Entrepreneurship and tech startups sound like fairly new topics to general public. But what if we tell you that the first major tech startup in Pakistan launched 10 years ago? And most of you have likely used their product at least once in your life so far?
Yes, we’re talking about Naseeb Networks. And today we’re bringing you a thoroughly enlightening interview with the man behind it all; Monis Rahman.
Monis comes from a very education oriented family. His dad held a PhD, so did a few other members in the family. His siblings are all highly qualified doctors. As was the norm back in the day, the career choices were fairly limited: a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. In that order. Monis picked the latter, and went on to become an accomplished Computer Engineer.
While in college at US, he got an internship at the hottest tech company at the moment, Intel. Working with the brightest minds, and the most cutting-edge technology available really polished his understanding of the field, and he went on to set up his own chip-manufacturing company in California.
By the age 27, he was doing quite well for himself, and was ready to take the next step and explore all the possibilities a booming dot-com industry had to offer.
And in 2003, he decided to sell off his business, and moved to Pakistan to lay the foundation of Naseeb.com, One of the first Pakistani dot-com startup. Let’s hear it from the man himself about how he came about to be the most prominent of names in Entrepreneurship in Pakistan.
TJ: Why did u move to Pakistan to start Naseeb.com? Especially since the infrastructure wasn’t ready yet?
MR: I left the microchip world at the age of 27. The dot-com boom was in full swing, and I was seeing major tech giants like Google, Hotmail, Yahoo! raising ridiculous amounts of money and dominating the internet.
Since my previous business had been doing very good, I wasn’t motivated by money anymore. I was, however, motivated by the impact I could make. I felt like I was missing out. There was a major inflexion point in the way human society interacted with technology, and I was right in the heart of that. So I decided to make a web company.
I was exploring the Pakistani market since my family had moved here. I realized that the biggest cost in running a web company was of human capital. And the running cost in Pakistan would have been 1/18th of what it would have been in the US. So that’s when I decided to come back and start Naseeb.com, which exploded very quickly. We were the first one to be doing any kind of serious business on the internet back then. And we had little to no competition in the market.
TJ: How did Rozee.pk come about?
MR: So I started Naseeb.com from my house, but later moved out as we grew. Now when hiring, I ran into a lot of problems finding the right talent. At that time, one job ad in the classified section in Dawn roughly cost PKR 850,000 which was ridiculous! So I decided to put my ads online.
I quickly made a website in 2 weeks, and put my ads on it there. But then other people jumped in and started posting their own ads and that thing just went viral! The number of people using it, posting jobs, and getting hired was massive. So we decided to turn it into our primary business since it started doing even better than Naseeb.com.
Initially we got a lot of push back. We were laughed out of a lot of board rooms. People here saw internet as just a big chat room. Meanwhile they were used to seeing ads in newspaper. If it wasn’t in Dawn, it hadn’t happened.
We had to work very hard to bring about this cultural change where they saw Internet for the incredible tool that it is. We presented a ton of data to make our case, and the value proposition was very compelling, that we managed to convince lots of people.
TJ: How did you go about raising investment for Rozee?
MR: We didn’t, actually. We were profitable, as we were growing fast. But then the offers started coming in and we started considering the possibilities. We were very prudent when it came to spending so our burn rates were quite low too.
We finally decided to take funding from some very well respected VCs in the Silicon Valley (Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) and E-Planet Capital, the same VC who invested in Skype, Hotmail, and Baidu).
TJ: You have some decent local & international competition in the market now. How does that affect you?
MR: Actually people had more options back when we started in 2007, than today. There were 29 other job sites in Pakistan back when we started, including Mustaqbil.com, Brightspire, Bayt, etc. Bayt in particular was here much before we were. But we started from scratch and we quickly overtook them.
But its not the competitor sites that are impediments to our growth. Our challenge is the overall jobs market size in Pakistan. Only 3% of all the jobs in the country are advertised at all. Now Bayt has re-entered the market, which is great. We want strong competitors, because they will help grow the market. And we all will gain from that.
TJ: How will 3G change the landscape?
MR: Internet usage is exploding through Mobile. My prediction is that we’ll hit 60 million internet users by 2019. At Rozee, we’ve seen a jump in mobile traffic from 3% to 13% just within 2014. So there’s no denying that Mobile Internet is disrupting the local market in a big way. And we’re working on some amazing apps to prepare for that. One will launch in the next couple of weeks, and another in a month or so. We’re taking the 3G revolution seriously, and we really want to enable people to engage with us through mobile.
TJ: What are your thoughts on spam on Rozee.pk?
MR: We have a pretty smart spam filtering algorithm in place, and all the CVs that we think are such, get filtered out. No algorithm can be perfect, and there are some false positives or vice versa, but generally we’ve got the situation well under control.
We’ve also got some great filters for employers to use, so they can really dig into the pool and extract only the right kind of people with just a few clicks.
We’ve also built some online evaluation tests. People often lie on their CVs, it’s an epidemic. Now companies can create evaluation tests really easily on our platform and filter out the fake entries, improving the results even further.
We’ve also introduced a tool called InstaMatch, which scans your provided JD & experience requirements etc., and does an exhaustive search from within our database of 6.5 million CVs. It dynamically pulls out the right candidates from the total database, and those matches are really, really good.
TJ: How are you managing time between Chalo.pk & Rozee.pk, and which one is more important to you right now?
MR: I love experimenting with new things. Chalo is my experiment. We have hundreds of SMEs in Pakistan who can’t afford to promote themselves on large platforms like newspapers, billboards, TV etc. We’re helping them expand & grow through Chalo.pk.
We’re experimented with daily deals & loyalty cards, and the results are really encouraging. So its much too early in the game right now. And numbers will grow exponentially once we expand nationwide.
We’re also experimenting with Maps. We spent 2 years building our own maps database, and now we have mapped every single house address in any planned society in Lahore. We’ve also mapped all the restaurants, their menus and other details in the app. So people can navigate to them really easily. If you want to watch a movie, we’re listing all the movies being shown in all the cities, and soon we’ll be adding a Buy button.
So right now, we’re experimenting a lot and we’re really focused on growth.
As for which one is more important? Well right now it’s Rozee. There are experiments and I’ve got great people who run things for me, and my role is mostly advisory.
TJ: How do you compare Chalo to Olaround?
MR: Olaround is not exactly a competitor since they are a customer loyalty business while we’re offering deals & discounts. I think Olaround is a great idea, and I believe its time is now here. But the hurdle I see in Olaround is that they bet a lot on the availability & users’ understanding of technology. And that’s what has held it back all this time.
Our solution Red Card is very old tech. You can swipe our physical card at outlets, show it to get discounts, or you can even buy a scratch card to get discount points. And that’s why its growing.
The focus has to be on the underlying business model, and to make sure that it works. If that isn’t working, it doesn’t matter how cool my execution of the tools is.
86% of jobs posted on Rozee get hired through us. If that model didn’t work, we wouldn’t have grown so big. So its essential to make sure that the core model works. Otherwise you have a lot of traffic, but not a business.
TJ: We’ve heard that you’ve recently acquired a popular Social SMS Network. Could you share some details on it?
MR: Well there are a lot of rumors going around, and for now all I can share is that we’re in discussions to see how can we help them out. They approached us for help, and that’s how I got involved.
Now as with any such discussion, things are changing every day, but I have agreed to help them. I really believe that they have built something great, but for many reasons they couldn’t crack the monetization model. A lot of their competitors are in the same boat too. So we’ve finally come up with a strategy to help them out, and we’re in process of implementing that.
TJ: How does Social SMS Network fit in with Rozee or Chalo etc.? Are you looking to integrate them somehow?
MR: SMS can be integrated with anything. Be it schools, restaurants, clubs, movie theaters, etc., anything. I see the value of integrating SMS with Rozee to give out SMS job alerts etc., but we haven’t gone down that road yet.
TJ: There are so many entrepreneurial events happening around, like Plan9, GFE, etc, but we never see you there as a judge, mentor, speaker, anything. Why is that?
MR: Well for the most part, I don’t usually get invited to these events. I have no idea why. But I believe most of the entrepreneurial community knows me, and many have reached out for help & advice. And I always make a point of helping them as much as I can.
TJ: Are you a tough person to work with?
MR: For entrepreneurs, no. because that’s a very nurturing kind of role. I don’t have any skin in the game so there’s nothing to be tough about. But yes, if we’re in business together and people aren’t being truthful, then things can get abrasive. When the trust breaks down, you don’t feel like investing time on such a project.
TJ: Tell us a bit about your failures.
MR: Well I’ve got a lot of them. Failures are a great way to learn. When you start a new experiment, you have to do it with a total acceptance of the fact that it might not work. Only through bold tests and failing do you figure out how your market will react. And then you readjust. You’ll never truly succeed if you never push the envelope.
At Rozee, we once invested in some features that we thought would be really cool for employers. We spent 6 months developing those complex features at a huge cost, but it didn’t convert at all. This was early on, 2006-ish. But we learned a valuable lesson from it. Now whenever we’re experimenting with something, we always go out, do a lot of research, and only then start implementing in stages.
An entrepreneur’s job is not to do something cool. It’s to create value for your customers. So a very valuable lesson I’ve learned is to ALWAYS validate your model, do market research before investing in it.
TJ: If you could change one thing about your past?
MR: I don’t think there’s really anything that I’d like to change. All my successes, all my mistakes, they have made me who I am today. They have been very enriching experiences, and I don’t think it’s productive to have regrets. Every failure has taught you something that has made you better & stronger. So how can you regret it?
TJ: You are SVP of P@SHA. People think it’s not open to all the people in the industry, and isn’t adding any value to the industry as a whole.
MR: P@SHA has done some amazing things for the industry. And if we didn’t have such a group representing the IT sector, all that wouldn’t have been possible. And without such bodies, you can’t highlight the success of IT sector.
As small entrepreneurs look at P@SHA, their expectations are very specific to their own needs. A lot of times, P@SHA does stuff which doesn’t get all the hype and news (e.g., negotiations with Tax Authorities), hence people don’t know the significant role it plays. And I think that’s a little unfair.
Not saying that all the criticism is wrong, there’s a lot that still needs to be done. But P@SHA’s impact is far greater than most people realize, and it certainly deserves a chance to prove itself.
TJ: How many hours do you sleep in a day?
MR: I’d like to sleep 8 hours a day, but in reality I only get about 6. And that’s okay. It’s enough to function. I get my sleep when I need it, as I can’t function when I’m sleepy. But for the rest of 16 hours, I’m super wired and productive, and make the most of my awake time.
TJ: Any advice to founders, specifically those looking for investment?
MR: My advice, don’t look for investment outright. As an entrepreneur, your goal is not to get funding. Your goal is to make a viable business that creates value, even at a very small scale. So start lean, show success in terms of leads, revenue, whatever your key metric is. Money will eventually find you.
A funny thing about money is, that it will decide where it wants to go. You can’t decide where the money should go. What you can do, is to build the best start up you can which creates value for customers. Something that generates ROI. And if you’ve got positive ROI, investment will follow you and money will come.
(Edited by: Ameer Aftab)