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‘Never invest more than you can afford’

 

Steve Landman lives off the suitcase and you would have somehow gotten the vibe of his jet-pack lifestyle during the first meet. He evokes the image of the character “Ryan Bingham” from the movie “Up in the Air” and he agrees, “You got it right my friend,” said Steve with a smile.

Steve’s career progression has its unexpected roots as an early Oracle employee, back when Oracle was a startup and he could call Marc Benioff a co-worker. From there, it was the life of a serial startup guy, starting companies, selling some of them (one to HP).

This dynamic entrepreneur recently came to Bangladesh and the Fintech team got the chance to sit with him for half an hour for an interview. Here is an excerpt of the conversation that we had with him.

FINTECH: How did you start your career? What was your first job?

My first job was at a startup, 36 years ago. The startups name was Oracle. I had no idea what they did and I just liked the name so I decided to have a go at that.

FINTECH: So how did you end up working there, what was your qualification and what were they looking for?

I was right out of university and it was a new company, the whole concept of relational database was new, and I saw that they were hiring, and so I went in and was interviewed and got the job. So I was there for five years. And I worked in the sales department of the company.

FINTECH: You are originally from the US, right? Which part of US?

I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in New York City. Then I ended up in Silicon Valley.

FINTECH: In your CV I have seen that there is an address of Vietnam. Are you currently based in Vietnam?

I am semi-based in Vietnam. Well, my home is in airplane. So for my work in Asia I am based in Hanoi.

FINTECH: Why the tech companies of Silicon Valley are most interested in investing in Vietnam? What Vietnam has that we [Bangladesh] don’t?

To be honest, I didn’t end up there in Vietnam because of technology. I went there to build a healthcare clinic. So to answer your question, I think the Vietnam government is pretty open to investment and they see themselves as place for outsourcing. They try to attract a lot of technologies not only in ICT but also in agri-tech, in clean tech and stuff like that. That’s why, as a country it has managed to accomplish a tech revolution

FINTECH: You started in a very big corporation like Oracle and after that you started your own business. So how was the transition, I mean working for a big company then starting your own thing?

The reality is that I started small companies, enterprises before I worked at Oracle. I actually founded my first company when I was only eight years old. In 1976 there was an oil embargo and we had no gasoline in the United States. There were long lines of cars to get gasoline, and this idea came to me that I would try to sell something to the people who were stuck there in the line.

So I ended up getting my mother to make coffee, loan me some money to buy doughnuts, newspapers and I sold them to the people who were waiting in line. That was my first business. After my graduation from the university, I went to work for Oracle. To tell you the truth, I hated it. I hated working for a big company because you are just a number in the company. You are a slave to someone else who is doing well and sees the vision. But it was a great place to learn, nonetheless.

FINTECH: You style yourself as a ‘parallel entrepreneur’. Can you tell us the subtle difference between a serial entrepreneur and a parallel entrepreneur?

Serial entrepreneur usually goes for one after another business whereas the parallel entrepreneur is doing several at one time.

FINTECH: How many companies have you founded in your career?

I have so far founded a total of 18 companies. I have sold ownership of about 12 of them and floated IPO of three. I sold one of my companies to Motorola and one to HP.

FINTECH: Can you tell us about those companies?

After Oracle, I decided I didn’t like technology, so I bought an event company that puts up stages, tables and chairs, and I ran that for about five years. I was lucky enough to be born in that era when the first dot com bubble happened. So I got involved in that.

My second company used to do online credit card processing. After that, I founded the first consumer health portal called the healthchannel.com and later bio exchange which was a bio pharmaceutical portal for lab collaboration.

FINTECH: How did you get the expertise to build those companies?

I usually identified problems, and then I started thinking about creating solutions for those problems. Besides, I partnered with people who had development capability.

FINTECH: So you basically see yourself as a problem finder and then you go for the solutions. That’s how you ended up founded those companies, right?

Almost all of them; I found a problem and then I looked for the solution.

FINTECH: What are the current companies that you own?

I currently own Carego International which builds healthcare clinics around the world. There are about 670 healthcare clinics in 10 countries around the world. Vietnam was the most difficult country I worked in so I sold those two launch hospital networks. Prior to building healthcare clinics in Vietnam, I built them in Kenya, Congo, Rwanda, India and Tanzania.

FINTECH: You also own Kiu. What does it do? What is its product?

Kiu means to bridge, it is an ancient Chinese word that means to bridge, to bridge people, communities, countries together. Kiu started off as a project from the Asian Development Bank, so they paid me to research the problems that are being faced by SMEs or enterprises and farmers in all of Asia.

I interviewed about 600 SMEs by myself door to door. And there was 20 problems overall that everyone had and every single SME had three problems. Those were access to finance, marketing and digitization. So after I learned of the challenges I went back to Silicon Valley and I convinced my friends at Oracle, Google and Amazon to help me build a platform that will aid to model and analyze the SME data.

So in Kiu, we basically collect the data, analyze it and basing on it we help bank disbursing loan to SMEs or we do it by ourselves. In Bangladesh, we have launched the operation of Kiu almost six months ago.

FINTECH: What is the response here?

It’s pretty good. The reality is that SMEs want to digitize. I think for the most part people have offered solutions that were either too expensive, unusable or they didn’t trust the company would be here for a long time investing in Bangladesh. Because it is not an easy country to do business, it takes time, commitment, and investment.

FINTECH: The tech companies in Bangladesh are not getting that much investment from anyone and they are still considered as SMEs here. These are like small software companies which have their offices inside residential areas. So what is your assessment of the Bangladesh market?

I think that there are some great talents here. I think you are also very lucky to have many Bangladeshis who have gone to school abroad or lived abroad, come back and contributed. A friend of mine who is a Bangladeshi used to work at Google; now he is back here. Honestly I think it is a great market, I mean there are so many SMEs.

But again it is going to take time. I also think the perception needs to be changed in the country because the reality is most great technology companies didn’t start in high-rises. And I think the reality is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a beautiful building, you don’t need to have that huge overhead when you try to create a business that’s sustainable.

Just consider the example of Airbnb. I went to Airbnb when it was a startup. They had an one room apartment and they asked me the question “So you wanna’ buy space in our couch to sleep?” I was surprised to see that. I had the opportunity to invest in the Airbnb, but I didn’t. I regret the decision. The point I am trying to make here is that for starting a technology company, you don’t need big buildings. All you need is mindset.

FINTECH: Can you give few advices to our readers for starting a startup?

I got to tell you, when I started my company early on I didn’t do the market research. I didn’t understand the customer. I didn’t even care. But you need to understand the customer, you need to understand if they want it and if they want to buy it. Market research is very important.

My first advice would be to make it simple. Make a simple solution to the problem so that they understand it, get their arms around it.

My second advice would be: to never invest more than you can afford. I can tell you when I was young, I kept on investing, and trying things out and it took much longer like healthcare clinics took way longer than I expected.

Be nimble, be willing to change things, look at things differently. Don’t build a plan and stay focused on that plan because you never know when you will be able to turn and change.

The last one is: don’t look for investment; investment is the worst thing you can do. So in most developing countries I have seen NGOs come in and teach startups how to present to the investors. The reality is almost no one gets investment because usually investments are built over relationships not by preaching to someone whom you don’t know. It is really tough, especially in places like the Silicon Valley, and in Asia it is really tough because most of the time strangers won’t invest in strangers, they will invest on family and friends before they invest in a stranger. So focus on a sustainable business plan.

FINTECH: Can you tell us a small anecdote, a funny incident from your experience in the investment scenario? You went through a tough time to get your business running or something like that.

I don’t know if it is funny but I like being poor when you have a startup because money I don’t believe solve problems. Human beings solve problems. It is better to be resourceful with little money because when you get money, you become fat and lazy, and you think money will solve all problems. And so when I started the clinic business, I had no money which was great, I became resourceful and we were much better. And then we got quite a bit of money, we started to be lazy, sloppy, and then we couldn’t raise any more money.

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