Published in Jul-Aug 2016
This year, as they have done consistently since 2010/11, a number of Pakistani start-ups will participate in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) to be held in Silicon Valley. They will also be able to pitch to investors at the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) event. Doing so is nowhere as easy as it sounds; GES and GIST are highly prestigious tech events and hard to get into; only 1,000 participants from all over the world may attend and a mere 15 are invited to pitch.
I met three of the entries from Pakistan, and only one somewhat resembled the entrepreneur stereotype of 20-something males with messenger bags slung across their chest. The others? Well, nothing says ‘Pakistani tech entrepreneur’ better than a 38-year-old mother of two, right? Or a trio of CEOs who have never been to school, and of whom, only one can sign legal papers because the other two are underage. No doubt about it, this is one eclectic bunch.
This women-only marketplace happened as a result of a stolen mobile phone. “I went on an online classifieds space to buy a temporary replacement phone and the usual began to happen: crank calls, ‘frandship’ requests, solicitations. It was so irritating because this was such a minor purchase – surely I should not have to ask my husband to handle it for me?” questions founder Nadia Gangjee. That was when she decided to create a harassment-free environment where women could buy and sell from each other. She started with a WhatsApp group of friends who put up perfumes they weren’t using, clothes made for exhibitions, even their kids’ ‘pre-loved’ furniture. In a week the group hit its limit; in 12 days she was running three groups.
To handle the rapidly increasing membership, Gangjee moved the groups to a closed community on Facebook where only women were allowed, but as before, the group grew too big, too fast and issues began creeping up. “People would cheat or not honour orders so I decided to make a web platform that I could control.”
Her first attempt was a disaster because she was scammed out of ownership of domains and source code for her custom-coded website by her then-business partner. [The business partner has since clarified that the dissolution of the partnership was due to common co-founder conflicts. “The accusations laid out against me are baseless and untrue. She had access to a few assets while I had access to a few. All the source code was with her too. The partnership was mutually ended. I wish her the best of luck for her future endeavours."]
However, with the support of The Nest I/O she rebuilt her community of women and started a new site. After incubation she was introduced to Arpatech, which signed on to invest after a single 45-minute meeting.
How it works: Unlike regular marketplaces, Sheops is limited to women. “She operates, she shops, she opts, Sheops,” says Gangjee. Prospective members are vetted to ensure they are not men or using fake accounts, because apart from the harassment issue, in certain cases women don’t want to buy from men, or have men involved in the transaction. “We offer public stores, which can be viewed by anyone, and private stores which are restricted to members.”
Sheops offers integrated logistics and payment systems to streamline the shopping process. When someone puts in a purchase request for the first time, Sheops representatives call to verify that it is a genuine buyer. A Sheops delivery person picks up the product from the seller, takes it to the buyer and brings the payment to the office. Every two weeks Sheops transfers payment to the seller. “We pick, ship and deliver,” says Gangjee. “The seller has to do nothing.”
Having only recently launched, the start-up is not earning anything other than commissions on sales, which are kept to either a percentage or a cap if the percentage value exceeds Rs 2,000, but Gangjee is positive ad revenue will start coming in soon.
Why Sheops is going to GES: One might wonder what is so special about a shopping portal that it would get a place at GES. In Gangjee’s view it is “because it is not about becoming a billion-dollar business; it is about giving women who cook, craft and create an outlet to sell because they can’t go and ask the local shopkeeper to stock their products. Sheops is going because Sheops is empowering.”
Excitable siblings who chat at the speed of a runaway train, Ayesha Babur, 19, Abdullah Babur, 17, and Asadullah Babur, 15, have been homeschooled all their lives. “We didn’t follow a curriculum. We read books, went to expos and played sports. If a problem needed to be solved, we figured it out ourselves,” says Ayesha, pointing out that all three recently sat for O Level exams.
Homeschooling meant they paid more attention to conceptual learning compared to peers who studied in regimented classrooms. “We analysed how the brain learns,” says Abdullah. “We did a lot of research on international education systems, emailed professors, and investigated different education models.”
“And because we wanted to make learning addictive,” says Asadullah, “we came up with TEDdict, for the technology, entertainment, design addict.”
How it works: “Most learning websites focus on teacher-to-student interaction,” says Ayesha, noting that in real life, kids often get together for group studies to learn from each other rather than from a teacher.
Being a gamified environment, there is also an element of competition, which Asadullah says is the reason games like Farmville are so successful. “We use the coin system,” he explains. Every month members receive a certain number of coins which can be exchanged for lessons, meaning exchange isn’t strictly reciprocal.
“I will teach you maths, you teach him physics, he teaches me English,” says Ayesha. “TEDdies don’t barter, they trade lessons for coins. The more help you give, the more coins you get.”
An additional gaming aspect is the use of leaderboards to show ratings. “When you help someone your ratings on the public leaderboard rise,” says Ayesha. “That’s motivation to do more.”
Revenue is generated by issuing progress reports. “Parents and teachers like knowing how well their kids are learning or where they need more help,” says Abdullah. “For between one and three dollars, they can get a detailed analytics report that shows exactly where their child stands.”
Why TEDdict is going to GES: Because “there are hardly any peer-to-peer learning portals,” says Abdullah. Ayesha adds that “meta-learning, or learning about learning is still in experimental stages. Edmodo and Google Plus are kind-of, sort-of the closest you can get to TEDdict.”
As young men who put off finding jobs in order to develop a start-up, two of them faced quite a few challenges from their families. Yet, it was a family challenge that generated the idea in the first place.
“My older brother is a special-needs person,” says Muhammad Usman, 23, Chief Technical Officer, WonderTree. “One day I saw him playing a car game on the console and he was better at it than I was – so I figured why not turn it into a therapy aid.”
The idea won the Karachi Grand Innovation Challenge held by Pakistan Innovation Foundation, Alif Ailaan and I Am Karachi. Soon after Usman and the original developing team graduated from university; two went their separate ways while Usman and Ahmed Bukhari, 24, Chief of Research & Development and Analytics, WonderTree, came to The Nest I/O.
Usman’s neighbour, Muhammad Waqas, 28, came on board as Chief of Marketing and Strategy. “I had my own digital marketing agency and I planned to carry on with that as well; but one month in I closed shop and turned all my attention to WonderTree.”
How it works: As a therapy aid, WonderTree games help players develop hand-eye coordination, physical movement, reflexes, mirroring, attention retention and decision making. To play, users must download the game for a monthly subscription fee and have a laptop, television and kinect device.
The team works with a panel of physiotherapists, the Institute of Professional Psychology (IPP), Karachi Vocational Trust (KVT), and Network of Organizations Working with People with Disabilities, Pakistan (NOWPDP) to develop the games. “Initially we were quite haphazard,” says Waqas. “Then one of our mentors, Adil Moosajee, advised us to set up a board that we could consult regularly. That really helped.”
In an environment where most games are available for free, WonderTree is confident their subscription model will work. “A package costs $25 a month,” says Waqas. “For Pakistan, that’s 50% less than what you would pay to a therapist annually. From an international perspective, research shows a special-needs child requires $10,000 to 30,000 a year. On our platform the top cap is $1,000.”
Why WonderTree is going to GIST: To qualify for GIST a start-up must be able to impact a whole economy and be globally implementable. On that basis (and because according to their research there are only two other companies in the world that provide a similar product) WonderTree made it through the first round against 1,074 entries. In the second round they had to come up with as many votes as possible to make it to the top 15.
“At first we shared posts to get the word out. We garnered 500 votes. The other start-ups were at 5,000 and 10,000 votes. So we changed tactics; we set up teams in several universities and instead of asking people to vote for us, we asked permission to use their email address so we could vote on their behalf.” Several days of intense voting later they landed in the top 10 and were subsequently invited to present to Silicon Valley investors for funding.
As each start-up team speaks about their experiences with The Nest I/O, it becomes clear that the most valued support received was not the (admittedly important) free space and free internet; it was the mentors, the guidance and the wholehearted sharing of knowledge.
“A lot of people dissed Usman’s idea at first,” says Waqas. “But here we found selfless encouragement from people who had nothing to gain in return from us.”
Gangjee points out that she only discovered her ex-business partner’s scam after she came to The Nest I/O and began to understand how websites worked.
As for the TEDdict kids, through The Nest I/O they went to Sri Lanka and won silver at the Asia Pacific ICT Alliance (APICTA) Awards. Now they are going to the heart and soul of tech development in Silicon Valley. With unabashed enthusiasm only teens are capable of, they cheer, “It’s like we hit the lottery!”
UPDATE: The winners of GIST Tech-1 Pitch, Start-up Stage, were announced on June 23 and 24, 2016. WonderTree placed third to win $3,000. First place was won by Monkey Junior, Vietnam, for an interactive reading application. Second place went to HiGi Energy, Malaysia, for converting invasive water hyacinth and agricultural waste into an environmentally friendly, smoke free cooking fuel.