Drop the term startup in any conversation and ask the audience what they picture. You will notice that the majority of the audience usually pulls forth an image of a successful tech firm based in Silicon Valley, and zooms in to focus on the team members not dressed in conventional office attire, but sporting a relaxed look, some coding away endlessly on their laptops, sipping on coffee in an avant-garde office space, or engrossed in conversations with elated clients and investors. There are at least four things wrong with this image.
First, not all startups provide technological products or services. A quick survey of the current market shows that there are companies providing a range of goods and services, from teaching programming to children and implementing that knowledge to solve problems at hand (The Tech Academy); to conducting live classes directed at educating students on a variety of topics (10 Minute School); or incubating startups by taking their ideas from inception to conceptualisation and finally helping to turn them into scalable, profitable and impactful solutions (Toru); and integrating madrasah students into mainstream society by providing them access to various platforms (Leaping Boundaries).
Second, these firms are no longer solely based in Silicon Valley, but have emerged all over the world, with many firms being crowdfunded, or having successfully acquired seed funding, private equity financing and promises from venture capitalists. Dhaka city can proudly boast about the sheer number of startups in operation and in the pipeline.
Three, a startup is not necessarily a profitable firm, at least not in the first couple of months of operation. If lucky, it may be able to break even in the first couple of years, given they survived in this competitive market where many startups wither and die out due to a lack of financial capital.
Four, team members are far from relaxed. They work around the clock, never being able to unplug. More often than not, these firms employ an all-hands-on deck approach, including those of the founder himself/herself. Drawing on my experience as a volunteer educator with The Tech Academy from November 2015 to June 2016, I have found that hiring team members that believe in the mission and vision of the founder of the startup is a lengthy and somewhat unsuccessful process. Too often, the team members are looking for a placeholder in their resume and do not invest in the company, resulting in a high turnover rate.
Most startups open their headquarters in the bedroom/s of their founders, where they spend countless hours developing a viable, implementable business model. In the time they move from their bedroom to the first small office space and from the first to the second, larger space, they have to jump over a number of hurdles, which increase in complexity the larger these startups get.
In line with the objective to reach a middle-income status through the acceleration of growth in the industry and services sector as outlined in Vision 2021, much has been done to promote skill development, entrepreneurship, sound financial institutions, and creating a conducive environment in general for these organisations to thrive and expand. However, there still remains a number of challenges unaddressed and unresolved, the most common one being the capital constraints that they face.
The phenomenon of startups is relatively new in the context of Bangladesh and there has been no provision for them in the investment and trade policies of the country. Yes, there are provisions for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), but these startups are inherently different and require a different set of rules and regulations. Most of these organisations struggle to pay their overheads, relying disproportionately on self-financing, as potential investors are uninformed of such opportunities. There needs to be collaboration between the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA; previously known as the Board of Investment) and a representation of the founders of startups to focus on the creation of a strategic plan of action that would provide support to the startups, from inception to expansion into the global arena. The role of BIDA is crucial in attracting foreign investment as they shoulder the responsibility of tailoring the investment climate to tge beeds of potential investors.
However, before investing in the creation and potential future expansion, the startups need to survey the market to see whether there is sufficient and sustainable demand for the product in the domestic and foreign markets. I have had quite a number of students pitching ideas that initially sound great, but on deliberation turn out to be gimmicky and unsustainable in the longer run. Being myopic would ultimately result in the failure of the startup, and the collaboration mentioned above would be crucial to correctly identify the opportunities and forecast the demand at home and abroad. This is where organisations like Toru can play and are playing an indispensable role. In a conversation with Ishrat Jahan, a communications and research assistant at Toru, she explained the range of services that are offered to the early stage social enterprises. Through strategic partnerships with local and global networks and institutions, they provide a holistic growth journey for social entrepreneurs by immersing them in local challenges, and by providing mentoring and early stage support for their business ideas and personal growth.
The ensuing challenge is the dearth of innovation once they reach a substantial size. The success of a startup is contingent upon the product or service it provides to the consumers. One piece of advice I would like to give to future entrepreneurs is to not milk a cash cow, but to constantly innovate, innovate and innovate. A startup by definition is a company that provides innovative goods and services. To ensure competitiveness and success, they must always strive to provide an innovative solution to increasingly complex problems that consumers face.
As a startup grows in size and fame, it will attract copycats to the industry. Although desirable, as it creates competition, to continue to grow beyond the domestic market, the startups must engage in research and development, constantly striving to solve cutting edge problems. To achieve that, they need to be on the lookout for team members who recognise the needs of the consumers and are equipped with skills to cater to them. One would like to draw attention to the erroneous perception that being a dropout is a prerequisite for being the successful founder of a successful startup. It is not. One's education will provide one with the most basic set of skills that you need in this globalised era to compete with the rest of the world.
The startups need to collaborate with schools and universities at home and abroad to provide the right signals to both the institutions and the students as to what skills are required so that the curriculum could reflect the market needs. Conversations with the youth workforce reveal that they are employed in positions that under-employ them, thereby underutilising their true potential and the training they have received at their schools and universities. Such collaboration could take the form of participation in career days and provision of internships, where the startups recruit students and give them on-the-job training, and groom them for a full-time position within the organisation if s/he is willing and is a good fit. The EMK Centre has organised what can be classified as startup open houses, which allow the participating startups to gain more visibility with the public, the visitors to learn more about the company's work, mission, and culture, and attract potential local/foreign investors through these. Networking is the key to acquiring clients and investors.
As a founder, learning to effectively delegate your work to the rest of the team is often a challenge that stumps most. Trusting those working with you and sharing the burden of the work and your vision of the company will not only enable you to expand your operations, but will also give you the assurance that in your absence, the company will continue to grow and excel. Show your appreciation for your team members as every single person working with you on your vision has a crucial role to play, starting from the inception of the product/service to delivering it to the customers. As the startup grows in size, ensure that the team members are still able to communicate with you as they did in the initial stages. Remember that a disgruntled team member is a demotivated one, and that it will affect the prospects of your growth. Invest in your team members and collect and incorporate the feedback they provide.
Maintaining an online presence in this era is a fundamental marketing strategy. It is important to properly market the product to the customers and to do so, the companies must harness the power of the social media. It is not enough to hire what has come to be known as a social media manager, who posts about the company and its product, but also to reach out to the customers and get their feedback on their experience and suggestions. Consumers take to the social media to complain or to praise about their experiences with a company and its products/services. The social media manager in collaboration with the research and development team must create and recreate the demand for the product by surveying the customers constantly to understand what needs the customer want fulfilled and what is s/he willing to pay for it.
Customer service, although crucial to their prospects of scaling up, is one of the avenues where startups may lose out on. Not acquiring clients, but ensuring customer satisfaction should be the main motive. Imagine my surprise upon returning to Dhaka in 2015 after being away for two years to find that we now had online food delivery services! I was overjoyed at the boundless prospects that lay ahead for a foodie like me. Imagine again my disappointment when I encountered absolutely horrible customer service at the hands of both the service providers, whose online customer care representatives proceeded to teach me how to calculate time when I complained about the delay in delivery. To add insult to the injury, the food arrived cold and tasteless, and I haven't ordered from either of them since, making it a point to recount my experience with my friends and family. This would subsequently result in a loss of the customer base, solely through my word of mouth.
My recommendation would be to take care of the increasing number of customers as you scale up. Get to know them, invest in a relationship with them. Send them care packages, gifts on their birthdays or anniversaries, and start a loyalty program that rewards them periodically. Follow up after making your sale, offer free installations, have a 24x7 helpline, have dedicated relationship agents for your clients to document their experiences, and improve on the criticisms that they offer. There is no better way to get customers to come back to you over and over again than by showing them that you care. This might sound like a Hallmark greeting card, but it works every single time.
This list is not an exhaustive one of all the challenges that startups face, but sheds light on the most essential ones. Recognising these and strategising appropriately to address them would enable these startups to expand sustainably beyond the domestic market and take advantage of the preferential trade agreements we have negotiated with countries across the world. However, the ability to go global with products and services produced at home will depend on the extent to which we can tailor them to the needs of the international customer, and this is where constant innovation and the role of the social media manager as mentioned above become pivotal. Bangladesh is abound with possibilities, and the entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens can contribute to the growth and the prosperity of the nation to effectively realise the goals set for the 50th year if proper strategies can be devised.
The writer is Lecturer, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, BRAC University. She is interested in reshaping public policies to work for the stakeholders, in the design of urban cities, and is an avid reader. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.