BongoBD, the leading company in the digital content industry of the country, has won the prestigious Gold Play Button award from YouTube, for reaching 1,000,000 subscribers. Founder and CEO of BongoBD Ahad Mohammad Bhai shares the challenges they faced on their way to such glory, with Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Al Faruque Ratul
What vision did you initially have for starting this company?
Navid (Navidul Huq, co-founder of BongoBD) and I went to high school together. We worked together in 2004, and in 2013 we started BongoBD. Our initial vision was to create a platform, where the Bangladeshis around the world could access Bangladeshi content. When I came to Bangladesh I started working in production, and Navid’s family also has a background in media. One thing we realized was that there is not enough access to Bangladeshi content for expatriates. We have a lot of relatives living in the States, or in UK, who watches Bangla “natoks” and films, and they will get their friends, cousins or parents, who are travelling from Bangladesh, to buy DVDs for them. There was nothing really available online. One thing about Bangladeshis is that there is a huge passion and patriotism towards anything Bangladeshi.
In the year 2013 the world was becoming digital and so was content consumption. We saw other companies such as Hulu and Amazon starting to do really well. It was just a matter of time before the same trends hit this part of the world. We saw that Bangladeshis living in America were already watching Netflix online, but they don’t have access to Bangla content. So why don’t we try and aggregate all the content together; put them all together and offer that? That really was the starting point.
At which point did you start approaching independent artists?
From early on, we started talking with basically everybody we knew. So the first thing we did was talk to the TV stations. The first TV stations approached were ATN (Bangla) and NTV. Then we started working with some of the labels like Laser Vision and Fahim Music. And then we immediately started talking to independent producers and artists. Our goal was to build a big content library. So we had to buy as much content and rights as it were possible.
On the YouTube side some of the first people we worked with, and they are still with us, are BhaiBrothers Ltd., Gaan Friendz, Mango Squad, etc. Asif and Shouvik are working full time at BongoBD. They are doing original productions with us, so we have gone a long way together.
What other challenges did you face besides the scepticism of people regarding digital entertainment? How did you overcome them?
We had challenges in buying content, acquiring sponsorship, and getting the approvals from the relevant ministries and authorities. It took us about a year and a half to get our approval from BTRC, which would allow us to sell content through the telcos (tele-communication companies). It took another year to get the approval from the telcos. The process of getting our license, short code and everything, getting the telcos believing us, took almost two and a half years.
Building the software was a challenge, because the handsets, devices and data consumption in Bangladesh is very price sensitive. So getting the technology right, as we wanted to offer the users the best experience possible, was a challenge. Infrastructure is a big challenge, even now. (Even if) we just got 4g, but the infrastructure is not really there to support huge video consumption. Even now, with the amount of investments we made and the data centres we have, and if we ever stream Bangladesh’s matches then the servers still “choke”. So that is an ongoing challenge.
Copyrights have definitely been a big challenge, because the copyright industry here is not that well defined and regulated. So you have a lot of issues such as the producer signing the same exclusive deal with multiple people. So there have been a lot of challenges on that side, which we have started to overcome one by one.
What were the initial big milestones your company reached?
Some of the early milestones were things like getting a deal with Grameenphone. The first deal we did with them was a subsidized video data pack, which meant that anyone streaming our content on BongoBD will get a special price. So that was a really big milestone for us getting that deal with Grameenphone. It really validated what we were doing, and it really showed that the telcos were supporting what we were doing.
We participated in a few start-up events, like Innovation Extreme in 2014, where we actually won “the best start-up of the year” (award). They had people from Google and few other big company CEOs on the judging panel. So that was also a big milestone for us.
Now that YouTube section of BongoBD has won this award, does it mean you guys are closer to the vision you started with?
Yes, definitely. I think the initial vision we started with will obviously remain as our overlying goal, but I think we achieved a lot more than that. We have grown beyond that, because right now we are dealing with not just Bangladeshi content. We are dealing with content from Nepal, Sri-Lanka, and India. We have upgraded from being just a content company to an entity that has its own customized and specialized platform. We see ourselves as an ecosystem. We realized that being so early-on in this industry, and by continuing to work, invest and build this company, we have created an ecosystem around what we are doing. We discover artists, distribute the content, and we produce content in addition to purchasing content. We created a platform where artists and people can not only distribute, but get rich through their contents; they can monetize it and make money of it. YouTube is just one big part of that, as it is the biggest video-platform in the world. So it (the award) is a great stepping stone for us. It validates what we are doing. We are widely recognized as the largest YouTube network in the country. We just want to keep producing content, getting more subscribers, and keep building our digital ecosystem for the entertainment industry of Bangladesh. You can say we started a unique industry of its own, but we see it as an ecosystem for digital entertainment in Bangladesh.
Tell us a little bit about the other segments of BongoBD, aside from YouTube?
Mostly we create original films, TV dramas, and creative content. In partnership with Grameenphone, we launched the Bioscope app. We are also working with artists and live TV.