Why pursuing your passion cannot be contained within a framework called ‘Startup’
For the generation just entering the workplace, startups inspire something close to irrational exuberance
From a very early stage in life, we all dream to achieve something that often feels far-fetched and unrealistic. But we carry those dreams within us; silently but surely. Through time and age, these dreams become more mature and we aspire to achieve them at some point in our life. As we grow deeply rooted in our dreams, we become very passionate about how it affects us both while thinking of it or trying to work towards achieving it.
Dreams and Childhood
Being born in a middle-class family, and having studied at local Bangla Medium schools, I was already among the millions of young teenagers who had a rather mediocre education throughout the 12 years we spent in primary and secondary schools.
University wasn't much different either, as it was the same peers, who come from similar backgrounds with a very limited vision regarding life. Despite that, I was always curious when it comes to my personal development and capacity building. I was always involved with opportunities where I could learn for myself and help others learn new skills in life.
Such was the realisation that gave birth to my idea, almost five years ago, to build an institute or a platform that will connect talented, entrepreneurial, and passionate young people in Bangladesh with experienced individuals, mentors, entrepreneurs, and organisations, both locally and internationally. A platform that will work towards building the capacity of the youth and unlock their real potential through meaningful, curated, and engineered paths within a structured process.
When dreams collide with a broken model
But I was swept away at the very beginning. When I went into giving shape to my idea five years ago, I was introduced to the then global buzz-word, 'startup'.
When I bought the website domain for my idea, called InternCity, I even chose a .org domain; mainly because of my state of mind at that point in my life. I was very active in the community organising scene in Dhaka. I was doing social work. I was training and mentoring students at schools and universities.
I had this personal ambition to do good for the people around me, the society we live in, and enabling the dreams of others while chasing the ones I had dreamt for myself.
I also had a daytime job that I was happy with, I had great friends, I was in love with a beautiful girl, my family was doing well, and I had no complaints in life whatsoever.
But the more I explored the concept of a 'startup', the more I slowed down in bringing my idea into a reality. I was given a big list of To-Dos that were supposedly the basic requirements for starting a startup. And I was told, without following these rules or checkboxes, I would not be successful.
As months went by, I struggled to find a developer who would build the backend of my platform (or just even a website) since I come from a purely non-engineering background. I realised most developers in Bangladesh hardly have a full-stack development experience, while their ego and demands are as if they are some Zuckerbergs of the world.
I was also advised that I have to prepare a business model, a three year financial model on a spreadsheet, a 10 slide pitch deck for some 'angel' like investors. I have to do an MVP and validate my concept by showing some tractions for 3–6 months.
I have to hire a CTO, and/or some co-founders to take on the pressure of starting a startup, since quitting my day-time job, burning all my bridges, screwing up my relationship, and losing my friends and families if needed, were also part of the sermons I had received.
After going through endless 'how-to's and listening to the "valuable wisdom" bestowed upon by people who never even had experienced building a startup of their own, I was utterly confused and lost!
Present Day, The Epiphany!
Over the last five years, I tried launching my dream three times, and each time I was far from perfect by the standards of the 'startup' rule book. I was so consumed with the theories and recipes around me, that I started fitting and moulding my dream, my idea within this framework. It became increasingly difficult and painful every time I tried to make it right.
What I didn't observe all these years, being consumed by the 'startup fever' was that the startup model that was preached to us was by default a broken one. It's a model where 95 percent of all startups in the west fail despite all the remedies, 4 percent of the remaining 5 percent barely makes money, and only 1 percent gets to enjoy the actual growth and profit.
I didn't realise that millions of young people like me, every day, are throwing their dreams into this incomplete model called 'startup' and having an early death of their professional career and personal development. I didn't realise that I could just launch my idea five years ago as it was, without a website or a cofounder or a pitch deck or some angel fund, and continue running like a turtle with my own weight to carry towards a distant finishing line.
- If I had mentored 5 students every month on average, by now I would have mentored 300 students.
- If I had trained 15 students every month on average in my limited capacity, by now I would have trained 900 students.
- If I had built a simple spreadsheet and tracked the growth, personal development and skills of these 900 some students, I could also have them get at least 3 internships and 1 full-time job, making it a total of 18,000 job placements over the past 5-year timeline.
Bottom line? I have nothing against the idea of the startup. I just think that startup is rather a career choice in life. It's a personal career to build your own business instead of building someone else's business. It's a choice to work for yourself. But It is not the only way to make our dreams come true.
I strongly oppose the idea of asking the younger generation to jump into building their startup with the ideas they have while studying or after graduation. I contend that we will mislead an entire generation by this and will only create many more depressed future generations with too many things going wrong at the foundation of their professional self early on.
Instead, especially in the context of Bangladesh, if the youth were engaged for a few years of strong learning, mentoring, and crafting a few skills of their own, not only they could be ready enough to start building their ideas but also contribute greatly in the professional job market. The objective here is to differentiate between personal ambition and the means we use to achieve it.
If Adnan S Fakir, a freelance filmmaker, wanted to build a film-making 'startup' while being a university student, he would have never completed Finding Bangladesh documentary with a bunch of volunteers, working with limited resources and almost no external supports. Not only did he finish the film, but it was also awarded at an international film festival, received recognition locally and encouraged them to make the Finding Bangladesh 2. If Ovick Alam, a university first-year student back in 2010, wanted to follow the 'startup' concepts and rule books to build his first company BridgeWee, a preparation centre for English medium students to appear at the Dhaka University, DU admission test (first of its kind), he would have never accomplished what he eventually did in the next four years by becoming a premiere admission coaching centre among the English medium students for DU admission.
If Ejaj Ahmad wanted to build a not for profit 'startup' after returning with a degree from Harvard, I doubt if BYLC, the first and only premier leadership institute in Bangladesh, would have existed for the past six years and would still grow strong.
I can go on and argue about this particular opinion of mine and show enough examples how our ambitions most often cannot be contained within the existing model of launching one's self or a starting a startup. I have never heard Elon Musk mention the word startup when talking about his past experiences of building Pay Pal or even ZIP2. I didn't find Steve Jobs mentioning building a startup when we started Apple or even Pixar, and NeXT in the 80s.
So what's now for me?
Ever since I got into university 12 years ago, I didn't stop for a moment to learn beyond my usual scopes of life. Having spent almost 8 years working in 5 different industries throughout my 20s, I had my share of learning, mistakes, and self-discovery. But running like a racing horse for the past 12 years taking only 2–3 holidays (I took only 21 days of paid holidays out of 126 in the past 6 years!), I felt it was time to take a break and reflect! I needed to decompress, escape from the everyday clutter, enjoy reading, travelling, writing etc before starting my next big endeavour!
Mirza Salman Hossain Beg is currently the Vice President, Head of Innovation at dtac (a Telenor company) based out of Bangkok, Thailand. He's recently co-founded the largest digital farming community in Thailand in collaboration with Yara International. He also co-founded the 4G first fixed wireless broadband business in Thailand among others. Follow him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/salmanhossain/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/salman.hossain