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Solaiman Alam: How Stunning Organizations Operate, Navigating Shifting Digital Landscape, and Strategies for Doing Good Work and Living a Good Life

Solaiman Alam is the Chief Digital and Strategy Officer of Grameenphone, Bangladesh's largest telecom operator. Prior to joining Grameenphone, he worked at Banglalink, the third-largest telco in the country, during its early years, where he played a vital role in establishing Banglalink as one of the most recognized brands in the country. Before that, he worked at British American Tobacco Bangladesh, which, according to many, is one of the best-run corporate organizations in Bangladesh. 

In this fascinating conversation, Mr. Solaiman joins Ruhul Kader to talk about his journey to what he is doing today, how he approaches his work and life from a perspective of exploration, all things related to digital initiatives and strategy at Grameenphone, the future of the telecom industry in a changing world, why successful companies suffer from innovator’s dilemma, what separates great organizations from mediocre ones, how to think about strategy, organizational culture, his management philosophy, the changing technological landscape and opportunities within it, why he loves fiction and his favorite books, the importance of developing a habit of lifelong learning, and discipline as the most effective productivity hack. They also discuss the underrated importance of basic human goodness, why we should practice having an open mind, the inherent beauty of life, advice for young people, and much more.

The personal history 

Ruhul Kader

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you please tell us about yourself? Where were you born and raised? Please tell us about your childhood and upbringing and how your early life experiences shaped you as a person. 

Solaiman Alam

I had a fairly interesting childhood. It was interesting in the sense that I grew up outside of Dhaka. I was born in Rajshahi, where my father was a university professor. I was born on the university campus, a very down-to-earth place. I had a great childhood because the campus is very nice. I don't know if you've ever been there, but the campus is big, with lots of fields and everything you could want.

I started my schooling at the University School and then went to Rajshahi College. So until college, I was in Rajshahi. Back in the day, when I was growing up, everybody had two tracks to choose from -- engineering or doctor. My brother, my only sibling, went to BUET. I naturally thought that I would also go into engineering. After HSC, I came to Dhaka and started my preparations for the BUET admission exam. But my brother insisted that I try out for IBA. I did not know about IBA. I had heard the name IBA for the first time from my brother. He insisted that I try for IBA. There are a few details and nuances. On his insistence, I gave my exam there and got in. I was in the fourth batch for BBA. This was in 1995-96. So I did my BBA. So my father was a university professor, my brother is a university professor, and I am a BBA.

I started my career at British American Tobacco in 2000 and was there until the end of 2005. I was posted all over the country: in Chittagong, in North Bengal, and in Dhaka. I worked in sales, trade marketing (managing organized channels), and on the brand marketing side. In 2005, Banglalink came into the market and I joined Banglalink. I made the switch to telecom in the last quarter of 2005. I joined their brand team, making the switch from brand to brand. For the next 10-11 years, I was in Banglalink. I worked in many roles. Back in the day, Banglalink was almost like a startup. The company was just starting out, and we were a small team that had to work like a startup.

As I said, I started working in brand marketing, then in product, in analysis and planning, then in postpaid, in value-added services, in mobile financial services, and in research. I worked as a marketing director there. I left Banglalink in December 2015. I was a senior director of marketing at the time. I took a month's break and then joined Grameenphone in February 2016.

I started the marketing route here as well. I worked in marketing for some time. We were just starting out our digital initiatives. Banglalink had a number of early digital initiatives, which was my responsibility at the time. At Grameenphone, the digital initiatives mostly started when I joined in the 2015-16 era. It was a small initiative. We were just trying. From 2018-2019, we started becoming serious about digital because we saw that the whole world was moving to digital.

In 2018, we started setting up the digital division and we formally started working as a division, which overlooks digital services, products, channels, and everything put together. The division has since grown consistently. In 2020, I was formally indoctrinated as part of the management team (MT). We took the digital and the strategy, which was reporting to the CEO back then, and we merged these two initiatives to create a new division. The idea came because we had to push the organization towards digitization at the time. The merger of the strategy and the digital at that time was important in order to achieve that goal.

Ruhul Kader

I want to go back a little to your early life. When you entered the room and started talking, I realized that you have a calm personality. I don't know if anyone has told you this before.

Solaiman Alam

Yes. Many people told me this. 

Ruhul Kader

Can you tell us more about what kind of environment you grew up in? Any formative experiences from those early years in Rajshahi?

Solaiman Alam

First of all, I had a stable and happy childhood, something that I'm deeply grateful for. I hear a lot of stories about people's childhoods, and there are all kinds of stories. But then I had a fabulous childhood. The foundation my parents taught me was that being a better person is more important than being anything else. I always carry that teaching with me.

My mother always used to tell us that you judge a person by the way they treat the people whose fate they control, who are their subordinates, or over whom they have direct power. That is who you are, not how you manage upstairs. These teachings never left me. I never set out to be a manager; I did not know it back then. But these fundamental teachings have always been there.

Seeking knowledge, reading, and curiosity were the norms. The kind of environment we grew up in, university and teaching, kind of builds you up for that. I grew up reading a lot of books, watching a lot of things. All our friends, peers and everybody around us were of a similar mindset. Those things set your foundations. I think I’ve always gravitated toward this throughout my life. It has made me the person that I am. Calmness is maybe also a part of it.

Ruhul Kader 

You said that becoming an engineer or doctor was the predominant cultural norm in those days, and you really did not plan to become a senior leadership role at the largest company in the country. What did you want to become in your early years, in your 20s?

Solaiman Alam 

I will try to say this without sounding condescending, but most of us in our generation did not really know what life or work really meant in our early 20s. It's an honest opinion. There might be exceptions, but predominantly people were not that worried about careers and so on. These days, people are more aware. As you said, you started your business when you were studying. But I think we were not just as precocious in our day.

However, when we were at IBA, we started a software firm. Interestingly enough, I was the CEO there. Interestingly enough, that collapsed. We could not really make it work. After a while, we shut the business down. I think we just did not have the courage or the patience.

I didn’t give much thought to what I wanted to do as a professional in my early 20s. At least, I did not give it a structured thought.

I always thought I would be an explorer. That is something that I wanted to be since my childhood. I still cherish it. Exploring things excites me. This might qualify as an answer. It is exactly what I wanted to be—an explorer.

Ruhul Kader

That's interesting. What do you mean by explorer? 

Solaiman Alam

If I think about explorer, you can take it in a unidirectional way and say that explorer means traveling, going to new places, and stuff. Similarly, explorer also means, by its very nature, doing and exploring new things. That is something that has always appealed to me.

In my career, I have never stayed in one role for too long. I've moved from sales to trade marketing to brand marketing to product management. I've never done one type of work for more than three or four years. I would do something for a couple of years and then switch to a different role. I think this is because I have an explorer mindset. I enjoy trying new things and learning new things. I think that the explorer mindset is something that I've carried throughout my life. I enjoy trying new things, learning new things, and trying to see how these apply to my work, and how I can pass it on to the people that I work with. 

I would not say I do it in a structured manner. Rather, it is something that comes naturally to me because exploration is something that I enjoy.

In my personal life, I have a fantastic family. For me, family is my first priority. That is somewhere where I don't compromise. Everything else comes after that. I am married to my best friend, which is a good thing. We have this ritual where we go on long drives. When I was unmarried, I used to do it with my friends, who are now in many different places. After our marriage, we did our road trips together. My brother stays abroad. When we went to their country, my wife and I took a car, put our things in it, and without booking anything, knowing where to go, we set out and we were on the road for eight days. Back in those days, Google Maps was not there. I remember she had these huge maps. She was trying to figure out where to go, what to see, and all that. It was so much fun.

Now, I do it with my kids and we do it here. Take, for example, we would take the northern part of the country and go to all major stoppages. We would go to Serajganj, Bogura, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Panchogar, all these places or we would go to the Chapaynababganj route. We stop at places, look at historical sites, and try to teach my kids what Bangladesh is really about. Every day a new place, every day stay in a different place. In December last year, I was out in South Bengal. We went to Gopalganj, Faridpur, Pathuakhali, Barishal, Bhola, Charfashion, Char Kukrimukri, Jinaydhaha, Jhalokhati, Bagerhaat, all these places. We went out on a Friday and came back on another Friday — my kids, I'm driving, my wife, and this is how we do it.  

That was a tangent but we were discussing exploration, right? What I wanted to say is that this gives me soul food. This is what keeps me who I am. I like exploring new things. I like going to places where I have not been before. It can be the next narrow road beside my house. As long as it gives me joy and a bit of learning, I love it. I kind of carry it as a fundamental human quality within me that also spills into my professional work. That's how I ended up in digital, building new things. As long as I like it and learn new things, I will continue doing it.

On the generational gap and the eraser of time 

Ruhul Kader

In terms of career and work, what you mentioned is interesting. If I compare our generation and the current generation with your generation, I think things were purer in your time than now. I don't know. Is that the right characterization?

Solaiman Alam

We are kind of the bridge, you can say. The pristine generation may have been one generation before us. We are not digital natives. We adopted it. We had to adapt to it well because this is now the norm. However, I do not want to call our generation pristine. You can say that things were simpler back then.

Ruhul Kader

The orientation about life and what you want in life was different. For example, young people today are much more precocious. At the same time, I think people also miss out on a lot of things that your generation had. You now work with young people, so you get to see what's happening. Moreover, you work in digital, which changes every day. How has your thinking about career and work changed over these years? For example, when you started out, you wanted to explore, try different things out, learn, and understand work and the world. How has your thinking about work changed? The second part of it is that young people are maybe precocious these days, but do they miss out on other things, other human experiences because they are more preoccupied with achievement and material things? Long question.

Solaiman Alam

Long question, but I get the gist of it. I would never say that one generation is better or worse than another. You can say that the music in the 70s was better, the music in the 80s got a bit of force, and the 90s, we can forget. But in terms of generations, I would not say anything like that.

I think the priorities are different. The input sources have changed dramatically. The overall outlook has expanded. When I tell my daughter the story of how I found out about certain music and certain movies in our time, it does not make sense to her. For us, it was an effortful thing. It took many days and sometimes months, even a year or two, to find that particular music or that movie that I had heard of from somewhere and wanted to see. When I finally got it, the joy of it was tremendous. I cannot describe it to you.

However, things are different now. For them, it works differently. They can access anything in the world at their fingertips, instantaneously. As a result, that sense of joy of finding something after a long effort and wait, they perhaps get in some other things.

Ruhul Kader

Those feelings are kind of I think lost. 

Solaiman Alam

Maybe it's lost or muted, or they find it in different things. I'm sure there are, but I just don't know. What I want to tell you is that I don't think that any generation is better than the other or purer than the others or whatever. It's just that circumstances are different. Priorities are different. And especially, the inputs have dramatically changed. For them, I would say that they would have to find their true standing or their true calling.

I mean, there are so many options, and so many inputs, it's information overload and analysis paralysis. Whatever you say, it would be difficult for this generation to single out something and then be attentive to it for a very long time. It's just the way of the world. That is a challenge. I mean, you don't like it, you flip it, something new comes, you don't like it, flip it, and new comes in a matter of seconds.

For us, you switch on the TV, and it doesn't matter whether you like it or not, it's just there and you're just stuck with it. Different times, different worlds.

I would say that my way of looking at things has changed and evolved. As a person, I love learning and I am of the opinion that you don't learn through one mechanism. Some people learn by reading, some people learn by watching YouTube, and some people learn by talking to other people. There are so many different ways to learn. The important thing is that you learn continuously. The minute you stop learning is the minute you start growing. This is how it is.

I'm a combination of all my experiences and the people that I have worked with and have had the opportunity to interact with, training, sessions, and everything. All these things have worked as input to shape my philosophy, shape my vision, shape my work ethic, and shape my style of work. While my fundamental human qualities probably will not change, I'm changing all the time in other areas. My work style, ethics, and philosophy toward different types of work, all these things have evolved. And I think it has evolved for the better.

If I look back now to 22 years earlier when I started out as a professional, I might laugh at myself. But then, this is how life is. Some things, you just cannot fast forward. You have to go through the experience to really learn it.

Ruhul Kader

One more question about your early life. Your father was a professor and your parents had a tremendous amount of influence on you. Can you tell us more about your parents?

Solaiman Alam

Both my parents have passed away. They were simple people. My father had a Ph.D. from [name] University, a post-doctorate from Harvard, and then a second post-doctorate from the London School of Economics. But then he came back to Bangladesh. Back in those days, that was the norm.

He was a university professor in Dhaka, but then he thought that Rajshahi would be a better place to raise the kids and also that there would be a greater need for good teachers there. One of his students asked him to consider coming to Rajshahi, and so he did.

I had a happy life. I have no remaining relatives from my father's side. My mother has a large extended family. My mother was a simple woman of principle. For her, as for many parents of her generation, raising children with the right values and being better humans was of paramount importance.

Both of them had a tremendous impact on us. We were two brothers. It was an upbringing that I am proud of and that I would not exchange for anything else. That would probably be the most valuable lesson of my life. I would be really underplaying it if I said that I had a good life, and then I started learning from my experiences later. No, I think that's when I was made as a human. Everything else was added to it afterward.

On great organizations and mediocre organizations 

Ruhul Kader

I could keep asking you more questions about your early life, which I am tempted to, but let's move on to the world of work and business. You have experience working for over 22 years for some of the country's largest companies. You worked in the FMCG industry, and then two of the largest telecom operators in the country. How has your understanding of organizations, companies, people, and management evolved over these years?

Solaiman Alam

I think I had a very good starting school. I sometimes refer to it as a school because British American Tobacco is almost a school here. It teaches fundamental management principles in practice. You will see a lot of leaders across different multinationals and local companies who are from BAT. It has a very rich alumni network. I think grooming leaders, building professionalism, and all these things were highly valued at BAT.

I don't want to comment on their products. As an organization, it perhaps has one of the best organizational practices that you can think of. For a professional life and a career, that was a good foundation to begin with.

Banglalink was the period that you could say forged me by fire. It had a startup orientation to it. I probably did three lifetimes' worth of work during my time at Banglalink. That also kind of made me. The pressure, the volume of work, the hours, balancing and managing difficult situations, all these things are what make us. That was a very good forging period for me. I worked in so many different roles in those few years that working in any commercial and leadership position is easy for me. I dealt with it at least some of it at one point or another. Throughout these 22 years, I've been lucky to wear different hats and start a solid career. I would say I've been lucky.

Ruhul Kader

It is interesting that you brought up BAT. A lot of people who come from BAT often share fond memories of their days at BAT and credit BAT for training them well. From that perspective, what separates excellent organizations, both in terms of having a culture where people can go and grow, and also being excellent in terms of execution and operation, from average organizations? From your experience of working and seeing many organizations during these 22 years, what separates great organizations from mediocre ones?

Solaiman Alam

I want to tackle this question in three separate streams.

First, they have to have the right practices and right business ethics. You cannot be shady about it and then have a long-term sustainable performance. It is impractical and impossible. It will never happen. You have to have the right practices. That is a prerequisite. After that, the other things are built. I want to take that as a fundamental.

Second, people make or break an organization. That is the most valuable resource for any organization. You have to have excellent people across your organization, from the top to bottom. The thing about people is that it's a chicken and egg problem. It can sometimes be hard to understand which comes first: the top or the bottom. I think it starts with recruitment. If you don't recruit the best and the brightest, you cannot have the best and the brightest at the top. Similarly, if you don't have the best and the brightest at the top, you cannot really plan for the best at the bottom. It's an interdependent cycle because the bottom goes to the top, and the top then decides who to recruit.

I see many organizations suffer because of recruitment. Bad recruitment practices such as nepotism, less focus, narrow recruitment criteria, etc. These are not the right recruitment practices. You should recruit people who you feel one day will replace you and replace the CEO. This is how you should recruit at the bottom. If you can do that, you will have a company full of qualified people. At every stage, they will make qualified decisions and have the right practices, right policies, right performance metrics, and your organization will run excellently.

But even that can still be insufficient. You can have all Lionel Messis in your team and still end up in disaster because you have to operate as a team. You can have all the superstars, but if they don't collaborate and work together, nothing will happen. Moreover, you need all types of people in your team. You need the right mix. That is why the right team is such an important thing. You need strikers, midfielders, and defenders. That mix is critical. You cannot have a team full of strikers, you cannot have a team full of defenders. You need a team that complements each other.

That is another pillar: how you're structuring the team, building them up, putting them in teams, managing them, retaining them, motivating them, and then all the way up to the leader, how they're actually building that culture.

Culture is always top-down. You cannot have a boss thinking of a different culture and the team has a different culture. That is why it's a circle. This is the second pillar that I want to talk about.

The third pillar is that the organization needs to be in the mindset to evolve. If you think, "I have the most profitable product, I have the best thing, I don't need to evolve and change," maybe you do have that for that period of time. But if you get too comfortable in your success, it is a danger sign. You will be able to do business for 5-10 years. At one point, somebody will come or you will falter, or your customers will go. Something will happen. Change is the only constant. If you are not able to evolve, innovate, and act on your customer feedback, you're done.

In a nutshell, great organizations have the right practices, right people, and are always willing to change and evolve according to the needs of customers and the market.

Ruhul Kader

This is interesting. I want to dig deeper into the practice part of it. In relation to your experience at BAT, what makes BAT’s practices so different from other organizations? What can other organizations learn from BAT?

Solaiman Alam 

It starts with recruitment. Even in our days, recruitment was a two- to three-day affair at BAT. It was not just one interview. They would give you different psychometric evaluations, mind games, and then team games. There was a whole assessment center. They would take you through this assessment center, where they would look at your IQ, EQ, your bonding with the team, how you perform under stress, how you perform under leadership, how you perform as a leader, and so on. They would test all of these different things. After all of these things, then the interview would start. They would invest in candidates who they might eventually reject. That is an important thing.

What I'm trying to tell you is that recruitment is an important aspect of the whole thing. But that is also the beginning. Once you have hired the best people, you have to give them training and opportunities to grow—giving them proper direction, clarity of the organization, what each part of the organization does, etc. BAT also invests another month or so doing this, giving different attachments and making sure that whoever comes in understands the business.

You can bring in somebody and make them start working from day one, but if they don't know where the money comes from, they will do things that don't help your business model. If you continue in that route, after seven such recruitments, you'll be out of business.

Once you hire somebody, it's difficult to get rid of them. So it starts with hiring. And then it's very important how you groom them, how you make them. BAT invests in people in terms of training, team-building exercises, vision-building exercises, and so on.

The company has a thorough performance management system. You have to perform in order to move up. If you come and work in an organization and suddenly you are the CEO's favorite person, you will have wrong ideas in your head. Things don't work like that.

They make sure that you understand the basics and then they take you up.

The rigorous performance management system not only looks at the business performance but also various aspects of the individuals. By the time you become a leader in that organization, you've already been through this process. You have the right practices built into your DNA, and that cascades down and that goes up. I think these are important for any organization.

On Grameenphone’s digital universe and how strategy works 

Ruhul Kader

Coming to your work, you work as the Chief Digital and Strategy Officer of the largest telecom operator in the country. Can you talk about your work? What does your work entail? By extension of that, what is your philosophy of work? How do you approach your work?

Solaiman Alam

So what does my work entail? There are two distinct parts to it. I told you that digital and strategy were merged. It perhaps ideally shouldn’t have been merged. However, there was a need to push the organization toward digital, which demanded that we align strategy with the need.

Digital encompasses all of our digital products. This includes some of the products that we started in the past and did not work such as Wowbox, GP music, and several other initiatives. Similarly, there are initiatives and products that we are carrying, such as Bioscope. It also includes our digital channels.

We started with the website. We have the myGP app, perhaps the largest local footprint app. We have Flexiplans. We also have different partners through whom we distribute. Digital channels and distribution are important for us. We work with MFS partners and global players such as Facebook and Google. We have partnerships with a lot of content partners and hyper-scalers, where we work together to create service bundling. For instance, we work with services like Hoichoi and other global content partners for bundling services with data.

We are working on new initiatives and services, such as partnerships with banks, our own network expansion services such as fixed Wi-Fi, fixed wireless access, and a number of other things. These are some of the new initiatives that we are trying. These are the digital side of it.

Then there’s the strategy side of it. Strategy is strategy. I can't really explain what we do. There is a full strategy process through which we decide our at least three-year vision or plan and then work towards it with different strategic projects. These are sometimes a bit confidential. I cannot talk much about those projects. These are all set towards achieving our vision.

Ruhul Kader

I have a separate question about what exactly strategy is and how to approach strategy. But before that, I want to ask you about work. How do you approach your work? What is your philosophy of work? Different people think and approach work differently. This also includes how you work with your people and your teammates, and how you think about doing things.

Solaiman Alam

First of all, by the nature of my role and the nature of the things that we do in our division, we cannot remain stagnant. We always have to evolve. This is something that we constantly tell our team. In our line of work, you always have to be in the mindset that there are things and projects that you're working on that might not work, and projects that you're working on that might become huge. You have to be prepared for that.

It doesn't always mean that you are successful or a failure. The thing is that the reality might change, regulators might intervene, and something else might happen, where the demand that we thought was there might no longer be there.

The people in our division, ideally, should have a flexible and adaptive mindset. We usually promote that thought process and mindset in our people.

We also give people space. If I always micro-manage, it will create more challenges than upsides. Innovation and creative work don't happen if somebody's on your shoulder all the time. This is the practice that we want to instill.

I have maintained two principles for the last three years. I may add one more this year. They're simple. Number one, the customer is always at heart—it has to be at heart. It cannot be that I talk about customers and how important customer obsession is, but behind the back, I am doing something else. It's like faith, either you believe or you don't. There can't be a middle ground.

Second, simplify, which is a very difficult thing to do. Simple is the most difficult thing to do. Make simple journeys, make simple processes, make simple meetings, and try to simplify as much as possible. These are the two philosophies or principles I always promote and encourage our people to adopt. You can say that that is the philosophy.

Ruhul Kader

Coming to the strategy part. People always talk about strategy and strategic thinking. What is strategy? What is exactly strategic thinking? It would be very useful if you could put organizations like GP and how they practice strategic thinking in perspective and explain it.

Solaiman Alam

The organization cannot really practice strategic thinking; it is the individuals who practice it. Strategy is a plan to achieve your objectives and goals. In layman's terms, that is what strategy is. However, there is much more to it. Before going into that, let me answer this question of strategic thinking.

To me, strategic thinking is something where you can think of a situation and do two things. You can connect the dots, which is easier said than done. Connecting the dots and making a full picture out of something tentative is extremely tough. Connecting the dots usually allows you to see the bigger picture. Sometimes you may think your work is the most important or that some specific thing is most important. However, being able to figure out how all of it fits into the overall big picture is strategic thinking. Being able to connect the dots to look at the bigger picture.

Now, if I talk about the strategy process at Grameenphone, it is a rigorous process. Many companies follow this process. It starts with the management team, which includes the CEO and the CXOs. We sit together and try to come to an agreement on what it is that we really want to achieve next year, the year after that, and the year after that—a minimum of three years.

What is it that we really want to achieve? Where do you want to take this company, both in terms of business and financial KPIs and, at the same time, as an organization? An added responsibility for Grameenphone is that since we are a huge part of the industry as the market leader, what we do has an impact on the industry, and we have to think about that.

These are some of the things that we rigorously discuss, debate, and then make a decision. From there, we go to the next layer. What is it that must happen in order for that to happen? That is when the other layer, the EMT layer, comes into play, where the discussions happen that if we want to take this company to this position, then what needs to happen? What are the things that need to be done? Those discussions and debates happen across different divisions and teams, etc. Then a bottom-up plan comes up. We then try to match whether it fits or not, for which there are separate exercises.

The entire process is a huge, rigorous, collaborative process across different teams and divisions. We put everything together to build the strategy. The strategy also has to match our shareholder vision. If the shareholders say that they don't want that, then you're done. So it has to match that vision too.

Ruhul Kader

You briefly touched upon your various digital initiatives: digital services, digital distribution and partnerships, and digital innovation and new businesses. Could you expand on those areas? What are some of the things that you've been doing? How does that connect with Grameenphone's future strategic direction?

Solaiman Alam

For us, the primary role of digital channels and distribution is clear: it is to drive our core business and ensure that we are able to digitize our front-end interaction with customers. This is where the myGP App plays a crucial role. It is our own channel, and there is so much that can be done because it is our own channel. We want to generate more business through this channel. That is a fundamental part of it.

There are other own channels too, such as our website and Plexiplan. To support these, there are different enablers and platforms that enable them. I am not going to explain them all, but there are things like the payment orchestration layer, the API integrator layer, and so on. These are layers or platforms.

The other part of it is partner distribution with third-party distribution partners. You know that mobile financial services (MFS) is a huge payment source. We have to work with MFS players as partners from many different angles. We work with them as a source of funding and, at the same time, as distribution channels. We have a deeply integrated partnership with them. This is in terms of local partnerships. There are other local partners, smaller ones, but these are the main ones.

We also work with global partners such as Meta and Google. We have mutually beneficial partnerships with these companies across distribution, analytics, and sometimes on specific projects.

There are many other layers that I am not talking about. This is digital channels and distribution.

We have other products and services such as direct operator billing, where we enable different digital providers to make payments using Grameenphone balance. We have services bundling with different content providers such as HoiChoi, Chorki, and several others. We are working with both international and local companies in this space.

We are working with multiple banks to have partner-based services like agent banking, cross-platform collaboration in terms of KYC and analytics.

We have other extended network services like FWA. That is the innovation side of it. We are also exploring products beyond the telco boundary. That is also part of the innovation. These are the main three parts of it.

Ruhul Kader 

myGP app is interesting. As you said, it's your main channel. It's an interesting channel or platform from many different perspectives. Grameenphone has the highest number of users. You are trying to build these different services such as Bioscope, GP Music, and other services on top of it. A lot of people talk about super apps. I think GP and bKash are the two companies that are best positioned to become real super apps. People have your app on their phones, which is a difficult thing to do. While it makes perfect sense in theory, I think it is not easy in practice. For instance, you have tried many initiatives in the past that didn't work. Why is that the case? Going forward, do you plan to try things differently?

Solaiman Alam

You're absolutely right in saying that it makes sense in theory. This is an important piece for us. Every day, three and a half million people come to our app and 15 million people use it every month. That is a significant number. Think of a shop where three and a half million people come every day. It is just that: a shop. However, it is so difficult to manage this kind of scale and manage the journey. It is complex. If you go into the information architecture of this, you would go crazy. It is so complex behind the scenes to make it simple for the customers. I told you that making things simple is the most difficult thing to do. It is.

However, our ambition is that we want to be the digital distribution platform. We have had validations and we have had not-so-good validations. As for the content piece, we have had very good validations. We have worked on many new innovations in the app. Our app has an infinite scroll, just like Facebook. When we brought it and we integrated different content and content partners, including our Bioscope, and all these things, the interaction with the app grew multifold. Previously, people would just go, buy, and leave. When we started adding more options in 2020, just around the COVID period, our interaction with the app went from less than two minutes to 11 minutes per session, which is huge. Five times more interaction means more opportunities to engage with the customers.

Then we tried integrating Uber and people didn't like it. There were frictions, of course. And people didn't want it. You see, the right customer journey and the right value are what will make people use it. If we are able to provide them, as we see in the case of contents and some other validations, people will use it. However, we have to test and trial.

I was in a launching ceremony of a different company's app as an expert panelist. They wanted to hear good things, but I had to tell them that most of the things will not work. Execution is difficult.

Ruhul Kader

As you said, most things don't work, even if you do it perfectly. 

Solaiman Alam

Exactly, even if you do it perfectly, even if you follow all the rules, dot all the I's, and cross all the T's, it might not work. That mentality also has to be there. That thing might not work out as planned even if we do everything as planned. Then you have to move on, you have to pivot. All these things are very important. These are some of the wisdom that we hear and listen to, but rarely practice. We have to practice it. So if it doesn't work, we'll move on to the next thing.

Ruhul Kader

What are your plans for the direction you want to take? 

Solaiman Alam

Now we are in the validation stage. We are trying things with different partners, as I said. Some of the things we think we can go big with, but then some we're not so sure about. If we have a couple of use cases that we think are good to scale, we do plan to make them big. However, I don't think it's time for that yet.

Ruhul Kader

I want to ask a related question here. As you mentioned, Grameenphone has tried a number of products in the past, such as several e-commerce initiatives, Wowbox, etc. These products were all started with much fanfare, but they eventually did not work out. I think it's not wise to generalize, but it seems that large and successful organizations often fail to innovate or go beyond their core business. Why do you think that is the case? Or is it the case? 

Solaiman Alam

I don't think that's the case. Especially in this day and age, if you take a list of the largest businesses in the world now, all of them are masters of innovation—Apple, Google, Amazon, Tesla, SpaceX, you name it, they're all masters of innovation. Successful and huge organizations can innovate, it's been proven.

One of the things is that it has to do with your orientation to technology. Not all industries are very much oriented toward technology. The financial sector has been struggling hugely. One of the most disrupted sectors is large financial companies. Your orientation to technology is important. At the same time, your mindset as an organization is also important. Do you want to evolve as an organization? That is an important question. 

I don't think you can generalize that large companies don't innovate or can't innovate. We know of many of the failures of large companies because they're large companies. But there are failures from small to large everywhere. Innovation is difficult.

However, it is difficult to innovate when you are successful, that is very true. Once success blinds you, growing something else in the shadow of that success is difficult. Replicating that success a second time is extremely tough. We'll have to understand that the new one might have a different set of parameters. But that is sometimes difficult to accept. In the background of the sun, even if you light a million-lumen bulbs, you will not see it. If your core business is so successful, then the others you will not really see.

Ruhul Kader 

And you would sort of neglect it. I think that makes sense. The accountant will allocate more budget to the ones where revenue is coming from. I wanted to ask you about the GP Accelerated program.

Solaiman Alam

I can talk about it. It was in my portfolio. However, I no longer look after it. We've given it to social impact because our idea of investing has changed.

Ruhul Kader

Well, I wanted to ask you about investing. 

Solaiman Alam

We do not have a plan right now. We do not want to act as a venture capital firm. That is not part of our priority. It may change in the future. At least for 2023, we are not considering it. 

Ruhul Kader 

As you said, it is difficult for successful organizations to innovate because of their own success. Can investing in startups and similar approaches be an alternative that is much more feasible for you?

Solaiman Alam

True. However, as I said, that takes a different type of appetite from the shareholders to really do it, honestly speaking. Currently, we don't have that appetite. Grameenphone, for better or for worse, is always under a lot of scrutiny. We don't want to bring extra attention because of another venture, which we don't or cannot manage. If we are a shareholder there, we will also have to be responsible for that. We do not really want to take that route now.

Ruhul Kader

That makes sense. How big is the digital strategy team? How does the team work? 

Solaiman Alam

We have about 70 people on the digital organization team. It's a relatively flat organization. I would say it's relatively flat because we have our direct reports, and then I have my direct reports, and most teams have their full team reporting to them. Except for one or two teams, maybe, where there is another layer of leaders behind. Most people are two positions below CXOs, and some are three positions below CXOs.

Ruhul Kader

Can you give us an insight into how the team works, and what's the culture within the team?

Solaiman Alam

As I told you, culture is usually driven from the top. We try to enjoy our work. We have principles, some of which I discussed with you earlier. We try to practice these principles as a team.

We have regular skip-level meetings, where we try to understand the pulse of the organization. We celebrate together, we lose together. We are like a regular organization with similar performance management. One of the principles is that we have to enjoy our work. If we don't for a long time, then we are doing something wrong.

The future of the telecom industry 

Ruhul Kader

How much has the telecom industry changed over the last five to six years, and where do you see it going? Once it was a predominantly voice-driven market, and then it shifted to data. I'm not sure how much it has shifted to data, but that's something people were talking about a lot a couple of years ago. Where do you see the industry heading now?

Solaiman Alam

The 5-10 years you mentioned are exactly the data period. It has radically shifted. At your age, you might have taken it for granted, but it has changed, it has radically changed. The data revolution, or the internet revolution, has been on the shoulders of all the telecoms. I'm not just talking about Grameenphone, the entire industry is changing. Voice revolutionized and then the internet did too. 95% of internet usage is now on mobile data. The government's vision of a digital Bangladesh, and everything that comes with it, is all based on this infrastructure. This has led to changes in people's lives and in society. All of these changes are happening through this medium.

In the morning, I was actually having a conversation with a person from my village about a personnel matter. The person in question does not know how to read or write. But he has IMO, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. He sends me pictures, including his bank account information, name, and number, through these apps. We had a relatively visual conversation through chat, which was almost unreal. And remember, he doesn't know how to read or write.

Ruhul Kader

It's such an intuitive technology. 

Solaiman Alam

It is. As I said, when people's lives start changing, society changes, and the country changes. And it all started with the internet. I have seen that change happening.

If we talk about the future, the future is going to be a transition to more of the same technology. Most of the services that we can think of, 4G is already good enough for delivering them. If you want high-definition television streaming, you can do it in 4G. You don't really need any generation after that for normal internet usage.

The next generation, let's say 5G or whatever, is going to be more enterprise-type solutions or solutions that are specific and unique in nature. Those are not for us regular people. We don't need that. And even that, in most countries, it's not yet successful. These types of use cases require a full ecosystem to work. It's not only the network and the technology. The ecosystem means the end client, the device vendors, the software vendors, the network providers, and the regulators. It's an ecosystem that has to work. It's specialized and tough. It's a model that's suited to more enterprise-type situations. It's not consumer technology. 4G is a consumer technology because you cannot really operate in 3G. In 4G, you have the ability to do most of the things that you can think of. 

Ruhul Kader

Where do you see the risks and opportunities for the industry? If your core business moves to data, you will face competition from many different players. Broadband is available, and there is Starlink. These are just some of the things that are happening. In that world, where do you see the opportunities and risks for the telecom industry?

Solaiman Alam

You see, data is not a profitable business. This is the first thing that I think you should realize. More and more of our revenue composition is moving towards data, and it is putting huge pressure on our profitability and revenue. This is because there is no limit to how much data can be consumed. People can start in the morning with one ounce of rice and by the evening they can consume 40 kilograms. They can do this because there is no limit to data consumption. However, the same infrastructure is required to support both the person who is consuming one ounce and the person who is consuming one ton. This puts a strain on profitability.

As I said in the beginning, everything has to evolve. So we need to transform ourselves into a techCo rather than a telco. This is a very popular term that is being used now - from telco to techCo. This transition needs to happen. It means that our infrastructure and many other things will be decoupled. Some will be put into the cloud, some into managed services, and others into other areas. Then we need to manage our business like a technology company.

What we provide is simply a technology solution. We are not a real estate company, nor are we a retail brand company. We are a software company. This is where our evolution will take place. This will give us a bit of a breather in terms of efficiency and an agile business model. At the same time, we will be able to build services on top of the infrastructure that is already in place. This is the combination that all telecoms are trying to move towards. And that is our strategy as well. As a market leader, we need to follow this strategy to set an example.

However, it is difficult because one of the biggest problems with our regulatory structure is that our value chain is heavily fragmented. There are so many hops. No other country has this, or no other telecom has to deal with it. Even if you call a different number from here, it will go through so many hops to reach you that it will take time. The same is true for the internet. The minute it leaves our core network, it goes through so many third-party hops that it takes time. So the full-service quality is not in our control. It can drop at any of the hops. This makes it difficult. This is the challenging part.

However, if we are able to move towards this techCo type of situation, and the possibilities are that we will be able to, then it creates opportunities where we can build services on top and then maximize our network effect. There is an opportunity side to it as well.

Ruhul Kader

Are there examples of telecom companies that have done it? 

Solaiman Alam

There have actually been quite a few examples of telecom companies that have been able to make the transition from telco to techCo. Unfortunately, the success of some of these companies is difficult to replicate. For example, Reliance Jio had so many advantages that it is hard to imagine another company being able to achieve the same level of success. However, there are other examples, such as Turkcell in Turkey, that have been able to make the transition successfully. There have also been examples in Africa and South Korea.

Making the transition from telco to techCo requires a lot of transformation and an overall ecosystem. It is difficult for a particular company or industry to change on its own. It is usually an ecosystem-wide transformation that needs to happen. This is happening in our country, but the pace needs to pick up a bit.

On changing technological landscapes and opportunities in it

Ruhul Kader

A couple of questions about technology as a whole. What is your take on what is happening across the technology landscape? We have generative AI. Everyone is talking about GPT and mid-journey, and there are so many recent developments. It is hard to synthesize what is happening. What is your general take on all of these developments? How should companies and organizations prepare for what is coming?

Solaiman Alam

Technology is something that you cannot stop or would not want to stop. It is something that is going to take its own course. I'm sure you know about the half-life of technology. If a person was born in the year 1000 and came to 1500, they would be surprised. But they would not fall off their chair because everything has changed so much. From the 1500s, if you go to the 1700s, again, they would be surprised, but maybe not think that everything has changed. Maybe they would look at a steam engine and think, "What the hell is this?" But then, that is the extent of it. But somebody from the 1700s and 1800s, if they came to our time today, they would not be able to grasp it. Think about it, everything has changed.

The idea is that the half-life of technology means that a major shift in technology always takes half the amount of time for the next major shift. Now, a major shift is happening almost every 5-10 years. It is becoming even faster, it is going at a breakneck pace, an unreal pace. And this is going to continue. It would be difficult for a normal person and for many companies to really fathom all of this. But the thing is, again, you need to be first of all aware. That is the first part of it.

First, you need to read and learn. You have to know first. If you don't know, there is nothing you can do. You can play the ostrich role, put your head down and think that it will not touch you, but it will. So which technology is impacting what and what it is really doing to your industry, you have to keep pace with it. It may not ensure that you are always ahead of the curve, but at least you are aware, that's the first step.

And then there have to be different initiatives that can actually make you part of the journey. Not everything will be related to you. If you try to integrate everything, you are trying to sell, let's say, again, my example of the sack of rice, and try to build generative AI for that, it's not maybe required, but blockchain might be required. You are making contracts with your suppliers, with the value chain authenticity of the product, that might be required. 

What technology is required in which industry and which value chain, this is an important mindset that has to be there. It has to start from the top, again. Unfortunately, it's a lot of pressure on the CEOs and the owners of the company, and the full management board.

However, with every crisis, there is an opportunity. That is the flip side of the coin. And that is how the Googles came and the Yahoos fell, Apple came and Nokia failed. This is how it happens. There is no good or bad to it.

As an observer, it's just a game you need to see and observe. But when you have your skin in the game, you have to be aware, you have to be in the habit, you have to discuss, you have to learn, you have to be taking some bold calls, some actions, and then take some big bets. Some will pay off, and others will not. That is what the game is.

Ruhul Kader

That's a useful framework to look at generally without getting into the specifics of things. So many things are happening that it's not possible to get into the specifics. You need to have that mindset and habit of developing understanding and then taking action. What's your take on the tech and digital landscape in Bangladesh? Where do you see the opportunities in that space?

Solaiman Alam

First of all, it is at a nascent stage. That is something that we should all agree on. There are good and bad sides to this. The good side is that you can actually leapfrog to newer technology. For example, we didn't need to invest in credit/debit cards. We went straight to better technology with MFS, easier technology, and then we bypassed the whole network of point-of-sale machines, etc.

If you look at Bangladesh as a society, wherever you see problems, that is where the opportunities are. This is always the case.

The first principle of a startup is that you have to identify the problem. If it is truly a problem, then you think of the solution. But finding the right problem is the issue. As a society, you can see that we have problems in health, education, the financial sector, and in all these places. There is an opportunity for technology disruption in all these places. Just like connectivity was a huge issue and then mobile networks came and disrupted that. The financial transaction was a huge issue, MFS came and disrupted that. You see health is an issue, maybe a health company will come and disrupt.

There are challenges in all these different sectors, which means there are opportunities in these sectors. If you look at the list of where the investments are actually flowing in different startups, you will find these are the areas where things are happening. There are startups using blockchain, machine learning, etc. All these things are happening. Even though it is in a nascent stage, it has already started. I believe that the sectors where there are more problems to solve are the sectors that we should all be looking at.

Advice for young people 

Ruhul Kader

Advice for young people.

Solaiman Alam

Keep an open mind. Don't be rigid, not on yourself, not on others. Be open to new possibilities, to new learnings, and to new adventures.

The second piece of advice would be to be proud of your country. We have come a long way. A lot of people have done a lot of things, sacrificed a lot to bring us here. There will come a time, I tell you, when people will line up to come back to this country. I think what we have achieved, we should all be proud of. We should all be proud of our heritage, which goes beyond even 1971. Our rich heritage of hundreds of years. Be proud of that identity.

The third piece of advice is to be good. There is no alternative to that. Be honest to yourself and to others, and just be good.

On books and on the effectiveness 

Ruhul Kader

A few books that you'd like to recommend to our readers. 

Solaiman Alam

One of the books that I liked, specifically on the digital side, is called Hooked by Nir Eyal. It talks about the model of building products and features that can form habits that get you hooked. It explains how to build products and services that can keep your customers and audience engaged. I thought it was brilliant.

There are many other books that have gotten me thinking. One of the books is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I wouldn't say it changed my life, but it broadened my perspective.

If you ask me about life-changing books, I would say The Hobbit because it opened me up to a completely different genre of thinking. It made me realize that there are entire worlds that can exist beyond our own, in people's imaginations. I read it when I was in school, and I thought, "Wow, this is it." That is a life-changing book for me.

Ruhul Kader

How do you stay productive? Do you have any unusual productivity habits?

Solaiman Alam

I think you have to be a morning person. It's very tough to do, but you have to be a morning person. I've been both a morning person and not a morning person, and the difference is significant.

I think mornings give a lot of clarity. I don't know why, but especially early in the morning, the earlier the better. It gives a lot of clarity. And if you keep your heavy-lifting stuff for the brain for the morning, I think it's just better. That doesn't mean that you need to get up early in the morning and call for the first meeting at 7am. No, I'm not talking about that. But clear thinking, productive thinking, productive work, productive writing, productive reading, investing in yourself, connecting the dots, strategic thinking—all these things, in my experience, are best done in the morning.

If you can maximize this time, your productivity will automatically increase. So that's one thing.

Second, you have to be disciplined to some extent. This is something that many young people neglect. I was young once, and I can say now very truthfully that it's a neglected productivity hack. If you're disciplined, like you're disciplined in the morning, that will increase your productivity. If you're disciplined, you won't use Facebook or other distractions during this time, and you'll be productive. All of this is part of discipline. I think these would be my two simple ideas.

On the importance of and an approach to continuous learning 

Ruhul Kader

You talked about learning. Can you talk about your learning process?

Solaiman Alam

You have to be open. The moment you think you know everything, you're done. You're either really stupid, or you're the devil. Be a sponge.

I am having a conversation with you, and I am learning. I started my conversation by trying to learn more about you, your business model, the things that you do, and when you started. Why do I need to know that? No particular reason. It's just that I am always in the habit of learning. In whatever opportunity you have, you have to be open to learning.

If you categorize that you're only going to learn about this subject, or you're only going to learn from your boss, or you're only going to learn from him and nobody else, then you're restricting yourself. You're actually harming yourself. In every situation, be in the habit of learning.

Be a lifelong learner. You can have any of the "drugs" for learning—you can have books, you can have movies, you can have articles, you can have magazines, you can have conversations, you can have seminars. Different people learn differently. Some find that books are their best source of learning. Some find that podcasts are their best source of learning, and some find that YouTube videos are their best source of learning. Everyone learns in a different way. But be open to everything. Whatever suits you, pick it up.

On the preciousness of life 

Ruhul Kader

What do you think about life in the context of death? We do all these things and then we will be gone one day. Life is short.

Solaiman Alam

In many ways, death is simple. Life is short. There is no sugar coating. Of course, this makes life more meaningful. You see, it's just human nature that anything we lose becomes more important to us. We had it in our possession, but we didn't pay much attention to it. The moment we lose it, we are all in for it. That is human nature. It is an unfortunate nature, but it is human nature.

The loved ones we had, we will cherish them when they are gone, in most cases. The time we had with our friends, with our childhood friends, we will cherish more as we grow up.

What can happen is that if we are not careful, we can get stuck in the past and forget to enjoy what we have now. For example, I am here now, enjoying my time with you. This is it. If I am not in the moment, and I am not enjoying being fully present in the moment, being engaged in that moment, being attentive in that moment, then it will just flicker away, pass, and then the next one comes, flickers away. In a matter of seconds, you will see that years have gone by. That is when you will cherish the moment and think, "There was an opportunity. I could have spent some quality time with that young kid." But it's gone.

I don't know what I am trying to say honestly, but maybe the fact that we should cherish each moment. Be present in each moment. Try to make the most of it, enjoy it, and learn something from it. This is the best that you can do. That was what my answer would be.

Ruhul Kader

I think this is a nice place to end this conversation. I had a wonderful time and learned so much. Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me. 

Solaiman Alam

As I said, this is probably the longest conversation I've had in a one-on-one setting, other than maybe some work-related ones. The minute I saw the amount of work that went into this, it gave me the impression that you were serious about this. I wanted to reciprocate. Thank you.

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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