Bijon Islam is the co-founder and CEO of LightCatsle Partners (LCP), a Dhaka-based management consulting firm that has experienced a consistent rise over the last several years. Started as a small operation, LCP is now often referred to as McKinsey of Bangladesh, and rightly so.
We covered LCP a fair bit in its early days, including an interview with LCP co-founder and Managing Director Ivdav Ahmed Khan Mojlish in 2018. Between 2018 and 2022, LCP experienced phenomenal growth, going from a small team to an important player in Dhaka’s fast-growing consulting scene. Today, LCP is a completely different company with an expansive ambition to build a global consulting company out of Bangladesh.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Bijon. We talk about a wide range of topics including the evolution of LCP, secrets behind LCP’s phenomenal growth, LCP’s business today and ambition going forward, how LCP operates as a company, what are the major challenges for the company, culture at LCP, the business of consulting, consulting and research market in Bangladesh, we discuss his approach to work and productivity, lessons from his journey and much more. This is a brilliant read. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed doing it.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. We covered LightCastle Partners in its early days several times. We interviewed your co-founder Ivdav Ahmed Khan Mojlish once. But it was a long time ago and LCP is a very different company today. Can you briefly talk about LCP and what you do today?
LightCastle Partners is a management consulting firm. This is not a very new service. Although we now use a lot of the latest technologies and tools, the essence of the consulting service remains the same. In the past, people used to collect data manually, we now have automated data collection using various tools and processes. How you operate as a consultancy firm has evolved. But it is the same old consultancy service.
Broadly speaking, we have four verticals at LightCastle Partners: management consulting, entrepreneurship ecosystems and investments, market entry advisory, and digital transformation.
We say that everything that we do has to be data-driven. For instance, a company is looking for a consulting service to understand how to approach a particular market. Many consulting firms would solve the problem by running some focus groups, qualitative insights collections, speaking with the management, and then generating a report.
Our methodology is different. We of course discuss it with the management but we'll also collect data from the market, speak with experts, run analyses using market data, and then we’ll produce a report. It is in our tagline that “we create data-driven opportunities for growth and impact.”
Data is the underlying thread that connects everything that we do. Data-driven is one of our three values. The other two are: we simplify things and we maintain a high level of integrity.
With our work, we want to drive inclusive economic growth. Until now, we used to work only in Bangladesh. So our priority has been to contribute to the inclusive economic growth of the country. We now work in a few emerging markets in Africa and our goal is to drive economic growth in all these markets.
Now let me break down our services so that people get a better grasp of what we do. We do several things under management consulting services. We do research and consulting for the private sector, development sector, and public sector. We provide our clients with technical assistance and implementation strategies.
We design engagement strategies for development partners. For instance, we have several clients who want to showcase technologies and expertise from their countries to Bangladesh, we help them build that bridge.
We also work with private sector partners with our management consulting services. It is limited-scale work with some multinationals and a few large local companies.
Our second vertical is entrepreneurship ecosystem and investments. We have several things here. We provide buy-side investment advisory to a number of partners. For example, we have a Swiss Embassy-funded program called Biniyog Briddhi. They invest in impact enterprises. We help them in making investments, policy advocacy, and ecosystem engagement.
We also work with several investor groups in Bangladesh such as Startup Bangladesh Limited, which is a fund under ICT Division. We provide them with due diligence support.
We work with international investors who want to understand and enter the Bangladesh market. For example, when a British investment group wanted to invest in Pran, we tried to help them.
We also run several accelerator programs. In partnership with Better Stories and Upskill, we run the Grameenphone Accelerator Program.
We run several SME accelerator programs for a number of development partners. I wouldn’t call them mere accelerator programs. Instead, these are comprehensive business development services.
For example, we are doing a program with Swiss Contact where we provide SMEs training, and organize a business conclave where we bring all the SMEs to Dhaka and connect them with potential buyers. We do these kinds of system-level programs to help the overall entrepreneurship ecosystem of Bangladesh.
Our third vertical is market entry advisory, which is for international corporations who want to enter the Bangladesh market. They need various services when they want to access the Bangladesh market. We support them with those supports. Recently, we worked for a large European energy company which resulted in a multi-million dollar investment in the country.
Finally, through our digital transformation solution, we help companies to make better sense of their data. It is more like a business analytics unit under which we provide a wide range of services from data capture to data analysis and help companies make better decisions in real time. For instance, we work with Syngenta Foundation, a Switzerland-based organization where we help them with data collection, analysis, and decision-making. We’ve created a dashboard for them where they can do this whole thing.
These are some of the things we have been doing.
How big is the company now? Can you give us an overview of your team, clients you work with, size of the business, etc?
Right now we’re a team of around 60 people. In the leadership team, I work as the CEO, we have Ivdad as our Managing Director and Zahed as our Director of finance, strategy, and consultancy services.
Our chairperson of the board is Samad Miraly. He is an Executive Director of Olympic Group and is mostly known as an early angel investor in the ecosystem. The company is majority owned by the founders — Ivdad, Zahed, and I. Anita Ghazi Rahman, who is an advocate of the Bangladesh Supreme Court, is our independent board member.
We’ve built an extremely diverse team over the years with people from business, technology, and creative domains. We have graduates from business, statistics, and economics. We also hire computer science graduates and people from creative domains such as fine arts, design, and creative arts.
We have people from many different universities — DU, Jahangirnagar University, BRAC University, IBA, NSU, and all other reputed places. We believe in diversity. I think our team is strong because it's diverse. Not just in terms of gender but also education. They come from all over Bangladesh.
We have close to 150 clients. We divide our clients into several small subgroups.
In Development and Impact, we have worked with almost all the major players. We've worked with the World Bank Group, UKAID, USAID, UNCDF, Swiss Embassy, UNDP, BRAC, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other prominent organizations.
We work with private sector clients, and multinational companies such as Meta, Telcos, and local conglomerates. Mostly we work with international partners. Among the younger companies, we’ve worked with Brain Station, which is a very good company.
We're the defacto partners of many international consulting firms. We're an exclusive partner of Larive International. Larive is a consulting firm with a presence in 30 countries with over 50 years of vintage. They work exclusively with us in Bangladesh.
We also work with financial institutions such as HSBC, international investment companies, PLC, CDC, Truvalu, etc.
These are some of the clients we have worked with over the years in a broad stroke.
How big is the consultancy services market in Bangladesh?
I would say it is a between $150-200 million market, yearly.
That's a sizable market. Bangladesh continues to attract growing attention from all kinds of international players and it seems there is a growing appetite for consulting and research services in the local market as well.
It is a growing market, of course. But you also have to consider the quality of the market. A large part of it is the Government. Although the private sector market is growing, it is a bit complicated for us.
We come at an early stage of the value chain for most companies. At the initial level where they’re figuring out their strategy. To that end, many private players don't yet see value in these types of services. They value services where the return on investment is more clear and immediate. They understand that if they invest in marketing, they'll get clients. If they run a TV ad, they’ll get customers. That value proposition is clear to them. But for research and consultancy services, not so much.
Compared to that, international companies are more willing to invest in research and analytics. You can understand this by looking at simple software-related expenses. With the amount of investment multinational companies make in software and database systems, our local companies usually don't go there. If you go to any international companies, they use reputable email systems such as Microsoft and Google, etc. But if you go to local companies, they mostly prefer free software.
Our local companies generally don't invest a lot in internal management and data analytics, which is improving. There are some really good companies. New leaders in many of these places are making changes. But these changes are still in the early stages and will take time.
How do the service dynamics work? How does your internal organization work and how do you work with clients to deliver the service?
On the client side, we have these large buckets of clients. You have the public sector, which is the government. Then you have the development and impact sector. And you have some local organizations such as Brac in this segment but the majority are international organizations. Then you have the private sector, which again can be divided into international companies, financial institutions, consulting firms, and local companies.
Consulting services are usually a house of services. So some people will buy consulting services, some people will buy analytics services, some will buy data and information, and some will buy advisory support. So you have different baskets of services and clients.
At the start, whoever the client we're working with, we use an extensive written document where we illustrate the scope of the work. Based on the project document, we then develop a project tracker such as this is the objective, we'll do these things to achieve the objective, and so on.
With every objective, we map out activities to achieve the objective. We also use a Gantt chart to allocate time and schedule deliverables.
Each project has an engagement or project manager, who is responsible for the execution, one business consultant, and one or two analysts depending on the size of the projects. A project manager or business consultant manages all the day-to-day activities. Analysts usually develop written documents and other stuff. Internally, apart from the partners, each project usually has 2-4 people. One team can also work on multiple projects depending on workload and everything.
This is how project delivery and management work on both ends.
As I was saying, we covered LCP a couple of times in the early days but didn't do much coverage in the interim period. During this period, you’ve grown significantly as a company. So we wanted to understand the secret behind the growth of LCP. We have a twofold hypothesis that LCP has one of the best founding teams and you have built an excellent culture. Can you give an overview of the trajectory of the company from 2019 to this day?
We're a service organization. Our growth trajectory would never be like a product company where you can achieve hyper-growth.
In our early days, we wanted to test a hypothesis of whether we could offer world-class consulting services using young local talents in Bangladesh. We have tried to prove that hypothesis over the last few years. I think we have been able to prove that it is doable. We hire Bangladeshi talent, people who are in their mid and late twenties and they deal quite successfully with large local and international clients from across sectors.
We are on par with any other market in terms of the quality of talent I would say. We have a lot of great talents in Bangladesh. We have tried to leverage that to offer world-class consulting services.
India has done it quite well. PwC is in India which is a US company that has a presence all across the world. TCS, which is an Indian company, has also expanded all over the world. So we thought if India can do it, Bangladesh should be able to do it as well. I think, although India is a big country and has an apparent advantage there, Bangladeshi talents are on the same footing. Our goal is to build a world-class consulting company out of Bangladesh.
We have also focused on the buy side advisory. If investors want to invest, what do they need? We have since expanded the service. We have launched Invest Bangladesh targeting this segment of customers, where you can find all the information related to investing in Bangladesh.
We have gone deeper into digital transformation. In the past, we used to help only with data capture. We now provide database design, analytics, forecasting, etc. I would say a consulting company is mostly about adding different lines of services that solve different problems for the client.
I wouldn't say our growth has been super fast. Startups grow by 100-200%. But I would say that we are also limited by the talent we get. The talents we have get poached by everyone including multinational consulting firms. And many talents migrate abroad. So it is a difficult market.
I would say we’ve been lucky in the sense that people usually don’t leave us to join other companies. We lose out mostly when people move abroad which is happening a lot these days.
Second, we have a very meritocratic culture. You either earn a six-figure salary in one and a half years or you stagnate. If you perform, you grow fast and if you don't, it is an industry hard to survive. So many people leave when their growth plateaus. But we rarely lose our talents to other companies.
What are some of the things that have contributed to your excellent growth? 40% growth is a lot in the context of Bangladesh. What’s unique about LCP?
The service that we provide is not very unique. But every consulting firm has some unique flavor.
For instance, BCG is known for its strength in strategy. Accenture is known for its focus on tech and digital transformation. Bain is for bringing specific solutions to the market. And McKinsey is called the father of management consulting.
In any cake, a significant portion is the cake itself. You then add flavor — vanilla, chocolate, or any other flavor. It’s your distinction. All consulting firms provide consulting services but every one offers a flavor, a distinction. Our distinction, which is in our DNA, is that we're data-driven.
When you bring a problem to us, we don't give you just a basic understanding of it. We offer you an understanding backed by data. We use data to explain it so that you can have a better grasp of it.
For example, if I tell you Bangladesh's economy is large versus if I tell you Bangladesh's GDP is 400 billion which is larger than Singapore and Vietnam, it gives you a better picture. You see what we’re talking about.
Instead of saying that Bangladesh has a growing middle class, if I say Bangladesh's middle-class population will reach 35 million by 2025, which is larger than the total population of Malaysia, it drives the point home better.
So one key distinction about us is that data is at the core of everything that we do. We have always been data-driven and always will be. This applies to everything we do.
For instance, when we do an accelerator program, we run a need assessment before getting started. For instance, before launching the GP Accelerator Program we ran a survey to understand what kind of curriculum would benefit startups the most. We designed the curriculum based on the survey result. So it is not random that we took a look at how other people such as YC do it and contextualize that here. We do it ground up. We have found out that we need more support for seed companies in Bangladesh so that they can get to Series A.
So any work that we do is informed by data.
This next point is true for all businesses but more so for consulting businesses. As long as you have the best talents, you'll win. At the end of the day, it is a talent game.
For instance, you are a client and I made a deal with you at the partner level. But I would not do the day-to-day things. My team will. You'll be working with my project manager or business consultant. So the quality of that project manager will determine whether you as a client will give us a second project.
We have a very high retention rate. Most of our clients are repeat. They want to continue working with us because they like the team they work with, not me. I don't do the work. My team does most of the work.
My job is to find and hire the best people, give them an excellent environment, train them, and make sure they can operate effectively. They are the ones running the projects.
I would say talent is another key differentiating factor. Although we sometimes can't match the best salary in the market, we try to. I would say our pay scale is not that bad either. And we try to support our team as best as we can. For example, since we're living through high inflation, we have raised the salary of everyone and adjusted for the inflation. We try to give people rapid growth.
We have a culture that is open and flat. For example, we founders don't have any dedicated place to sit in the office. We use common washrooms in the office. This is true for the whole office. No one enjoys any privilege from office help to the CEO. We have an equitable, transparent, and open culture.
When we give feedback, the individual who’s giving the feedback starts with himself. The supervisor first tells three things he did well, three things he didn't do well, and how he would improve his limitations, and then he gives feedback. It is not like I go and tell you that you did this and that wrong and so on. We want to maintain a culture where people would want to work.
Our entry mechanism is highly competitive. We go through almost 600 CVs to hire one resource. We first take a written exam case. Then our team interviews the shortlisted candidates — their potential future colleagues. We, partners, interview the ones that pass the team interview.
We don't hire just for talent. Intelligence is one of the key things we look at but we also look into integrity. We hire good people. We'll be spending 8-12 hours working with this person, so we want to have people who we like and enjoy working with. We hire good people and give them a lot of freedom to do their work.
How do you ensure that you execute at your best and get the result that you want to get?
We have kept our operation simple. We use the OKR framework to manage and track progress. We start with broad objectives. Say one of our objectives is to build a global consulting company out of Bangladesh. Be the best place where people would want to work. With these objectives, there are results attached that indicate what it means to achieve a certain objective.
For instance, what do we mean by becoming a global consulting company, and what results if we achieve them will indicate that we have achieved the objective? For instance, one result could be our client list would include top global corporations, financial institutions, top nonprofits, and so on.
How do we measure progress?
We have a win-rate ratio where we see proposals versus win ratio. We look at our revenue growth numbers. We have several efficiency metrics. For example, we look at our operating leverage ratio.
We calculate the satisfaction scores of clients. Whether clients would recommend us or not. We fail sometimes. And we say sorry to the client that we couldn't give you the best service. We then try to learn from our mistakes. I wouldn't say everything goes according to plan. We make mistakes. But that's also part of growing the business. We're a learning organization.
We have tried to build systems so that our operation is smooth and things happen uninterrupted. For example, recruitment. We've automated a lot of our recruitment processes where things happen without active intervention.
The key I would say is that you constantly need to take feedback from two specific parties. One is your clients. You should take constant feedback from your client, be in constant conversation with your clients, and see where you can serve them better so that your clients are vested in your growth. The second is taking constant feedback from your team. They'll tell you what needs to be done, what's not working, and so on.
We try to take regular feedback from these two groups. I wouldn't say we always succeed. There can always be a difference of opinion but we try to end things on good terms.
Have thick skin. Clients will give you a lot of feedback that will help you get better.
We have clients who called us during COVID and gave us extra work because they thought it was a difficult period for us. You want those kinds of clients. Because clients know that if I'm not here, their life would be difficult.
I think staying focused on the solution — trying to understand the challenge of the client, and why the client wants your service — is important. For example, one of our clients was running a lot of analyses with us. I asked them what the end goal of this was. They said they want to take a large institutional investor, so they're running these analyses to put together a strategy and communicate their plan with the potential investors. They are a large 20 billion dollar company. Now that I know his goal, it gets easier for me to run the analysis to build the business case for the same purpose with the highest data integrity. If we can give him this solution, he wouldn't work with any other firm. Because he would have the trust factor with us. Building that trust with your clients is critical.
Then creating a regular feedback loop to gather feedback. And then your teammates. If they are not motivated and don't feel empowered, the business will go nowhere. These are a few things I believe are extremely important.
How does your business development work? How do your distribution work as in how do you reach out to your clients?
Let's see how the consulting business used to work in the past. For instance, there is a British investor group. They got a proposal from Bangladesh. They usually would call one of the consulting firms and ask: we got this proposal, how could we move forward? They discuss and get to work. Historically, that's how consulting used to work. It didn’t leave much room for new firms unless you were very well connected.
However, the model has changed. For instance, you want to invest in an Indian company. What's the first thing you're gonna do today? You would Google before doing anything and read things up online. That breaks the traditional value chain for consulting. We’ve tried to exploit this change in the value chain.
What are the plans for the next few years?
Our plan for the past 8-10 years was to see whether we could give world-class consulting services in Bangladesh. We have been operating in Bangladesh, serving clients in Bangladesh. The next goal is to build a global consulting company out of Bangladesh.
Our business in Bangladesh has been growing consistently and we'll continue growing this business. But now our goal is to go global. PwC operates in 100 countries, so why can't a Bangladeshi company do the same? I don't need to operate in 100 countries but can I operate in 5/10 countries?
We've Bangladeshi companies that sell their products across the world such as Pran in multiple countries. We sell software services across the world. These are excellent feats. Now we want a knowledge company out of Bangladesh. People from all across the world know the BCG matrix or different models of McKinsey. We want to build a similar company for the world. If LCP can do it, I will be humbled. But I want to see something like this happen in the next ten years. Can we build a global consulting company using Bangladeshi talents? That's our next goal.
We have learned over these years that we have local talents. You can serve global clients with local talents in Bangladesh. Now we want to find out whether we can do it for global clients across countries.
Now we say that we want to be the McKinsey of Bangladesh. In the future, we want to get to a place where someone in Nepal would say that we want to be the LCP of Nepal. So that's the goal: building a global consulting company out of Bangladesh.
What are the challenges in terms of getting there?
There are challenges specifically linked with doing it in an emerging market. Consulting business is linked with the global economy, which is always a challenge.
Consulting is not easy to scale. Talent retention is always a big challenge. These are very high-caliber talents and they will always have a lot of options.
There are other systemic challenges. It is a crowded market. It's difficult to differentiate. A lot of people are possibly looking at the same market.
Similarly, a lot depends on how we structure the company so that future potential partners can come in and join us. We have a leadership team today but what happens next, who do we pass on the baton to?
For now, the main challenge will be economic challenges, which is true for all businesses. Not just LCP. The world is going through a tough time, which is more like a cycle but things are about to get tougher for at least a few years.
The second challenge is getting the right talent onboard. This is again a challenge for everyone. There is a lack of good talents in the market. You also run a business, so you know that very well. It’s hard to find the right people. I think it is a complaint that everyone has. Moreover, a lot of people are moving abroad. In the future, we might have to consider hiring globally. So finding a sustainable solution to people problem is a challenge.
What are the biggest lessons you have learned building a global consulting company out of Bangladesh?
There are some hard lessons. One big lesson is that always be very very transparent, honest, and open. For example, communicate on day one what you can do, your expectations, the expectations of your partners, and so on. It’s okay if your views are different. But always be transparent and open.
You don't need to win everything. There will be losses. For example, one of our co-founders left a few years back when he migrated abroad. It was a difficult period. But when I look back now, I say it's fine. People will come and go. If I leave LCP, it doesn't mean that LCP will die. None of us are indispensable. I think we don't need to win everything. You can let small things go. Instead, have a few focus areas where you want to win.
Always maintain a healthy balance in everything you do. It’s about working smart. Hire people who are better than you. Don't work yourself to death. Build an organization where people can work and have a life as well.
I think this is a good place to end today's conversation. Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me.
Thank you for having me.