I have been meaning to write about business culture in Bangladesh for a long time. In particular, about how Bangladeshi businessmen, outside of now growing startup narrative, build businesses and what we can learn from them. One thing that has struck me for a while is that Bangladeshi businessmen are extremely business savvy, they generally make better decisions, and there is a pattern in how they approach business. I believe it will immensely be beneficial if we could decode some of these lessons.
I started my career working for a local conglomerate and it is a joy to see these companies work. When I joined the company, it was consolidating some of its businesses. Within a two years period, the company expanded into 3-4 new ventures, some in the adjacent market and others outside of its core business. It also shut down a few new businesses that were not working. The decisions to get into a business as well as get out of one both were fast. I have since come across many other local conglomerates and I’m inclined to say that most of them follow this similar pattern.
They make decisions fast. They are always in favor of taking the leap than overthinking or overanalyzing things. Many of these businessmen rarely talk about strategic thinking, long-term planning, and other heavy business jargon but they are savvy drivers of their operations. They almost always have a unique insight about their market, business, and operation that is so prized in the startup world but so few founders manage to develop.
Of course, not all businessmen are the same. There are strategic and business differences but when I talk about a Bangladeshi businessman's wisdom I’m talking about a certain pattern and approach that is unique and consistent.
I do not claim that the way Bangladeshi businessmen run businesses is superior to some other ways of doing business such as following a deliberate approach to business decision-making and so on. But I also acknowledge the fact that this approach to business has certain upsides that are rarely discussed and hence we know little about them.
Here is a typical Bangladeshi businessman story. He starts a small retail shop or trading business. He is super money conscious. He makes some profit. He expands his trading business. He goes in import. Import business goes well. He makes some money. He goes into manufacturing. He finances his business through bank loans and other financial schemes such as many take short-term investments from friends and family and interested people. His business grows significantly. He then goes on to invest in another product and in the long term eventually ends up building a conglomerate. I know a friend who started a retail shop five years ago and now has 7 shops. The father-in-law of a friend started his business career doing trading and now has investments in real estate, hospitals, and a few other sectors.
If you pay close attention, you’ll see most of the successful Bangladeshi businessmen come from this playbook. When you ask them about their secret, they would tell you they got lucky. You may call it superstition but sometimes you also struggle to truly understand what really happened here.
A lot of these highly successful entrepreneurs don’t have luxurious university degrees. Even if some have, they didn’t build their business following the path of degree-mandated business building. They have a common pattern of approaching businesses — they opt for practical lessons. They prefer the school of life to learn important lessons over the cognitive understanding of things and theoretical jargon speaking.
The second aspect I see in these businessmen is that they are almost always biased toward action. Many of them started their business without an understanding of how Excel works. They rarely pay attention to strategizing, creating a detailed business plan, and designing a go-to-market strategy. Instead, they are almost always ready to leap.
This is a dangerous superpower. Because, as I have written several times, the most important entrepreneurship skills are tacit knowledge and easier to learn with practical exposure. This allows a Bangladeshi businessman to learn faster and get to the truth about the market quicker. If they succeed, they can move faster. If they fail, they learn quickly and move on to the next adventure.
The important outcome of this approach is the invaluable learning that you receive from your every move. No good idea survives the test of reality. When you put your idea on the market, you receive important feedback. Not only about whether there is a market for your product but also you learn other important lessons about building a product, customer psychology, growth, business, operations, and so on.
I have written elsewhere that long-term entrepreneurial success takes a long time because important skills take a long time to learn. In my opinion, Bangladeshi businessmen have built a better approach to learning these lessons by taking action all the time. Sometimes they get burned, they fail, who does not fail, but the outcome in my opinion is almost always excellent.
The next lesson is a relative sense of ego dissolution. We, modern educated people, take ourselves too seriously. We are always thinking complex thoughts. This phenomenon even has a name: complexity bias. For some strange reason, we like to pretend that complex thinking is superior thinking. As a result, we are full of egos that almost always stand in our way to make good decisions.
Contrary to that, a Bangladeshi businessman operates with little ego. They are rarely worried about how other people perceive them. They are not used to cheap admirations. In many ways, they live in a state for which modern educated people meditate to reach. This apparent lack of ego allows them to make better decisions. Their minds in the language of zen are always empty. They can see reality as it is instead of seeing it with many colors which we do. When you can see things without prejudice or preference, you are always closer to the truth. You can easily differentiate between the real and the fake.
The other important lesson I would say is that they can shut things down real quick when they don’t work. This is part of the trait of making quick decisions that I mentioned earlier — they are always ready to take action. At the same time, when a venture is not working, they don’t deliberate or delay shutting it down.
Finally, at least in their early days, these businessmen don’t understand vanity and vanity metrics. They don’t seek fame because they don’t feel they need it. Rather many of them enjoy anonymity. They are happy when people recognize them but I doubt they pay any attention to things like personal branding. This lack of interest in how things work in our Instagram-obsessed world allows them to stay away from a lot of distractions, and more time that they can invest in building businesses.
I want to mention here that many founders in the startup world demonstrate these traits and values. For instance, people who have little to no ego. But Bangladeshi businessmen almost always show these traits.
Now there are several questions here.
The first question is about the idea of leaping all the time without much deliberation. What if you make the wrong decision and as a result, you fail?
I said that the most important advantage you get out of these experiences is the learning that you receive in the process of trying a process. It is essentially an approach of trial and error. I have alluded to the idea before that entrepreneurship is best learned in the field. You try something, you fail, you learn some unique insights, and you reapply them to your next trial and produce a better outcome.
The problem with us who studied business, we are too cautious. We put too much importance on the cognitive understanding of things. This overreliance on intelligence paralyzes us before taking action. We spend too much time in deliberation and non-action which leads to little to no learning.
Quick decision-making and being able to learn valuable lessons and reach the truth from your experience is an invaluable virtue in entrepreneurship. I think most successful Bangladeshi businessmen have it. That’s why it is so important. Since you can’t learn business only intellectually, experiential education is always superior and most useful.
Now the question comes what if the leap you decide to take is fatal? That’s something I don’t have an answer for.
I think some businessmen go out of business because they are quite reckless. But for most, I would suggest leaping is still an excellent strategy if you could know your leap will not bring a catastrophic outcome.
There is a two-fold lesson here. One, you should develop a trial-and-error strategy for yourself so that you can try your ideas and learn from the experience. Make sure your experiments are quick so that you can learn important lessons quickly. Second, you should think about whether the experiment or leap will be fatal or not. I think Bangladeshi businessmen are brave and they take some risks. I also think they diversify their risks and they rarely take fatal leaps without sufficient deliberation.
Let me end this piece with an excellent role model for Bangladeshi businessmen wisdom: the late founder of Akij Group Sheikh Akij Uddin.
Sheikh Akij Uddin was born in 1929 in Madhyadanga, Phultala, Khulna, East Bengal. He was an only child. His father Sheikh Mofijuddin was a local trader. Akij worked while in school and had to discontinue his studies to help his father’s business. The economic distress of the family led Akij to earn for the family. He left home during the Bengal Famine for Kolkata. He had no relatives in Kolkata and made the Shialdah Railway Station his shelter. He would look for work during the day and at night would return to the station to sleep using bricks as a pillow. After a while, he got a cleaning job at Zakariya Hotel.
One day, on his way to work through Ramlochan Street, he observed that some street retailers purchased fruits from the sellers on auction and sell those to different parts of the city. He found the business interesting. He eventually opened his store in Kolkata called Nilamwala Chhay Ana (Auctioneer six ana) where everything cost six ana. While things were looking up, one day, police arrested him, and the court sentenced him to 3 days in jail and penalized Rs five.
After getting out of jail, he sold his so-called business goods and moved to Peshawar. After two years in Peshawar for two years, he would return to Kolkata with some capital and started a small business. He would make about ten thousand rupees (some sources say 10 rupees) by selling the business and would eventually return to his hometown in Phultala. Akijuddin married Sakina Khatun at the age of 19. Upon returning, he met a friend of his father, Bidhu Bhushan, who was in Beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes) business. With his help, Akij started his bidi (hand-rolled cigarettes) production in 1952. He also established a grocery shop on the side.
Over the next few years, both businesses would do well. By 1960-62, the Akij beedi factory rose to 250 workers. Akijuddin expanded his business to more areas such as rice, jute, paddy, etc. By 1972, Akij made substantial capital for greater investment. Today, Akij Group is one of the largest conglomerates in Bangladesh.
There are several takeaways from this story. One important insight is that Mr. Akij started early. When Mr. Akij got married he was only 19. By that time he lived in three different cities. Tried four-five different businesses. Failed in a few businesses. Spent several nights in jail and survived one famine. It is hard to match this resume.
Today, we start our career after 25 and by the time we start learning real-world lessons, it is 30. When Akijuddin was starting his beedi business, which would eventually turn into Akij Group, he already had ample real-life experiences to make good decisions and had developed enough resilience to suffer and endure challenges.
The second takeaway is that he started two ventures at once, which contradicts my own philosophy about what founders should do. My thesis is simple: when you try multiple things at once it creates distractions and increases your chance of failure. It is true. But it can also limit your opportunity to learn from real-life experiences. One way to compensate for this is through constant trial and error in your own venture. Mr. Akij chose the world as a playground to experiment and learn. He was quick to move on when things didn’t work. He took the lessons and tried them differently.
The third takeaway is that when his beedi business started to grow, he quickly expanded into new verticals. I’m certain some of those verticals didn’t work and he had to shut them down but trying so many things helped him to get closer to the truth of building business in Bangladesh.
This theme is consistent among many Bangladeshi businessmen. For instance, today’s young conglomerate like OnnoRokom Group also offers a similar trajectory. OnnoRokom Group Co-founder and Chairman Mahmudul Hasan Sohag once told me that he started some 40 different ventures and most of them failed. I think OnnoRokom owes part of its success to those failed projects.
Credit: Sources for Akij Group founder story: here and here. This piece is partly inspired by Cedric Chin’s Chinese Businessmen paradox article. It appears Chinese and Bangladeshi businessmen have a lot in common. Cover photo credit here.