“I invested in this one guy – whose company crashed” – Notes from Harvard Pakistan Week

By Asad Badruddin on
June 6, 2014
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Harvard Pakistan Week – a conference to discuss the major issues in Pakistan including energy, law, technology, education and economy was held recently. The technology panel was one of the most well received panels at the event and the panelists discussed main issues that Pakistanis face today when trying to succeed in the field of technology. From the setbacks that local firms get due to the political conditions in Pakistan to the need for change in culture and thinking, the topics of discussion broadly covered the many problems startups and people in tech industry face today. Personal anecdotes of the panelists helped drive the points home. Some of the salient features of the technology panel at Harvard Pakistan Week are highlighted below.

How Do You Sell Pakistan

Telling US customers that a large part of your operations or company is in Pakistan can sometimes unnerve the bravest of investors. Building something consumer facing is especially difficult. Kewan Khwaja, CEO of Techlogix, explained a time when he had the final round of a sales pitch for a client. The day he walked into the client’s office, Pakistan had just exploded it’s nuclear bomb and the board room environment was hostile. The CEO of the client asked why he should trust him when Pakistan’s ambassador had personally told him that Pakistan would not explode the bomb. Kewan said there was no need to be apologetic. He turned back at him and said, “well at least this proves that we have great engineers”, the CEO started laughing, the tension in the room subsided and they got the deal.

Artists Meeting Engineers

Pakistan has a lot of talent and even more potential. Yet ‘growing a 2000 person company into a 5000 person company is very hard in Pakistan, just because we do not have the right amount of engineering talent in the country” pointed out Shuja Keen, Managing Partner at TRG. Ali Rehan, CEO of Groopic, added that the necessary ingredients for great engineers exist, if there were more programs that pushed people to think outside of the box. Many students cannot work without directions or instructions, even a concept like Googling something was something that had to be told to some students. Finally engineers, business majors and design students work in silos and do not collaborate with each other.

The $100 M Pakistani Getaway

Imran Sayeed, CTO of NTT Data and MIT lecturer pointed out that we need a Pakistani company to break the $100M barrier. The panelists were of the opinion that everyone should focus their energies on that company because such a success would create a ripple effect across the ecosystem. Current options for startups to exit were to be found in either media companies or telecom companies. However these companies tend to be cut throat and zero sum negotiators.

A Culture of Sharing – “I invested in this one guy – whose company crashed”

Learning takes place by doing and by learning through mistakes, so we must discourage shaming people for failing. Every country and society benefits from its entrepreneurs taking risks. Sharing failures and not just successes is helpful to upcoming entrepreneurs.

Here in the US there is also a strong open source culture where information about the latest trends in technology is disseminated.
Founders also share equity amongst employees, so when a company hits it big the employees who have worked hard to launch the company are also rewarded. These employees then go on to become the next generation of angel investors and this is how an ecosystem blooms. Saad Khan pointed out that this culture of sharing has also created the ‘sharing economy’ of startups like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

Can Do Culture

An audience member commented that the tech panel was the most optimistic of all the panels at the conference. I want to end by elaborating why that could be.

People think of technology as cell phones or iPads. But technology simply means “a better way of doing things” and it is a way of thinking that creates, and is enabled by, can do cultures.

This mentality can be applied to problems in all domains – education, health, energy etc. When trying to create a new way to solve old problems the naysayers say ‘the way things are, are the way they will always be.’ There are cultures that will say, ‘no you can not’, ‘this is what our grandfathers have always done’, ‘what will people say’, ‘there is no solution, better to put your head down and live within the system.’ Can do cultures destroy such idols.

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