10 start-up lessons I learnt while building Pathao (Part 1)


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We started Pathao in 2015 with 4 people. We made technology and helped deliver packages – often doing both of them ourselves. In 2016, we launched Pathao Rides through a secret Facebook group.

In these 3 years, Pathao has grown to become the fastest growing startup of Bangladesh. In fact, when more than 6 million people thought of moving, they thought of Pathao. With Pathao Rides operating in 3 cities and Courier nationwide – every day we help move Bangladesh in more ways than one.

Today, I share with you some lessons I’ve learned while on this journey.

Lesson 1: Build yourself before you build a company

“If you want to change the world, start with yourself”

– Mahatma Gandhi

In 2015, when we started Pathao, I was responsible for tasks starting from illustrating our first logo to making designs for our first app to building our first website to maintaining our social media page.

My skills in front-end web development, UI/UX and print design helped us get those things done quickly and without hiring 3 more people at the time.

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A year later when we were launching Pathao Rides, we literally had to take to the streets and create awareness about the concept of “Ride sharing” — which was quite unheard of in Bangladesh at the time. My friend Kishwar and I took ~ 200 leaflets and a couple of bike riders with us each day and hit public spots like in front of universities, restaurants and offices – we pitched the concept of ride sharing to anyone who would listen, encouraging them to take their first ride right then.

These were some of our first customers.

Our people skills helped us do this. We could not afford to have a sales team to go out and convince people, we had to do it ourselves.

Thus, it is important that you too develop real world skills that will help you contribute to those early days of your company. These skills could range from programming to graphic design to marketing know-how to having people skills. (I rank them in no particular order)

Lesson 2: Working overtime is the expectation, not an exception

“Work like there is someone working 24 hours a day to take it away from you.”

– Mark Cuban

In 2015, when Pathao was starting out we had a team size of 3/4 people. It was Elius, Adnan, Wasif and myself. We had to build our business model, build our technology stack, hire delivery agents, get clients, do social media, maintain our office space, do accounting, do customer service, get legal documents and a myriad of other big and small chores- all with 4 people.

It’s like those games where an endless number of things keep falling from the sky and you have to keep moving to catch them.  Drop one, and game over.

Given we had all these tasks and only a quartet team – we had to work REALLY long hours. I clocked in 12 hour work days (10am-10pm) and often delivered packages on my way home. I did this not for days or weeks but for months. We all did this.

This meant sacrificing social life and spending less time with our families. For me, this also meant less time to study for school (or less time to sleep, really).

If you’re starting a company, you’ll probably need to put in a lot of effort as well. Be ready for this.

Lesson 3: Pragmatism trumps all else

If you attend enough startup conferences or listen to enough motivational speakers, you’ll hear one piece of advice repeated over and over again: You’ve got to love what you do! If you don’t love what you do, you might as well stay home. After all, even Steve Jobs famously told Stanford’s 2005 graduating class,

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.

If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

I don’t buy it.

There’s nothing wrong with loving what you do, of courseI just don’t think it’s a prerequisite for starting a business.

In fact, that is true for how we started Pathao. Neither Elius nor Adnan loved delivering packages. I certainly didn’t have a passion for logistics. We saw something that didn’t exist (Pathao Rides) and scoped out an opportunity to do something better than what had been done before (Pathao Courier).

We built things that we thought were missing in the world. We built things that we would use ourselves.

To that end, while building a company I’d say you need to be thoughtful about what you’re building and not get caught up in the romanticism of building things.

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Lesson 4: Starting your first company isn’t a very pleasant experience

Starting your first company is going to result in a lot of failures.

Before we met, Adnan built the technology stack for Dugdugi, the spotify of Bangladesh. They were the hottest startup back in the early days of the startup scene in Dhaka. They failed.

Wasif tried making a media platform with some friends. They failed.

Elius was somewhat involved with both Adnan and Wasif’s projects. He too had a built a bunch of stuff before we met. Most notably, he made http://istomorrowhartal.com – which went viral in 2015.

I had my first project back in 8th grade. It was an event management startup I started with 5 friends. It failed. Then came a series of gigs which included freelancing on Fiverr, starting an online fashion store, trying to build an app that would help me talk to girls (don’t ask) and working as a graphics designer doing freelance work and then working at Chaldal, a Y-combinator backed startup in Dhaka.

Every one of those ventures taught us something new. We gained a ton of experience. We knew exactly what we needed to fail; now, we just needed to find how to succeed.

Like us, you will likely encounter failure in first attempt at building a business. And that’s fine. What matters most is whether you can dust yourself off and keep moving forward.

Lesson 5: Done is better than perfect

All our lives, we’ve been taught not to fail and always play safe. Our social/cultural norms are risk aversive. In 2015, when we were starting out and were experimenting with a number of business ideas, we had to have a culture that encouraged us to try things and not be stigmatized by failure. This would mean sailing against the wind.

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I championed this idea of valuing experience and learning over our traditional notion of success. We needed to engrain this mantra in ourselves at the time. I made a poster with the quote “Done is better than perfect” and pasted it on our office walls.

Ship more, make mistakes, learn more, and improve

To fail fast and fail better, we needed to get our products to the market, gather data on how the market responds, and iterate from there. We needed to do this fearlessly.

Over the years my appreciation has grown for this approach.

If you’re building a new business, especially a tech business, then you need to get your product in the hands of your customers as soon as possible. Avoid the trap of spending a year building something you think is great but your customers don’t want.

This approach may not be a fit for businesses of all stages. As Pathao grew, I had to grow out of this mentality in some areas of our business. Compliance, for example. Our legal paperwork had to be nothing short of perfect, especially since we’re a new kind of business and the regulations surrounding us were ambiguous. We had to be spot on.

That being said, I’m convinced that for an early stage startup, shipping a minimum viable version of your product as soon as possible is the way to go. Ship more, make mistakes, learn more, and improve.

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Author

Ahmed Fahad

I'm passionate about finding scalable solutions to real world problems and making meaningful products and companies. I enjoy meeting people, building great teams, learning and helping others grow. And that's exactly what I'm doing as VP of Product at Pathao.
Ahmed Fahad

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