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Avoiding Complacency, Useful Founder Traits, Obsession, and Venture Building: A Conversation With M Asif Rahman (Part II)

M Asif Rahman is a Bangladeshi serial entrepreneur, investor, and long-time WordPress Enthusiast. He is the Founder and CEO of ARCom and the Founder of Startise

In this second and final installment of our fascinating conversation (read part one here), he candidly reflects on the pivotal experiences that shaped his approach, shares his perspectives on must-have founder traits, deploying capital responsibly, avoiding pitfalls that derail many startups, cultivating the obsessive dedication necessary to succeed against odds, his takes on Bangladesh’s startup ecosystem, and a lot more. 

This is a practical masterclass on building lasting enterprises and lessons learned from the trenches of venture building from someone who has experienced the highs and lows firsthand. Enjoy this fascinating conversation with M Asif Rahman, and also read part one of our conversation with him here

Ruhul Kader: Was there a turning point in your journey? 

Asif Rahman: There are several turning points. After I got married, I decided to go to the US, where I met one of my uncles, a long-lost relative, after a long time. He was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and sold his first company back in 1998 to Comcast for over $110 million. He is a legend and a successful Bangladeshi founder who took a successful exit before the Silicon Valley tech bubble. He also worked as an advisor to the New York Stock Exchange in one of their teams working to help smaller companies.

When we met, he shared some wisdom with me. He said it's okay to explore different things, but it's essential to maintain focus and fully commit to one endeavor before moving on to another. Do different things, but focus and get the most out of one thing before moving on to something else. He said if I start something, I need to finish it. It was timely advice for me because, at the beginning of my career, I made the mistake of making too many websites. After meeting my uncle, I realized that I made a mistake by spreading myself too thin. Afterward, I started to shut down several initiatives, and the grand gesture of it came in 2014 when I decided to retire.

The second turning point was in 2014. After the Mastermind group, I realized that, as a founder, you need to understand the value of your own money, and time, and how much you care about your own business. For instance, I have expertise in servers, and I run a company. It might be the case that if I worked as a consultant with someone else, I could have earned around $500 per hour. When I’m running my own company, I should always ask whether I’m generating the same value.

We need to ask these questions and be rational about our decisions and actions. But we generally do not. We think that starting a company and becoming its CEO can add a lot of value, but it doesn't if that value doesn’t match your real potential. Complacency is bad even when you are doing it in the name of entrepreneurship. 

For a lot of people, I feel that they would have done much better doing a job or something else instead of trying to run his/her company for an endless time. Becoming an entrepreneur is a lot of hustle, if your reward is not worth it, it is useful to reflect on it.

Finally, the last realization came during COVID. After losing so many close people and getting stuck in a position where money or a lot of other things made little difference, I realized that sometimes in life we put undue importance on certain things that are not that valuable at the end of the day and take some other things for granted that are incredibly important. 

I realized instead of running after money and luxury, we should spend more time reflecting on things that can make our souls happy. We should seek out things that make us happy and focus more on those. 

Ruhul Kader: That makes sense. A lot of the time, we pursue things simply because we see others doing the same, without considering that they may have their reasons for their pursuits. That shouldn't necessarily dictate our actions. Anyway, you have invested in a good number of different types of companies—from software to non-tech. What separates the founders and companies that do well from the ones that don’t? Are there any common traits? 

Asif Rahman: Founders who bring experience from working on a similar business previously. For instance, he is now attempting to build a business in the same domain where he had previously worked. Domain knowledge remains incredibly important. 

While outliers exist, and people can learn from mistakes and adapt, I still see the benefit of founders coming from professional backgrounds related to their current ventures. This is especially true if their role requires extensive networking or sales expertise, and they possess prior experience in those areas. Having such domain-specific experience directly translates to a higher chance of success.

Almost everything else, including the business plan and the amount of money raised, comes secondarily. 

Ruhul Kader: That's an interesting point, and I completely agree. One of my regrets is not getting some solid work experience before starting Future Startup. I believe a key advantage of doing so is that it helps you develop the discipline of working regular hours. You also learn valuable skills in structuring your day and your work, which are highly useful when starting your own company.

Asif Rahman: Think of it this way: Could you win a race without any practice? Could you simply show up, run, and take first place? Of course not. Yet, in the world of startups, that's what many people try to do.

Ruhul Kader: However, for first-time founders building companies, what do you recommend to help them overcome these limitations of lack of experience and training?

Asif Rahman: I believe they need to buy those experiences, possibly by partnering with or hiring senior employees who can address the gaps in their expertise.

Ruhul Kader: That makes so much sense. 

Asif Rahman: There's no getting around it: experience matters. I strongly believe my business would perform significantly better if I had the support of seasoned founders or CEOs in leadership positions. While exceptional individuals can excel in both roles—being a good founder and manager at the same time, it's rare. Most of us fall somewhere in between. This is why the synergy between a visionary founder and an experienced operational leader makes perfect sense.

The debate on whether the founder and CEO should be the same person continues. In many cases, I believe they shouldn't. The founder possesses the vision and drive to pursue ambitious goals, while the CEO ensures smooth execution and keeps things running.

Ruhul Kader: The point you mentioned about the buying experience is quite a common approach. I recently read an article discussing "capital as expertise," and the author used Michael Dell as an example. When Dell founded his company, he was a recent university graduate or about to graduate. While the company was successful and profitable, its cash flow became tied up in inventory, leading to a cash shortage that threatened the company's survival. Dell hired an experienced individual who had successfully run other companies. This individual, taking over as CFO, played a crucial role in saving the company and ultimately helped it become the industry leader.

Asif Rahman: Similarly, we can see the same thing at play with Steve Ballmer's role at Microsoft and the many individuals at Google who contributed to the company's financial success in the early days, arguably even more than Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Ruhul Kader: However, founders can be quite reluctant to bring in external CEOs.

Asif Rahman: In some cases, particularly when raising funds internationally, founders may not have the option of remaining CEO indefinitely regardless of performance. We're already witnessing this trend emerging in Bangladesh where founders are stepping down  CEO roles. Several companies are transitioning founders out of the CEO role, with at least three or four more expected to do so in the coming days. This shift towards professional CEOs will happen. 

Ruhul Kader: As an early investor in the Bangladeshi startup ecosystem, could you share some key lessons you've learned?

Asif Rahman: One core lesson I've learned is to always invest in people, not just ideas, plans, etc. My focus has always been on the people, the team, and their capabilities.

However, I don’t feel I have experienced significant success with my investments in Bangladesh. Perhaps the ecosystem itself has yet to reach a level of substantial success. Nevertheless, I believe,  after 12 or so years, it's worth reflecting on our collective approach. 

Back to your question, the primary criterion for any investor should be a thorough evaluation of the team's experience and achievements. Look beyond the picture they paint and delve into their past accomplishments before making an investment decision.

Ruhul Kader: Since we talked briefly about the broader startup ecosystem, do you have any reflections and ideas on aspects we might need to rethink or approach differently for both founders and other involved stakeholders?

Asif Rahman: On a broader level, one area where we need greater focus is the responsible allocations of funds. Many founders allocate funds without a clear connection to revenue generation. This is an area that demands greater attention. If you have access to certain funds, it's crucial to consider what actions you will take once those funds are depleted. Access to funding should not merely serve as a bridge to the next funding round. Instead, founders need a concrete plan for post-funding actions. This plan shouldn't solely rely on raising more capital. Ultimately, ventures lacking product-market fit won't be sustainable, regardless of the number of funding rounds secured. While you might secure two or three more rounds, the result will inevitably lead to a much larger negative balance.

Ruhul Kader: Looking back on your two decades of building products and companies, what are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned?

Asif Rahman: I perceive it this way. I have tried many ventures and encountered failure numerous times. My experience has revealed a recurring pattern in every successful venture: the unwavering dedication of at least one individual. In every win, there has always been someone who devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the project, someone who lived and breathed it 24/7, with complete alignment of goals, vision, and commitment to the product. The specifics of the plan or execution are secondary to this crucial ingredient. 

Merely formulating a plan and assembling an executive team, in my experience, is never sufficient for success. What truly drives success is the relentless pursuit of the person who pushes things forward no matter what. While this individual may not always be me, and often isn't, they are essential. 

Every successful endeavor requires that one person who champions it with unwavering dedication. You always require a person who will see it through to the end. Without that ingredient, nothing has ever truly succeeded in my life. It doesn't always have to be me; most of the time, it's not me; it will be someone else. But you always need that one person.  

Ruhul Kader: Who will be super obsessed? What trait do you value most highly in other people? 

Asif Rahman: Honesty. 

Ruhul Kader: Recommend three books that you think everybody should read. 

Asif Rahman: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, and Mindset by Carol Dweck. 

Ruhul Kader: What are some mistakes that you would like other people to avoid? 

Asif Rahman: One mistake I've often observed pertains to personal finance. When people achieve some success and start earning more, a common urge arises to invest or utilize that money in various ways.

Based on my experience in investing, I've learned a key principle: never invest solely because of this urge. Instead, it's better to keep your money in the bank. Invest only in areas you genuinely understand and enjoy being associated with.

For example, if you have a strong understanding of technology, consider investing in tech-related ventures. Similarly, if you're familiar with currency markets, you might explore investments in that domain. The same applies to real estate or other sectors. By following this approach, you minimize the risk of losing money due to a lack of knowledge. Additionally, if you choose an area that aligns with your interests, the investment journey itself becomes more enjoyable, even if the outcome isn't always profitable.

In many instances, you might end up losing money when you invest. If you enjoy the journey, that could compensate for your investment loss. 

Ruhul Kader: How do you stay productive?

Asif Rahman: Challenging myself.

Ruhul Kader: How do you challenge yourself?

Asif Rahman: I set both big and small goals for myself. Each year, I begin with a Trello list outlining these goals. Then I break them down into monthly milestones and reflect on my progress at the end of each month.

Similarly, I start each day with specific lists: one outlining what I aim to achieve and another for the problems I intend to solve. My perspective is that if I begin each day with 100 problems, I want to finish it with 99. This approach allows me to steadily overcome challenges and maintain a clear understanding of my priorities.

Ruhul Kader: That's a very useful framework. 

Asif Rahman: Life in a Trello List. 

Ruhul Kader: What are the three things to always do and three things to never do? 

Asif Rahman: I don't have a prepared list, but here are a few things that come to my mind:

Avoid excessive dependence: In both business and life, relying too heavily on any single person or factor is detrimental. Similarly, in business, overdependence on one individual creates vulnerabilities. The same principle applies to personal relationships, regardless of whether it's a parent, partner, or any other individual. This overdependence can hinder personal growth and development.

Seek knowledge before action: When venturing into new territory, base your decisions on your knowledge and research, not solely on the influence of others. Whether it's buying land, starting a business, or traveling, conduct thorough research and make informed choices based on your understanding, not external pressure.

Learn from others, but critically: Engage with people who have greater knowledge in specific areas, regardless of their age or status. However, while actively learning from others, be discerning and critically evaluate the information you receive. 

These are three things to do. 

Things not to do-

  1.  Don't blindly follow trends or go with the flow in health or lifestyle choices. Make conscious decisions based on your unique needs, family situation, and current position in life.
  2. Don't spend the money that you have not earned yet. So cut your coat according to your clothes. 
  3. Avoid extremes. Never indulge excessively in anything. Maintain a balance in your conduct with anything. 

Ruhul Kader: Advice for young people. 

Asif Rahman: Be brave and try different things. However, don't jump into everything at once. Whether you're studying, working, or running a business, give it your all and hustle as much as possible. Putting in 80% effort and then quitting won't create lasting value. Whatever you do, commit fully.

At the same time, know when to stop. Some paths in life might not lead to a positive outcome. If you enjoy the journey, then enjoy it, but be aware of when you need to stop, reassess, or take a different route.

For young people just graduating from universities and starting their lives, find something that you are passionate about. Even if they make mistakes, as long as they have passion, they'll likely enjoy the journey, not just the destination. It is not always the result. It's also about the journey. 

Particularly in our ecosystem in Bangladesh, when someone is doing well and wants to improve further, they need to understand reality. People often have a general tendency to seek success and achievement without the corresponding effort. They may desire money, fame, and everything else, but they don't comprehend the necessary path. This is a common mistake. It's crucial to be practical, understand the path to success, and embrace the hard work required. As the 10,000-hour rule suggests, expertise takes time and dedication. There are no shortcuts. You have to put in the hours. 

Ruhul Kader: What do you think about life given that it is short and will be dead soon?

Asif Rahman: Life is a journey, if you don't enjoy the journey, if you are not staying in the journey, staying in the journey in terms of being humble, understanding your path, understanding the people you are going through this journey with, if you do not understand and value those, ultimately it will end with nothing. Remember, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, we are each less than a bubble. If you want to make a dent, you need to lead your life in a way where you will at least remember some part of it. 

Don't take things too seriously. We often become obsessed with aspects of life, causing unnecessary joy or depression. Neither extreme is healthy.

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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