Innovate and Lead: Pakistani startups with brilliant ideas

25 prominent, local business leaders mentor over 40 teams that attended the event.
25 prominent, local business leaders mentor over 40 teams that attended the event.

“Having a career is a 21st century fad. There is so much more you can do. You can be the odd one out, the Mad Hatter, you can be curious, you can fix a problem your ‘very’ own way, and you can afford to care less about the status quo,” says Rizwan Chand, CTO/ co-founder at VIVID Technologies, a UK based Pakistani startup that has qualified for Blackbox Connect 2014 and has secured 30 million rupees seed funding from UK investors.

Blackbox Connect is an initiative by ‘Google for Entrepreneurs’. It’s a two week program, where startups from outside the US are brought to Silicon Valley and given a chance to interact with like-minded entrepreneurs, executives and investors through intensive workshops and meetings. Another Pakistani startup named ‘SMSall’ has also been selected for the spring 2014 session. Eyedeus Labs (the LUMS graduates behind the famous Groopic app) and TunaCode (data encryption, imaging and computer vision experts) were amongst the eight startups selected last year.

This annual opportunity was initiated when Blackbox Connect signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with Plan9, a Pakistani tech incubator initiative.

Plan9 has helped shape 32 startups of various scales so far. It has a comprehensive 9-tier incubation process. This includes provision of office facilities, monthly stipend for six months, financial and soft skill trainings, a board of advisors, a technical board, legal advisors, one-on-one mentorship meetings, mock pitches, and networking opportunities with angel investors and venture capitalists.

“Since tech startups are a recent phenomenon in Pakistan, there are many brilliant yet untapped ideas. Entrepreneurs should stop chasing the press, focus on their product and let the work speak for itself,” comments Hafsa Shorish, Marketing and PR Manager at Plan9, when asked about the biggest advantage of starting a business in Pakistan.

Business incubators have been around for quite a while now, but what makes tech incubators so dynamic is the global nature of the resultant products. A small team with a great idea, given the necessary business, networking and marketing support, could become an international success in a matter of months.

Another great arena for young entrepreneurs to showcase their idea is the P@sha LaunchPad, organised every year by Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) for the IT and ITES sectors, to find the best technology ideas/start-ups and bring them in front of experts. The platform not only highlights new products, services and ideas, but also provides instant gratification through the winning product/service’s marketing as well as a cash prize of 200,000 rupees for the following categories:

  • Innovate idea for an ICT product/service
  • Startup with an innovative ICT product/service
  • Innovative idea which uses ICT for social impact

The idea is not just to host a competition, but also a networking opportunity for growing businesses to connect with industry leaders and trendsetters.

Pakistan startup survey

I surveyed entrepreneurs from some of the most dynamic tech startups in Pakistan, regarding their experiences, challenges and advice for starting up in Pakistan. The results were diverse and lead to an interesting mix of information.

When asked about how they got started and what their first moment of clarity was, most entrepreneurs said they were simply ‘crazy’ and wanted to change the world. Some said their on-the-side development produced such a good business that they were inspired to pursue it full time. The key word, though, was ‘courage’, and some found it in the most unexpected places.

Muhammad Arif, founder of Bounty Studio, a thriving mobile application and gaming software house, shared his experience, he says, “I was working in a top software house in Pakistan. Eventually I found myself to be too involved in the routine and missing excitement. I wanted to innovate, but was scared to take the first step. The turning point was when I joined the mentorship program at The Citizens Foundation. Interacting with young underprivileged students, who worked tirelessly to support their families, really put things in perspective for me. They gave me the courage to follow my dream and start something I could call my own.”

Another question thrown at entrepreneurs was regarding their transition plans. Most of them find parallel implementation as the best option. They advised upcoming entrepreneurs to start freelancing, individually or as a team, while holding on to day jobs. They believe that such collaborations lead to great learning opportunities, especially if you collaborate with friends from other companies and markets. For example, working with someone who develops games or social apps, when you are working in a banking software house, could change your entire perspective. They also suggest reading relevant news, attending meet-ups and interacting with people who are already ‘living the dream’.

On the other hand, some people I questioned were so passionate that they don’t even fear failure. “I think the plan becomes fairly straightforward once you have failed a company earlier. I have failed one before. But this time around, I left the job with a certain goal in mind, considering my past professional and personal challenges. The plan was already laid out before I resigned from my job, with technical and financial goals defined for the next six months. On reaching that landmark, we had achieved 90 per cent of the targets. There’s no looking back now,” tells Syed Talha Izhar, founder of iTap Studio.

Taking a business from a plan to reality is no easy task. So what percentage of plans do actually materialise? Entrepreneurs rated the concept-reality transition between 50 to 100 per cent, with a majority rating it around 70 per cent. Fifty per cent materialisation from concept to reality is certainly not bad. It is not a negative reflection of the skill or passion involved, rather the volatile nature of something that people have never attempted before.

In case you are wondering about the business and personal expenses in the first year, it is eight to ten lacs on average. This quoted range is quite low when compared to non-tech businesses. Since most tech startups manage clients remotely and already have their own individual workstations, they can start off with a minimum budget. Most of the expense is related to product development and at times hardware/software purchases, such as buying a separate smartphone for app testing etcetera. Also many small real-time company expenses like lunch meetings, presentation equipment rentals are paid from the pocket, rather than being charged to the new company.

New entrepreneurs were also asked about the challenges they face in Pakistan. They labelled lack of heroes (Pakistan based global brands that inspire young hopefuls towards innovation) as the biggest issue, besides the lack of funding sources.

Most entrepreneurs expressed their concerns about the lack of resources and an ecosystem where new business can flourish, and third-world issues like internet instability, load shedding and unavailability of a 3G network for reliable connectivity. They must, however, be commended for their resilience and for sustaining the local market.

“One of the biggest issues is keeping up with the country’s law and order situation. Considering the bigger picture, the resultant brain drain has a bigger effect on the market than simply losing a few good resources,” says Syed Ammar Yasir, Manager Projects and Operations at Pi Labs, a multi-platform smartphone development company.

Keeping all the problems aside, does starting a business in Pakistan have any advantage? The young entrepreneurs highlight numerous advantages they see here. The say that the biggest advantage probably is the support system that’s in our culture. Most of us are living in joint families, with an ample supply of support and shared responsibilities in terms of bills and expenses.

Mustafa Haroon, founder at Active Make says, “Pakistan has no shortage of talent. Despite the lack of material resources, the biggest resource is the availability of talented people that you can actually trust.”

Financially, though, there were different opinions. Some comment that cheaper resources cannot be counted as a win, except for foreign funded businesses, while others say that there are some services that would cost a fortune abroad. Abbas Ali Ismail, founder and COO at E2Z Solutions believes that “Accessibility, cheaper equipment and cheaper HR are the biggest advantages of working in Pakistan.”

When I sought some advice for promising entrepreneurs, most of the people I spoke to agree on self-belief, overcoming fear and relentless hard work as the key factors. “There is nothing romantic about hard work; you don’t get to cherish success until you truly earn it. Look at the bigger picture, be practical, be flexible and always try to add value to what you do,” says Syed Ammar Yasir.

Some speak of humility, Rizwan Chand, CTO/ co-founder at VIVID Technologies advises upcoming talent to “Be okay with uncertainty and not knowing. Understand that all phenomena, all ideas, all products, all works of art can be reduced to the most basic truth about humanity. Start with that truth, honesty, and the rest will follow. Somewhere along the way, you’ll learn to be open and humble and honest; let it come to you – until then, be arrogant!”

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