Maliha M Quadir
Founder & CEO
Creating Ride Solutions Through Tech
It was a wonderful Saturday morning and the commute to Shohoz’s Gulshan office from Bashundhara was easy; there was almost no traffic. I was going to meet Maliha M Quadir, the founder and CEO of Shohoz, a web-portal that started its journey four years ago with digital ticketing services for interdistrict travel by bus in Bangladesh. The country that has always made the headlines for road traffic accidents and the sorry state of the public transport system is now being recognized for a tech-based company that aims to solve these problems. The start-up was able to execute the mammoth task of getting a bus and launch companies to affiliate with their ticket services; proving that innovation thrives when there is a necessity.
Last week Shohoz unveiled details of the $15 million in funding they received for Shohozrides, the ride-sharing wing of the company. This service aims at making life easier for commuters in a city where everyone grapples with an insurmountable traffic gridlock every day.
An Out and Out Tech Company
As I entered the office, a big table tennis board welcomed me. On the ride hand side, was a room painted with white and orange stripes, reminding me of their old logos. “Think Digital” is written in the emboldened font on the backdrop of a meeting table. Upon entrance, you realize that tech is the life-blood of this company. They recently launched a new logo, from which one can easily consider Shohoz to be an aficionado of everything young and digital. They opted for a primary color, green, associated with the youth and chose a minimalist font, matching with the slogan beneath – “jibontake shohoz korun” – calling out to people with a promise to make their lives easier.
The Big Leap
Our dialogue began with how she approached Golden Gate. Maliha politely corrected me, “It was not the only firm that has stakes in this huge investment. Of the $15 million raised during the pre-series B investment, Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures is the lead investor. Other investors participating in this round include Linear VC, 500 Startups and Singaporean angel investor Koh Boon Hwee. This was our fourth round of fundraising.” Maliha, who has always taken a great interest in economics, is grateful to the network she harnessed ever since her Harvard days. Before starting Shohoz, this corporate-turned-technopreneur had a remarkable stint at Morgan Stanley in New York, Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, Vistaprint, and Nokia. The exposure has certainly helped Maliha identify her holy grail – do something tech-related that can solve a problem in her country and create revenue at the same time.
Building & Branding a Digital Bangladesh
Shohoz paved its own way in a new market and plays a crucial role in developing Digital Bangladesh. So it comes as a no-brainer that angel investors from Europe and the US had no qualms backing the company. However, she feels that the demand for a local angel network is immense. “It takes a long time to reach the profitability of a tech company. Furthermore, local investors should have a thorough understanding of that fact that procuring funding is difficult.” Maliha is a tale of success in a space that was not expected and she wants this story to show Bangladesh in a positive light. “The country has been maintaining a steady 6%+ GDP for decades and that’s a feat that would be highly commendable in foreign investment circles, but not many of them know about it.”
Maliha believes that collaboration and partnerships are a necessity in order to grow. It is this dynamic that has put Shohozrides on the road to success. “It is high time we collaborate with global expertise and brand our country with proper storytelling. The digital advancements that we have made here in Bangladesh are phenomenal. In many cases, we are way ahead of our neighboring countries. But have we represented those facts properly?” She particularly praises the recent decisions made by the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) to attract more foreign direct investment. Like all her contemporaries, she praises the private-sector led growth. Nevertheless, Maliha admits that bureaucratic tangles and delays in implementation of projects exist, but she thinks these issues are not only endemic to our country. In this connection, she mentions the annual report that charts down the Ease of Doing Business in countries. “I think we should get in touch with the authority behind these kinds of publications and support them with more facts and figures. This will put Bangladesh on a higher ranking.”
The “Mobile-first” Strategy
As our discussion took a more focused turn, I inquired about the inception of Shohozrides. “The idea of launching the ride-sharing app came to me in early 2016; but at that time, it was illegal in our country, which is why we didn’t pursue that goal. We launched Shohozrides on the same day the government approved ride-sharing, which proves the idea was already in the works.” She differentiates between Shohoz’s maiden portfolio and now, saying it stands apart for a number of reasons: “The bus ticket booking service is doing well. We have come a long way in the last five years. However, this is not a frequently used product, whereas the ride-sharing service is. The former is web-centric, while the latter is mobile-based. This is also in line with our “mobile-first” strategy. We are happy that as of April 2018’s data, Shohozrides have offered around 1 million rides.”
The company is now eyeing other popular app-based delivery services, i.e. food delivery. “We are executing on a grander “super-app” strategy. To help Shohoz finance this growth, Shohoz has brought onboard a great lineup of experienced international and regional investors that bring tremendous consumer technology experience, strategic foresight on technology trends in the region, and deep networks which will help us expedite the evolution of our Shohoz super app,” she elaborates. Maliha has some ideas to share when it comes to the progress of the booming tech business: “The bandwidth cost is very high here. This has to come down, which will eventually encourage more people to use the internet. At the same time, payment gateway and credit card fees are something that needs to go down too.” She affirms that a digital nation is not possible without a meticulous plan. ”If we really want to build a Digital Bangladesh, we have to come up with a vision and execution plan that ensures inclusivity and mass awareness about the products that we have to offer.”
No More Business as usual
Maliha does not believe in charity. “When you empower people with the necessary tools, they have the license to build their own future.” This is why she thinks every business should consider itself from the point of view of a social business, creating values, while generating revenues and giving back to society. And with tech businesses, this is possible even more because it can bring a huge pool of consumers under one umbrella with the help of a digital platform. Speaking of outsourcing business, which a big number of youths in our country are looking forward to, Maliha thinks it’s important to have a holistic idea and knowledge of developing a product. “Many freelancers are happy getting small works from multiple employers that earn them good money. However, in the long run, it doesn’t empower them with the skill of developing their own products.” She points out that product development is a precursor to putting anything into the market. “Learning product development is so damn important. I think this has to be mandatory for everyone to do one-year of hands-on training in coding and programming willing to build their career in tech. Without the right technical skill set, we cannot dream bigger, let alone execution.”
Going with the flow
Maliha takes notes from her past as she speeds into the future. She received her best advice as she emerged into her vocational life at Morgan Stanley. “My mentors emphasized the importance of flexibility. Of course, we all have that five-year plan at the beginning of our career,” but that should not be set in stone according to her. ” As we grow, we must know how to adapt to the changing scenario. You never know where life will take you.”
As I was winding up the interview, another slogan on the wall of her room caught my eye. “We can and we will.” I asked one last question, “Will you try your luck in businesses other than tech?” She looks at me with a winning smile and quips, “Tech is my area; tech is my business and tech is changing the world, period.”