As originally published in Synergyzer Issue 3 – 2018
Faizan Laghari is a serial technopreneur for 16 years and counting. He has served as a speaker, mentor, and judge at many Startup Weekends, Plan9 launchpads, NIC – National Incubation Centre, Invest2Innovate, WomenX, Aman Foundation, and other platforms as well as a number of universities and colleges. He is passionate about entrepreneurship and is blunt to face any ‘wantrepreneurs’ or fake ‘experts’ who, in any way, weaken what entrepreneurship truly stands for.
Question: Tell us about your journey as a technopreneur.
Faizan Laghari: I started my entrepreneurial journey in 2002. I got the opportunity to develop a product for a company, which was to be a full-time job. I struck a deal for them to outsource it to my ‘company’, which was non-existent at the time. Over a period of one week, I got space to set up an office, bought used tables and chairs and set up my first company, Viaduct, a web, and graphic design and development company. A friend of mine, who was good at writing code, came on-board at my request with his talent. Through Viaduct we worked with multinationals, pop-stars, a president, and the government. Although Viaduct still is alive and kicking, I ran it for around 6-7 years before parting ways with my then partner.
Within a couple of years of starting Viaduct, I had shifted the office within a dwindling ad agency at the time, which wrapped up within a couple of months, rendering me office-less. Yet, instead of moving out I cracked a deal with the agency owner, took up the space and started Pakistan’s first co-working space, Suite401 in 2008. We offered shared and separate working spaces for startups and small companies, but back then neither different companies sharing the same office was a well-known concept nor the term startup was a buzzword. I still ran the space for some years but eventually wrapped up since it was too much effort and not enough return.
Moving into a bungalow next door to my house, and considering the option of finally getting a job, an earlier client came back on the radar, and I was able to bag a big project, which even seven years down the line is still active.
While on that project, money matters resolved, I got married, and over a span of a weekend I set up my first startup, Textualy. Textualy, which is still around, is a very straightforward way to integrate branded SMS into business systems, allowing transactional messages to be sent to employees and customers. The platform provided flat transparent pricing, no setup and I would always be there to assist my customers. We won the P@SHA ICT Award for Best Startup Runners-up within two months of launching it. Through Textualy, I went on to work with Foodpanda, EatOye, ICI, Pfizer, CPLC, Jafferjees and a few hundred other brands for transactional messaging services.
Three years after moving into the bungalow next door, I moved offices to a separate space in DHA Karachi, which was around 2000 sq. feet. After hiring my team, I came about with The HQ – my second attempt at running a co-working space, housed in the extra space at hand where startups, consultants or small businesses can get furnished office space and facilities for a flat monthly fee. A number of startups came about from The HQ, and recently we shifted to an even bigger location in Clifton that offers spaces for events and more.
At The HQ, Happening PK was formed, followed by Forrun, which to-date is the jewel in my crown. Forrun was the first on-demand logistics company which relied heavily on technology and soon after launch; Foodpanda took us onboard for a trial run. Eventually, we were catering to 67% of their total third party deliveries nationwide. Forrun was able to raise VC (venture capitalist) funding within three months of getting Foodpanda onboard and eventually grew to multiple cities, thousands of orders per month and was also fulfilling e-commerce deliveries. It laid the ground for many other on-demand services now common in Pakistan.
After two and a half years of operating Forrun, I sold all my stock in the company and moved on to a new chapter. I was offered the post of Chief Disruption Officer in TCS, which is less of a job and more of working towards inculcating a startup culture in an iconic institution. Also, with Happening PK revived, we are working hard to jumpstart QR code based e-tickets and have made some good headway in this tough market. Let’s see what the future holds.
Question: Can you give some more details about Happening PK?
Faizan: Happening PK is the business in focus currently, which provides an event discovery app for Android users allowing them to discover events happening around them. Other than this, we also enable ticket sales for event organizers who partner with us. The payment methods include cash on delivery, bank transfers, e-wallets etc. Also, event organizers receive a separate app which allows them to see real-time ticket sales, scan and verify tickets and check-in anyone on event day; minimizing fake tickets.
Question: What is Startup Grind?
Faizan: Startup Grind is a global startup community designed to educate, inspire, and connect entrepreneurs and is powered by Google for Entrepreneurs. With around 250 events being hosted in around 300 cities in 100 countries each month, the goal is to feature successful local founders, innovators, educators, and investors who share personal stories and lessons learned on the road to building great companies. Basically, Startup Grind is a network of vibrant startup communities to help fuel innovation, economic growth and prosperity at the local level.
Question: You have assisted a number of incubators and accelerators in Pakistan as a mentor, judge etc. What are the challenges of the tech startup ecosystem unique to the Pakistani market?
Faizan: The current challenges in Pakistan vary from startup to startup, but some basic challenges are matching the right people to fund the startup with the right founders. There is ample cash around for startups to get funding from, but to match founders to funders who are at the same wavelength, startup founders that understand the responsibility of raising funds, and the understanding that the journey gets tougher after that is what we need to look out for.
Question: The startup success rate is less than 2%, according to the Jazz-Veon report on Digital Entrepreneurship Ecosystem in Pakistan 2017. What, according to you, is the reason behind this?
Faizan: The environment needs to be conducive for startups to succeed. The eco-system that is there – and is continuously evolving – has assisted a lot in getting startups to a place where they have a fighting chance, but after that comes a stage where everything plateaus, and then the startups need a boost in morale, finances and much more. That is where they all fall flat.
Initially, incubators focused on fresh startups, but with the NIC etc. also coming into the picture, the attention is also on certain startups at a maturer stage. This will perhaps help in removing the flat-lining and provide an additional pump where startups need it the most. Even a lifejacket needs you to keep blowing into it to keep you afloat, why would this be any different?
Question: What determines a venture’s growth into a potential business and how do you evaluate where and when to take risks?
Faizan: The people behind it, and how sensible are the risks being taken.
I, for one, am very thick-skinned and usually work on a float or sink mindset. If I want to work on something, I evaluate it in terms of an actual problem being solved instead of just a wonderful idea that no one would want to pay for.
After that, I follow the Lean Startup methodology, according to which the goal is to launch as fast as possible, test the market, evaluate the feedback, and make a decision whether it needs to change or proceed.
This is a litmus test for me, and the faster I am able to ascertain the result, the easier it is to make the decision whether to pursue the idea further or not.
Question: You have been guiding and mentoring youngsters pursue their dreams as entrepreneurs through shared workspaces and incubation competitions for a while now. How do you guarantee that these people succeed in becoming big? That this doesn’t collapse on itself in the long run.
Faizan: To answer concisely, I don’t guarantee anything. No one can, no one will. The only guarantee that I can give is that there will be tough times, challenges and failures – guaranteed!
The responsibility lies on the founders themselves, to go through the tough times and still keep moving forward. This motivation comes from within and no external motivation can outlast it.
As Rocky Balboa said, “It’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Question: You talk about celebrating failures in your TEDx talk. Don’t you think there needs to be a limit to failures?
Faizan: Edison failed 10,000 times before ‘perfecting’ the light bulb. Mind you, he did not invent it, he just perfected it and failed 10,000 times at that.
With that said, yes of course, – you cannot be stupid about failing at the same thing repeatedly. I always say: From success you earn, from failure you learn!
The learning part needs to be understood! If you do not learn from your failure and keep making the same mistakes repeatedly, then that’s just dumb! You set your own limits to how many tries you are willing to give, how much you have at stake if you fail or even succeed, and you decide where to stop.
Question: In one of your YouTube channel videos you mention that most early entrepreneurs – millennials – are stuck in the dilemma of continuing their jobs that offer stability of income rather than fully immersing themselves into their startups and vice versa. Please tell us more about this.
Faizan: This challenge is not only with millennials really, but with everyone. And who can blame a person who wants a stable income, a regular paycheck and the ability to switch jobs to a higher salary each time possibly?
The issue is that people don’t want to take that leap of faith. And mind you, I am not saying that one should quit their job immediately and start something of their own, no – not at all. One can start something on the side and then gradually build stability before switching to it permanently.
But as the famous lines goes, “With great power comes great responsibility”; responsibility has a huge weight, and not many people have the capability or even the willingness to carry that weight. One needs to have a hunger, an ability to take risks, and to be able to take failures in their stride. The young ones – or millennials, as we call them – nowadays look at someone else’s chapter 22 and want the same in their chapter 1, which simply does not happen. Patience is something that we all lack. With apps that get you food, rides, movies and internationally even dates at the click of a button, no one wants to wait anymore.
Everyone wants to be Mark Zuckerberg, the founders of Instagram or Google or Snapchat, but no one wants to put in the work and go through the grit, which is really sad.
Question: Pakistan being a more family driven society does not majorly support the millennial startup culture as we see today. Does that in any way hinder the startup success rate? If yes, then how can this problem be solved?
Faizan: This used to be the case, and majorly still is, where any family would want their kids to get a stable job, get married, have two and a half kids and live happily ever after.
But incubators like Plan9 by the PITB (Punjab IT Board), Google NEST i/o and NIC Pakistan have started to change mindsets. With universities also onboard, families can now see there is a possibility that their kids can make a good living by doing their own thing. With shows like Idea Croron Ka where startups can pitch their ideas and raise millions instantly from investors, even the man-on-the-street is now getting ideas about starting his own business!
With Startup Grind, the goal is to highlight such young founders and their success stories; along with their ups and downs so that everybody can see what it takes to go through the process and what it eventually leads to. At Startup Grind Karachi I even brought in founders of large companies which now have corporate status, but are home-grown 30-year-old giants, which were also ‘startups’ back in the day with entrepreneur founders. I hope people see the concept in this light and get more familiarized to the idea of startups.
Question: The millennial generation although has a more diverse work ethic, more platforms for connectivity, and a flexible way of working; it also seemingly lacks discipline, patience, perseverance, and commitment i.e. has a short-term approach, which is opposite of what we usually see in the older generations. Does having a short-term approach like this add sustainability to a person’s life?
Faizan: Yes and no.
They say, “Choose a lazy person to do a hard job and they will find an easy way to do it”. What if we can say the same about someone with a short-term, impatient approach?
Having said that; impatience, short-cuts and the I-want-to-be-the-first-one-to-make-a-name-by-doing-something-big approach can be damaging at times.
According to studies conducted by the Kauffman Foundation, Duke University, and the Founder Institute, the average entrepreneur is 40 years of age when they launch a startup, people over the age of 55 are twice as likely as people under the age of 35 to launch a high-growth startup, and the average age of a startup with over a million dollars in revenue is 39.
That says a lot, and the young ones should understand that the ones that are millionaires and billionaires in their 20’s are exceptions to the rule, and usually not the rule themselves.
So be patient, do the work, stop complaining, suck it up and stick to it, and you will get to where you are going!
Question: Definitely. Where do you think this particular attitude originates from? How do you think this can be addressed?
Faizan: Movies, Instagram millionaires etc. The startups I mentioned are exceptions to the rule and only those being highlighted – that too only after they have made it big.
That is why I talk so much about failure, and show people that there is a psychological and physical toll that being an entrepreneur takes on you. It’s not easy and not everyone can digest it on a daily basis.
I truly believe and do my best to operate by the concept of “Why” by Simon Sinek, according to which one needs to ask themselves why are they doing what they are doing, and what do they aim to achieve?
Is the answer money, fame, fans? If so, then they are going about it the wrong way. The why should be about making a difference in their lives and the lives of people they are going to be serving via their startup, and that takes time and effort, and more often than not, no shortcuts. People who understand this and are in no hurry are the ones who outlast those who are. It’s not about the destination as much as it’s about the journey.