Startups

In conversation with Afnan Sharief — CEO of Codistan

Talha Ikram Written by Talha Ikram · 7 min read>
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Starting a company is essentially easy. To sustain it or break even in terms of profits and loss is harder and even harder is to deliver projects to your clients with elegance while keeping your team’s aspirations together. Codistan is one of those examples which started from humble beginnings and now have left a mark in many different industries with their services or ventures. From Ranchers at one end to Tranchulas at the other, they have clients in every niche of Pakistan.

Afnan Sharief, CEO of Codistan, is one of the youngest entrepreneurs in Pakistan starting his own company right after graduation when he was less than 25 years old. The company went on to become a widely reputed company in less than 3 years. We talk to him to know more about the company, how he built it, and where it stands now as well as their future goals:

Tell us a bit about yourself, the main founders of the company, and how it started?afnancodistan.jpg

I am the perfect example of the popular belief that people do change. I was like every other teenage boy, wanting to live life to the fullest and see where life takes me. Fast forward, I got sick in my second year of university to the point that I had to freeze the entire year and that was the one point in my life which really shook me as a person and I came out of it knowing that you cannot wait for life to be kind to you, you have to make it happen. So I learned graphic designing with the aim of making something of myself.

The story of how the company came about is no short of a roller coaster ride. Codistan was started by a bunch of friends in the 3rd year of university who were initially very enthusiastic but started slowly backing out as our graduation came near and the realities of life hit in with everyone getting pressure from parents to get “proper” jobs which are sadly our mindset till the time it was just us 2 left, me and Waseem khan. That was a very difficult time for me and my partner since we knew that one person can never be enough to run a successful company until you have a team that is as passionate as you. But we didn’t give up and we can’t thank Allah enough for blessing us enough to reach this point where we are considered as a renowned software house in the twin cities.

Tell us about the services you provide and some notable flagship products and companies.

We mainly provide holistic digital marketing services starting from Web development to app development, SEO, digital marketing, and everything in between. We started these services at a time when the concept of digital marketing was very new and fresh for small businesses to understand so convincing them of the benefit that digital could bring to their business was a huge hurdle but we eventually surpassed that and now has come a time where restaurants before opening up hire a digital agency.

But since both of us founders always had the entrepreneurial itch so we ended up building 2 flagship products, 1 by the name of Renome- an online store to help revamp their home furniture sitting in the comfort of their home which really hit off during COVID since most people were sitting at home. The 2nd one is BizB- an online platform aimed at promoting the concept of secondhand buying which is the fastest growing fashion trend globally now post COVID and which has also been able to gain traction exponentially during COVID.

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Can you explain the process of scaling a company from just the core team to a company of more than 25 employees? And what are the hidden costs which an average person is not aware of?

It was a very slow and steady journey for Codistan but the one thing me and my partner always focused on which is a rule we apply to our sister companies now as well is that our numbers should be more than last month’s may it be a small difference or big but the key metric for us was there has to be a difference. So initially we made a core team including Sehrish Raza, Hassan Zahid, Usama Zulfiqar, Sumbal Malik, Beenish, Anjuman, and Faizan Anwar, all of whom were as enthusiastic as us founders of building something of their own and they would never hesitate to put in the extra hours needed to get the work done of maybe 3 people alone. We always had a very open culture where everyone could voice their opinions, everyone used to sit together and we would just randomly throw ideas off to each other brainstorming just to encourage everyone in the company to have an entrepreneurial itch. And finding manpower like this was what I feel our secret sauce was. So we started earning enough revenue with which we could afford more Human Resources and started gradually adding more members to each team to now housing more than 35 employees.

When you have a small team, you can house them in one room so the operational cost associated is very low but as the team grows, the overhead expenses increasing along with the investment that you are already making in Human Resources is something that generally gets overlooked by companies and they end up spending more than they should, decreasing their savings and eventually that ends up halting their growth.

I am sure there was a low point in your journey where you just wanted to give up. What motivated you to keep striving?

I have always had this itch since forever, which was if there was something that only 1% of people could do then I wanted to be among those 1% no matter how much work I had to put in to be that. I can’t say this journey was, is, and ever will be easy for me or anyone. 99% of the people you know would tell you every day how you’re wasting your time and you’re in over your head if you think can build something of your own and the most common “Get a proper job and stop wasting time”. But I was blessed that I had that 1% of support system which was my backbone whenever I felt like I was gonna give up or felt like we were just running in circles but that was the time when my wife and my partner stood strong by both my sides and made sure that I don’t let these negative thoughts get the best of me.

There are still times when we feel like we’re about to hit a dead end but these are times when we push each other to stay positive with a firm belief in the Quranic verse “إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًاwhich means Verily, along with every hardship is relief.

I saw a detailed post in which your COO elaborated on the measures to go remote during the pandemic. How has the practice worked out for your company and do you have any results to share for other CEOs?

It got off to a rocky start because for the employees to detach themselves from their families was a problem that all employees faced because this wasn’t only a new concept for us but our families as well. Also having a proper routine like you have when you come to the office was another challenge which took a week or so but after constant guidance, it was something that all employees were able to adapt.

The main issue that we faced every successive week was to keep the morale of the employees high and we did that by transparently communicating our growth even during that lockdown and even pushed them to come up with ideas and take initiatives of their own to help solve a problem that arose because of the pandemic. This helped keep them on their toes and excited for work. The one thing that I would suggest that worked best for us was the constant communication which helped us reduce the friction that was caused by this change of work setting. Regular meetings and making sure everyone’s work was visible to everyone else to instill a level of responsibility for completing tasks and deadlines on time.

So far have you raised any investment for your initiatives in Pakistan?

We haven’t as of yet but both our flagship products are well on their way to raise investments with conversations already going on with investors.

What makes Codistan standout from various companies working in the same field?

Our culture is what makes us really stand out from the rest of the companies since we’ve never had the 8-hour mindset since the beginning. Initially when we were a team of 5, after 6 p.m. when we were done with all the work for our clients was when our real work time started. We used to sit for hours after discussing ideas for products that could blow up as big businesses in the long term. We always had a product based long term vision along with running a services company. This culture we’ve tried to impart in every single member of the company where people give up to 13 hours a day to work if and when need be.

We as founders make sure to put in more work than our team members to push them beyond their limits as well and become a real-life example. For us, every team member is of the same value as the founders with a sense of responsibility to work towards not just operating the company but growing it. For me, that sense of responsibility is our strength. We deliberately take on challenges and try our best to achieve them not always succeeding but ensuring that we gave it our all.

From Software Development services to working with a Ranchers outlet, how has the change been for you and your team? Any key takeaways you would want to share?

Yes, that was an unexpected turn that came in our initial journey but as I already told you I and my partner were always up to take challenges wherever we could envision even a remote possibility of growth and we could see that when this opportunity came about. Initially, I got made fun of a lot even by people as close as friends and family that you’re a software engineer and you’re making burgers now but I and my partner were clear about our vision and knew deep inside what this could grow into something big so we just dove in and within a short span of a year, we were able to bring it out of losses and turn it into a profitable business which is now well on its way to expand. Now we have 3 outlets and are planning to expand even more into new cities in the coming year.

What’s next for Codistan? How do you plan to go global if you are planning?

As for as our services are concerned, we are already working with We are already international clients and agencies. To add to that, one of our products is in the launch phase in France but due to the spike in corona cases in that region, the plan got a tad bit delayed. But in 2021, inshallah BizB will be going global.

If you were to go back to SEECS and do things again, what would you do differently considering the current market environment and the pandemic situation?

If I were to go back to SEECS again, I would’ve started my venture earlier and I feel like int hat case I would’ve been much farther along in my journey but every mistake is a lesson learned so now I make sure I don’t wait and execute as soon as I recognize an opportunity instead of “waiting for the right time” because I feel like the time is never right, it’s you who has to change time in your favor.

What is your advice for students who plan to start their own Entrepreneurial Venture especially for those who are struggling with their own startup/business right now?

I would highly encourage the students to have the courage to walk down this path because we are the ones who will eventually be the decision-makers to where the economy of this country goes and how much it eventually grows. Currently, our ecosystem isn’t friendly enough to help these small businesses truly flourish but if enough of us come together and prove that we are competitive and can build empires of our own rather than just become a small part of another empire, there is no stopping our country’s economy to come at par with the biggest nations in the world. Also, I would suggest them to start early so that they have time to fall back and get up again before graduation because after graduation there is a new plethora of pressure that you don’t have while you’re studying or supporting your families monetary and/or atlas becoming self-sufficient. None of us can achieve anything alone and I have a firm faith that if we come together, then “Together we can achieve more!”.