Inside a Founder’s Mind: Mudassir Sheikha Co-founder and MD of Careem

By Ahsan Saleem on
September 19, 2016
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Is Skype really a good tool to probe anyone’s mind, let alone Mudassir Sheikha’s?

A USC and Stanford alumni, involved in a startup acquired for $60M, Ex-Mckinsey, and now cofounder and Managing Director of Careem, one of the hottest companies in Middle-East region. Mudassir’s profile is nothing short of a tech A-lister’s and here I was on Skype trying to use a 30 min window during his lunch break to get in his head. One of the first things that struck me was his eloquent and genuine style of communication. I had reached Mudassir via a mutual friend but it was our first chat nonetheless. Mudassir was humble and informal yet very smart. I started the interview by asking Mudassir about his childhood.

“I haven’t been asked about my childhood in a long time but if I have to pick between hyper or geek, I was definitely a geeky child. Always wanted to be on top of the class.” Mudassir continued, “I grew up in Karachi. Did my initial schooling in Pakistan and then my undergrad at USC on a scholarship. In the 80s and 90s, when I was growing up in Pakistan, we were not very connected with rest of the world and I wasn’t exposed to Silicon Valley until I landed in California for my undergrad circa 1995. I had actually decided to study Economics but seeing so much excitement about technology I decided to study Computer Science as well.”

“I finished college in year 1999, six months earlier than schedule and right in the middle of dot com boom. I wanted to get out of college as early as possible and build something exciting.”

One of Mudassir’s jobs after grad school was at Garage Technology Ventures (GTV), a veteran Silicon Valley early stage VC fund founded by the famous Guy Kawasaki. I inquired Mudassir if landing a job at GTV was a conscious decision? “I had been part of startups and when you are working at startups you have a weird fascination with the VC world. I wanted to learn about how VCs work so I reached a friend at Garage and asked him if I could work there for three months before moving back to Pakistan. He responded saying sure why not.”

As mentioned earlier our call was scheduled during Mudassir’s lunch time and by then Mudassir had just received his lunch. As Mudassir snacked on (some really crispy looking) french fries we continued our discussion about his experience of working at GTV. “It’s a very interesting and diverse experience working at a VC fund because you are constantly looking into ideas and what’s happening in the world. You are continuously thinking of trends. So it’s a big thinking-thing versus doing-thing.”

“While I really enjoyed my time at Garage Technology Ventures and I learnt a lot, I also came to a conclusion that I liked doing things as compared to thinking.”

We continued the discussion about Mudassir’s next gig after Garage Technology Ventures, DeviceAnywhere, a premium Mobile testing platform which got acquired in 2011 by Keynote for $60 Million. “What happened was that myself and a quite a few names of current Pakistani tech ecosystem worked at Brience, a company trying to be Mobile middleware at the time mobile was just starting. Though Brience wasn’t a success itself, we had become experts in mobile data, mobile applications and how to deal with 200 types of mobile devices in the market.

DeviceAnywhere was actually started by Faraz Syed and David Marsyla, both also ex-Brience. I had moved back to Pakistan at that time to be close with my parents and had started my own technology consulting practice. During one of my San Francisco visits I met Faraz and got involved with Device Anywhere.”

Reflecting on initial days of DeviceAnywhere Mudassir recalled various challenges. “I joined DeviceAnywhere as a co-founder and built the whole Pakistan setup. It was a painful experience. We did not have any funding initially for two years so we were not getting any salaries. But the good thing was business was growing and we kept on finding customers who saw value in our product. Funding was hard to find because it was 2003, probably the worst time to start a company in the Valley. Eventually, after two years we were able to raise funding. We scaled our setup in Pakistan to 100 people including development, marketing, and financial processes. Some of the developers even moved to Bay Area from Pakistan. I really enjoyed the time and for the first time, I felt I had made a meaningful contribution to Pakistan.

What was your most expensive lesson at DeviceAnywhere? “Connecting back the dots of my time with DeviceAnywhere, I realized one thing that it’s important to target a big market for my next venture i.e. find something broken in a super big industry. A lesson we applied when starting Careem which solves a huge transportation problem.”

Post DeviceAnywhere, Mudassir joined McKinsey in 2008. The goal was to be close to his parents in Pakistan and Dubai was a closer choice as compared to Bay Area. I inquired Mudassir why he chose McKinsey. “I have a Masters in Computer Science and before McKinsey when I worked with startups I had to make various business decisions. I did not feel confident making those decisions. So I wanted to learn and made a pick between working with McKinsey or going to business school. I actually had to take a step back in my career since everyone at McKinsey starts from entry level. It is really a great place to learn. You get exposed to so many different problems at a high level and you are taught to break the big problem into small pieces. You find the overall solution by putting together solutions to all the small pieces.”

I teased Mudassir: “Would you hire a McKinsey for Careem? Mudassir smiled. “They are quite expensive, but why not.”

We carried the discussion forward and discussed Mudassir’s current gig Careem, which is creating a lot of buzz in Pakistan as well. Careem is a text book startup story. Created out of transportation pains in Dubai, Mudassir and Magnus felt first hand, it targets a big market and is growing at a rapid pace of 30% every month. The first version of Careem was launched in an amazingly short period of 6 weeks. “We wanted to start with the Minimal Viable Product and to be out in the market as soon as possible. We gave ourselves six weeks to launch which is a really short time to build technology. We could not build all features on our list but stuck with our decision and launched. It’s been over three years and we-we still have not built some of the features in original list as it turned out the market never needed them.”

Careem now has over 80,000 Captains (Careem’s name for drivers) and over a 4 million registered users. Careem has an internal portal where ride booking stats are updated every 15 minutes. I asked Mudassir if such updates motivate or overwhelm people? “The reason we do this is transparency and that combined with good numbers is definitely motivating. We are now in 10 countries, 30 cities and with such a distributed team we need to communicate a lot. We do a company all hands every 2 weeks as well.”

Our parting discussion was about the future. Mudassir had a clear roadmap in mind. “We want to build an institution that inspires, the likes of GE and Google but from this region. In 2011 McKinsey was considering opening an office in Pakistan and as part of market due diligence, we searched for multi-billion dollar companies in Pakistan. I was taken aback to find out that we had only one billion dollar company, Engro, outside oil and gas industry. Pakistan has 200 Million people who are smart and hardworking still we have only one billion dollar company. So the goal is to build an institution from the region that we can be proud of. It should be big, delivers great products and created a positive impact on the majority of people in the region. I look forward to spending the next 10 years of my life building such an institution we can be proud of.”


In my last interview, I was in conversation with the co-founder and CTO of CareMerge, Fahad Aziz. You can read it here.


With some individuals, you can talk for hours and still do not learn anything interesting. With Mudassir a mere 30 min chat was schooling. I actually had to cut a lot of pieces from the interview just to avoid writing a chapter instead of an article. Entrepreneur’s grace is the hard times he opts to live in pursuit of big dreams, and his glamour is his nature of never settling with small successes. Mudassir has been graceful and glamorous with everything he has done so far and I look forward to seeing the next big thing he pulls off.

“Life is like a boat with two oars. One oar is hard work and other is blessings. You need both to work together in order to achieve success. Otherwise, you go around in circles.”


 
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