Rafi Chowdhury is the founder of Chowdhury’s Digital and co-founder of myCampusHacks. He helps companies like DYL, Shapes Brow Bar, Win Hyundai, Wound Care Surgeons, and Easley Transportation grow their revenue. Examiner.com calls him the go-to guy for traffic generation; SplashOPM says he is one of the top Growth Hacking gurus on the web; Start-up Dhaka says he is one of the youngest and most successful marketers ever to come from Bangladesh; and Northeast Today Magazine calls him a web analytics Expert.
Rafi was also recognized by the University of Memphis for creating one of the most innovative start-up websites for the students. The Hans India considers his blog posts to be “incredible”. In his spare time, Rafi acts an advisor to the British Young Asian Entrepreneurs.
My Life Story
I was born on December 20, 1991, in. From early on, I had a ton of creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit which I will talk about, a bit later. When I was eleven years old, my parents decided to move to the much colder Memphis, Tennessee. At first, we struggled quite a lot like most first-generation Bangladeshis.
My mom eventually picked up a job at a local private school as an elementary school teacher for which she had to get a ride from others since she did not drive. My dad on the other hand, worked for one of my uncles with whom we were living at the time. However, he did not see that situation as a good fit and picked up odd jobs here and there. His jobs didn’t pay much, but we were grateful for the opportunities my dad received which paid our bills at the time. Because of my mom’s stable teaching job and my dad’s work ethic, my sister and I were able to live a lower middle-class lifestyle.
As a child, I was surrounded by entrepreneurs. All of my paternal uncles had multiple businesses, which led them all to be able to live an affordable lifestyle. Both my maternal uncle and grandfather were businessmen. However, even with so many entrepreneurs in the family, the entrepreneurial bug never caught either of my parents. My mom was satisfied with her average job as a schoolteacher and my dad was happy with his work even if it provided the bare minimum. This meant that my sister and I would never really live a “wealthy” lifestyle.
The Chess Life
Even at that tender age, I was constantly thinking about what I could do to get out of my middle-class lifestyle, and make money on my own. For many years to come, I was not able to find any substantial answer to that, but when I turned 14, things began to get a little better.
Since the age of 12, my dad and uncle taught me how to play chess. At first, I was just playing chess for fun at my local school, and against any of my friends and family members who came to my house. I quickly realized that I had a knack for this game and that it wasn’t like just any other board game for me. I began to hone in on improving my skills at chess. It was great timing because right around this time, my uncle bought me my first computer. I downloaded a free chess playing program on my new computer called ICC Dasher and began playing against it over and over. As I played more and more, I got better and better.
However, it was not until the 6th grade that I got my first taste of competitive chess. It came in the form of a school-wide chess tournament which has held at my middle school, Shadowlawn. Although, I was one of the underclassmen in that tournament, I swept the single-elimination tournament with a perfect score and emerged as my school chess champion, a title I held and defended all through middle and high school and well into college.
It wasn’t until I was about 14 years old that my hunger for chess really began to grow. At that time, I considered myself to be the best chess player in my state (which was far from true, as I soon realized). Well, so one day, when I was kind of bored at home with my computer, I decided to Google “chess clubs in Memphis”…Well, I am glad I did, because I found that there were actually such things as chess clubs and they were in my city!
So, I decided to reach out to a couple of them. The very next week, I got someone to come pick me up from my home (since I did not have a car being a 14 year old…) and take me to Noble Mind Chess Club at a Friday night meeting. There, I met some serious competition and essentially began my competitive chess career. But more importantly, I also met my future employer at that club, Mid-South Chess.
Chess and Entrepreneurship
Upon seeing my chess abilities, the CEO of that company realized I could make a great chess coach. She immediately reached out to me at that chess club, and asked if I wanted to be a chess coach for Mid-South Chess. Of course, I accepted…I mean, I was getting paid $20 an hour as a 14-year old high school kid. It was better than any other job I could have gotten at the time.
I soon began teaching at a few local schools and was working pretty much for 5 days a week at that time. During this time, I also got involved with a lot of competitive chess. I was playing tournaments all across the country at that time. I got half-decent at chess by the time I was a senior in high school, reaching a peak rating of 1900, which is fairly respectable.
But, the entrepreneurial spirit got into me when I realized I liked to take charge of things, and create things which did not exist. So, while in middle school, I got pretty involved with the chess club and was leading with most of the club’s events near the end of my middle school years. But then, I graduated and came to Bolton High School as a freshman again. At Bolton, I was very sad to realize there was no sign of any sort of chess club at all.
The entrepreneurial leader in me was fully ignited when I met another student at Bolton who was also trying to start a chess club. He and I began our campaign to launch a chess club at our high school, and it soon came to fruition. I became the president of the chess club at Bolton since then, and continued to run that organization for the next 4 years. I even ended up taking our chess team to the state qualifiers one fortunate year where we actually did pretty well.
As I got deeper and deeper into chess, I became pretty well-known within the chess community in the city. That’s about the same time I began to expand from just being a chess coach under Mid-South Chess to also having my own chess students. Of course, I did not have any sort of legal business or anything but, regardless, I was a freelance chess coach and was probably making more money than most kids my age in the city. I guess I can consider my freelance chess coaching as my first real business.
The College Life
Although, I was fetching good income as a chess coach, once I got to college, I was struggling to pay for all of my expenses and still have money left over to spend on random things. As college life got busier and the bills got bigger, I had no choice but to look for a second job. But luckily, I was able to find a job involving chess once again! I began working for Cajun Chess and became a tournament director, and a vendor traveling all around the USA, selling chess products or running chess tournaments.
This job was a sweet one since I got paid, traveled all across the US, and also had all my expenses taken care of. This job taught me quite a bit about how to deal with customers and how to close a sale. The lessons I learned at this job would stay with me forever and help me tremendously in a later venture, which I will talk about later on. But for the time being, my two jobs kept me well-funded at college.
During one summer, I got bored and I thought I should go meet girls, so I took a job at Abercrombie and Fitch as an Impact Team Member. But, I hated that job! I was getting paid minimum wage. Overall, during college, I was mostly too busy with partying, girls, my fraternity, and schoolwork. I had little or no time to think about any business ventures. But, I did launch and successfully grow a thriving chess club while at the University of Memphis. The University Chess Club was started by me and a fellow student, a good chess player.
But once we got the club off the ground, I was pretty much in charge of it for the most part. We had many great days at this chess club. Some nights, the club saw as many as 50 members attend its meetings! That’s insanely good for a school not known for chess at all. I ran an annual event at the chess club called Chowdhury Vs. The University of Memphis where I challenged the entire student body to a game of chess. I never once lost this challenge surprisingly.
As the chess club at my college grew, so did my involvement within the chess community. At this point, I picked up another money-generating gig. I became the Manager and Tournament Director of Shelby County Chess and was regularly running and hosting chess tournaments on Friday nights. I kept 80% of the revenue I generated through running those tournaments. Some nights, I went home with $180 in my pocket from 2 hours of work! So, as you can see, it was a very sweet gig for me.
I was getting paid very handsomely for doing something I was so passionate about. During this time, my own private chess coaching also grew quite a bit. I was teaching around 10 students at once at my peak, and charging around $40 per hour for my coaching services. Not only that, I was also making around $45 per hour as a coach for Mid-South Chess. I was also running and hosting chess summer camps regularly, adding yet another source of income to my revenue stream. So, as a college student, money was never really a big issue for me. But, all of this had to end at some point…
The First Spark of Internet Business
During my senior year at the University of Memphis, I was very heavily invested in my studies in psychology, and I really wanted to finish college in 4 years. So, I began to hack my way through college by signing up for the highest number of hours I could, by taking research hours. I spent many nights during this time going over to my mentor’s house and helping him with his dissertation on Mood and Multitasking.
During my research with emotions, I also got some exposure to learning and intelligent tutoring systems which were being built at the FedEx Institute of Technology at the U of M. These tutoring systems were fascinating and these robots can teach even complex subjects like Physics.
One night, during our long working nights at my mentor’s house, I suddenly came to a realization. I looked at my mentor and said, “Hey Brent, what if we were to make a chess tutor?! I already know all the stuff to be taught to the chess students and you know how these tutors work.” At first, my mentor just looked at me like I was crazy. I also had a feeling my idea was a little nonviable. But then he said, “You know, that’s actually not a bad idea now that I come to think of it.”
And that was the start of my first shot at software. I was going to be the content writer for this chess tutor, while Brent would be dealing with all the coding and project management. We did a lot for this project, including asking the school for money and even getting sponsored. But unfortunately, the project fell through because we were unable to find a coder skilled enough to be able to code and merge a chess engine with AutoTutor Lite, which was the tutoring system we were going to use. We even did pre-marketing for this upcoming product launch by surveying all chess coaches across the U.S. But, nothing came of this project.
I still have the 100 pages of content I wrote for this project. May be I can take all this content and turn it into a blog post. The project was a complete flop overall. Thus, my first attempt at digital technology resulted in a complete failure.
The Full-Time Entrepreneurial Life
My college days ultimately came to an end, and so did my chess coaching career with Mid-South Chess. While working for that organization was great income during my college years, I quickly realized that it was not going to be enough to sustain me on a full-time basis, since it was limited to how many schools I could teach per week.
Eventually, after a mutual agreement, I left my position as a chess coach at Mid-South Chess and Shelby County Chess. So, now what? Well, right around this same time as I quit my job, I read a book that totally changed my overall view of how I wanted to proceed with my career. And that book was none other than “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. Until I read this book, I was very sure that I wanted to stay with psychology. I wanted to go into Cognitive Science as my research area within psychology since I already got a lot of exposure to it as an undergraduate, and built up a pretty good reputation in that sector at my university.
However, after reading that book, I realized that getting a PhD in Psychology was not going to be the way to make a lot of money and be financially free. I had to look into business. And from there, the entrepreneurial bug once again took over, as I launched business after business.
At the very beginning, after quitting my job, I needed an immediate source of income. Well, what better way is there to start a business than to simply start selling all your own stuff on the largest selling platform in the world!? I began to sell all my unused clothing and other items on eBay.
At first, it was just small personal items such as shirts and books that I was selling. But soon, my eBay business grew, and I was selling even tables and chairs on eBay. I actually made a solid $1,500 in just one month selling on eBay. I guess it was not a bad business, but it was just too time-consuming, and I hated dealing with customer service, returns, etc. While I ran that business, I tried my hand at many techniques including drop shipping, flipping items on craigslist, selling via groups on facebook, etc. It was a good time while it lasted.
Launch of rafichowdhury.com
Around the time I was graduating college, I saw one of my fraternity brothers (who I saw as a role model for leadership) launch his own music-oriented personal website. I was quite fascinated by the beautiful site he launched and how much attention it got him. That’s all it took. I was set on launching my own website.
I did not have the slightest clue about what it took, or how to make a website or anything like that. So, I began to research it on my own and eventually came to the conclusion that I was not going to be making my own website anytime soon. I would need to learn how to code first. But, before I totally gave up, I did attempt to get a friend to help me build a website on Weebly.
It turned out to be terrible, though. The site looked awful, and I quickly gave up working on it. But, then I reached out to one of my computer science friends and through him, I got connected to another student who was apparently a very solid web developer. Turns out that was not really the case. $250 later, I still barely had a website. At this time, I tapped into other resources and eventually found a guy who really knew what he was doing and actually offered to help me build the site for free!
Finally, after 2 months of trial and error, a pre-historic version of rafichowdhury.com was launched! And, that’s just when the fun began. Again, I shall elaborate on it in a bit. Before that, I am going to tell you a little more about some of my other startups.
My First Company – Chowdhury’s
I wanted to officially, be an entrepreneur, so bad. I remember I was at a pool party that summer after I graduated from college, and I said to my friend “I am going to soon launch a company called “Chowdhury’s.” At the time, we both laughed at the idea, and did not think much of it. But, in my mind, I was sure I was going to launch my own company. I mean, I already had an established chocolate business (which I will mention next), so why not?
So I researched and found out all the things I needed in order to launch my own company. And with a new chocolate chess business idea, and a chess program idea in my head, I went down to the local Chamber of Commerce and got some paperwork done to start my application process. After many trips to the city offices, and going around in circles for some time, I was finally able to get a license for my business. Chowdhury’s was now a legal thing. But, what “business” did I have as a 22-year old just out of college?
Chowdhury’s Chocolate Checkmates
This business is one of the most shotgun businesses that I ever started. The idea of this literally came out of a joke. I was a counselor at the summer chess camp, as I am each year. My friend from college was also a counselor that particular year. As a joke, she posted a photo of a cake with chocolate chess pieces on top of it on my Facebook page. She wrote “I bet we can get a lot of kids to come to the camp if we had this cake for dessert!” I laughed at it and agreed with her. But that next day, as we were sitting around and talking about the camp, it occurred to me that the idea of chess pieces made from chocolate is not really a bad one at all.
So, I asked my friend to do a bit more research and find out how to actually make chocolate chess pieces. She informed me that we can actually buy chess shaped molds from eBay and use chocolate chips as our chocolate to make these chess pieces. Little did we know that the chocolate chips from Kroger are not the right type of chocolate to be melting and molding. But still, we were able to actually create some one-sided chess pieces out of this chocolate.
Our system was terrible and the things barely even looked like chess pieces. But, they sure did sell. We sold them from $0.25 to $0.75 per piece and in just 2 hours, we had sold over 200 pieces to the chess campers, parents, and even to the coaches. After seeing how much demand there was for this product, I decided to really look into it. I wanted to know as to how I could sell my chocolate legally and commercially.
Well, I will tell you, I took it very seriously. I learned all the rules and regulations of food business and got my kitchen certified as a domestic kitchen. I even spent a whole month taking an online course to become a certified food manufacturer.
I then researched some more to find an appropriate packing solution to my project, and also significantly improved my formula for the chocolate chess pieces during this time. I was selling these chess pieces in 10 to a box and for $8/box. Although, initially I planned to sell the chocolates only to chess players, more of them actually were sold to the general public. I sold them to friends and family, and got one store to carry the product. I, then began using this product to fund my next startup. I was selling them in front of grocery stores such as Wal-Mart and Kroger. My chocolate even caught the attention of the founder of Jelly Belly jellybeans, David Klein, who reached out to me about this product.
Later, I hired a couple of people off Craigslist to sell these chocolates for some commission. In total, more than 500 units of this chocolate were eventually sold. It was truly one of the more meteoric businesses I launched. I, ultimately, moved away from this business and stopped manufacturing these chocolates. Today, I still sometimes make these chocolates but only as a present for my friends and family on special occasions.
Chowdhury’s Chess Leadership Program
As I was ready to quit my job with Mid-South Chess, leaving the chess industry altogether was not at all part of my game plan. I, for sure, wanted to do more with chess, but I wanted to do it under my own terms. The idea was to put a new spin on how chess education could make a standing for itself in my city. During my time with my mentor, while I was working on trying to develop a chess intelligent tutoring system, I learned quite a bit about learning and human problem solving.
It, then, dawned on me that domain specific knowledge, which can be gained from playing chess, does not necessarily translate over to other scenarios, unless it is actually brought to the attention of the student. Those skills learned through the game actually need to be highlighted and then the student has to be specifically taught just how to translate and apply these skills in real life, whether it’s in the business world, personal development, or understanding human psychology.
My chess leadership program was launched to teach students about leadership, psychology, and entrepreneurship using the game of chess as the primary platform. I launched this program by literally just calling each and every school in the city, one by one, and trying to schedule a meeting with the principal of the school. I was going to offer this program to the students as an after-school program. Banking on my last 8 years of experience, working with hundreds of schools in the city as a chess coach, I was soon able to successfully launch the program into many schools in the city.
To also be involved with the non-profit making world, I also launched a non-profit chess club called, Caritas Village Chess Club, to provide my chess coaching services for free to the community. The chess club was featured on ABC local news within its second week in business. The company was really small, but even then, at our peak, we were working with 10 different schools in the city and I hired as many as 7 part-time coaches to teach. But still, the business was not sustainable. It never generated revenues of more than $1K per month.
Around this same time, a girl I was seeing for the last one year, also decided to discontinue with our relationship. So, with all of this stuff combined, I got fed up with the chess business and just being an entrepreneur in general. My decision was then made – to hand off the whole business to one of my chess coaches who was working with me at the time. He was able to continue the business for one more semester after me (although we lost most of the schools as clients), but ultimately, we shut down the business for good during the summer of 2015. I learned a great deal about how to run a full-scale traditional business from running this company.
Near the end of my senior year at the University of Memphis, I was in introspection mode. I thought that I finished college in 4 years, but probably could have finished it sooner if I knew of the things I know now. In fact, I almost did not finish college on time because my department would not let me complete my senior thesis until the summertime. I was so determined to finish on time.
I actually went to the College of Business, and spoke with the department chair (who I knew personally through chess) and asked if I could do an in-depth research paper combining my research in psychology with that of the online marketing world. My paper was approved and I was granted the hours. I thought to myself, that other psychology students may want to also know about this “hack” that I just found out about. Or they may want to also take research hours instead of classes like I did my senior year and get ahead in their education.
So, I thought, why don’t I just survey a lot of students on campus and ask them for any tips, hints, hacks, or advice they have about their college experience and then gather all of these “hacks” into one big blog post, and publish it on my website. But soon, my idea evolved into the creation of a full-course social networking site where I would try to connect all students on campus, and ask them to share any hints or tips they might have picked up about how to get through college life at the University of Memphis. I asked a few students about their opinion on this sort of a website, and they all said it would be a really useful tool for the students.
Well, I was set. I wanted to create myCampusHacks, but…I did not know how to code. So I began the difficult task of going after developers and trying to sell them my idea for the website. I initially approached my developer friends, but none of them seemed to have the ability to build such an elaborate website. But then finally, I reached out a computer science research scholar who was also from Bangladesh. I asked him if he would be interested in developing this site for me. He agreed to a 50/50 split in ownership of the project, but since there was so much coding involved in creating this website, we still needed another coder. I reached out to 2 more students and they agreed to join our team, but very soon they dropped off the team due the amount of coding work involved. So, I had to get some sort of funding for my project.
I began to reach out to anyone I knew who could fund my project so we could hire another developer. After all, all we needed was just $3,600 to develop a prototype. I wanted my project funded so badly, I even approached investors and even applied to the MBA program at my university with hopes of getting funding money. But ultimately, it all failed.
In the end, my dad decided to give me a thousand bucks to start the project, and I was to pay the rest of the money out of my own pocket. So, we began the project. The developers coded away while I began to drum up some buzz about the project around the college campus and among the students. The university entrepreneurship center even sponsored our project.
After about a month and a half of work, we had a working prototype which we launched. It did fairly well at the beginning. 300 students signed up in the first month. But the website was in a terrible condition, and desperately needed some updating. My co-founder was pretty busy with his PhD program. He did not have the time to put towards further development of the site. We continued like this for a while. We even tried to bring on a 3rd co-founder into the project, but it did not work. The site’s engagement dropped significantly, and lost its momentum.
Fortunately, a few months later, while working with another client, I was contacted by a guy who was interested in developing the site. This same guy was the one who developed some very successful sites in the past. After some meetings, we came to the decision that my current co-founder would not be able to continue the project, and so he dropped out of the project. I got a new co-founder for myCampusHacks, and we started building a commercial version of the website from scratch. Today, the website is still under development. We plan to re-launch the commercial version of this website in August, 2016.
Life Behind the Computer Screen
After shutting down both, the chocolate business as well as my chess program, I was once again looking for a new adventure to begin with. Since I had a bit of extra time to spare, I began focusing more on improving my website. As I was tinkering with how to get more visitors, I soon got pretty good at it. But, I had a major problem – I did know how to convert this traffic to actual paid customers because I did not really have any sort of business at the time. I thought to myself that if I can get visitors to a site, all I need is a business to go with it.
So, I began to reach out to small local businesses in Memphis and offered to drive more traffic to their websites. I told them that they could pay me only if I could produce results for them. Before long, I was able to lock a local transportation company into a gig where I would drive more targeted visitors to their site. I was getting paid 20 bucks an hour to help them with their social media, content marketing, email marketing, SEO, and lead generation. It was not a bad deal at all.
From there on, my consulting business took off. I worked with various small businesses ranging from small carpet cleaning companies to larger service companies and even politicians and real estate agents. Sometimes, I was able to work as a consultant with these companies while other times, I was directly hired by the company to provide my services.
Either way, I was happy because I was getting to do what I wanted to do. That’s pretty much the most important thing for me when it comes to work.
The Life Today
Life right now is pretty good. I am now back to being a full-time entrepreneur as a digital marketing consultant. Now, I officially partner with another local company that takes care of all our web development needs. I am focusing most of my time writing content to educate marketers and small business owners, speaking, and generating new leads for our company.
I really enjoy this kind of lifestyle where I am working with one or two clients full-time and helping them grow their business on the internet. Once the myCampusHacks project gets closer to its launch date, I will probably be very busy with that. But for now, my focus is to fully launch this site and with it, my marketing agency and focus on marketing myCampusHacks.com.
I often think about my future and my goals as an ever-moving target. As I learn new things in life and about business, my interests change, and based on those changes, I begin new projects. I know I probably have a few more good startups in me, including an SAAS company which I want to develop down the road. I also want to give real estate a try and see how I do in that industry.
But ultimately, my goal is to settle down, and focus on growing just one solid company and spending the rest of my time in the non-profit world. I know that I have the talent, i.e., I am really good at getting traffic to any website. I want to use this talent to help non-profit organizations achieve more by leveraging the internet. I really hope I can use my own life and experiences as a way to encourage more young people to start their own businesses.