The Olympic Industries executive director talks family business and the rocky journey to scaling start-ups
It was 2008. Samad Miraly had just left his alma mater, the University of British Columbia. He was in Vancouver, contemplating on which path to choose for his career.
There were two options. One, he could stay in Canada and make a living amid the global recession. Two, he could come back to Bangladesh and seize business opportunities in his own backyard.
At that time, the global financial crisis had created a shaky job market in Canada, just like in many other parts of the world. Word spread that this could lead to the fall of the West and the rise of Asian economies.
After much deliberation, Samad decided to come back to Bangladesh in 2009. After all, he had a family and social network here.
"I joined Olympic Industries in 2010. My job started in the factory," said Samad, who became the executive director of the company about five years ago.
From the very beginning, Samad was envious of his grandfather's business prowess. The family business was going ahead full throttle at that time. Samad was picking up the ABCs of running a big company.
Now, his focus is on the export market.
Samad had always liked gadgets. He believed technology would one day engulf every sphere of our lives. It was no wonder he would gravitate towards the imminent start-up boom in Bangladesh.
Since the early 2010s, he started attending networking events, looked for businesses to invest in, and grab an understanding of how the local start-up scene would shape up in the coming days.
Samad made his first angel investment in 2013.
"I invested in Magnito Digital," said Samad, who credits it as the first digital marketing company in Bangladesh.
That very year, StartupDhaka, an organisation that plays an active role in the local start-up ecosystem, was born in the hands of Mustafiz R Khan, Fayaz Taher, and Samad.
As the start-up scene of Bangladesh was somewhat of a gold mine, awaiting to be unearthed and leveraged at that time, Samad and his partners always looked for the answers to these questions: How do we find a scalable solution for these budding entrepreneurs? How can we help them get funded and thrive?
To find the answers, Samad and his partners decided to start an entrepreneurship accelerator programme. He helped create the curriculum for the programme while Fayaz and Mustafiz helped him connect with Grameenphone through its then-Head of Strategy, Erlend Prestgard. Together with Grameenphone, Startup Dhaka launched the GP Accelerator, the country's first accelerator programme.
"No one can do these things alone. So, we reached out to our acquaintances in the scene, both at home and abroad. Experts from global accelerators like Barclays, Techstars, and i2i advised us as we started from scratch," Samad said.
He mentioned Jess Williamson, the director of Techstars, who gave valuable advice for GP Accelerator.
GP Accelerator ran for about three years. The programme helped 26 start-ups prepare for the market and be ready to get investment. Then StartupDhaka ended the partnership with Grameenphone, but why?
"As the start-up scene leaned closer to a more mature phase, we wanted to tackle new challenges. We noticed that the start-ups in the accelerator were only doing good till their graduation. After leaving the accelerator, they hardly got any funding," Samad explained why he and his partners were keen to move away and play a more effective role as venture capitalists.
Samad said capital funding in Bangladesh is a big obstacle to scaling businesses. Financing opportunities are still very limited for start-ups.
"Sometimes, people who have money want to own the whole company," Samad opined about one of the many problems faced by promising new businesses.
"We should start a venture capital firm" – that was the light bulb moment when Samad, along with his partners, decided they should come forth to solve the greatest obstacle to scaling businesses – financing. Partnering with IDLC Venture Capital Fund 1 was the next phase of Samad's journey into the start-up landscape.
Arif Khan, the CEO of IDLC Finance Limited, played an instrumental role in drafting guidelines for start-up funding in Bangladesh.
"Arif bhai is a former commissioner of Bangladesh Securities and Exchange Commission, a friend, and one of the most dynamic individuals I know. So, we thought, why not partner with IDLC. Startup Dhaka has entrepreneurial knowledge, and IDLC has finance expertise. Together, we can facilitate effective funding rounds and do venture capital right in Bangladesh," Samad said.
Samad explains that IDLC Venture Capital Fund 1 is the "first successfully launched VC fund" in Bangladesh, since, he tells, "So far, VCs have invested their own money. In our case, we, have raised money from external partners."
Samad believes that he or any other businessperson can start an accelerator or VC firm by themselves. But the bottom line is that nobody can succeed alone in this game. "We did not do it alone. There has to be a collaborative spirit in this world of start-ups," he added.
"Institutional funding is imperative if you want an organised and thriving ecosystem," Samad said. "In the developed world, institutional funding is one of the key reasons start-ups do not die while scaling because systematic investment is there."
Samad mentioned the case of Chaldal – an ecommerce start-up that IFC invested in alongside IDLC. "Such funding rounds would only increase once we earn the trust of foreign investors. When it comes to trust, institutional funding plays an important role in validation. Having local, professional institutional capital is a great reassurance to foreign investors."
The success rate of start-ups is universally low. We asked Samad to talk about some whys of failure while scaling start-ups.
"There are many reasons for failure. Take, for instance, bad timing and egoistic nature of co-founders among others. As I have already stressed financing, it also can make or break your start-up. Another red flag is hiring. If you hire the wrong people, it can destroy your company in two days," Samad pointed out.
As the conversation moved towards his role in the Olympic Industries, Samad credited his father for the psyche he had developed as a businessman.
"I try to keep my nose clean and be honest, come what may," Samad said while talking about the principles his father had instilled in him during his formative years.
Born to a fourth-generation Kenyan father and a Bangladeshi mother, Samad's life was a back and forth between Canada and Bangladesh. When he settled in Bangladesh, he got to get his hands in the family business and now, he believes, Olympic is doing reasonably well.
"Today, 95% of Olympic's revenue comes from food products," Samad said. His shared vision of Olympic is simple: Give the customers a taste of home.
"Since we are concentrating on export marketing, we want to cater to the Bangladeshi expats in Singapore or the Bangladeshi executives based in New York," Samad painted a bigger picture where every expat Bangladeshi could easily get their hands on an Olympic product.
Samad brought Olympic Energy Plus biscuit – a classic snack of the company – into the conversation. "10 years ago, a pack of Energy Plus would cost you Tk10. Now, it will cost you Tk13. The price increased very reasonably, but we have not compromised on quality. This principle is also true for our entire catalogue of products," Samad said, explaining how Olympic strives to make their products available for people from every walk of life.
As Bangladesh is moving towards becoming a middle-income nation, Olympic also wants to seize the opportunity to manufacture a segment of premium products. "The middle-class demographic in the country is growing. Olympic wants to make premium products that suit their taste," Samad said.
"I do not know if you have heard of CD players," Samad lightly cracks a millennial joke, adding, "If both Japan and China make CD players, which one would you prefer buying? Japanese, right? This is what we desire to achieve as a company. A standard so good, just like the Japanese electronics you can trust."