Balance is key. It is great to work all day and all night, but you need time to relax both mentally and physically. Take time to yourself. Meditate or do yoga. Exercise. Get a massage. But you need downtime to let your body and mind rejuvenate. It’s also important to spend some time outside of the office with your colleagues, so plan casual events with them — maybe sports, see a movie or grab a beer. It’s important to allow yourself the time to step back and be fresh. You want to get to work every day excited about what is ahead of you, ready to embrace the challenges you’re about to face. And you need to be physically and mentally rested to be at your best.
I had the pleasure to interview Ahad Bhai. Ahad is a media and tech entrepreneur based in Bangladesh and founder/CEO of Bongo, Bangladesh’s largest video streaming platform. Bongo was started in 2013 with the goal of being “Bangladesh’s Netflix”, but has grown into a media ecosystem having expanded into content production, talent management, technology and infrastructure services. The Bangladesh market for digital entertainment was virtually non-existent, and as a result they had to build an industry around their company to sustain their product. They are now focusing on other South Asian countries and aim to be the go to destination for streaming in South Asia. Ahad’s family set up the country’s first steel mill and went on to establish several other major businesses over the past few decades. However, Ahad had a passion for media from a young age and decided to study film production at UBC, after which he moved back to Bangladesh and started his career in the media industry.
Thank you so much for joining us Ahad! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was always excited by media and entertainment and after studying film in Vancouver, I set up a production company in Dhaka. I did a variety of productions including a lot on TV, but after a while felt that the industry was stagnant and I needed something more exciting. My co-founder Navid and I had done our first startup together in 2004 when we launched DhakaHotties, a local version of “Hot or Not”, and it was an instant hit. We had a small taste of the fame and excitement of running a startup, but we were in university and went on to graduate and work more seriously.
Almost 10 years later, we were both nearing our 30s, and decided that we wanted to give another go at a project together before settling into boring careers. We saw the trends in mature markets such as the US with everything becoming digital and felt it was just a matter of time before the same happened in our country… in the media space everything was becoming on demand, and services like Netflix were exploding, yet nothing existed for Bangladeshi content. So we came up with the idea of doing an on demand entertainment service for Bangladeshi content for Bangladeshis both in the country and around the world.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
We were in a unique environment because the media and tech scene in the country were both very immature and underdeveloped. So the major challenge I faced was that I was literally building everything from scratch. There was no infrastructure, there were no products or tools available for us, there were no payment gateways ready for our customers to use… With every step of the way, we encountered new issues that we never even thought of and had to figure out solutions and ways to move forward.
The main lesson I learned is that to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be a firefighter. If you are not prepared to face and solve problems on a daily basis, you will have a difficult time. Every day is a new challenge and a new struggle, so be ready for it and don’t give up.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The values I believe are critical for anyone to be a successful entrepreneur are perseverance and belief.
When we started Bongo in 2013, there was no digital media industry. When I would approach TV stations or film producers asking for “digital rights” for their content, most people responded “Sorry, we have already sold our DVD rights.” When I said that I wanted their rights for the internet, not DVD, they looked at me like I was crazy. At that point in time, the majority of the population was using 2G internet on feature phones, and it was a struggle to stream a music video on their phone…so the thought of watching a full movie on the internet was absurd. Doing a streaming service in Bangladesh? Paying money for “digital rights”? Expecting Bangladeshis, who were used to paying cash for all kinds of digital services, to pay digitally to consume content? There were so many reasons for our business not to work, and most people thought it wouldn’t. Every time we took a step forward, we had to take two steps back due to reasons we could never even predict. But I believed in it, and kept trying.
It took almost a year to get our first content deal…but I didn’t give up. I knew it was a matter of time before the country developed and before the consumption patterns of users changed. So rather than trying to do partnerships I changed the strategy and just offered cash to everyone in exchange for their rights. I said, “If you don’t think there is any value in digital rights, then take my money and let me worry about it!” And they did — they took my money and laughed as if they just hustled a crazy man…At the time it was not worth anything, but I was patient and sat on the content library. Several years later, the industry has completely changed and the money we spent on all that content has been repaid many times over.
Believe in your project, believe in yourself, and don’t give up. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. And if you don’t work for it, no one else will. Don’t think that anything will happen magically, that success will fall into your lap. It’s up to you and you only, your destiny is in your own hands, and nothing beats hard work.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Hire a CFO
In a startup you inevitably have to play several roles, but one of the roles I would highly recommend investing in very early on is a CFO. Finances are crucial to running a successful business and a lot of the burden of this fell on me, causing a lot of pressure and time that could have been spent on growing the business. I kept thinking I could take it on, but as we grew it was harder and harder, and looking back I wish I had hired a CFO much earlier on. It would have made my life a lot easier. This is one area you should never compromise on!
2. Never Underestimate Competition
It is easy to think that you are better, smarter, newer, or the first. But do not underestimate who’s out there. There could be someone smarter, someone with better connections, someone with more money. Always be on the lookout, know what your competitors are doing, and make sure you have an edge.
When we started the business, there were many copycats. And most of them failed. And we kept thinking about the other local competitors and how we can be ahead of them. But we underestimated the foreign competition — international players trying to enter our market and compete against us…and they did come in, and they did compete. Luckily there were a lot of factors that allowed us to stay ahead of the game, but we had to invest a lot more behind content and marketing to compete. Always take competition very seriously.
3. Always be Innovating, and Embrace Change
The digital world is changing extremely fast and you may need to pivot. Don’t be afraid. Our business evolved into having multiple facets and verticals purely out of need, and it is a very different company than it was when we started. A business is like a living being that evolves and changes with time.
When we started, we were simply a content aggregator, collecting the rights of content from various places and publishing it online. We soon realised that the product we had (which we licensed from a third party) was not ideal for our market — a market that was mobile heavy and primarily feature phone users with limited internet connectivity, so we had to rebuild it from scratch. We then realized the infrastructure that existed in our market was not sufficient, so we invested in setting up a data center and setting up CDN servers around the country. We then saw content costs increase dramatically, and with all the data we collected on our users we knew exactly what they wanted, so we started producing our own content. As the company evolved, we also evolved from being a content aggregator to being a technology provider and a content producer as well. We did what we needed to do to grow our business, reduce our costs, and stay ahead of our competition.
4. Always Study. Study Trends, Study the Market, Study the Competition. Information and Insights Can be Your Edge.
Spend time on analysis, know what’s happening. Data can be your best friend. Don’t brush this off thinking it is boring or time consuming. Knowing your consumer and your market can give you the edge. We started our business as being a content aggregator but studying data allowed us to know exactly what our users are watching, and this has allowed us to give them exactly what they want. Moving into original content production based on our data and analysis has resulted in higher content consumption and better results.
5. Fundraising is Not Easy
Our situation was unique because we were raising money for a company based in Bangladesh — so we had to deal with country risk in addition to selling the idea of our company. But from my experience in startups, both as a founder and as an investor, fundraising is an extremely difficult task. So when you start, make sure you are very well prepared, know what investors look for, know who your ideal investors may be, and have everything you need ready. Know your business inside out, know the problem you are trying to solve, and be extremely clear on your mission and your goals. And when you’re trying to fundraise, keep it simple. Less is more!
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Balance is key. It is great to work all day and all night, but you need time to relax both mentally and physically. Take time to yourself. Meditate or do yoga. Exercise. Get a massage. But you need downtime to let your body and mind rejuvenate.
It’s also important to spend some time outside of the office with your colleagues, so plan casual events with them — maybe sports, see a movie or grab a beer. It’s important to allow yourself the time to step back and be fresh. You want to get to work every day excited about what is ahead of you, ready to embrace the challenges you’re about to face. And you need to be physically and mentally rested to be at your best.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My parents. I grew up in a South Asian family where there is always pressure to come home and join the family business, but my parents told me from a young age to pursue my dreams. They said that money isn’t important, and if you do what you love doing, the rest will fall into place. The family business is always there for me but I should not feel pressured, and I should study what I enjoy. Because of this encouragement, I studied film, and I love it.
During my early days doing business, my parents were always there to support me, encourage me and guide me. And when I needed it, they even gave me a loan (many times) when I was struggling to pay my overheads or salaries. I would be nowhere without them and will always be grateful for their support and belief in me.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
My goals in life are a combination of personal and professional. Here you go!
- Win an Oscar. Probably as a Producer, maybe as a Director, but one way or another it needs to happen!
- Be Knighted. Sir Ahad has a nice ring to it! Jokes aside I have spent a lot of time in my past trying to give back and I have a lot of plans to help people in my country and community. As my business grows and hopefully earns well, I plan to spend less time on business and more time on my social projects which I hope can make a big difference.
- Be a founder of a Unicorn! Which startup founder doesn’t want that?!
Maybe slightly ambitious, but I think my goals are very achievable and I think if I put my mind to it, anything is possible.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope that well beyond my time, people continue to come to Bongo to be entertained. I hope that Bongo continues to entertain and empower, and bring joy to people’s lives, long after I’m gone.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I would ask everyone to identify a problem in their city or community, and think of a way to solve it. The problem can be very little or very big, but if everyone is actively looking to help and come up with solutions, the situation will improve. And you don’t have to think too grand. I have worked with Nobel Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus and he said something that really inspired me — “If you help one person, you have made a difference.” If everyone works on solutions for problems, no matter how little, problems will be solved one by one. Each and every person can make a difference. So look around and see how you can help!
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