Back then online forums were the place where people of similar interests used to gather and share. People came to know about ThemeXpert from Joomla’s forum.

Ruhul: Did you turn ThemeXpert into a company by then?

Parvez: We had little to no business knowledge. We started with buying a domain. After selling our first theme, we started making more themes, uploading those on our website, and sharing them on online community forums. With time, more people started to buy our themes. The traction increased after 2011. That’s how we started.

Ruhul: Was your friend a partner in the business?

Parvez: No, we didn’t become partners in the business. Part of the reason was that my earlier business with my friends didn’t go well. We were young with little business knowledge. We made many mistakes. We eventually had to shut down the business. It also negatively affected our friendships. When you are young, you don’t know how to deal with your emotions. So we made some terrible mistakes. 

I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. So I decided to never get into a business partnership with a friend. So my friend was an employee of ThemeXpert. I used to pay his salary from my freelancing income.

Ruhul: When did you decide to work full-time at ThemeXpert?

Parvez: I have always preferred dealing with products to dealing with clients. When our themes started to get some traction, I gradually increased my time in ThemeXpert.

Towards the end of 2011, I went to Malaysia for higher studies. I was working on ThemeXpert and freelancing on the side. I used to handle everything from coding to marketing by myself. So it was getting difficult for me to manage everything. Thus I started to deprioritize other aspects of my life including my studies. My work took precedence over other priorities. Since I had some experience in programming, my teachers weren’t worried about me. I eventually dropped out. At the same time, I started to invest more time in ThemeXpert than in freelancing.

Towards the end of 2013, I came back to Bangladesh, rented an office in Panthapath, and started building ThemeXpert full-time. By the time we’re earning quite a bit that made it feasible to hire a few interns and sustain the company. That’s how ThemeXpert started officially.

Ruhul: How big was your team back then?

Parvez: We had 2-3 interns. We officially registered ThemeXpert in 2013 and got a trade license. We started exploring popular marketplaces like ThemeForest while building more themes. It took us years to come this far.

Ruhul: Leaving your higher study and going full-time must have been an inflection point. What was your next inflection point after that?

Parvez: In 2015, we made a page builder. Now page builders are very popular. But back then it was relatively new. It was difficult to find someone who could develop page builders, but I was fortunate enough to find a developer. After working hard for months, we finally built a beta version of our Page Builder Quix, a Joomla page builder which is now our flagship product, and launched it towards the end of 2015. Quix got excellent positive responses right out of the gate to the extent that I got invited to a Joomla Conference in 2016 as a speaker. 

Quix was a turning point for us. It helped our brand to grow significantly. Now Quix has many versions and we have a lot of clients. 

Photo by ThemeXpert/ThriveDesk
Photo by ThemeXpert/ThriveDesk

Ruhul: Can you give an overview of Quix?

Parvez: Page builder is quite a familiar thing these days. People more or less understand and use it. Simply put, Page builders such as Elementor help people to build a website simply through the drag and drop features. 

Quix is a page builder that allows people to easily develop a website without compromising security, SEO, and speed. It is a no-code page builder. You can create a full-fledged website simply through the drag and drop function and it is made specifically for Joomla.

We made a small mistake by not making a WordPress version of Quix. Although we could have done it quite simply. It could have accelerated our traction and taken our business to a completely different level. 

Ruhul: Why didn’t you develop a WordPress version of Quix?

Parvez: We kind of got busy making different versions of Quix based on the requirements of our users. It was doing very well. 

By the time we realized that we should make a WordPress version, Elementor entered the market. We thought competing with Elementor would be difficult and need large funding which we didn’t have. I never wanted to go for outside investments because it comes with its limitations and expectations. I didn’t want to get into that. I have always preferred the idea of bootstrapping. So eventually, we decided not to launch a version of Quix for WordPress. 

Ruhul: How many users does Quix have now?

Parvez: I don’t have the exact number. If I count the active websites made by Quix, then the number will be around 20000. In terms of installation, the number is probably more than 100,000.

Ruhul: What was your next big thing after Quix?

Parvez: The next big thing was the pandemic. We closed down our offices at the beginning of the lockdown and started working from home. 

We kind of got bored working on Joomla only. So we decided to try something new. There is a customer support software called Intercom. We use Intercom as our customer support tool. We bought Intercom’s subscription for $49/month. Despite paying a subscription fee, Intercom wouldn’t give us any support. We ask them for support and they get back after a week. So I asked on Twitter and people told me that any subscription under $5000/month is not prioritized by Intercom. I was disappointed.

We also used another support tool called Help Scout. But after a while, they started to increase the pricing.

After these disappointing experiences, we decided to develop a customer support tool ourselves. Every organization that has a website needs a customer support tool. We started by studying the market. It is a huge market with several big-name players. However, we saw an opportunity to build a large business in the market serving the segments in the market that are currently under-served by large players.  

We started working on the project towards the end of 2019. In March 2020, we launched the first prototype in our Facebook group with a lifetime offer. Within a week, we earned $20,000. The response helped us to understand that there is a need in the market. So we decided to stop the campaign and develop the product. 

In September, we launched a complete version in our Facebook group and some other social media groups with a lifetime deal campaign. Although lifetime deals can be complicated at the time, we decided to go ahead because we didn’t want to take external investment at that stage. At the same time, we needed money to build the product. We decided to launch a lifetime deal so that we could get both feedback from our customers and earn revenue to invest in the product. Our target was $100,000 and we reached that target in a month. Then we closed the campaign.

We have officially launched ThriveDesk recently. We are generating a steady MRR. We haven’t reached breakeven. But we are hoping to get there eventually.

Ruhul: Can you give us an overview of ThemeXpert today? How big is the company, your products, services, etc? 

Parvez: We are a team of around 20 people. I have always followed a lean strategy. Partly because I find managing people quite challenging. Partly because it appears to be the right strategy for me. I try to bring out the best in my people. Unless we stress our capacity, we’ll never grow. Our office is located in Asa tower near Shyamoli. We moved here in 2018. 

The theme market is shrinking. It is a loosely regulated market with few strict rules and regulations. Anyone can make and sell themes. Since there is no specific pricing standard, developers can determine the price as they want. This sometimes can create an unnecessary bottom to the race problem. 

Contrary to that, SaaS is an entirely different market. We are gradually moving our focus from the theme market to SaaS. We have not released any new themes for quite a while. We regularly update Quix and maintain some WordPress plugins. Half of our team focuses on ThriveDesk which is our main priority now.

Ruhul: Some companies are developing page builder-type products as SaaS. There are several no-code/low-code players in the space. Do you have any plans to get into that market with Quix?

Parvez: Dorik is doing this and they are doing great. We considered this market and studied it a bit. What we’ve found is that the market has grown competitive. Many of the companies in the vertical are still following the loss leader strategy, focusing extensively on customer acquisition using a low-pricing strategy. Many of these companies are well-funded and the strategy makes sense for them. 

For us, if we transform Quix into SaaS, it will be hard for us to follow the loss leader strategy. We’ll have to charge customers higher prices than many of our competitors, which can be disadvantageous for us. SaaS is also a customer service-heavy space. You have to provide regular customer support. So we’ve decided to stay away from that market. 

We’re instead focusing on ThriveDesk. We believe it is a much better market and business. While there are several highly funded players in this space as well, we’re targeting a segment within the vertical which is under-served. We may also turn Quix into a SaaS product and make it a value-added service for ThriveDesk in the future. For now, we do not have any plans like that. 

Ruhul: Going back to your early days again, what were the initial challenges for you when you returned to Bangladesh and rented the office space for ThemeXpert back in 2013? How did you overcome those challenges? Now that company has grown, what kind of challenges do you face? 

Parvez: Finding the right talents has been a challenge for us. When I started coding, I didn't think about failure or money. Developing the skill was my primary goal. Now people want to develop skills as soon as possible to get into freelancing and earn a lot of money. We have cultural challenges when it comes to work. You could find four programmers to build a hugely successful company in many markets. But it is hard to imagine doing so in our market. 

There is a gap between formal education and job market skills needs. Many things students learn in the classroom don’t apply in real life. Initially, we used to hire interns and train them. But when they become ready they move to other companies.

So finding the right talents was and is our major challenge. 

The recent structural changes in the market have made it more difficult. Remote work has gone mainstream in many markets. International companies are now hiring remote employees from across the world. We’ve seen a rise in the number of Bangladeshi developers taking remote positions in multinational companies. These large global tech companies can offer higher salaries and other benefits. In many instances, it is hard for us to compete with these companies for talent. A lot of local companies are facing this challenge. 

On top of it, freelancing has caught on in the country. Many highly capable people are now more interested in freelancing than working for local companies. There are also programs that encourage freelancing. There is a logic behind these initiatives. However, these programs are also having unintended consequences. 

The second challenge is payment. International transactions remain a challenge in Bangladesh. PayPal, Stripe, and many similar services are not still available in Bangladesh. 

Ruhul: These are some legit points. How do you think the local companies can overcome these challenges?

Parvez: Changing strategy alone will not be enough to solve this challenge. We need policy guidelines to effectively address many of these challenges. At the same time, trade associations such as BASIS should take initiative to develop skilled human resources in this industry. 

For companies to compete with international companies, we need to think bigger and come up with new ideas. 

At ThemeXpert, we have decided to go 100% remote starting next year. The parent company of WordPress called Automatic has 300 employees and it is completely remote. There are a lot of million-dollar companies which are completely remote. Remote work allows employees the flexibility to work from anywhere. We are focusing on remote work which we believe will allow us to attract superior talents. It can also reduce our fixed costs of managing a physical space, which we then can invest in our people. 

Ruhul: ThemeXpert has grown a lot over the years and now moving into new verticals. What are some of the things that have worked for ThemeXpert in terms of growth? What have you learned in terms of building a company for the global market out of Bangladesh?

Parvez: I think I have made a lot of mistakes. A lot of companies that started with us had million-dollar exits. So I wouldn’t consider ourselves successful. I am still learning through my mistakes. The only thing I am really proud of is that we have been able to create a lot of entrepreneurs. Many of my former colleagues at ThemeXpert have started their own companies and are doing very well. I’m really proud of their success. 

To answer your question, we have always prioritized our customers. This is why we’re working on building a customer support tool. Our customer support is better than our competitors which is one of our USPs. It has helped us to get customers through word of mouth. So I think our customer service has contributed to our growth a lot.

Secondly, we’re obsessed with the UX of our products and constantly think about improving our products. Many companies don’t spend enough time understanding their customers. But we take it very seriously. It has helped us to create products that make our customers happy. 

Ruhul: Tell us about the culture at ThemeXpert. 

Parvez: We are a flat organization with little hierarchy. We’re flexible and continuously looking to improve as an organization. For instance, we regularly shuffle responsibilities among teams, giving teams different tasks after a few months. It allows the teams to study and learn a product from different perspectives and develop a comprehensive understanding of our operations. 

We empower our people. It is a high ownership environment where people enjoy a lot of autonomy, flexibility, and freedom. It has helped me grow personal responsibility. 

We’re a pro-religion organization. We encourage religious practices. We believe religion encourages us to transcend our personal smallness, be kind to others, and take our personal responsibilities with enough seriousness. 

Photo by ThemeXpert/ThriveDesk
Photo by ThemeXpert/ThriveDesk

Ruhul: You were talking about your mistakes, what are some mistakes you made that you think other entrepreneurs should avoid?

Parvez: I have made a lot of mistakes. My first mistake was not spending enough time to understand a market well before trying to enter it. When you get inspired to enter a market after seeing a successful player in that market, you only see the results, not the years of hard work behind their success. This was one of my mistakes. I translated someone’s success into my reason to enter a market without knowing the context and history. 

The second mistake is losing focus too soon. No product becomes popular overnight. It takes years before a meaningful success. You have to strongly believe in your product and continue investing in it. For example, we have been working on ThriveDesk for a while. We are generating a stable MRR, but we haven’t reached breakeven yet. But I believe that we will eventually reach breakeven. Now if I think that since ThriveDesk is not profitable, I need to find a different idea and pursue that, then that would be a mistake. Because no business is easy. Switching to a new product does not guarantee success, which is a bad habit for an entrepreneur and a mistake I made multiple times.

Thirdly, understand digital marketing well. You need to have a good understanding of SEO and social media. In fact, every founder needs to have this knowledge.

Lastly, don’t get attached so much to a product that you forget to pivot or change course. For example, we are now pivoting from Joomla to SaaS. Because we believe that it is the right thing to do. Sometimes we get so engrossed in our work that we forget to look around and what’s happening in the market and make necessary changes. 

It is critical to maintaining a balance between your focus on what you working on now and the future. After a certain time, everything stops working. You will reach a market saturation point. In many instances, a certain product will no longer work. Once something is not working or growing, it is wiser to pivot instead of banging your head on a wall that is not going to crack. But in order to make that course correction, you have to develop that mental space. 

Ruhul: How does the theme market work and where is the industry heading?

Parvez: As the companies like Dorik and Squarespace are expanding, the theme market is shrinking. 

We have to understand the customer's needs before building a theme. A lot of new companies in this market think theme business is easy. But it is not.

There are several phases. First, you have to understand customer needs. Then comes the design phase where a designer can take months to design the theme. Then comes the coding phase, where you code the theme. The coding for a theme and the coding for a website is very different. You’re building a website for one client and you only need to meet your client’s needs. But while building a theme, you need to have an in-depth understanding of your target audience. Therefore, coding a theme can even take up to 4-5 months. Finally comes the marketing phase where you have to go through a tedious process of putting your theme in front of the right audience. 

The theme market has become a race to the bottom market over the years, which is why a lot of companies are focusing on other areas like plugins. Anyone can price their themes as they want, which often ends up in an unnecessary pricing war. The other challenge is the replication challenges. No matter how much you try, after a certain time, your themes will start looking similar to every other theme. So the market has some inherent challenges and those challenges have been exacerbated over the years. 

On top of that, as the no-code tools and drag-and-drop page builders rise in popularity, you can design websites without a theme. We are focusing more on our page builder. I don’t think this is a good time to join the theme market. However, the plugin market is growing. 

Ruhul: What is the future of the companies that are making plugins and other functionalities? How does the plugin market work?

Parvez: The market for niche plugins is growing. The plugin works just like SaaS, but unlike the SaaS audience, the audience of plugins doesn’t prefer a monthly fee. Rather they prefer to pay a yearly fee. While from a plugin you can earn $49/year, from a SaaS you can charge $10/month totaling $120/year.

Moreover, users can still use a plugin if he chooses not to renew it. But the users of SaaS have to pay fees regularly to use it.

The plugin market follows a hybrid structure and a lot of old plugin companies are shifting to SaaS gradually. Eventually, WordPress will become a big SaaS market.

Ruhul: Tell us about ThriveDesk. 

Parvez: We’re initially building ThriveDesk for e-commerce companies and SaaS companies like us.

In a SaaS or plugin company or ecommerce company, there are multiple departments such as the sales department, support department, and legal department that need to work together. We have introduced a shared inbox feature where companies can host their emails through forwarding. ThriveDesk is collaboration software for all departments of a company. Unlike Gmail, multiple employees will be able to log in to this shared inbox and the company can assign an employee a particular ticket. In this way, you can monitor who is replying to which ticket.

ThriveDesk has a live chat feature through which customers can live chat with any available agent of the service provider.

eCommerce companies interact with customers through multiple channels including Facebook, LinkedIn, Messenger, Live chat, WhatsApp, etc. It takes a lot of time to manage all these different channels. We’ve developed a feature that allows companies to manage their multiple social media channels from one place. 

ThriveDesk allows you to pull all the messages from different windows/channels into a single window and will allow the CS team to reply from one window instead of juggling between multiple windows. This allows you to manage all customer communication from one single point. You can reply to messenger, WhatsApp, and other channels using ThriveDesk without logging into all those channels separately. 

ThriveDesk helps companies to control everything from one single point. You can also set up an automation system where loyal customers will get extra attention if they seek any support.

In a nutshell, ThriveDesk is an all-in-one customer support solution.

Ruhul: For ThrievDesk, are you focusing solely on the international market? Do you have any plans for the local market?

Parvez: We are primarily targeting the international market. In Bangladesh, companies are not really ready for this kind of product, where they will have to pay a monthly fee to get the service. There are other challenges such as local payment gateways don’t have the infrastructure to charge recurring fees, while we can use Stripe or Paddle to charge recurring fees from international customers. The only solution for our local market is to charge a yearly fee which will be quite expensive for many companies.

Currently, we charge $15 per user per month. So if you have two employees in the sales and support department who use ThriveDesk, you will have to pay $30 per month. Totaling $360 per year. For many local companies, this is out of their affordability. Also, not everyone can pay through international payment gateways. That's why we are not targeting the local market.

Ruhul: You launched ThriveDesk in March 2020, how many users do you have now?

Parvez: Currently, ThriveDesk has over 12000 subscribers. These are all organizations. The individual user number is much higher. However, this includes both paid and free subscribers.

We charge organizations based on the number of users. If an organization has 20 employees using ThriveDesk, we charge $15 for each of the 20 employees.

Our subscribers come from a lot of markets including the US, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, Brazil, Portugal, Vietnam, China, India, Singapore, and some other countries. However, a significant percentage of our paid users are from the US and Australia.

Ruhul: How do your marketing and sales work for ThriveDesk?

Parvez: ThriveDesk is a B2B product. So our sales cycle is a bit longer compared to B2C products. We are trying to grow through word of mouth and SEO. We are not using PPC or social media marketing as yet.

Ruhul: You mentioned Intercom, which has raised a large amount of funding and many big companies in this sector are raising large amounts of investments. You are still bootstrapping, do you plan to raise any investments?

Parvez: We have plans to raise investments for ThriveDesk. It will be hard for us to compete with big-name global players without raising investment. Right now, our focus is on MRR and growth since valuation will depend on those as we go for raising investment.

Ruhul: There are several big names players in the space. In India, there are Freshdesk and Zoho. How do you see the competition? What is unique about ThriveDesk that separates itself from other players? 

Parvez: We are not competing with the big players as yet. We are targeting a small segment of the market, which I would say is overlooked by many of these players. We want to excel in it and then expand. 

We have been a long-time player in the theme and plugin business. We have designed ThriveDesk keeping the needs of these companies in mind. Since we faced challenges with these tools, we believe there are other companies in our niche who face similar challenges. We want to serve them first and then as we grow, we will expand into other segments. 

We understand our customers and their needs well because we are one of those customers. If we can win this customer segment, we will be able to compete with the big names in the market. There is a popular marketing term: Riches in Niches. We want to build in the niche first. 

Ruhul: What are the future plans for ThriveDesk?

Parvez: Before ThriveDesk we heavily invested in an email marketing software product called MailScout. After months of work and tons of investment, we didn’t release the product. We started with a high ambition but it didn’t work for various reasons. 

We have applied the lessons from that failure to ThriveDesk. Our ambition is to build a global product out of Bangladesh, which will be used by people from all over the world. Our goal is to build something like Zoho within the next 10 years.

Ruhul: What are your plans for ThemeXpert? 

Parvez: The global market for the theme is shrinking, we plan to shift all of our focus on that business to Quix. We are considering ThemeXpert as a media wing, focusing on relevant content and as a potential lead generation engine. Gradually, we will transform our products into SaaS. We may turn Quix into SaaS.

Ruhul: You mentioned a previous product called ‘MailScout’. What were the reasons behind the failure of the product?

Parvez: Although we targeted the international market, we didn’t have enough knowledge about cloud computing and architecture. As a result, the product was badly coded and was failing constantly. Our system couldn’t handle heavy traffic.

With the product, we attended several events of Chakri Khujbo Na, Chakri Dibo and got some positive feedback. Email marketing is basically spamming in the local market. Most people do not have knowledge about building an email list and maintaining it. So we couldn’t build a transaction in the local market. 

The other issue was compliance. It is very important, especially for email marketing. We needed a team to maintain that, which was too much of a hassle for us.

Overall the technological issue of the system was the main problem for us. So we had to close the product.

Ruhul: Building a company is difficult. Elon musk said and I quote: “Starting a company is like staring into the abyss and eating glass.” How do you deal with the challenges of being an entrepreneur?

Parvez: I have never seen myself as the CEO. Because I have always had to constantly micromanage the company. One of the reasons I have moved to Turkey is because I wanted to come out of micromanagement. As long as I am in the office I constantly micromanage. Now that I have moved abroad, I have finally come out of my tendency to micromanage.

I’m still learning. I’m still not convinced that I’m the CEO of the company. Time management is a challenge for me and I find the job quite stressful. 

Ruhul: Do you do anything specific to calm yourself down when you are stressed?

Parvez: I believe when you are afraid of something, you should face it instead of running away. When I feel stressed due to my work, I work harder. I feel more stressed when I am on a vacation rather than when I am in front of my computer and coding.

Ruhul: This is very unusual. How do you stay productive? 

Parvez: I’m not a very productive person. I make a list of the tasks to be on my schedule. But otherwise, I am very unproductive.

As the CEO of the company, part of my time goes into looking at the strategy and future trajectory of the company. I have to analyze the current condition of the company and design directions for the future, which makes it easier for me to get distracted from my work.

Ruhul: What are some of the lessons that you have learned from bootstrapping a global company out of Bangladesh?

Parvez: We’re going through a tough economic condition. Tech funding space has dried up due to the overall macroeconomic environment across the world. Suddenly, everyone is now talking about sustainability, profitability, and positive unit economics. Bootstrapping has become hot. 

If you want to bootstrap your company, I welcome the idea. However, one common mistake founders make is that they don’t try to gain enough knowledge about the market. Instead, they take a company as a role model and follow its steps. But it does not work that way. You have to build your own thing. You can’t replicate the success of another company. 

If you want to bootstrap, you have to understand your target audience well and build products according to their needs rather than following an already established company in that niche. It is much more productive than copying another company. Start with solving small problems. Talk to your customers. Try to understand their challenges and solve them. 

Ruhul: Programming has become one of the most sought-after skills over the years. As a self-taught programmer, what would be your advice for people who come from a non-CSE background and are interested in programming?

Parvez: The question is ‘Why do you want to learn programming?’ I learned programming from one of my seniors. He told me I was the only one among his students who wanted to learn coding to become an entrepreneur. I never wanted to be a programmer. I wanted to learn programming to run my own software company and understand the dynamics of programmers. So it depends on one’s aim. 

Whenever someone asks this question I reply that not everyone needs to become a programmer. There are many other skills to learn. For example, Copywriting. We still lack skilled copywriters. I find copywriting way harder than programming.

There are many skills like this. I have seen many people who started programming to do something big but later lost interest. You should learn only programming when you are passionate about programming. If you feel pressured during programming, then it is not for you. Instead of learning programming, try to explore other skills that go with your passion.

Now if you are truly passionate about programming, I would suggest studying the codes of popular projects. Just like you read books or biography of famous business personnel to learn about business, you have to study the codes of famous systems to learn to program. I have learned a lot by studying other programmers’ codes. The best way to learn is to study hard.

Ruhul: What do you think about life? 

Parvez: I see life as a pursuit of Allah’s pleasure. Allah created me to serve him and it is my primary duty. The rest is to survive this life. If I can do something for other people that is great. But for me, the ultimate success is to gain Allah’s pleasure. This is my main ambition.

Ruhul: Your favorite books that you would like to recommend to our readers. 

Parvez: Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter. In our society money is treated as a taboo subject. Everyone is working for money, but no one acknowledges this. This book has changed the concept of money for me.

Ruhul: That was the last question. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us. I appreciate this. 

Parvez: Thank you for having me. 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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