On Entrepreneurship Journey: 3 Stories and 14 Lessons

December 21, 2023

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(I wrote this essay before a talk I was recently invited to give before a small group of aspiring young green entrepreneurs at the Second In-person Mentoring Workshop of YUVA, organized by Bangladesh Youth Environmental Initiative (BYEI). The talk was much shorter. What follows is a longer written version of that talk. Before we go on to the essay, I want you to consider that all stories are simplifications of realities. Reality often involves sophisticated nuances that stories can rarely contain.)

Story 01.

Sheikh Akij Uddin was born in 1929 in Madhyadanga, Phultala, Khulna, East Bengal. His father Sheikh Mofijuddin was a local trader. Akij worked while in school and had to eventually discontinue his studies to help his father in the business. Then came the Bengal famine of 1943. During the famine, he left home for Kolkata. Having no relatives in Kolkata, he made the Sealdah Railway Station his shelter. He would look for work during the day and return to the station to sleep at night. After a while, he got a cleaning job at Zakariya Hotel.

One day, on his way to work, he observed some street retailers purchasing fruits from the sellers on auction and then selling them to different parts of the city. He found the business interesting and eventually opened his store called Nilamwala Chhay Ana (Auctioneer Six Ana). While things were looking up, one day, he got arrested, and the court sentenced him to 3 days in jail and penalized Rs. five.

After getting out of jail, he sold his goods and moved to Peshawar. After spending two years in Peshawar, he returned to Kolkata with some capital and started another small business. He would make about ten thousand rupees (some sources say 10 rupees) by selling the business and would eventually return to his hometown in Phultala. Upon returning, Akij married Sakina Khatun at the age of 19. During this period, he met Bidhu Bhushan, a friend of his father, who was in the Beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes) business. With his help, Akij started his bidi production business in 1952. He also established a grocery shop on the side.

Over the next few years, both businesses would do well. By 1960-62, the Akij beedi factory grew to 250 workers. By 1972, Akij was well on his way to gathering substantial capital. Eventually, Akij Group would become one of the largest conglomerates in Bangladesh. [The group later exited their cigarette business]

Takeaways

One overlooked advantage of starting early is the extra time you get to make mistakes and learn. There are many takeaways from the story of Mr. Akij Uddin. One important insight is that Mr. Akij started early. When Mr. Akij got married he was only 19. By that time he lived in three different cities. Tried four to five different businesses. Failed in a few businesses. Spent several nights in jail and survived one famine. It is a resume that is hard to match. 

Today, we start our career after 25 and by the time we start learning real-world lessons, it is 30. When Akij Uddin was starting his beedi business, which would eventually turn into Akij Group, he already had ample real-life experiences to make good decisions and had developed enough resilience to suffer and endure challenges. 

Find ways to accelerate learning. The second takeaway is that he started two ventures at once, which contradicts my philosophy about what founders should do. My thesis is simple: when you try multiple things at once it creates distractions and increases your chance of failure. It is true. But it can also limit your opportunity to learn from real-life experiences. One way to compensate for this is through constant trial and error in your venture. Mr. Akij chose the world as a playground to experiment and learn. When his beedi business started to grow, he quickly expanded into new verticals. I’m certain some of those verticals didn’t work and he had to shut them down but trying so many things helped him to get closer to the truth of building business in Bangladesh.

Seek tacit knowledge through repeated actions. The key to entrepreneurial success is learning. The only meaningful education is learning by doing.

Experiment—fail/succeed—try again/double down—keep doing it. Most successful businessmen are almost always biased toward action, which is a dangerous superpower. Because the most important entrepreneurship skills are tacit knowledge and easier to learn with practical exposure. Entrepreneurial success takes a long time because important skills take a long time to learn.

Don’t expect things to be easy. Don’t get frustrated when you encounter your first obstacle. When you operate with the understanding that things will be challenging and will not happen easily, you are usually better prepared to handle setbacks.

The fruit of our desire almost always lies on the other end of a dragged-out long and rough trail of action. However, our doggedness doesn’t make things any easier, it simply enables us to endure challenges to cross the chasm.

Successful founders operate with little ego. They are rarely worried about how other people perceive them. They are not used to cheap admirations. In many ways, they live in a state for which modern educated people meditate to reach. This apparent lack of ego allows them to make better decisions. Don’t take things personally and take offense at things easily. One common aspect of company building is that people will reject you often.

Expect and choose difficulty because life can be difficult and entrepreneurship certainly is.

Story 02.

Agri-tech startup iFarmer is now one of the most prominent and fascinating companies in Dhaka’s startup scene. However, it would be a mistake to consider the company followed a straight path to get where it is today.

iFarmer originally started as a side project in 2018. The first business model was to create an Uber for Urban Farming. Six months into launch, the founders figured out that Uber for urban farming wouldn’t work. There was simply not enough demand.

They pivoted to a new model at the intersection of agriculture, finance, and agriculture supply chain. They bootstrapped and tested the new business model. Initially, nobody took them seriously. Agriculture was not a hot sector back then. Moreover, agriculture is a difficult market. Many urban investors and startup investors have a limited understanding of agriculture. Urban people are generally not excited about agriculture.

However, the founders persisted and the persistence almost always pays off. The new company found a product market fit. The growth has since been consistent. Many people who viewed the company with covert skepticism eventually became its champions. Starting with financing for farmers, it has since expanded into inputs, access to market, and relevant verticals within agriculture.

Today, iFarmer is a community of 100,000+ farmers across 35 districts and has facilitated close to 600 Crore BDT in farmers financing.

Takeaways

Don’t wait for a perfect and fully formed idea. Start wherever you are. When we try to start a business or come up with an idea, we usually want to start with a complete/fully formed idea. We want to think through an idea, see ahead, and understand how it will unfold over the years. We make five-year, ten-year plans. We design long-term strategies and plan expansion moves. We try to explain in great detail what will happen after what. Coming up with something supposedly half-baked or not thought through is often viewed negatively. Investors want to know our thoughts about the long term. Our partners want to know what we exactly want to achieve five years from now. 

This need to have a fully formed idea before we can start something makes it difficult to begin and discourages starting anything new. Consequently, we forego plans, give up on ideas, and remain stuck because nothing happens when we don’t begin. We assume if we start without knowing what will happen down the line, we will be in great uncertainty and danger. 

But this is not true. Take the example of iFarmer. Every idea goes through a life cycle and evolves that we often overlook when we are starting. The world of entrepreneurship is littered with examples where the founders originally started with one idea, found out that it wouldn’t work, and evolved into something entirely different. Be gentle with yourself and start. 

Have flexible determination. When we come up with an idea, we naturally feel attached to it. Consequently, we sometimes tend to ignore the signals and feedback from the market and operate with the pollyannaish idea that we’ll eventually make it. The tendency to ignore market feedback and doggedly keep moving ahead causes more startup failures than any other reason. Have flexible determination—a dodged willingness to pursue a goal until it is achieved but a willingness to change approach if something doesn’t work. 

Solve difficult problems and seek out difficulty because often our meanings lie on the other end of a difficult journey. Most people avoid boring and tedious things. Most people avoid difficult questions. Most people don’t want to do difficult and dirty work. If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious and there is less competition there.

Seek Infinite Runway. Find ways to stay alive for a long time. The secret to entrepreneurial success is finding ways to keep trying until you become successful. Anything meaningful takes a long time to build. In the startup world, runway is a critical concept. It generally means the amount of time a business can remain solvent without raising any additional funds. Your most surefire path to success is your ability to continue operating. It means you need to find a way to get to an infinite runway. Live frugally, find ramen profitability, whatever, but make sure you stay in the game.

Story 03.

In 2013, Nabila Nowrin, Co-founder and CEO of Moar, was attending a two-month program in Brazil as part of her Master’s program on Design and Design Thinking at the Illinois Institute of Technology. There she first came across the idea of coworking. She thought she could create a coworking space in Bangladesh and the idea of Moar was born. Until then, she never thought of starting her own coworking space business. When she shared her ideas, many people close to her discouraged her. She was in the middle of her graduate program. She didn’t have the required capital or the skill to start a coworking space. But she knew she wanted to do it and decided to pursue it to the end. While the initial setback did push back the execution of Moar by another two years, it didn’t kill the idea of Moar because she wanted to do it so badly. 

After she graduated from Illinois Tech, Nabila returned to Bangladesh and joined a tech startup, while also looking for ways to start Moar. Working in a startup further reinforced her conviction in the idea that coworking is going to be an important trend. In 2015, she convinced her co-founder Nahid to leave her full-time job, secured a space, and launched Moar.

After a few months into operation, Moar started to gain some slow attention. The Moar team also made extended attempts to bring networks and groups to Moar to host their events, and gatherings to take the word out. The active perseverance helped Moar survive the early difficult days while gradually accelerating traction. By early 2016, after a year of launch, Moar was flourishing. In 2017, Moar moved to its current Banani 11 location and did a grand launch, gaining mainstream attention. In 2019, Moar opened its branch in Dhanmondi. It opened a 3rd location in Gulshan Link Road in 2021. Today, Moar has more than 15,000 square feet of coworking space in operation, a tremendous feat given the size of the tech and startup ecosystem and the cultural awareness of coworking in Bangladesh. 

Takeaways

Seek new experiences. Every encounter has the potential to change the trajectory of our lives. If you consider the story of Moar, it might not have happened without Nabila going to Brazil as part of her master’s project work. That’s such an extraordinary way to look at life and work. The lesson here is that our chance encounters can change our lives. That we should always seek opportunities beyond who we are now and be open to new experiences. Moar apparently is an outcome of a chance experience in Brazil that led to a life-changing decision.

Consider that starting something will take a long time. This is one of the lessons I draw out from the story of Moar that merely wanting something is not sufficient to manifest it and that starting something takes a long time, which is why many people never start anything or they start it and give up. We expect starting something to be easy. Building something can be hard, we can accept that. But why should starting something take a long time? A reasonable expectation. And our expectation frustrates our agency and we give up. 

However, people who eventually find a way to start and make their ideas happen understand this reality. They obsess over their ideas. They can’t think of an alternative where their idea will not exist because they gave up. They understand you don’t come up with an idea one fine morning and go on to execute it the next day, week, or even month. Instead, you come up with an idea, you try to start something around it, you face obstacles, you decide to pause or give up, you try again, and then finally, you manage to get it off the ground.

You can start small and expand gradually. Grand starts are all good. But you don’t always have to feel down because you are not ready to start grandly. You can start small, calibrate, and expand gradually. Moar didn’t even start as a formal business. It started as a side project and part of another business. Once they found some traction, they decided to expand it. 

Commit to success and do the work. One challenge I face is that I sometimes don’t commit to succeed. I try things casually and accept failure too easily. I think part of the reason is because it is so much easier psychologically. While accepting failure and having a high tolerance for rejection is important, giving yourself a free pass to fail is not a good strategy either. I think we should work hard and try as hard as we can not to fail. If you fail after trying your best, that’s alright. Accept that failure and move on by all means. But never operate with a tacit acknowledgment that I’ll try but I’ll probably fail. Instead, go all in. Have a high tolerance for failure but try not to fail. We should work hard and try as hard as we can to not fail. 

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