M Asif Rahman is a Dhaka-based serial entrepreneur, investor, and long-time WordPress Enthusiast. He is the Founder and CEO of ARCom, a WordPress-focused media company that he founded before finishing university. He is also the Founder of WPDeveloper, an incubator, and marketplace for a number of globally renowned and widely used WordPress products including highly popular Essential Addons. While started as a predominantly WordPress-focused company, WPDeveloper has since expanded into standalone SaaS, launching several SaaS products and products for the Shopify ecosystem. He has also co-founded a series of other companies across verticals and backed a long list of startups as an angel investor in Bangladesh and several other markets.
In this fascinating conversation, we talk about his journey to what he is doing today, including his upbringing and personal history, the lessons he has learned from his parents, and his first foray into entrepreneurship as a college student in Dhaka. We explore his early entrepreneurial success, his winding path to what he is doing today, and the secret of building successful companies. We discuss the history and the current state of his first venture ARcom. We talk about WPDeveloper, a fast-growing globally renowned WordPress products company, its evolution, the secret behind its success, and its ambition going forward. We also reflect on the lessons he has gathered from his journey so far, what makes life worthwhile, and much more.
This is a brilliant read in its entirety. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed doing it. We must be bold. Enjoy!
Ruhul Kader: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. To begin with, please give us an introduction of yourself. Tell us about your background, where you grew up, your childhood, and any formative experiences from your early life before 10/15 years of your life.
Asif Rahman: While I started my schooling in Joypurhat, I completed my primary and secondary education in Ishwardi. I had a fairly normal childhood. I attended CoEd but was not very extroverted; I wasn't the type to go and talk to everybody, but I wasn't an introvert either.
As I reflect on my childhood, two patterns emerge. I developed a love for reading at a pretty young age, which began when my parents bought me my first few books in grade two or three. During this time, I also formed the habit of taking notes. I maintained a notebook where I wrote something about every book I read. I started this practice at a very early age, and I still have that notebook. I also picked up thrillers around the seventh grade. My childhood was filled with many of those books.
When I was in either sixth or seventh grade, some friends and I attempted to create something akin to a book club. We shared books, and this not only accelerated our readings but also helped foster a unique bond. I would say we were really lucky. I remember two households in my area had small libraries. Although I was not related to them, I ended up reading most of the books that I could access from their libraries before reaching grade nine. Books were integral to my childhood.
The second interest I picked up was in computers. I had a cousin who was studying computer science at CUET. In eighth grade, he came back during one of his summer vacations. Since I was very interested in computers, he showed me how to install things, play games, and more. I even started reading some of his books.
That year, my parents enrolled me in a Computer Institute during my school holidays to learn computers. This decision changed my life. I'm talking about 1998. It was quite early for computers, and very few people had them. I was lucky, my parents also bought me my first computer before I finished SSC. This might sound too nerdy, but I wasn't playing games on my computer. While most people were into gaming, I was focused on learning. Since I had few cousins who could guide me, I started learning skills like QBasic, Pascal, Oracle, etc. While these weren't programming languages per se, I was trying to acquire skills rather than using the computer merely for entertainment. My childhood in Ishwardi was unique in that way.
In 2001, I moved to Dhaka to attend Notre Dame College in the English medium. This move also significantly changed my life. Suddenly, I was exposed to a whole different world. Living without my parents for the first time posed its own challenges. I had to handle a lot of things by myself. I learned to be independent during that time. By then, I had already learned how to make websites. Yahoo Geo-City was the first platform where I created a blog in 2001. To customize my own blog, I tried to learn ASP.NET, which was quite hard for me. That’s how I got introduced to simple programming.
In college, I realized I wanted to be financially independent. I tried various things, including doing private tuition. I also tried to find a formal job during my college years. Eventually, I succeeded in getting a marketing trainee job at a multinational company. It was part of an almost year-long program, and I worked there from the mid-first year until the end of my second year in college. The experience provided excellent training, and I learned a lot.
Like many parents of our time, my parents were concerned about providing the best opportunities for their children. They were very disciplined people. However, they never pressured me into anything. The only expectation they had was for me to continually improve.
Ruhul Kader: We'll come back to your college story. Before that, I want to go back to your childhood. Tell us about your parents, the kind of people they were, and their influence on you.
Asif Rahman: My parents were ordinary people. My father worked as a government engineer at BTCL (T&T), and I was their first child with a younger sister. Like many parents of our time, they were concerned about providing the best opportunities for their children. They were very disciplined people. However, they never pressured me into anything. They didn't insist on me being the top student in class or engaging in numerous extracurricular activities. The only expectation they had was for me to continually improve. For instance, if my merit position in one class was 16, they encouraged me to aim higher next time.
Their influence on me remains significant. They were meticulous individuals. Every month, they would start with a notebook, listing everything they needed to buy along with their prices. As each item was purchased, they would cross it off, organizing their lives in this structured manner. They were very structured people. I learned everything about personal finance management from them.
Now that I look back I think I could have learned much more from them if I had paid more attention. They were exceptionally punctual and calculative in every aspect, traits I feel I haven't fully embraced. Perhaps, if I had paid more attention, I could have learned much more from them.
One enduring impact of my parents, I would say, is that they let me dream and didn't impose anything on me. They never told me to become a doctor, engineer, or anything specific. This was quite unusual considering the kind of suburb I grew up in. Even when I wanted to enroll in Notre Dame College in the English medium, which was unusual as I studied in the Bangla medium curriculum before college, they supported my decision. Their acceptance of my choices gave me confidence and made me believe that they had confidence in me, empowering me to pursue my interests.
Ruhul Kader: You started tinkering with a computer when you were in class eight. In college, you were using Yahoo GeoCity. I didn't know any of these things existed.
Asif Rahman: It doesn't exist anymore.
Ruhul Kader: One thing that influenced you of course was your cousin who was studying computer science at CUET. Were there any other people doing the things that you were doing?
Asif Rahman: When I came to Dhaka, it changed many aspects of my life. Although I had internet access in Ishwardi before 2000, I wasn't aware of its full potential. However, in Dhaka, I connected with my other cousins. One of them was studying computer science at Ahsanullah University. I stayed with him when I was taking college admission tests. He is another person who influenced me significantly in terms of how I should approach learning web development, blogging, and other things. I would say this early guidance put me in a more advantageous position than many others who probably came across computers or the internet later than me.
"When Yahoo GeoCities was a thing, I already had a few blogs. I had blogs on Blogspot, which was not owned by Google yet. When Google acquired Blogspot, it changed a lot of the things in the platform. This was before 2003. I faced challenges in customizing these blogs and figuring out how to monetize them. That's when I discovered WordPress towards the end of 2003, right after its launch. My introduction to WordPress was very timely. Creating content in WordPress was much easier for me because I lacked the ASP.NET skills required for platforms like Blogspot. WordPress operated with simple HTML and CSS, making it more accessible. Consequently, I moved several of my blogs to WordPress.
Since WordPress was just starting, certain functionalities were limited. WordPress did not have themes in those days. Themes, as we know them today, were not present; instead, they used something called Smarty, a PHP library.
Over time, I gained experience with Smarty, leading me to become part of the core community of WordPress. I offered opinions on how certain CSS aspects could be improved and suggested additional features. This marked the beginning of my engagement with the WordPress community, which would have a profound impact on my life over the next two decades.
Ruhul Kader: This was the early days of the internet in Bangladesh. Was anything related to the Internet happening at that time? What was your incentive for making and doing all these things? Were you making money, getting anything in exchange for building these things?
Asif Rahman: We were making some money, albeit quite a small amount. When Google acquired Blogspot, they already had a few technologies, including but not in the same order, AdSense, AdWords, etc. Most of these technologies were acquired by Google and integrated into their ecosystem. So, if you had a Blogspot blog after Google's acquisition, you could place an ad on it. It wasn't an immediate change, but the option became available. Soon, I figured out how to monetize.
I have this peculiar habit: whenever I visit a website, use a service, or use any kind of solution, I always think about how they make money. While people may focus on different aspects such as design, usability, and various features when using a product, for me, it has always been about understanding how these products generate revenue. This has helped me a lot in building various projects and figuring out ways to make money. Everything takes time, but I probably managed to grasp a few ideas much earlier than most people.
As I was exposed to the internet long before attending college, I regularly explored online forums, eager to learn as much as I could. In those days, there were many web development forums and other valuable resources. Forums were the primary source of information since this was well before the era of Facebook. Information was not as widely available, public, or searchable. Despite these limitations, I managed to figure out several things, including how to make money, manage finances, and bring that money to Bangladesh.
Ruhul Kader: What was your first earning?
Asif Rahman: My first earnings came from a small ad that I placed on one of the earlier sites I built on Blogspot. However, I couldn't bring that money to Bangladesh. This was in 2002/03. So, I started exploring ways to transfer money. At that time, PayPal wasn't available, and there were many challenges.
Yet, towards the end of 2004, I managed to figure out how to handle PayPal from Bangladesh with the assistance of some Indian individuals I knew from the community. I verified my PayPal account and found a way to bring that money to Bangladesh. That marked my first earnings.
However, if I go back a little further, there's a story about how A. R. Communications (ARcom) came into being and why I started it.
Ruhul Kader: We'll get to that story in a bit. Before that, let's continue the college story. You entered College in 2001 and spent two years in college. What happened after that?
Asif Rahman: When I finished college, I already had some money as I had been working from my first year. Having independence, as I was living alone in Dhaka and had money, could be quite a risky combination at that age. However, that financial freedom empowered me to do things that I wanted to do. Around this time, I took on my first international trip by myself, which was also very unusual.
I started my first venture with a friend—a fortnightly print magazine—towards the end of my second year in college, around 2003. My family was involved in a printing press business, and during my second year in college, I stayed with my younger uncle who was running a magazine and other enterprises. So, I had some basic knowledge of the printing business. With a natural inclination for writing, I wanted to start something in that space. Two friends and I conducted a market survey, visiting Dhaka University and asking people about the magazines they read, etc. With financial support from friends & family, we launched a lifestyle magazine in full color and set up an office. By the time I finished college, we had started the magazine. However, I had a few months' gap after college due to taking a detour.
Just after college, I accidentally took part in the Air Force admission test without any prior intention. I was living in Cantonment with my uncle, and one of my friends who used to live in Motijheel informed me about the Air Force admission exam. Since I was familiar with the area, he called me on the exam day, and I went there with him. While accompanying him, I thought, since it's close to my house and he would be coming more, why not try it myself as well?
The exam consisted of several rounds, about eight or nine exams before you go to ISSB. During that time, I had aspirations to become a rocket scientist, and I had a few paths in mind. My first option was to get admitted to UniPenn and study physics. I had read somewhere that studying physics at UniPenn could lead to a direct path to NASA. Although there are additional details to that story, like receiving a Dr. Watson Scholarship for undergrad at UniPenn, which I achieved but had to skip, let’s not go there. Returning to the Air Force story, somehow, I progressed up to ISSB in the Air Force.
There, I had two options: either I could become a GD pilot, or I could become an aeronautical engineer. The aeronautical engineering course in the Air Force at the time involved two years at BUET, where you would study mechanical and other aspects, followed by two years in Russia focusing on aeronautical physics and related subjects. Initially, I thought I would go to Russia, then to the US, and still pursue my dream of becoming a rocket scientist. So, I changed my focus, dedicated myself to the Air Force exam, successfully entered SSB, and eventually got selected.
However, during the final selection, I was chosen to be a GD pilot. Subsequently, I began BMA training, but upon completing the training, I eventually decided not to join the Air Force.
Ruhul Kader: By the time you spent how long with the Air Force?
Asif Rahman: About six months in total had passed. By that time, my HSC result was announced. I believe that the result played a role in how I made career choices and other decisions. I became somewhat arrogant because of my good result in HSC from the English medium. We were the first batch to experience the grading system for SSC and HSC. In SSC, we were shocked because our result was not good, but in HSC, my result from the English medium was excellent. With internet access, I applied to various universities, driven by my goal to become a rocket scientist. I secured a few scholarships, which probably contributed to a sense of arrogance.
I skipped a few options, and the Air Force was one of them. The Air Force training was very challenging and felt like torture. At that time, I was very skinny and just barely 19. The routine involved waking up at four in the morning, participating in march pasts, and more. Lights would be turned off at 7:30 or something. Towards the end, I couldn't endure it any longer. Ironically, though I now refer to it as torture, that training also changed my life and influenced my daily routines. As you've seen, I start the office very early and encourage people to focus on physical fitness and other aspects. I learned these values from BMA training and the Air Force.
While I didn't appreciate it at the time, I gradually adopted some of the lessons from that training. So, I chose not to join the AirForce. Although I completed the training, I wasn't commissioned, and I didn't hold a title. Due to family and personal reasons, I decided not to go abroad at that time. Instead, I considered finishing my undergrad in a good subject. I already started my company at the time.
Ruhul Kader: This time you started ARcom.
Asif Rahman: I had already started ARcom, and it was growing. I wanted to study something that wouldn't take a lot of time. North South had an open credit system at the time, and it was my only option where I could study and work simultaneously. Additionally, I could create my schedule because NSU allowed me to choose my classes. I opted for electrical and telecommunication engineering, probably influenced by my father's background in telecom engineering. I thought I could finish it quickly.
However, things didn't go as planned because the company started growing much faster, and I couldn't dedicate enough time to maintain good grades. Despite receiving a 100% scholarship from the University due to my previous academic performance, a four-year degree took me almost five years to complete. By that time, my life had already changed, and I finally finished the degree in 2009.
Ruhul Kader: We'll get to 2009. Before that, talk a little bit about ARcom. How did that come into being? What was the story behind it?
Asif Rahman: I was already creating blogs, which were easy, involving tasks like filling up forms and managing the design. However, things became a bit more complicated when I transitioned from simple blogs to Blogspot and then to WordPress. While I had some knowledge of programming, I lacked skills in design. I could make websites and blogs, but good design consistently posed a challenge.
I realized that I needed help from a designer. So I hired David, a friend of a friend, as the first employee of ARcom. When hiring him, I needed a name for the venture. I already had a name before, AR Communication, a play on my name. I decided to stick with that name and brought him on board as a part-timer. He was working as a designer at a large garments company. He started working with me in 2004, creating logos and other relevant designs for ARcom. The inception of ARcom was casual and organic. We didn’t have a plan initially and weren't making much money. David worked from my house.
I started university in the fall of 2004. By that time, the company had started to experience some growth. My second, third, and fourth employees were my classmates from NSU. During this period, we were primarily focused on creating websites with content.
Ruhul Kader: What was the first product of ARCom?
Asif Rahman: It is hard to tell in that way because it's all the blogs and other things I was making on. One of the sites was focused on downloadable open-source tools from open source. I had something called DownloadBD, a hub for newly released open-source tools that you could download.
Ruhul Kader: Then you used to run ads on these sites and that's how you used to make money. What is the story behind the naming? It is quite unusual for Bangladeshi people to name companies in their name.
Asif Rahman: It happened quite early in my journey, and I would say I didn't have a lot of business exposure to make a smarter decision. As I mentioned, even before joining the Air Force, my aspiration was always to become a scientist, not a businessman. Hence, when I founded ARCom, I needed a name for blogs and other projects, so I decided on one. I don’t think I really thought it through and concluded that this would be the best name.
I never considered a business plan. Even when I started hiring, it wasn't a very serious endeavor. It was like I found a shiny tool—how to make websites—and I was making websites, wanting to create more. The positive aspect was that the whole thing was sustainable. We weren't earning a lot of money during that phase, but we were making some. I was able to convince a few people to work with me, paying them around BDT 5000, which was okay because they were just getting started.
The lucky part occurred in 2005 when I sold my first website, suddenly earning a substantial amount of money at once.
Ruhul Kader: Tell us that story. So 2004, you started the company. You were doing these little websites. How many websites did you have at the time?
Asif Rahman: At the time, probably four or five.
Ruhul Kader: How much money were you making?
Asif Rahman: Not much. I think a few hundred dollars.
Ruhul Kader: Then you hired a couple of your classmates to build more websites.
Asif Rahman: Building more websites and updating them was the main focus. Most of our efforts were directed toward writing and maintaining these websites. We had various types of websites, with some dedicated to football and ongoing games. One of my classmates, Piash, had a keen interest in the English Premier League and he wrote about it. That's what we were doing during that period. It's important to note that I had access to webmaster forums at that time.
Ruhul Kader: Because you were involved with the WordPress community
Asif Rahman: I engaged with the WordPress community and various global forums to find solutions to the money problem and explore different monetization programs. Platforms like Digital Point and VN7, among many others, played a significant role. I actively participated in multiple forums, and by 2004/05, I had become an admin/moderator in a few of them. This expanded my access to various resources. I served as a moderator for Forum W and an admin for Digital Point at one point. These forums were the primary hubs for everything at that time, predating the emergence of platforms like Reddit. It was through these forums that I learned how to sell a website and accidentally sold one.
Ruhul Kader: How did that happen? What was the website about?
Asif Rahman: I believe the website was related to celebrity news. The first website didn't generate a substantial amount of money, but it was money at once. While running advertisements might bring in a few hundred dollars per month, receiving a lump sum, perhaps a few thousand dollars at once, felt like a good amount of money. This experience also sparked the idea that I could build and then sell websites, a strategy I continued over the next few years.
Around 2006, I collaborated with a partner in Austria to create a hosting service information platform. We adopted a free business model that relied on serving ads. In 2006, we successfully sold that business for around $80,000, and I received a good portion of the proceeds. It was still a substantial amount of money.
Ruhul Kader: For the first website, how much did you make, the celebrity news one?
Asif Rahman: I think $2,500 or something.
Ruhul Kader: That's also good money for an undergrad student.
Asif Rahman: That began to provide me with more financial freedom. I also started gaining exposure to various investment opportunities. I did a few unconventional things with that money, such as purchasing two cows in the village. Additionally, I began making investments in the capital market. I had a few seniors in the same neighborhood where I was staying at the time. Despite being much younger than them, they treated me very well. These individuals, all graduates working at companies like Grameenphone, taught me how to trade in the stock market and how to read financial statements, look at companies, etc.
Ruhul Kader: These were the heydays of the stock market.
Asif Rahman: I was there when the first mutual fund was launched. I was there when Grameenphone went public. I was also there when BRAC Bank did the IPO, and it was a very good time.
These senior brothers helped me a lot. They advised me not to trade in the stock market without a proper understanding of things. They taught me how to read financial statements, calculate the EMS, and analyze various aspects to determine if a company is a good investment. I used some of my money to get started, actively trading in the stock market. However, I completely exited the market by 2008, just before the market crashed.
Ruhul Kader: You sold that website, bought two cows, and started investing in the stock market. What happened after that?
Asif Rahman: I learned a few things in the process. I had greater financial freedom in terms of what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it.
I often hear from many early Bangladeshi internet business people that their struggle was in bringing in and managing money. However, I didn't struggle much with that. I could bring in the money. I was spending that money to buy a lot of internet-related stuff. I bought a lot of really important domains. I bought hosting, played those hosting games, and explored affiliate marketing and other things as well. This exposure also enabled me to make more money.
Later on, around 2008, I started Tech Journal, which became my first highly successful website. By 2009, Tech Journal ranked below 2500 on Alexa with over 20 million traffic, mainly from North America. We were able to monetize it much better because, by that time, I had established many private relationships with ad companies, affiliates, and other entities.
Tech Journal also brought new opportunities and exposure for me. Beyond the content or blogging aspect, it opened doors to the startup world. I came across many startups that wanted us to cover them. This was before platforms like Angellist. In the year 2009, the iPhone was being introduced, tablets were becoming popular, and Android was emerging as a mobile operating system. We covered all these developments, and I was invited to attend numerous tech events. Platforms like TechCrunch and Engadget were just emerging and changing hands during that period.
WordPress was experiencing accelerated growth at the time, with a significant portion of the internet using it. I made many connections and friendships during this period. For instance, I befriended the CTO of Mashable, who was involved with the WordPress community before starting Mashable.
ARcom was growing, I was working with WordPress, and creating websites, and Tech Journal was expanding separately. All these things were happening simultaneously. We built websites using WordPress and developed some plugins to address certain issues, but it was the early days of plugins, so we weren't selling those plugins.
This was around 2009, and I had yet to finish university. The academic pressure to complete my degree limited my ability to travel extensively. Despite that, I started receiving invitations from TechCrunch, WWDC, Google IO, and similar programs to attend as a journalist. Blogging about WordPress and witnessing its growth, I was also invited to speak at a few WordCamps. Unfortunately, I couldn't attend these events before finishing university due to NSU's unusually short summer vacation of about five days.
However, after completing my degree, I started attending WordCamps and other events, providing me exposure to Silicon Valley, startup investing, and more.
Ruhul Kader: What happened after that?
Asif Rahman: The first extended event I attended was in Australia as a speaker at WordCamp Melbourne in 2009/10, right after I got married. I got married in 2009. In the same year, I also attended WordCamp Boston as a speaker and TechCrunch Disrupt. These experiences opened up more direct communication with the community.
During my first trip to the US, I did a Bay Area trip, starting in Boston, moving to New York, and ending in San Francisco. I visited 13 or 14 cities in one trip. In San Francisco, I knew a few people I had reviewed and helped with PR before, and I met with them. I also had some Bangladeshi connections at Carnegie Mellon, where I met them, deepening my bond with a few of these individuals. This connection eventually led to other investments and opportunities in the following years.
Ruhul Kader: What was ARcom doing at the time?
Asif Rahman: There were a few other businesses that were generating revenue through ads and various means. I had a large team, and by that time, we could develop websites for other people. While we didn't exactly outsource website development, we had technologies that we could share with others.
In 2010, we began collaborating with some agencies to create technology solutions, with a primary focus on the publication industry. This initiative gained momentum as I started traveling to the US and interacting with people at WordCamps and various events.
An example I can provide is the San Francisco Bay Guardian, one of the largest newspapers in San Francisco at the time. We completely rebuilt their website using WordPress, migrating it from Drupal. We collaborated with an agency run by a friend I met during this time.
Tech Journal was doing exceptionally well, generating a substantial income. We had an international team and everything was flourishing.
ARcom was handling various other activities and had already ventured into the service business. I had also started saving money. I also gained exposure to the US stock market, providing me with more opportunities to invest in startups and other ventures.
Ruhul Kader: Then you made some investments in the US. Briefly tell us about those stories.
Asif Rahman: This was different from how we invest these days. In the beginning, as I interviewed a few of these companies and founders, the focus was mostly on new technology. This was before Kickstarter.
Many people were building new technology, and we were covering many of these companies. I met a few of these individuals and wanted to invest. AngelList was not a thing yet; it was more like syndicates, someone you knew wanted to raise $1 million, and someone would take the lead, investing around $200k and bringing in a few friends.
I had a few friends who were doing very well in WordPress, including the founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg. I gained access to some of those deals, which also led me to my Facebook investment. When Facebook was raising its Series D, a VC round, one person from a group I was part of secured a spot where they collectively invested around 100 million dollars or a little less. They did it as a group, and I became part of that, investing some money that I had saved. It was a valuable experience.
This was well before Facebook went public. In 2011 and 2012, I invested in several US companies. I lived in San Francisco for a while and had some good friends with founders and hacker groups in the area. That's how I invested in a few companies at the time.
Ruhul Kader: You sort of got a taste of startups and investing. I think around 2013, you started to make some investments in Bangladesh.
Asif Rahman: I started towards the end of 2012. The first Startup Weekend was organized around that time, during the winter, at IUB. I attended as an investor. I believe none of the companies from that event survived.
Ruhul Kader: I didn't participate in the event, but we covered the event. Future Startup existed at the time.
Asif Rahman: From Minhaz bhai to many of the familiar faces in the ecosystem, participated in that event. It initiated many conversations within the community. Around this time, we had GDC, and many things were happening. Chaldal, for instance, began around this time. Zia, the Co-founder of Chaldal, was my classmate at NSU. Other initiatives also emerged during this period. I stayed in the US until 2016, shuttling between Dhaka and the US. I began investing a bit in Bangladesh in 2013—not anything super serious, but as much as I could. Dugdugi was one of the companies from those early days, and later on, Thirdbell, and so on.
Ruhul Kader: You lived in the US between 2011 to 2016, doing back and forth. How was ARcom doing during this period?
Asif Rahman: ARcom was doing alright. Tech Journal was thriving. We also ventured into the Bangla newspaper domain with The Dhaka Times, which performed decently but didn't turn out to be a lucrative business. Meanwhile, ARcom was engaged in some service work, securing a few Fortune 500 companies as clients due to the growing prominence of WordPress. Although we didn't heavily advertise it, we had several retainer clients for whom we managed web assets. Additionally, we developed and sold some plugins. By that time, I had become involved in a few other endeavors. ARcom essentially became a hub for me to oversee all these operations. WP Developer had already started as a side project of ARcom, albeit nothing too serious at that point.
Ruhul Kader: Then you came back in 2016. You were also thinking about retiring early.
Asif Rahman: I had planned to retire in 2014 before the birth of my first child. I was part of a mastermind retreat group along with a few friends. During a retreat in the Bahamas from Miami, we delved into some profound questions about life. One of those questions was about the number of hours I worked. I use a tool called Rescue Time, which I've been using since around 2009. Looking at the report, including weekends, I realized I was working an average of 14 to 16 hours a day. My life was entirely consumed by work; I was always on the computer, always engaged in something.
A friend who was older and already had grown-up kids asked me a crucial question: If I was this busy and working this way, how did I plan to raise a child? This triggered deep reflection. I realized I didn't want to be just a parent; I wanted to actively participate in my children's upbringing.
As I assessed the type of business I had built and how I had distributed various responsibilities, I started reflecting on the mistakes I made and acknowledged that I had created many things that perhaps didn't generate immediate value. I could see that the 80/20 rule applied to my business.
So, I decided to take a year or so and retire before turning 34 or around that age. The plan took four years to develop and execute. I had to strategically exit some businesses, organize certain aspects, close down others, and bring in more partners for a few ventures. Part of the reason I returned to Bangladesh was to align with that retirement plan.
Ruhul Kader: What happened after that?
Asif Rahman: I began executing the plan, and during this time, weDevs became a significant part of my involvement. Although I wasn't involved at the beginning of the company, I got involved as a partner while still in the US. In 2016, we observed that the company, in which I wasn't actively involved at the time, wasn't growing fast enough. My other partners and I saw more potential and believed a focused strategy could expedite its growth. As my retirement was planned for late 2018, I had a two-year window to wrap up most of my commitments.
We set a specific goal within those two years to grow weDevs to a certain level before my retirement year. I consolidated ARcom and other operations, moving ARCom to the same building as weDevs. Ultimately, I executed most of the plan, setting weDevs on a faster growth trajectory. When the company gained momentum, I handed over responsibilities to the founders.
One of my old teammates, Rupok, who worked with me at ARcom long before in 2013/14 and I were talking about some of the problems in building websites. Through our discussion, we found a good idea that we thought could become something big. I convinced him to return and build Essential Addon. Essential Addon started to grow extremely fast in 2018 and WPDeveloper became operational. My partner Rupok started to grow the WPDeveloper.
By July 31, 2018, which was my cut-off time for retirement, I had left my role as CEO at weDevs, and by August, I was fully free. However, WPDeveloper was growing very fast. And by September, I had to return to help WPDeveloper more directly so they could keep growing. Because my partner Rupok at that time was more focused on building the product than running the company. So I had to help them. WPDeveloper started to become a larger operation.
When I started helping WPDeveloper, I didn’t have an executive role and I still do not have an executive role in WPdeveloper in that way. I'm still the founder and my partner Rupok is the CEO.
WPDeveloper expanded significantly, and from 2018 to the present, it has become one of the largest plugin companies globally, currently ranking around number four or five in terms of downloads, users, and revenue. We are a team of 120 engineers, and the journey has been nothing short of fascinating.
One big secret is that we never build products because there seems to be a market. We usually build products to solve our own problems. We develop a product when we feel that it could solve our own problem, we could be its first users, and have an understanding of the market.
Ruhul Kader: Now coming to today, tell us about where the ARcom stands and also tell us more about WPdeveloper as well.
Asif Rahman: ARCom still is my personal company and WPDeveloper was part of it. As WPDeveloper grew, we created a separate organization with separate registration and licensing for WPDeveloper. WPDeveloper is our product company and it operates globally.
ARcom owns all those older assets such as other side businesses that I have, all the other things I have created. ARcom doesn't operate in an executive way anymore. All the businesses with meaningful impact are registered separately and operate as separate businesses.
WPDeveloper started as a plugin company back in 2011/2012. We have created a solid footprint in the WordPress plugin space over the years. Today, over 6 million websites use our tools. In 2019, we started to take some interest in the SaaS ecosystem from a realization that SaaS tools could add value to WordPress as well. We launched our first SaaS easy.jobs back in 2019 and started to explore how we could grow more businesses into SaaS.
WPDeveloper currently has SaaS companies and also invested in different SaaS companies that are sometimes directly related to WordPress and sometimes are entirely separate SaaS. We also have Shopify apps that we have been building for two years. We have one successful Shopify app StoreSEO that is doing really well. WPDeveloper owns all of those.
We are currently looking towards a rebranding or something like that for WPDeveloper as we deepen our position in the SaaS space. Because the name WPdeveloper looks like it's only related to WordPress but we have built several businesses that are not WordPress only.
Ruhul Kader: Now most of your time goes to WPDeveloper.
Asif Rahman: WPDeveloper is a growing organization. We have a growing number of products. We have an excellent management team, including C-level people, CXOs, and directors. What I mainly do is push our leaders to do more and take on new challenges. I’m always taking an interest in new things. For instance, SaaS was a new challenge. Shopify initiatives also take a lot of my time and focus in terms of what I want to learn, and what we want to do in the Shopify ecosystem.
Ruhul Kader: Can you please tell us more about the products that you offer from WPDeveloper?
Asif Rahman: Our first product was Essential Addon for Elementor.
Ruhul Kader: What does it do?
Asif Rahman: It helps people to build websites, any website. Elementor is a page builder. It helps people to build websites. Essential Addon gives more power to Elementor. We currently have nearly 100 different wizards or elements that help people build anything they want to.
Essential Addon currently has 2 million users. In terms of global market share, Essential Addon alone has about close to 5% global market share, every five websites out of 100 are using Essential Add-on.
We have built a few other products such as NotificationX that help people to market their products better. These tools were available in the Shopify or SaaS ecosystem but did not exist in the WordPress ecosystem before. We have been building these tools for the WordPress ecosystem.
We have a documentation tool called BetterDocs, which is currently one of the most used documentation tools in the entire world with close to 40,000 websites using it. The educational industry and the medical industry picked it up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, a lot of universities use Better Docs to handle their documentation internally and externally.
We have built a few other SaaS products, including Easy Jobs, an AI-powered recruitment tool. We have Templately, a collection of templates, with nearly 5000 ready-made templates for WordPress. It could be called Google Drive for templates.
The way people build websites in WordPress has changed a lot. People no longer use themes much, now it's more directed towards templates, and Templately lets you have your own workspace in the cloud where you can store your templates, give access to your teammates, change things, push it back to the cloud, invite more people, content people could change content and then push it back.
Templately currently has close to 300,000 active users and it is a SaaS product. We have a good number of Pro users who are paying per month.
We also started a few other SaaS products. One of them is called StoreSEO which works with Shopify. It is like a SaaS tool for eCommerce which makes good SEO practices easier with AI. It helps improve your content, and write tags on the fly using AI.
We also offer some smaller tools. We have also acquired a few WordPress products before, and some of those tools are now part of our product ecosystem.
Building a product is perhaps just 30% of the whole game, you have to market it well.
Ruhul Kader: Most of your products are plugins and SaaS products. How does the plugin business model work? SaaS is quite straightforward. For the WordPress plugin, is it a similar business model?
Asif Rahman: Everything is not the same. But for most of our plugins, there is a free version available in open source in wordpress.org. For more features, you need to upgrade to the pro version and the pro version always comes with a subscription per year. So people pay per year.
Ruhul Kader: Do you want to talk about the size of the business in terms of revenues and other relevant numbers?
Asif Rahman: We currently serve about 6 million people, which is the user base across our products. Our WordPress business is multi-million dollar annually. SaaS is also growing very fast. I think we have very good potential. The way me and my team feel is that we are just getting started in terms of what we want to achieve and how far we can go.
Ruhul Kader: How big is the team?
Asif Rahman: We are about 120 People.
As a business owner, if I do well in my business, I gain wealth. I want my team to share in that wealth and have that life. Therefore, every year, we distribute most of our profits to all of our employees—everyone, from the chef to every team member.
Ruhul Kader: Can you talk about the organization in terms of how the organization is structured, and also about the culture of the company? I have heard a lot of good things about your culture.
Asif Rahman: WPDeveloper functions as a flat organization. We have an excellent leadership team, comprising C-level executives, a CEO, a CMO, and a leadership team, as well as directors overseeing various aspects such as engineering, operations, HR, and administration. Further down the hierarchy, we have product managers and leads overseeing different departments like marketing and animations.
WPdeveloper operates quite differently, shaped by my two decades of experience in running companies. I've made some tough decisions, and while I can't definitively say if they are right or wrong, they contribute to what you might identify as our unique organizational culture.
Ruhul Kader: Tell us more about that.
Asif Rahman: One key difference is our approach to salary determination and negotiations. At WPDeveloper, we have nine well-defined positions, each with a predetermined salary aligned with the current market. When someone joins WPDeveloper, they start in a specific position with a fixed salary that remains constant for everyone in that role. Regardless of prior salaries or negotiation skills, we maintain a non-negotiable salary policy. For instance, if a junior developer's salary is 40,000 taka and someone applies for the position who used to receive a higher salary and thus asks for a higher salary, we can’t offer that. We can never change the salary for one person. It is always the same for everyone in the same position.
This is a difficult choice, especially in situations where an immediate hire is needed for specific roles, as we cannot offer higher salaries based on individual negotiations. For us, it's impossible because all the other people who are working in the same position have to be paid the same.
However, this approach has many upsides. It creates reliability within the team, ensuring that individuals in the same position receive equal pay for equal work. While it may pose challenges in certain scenarios, this consistency contributes to team synergy and trust, reflecting how each team member is valued. Time will tell whether this is the right direction or not, but so far, it has been working well.
Another aspect, which you might call benefits (though I prefer to consider it part of our company lifestyle), is our practice of sharing profits with our team. While as a privately held company, we aren't obligated to disclose specific numbers regarding revenues or profits, we choose to do so for a different reason.
I categorize our company as growth-centric rather than profit-centric. While we are a profitable company, our approach differs. Instead of emphasizing maximizing profits by reducing expenditures, our focus is on growth. We know the ecosystem we are working on and we understand our potential. Compared to that we believe we are just getting started. With our talented team and the powerful products we're developing, we are still nowhere near our full potential. We know that our growth opportunities are much bigger.
When we were in the building phase, we expanded from 30 people to 120 people within three years. It is extremely difficult to build a great team. If someone is doing good work, I want them to stay and feel a sense of ownership of the product he is building. I don't view a programmer merely as a resource. Writing code isn't just about fulfilling a request; it involves understanding, feeling, and recognizing how the code impacts the lives of numerous people when a feature is built. If we develop a feature, it's likely used by millions. Developers are integral to this process, and I don't want to exclude them from these equations. However, I can't offer higher salaries separately. This is a struggle that is somewhat expected.
But as a business owner, if I do well in my business, I gain wealth. I want my team to share in that wealth and have that life. Therefore, every year, we distribute most of our profits to all of our employees—everyone, from the chef to every team member.
We've created an equation for profit distribution within the team. Drawing insights from discussions at companies like Basecamp and Buffer, which openly share their salary structures, profit management strategies, and benefits, we've developed a formula that considers various factors. These factors include an individual's tenure with the company, their importance, current salary, and the value they contribute to the company. By assigning weights to these four aspects, we've created a formula to determine how much of the profit should be allocated to each team member. This, in my opinion, adds significant value for the team members as they can get this money at once and thus use it wisely. We also organize sessions and discussions on how to utilize this money thoughtfully, encouraging the team to make strategic choices rather than rushing to buy the latest iPhone or a flashy Mac. This has allowed many of the team members to buy wealth such as land, travel internationally, and do other important things.
We want to give our people the same kind of freedom and wealth-building capacity that we founders have. You may ask how you could keep doing it year after year. I believe we have a huge opportunity ahead of us and we can keep growing for a long time if we do things right.
Our increment policy is also different from most companies. We have a regular increment every six months. From 2020, we had a vision that for our mid-level people, we would pay a six-figure salary. In Bangladesh, the standard is not that. Mid-level developers probably get 50-60,000 taka. We wanted to increase that level. Because of the way our company works, you can't increase the salary of one particular person, you have to increase it for the entire batch. If our revenue increases in a particular quarter, we will increase the salary of that particular batch by 25% or 30%. We have been continuously doing that for the last three years. We recently calculated that starting from 2020 to 2022 in August, most of our team members' salaries increased by over 100% or 150%. Although we increased salary through regular increments, still when the dollar value and inflation jumped up, we announced up to 57% increment to most team members from their base salary.
None of those are negotiations, none of those are any part of any discussion or commitment, it happens as part of our goal so that our team members can have a good life. They don't need to think about having a life abroad or joining a remote company. If we're building a product that is making money, then the team should benefit the same way.
I categorize our company as growth-centric rather than profit-centric. While we are a profitable company, our approach differs. Instead of emphasizing maximizing profits by reducing expenditures, our focus is on growth.
Ruhul Kader: You mentioned this interesting idea: growth-centric companies versus profit-centric companies. What are the differences? Is one better than the other?
Asif Rahman: Not necessarily. And it depends on how future-centric you are. You need to be profitable. But if you're focused on the profit alone, you are usually preoccupied with two metrics: make more money and spend less money. You don’t think much about your people beyond your obligation. You are likely short-term oriented.
We do it differently. If we make a certain amount of profit, we share a certain percentage of that with our team. That's the whole structure of WPDeveloper and ARcom. If we're earning more, we're spending even more, so the team could get the benefit. The idea is if we can reach our vision, we will be able to do all of those and have even more.
Ruhul Kader: What impact do you see of this structure on the company? You have been doing it for the last three to four years, I think you have data to develop an understanding.
Asif Rahman: It is really interesting. As I said, I think we will have to wait a few more years to see the final tally of this experiment. One interesting result is that over the last 4 years, we have not lost anybody. High employee turnover is a common trend in tech. After COVID, remote jobs are more common and people do join these jobs. In Bangladesh, we've seen before that people join other tech startups where they pay a good salary. WPDeveloper and ARcom, have a superb retention rate.
Secondly, I see one of the biggest struggles companies face in our ecosystem is that they can't find managers, they can't find leaders, they can't find middle management. For us, the problem is exactly the opposite. We have too many leaders, they need more problems to solve, and they need more things to build. This is something that I have not seen before in my 20 years of career that we could breed leadership among normal people. So I think we're going in a good direction.
Building a product is not a one-off thing, you have to keep on building on top of it, which perhaps is the most important part. Some of our products are a few years old now but we are continuously developing new features, adding new benefits, upgrading the tech, and so on.
Ruhul Kader: One of the important parts of your business is developing great products and sustaining them. How do you do that? What's your product development process? Is there any secret to building successful products?
Asif Rahman: One big secret is that we never build products because there seems to be a market. We usually build products to solve our problems. We develop a product when we feel that it could solve our problem, we could be its first users, and we have an understanding of the market.
When we built Easy Jobs, it was because we wanted an easy recruitment tool that could help us to recruit without relying on email or Google form. When we built NotificationX, we needed something that could help us boost our services without leaving the WordPress ecosystem.
When you're building a product, you should understand the use case, not as a developer, but as a user. Once you have the product, you have to market it properly. Building a product is perhaps just 30% of the whole game, you have to market it well.
Finally, building a product is not a one-off thing, you have to keep on building on top of it, which perhaps is the most important part. Some of our products are a few years old now but we are continuously developing new features, adding new benefits, upgrading the tech, and so on.
As your product grows, it has to evolve with the needs and tastes of your customers. So you have to keep building. Just starting or releasing something is not enough, keeping building on top is probably the most important part.
Ruhul Kader: How does your marketing and distribution work?
Asif Rahman: Our marketing generally depends a lot on content, creating good content across formats such as written content, visuals, videos, and other formats.
In our ecosystem, marketing is an interesting part and is quite different from a lot of other ecosystems. Marketing a WordPress product is quite different from marketing any other thing. In WordPress, there are a lot of free resources through which you can gain traffic and leads. For instance, WordPress’s marketplace WordPress.org can be a significant source of traffic if you do it well. There are also influencers, podcasts, endorsements, all of those combined. We also run paid marketing such as retargeting on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I would say we have a 360 approach to marketing.
Ruhul Kader: What are the plans for the company going forward?
Asif Rahman: Some of the products that we've built are just getting in shape. The next phase of growth will be going more international, expanding the product portfolio, and leaning toward enterprise solutions.
Our general focus will be on solving critical problems for our users and creating more value.
I believe the market and ecosystem in which we are building offers incredible opportunities. You can build the next unicorn in this space and Bangladesh offers that opportunity. Perhaps this is not the right time but probably we learn and grow to a position where we can build something that big.
WPDeveloper has a big dream in terms of what we can do and how we can help more people build better businesses and better online presence, which we have been doing. We are building all the tools for the people who make websites, and ecommerce solutions. We believe we have the potential to grow much much much bigger. We are currently a team of 120 people. We don’t want to grow much bigger than that as a team. We are a sustainable and effective team. However, we believe we can grow much bigger and achieve much more with this group of people.
One big secret is that we never build products because there seems to be a market. We usually build products to solve our problems. We develop a product when we feel that it could solve our own problem, we could be its first users, and have an understanding of the market.
Ruhul Kader: You have been working in the WordPress ecosystem for a long time. WordPress is an interesting ecosystem. There are a growing number of companies in Bangladesh that are building solutions for the WordPress ecosystem and are doing well. One question is, what these businesses are and how do these businesses work? And if someone wants to build successful companies in this ecosystem, how should they approach it?
Asif Rahman: This is a happy trend. In the last four years, we have seen a lot of really good and solid products coming out from Bangladeshi new teams and they're doing really, really well.
To give you a context, I think there are more than 25 Bangladeshi WordPress product companies that make over $100,000 a year. There are over 10 that make over $500,000 per year. These are very good numbers and we did not have any of these just four/five years ago.
A lot of young people are building excellent products and are going global and they are growing very fast. In terms of WordPress products that are doing good, we are growing much faster than markets like India.
If somebody wants to come in now and build, I think they should build somewhere where they have experience. As I explained, I don’t build a product if I do not have experience. Instead of the usual Bangladeshi way of copying some other idea and trying to build it in better manners, it is a better strategy to start with something that can genuinely add value.
In many ways, the WordPress ecosystem is not very beginner-friendly. If somebody is starting, it is very hard to start. If I build a plug-in, it is much easier for me to market because I have that user base and experience but if somebody is selling the same plugin, and it's their first product, it will be like 10 or 50 times harder for him.
However, although it is hard if you can build a solid solution to a solid problem, you have a very good opportunity. And Bangladesh has a lot of proof that you could grow significantly. I would love to see more young developers, and young founders solving real-world problems instead of copying someone's idea and doing the same thing that became successful before.
If somebody wants to come in now and build, I think they should build somewhere where they have experience. Instead of the usual Bangladeshi way of copying some other idea and trying to build it in better manners, it is a better strategy to start with something that can genuinely add value.