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Nabila Nowrin: The Design of Our Journey, The Making Of Moar, and The Pain and Pleasure of Entrepreneurship

Nabila Nowrin is a Dhaka-based serial entrepreneur, furniture designer, and architect. She is the co-founder of Moar Space Limited, Dhaka's premier coworking space, the contemporary urban furniture design and manufacturing company, Bohu Bangladesh, and the architecture and interior design consultancy firm, Ree Architects. Before embarking on her entrepreneurial journey, Nabila worked at Bay Developments, a high-end real estate company in Dhaka, and at NewsCred, a US-based tech startup that was later acquired by Industry Dive and Welcome.

In this fascinating conversation, we delve into various aspects of Nabila's journey, including her personal history, and the lessons she has learned from her parents, mentors, and teachers who have had a profound impact on her life. We explore her working experiences, how she came up with the idea of coworking space Moar, the journey of making Moar a reality, the challenges of building an organization, the surprising challenges of being an entrepreneur, the state of Moar’s business today, and ambition going forward, and the outlook for coworking spaces in Bangladesh. We also discuss the pain and pleasure of being a founder, the lessons she has gathered from her journey so far, her favorite books, what makes life worthwhile, and much more. 

The Personal History

Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I think we can start by talking about your background and then dive into specifics. Can you please tell us about where you grew up, your parents, your education, and any formative experiences from your early years that you carry with you?

Nabila Nowrin: I was born and raised in Dhaka. Both my parents are pharmacists who graduated from Dhaka University. I have an older brother who is just a year older than me and also a pharmacist. We are a pharmacist family. However, I decided not to be a pharmacist. Instead, I pursued architecture.

The way I am is because of who my parents are, how I was raised, and how I am supported and loved on a day-to-day basis, even now. 

Both my parents worked full-time jobs. All my life, I have seen my mother work, and she still does, Alhamdulillah. She was working for Square Pharmaceuticals when my brother and I were born and young. I think she only took about two/three weeks of maternity leave when I was born. Because she had already taken maternity leave when my brother was born a year before me. These things also show how dedicated my parents are to their work.

Growing up, I had a lot of cousins who were around my age. I grew up with brothers. So I'm not a girly girl. I'm more of the type who jumps off walls, plays cricket, or goes off somewhere with them. My family never differentiated between me and them. If you ask any of my brothers, they would say that I'm the wisest of them all. And my uncles and aunts would say, "She's the pack leader."

Growing up, from the age of two, my parents always took the time to travel with us, both within the country and abroad. Another thing that taught me there is more to life than this rat race.

While my mother has always been dedicated to her work, we have always been her priority. My mother working never meant that we wouldn't be taken care of.

My father was super supportive. He is a person who embodies discipline. He goes to work at 8:30 a.m. and works till 5:00 p.m., and then he would be home. 

My father's side of the family is huge. He has 11 siblings. We have 10 paternal uncles and aunts, and they have 47 children. So, including my brother and me, we are 49 cousins on my father's side. I am the youngest of them all. All of them used to come to our house every evening or every weekend, and my mother would take care of them. 

I had an amazing time growing up. They say that it takes a village to raise a child. I had my village in my family. Even though my parents worked, we never went wanting for love. I was raised by amazing older cousins and had my uncles and aunts.

Another father figure in my life is my paternal uncle (sejo chacha), Malek uncle. Although he's my paternal uncle, he's more like a grandfather to me. He was an English teacher at Government Laboratory High School whom everybody loved. I kind of wanted to be a teacher because of him. 

I went to Viqarunnisa Noon School and College and studied there for 12 years. The teachers there were also an inspiration. I always wanted to become a teacher at Viqarunnisa Noon School and College. I always felt that you could make such a difference in people's lives by being a teacher. However, I didn't realize it until very recently. My Sejo Chacha passed away in 2020. I didn't realize that I wanted to be a teacher until he passed away. After his passing, while talking about him, I realized that I did want to be a teacher. Currently, I'm pursuing a goal in academics, talking to universities that offer courses in architecture, and trying to get into a part-time teaching job. People I work with often tell me that you are such a good teacher. I think I'm a good teacher and I kind of want to find out if that’s true. 

My grandfather (Dada) passed away when my father was seven years old. That's why my uncles (Chachas) are/were more like father figures to my father and grandfather figures to me. On my father's side, the family is a matriarchal family. Women hold a lot of power in our family, which is empowering. And the way my mother is respected in my father's family is also very inspiring. Of course, part of that is because of how my mother treats my father's family.

These are things that informed me growing up that what you do has a big effect on your life and how people treat you. So while I have a big safety net, I'm cautious of my behavior, and I'm considerate. I always question myself: Am I a good person? 

My mother likes to read books. My brother devours books. He is the most knowledgeable person I know. 

Being the younger sibling has its perks. Your parents do the experiments on the older one, and you are usually off the hook. I took advantage of that all the time and used to blame everything on my brother. He was such a good soul and still is that he would do anything for me.

I had a wonderful childhood. I have been given an amazing life, Alhamdulillah. I am very, very blessed. Now as I grow older, I try to extend my advantages and support to others. I constantly try to create things and build systems so that the support that I have had extends to other people. That's how I want my life to lay out, and that would mean success for me.

I did well in school and the teachers liked me. If I remember correctly, I wanted to be a teacher until maybe class six or seven. I was studying higher math and fell in love with it. And I was good at it. I wanted to study mathematics. My father was trying to convince me to become a doctor. My parents made me take biology. While I enjoyed it, I was sad because my best friend took computer science. Her name is Ishita, Rafat Azmi Khan. She is another person who I always say that raised me.

We became friends when we were in class five. Every day after school, we used to talk over the phone for hours. I don't remember what we talked about, but we are amazing friends. She is still such an innocent and genuine person. She helped me become a good person.

Ishita wanted to study architecture, so I wanted to study architecture too. While my father was a little sad, my mother was okay with it because she wanted me to study at BUET.

I sat for the BUET admission test and got in. But instead of architecture, I got into chemical engineering. I had the option to select any major. I chose chemical engineering as my first option because my parents had left their jobs by 2005 and started Incepta Pharmaceuticals. I thought that if I didn't study architecture, I would rather go into chemical engineering. My brother was already studying pharmacy, which was not my thing. I was fine with chemical engineering and that I could do something with it since my parents are pharmacists.

I also applied to BRAC University, and I did so well on the exam that they exempted my tuition fees. So I thought, "This is a sign, I'm going to go to BRAC."

That's how I got into architecture. And I think going to BRAC was amazing. You learn from every experience in your life, and BRAC was such a huge experience for me.

The Mark Of Our Parents

Ruhul Kader: We'll come back to your BRAC experience. Before that, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. You briefly talked about your parents. Can you tell us about some of the lessons you have learned from your parents?

Nabila Nowrin: Everything. I am who I am today because of them.

My father is very religious. He never misses his daily prayers. I memorized Surah Fatiha and Surah Ikhlas when I was a few years old by listening to my father's recitation of them in his prayers. These are not things I usually share, but since you asked, I am sharing them. We are grateful to Allah for the life and the blessings we have.

I learned courage from my father. When he started Incepta, he was 40 years old and had young children. I was in class eight. He was the Executive Director at Beximco Pharmaceuticals and he left that position. Leaving that behind, starting a company, especially in an industry like pharmaceuticals, and having faith that he could do it, was and is very inspirational.

My father is an amazing leader and an amazing speaker. People come and wait to listen to him speak. As an entrepreneur, having a father and mentor like him is an incredible blessing. 

He is extremely disciplined. His days are all the same.

My parents have a strong relationship and friendship, which is quite rare. Their marriage is strong because of their friendship and how they treat each other. This is also something amazing that I have had in my life. If your parents have a beautiful relationship, it is an important thing for children as well. I said that my life is very cushioned because of that. My father has been able to keep his discipline because my mother has enabled him.

The lesson from my father is that you have to be disciplined. My father always tells me ‘Never complain.’ I have always heard him say this: ‘If something does not work or if you do not have something? Fix it.’

I learned the same lesson from my mother: "If something is wrong or not working, and if you can fix it, do it and do not wait for anyone else. If you think you cannot do better than this, then you better not complain about it.’ These are important learnings in life.

My mother is the most intelligent person I know. You would not understand it at first glance. She is like a supercomputer. You cannot compete with her. I tried to be like her, but it was not possible. My mother is sad because of that. She sometimes complains that I do not want to be like her, I want to be like my father. After a long time, I finally found a fitting answer to that. I told her, "Amma, it is impossible to be like you. You are so wonderful, so I lowered my bar a little and wanted to be like Baba." We have a wonderful relationship. Being able to tell your parents things like these is also a huge thing.

My mother always tells me that you have to be able to do everything. That family is important, friends are important, your self-care is important, and taking care of the people you work with, and their well-being is important. Being a woman, these things are important to me.

I mentioned earlier that I am a lot like my brothers, but I had to learn that I am a woman and that calls for something different. I want to be the best woman I can be. There was a campaign during last Women's Day where the message was that women cannot do everything. That women would work and also take care of the family is an unfair expectation. That's okay for some people. But I have been enabled and prepared my entire life so that I can do both. I have been provided support accordingly. This is who I want to be and I'm capable of doing that. If that is the case, then why should I not be and do that? Why should I give up? 

I learned courage from my father. When he started Incepta, he was 40 years old and had young children. I was in class eight. He was the Executive Director at Beximco Pharmaceuticals and he left that position. Leaving that behind, starting a company, especially in an industry like pharmaceuticals, and having faith that he could do it, was and is very inspirational.

Ruhul Kader: One thing I noticed about you is that you seem to be a go-getter. If you want something, you go and ask for it. You just mentioned that you're interested in academia and you're talking to a few universities, which is very entrepreneurial. The second thing I noticed as I speak with you is that when you talk about other people, you talk about how nice and amazing they are. Perhaps your experiences with people in your life are like that. But it could also be that you see good in other people. You take the faults of other people lightly. My question is: Have you always been like this or how did you develop these skills?

Nabila Nowrin: I think I've always been entrepreneurial and a go-getter. I am always outspoken, and that has gotten me into a lot of trouble. My  close friends sometimes tell me in the middle of a conversation, "How could you say something like that?" Sometimes there are things that I don't realize could be hurtful to others, but I say them anyway. In those areas, I have tried to hear myself before I speak. Every time I have faced a problem, I have tried to improve myself. That's who I am.

You are right in pointing out that I try to see good in people and things. I am an optimist, and it has never failed me. It has made me brave. It gives me courage. 

However, as I've grown older, there was a time in the middle when I became cautious and wasn't doing brave things. And that didn't serve me well. For the last 3-4 years, I wasn't the go-getter I used to be. So I have retraced my steps to who I was before and I'm trying to become that again. I realized that I've become more cautious and pessimistic, which is not serving me well. So I'm trying to go back to saying yes to everything and being who I used to be.

Education and Mentors

Ruhul Kader: Coming back to your journey. You went to BRAC to study architecture. You were talking about how amazing that experience was.

Nabila Nowrin: BRAC is a blur. So much happened in those five years. Architecture is a difficult subject. Everyone talks about how hard architecture is and how hard you need to study, even sometimes pulling all-nighters. But I never felt that. I had to pull all-nighters in this life—building Moar and Bohu—but not when doing architecture. And I enjoyed studying architecture.

Since BRAC has an NGO background and is research-oriented, we had a lot of opportunities to work with underprivileged communities. That exposure was wonderful. All of our teachers were super inspiring.

When you study design, it changes how you think. We're told that after you've studied architecture, you will never be able to look at things the way you looked at things before. And it is true. You start to see the world in geometry and constantly look for patterns. Coming into the entrepreneurial life, now that we work with furniture at Bohu and run businesses, we had to unlearn some of these things to better understand our customers. Speaking too much jargon or focusing too heavily on forms can dehumanize and separate us from understanding the real problems customers face. 

Ree Architects, which Nahid and I established together, does not follow the typical approach of architectural consultancies. For us, it's never art; it's something that people use. Somebody is paying us to create something, and it should serve their needs, rather than being based solely on my preferences or how I, as a designer, envision it to be best for them. The person who commissioned me wants my expertise in building things, and they are the experts in their own life. They know how they operate the best. Our role is to assist them in determining what will work best for them. We should collaborate with them rather than impose our work, taste, or decisions upon them. We had to unlearn this as architects. 

Architecture school taught me another valuable lesson: handling criticism better. When your month's work is critiqued brutally in front of you, you learn to accept criticism gracefully.

We did a few things during BRAC years that I treasure. We designed a water tank in Korail Slum. We also went on a lot of field trips to different places, such as Shalbon.

We had a great landscape architect, Dr. Hasibul Kabir sir, from whom I learned how to think about and approach design. He rented a house and lived in Korail Slum before designing for the community, which was very inspiring! An amazing teacher, and his influence on me is huge. 

In his class, we designed a cafe. He would ask us, "What is a cafe? How do you define a cafe? What would it look like?" He said that we have to start from there and then build it. That has stuck with me and I design everything using that approach. That's how I function.

The meaning of everything changes every day. For you, a shirt can mean a half shirt, it can also mean something that you wear on top. When you say, "Nabila, design a shirt for me," I should always ask, "What is a shirt for you?" The user should define, or the usage should define what something should be. That's where I start from.

With Dr. Huraira Jabeen, one of my favorite teachers from those days, we studied the impact of climate change on urban settlements, such as the Korail slum, and if there is a gender lens to climate change. 

I did my internship in San Francisco at a small urban planning company. That's when I realized that cities can be designed and planned. Before that, living in Dhaka, I never thought about it.

I feel like I am a late bloomer. You know, we used to study Rabindranath Tagore and all these poems and books. I never understood what these things meant while studying them. Now, I'm watching something on TV and I suddenly realize ‘Oh, this is what that Kobita meant, or oh, this is what a theory from physics meant.’ This is the story of my life. I rarely understand the impact of things when I'm in it.

Ruhul Kader: So you went to San Francisco, and did your internship.

Nabila Nowrin: There I realized that cities are essentially planned and made. You can plan a city. That idea got into my head, and I really wanted to become the mayor of Dhaka City and change the world (laugh). Anyway, I came back after three months and finished my fifth year. 

My thesis was on mental health asylums. My friends were like, "Oh, you're building something for yourself," and I was like, "Yeah." My teachers were excited about it. I had turned into a really great student when I started university. I was the third-highest GPA scorer in BRAC during our year. 

Anyway, I did my thesis on mental health asylums. I wasn't very happy with how it turned out. I felt it wasn't very creative or out of the box. But I also was constricted by the nature of the project. Mentally unwell people live in a mentally anxious state. They need what's common, which I didn't realize before starting the project. I couldn't do a crazy or out-of-the-box building because they need stability. I had to do something serene and regular, and I wasn't happy with that. However, looking back, I think it was a good choice because I designed what my research said I should be designing.

I presented my thesis on August 12th, and on August 14th, I started my job at Bay Developments Limited, a real estate company. I was working with Iftekhar Ahmed Khan, another mentor of mine. I'm not in touch with him as much anymore, but I wish I was.

I learned the meaning of design, UX, and what design should be like from him. When you are creating a physical product, a building, or a piece of furniture, design has a number of meanings. You need to design how to make it, you need to design for who is making it, you need to design for who will be using it, and you need to design how it will be gotten rid of. That is when your design work is complete. He's such a refined and brilliant man. His design skills and taste are impeccable. I hope he's doing well. He's scary, but he's an amazing teacher.

I was young and foolish when I was working at Bay. I would play games on the work computer when I was done with my tasks. Iftekhar sir would come and see that I was playing on the computer. Everybody else was scared to death. And he's like, "What's happening, Nabila?" I was like, "Sir, I'm done with my work." Because I was good at my work, he didn't say anything. He knew that this girl was eccentric. She would work if I gave her something to do, but if she didn't have work, what else could she do? He wrote a really good reference letter for me to get selected for the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Another inspiration for me was Fuad sir. He's the Dean of BRAC University's Architecture Department. He is super supportive and very proud of what we're doing. He's the one who got me the internship in San Francisco. I've had amazing mentors. I'm very lucky in that regard.

Ruhul Kader: That's wonderful.

Nabila Nowrin: You need to be open to learning. You need to understand what someone else is trying to teach you. If you're not open to learning, then you won't learn. If you think that you know everything and the other person doesn't, you won’t grow.

I wasn't always like that; I had to learn it. My mother had to work hard on building this character in me, as I used to get very angry. After I attended the Illinois Institute of Design, which is an amazing school, I realized that even if I knew some things, collaborating and learning from other people, as well as considering things from their perspectives, gave me a better understanding of those things. I don't know everything, and that's a good state to be in. It opens you up to new learning. Being open to learning and being able to let go of your ego is the most important characteristic that a designer and an entrepreneur should have. 

I was extremely egoistic. I couldn't let things go. I couldn't take disrespect. I've had to learn to be grateful. I've learned to be positive. I've learned to see the good side of people. Otherwise, it only complicates things and makes you miserable.

Everyone has a past. Everyone has a story. There is a reason for you to act the way you are acting today or at any moment. I don't know what you have been through. Right now I'm speaking with you, but it could happen that there was a minor inconvenience that you faced right before our conversation. That previous experience can bring its residue to our conversation. You would not necessarily be reacting to me but to your past experience.

For instance, when I came to the office today, I learned that we wouldn't have electricity until 5 p.m. I'm in a pretty difficult situation, which you don't know. You might think that Nabila didn't join the meeting on time because she didn't give me enough importance. That would be your side of the story

This is something that I learned from my aunt. She used to work on the ground desk at Dallas Airport for Delta Airlines. So she met a lot of people on a daily basis. She told me this, which I really appreciate. “No one wakes up in the morning thinking, "I'm going to behave badly with someone today." No one wants to be bad and terrible. Everyone thinks they are good people.” Why someone misbehaves is the result of what is happening to them. It's just circumstances. It's hard to find anyone who is pure evil.

You need to be open to learning. You need to understand what someone else is trying to teach you. If you're not open to learning, then you won't learn. If you think that you know everything and the other person doesn't, you won’t grow.

The Working Life 

Ruhul Kader: You are working at Bay Developments and after a while, you decided to go for your masters. What happened after that? 

Nabila Nowrin: I worked for one and a half years at Bay. I always wanted to go for a master's degree. I think I went too early. I decided to go and do my master's in 2012. But I've always wanted to come back. I never wanted to settle in the US or anywhere other than Bangladesh. 

To make sure that I didn't get used to life in the US, I rented a very small apartment. I didn't buy any furniture. For the first six months, I slept on a mattress. I was in New York for the first six months. I studied some small pre-graduate courses at Pratt University, and then I went to Chicago. In Chicago, I rented a fully furnished apartment and stayed with two other girls in a student dorm. Usually, master's students don't live in a student dorm. Because I didn't want to get used to the US, I didn't apply for any jobs. Because if I got into a job and I once got lured into the “American dream”, I might get too used to it. 

I am a true patriot! I feel a deep love for this country. Every time I'm on a plane and it starts to leave the Bangladeshi ground, I feel like, ‘When will I come back?’ And I've never gone anywhere without a return ticket. I think this was instilled in me by Muhammad Zafar Iqbal. I used to read every one of his stories growing up. I think he has done wonders through his writing for our generation.

Ruhul Kader: So you studied design in the US, and after completing your master's degree, you came back to Bangladesh. What happened after that? 

Nabila Nowrin: When I was doing my master's program, I spent two months in Brazil. During that time, I worked for Itaú Unibanco as a consultant on a project. Itaú Unibanco is the largest bank in South America. I came to learn about the BRICS countries during this time. I also realized that Brazil's demographics and economic situation were very similar to Bangladesh's, perhaps a year or two ahead in its development trajectory. We were working on a project figuring out the future of banking and were studying millennials as part of the project. While working on this project, I found out that everyone was working out of co-working spaces. That’s how I first came to learn about the idea of coworking space and it got stuck into my head. 

This was in 2013. Subsequently, every course I took, and every project, design, and business plan I developed during the program revolved around the concept of creating a coworking space. It became my dream that I would build a co-working space in Bangladesh. The planning for Moar started that year.

Then I returned to the country and started looking for space. I joined NewsCred because I was looking for work, but not in the architecture industry. Instead, I was looking for a job in telecommunications or startups or something like that. NewsCred came along and it suited me, so I joined. There I saw that the startup culture and the software development industry were slowly picking up. People in these industries were organizing meetups and other events. That's when I felt confident that the idea of Moar might work.

Towards the end of 2014, I got married. My husband studied economics and works in the renewable energy sector. His impact is also very important in my life. His support has been instrumental. The kind of work we do, along with the support of society and culture, the support of our life partner is critical. I don't think I would have started Moar or Bohu without Tauseef being in my life. He's my advisor, friend, and critic. He's a proper gentleman. He is my Northstar. He would ask me difficult questions and give difficult feedback. We disagree but we also exchange ideas and feedback all the time. 

A snapshot of one of Moar's location in Dhaka
A snapshot of one of Moar's location in Dhaka | Photo by Moar

How Moar Was Created 

Ruhul Kader: So you started thinking about Moar in 2013 and now when at NewsCred, you realize there might be a demand for co-working space. What happened after that?

Nabila Nowrin: I started discussing with Nahid and Tauseef about starting a coworking space in 2013. We even looked for a space in Banani. In December 2013, I came to Bangladesh and we spoke to a landowner. We also pitched the idea to my father. After listening to us, he said that he would not give us money for this business because it would take 10 years to get it off the ground. He suggested we abandon the idea.

But we wanted to do it. We thought we would take out a bank loan and proceed with it. We looked at some spaces. I still had one semester left. I came during the December vacation. I realized that this was not the right time to do it because if I wasn't here, it would pose many challenges. So we decided not to start in 2013.

In 2015, I convinced Nahid to leave her job. She was working at the Bengal Foundation at the time. We secured a space for Moar and started construction. We completed our construction in 17 days and launched our operations in June 2015.

Ruhul Kader: 2015 was the early days of the startup and tech ecosystem in Bangladesh. Many people know and understand what coworking is now, but I don't think that was the case back then.

Nabila Nowrin: Yes, it wasn't. In the first building where we had our space, there were a lot of food courts and restaurants in the same building. People used to think that we were a restaurant as well and would come and ask for food or inquire whether we were a lighting shop, etc., because the interior was designed with various types of lighting. 

Since it was our first branch, it wasn’t designed as effectively for a coworking space and we wasted a lot of space. However, it was beautifully designed. Whenever someone walked in, we would say, 'Let us give you a tour,' and we used to give them a tour, leaving them impressed. We would also tell them that if anyone needed a space like this, please let them know because we wanted to raise awareness about this new kind of business. We still continue this practice; every time someone visits Moar, we give them a tour of the space.

Ruhul Kader: Please tell us about the early years of Moar. What went into building the initial operations? Give us an overview of the journey of the first few years, including what went into building the initial structure, and initial operations, and also the challenges you faced, the lessons you have learned, and then how things eventually picked up.

Nabila Nowrin: Nahid and I had many meetings about how Moar should be in the early days. I would design cards and other materials. When Nahid would come over to my home to work on the plan for Moar, I would open the door and start pretending to play the part of a receptionist at Moar and say 'Assalamualaikum, Madam,'. Then we would run through scenarios and discuss our plans. We pre-planned some of the services, knowing that we wanted memberships, meeting spaces, convertible desks, and dedicated desks for people. We wanted a pantry where people could eat because they would be spending the whole day there, and we didn't want people eating in the office spaces as food can create a lot of odors. We also created some of our guidelines in those days. 

Since we are architects and interior designers, we started two companies together. In government documents, Moar initially began as the office space for Ree Architects, which is our architectural consultancy. We wanted to see if this business model would work before turning it into a partnership.

Everything we designed was resaleable. We used metal and wood because they are materials that can be resold at a good value. We knew that if we wanted to do this, we would design using metal, glass, and wood. So, we didn't use anything that we would have to discard later.

The initial investment came from our wedding money and the gifts we received at our weddings. Nahid got married in 2013, and I got married in 2014.

Since we have a background in architecture, we can modify a design or alter our space very quickly. Additionally, we have a construction company, which allows us to get things at a more affordable price. We also know how to produce things at a lower cost, so we didn't really need to spend on that expertise. Therefore, it was much easier for us to figure out, 'These are the things I want for aesthetics. These are the things I want to reduce risk.' That's how we planned it out.

In the initial days, we ran Moar ourselves. We had only one cleaner, Shahnaj, who was exceptionally smart. Despite having only completed her HSC, she was proactive and hardworking. She primarily worked as a cleaner but also assisted in the pantry. She learned fast, allowing us to promote her to the host position, where she handled tasks such as processing payments and selling memberships. She also became proficient in using Google Forms and Drive. Unfortunately, she had to leave when she got married and had a child. We still miss her a lot.

At the very beginning, on June 5th, Sisterhood, a Facebook-based group of women entrepreneurs and professionals, hosted their foundation day party at Moar. We told them that we wanted to start with them. They had a good reputation in the online community, we thought it would help build awareness for Moar.

Our first customer was an NGO called IWA. Following them, Bohnishikha, another NGO, came and organized some events. We hosted numerous networking events and sponsored various gatherings. Better Stories also held their events at our space. Mahenaz Chaudhary used to organize many networking events at that time, so we asked her to bring her events to Moar. These were the activities that were taking place.

In September, Gijs Harper, who was working at an NGO, started working out of Moar. He was our first regular foreign customer. He later started a social impact agriculture business and brought in his team of five to six people. This was in 2015. By early 2016, we were flourishing.

Unfortunately, on July 1, the Holy Artisan incident happened, and all the foreigners left. We had to restrict usage at Banani. That was a tumultuous time, but we were hitting breakeven by then.

In 2017, we moved to our current Banani 11 space and decided to do a grand launch of Moar. After two years of operation, we did a grand launch. Before the grand launch, we hosted the Digital Khichuri Challenge, an event run by the government in collaboration with UNDP and a few other tech companies such as Google, Facebook, etc. Junayed Ahmed Palak, our state minister for ICT, came to Moar at that time. A lot of people came to learn about Moar after these events. 

After that, we did the grand launch. We held that launch event for nine days and included various communities, such as the maker community, the small business community, and filmmakers. The nine-day event helped us a lot, and we sustained that marketing for one and a half years. People still refer to that event. It was so grand. Following our grand launch, many co-working spaces started to pop up. That's when people realized that this could be a good business."

In 2019, we opened our Dhanmondi branch in Midas Center. Then, in 2021, after COVID-19, we started the one in Gulshan Link Road, which is where I am now. At the end of 2022, we moved the Dhanmondi location to Shaptak Square, which is a 9,000-square-foot space. Right now, Moar has more than 15,000 square feet of coworking space altogether.

A snapshot of one of Moar's location in Dhaka | Photo by Moar
A meeting road at Moar | Photo by Moar

The Real Work of Building An Organization 

Ruhul Kader: Fascinating story. One thing that happened for you was the grand launch. People came to the event, and it helped you with the marketing and word-of-mouth. Other events that you hosted at Moar also helped you to get the word out. While it appears like a smooth sail, I think it was not in reality. What were some of the challenges in those early days?

Nabila Nowrin: The first challenge was to make people understand what Moar is. Then we faced external challenges like the Holy Artisan incident.

The next challenge for us was figuring out the HR structure for us because this is such a new kind of business. Figuring out our startup business model is one thing, but determining our operational model was not something we were initially aware of. So we experimented with different types of designations and roles, and I'm still working on it.

You have a question about books towards the end. One book that helped me a lot is 'Good to Great.' When we reopened after COVID-19 in 2020, we hired an executive named Rubaiya. Initially, we hired her as a marketing resource, but then I moved her to business development. She has been the best hire I have ever made. I have learned so much from her, and she helped me realize that having the right talent is crucial for a business. She understood what Moar needed.

Before her, I could never believe that I could hand over Moar to someone else and that it would work out. I used to do everything myself, which was not effective and stifled our growth. When Rubaya joined us, I could see that you could have people like her who are super awesome. She helped us a lot.

We also hired an accountant and an admin. We began to run the operation with these three people. Then I realized that our business has two parts: service and operations — the headquarters versus the service. So we started to separate the two. That has been a challenge, and it's still a challenge for me.

Now I have a very good team. After reading ‘Good to Great’ which Oli Ahad bhai of Intelligent Machines recommended to me, I made some changes. When he recommended the book, Rubaya gave her resignation at that time and joined the Jaago Foundation because she wanted to work in the development sector. I was very upset and sad. Oli bhai recommended the book and told me that I should read it; it could be helpful. After reading the book, I realized what I needed to do and how I should build my team. 

However, I haven't been able to build our marketing team yet. I'm still figuring out the structure of our marketing team. That is my current challenge.

The other challenge is that, unlike many other startups, people don't know about Moar as much as we would like. For instance, everyone knows about Uber, even the people who would never use Uber. The same goes for Foodpanda. In comparison, people don't know about Moar. That's a challenge we need to overcome. It's been eight years, and now people need to know what a co-working space is, what Moar is, and the people behind this business.

When you study design, it changes how you think. We're told that after you've studied architecture, you will never be able to look at things the way you looked at things before. And it is true. You start to see the world in geometry and constantly look for patterns.

Ruhul Kader:  A lot of early-stage founders often don't realize anything beyond their product. It takes them a lot of time and effort to understand that businesses are not just about products; they also require demand, supply, and capital, and the trifecta needs to work together cohesively for the business to function well.

As you mentioned, you figured out that you need to have an operations team. You designed a cool and user-friendly space, which is a necessary service, but then you needed to learn how to orchestrate and provide that service effectively. Most people understand they need a marketing team, but don’t realize that you need to structure that team in a way so that it functions and delivers what you want. It requires an intuitive understanding of the functions and the operational depth of things. How did you come to that realization, and what are some of the lessons you've learned in terms of designing the operation?

Nabila Nowrin: What I did was figure out our capabilities: What are my capabilities, what do I want to amplify, and where could I make progress? I built the team from that perspective.

For example, if I'm a co-working space business, marketing through newspapers wouldn't work. Digital media makes more sense for me. That means I need someone who can handle digital media.

That's how I think: What is my capability, and what do I want to amplify? It's a strategic decision: What are some of the things that I would handle internally, and what are some of the things that I would outsource?

Then you need to understand the cost, and you need to understand the company's capability. You have to determine whether I'm thinking at the same level as my company. We also need to consider the customers. The team that will work for Moar is not necessarily the same team that would work for WeWork because it's a completely different context. The business could be the same, the model could be similar, but the context and capabilities are not the same.

Ruhul Kader: Can you tell us about the business model of Moar—how you generate revenue, your important components of the operations, and your major cost centers? And also your understanding of the coworking business model, and the most important components of that business model. 

Nabila Nowrin: The most important components are the space, the people who provide the service, and the community we're serving. These are some of the most crucial elements. One key aspect is that these people contribute to the ambiance and environment—both the individuals working for Moar and those using Moar. I believe it's more about the culture and the space. If we couldn't establish the right culture, then the industry wouldn't work.

We have a group of co-working space owners on WhatsApp where we occasionally discuss various matters. For instance, at one point, we proactively decided that we would not provide services to companies with questionable activities. The rationale behind this decision was that startups often use these spaces, and if the co-working space business faces any reputational damage, people may not use co-working spaces in the future. We proactively work to prevent that from happening. This is also a significant challenge. There are individuals who try to use the space in negative ways, and we try to prevent such behavior.

Surprising Challenges of Building a Business 

Ruhul Kader: We were talking about the structure you have built around operations. I was wondering what you think about building these operational and business structures. Many companies struggle with building these processes and systems. Are there any insights that other people could take away from your experience?

Nabila Nowrin: As I mentioned, reading 'Good to Great' has been very eye-opening. However, before delving into that, let me share something that's on my mind right now. You asked about the challenges we faced when we started Moar and the various obstacles that arise when building a business. We haven't been able to overcome this one yet, but if it escalates, it could become a significant challenge. Since it's on my mind, I'll talk about it briefly.

Basically, we invested in a company that was part of the Grameenphone accelerator program. It also received $15,000 from an investor. This company is no longer in operation. Our staff knew them, so they used to consider them as our partners. They were also working out of Moar. At one point, we noticed that they were bringing people in and presenting Moar as their own space. They would say that these were our office staff, developers, business development personnel, and so on. They would then attempt to scam people. That's rather scary. We eventually discovered this and addressed it.

But if this becomes a recurring issue, and people exploit co-working spaces negatively, it will begin to reflect poorly on the industry. Co-working spaces and startups are still relatively new. Many in the older generation don't fully understand them, and they already view us as if we're wasting our time. If it starts to suffer reputational damage and becomes associated with criminal activity, that would be detrimental to the startup ecosystem as well.

As entrepreneurs, I feel like we have a responsibility to protect our reputation so that other entrepreneurs don't face additional scrutiny from their peers and investors. If these things happen, it will challenge the credibility not only of us but also of the Bangladeshi startup ecosystem both domestically and internationally.

Ruhul Kader: This is interesting. While we often perceive business challenges as straightforward, such as dealing with employees and cash flow issues, there can be endless unanticipated challenges. The reality can be quite surprising at times. Is there anything else you'd like to add to your answer regarding building your marketing team/structure?

Nabila Nowrin: We're in the process of building a marketing team, but I'm still unsure about how to structure it. I have a rough idea at the moment. We were discussing how one type of team can suit my needs based on my capabilities, while a different type of team might be suitable for a similar business. It's possible that my team won't work for a similar business because my requirements and capabilities may differ from theirs.

The Business of Moar—Space as a Service 

Ruhul Kader: Let's talk about Moar's business model. We briefly touched on it. While it may seem straightforward from the outside— you rent out space with fees, whether monthly, daily, or weekly—it is a complex execution. Could you talk about the key components you need to consider to make this model work? Additionally, are there other revenue streams or models you're exploring? For instance, many co-working spaces aim to monetize the communities by offering additional services. Please share insights into your business model and your thoughts on evolving it going forward. 

Nabila Nowrin: I'll start by discussing our mission, which would explain the thesis behind our business. When we launched Moar, I distilled it down to a minimum viable product (MVP). We figured out that it was a desk, a chair, and an internet connection. This was what we were selling at the beginning, eight years ago. We even jokingly referred to it as ‘selling air.’ From there, we tried to figure out what business we are in — our core business. We concluded that we're in the business of shared spaces. We provide a workspace.

The way we position Moar is that it is your workplace, where you can come and work on your thing. However, if you look at our solution, we only cater to people who work on a portable computer or things that you can carry around with you and keep in a small locker. And we facilitate spaces for meetings, training, events, and things like that.

Recently, we’ve decided to create a content studio where people can come in to do photography, videography, and record audio because that's how a lot of people make a living now. We're trying to create a workspace for content creators. But this was not the case in the early days. 

We want to create physical spaces where people can come together. Because in our head, startups are increasingly digital businesses. But that's not something that we want to do, we want to have a presence in the physical world through Moar. 

We always ask ourselves why we started Moar and what we want to achieve. We say that we are in the shared economy, like Uber and we aim to make commercial spaces affordable. Bangladesh, being a small and predominantly agricultural country, we have to be land efficient. Unfortunately, most offices are not efficient. People usually waste a lot of space. We want to address this challenge through shared use of spaces, which can improve effectiveness and can also bring down costs. 

At Moar, we try not to offer a lot of dedicated spaces. We do have a few suites and dedicated desks for people who work longer hours. But we give those out to people who genuinely need them and don’t keep them unoccupied for a long time. At any Moar, we don't offer more than 10% of the space for dedicated use. Most of Moar is very much shared use. Every resource is shared.

You mentioned adjacent or complementary services like accounting. While we could easily offer startup courses, run an accelerator, or establish a venture fund, that’s not something we want to do. Our focus is on providing physical space as a service. We aim to create and supply the space people need to do their jobs better and then maximize its utility through shared means.

That's how we position our business and that's our strategy, rather than diluting our energy into multiple different verticals or areas of expertise that we might not have and would have to hire for.

Ruhul Kader: That's interesting. Particularly the way you put it: a shared space for people who are mobile, can carry their work with them, and work from anywhere. The more interesting part is the evolution of Moar. For instance, you are now creating a content studio for creators. My question related to that would be, has this been the way you've operated since 2015, evolving with the demand of the market? Could you talk about some of the major evolutions of Moar as you've grown from one location in 2015 to three in 2023?

Nabila Nowrin: If you're asking if we had to pivot at any point, the answer is no. We were adamant about not renting out dedicated space because we wanted a shared space. We knew that this would have to be a co-working space and the business would only work if we rented out shared space. A dedicated model wouldn’t be viable in our case. We have no plan to change from the shared space concept.

One thing that changed was our plan to expand to other cities in Bangladesh. Over the past eight years, we have never seen enough demand or growth in cities outside Dhaka. 

When we started out, we thought the first location would be in Banani, the second in Chittagong, and the third in Sylhet. We never anticipated that it would be: Banani, Dhanmondi, and then Gulshan. That's one thing.

In the beginning, we did not have an exit strategy or know where we wanted to take the business. Nahid had a global ambition. I was always local because I didn't know how to navigate a global company. We have learned a lot over these eight years. 

There was a time when we thought that we would give out franchises. Now we're not so sure a franchise model would work. A profit share model might work better. We understand that Moar needs to be a decentralized service if we want to scale it. We have many tentative ideas and we plan to test some of them. 

We know that it has to be scaled. We have to give it to somebody else to replicate, meaning that somebody else will run it in Chittagong just the way we run it in Dhaka.

We're creating standard operating procedures for every single thing that we do, starting from how we hire people and train people to how a bathroom is cleaned to how often the air conditioning is maintained. 

We're documenting the details — size, material, and other aspects — of our chairs and tables, how to design each room, the size of the AC, and the number of chairs and tables in each room. We now have manuals for everything.

Ruhul Kader: That's great. Most companies don't do that. We published an article called "Writing Companies," which discusses how companies that write down everything, communicate in writing and present in writing are much more efficient than companies that don't. We'll talk about Moar's future plans in a bit. First, I want to ask you about the company's current state. Can you give us an overview of the company today in terms of business such as users, revenue, or any other metric that you track, and organization? 

Nabila Nowrin: We have 18 employees, including me, and an additional eight support staff who come from a different company, helping us with maintenance and cleaning. 

Our team is organized into two segments: the core/headquarters/operations team, and the service team. The service team is handled by hosts. These are the people you see at our front desks at Moar, giving tours and taking care of any problems you may have.

In terms of metrics, we track footfall per month and memberships sold. We sold 1,143 memberships last year, and the total footfalls last year at all of our Moar locations were 25,336. These are unique individuals who visited Moar. 

If we hadn't done so many maintenance and design changes every year, we would have been profitable by 2017. Since we are architects and women, we love to change things, and we keep on doing that.

Similarly, if we hadn't done so many changes last year, we would have been profitable this year. We started a huge space in Dhanmondi last year, which is three times bigger than our other spaces. 

Ruhul Kader: If you were not expanding or growing, you would have been profitable. You mentioned footfalls and memberships. You have different tiers of membership options, can you talk briefly about individual membership basket size or any similar metric that you look into?

Nabila Nowrin: The 25,000 that I mentioned include people who came for events, tours, and who spent anywhere from a day to an hour at Moar. Usually, people who come to Moar stay the whole day or 4-5 hours. 

The memberships that we offer are infinity memberships and 40-hour memberships per month. People often buy additional hours, so they end up spending more than 40 hours a month at Moar.

Ruhul Kader: What does your cost structure look like? 

Nabila Nowrin: We divide our costs into five categories. HR is almost 20% of our total cost. The second category is the cost of service, which includes rent, internet, cleaning, and other expenses. This category accounts for 57% of our costs. Almost 60% of our costs are spent on rent and other vendor-provided services, such as internet service providers, cleaning companies, electricity, utility bills, fire protection, and insurance. 

The third category is the cost of operations, which includes entertainment, stationery, and other expenses for our HR team, things that we need to provide the service. However, this cost is not incurred by the customers, but by the company's HR team. The final category is marketing and business improvement.

Ruhul Kader: Can you tell us about the culture at Moar? 

Nabila Nowrin: Organizational culture is something that we had to develop. As I said, we used to do everything ourselves in the early days. After a while, we decided that we would have hosts or people at the front desk to run the show and we would do the strategic planning and marketing. 

When we started to think about scaling the business and who would do what, we came up with the organizational structure, putting operations and service in two separate units.

Hosts need to feel ownership over the space. So they are empowered and given ownership of the spaces. We don't make decisions about Moar in any location, it's up to them. They let us know if anything happens. The entire model empowers them so that they own the space and take good care of it.

You will notice that at Moar, we don't call our customers "sir" or "madam." We call each other "Apu" and "Bhaiya." In our company, colleagues also call each other "Apu" and "Bhaiya." Because we want everyone to feel that we are all equals. In our culture, I feel like there is a tendency to look down on people who serve us. I don't want the people who work with us to feel that way and be devalued. 

Ruhul Kader: What are the challenges for Moar now?

Nabila Nowrin: We face similar challenges as any growing business, like creating new ways to reach new customers. 

That's one of our challenges. The other, more difficult challenge, is attracting and retaining good people. Since we're not well-known and are still seen as a startup, we can't always retain good talent, which is a huge limitation for any business. 

You train someone for a long time, they get settled into the company, and then they want to leave, which is disappointing. You mentor someone and get them up to speed only to see them leave. It's frustrating and costly.

Ruhul Kader: This is a challenge many startups face. How do you think companies should address this challenge of retention?

Nabila Nowrin: It's a process. You won't become Unilever or a household name overnight. These companies have been around for a long time and have a lot of experience. You can't really compare yourself to them.

The people who work for you will want to grow and develop their careers. As their mentor or employer, you want them to succeed and move forward. If you are not able to give them the exposure, training, or challenge they need, then they should go where they can find it.

You can think otherwise. You can think that you are better than Grameenphone, and I can think that too. But your employees may think differently. This is a challenge you have to solve over time. We are building the company, working hard to create a culture that people love, and looking to create opportunities for our people to learn and grow. But it will take time to overcome this challenge. 

Ruhul Kader: How do your marketing and distribution work? How do you reach out to your customers? 

Nabila Nowrin: We are revamping our website. We are doing blogs, newsletters, and SEO optimization. We have also hired a few people to do a bit of push selling or door-to-door marketing. We are trying out multiple different things. 

Until now, we have mostly done unconventional marketing. We are now thinking of trying some of the conventional approaches that other businesses use. I enjoy experimenting with these things.

Ruhul Kader: What are the plans for the next two to three years for Moar?

Nabila Nowrin: We want to launch the content studio. 

We are working on another project called "Powered by Moar", where we provide dedicated and serviced office spaces to large companies. Over the past eight years, we have learned a lot about office space and how to design an efficient space. We have all the costs worked out. We know everything about creating superb offices, from furniture to design to everything else. We are looking to work with people who need serviced and dedicated office spaces. The office would look just like Moar, and we would provide all of the services. They would simply pay us a service charge instead of worrying about renting or managing an office.

We always ask ourselves why we started Moar and what we want to achieve. We say that we are in the shared economy, like Uber and we aim to make commercial spaces affordable.

Coworking Space Market Landscape

Ruhul Kader: Can you talk about the co-working space market landscape in Bangladesh? How big is the market? Where do you see the co-working space as a culture and as an industry going in the next five years?

Nabila Nowrin: It's a growing sector. After 2017, many people started to make coworking spaces, but it's an initial investment-heavy business. It's not as easy as just renting out a space. It's different because you are constantly involved in providing a service. A lot of thought and planning needs to go into the operational part of it to ensure a quality service and a worthwhile space that people are paying for. Because it's easy to substitute a coworking space. People can easily go to a cafe for a quick meeting or a work session. So it is not an easy business either. 

However, people are doing this. Sajid bhai from Hub Dhaka has been doing it for a long time. He started in 2013 in Mirpur. Fahad from Cospace has been doing it since 2017 and they have three spaces now, although they're more into renting out the spaces in a dedicated way. There's Workstation 101. There is the Shuru Campus, although I'm not sure how they're doing now. There's the Impact Hub in Mirpur. 

The landscape is good. I really want more competition to come in. It will help to build awareness. I won't say that in the next five years, people will be only working out of coworking spaces. Partly because I don't think we are pushing hard enough towards that. However, I think with sincere collective efforts, it is possible to get there. 

Ruhul Kader: I think there are a number of trends going in favor of co-working. Remote work has been on the rise. People are increasingly embracing independent work. Many companies are going for hybrid work, allowing employees to work remotely. Collectively, these trends indicate that coworking should become an important part of our work culture. 

The Pain and Pleasure of Being a Founder 

Ruhul Kader: The most difficult and rewarding part of being a founder.

Nabila Nowrin: The difficult part is dealing with and managing people. I'll give you an example. I had a Business Development Executive who is leaving now. She is a brilliant girl and very sharp.

In the early days, we used to provide handwritten money receipts, which caused many problems, such as mismatches, spelling errors, etc. We had everything in our system on Shopify but if we wanted to print from Shopify, we had to do it on an A4 size paper, which people didn't want to take. This affected our accounting, and I was very frustrated.

One day, I went to Shumi's Hot Cake and saw that they use a small printer. I bought a cake and they gave me a tiny receipt. I immediately took a photo of it and sent it to Fairuj, saying that we needed something like this.

She took on the task, tinkered for a while, and figured out how to do it. She had to write some code into the Shopify system, which she did with the help of her friend. Now we have a system to provide these nice money receipts in all our Moar branches.

These things are super rewarding. When our team figures it out without me doing any hand-holding.

The difficult aspect is when it doesn't work for a long time. This same problem took us about 4 to 8 months. It was super frustrating. When she finally did it, I gave a treat to the entire company on her behalf. When teams do things and take initiative, it is very rewarding.

Advice, Ideas, Lessons, and Mistakes to Avoid  

Ruhul Kader: Building a business can be continuously frustrating because you face so many different kinds of challenges all the time. That makes complete sense. What is the best advice you received as a founder? 

Nabila Nowrin: Hire an accountant. 

Ruhul Kader: What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned as a founder?

Nabila Nowrin: It's better to do things as a team. Patience is key. It's very rewarding when your team no longer needs you. 

I have learned much more about my capabilities. If I hadn't started these businesses, I wouldn't have known myself this much.

Ruhul Kader: That's very interesting. That's a proposition for other people to become entrepreneurs. It helps you to know yourself better, a journey that everybody should take. People and ideas that have most impacted your thinking. 

Nabila Nowrin: My mother has a huge impact on how I think. 

Not many people would say this, but Sheikh Hasina is very inspirational to me. I also like Margaret Thatcher. You can probably find a pattern there (laugh). She said something that inspires me a lot: "Watch your thoughts, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny."

I have a few more favorite quotes. In the introduction of The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote this. When someone wants to achieve something, four things create obstacles for him. We know the first three, such as fear, doubt, and hesitation. But the biggest obstacle is that we ourselves become the obstacle. How does that happen? We think that we don't deserve it, and then we sabotage ourselves. 

This idea has influenced me a lot. I have experienced this self-sabotage myself. When I get down, I go back and read this quote, and it helps me a lot.

Finally, my favorite movie is The Prestige by Christopher Nolan. The movie depicts the dedication of two artists, who are twin brothers, toward their work. It is a little dark but that is what they embody. I really think that's how you should live. Whatever I want to achieve, I will live it, breathe it and work hard to achieve it. 

Ruhul Kader: What trait do you value most in other people? 

Nabila Nowrin: I used to think: honesty. But an intelligent liar is better than an honest fool. 

Ruhul Kader: How do you stay productive? Do you have any unusual productivity hacks or anything like that?

Nabila Nowrin: As I said earlier, we create yearly goals and then follow through. 

Since I am a designer, I need to create a lot of designs. And I face design blocks as well. When I am in a design block, I would do everything but design. When I do that, my subconscious usually solves the problem. Then I sit down with the design and solve it in a day.

In many instances, when something is not happening, I try it repeatedly. I operate with the thesis that there is no bad idea. I may create an early version that I do not expect to be of high quality. It does not have to be perfect, it just has to happen. It removes the fear and creates new doors of opportunities. You can then think more freely. That helps with overcoming the block. 

When it comes to productivity, I divide up my tasks into small parts and work on one part at a time. 

As an entrepreneur, our work is multi-dimensional. We make complex decisions that require deliberation. When you are considering a big task, for instance, making a budget for Moar, it can be interrupted by many other priorities. When that happens, it can eat into your productivity and you might feel less productive. What I do is divide these tasks up into small chunks and then pursue them.

Ruhul Kader: That's very useful. I procrastinate a lot. But when I decide to do something for an hour, I can usually make much faster progress. Your other hack also makes sense to me, which is similar to creating a first draft. Create a shitty first draft and after then you edit it and improve it.

Nabila Nowrin: When you can do something for an hour, it usually gets done. The challenge usually is to get started with it. It is the hardest part. 

Ruhul Kader: A couple of mistakes that you would like other founders to avoid.  

Nabila Nowrin: These are some of the mistakes I should have avoided. We should have hired an accountant earlier. Many founders don't maintain the necessary documentation and don't pay enough attention to compliance. 

Many founders also are not aware of the various benefits that they can get. The government and a lot of organizations provide various benefits and grants for founders. It's important to know about them and be adept at exploring these opportunities.

Another mistake that entrepreneurs make is falling into the trap of accelerator programs or venture capital before knowing what they want their business to be and why they want that investment. It is unwise to run after an investment without knowing why you want an investment. 

For instance, we know what we want to do with our businesses — Ree Architects, Moar, and Bohu. There is one question and only two probable answers to it: Why did you start your business? Either you started the business to sell it off to somebody, or you want to run it forever. We are building these businesses to run forever. 

If we started a business to sell it off, then the business itself is a product. So you should focus on that and figure out how to raise its value and then sell it off. If you are creating the business to run it forever then you should focus on its product and services. Many founders don't understand or realize these differentiations. 

The second question is what size or scale of the business will make you happy. For instance, if you are building a business to sell off, you will build one type of company. If you want to run the business yourself, you should also think about the optimum size for you. These things are important to understand. Do you want this to be a million/billion-dollar business? Do you want this to be Amazon? Do you want to be Jeff Bezos or are you okay with running a small business? Someone who owns a small shop also runs a business and he is happy with its size. He doesn't say that I want this grocery store to spread all over the world. This understanding is important.

The ideas of venture capital and investment have been promoted so heavily that we start with huge ambition and run after those fancy things from day one without understanding what we really want.

Ruhul Kader: A lot of young founders particularly don't figure out why originally they started the company. It is often mimetic. Everyone is doing it, so I will do it too. 

Nabila Nowrin: My mother sent me an interesting quote a while ago that says "Remember why you started?”, which sums it up. 

Ruhul Kader: Sometimes going through the journey, we forget why we originally started and end up in a different place than the one we originally intended to. 


Ruhul Kader: If you had the power to assign three books to everyone on earth to read and understand, which books would you choose? 

Nabila Nowrin: I would recommend the Quran. However, I don't think I would mandate specific books for people. I would have mandated that you have to read books every day. I would have recommended books by Shorodindu, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, and AgunPakhi by Hasan Azizul Haque. Read the historical novels of Shiridindu Bandopadhyay, you will enjoy them endlessly. 

I like fiction a lot. I read Dune before the movie came out and it was amazing. 

When you read fiction, you can dream. This is one of the ways I ideate. When I ideate, I try to superimpose one thing over another thing. If this thing happens, then what will happen next? That's why I like fiction a lot. After reading fiction, I daydream about it and think about it for days.

Life and death 

Ruhul Kader: One final question: How do you think about life given that life is beautiful yet so short and we all die at the end? 

Nabila Nowrin: I don't mind dying. I try to operate in a manner that I don't have any regrets. Alhamdulillah, I have the resources to live like that, which might not be the case for many. 

That's also my philosophy that I don't want to have any regrets. I try not to do things that I might regret later. I try to be self-disciplined and keep myself in check so that I don't stray.

Ruhul Kader: I think This is a nice place to end this conversation. Thank you so very much. This was a delight. 

Nabila Nowrin: Thank you for your time and interest. I really enjoyed the conversation. 

I like fiction a lot. I read Dune before the movie came out and it was amazing. When you read fiction, you can dream. This is one of the ways I ideate. When I ideate, I try to superimpose one thing over another thing. If this thing happens, then what will happen next? That's why I like fiction a lot. After reading fiction, I daydream about it and think about it for days.

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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