I recently got a chance to sit with Farzal Dojki, the Founder of Next Generation Innovation, and currently the Interim CEO of DotZero. Here is what went on in the conversation.
About Farzal Dojki
After acquiring his Intermediate in Pre-Engineering from Adamjee Science College, Farzal opted for a dual Bachelor in Computer Science and Economics from University of Texas Austin. He then proceeded to complete his MS in Information Systems from New York University alongside while he was working for Merrill Lynch.
TJ: What motivation you had in coming back to Pakistan?
Farzal Dojki: Ten years back, it was around this time I was preparing to come back to Pakistan. I remember making a Pakistani version of resume for searching jobs in Pakistan. Then there was the family factor, as my siblings were moving out of the country for studies so I had to come back to look after my parents. Another major reason was that the country was on track towards economic prosperity. People working at the top most positions were running the country in a proper manner and there were many reverse migrations at that time. I was one of them.
TJ: Upon your return, why did you choose to work with start-ups specially after having experienced top-notch universities and organizations?
Farzal Dojki: Having experienced all the top-notch firms and university education as well, when I came back to Pakistan I did apply at all the big places, including MNC’s and banks. Then as I was inclined towards the software side, I applied at software houses as well. However, I did not enjoy the interviews. I used to get the feeling that if I join these places I will not be having much of a decision-making role to play. I could clearly feel the hierarchy influence. Entrepreneurship was not the reason for joining start-ups, it was more about making a difference to an organization from my end.
The first job I got was a great breeding ground. It was a large group starting a new company. Where I had all the benefits of a large company along with all the thrills of a start up. I had to work hard and was given different roles to play. From Salesperson to mentor to customer dealing, I had it all with the first start-up I worked for. It was the best of both worlds.
TJ: How would you compare your experience of working in the US with the one in Pakistan? What major things did you learn from your experience of start-ups?
Farzal Dojki: I never did this sort of a work in US so it is hard for me to compare. I do not think I was given that sort of a responsibility in the US the sort I was given in Pakistan. I was working as a Trainee Engineer in a company of 50,000 to 60,000 employees, and here I was employee 001. Nevertheless, I did learn two major things out of this experience:
- You can teach people to become entrepreneurs. You just have to give them the right environment. I was the product of extremely large universities and companies. However, once I did Tracker Direct Insurance, I learned how to be efficient in running a start up. All those graduates who are looking to become entrepreneurs but are willing to join MNC’s and non NGO’s, then it’s the worst thing you can do to yourself. If in 5 years down the road you see yourself running your own business, then you should aspire to work for start-ups.
- You should not limit yourself because of logistic problems and other meager issues. When I started off, there was a time when we were operating from a room, with no rest room for the employees and a parking space that was 10 mins away from the office location. Therefore, these experiences helped a lot in removing the word “impossible” from my dictionary.
TJ: Amaana – a mobile financial solution company was your third start up stint. What reasons can you think of behind its failure?
Farzal Dojki: First, it was an idea before its time. The product was launched even before there was a legislation to control mobile payments and even before SBP has issued a regulation for it. Customers were not actually ready for the product at that time.
Secondly, the environment was not feasible for the start up, especially in 2007 when the stock market froze. The country became extremely risk averse, which affected our funding.
Third, launching a financial product sounds good when you are in the US, but in Pakistan, it is a different story. Banks are extremely risk averse. Moreover, it is not a market for independently working start-ups. We had to show bank statements to our potential customers during relationship building. People did not realize that start-ups operate hand to mouth. It was that much difficult to operate at that time.
TJ: How did you come up with the idea of DotZero?
Farzal Dojki: Rabia Gharib, one of my advisor and close mentor, rather forced me to apply for Eisenhower fellowship. I had turned it down the previous year, but took it up the next time around. That was a great year as 5 other applicant from Pakistan were to be accepted, as they were focusing on South Asia. I was one of them. The core focus of the fellowship was to study the entrepreneurial system of US.
When I returned to the US for the fellowship, I saw a major cultural change as far as startups were concerned.
First, the numbers of startups were mind boggling; and secondly, they were not opening up in new office spaces. Either they were a part of some accelerator programs or multiple techs were operating in different disciplines. For e.g. if you are making a hardware in health sciences, there were multiple incubators. All these made me say to myself that such a place is not there back in Pakistan.
When you reach the end of the fellowship, you are required to write an essay about your fellowship. They organize that essay into different sections and one of the sections asks you about what projects you will take after your fellowship. The idea of DotZero came at that time. I wrote the essay about starting a co-working space in Karachi, Pakistan.
I came back to Karachi and made a simple business proposal, with all the financials and calculations included and floated the idea to 2-3 people who agreed to join in. The first two founders, Imran Moinuddin and Atif Azim, were also the first two people with whom I shared the idea. Then we three came together, converted the idea into a power point, and floated it at the P@SHA level. Yusuf Jan, our fourth co-founder, when he joined in and agreed to contribute as well, we decided to accelerate the idea into execution phase. Then in 2013, after taking care of all the legalities and logistics, DotZero began operating.
TJ: What was the main challenge when you began with DotZero?
Farzal Dojki: When we started off, we were not much sure about where the demand would come from. Whether we are going to have an influx of creative and innovative companies or whether we will have freelancers who just need a reliable space to work. Therefore, that was not very clear when we started.
TJ: When you started with NextGenI, how hard were the first few months?
Farzal Dojki: Besides the logistics issue and space problems, everything was good ALHAMDULILLAH. Yes, I was working a bit harder than I am right now, but I had found a good team so it was fine operating in the first few months.
TJ: How tough has your entrepreneurial journey been on your family life?
Farzal Dojki: My spouse is a doctor, so that was a big blessing in disguise for me. She used to work 36 hours shift and I was working for 12 hours. Besides, her brother had also gone through the same struggle with startups before being successful. As far as parents are concerned, my mother had seen my father struggle very hard for 15 years when he was establishing his own business, so it was not a matter of much concern that her son is out of home for longer hours. For her, it was luxury seeing her son owned his own car. Therefore, I believe I got such a culture that helped me a lot to grow as an entrepreneur.
TJ: What have been some of your failures?
Farzal Dojki: First, I aimed too low. I think when you aim too low and appreciate yourself on achieving your goal, then its nothing to be proud of. With my level of education, abilities, caliber, and skill set, I believe I have achieved too less. I am going about my life as if everything is all right, but not everything is all right. I need to achieve a lot more.
Secondly, I am too micro-managerial. I have not grown a team that can take up decisions on its own. I am too much of a requirement in my business. I believe I should have created a team by now which is able to make strategies and take decisions on its own.
TJ: How far are you willing to go in order to succeed?
Farzal Dojki: “Not too far” I have become more risk averse over time. In addition, I think there is the fear of losing what you have already earned. Because when you have nothing to lose, you can take a risk. Your opportunity cost is low and even if you fail, you do not actually lose very much. Then there is the factor of uncertainty of the environment in Pakistan. These two things have made me become more risk averse and I think I will not go too far in order to succeed.
TJ: As an educationist, do you find any lack in the students or the system?
Farzal Dojki: I do not think the students are at fault in anything. Whatever they learn, it is all from the environment. Our society has made them risk averse and taught them to take short cuts to life. Our society has made these MNC’s culture look glamorous in the minds of the students. All this is the fault of the society and that is where we need to improve. We need to improve the overall society. If the society is not going to improve, what can the students do? It is not their fault.
TJ: How can entrepreneurs help with the education system?
Farzal Dojki: What universities can do is make internships a mandatory part of the curriculum. Exchange credit hours in lieu of the internships. Secondly, make it mandatory that the role the student plays in an internship is in line with his/her curriculum. The universities need to bring the students outside of the protected environment of the campus. I think it is better than changing an environment for 1 hour in terms of guest lectures, seminars, or courses. Making this a norm would result in betterment of relationship between the academia and institute and would have ripple effects upon the overall economic situation as well.
TJ: What is next for Farzal Dojki?
Farzal Dojki: Presently, it’s Status Quo. I think in Short Term, Medium Term, and the Long Term. I do not need to worry about the long term, as the sun is going to freeze in the long term, so that is out of contention. In short-term, its the status quo I want to target. I have to build the team and bring in some maturity concerning decision-making. As far as medium-term is concerned, we want to shift our focus more towards the local opportunities as currently we are very international focused. That would be a big medium term challenge. Specially after the internet penetration thanks to 3G, I believe there are a lot of opportunities for people like Farzal. Therefore, I think we need to take a little more risks.
TJ: Three piece of advice to potential entrepreneurs.
- You need to move out and realize what you want to do with your life.
- Start interacting with people who are not like you. Make friends outside your comfort zones and with people who are not similar to you
- We all are very left-brain people. We need to exercise the right side of our brain as well. Start taking more interests in things out of your comfort zones. Attend Qawaali and Tablah sessions, go to art galleries, attend book-reading sessions, and exercise your creative side of the brain.
TJ: Finally, Why did the chicken cross the road?
Farzal Dojki: *With a laugh* People on Tariq Road do not know the meaning of crossing the road as we are born on this side of the road.
Picture credits Dawn