Profiles of three Pakistani entrepreneurs who are injecting a huge dose of innovation into startups.
Saba Gul, Popinjay
|Saba Gul set up a pilot project of the business she runs today in 2011.|
SabaAn alma mater of MIT, Saba Gul set up a pilot project of the business she runs today in 2011, when a college lecture made her realise that everyone deserved the same opportunities she had in life. The pilot involved working with a chain of schools in Attock which were established specifically to educate Afghan refugees. Gul offered a one-hour class teaching embroidery, which girls could attend conditional on good school attendance. What was produced in those classes (mainly handbags) was then marketed abroad.
That same year, Gul made the decision to quit her job with a software development firm in Silicon Valley and move to Pakistan to work full time to expand the pilot into a non-profit social enterprise called Bliss. She started working with women artisans in Hafizabad and the focus shifted from educating girls to providing women with a livelihood. Although she was able to launch her first full collection of embroidered handbags in mid-2011, things were not going very smoothly, Gul admits.
|The new collection in 2013 positioned Popinjay as a fashion brand.|
“No matter how hard I worked, I had trouble attracting capital and good people. I was looking for capital in the wrong places where they were slow to respond. People were not too keen to join a social startup because they had preconceived notions that a non-profit could not offer them good opportunities to grow and the people I was working with were all from the development sector so they were focusing more on the women and less on the business side of things.”
Gul spent 2012 learning what she needed to know to refocus her business. She spent time at two accelerators, Unreasonable Institute in the US and i2i in Pakistan and finally managed to raise some capital in 2013.
“I knew that I was going to use a huge chunk of that money to get the right people on the team and this is when we grew to a four person team with focused roles such as design, sales and marketing.”
However 2013 was also a big year for Gul’s business in other ways. She re-launched Bliss as a for-profit business, renamed it Popinjay (“it is Middle English for parrot and a parrot is associated with a voice”), launched a new collection having positioned Popinjay as a fashion brand, revamped the website (www.popinjay.co) and added an element of online sales.
“Our big realisation was that unless we focus on the market and view ourselves as a brand, we cannot do well for the women.” Gul’s hard work has resulted in “tonnes of orders”, widespread news coverage by Vogue India, CNNMoney, Al Jazeera and international fashion blogs, and a deal to stock Popinjay handbags at the US-based lifestyle chain, Anthropologie. But she is far from being done.
“My long term vision is that I want to be a brand that stands for equal opportunity and justice, and I want to scale this model throughout South Asia and eventually globally as well. We are building a community centre in Hafizabad right now, and in six to eight years I am imagining these workshops popping up all over Pakistan. I am also interested in how people consume things and I want to help them consume consciously and to ask themselves, ‘This money that I am spending on something I want… is it helping to make the world a better or worse place’.”
Junaid Malik, Raise D’Bar
|Malik returned to Karachi and experimented to create nut and fruit filled granola bars.|
When Junaid Malik returned from the USA in 2007 after completing a BSc in Economics and a BA in Drama, he started working in the finance division at Telenor. On completing three years with Telenor, Malik received an email from the HR department congratulating him.
“I forwarded the email to my manager and told him I was quitting,” he says, thus setting in motion a series of events that would eventually lead him to becoming a social entrepreneur.
Malik, like many young people working within large organisations, felt like he wasn’t growing as an individual and a professional, so he started freelancing as a filmmaker and a theatre actor. In 2011, on a shooting trip to Skardu, Malik was packing his own snack foods (mostly nuts and dried fruit) in an effort to lose weight. There, in the heartland of dried fruit production he realised that a lot of the fruit under cultivation was going to waste because of lack of market access.
|All the raw materials are sourced from Gilgit-Baltistan.|
Something of a culinary aficionado, Malik returned to Karachi and got into the kitchen, experimenting with ingredients to create nut and fruit filled granola bars.
“Instead of selling plain dried fruit, I wanted to offer a value added product,” he explains.
In doing so, Malik set some requirements for himself: all the raw materials had to be sourced from the Gilgit-Baltistan region and the product had to be nutritious and tasty.
In November 2013, Malik launched his brand called Raise D’Bar in two flavours: mulberry, walnut and blackcurrant; and strawberry, apricot and almond, priced at Rs 125 for a 65g bar. In an effort to keep costs down, he outsourced operations – production and packaging takes place at Kitchen Cuisine outlets by mutual agreement and this has saved Malik from having to make the huge capital investment required to set up a kitchen of his own; similarly raw material sourcing was outsourced to a friend in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Currently selling 1000 bars per weekend at farmers markets in Lahore, Islamabad and a few niche outlets such as T2F in Karachi, Malik knows there is a long way to go. However, his association with i2i, a business accelerator, early on in the business lifecycle has really helped.
“Kalsoom (Lakhani, CEO, i2i) advised me to focus on making the business sustainable first,” explain Malik, who was initially far more interested in the social impact of this enterprise on the dried fruit farmers of Gilgit-Baltistan.
“She also put me in touch with mentors in the US who helped me to sort out my packaging which was previously described by one of the local mentors as a ‘a rabid dog with a limp’,” he laughs.
On a serious note, Malik says that Pakistan is a tough place for entrepreneurs. “We don’t have the infrastructure for a lot of things so you have to learn as you go. For example, I can’t go to someone and say, ‘I need a packaging solution for this’ because that doesn’t exist. Going forward I would like to get in a touch with an international mentor who can give me specific feedback on my recipe.”
Once distribution and sustainability are sorted out, Malik has big plans for Raise D’Bar’s social impact on the farming community in the north.
“In the long run we will have a farmer’s community centre where farmers’ families can come and learn. I am also working with Telenor to set up an SMS based social network so that farmers can reach out to their counterparts in the big cities to ascertain the prices of dried fruit. Ultimately, the objective, as the name suggests is to push the boundaries and create something new and different.”
Ahmed Khalid, XGear
|Getting into gear: (L-R) Khalid, Khawaja and Butt are eager to market XGear internationally.|
In 2006, as undergraduate students at Comsats Lahore, Ahmed Khalid and Usman Khawaja decided to do a class project which involved installing a computer in a car and uploading all of the automobile’s data onto a computer.
“We were not sure what we would do with the data but we wanted to do something,” says Khalid.
They managed to build a prototype device “with a lot of wires” and connected it with a laptop in a car. Looking back now, Khalid realises that putting a laptop in a car was not feasible at all. The computer-in-car project was laid aside due to lack of interest from any buyers; Khalid and Khawaja went on to pursue Master’s degrees at different universities and started working in other companies. However, in June 2013, an app called Automatic (which connects smartphones to car) hit the Apple iStore and Khalid’s brain immediately went into overdrive.
“In 2006 our idea could get no traction but when I heard about Automatic I thought that if something of this nature has happened in Silicon Valley, this is the right time to tell people about what computers can do for your car.”
That same month, Khalid along with Khawaja and Kamran Shahid Butt (another friend from Comsats) started working on an enterprise application called XGear. Unlike Automatic which is a consumer facing app, XGear has utility for corporations and end users. Once the system is installed in a car, it collects data from the automobile and aggregates it on the Cloud. This data can then be accessed from a computer, a smartphone or a tablet.
XGear offers numerous advantages and at the same time challenges some of the accepted wisdom regarding automobile maintenance. For example, Khalid explains, “there is a myth that you have to change your engine oil every 3000 to 5000 km depending on which car you are driving. But doing so is actually wasting billions of dollars of oil every year. Oil changes depend on your average trip, how you drive, the condition of the roads, the temperature and which brand of engine oil you use. XGear is personalised so it tells you exactly when you need to change your oil which can result in savings of up to Rs 6000 annually.”
The system also helps diagnose car problems, gives estimates of how much money should be paid in order to fix a problem and gives car owners data about how their drivers are driving while they are not in the car. In terms of corporations, XGear enables companies to manage a fleet of cars, giving leads on maintenance issues, petrol usage and how company drivers are driving, making it an incredible useful system.
Khalid says the three friends applied for almost every business competition they could think of in order to get funding and mentorship for their business. They ended up winning Startup Pirates and managed to make it into the top third or fourth place in many other competitions; they are currently in the top 12 for the Million Pound Startup competition. They are also taking part in Plan9’s current incubation cycle where they are learning how to pitch their product to consumers and enterprises.
The process has been successful so far and Khalid says that as soon as the front end system of XGear is ready, it will be installed in 1000 cars as several companies have signed agreements with him. Khalid also did a small test campaign among end consumers and managed to get 4000 commitments.
Although cash flows have been a challenge for the fledgling business, Khalid says the partners are not looking for money.
“We have had a lot of investment offers but what we are looking for are strategic partners, people who can help us position the product, and help with international sales and marketing.”