1. Tell us about yourself (Your childhood, educational background, hobbies etc.)
I was born and raised in Bangladesh. My school was Willes Little Flower where I completed my O levels. Then I did my A levels from Mastermind. After that, I got into IUT where I did a semester, but at that time I wanted to study business administration and not engineering. I gave an exam at IBA and got a chance to study there. So I left IUT to join IBA.
I completed my undergrad at IBA and later joined CITI NA management to work in different departments like treasury, corporate banking, and investment banking where I was involved with the team of GP ipo. I also contributed in the execution of many deals like equity convertible bonds, interest swaps as well. Then I got a position in their business planning and analysis unit. After working 4 years there, and becoming the business analysis lead, I decided to move into entrepreneurship. I launched Lightcastle with my IBA batch mates Zahed & Ivdad who were in HSBC and Standard Chartered & BYLC respectively in 2013.
2. Briefly discuss about your career journey and how you became involved with data analytics.
Usually what happens in corporate or investment banks is that when they do any activities like structured finance, where I worked for quite a while, there’s a term called syndicated facility where we pull funds from multiple organization for an entity.
When I worked in investment banking division for GP ipo in the capital market or bond sales like subordinate debt bonds, equity convertible bonds etc., we would have to raise different types of funding as well. At that time I had to do fundamental analysis like economic, industrial, company analysis etc.
So there was a lot of activities involved with data and so from there I established a background in industry analysis. In many cases, it was my duty to update the credit appraisal report & sector reports.
I also had quite a good experience in business planning analysis. There was internal and strategic analysis activities at Citi NA which aimed at projections of what the revenue would be in the next 5 years, which unit would bring what revenue, which service would be profitable, which customer is profitable, what situation they are in now, balance sheet analysis, different metrics & ratio analysis and presenting them in an understandable way.
During this time, I realized that it’s hard to find quality data in Bangladesh. The clients of the bank also faced the same issue and so I decided that I would work in data analytics and approached my batch mate Zahed, who was in HSBC as an AVP at that time. He had good experience in risk analysis but he also faced quite an issue with the availability of quality data. Also, Ivdad was here who has experience of working in Standard Chartered & BYLC. Since data analytics was a new field back then, if we could build a good company for this service it would not only help the companies or sectors or industries but also be able to showcase our country as a great investment destination. This vision inspiring our business to boost the economy.
3. When did you find your passion for Data analytics and which part do you enjoy most about it?
The term ‘Data analytics’ is used in quite a broad manner. It involves different parts like data capture, data synthesis, data storage, development, analysis, visualization etc. I first got interested in this field during my university days. There was a course in IBA where I got a project involving forecasting for a mineral water company. While doing that, I couldn’t find a proper solution even using regression model or moving average method. There was no seasonality in their sales either. Whatever technique I used, I couldn’t find an answer.
Then I dug deeper into their activities and found that there was a problem in company’s PR image. There’s a bit of a bad odor to their water. Such interesting facts come not only by inputting data in excel, we have to use real life data, quality data. During that time, my interest in data analytics grew. Later, other IBA courses also helped and Citi NA definitely had a role to play to grow my interest in data analytics since I worked with the syndicated facilities, IPO, bond sales, etc. When there’s a gap in data analysis and lack of sector idea, raising capital is quite difficult. So from there my interest started to increase.
My area of expertise in data analytics would be analysis, visualization and telling the story in a cohesive coordinated and understandable manner. There’s so much information in data but what would be the conclusion, what would be the action based on it, etc. has my interest where I’m able to analyze it and interpret the story.
4. What motivated you to pursue a new venture rather than stick to stable firms like ACI and Citi?
Such motivation came from many places I would say. First of all, we used to solve case studies involving many entrepreneurs and organizations. During graduation, such things don’t really stay on your mind and one would sweat over what to do and where to get a job, which is fair.
When you work in an organization, you develop skills that would later help you in your venture or business. I had interest in entrepreneurship and during my tenure in Citi NA, I had contact with many entrepreneurs. This interaction was one of the motivating factors of my entrepreneurship. My father was a businessman which also motivated me. My current business partners, Zahed & Ivdad also wanted to get into entrepreneurship. So, all of these factors helped me to get into entrepreneurship at the right time in 2013.
I thought “What would be the biggest loss in moving into entrepreneurship? If we failed after a few years, we can always move back into corporate jobs.” And since we had quite a good amount of experience, the risk was quite low for us. So thinking about all of these, we started Lightcastle.
5. With what vision was LightCastle Partner formed and who supported you the most from the very beginning to set up this venture?
When I worked in Citi NA, many used to say that Bangladesh was a small country. The Bangladesh team would report to India or sometimes Thailand. It was like Bangladesh was too small for a country & business. I always felt that Bangladesh has a story of its own to tell otherwise why would such big international banks and MNCs set up business here?
So our idea was that if we could develop and better the governance of local companies, make them better driven and analytical as well as structured with better data, the businesses would grow much better. We always see foreign companies setting up offices here but we want to see our local companies setting up offices in foreign lands. We want MNCs to come out of Bangladesh. So, inspiring business is our vision. Along with inspiring business, our economy will grow. So our tagline is ‘Inspiring business, boosting economy, changing lives.’ with which Lightcastle started its journey, and after 7 years of establishment, we are still aligned with this vision.
I had support from a lot of people. My co-founders and my dear friends helped me. When I approached my co-founders, they didn’t hesitate at all even when they held strong positions in Standard Chartered or BYLC. Ivdad was holding a director position at BYLC but he still wanted to start Lightcastle when I approached him. So the first support is definitely the co-founders. Second, my family, my parents supported me even though they were a bit hesitant about me moving into entrepreneurship. I, along with my few other friends, used to sit in the living room to discuss opportunities. No one had a single job, it’s not easy for parents to watch.
Each of our spouse were also quite supportive. Our IBA alumni also helped us along with many other seniors. Our angel investor was Samad bhai (executive director, Olympic group), Mostafiz bhai (Founder, Startup Dhaka), Faiz bhai (CEO, Fortuna group) who supported us tremendously. They really encouraged us to go along this journey. Lastly, of course, our different clients such as World Bank Group, ADB, Gates Foundation, Syngenta, foreign corporates, etc. helped and supported us. They never hesitated to support or give us work despite being a small company during initiation. In the end, we were able to retain our clients as well.
6. Tell us about the challenges or difficulties you have faced during its’ initiation and how you overcame them.
Doing business in Bangladesh is quite difficult. It’s ranked around 165th out of 190 countries. Vietnam is around 17th and India is around 63rd.
Doing business means opening up a business, getting electricity connection, tax issues, etc. So in Bangladesh, it’s tough to run a business, it’s never easy. When we first started it, the clients that we had served still owe us 60 lacs – it’s been 7 years since then and so I’ve stopped expecting them to pay me back ever again.
The point is that yes, there are challenges, which we learned the hard way. We realized that we need to be very careful when dealing with local corporates, or not even work with one, until and unless we know the founders because there’s no profit in that. They won’t pay you the full amount, or the fees of the last month at least, and these has happened with us a bit too many times. I don’t want to name them but many big companies tend to mistreat other organizations. And it’s not easy to work with the government either because sometimes the bidding documents that we submitted goes missing and we don’t get paid. It’s not always like that though, sometimes the authorities are very cooperative, like Tina apa helped us a lot with export. But other times there are various kinds of challenges.
So, to overcome them, we changed our client list, made our products different, worked on pre-payment and didn’t start working till we got 50% advance, try to collaborate with people we trust or know for a long time, etc. The problems we faced are very common, any entrepreneur would tell you similar difficulties.
7. How did COVID-19 affected Lightcastle’s activities?
The coronavirus brought changes to everyone’s life. We started to work from home in mid-March, and we still haven’t gone back to the office, following protocol. A lot of our field activities had to be cancelled and a lot of our events got conducted virtually.
No matter how digitalized Bangladesh is compared to 10 years back, it still wasn’t easy to carry out everything online. There’s still a demand for Consulting Service. We’re working on tackling COVID-19 with the government, with the ICT minister, and with different businesses. We did a survey where the score was 47 last year and is now -19.
So, there have been different sorts of COVID-19 impacts, and we’re actively working with our client to provide them the best service possible. It seems like we always have to stay on the phone with various people from 8 am to 9 pm and the physical activities have become difficult to maintain. Sometimes I go to the office to see it completely empty where 50-60 people used to work together on a daily basis.
But I guess this is the new normal, we’ll just have to adjust with it. COVID-19 is probably here to stay for a long time, and even if the pandemic gets over soon, its implications will be long-lasting.
8. Briefly tell us about the current growth of Data Analytics and its demand in the existing market.
I feel that the demand is increasing. We see data analytics as a part of Consulting Services. I’d say that the sector is expanding as Data Capture is getting easier, more real-time, and cost-effective. Before, there used to be huge server-room costs, which we don’t need anymore.
Data Storage Facilities and Cloud Space are also getting cheaper. We no longer have to work with very expensive Data Centers, we now keep everything in pay-per-use Amazon Web Series and Google Cloud, where I get 1 terabyte of space for $8 a month. We also use Digital Ocean which is even cheaper.
I’d say that the demand is increasing because a lot of corporates are welcoming 2nd-3rd generations of businessmen. The 1st generation didn’t actually get to be innovative as they had to struggle with creating it from scratch, but the 2nd-3rd generation may have studied abroad and are more tech-savvy and more dependent on data analytics as they don’t have that industrial intuition for not being there when the business was growing. So I believe that the demand is growing and will be growing. It is said that data is the new oil for the next century. It’ll help to take better decisions.
There are many data analytics company being established in Bangladesh. But we shouldn’t measure its importance by how many data analytics based companies there are but how it is a growing sector in general.
Companies like Lightcastle, Cramstack, and Magnito, are all working on different things. Lightcastle focuses more on the consulting side of things, Cramstack is working on the visual side, and Magnito is working on the dashboard. There are national and international data capturing app companies are developing apps.
But to understand the importance, you should look at the examples. The business model of eCommerce companies like Chaldal, Pathao, Shohoz, Sheba, bKash, etc. is completely based on hard-core data analytics. Its function used to be limited but has now become the core – it is close to impossible to run these companies without data analytics. Also, the telco. companies have a different sector to focus only on data analytics. Before, departments used to include marketing, sales, HR, and finance. Now we have business strategy, business intelligence, and business analytics too. The bank I used to work at, as well as other local banks, have these kinds of separate departments too.
So the sector is increasing in the sense that there isn’t only companies fully focused on it but data analytics is becoming a core part of all kinds of businesses.
9. What characteristics do Lightcastle Partner consider when investing in a new firm?
We organize certain events where we give recommendations. We are currently running many programs, with the help of investors. And lastly, we’re working on a fund setup as well as investing in many other small projects and organizations.
We have a set of criteria that we look into. The first would be to look into the founding team and understand their background, goals, integrity, and their expertise in the respective domain that they’re working in.
For example, I like to listen to rock music, but I’ll never become a singer because I have no expertise. It doesn’t matter how passionate I am until and unless I have the necessary skills for it.
Then we look into if they’re product market fit, if there’s actually a need for a solution to the problems they’re tackling, and how much potential the innovation has. We also look at their tractions, as the traction proof of concept is what boosts their credibility. Then we look into their financial feasibility, how they intend to spend the money, and their thought process on how they’d fund what.
And the last component we look into, which we sometimes ignore, is their impact angle, what they’re trying to achieve. Most of the entrepreneurs like us are usually commercialized but we look for those whose motivation isn’t to just make money but also has driving force to bring about a change.
10. Tell us about E Farmers hub and what type of solutions are they providing to the agricultural firms? Who are involved under this ecosystem?
We actually created it for a client, Syngeta Foundation, who had a great retailer trade network that they call Farmers’ Hub where high-quality agro input and output are aggregated to be sold. They have some of their own input like soilless seedlings that are more disease-resistant, has better yield, has less maturation time, etc. And so to manage these, we developed a platform with them – a mobile optimized app via which companies can input the data themselves, based on which their financial performance can be tracked.
We have initially seen success with E Farmers and currently more than 500 farmers’ hubs all over the world are using it. In Bangladesh, about 200 retailers have it. And it also exists in Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, Senegal, and 5 other countries.
So our plan is to innovate agriculturally for which the value chain will get highly digitalized. And, so we wanted to work on it with Syngeta Foundation, which is one of the largest agriculture-based company around the globe.
11. What is your view on current Bangladeshi startups and name any firms you think have the potential to do well in the long run?
In terms of Bangladesh, the ecosystem is obviously growing. We already have 1000+ startups at the moment, which is definitely a good thing. If I think sectorwise, the ones that are growing at the fastest rate are ecommerce, logistics mobility, digital media, and digital finance and fintech.
For digital finance and fin-tech, we have bKash and ShopUp. For logisitics mobility, Pathao and Shohoz are the flagbearers. For digital media, we have Bongo and Bioscope, which are like the Bangladeshi Netflix. For ecommerce, apart from Daraz, we have local companies like Chaldal and E-valy.
Education and healthcare are the 2 emerging sectors. For Education, we have Upskill and many other new companies. For Health, we have Praava and Sheba, and Pathao and Shohoz also entered that sector recently.
Recently sectors like gaming and agricultural technology are the ones that are just starting to bloom, such as Gaze.
If we look at the investment side, over the last 5 year, we’ve had international investments close to $280,00,000. But, let’s ignore the top investment raisers, like bKash who alone raised $80,00,000. So if we ignore ShopUp, Shohoz, Pathao, and Chaldal, you may be able to expend $200,00,000 on them.
Maybe the overall ecosystem investment was less, and if we divide the international and local communities, we can see that internationally $70,00,000 was raised but locally it was just $15,00,000. So I’d say that local investment is pretty less. So, a total of $28,00,000 is raised, locally it is much lesser.
To raise it, the local venture companies and investors will have to be more active. If we look at the example of India, they have 750+ venture companies. Bangladesh may have a total of around 20, of which maybe active are even lesser. We need to think about the next-level funding for the system to do better. We could also do Fund of Funds, which is pretty popular in India and is being carried out in South Korea as well. We still have a long way to go but we should be giving incentives to investors.
I think CloudKitchen is doing pretty great, but it is still a part of an emerging sector, but the ones I mentioned earlier are the ones with enough growth. I believe the agriculture-based ones to be a part of ecommerce sector that need more funding and corporate investors.
Venture capital is very common in foreign countries. Who was the one to make the biggest investment in bKash? It was an investor of Alibaba, and the previous investment into bKash came from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is a corporate foundation. Pathao’s investment also comes from Gojek which is again a corporate. So ultimately, to streamline investments, we will need many corporate venture capital as well. To prevent people from investing in real estate, we’ll need to incentivize the funds.
12. Is there any plan to expand the business model of Ligtcastle globally?
We’re already working globally on a few projects in Africa, but our primary goal is to bring international companies to Bangladesh, with the help of a few marketing strategist organizations, like Larive International and we’ve also worked on a lot of projects with PWC DC.
Our primary goal is to increase fund influx in the country and improve the investment environment. So Bangladesh is our first priority but with time, we’ll expand to other countries.
13. We have seen many new entrepreneurs’ starts their journey with good potential but they lose their track within a very short time and quit mid-way. According to you, what are the major weaknesses or lack of opportunities you have found that hinder long run progress?
Like I said, our doing business index is around 165th, which was around 170th a few years ago, out of 190 countries. There are much more hurdles in Bangladesh compared to others. And places where it’s easy, there are so many more competitors.
So, I’d say that each entrepreneurship has its own set of challenges. We saw that in 5 years, close to 90% businesses globally fail – which is a concern, as it means that it has become very normal to fail. What we have to do now is increase our tolerance towards failure, which is currently very less in Asian societies. We tend to believe in the myth of overnight success.
Steve Jobs had failed so many times before he got it right, and Pathao is Ilyas’s 5th/6th venture. Also, the 1st project of Lightcastle was of $7,000 but the ones we currently work on are worth half a million – it didn’t happen at one go, it took us years. So, failing is a part of life, and as long as you learn from it, and you let it make you grow, it’s alright. There’s a Japanese proverb “There are no mistakes in life, there are lessons to be learned”, and that is how all entrepreneurs should think.
14. What will be your suggestions for the young entrepreneurs who are aiming to start their own venture like yours?
A lot of people say that the idea is the most important, but to me, people come first because your team is what’ll execute everything. Now if you have an A category idea to make something very new and innovative, like glasses that, when worn, can give you all the information about the thing you’re looking at, but have a C category team – it’s not possible. But, if you have a C category idea, a basic business of selling lemonade, with an A category team, you’ll be able to go a long way.
I believe that people are the crux of your business that understands the customers and provide the product accordingly. And, don’t be afraid to experiment or take risks. And regarding ideas, choose something that has an intersection of the following 3 - you’re passionate about it, you have the required skillset for it, you can make money from it. If you have them, you can easily create products and services that will become sustainable.
15. What opportunities do Lightcastle currently have for the youth and what skills will they require to contribute in this industry?
Lightcastle regularly hires people from time to time, we currently have some positions vacant. We look for young energetic individuals to join the team at Lightcastle Analytics Bootcamp Consultant Program. People work for 3 months for a particular stipend, and if they did well, we provide them a full-time job.
If you want to be a part of the team, you are more than welcome to contact us. If you’re an entrepreneur, we have various programs for you as well as a Live Institute Program.
At any point in time, through our Partner network, we have a lot of programs that supports accelerators and incubators. In 2019, we had run more than 10 batches of programs and we’re running about 6/7 batches in 2020, most of which are taking place virtually due to the ongoing pandemic. A few days ago, with the government, we ran COVID accelerators. We were also a partner of Call for Nation.