Startups from 2014: What have tech founders learned whilst hustling for the past four years?

Written by Asra Rizwan ·  6 min read >

From academics to professional life, it is difficult for a regular Pakistani youngster to break away from conventional careers and deal with societal and family pressures. However, since the past few years, a constantly increasing number of young Pakistanis are breaking these stereotypes by writing their own destiny and taking the road less traveled by.

At the recently concluded, Digital Youth Summit, some of these young entrepreneurs shared their journey of challenging the norms and pursuing their ideas to build solutions for untapped sectors. Osman Husain, a tech journalist, moderated the panel and lead the conversation forward with these entrepreneurs.

  • Bilal Ather, CEO of WifiGen, a customer retention, and marketing platform.
  • Ebtihaj Khan, Founder of Messiah, an emergency responder app
  • Saba Gul, CEO of Popinjay, an ethical fashion label
  • Muhammad Waqas, CEO of WonderTree, an edtech startup for children with special needs

Why did these youngsters choose to embark the entrepreneurial path?

Ordinary was not enough for these entrepreneurs. With the one life they were given, they did not want to settle for mediocrity but pursue extraordinary ideas that solve problems for diverse sectors. Each of them was advised to pursue a stable job and settle in life. However, they believed that each individual has a unique talent but does not let this notion move forward by following the crowd. That’s where life stops for them.

When Ather was in his early teenage years, he felt the desire to do something unconventional. He pursued music but soon realized that it is not going to work from him. After testing multiple ideas and failing, he figured out that he can make a product like WifiGen work. Ather wants everyone to ask this question to themselves, “What is that one driving force that keeps you going?”

Khan grew up in a family of social workers, and he always thought of building a solution that can facilitate and benefit the public. He later found a mentor, who not only taught him but challenged his mindset and encouraged him to follow the entrepreneurial path.

We do not want to settle for mediocrity but build extraordinary solutions that impact lives.

Gul was working in the US and used to visit Pakistan in summers. She once attended a talk where she learned about an Afghan girl who used to disguise as a boy to pursue education. Gul was enrolled in MIT at that time and her contrasting situation with the Afghan girl affected her deeply. Gul realized she wanted to pursue something of her own and returned to Pakistan to pilot her project. She was working at Oracle but spending the nights and weekends to pursue her project. Distanced from her close friends and obsessed to make it work, Gul was putting alarms to go to sleep, rather wake up. She realized that she wanted to put her working hours to do something that is beneficial to people and asked herself, “Would it make a difference to Oracle if I quit?” She never looked back.

Waqas claims to be a serial failure in school. He was not a weak student but did not like the conventional teaching methods that limited his creativity. His was motivated to break through from a mundane lifestyle and explore possibilities that enable him to impact lives and leave a legacy behind. As a curious kid, he always wanted to question and learn something new without the fear of failing.

What is the toughest decision they ever took?

WonderTree was bootstrapping P@SHA’s Innovation Fund in hopes to raise more funds. Eventually, the funding dried up and paychecks were still to be distributed amongst the team. They had no other option but to let go of two of their employees. While the employees voluntarily wanted to continue their work at WonderTree, Waqas did not want to take their help without providing them deserving compensation. This decision made it evident that with no direction, investors or money, WonderTree was on the verge to collapse.

All of this changed when they were selected in the top 100 global startups for GIST. They flew out to Stanford University, where after a global voting round, they were shortlisted to in the top 30, eventually winning the third spot. Not only for the startup itself, but the victory became a great milestone for the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the country. The victory came as a breakthrough for them and soon schools, therapists, investors were contacting the company to collaborate. Following the win, WonderTree has been on a steady incline.

Gul’s pilot operated on a non-profit model where she worked with a team to deliver a life skills training program to Afghan refugee kids in a school in Attock. Two of her American colleagues were documenting their activities. While traveling to the city one day, they were detained by intelligence and military officials for over 12 hours for not producing a NOC to conduct their activities. Their names ran on TV and the school was flagged to prevent further activities. All the connections built in that year were lost and their work came to zero. It was tough for Gul to get back on her feet again. She couldn’t figure out if it was fate or a sign to go no further? How does she find a new inspiration or new energy to build something again? However, in just two months she was back to nurture a new community in Lahore that grew to encompass over 250 women.

For Khan, the most difficult decision was to shut down his company. His team had put in two years of arduous efforts. Khan owes the failure of his company to the frequency of pivots their product experienced based on community feedback. He was an undergraduate when he pursued the idea to make an app for public good, and thus a little inexperienced to launch it is a complete solution. Despite rigorous efforts and raising $100,000 at the first edition of DYS, they could not really develop a complete solution. Their app is still running in Beta mode, but they are disappointed because, in a region where building a startup and raising a funding is behemoth task, they couldn’t make much of the opportunity.

An entrepreneur takes the toughest of decisions when there is a lot of money or very little.

Ather believes that toughest decisions for an entrepreneur come when there is a lot of money coming in or the funds are depleting. WifiGen is a team of three who were freelancing to raise funds for their startup. Soon Ather realized that most of their working hours were being consumed to fulfill other projects, therefore he took the decision shut down the freelancing branch of his startup. Soon, they had run out of money. One day in Ramadan, they did not have enough money to buy food to break their fast. Ather looked at his laptop and questioned the need for two RAMs. He took a screwdriver, removed one RAM, went to Hafeez Market, sold the RAM and fed his team. He did not want his team to feel disheartened and believe that their idea is dead. Ten days later, life changed for WifiGen.

The startup raised funding from the early investors of Uber and gained the spotlight in the Asian region. They also got featured in the Top 10 Startups List of Tech in Asia. Their tough decisions paid off, and in the next few months, their graph was only elevating. Ather was also featured in Forbes 30 under 30 list.

Should young entrepreneurs join incubator programs or work on their own?

All these entrepreneurs unanimously agree that incubators and accelerators provide an opportunity to be surrounded by similar passionate individuals, helping them, learning them and finding new solutions that were not visible before. As compared to hustling from homes, incubators provide an environment that keeps kindling the entrepreneurial spirit.

When Khan pitched Messiah at DYS 2014, the startup was invited by Oasis 500 to join their accelerator. With no funds to cover the requirements of the program, their team pursued the accelerator and two US investors, closing the deal at the same event. They flew to Jordan to join the program and experienced great exposure. However, with the feedback, they received from the international community they kept pivoting and modifying their product for the government of Jordan which never materialized. Khan advises that young entrepreneurs should seek feedback but should also question its validity for the solution they are trying to build.

Incubators exist for facilitation, not running your startup.

Gul who has gone through two accelerators in the US and Pakistan believes that the ultimate goal of joining an accelerator is to land funding. Popinjay’s first seed funding was raised through an accelerator. Gul feels the quality of an incubator is crucial and she is positive about Pakistani incubators and acknowledges that they are improving every day. For her, an incubator is important because it answers all your questions. Be it testing, pivoting or raising funds, an incubator has a learning aspect associated with it that helps you identify new ways to solve a problem. She said,

“Being an entrepreneur is a lonely journey. There are many challenges you face that are unique and yours alone. While your support group will be there, they will never understand the intensity of obsession. Sometimes it can take a toll on your mental health. When you are in an incubator, you meet many individuals who are going through the same experiences.”

Ather thinks that without an accelerator on your back, you can still move forward if you have persistence and resilience. He believes that incubators can be helpful for early-stage startups who need mentorship and direction to move forward. They are helpful when a startup cannot build a lot of human resources and want to save on utility bills. Ather also thinks,

“Mentorship and funding may remain unpredictable. It may happen for one startup but not for another. Young entrepreneurs should know that the purpose of an incubator is facilitation and not running your company.”

As a Pakistani startup, does WifiGen find it difficult to operate in the international market?

Ather shared that he has never faced any disapproval for his country origin. Maybe it is the product, but whenever somebody has approached to collaborate with WifiGen, they never walked away and were only surprised that Pakistanis can make such a quality product. When a product is good, everything else becomes irrelevant. In fact, Changi Airport in Singapore trusted us to work with them. Maybe we can change the perspective about the country by working hard and building the best of products.

How confident is WonderTree to build a long lasting product?

Waqas is very confident about the future of WonderTree and excited for what it holds for him. He is motivated to redefine education for not only Pakistan but globally. They wanted therapy and education to be cost-effective and more accessible for the differently-abled children, and now they have figured out the way and what they want to achieve. They acknowledge that building such a product is extremely difficult, however, they are positive that they are creating a value for parents, teachers, therapists and the children. They are reiterating products and their solutions are currently running in two hospitals in Karachi, and seven schools across the whole country. 400 children and benefitting from their solution.

If you can create value, you can generate revenue

Written by Asra Rizwan
I profile people and startups contributing to the Pakistani technology entrepreneurial ecosystem. Share a story with me, Profile