Queno is an app I developed with my Co-founder and CEO Muhammad Zubair in 2016. Queno is a platform where parents can track their children’s academic progress and monitor their daily schoolwork. They receive teachers’ notes, school circulars and test results; it also facilitates paying the school fees.
As we cater to schools (which are open between 9:00 a.m. and 1 p.m.), the first half of our day is spent visiting schools in order to pitch our app. Every week, we pick a new neighbourhood, and on average, we visit four to five schools a day. We do so because it is the only effective way to drum up business. We used to send emails or call schools to set up meetings, but it almost never worked. So the only option is to make in-person calls and to be honest this is not easy either as we face multiple hurdles when it comes to meeting the right people. Firstly, it is extremely difficult to gain access into a school and the security guards usually do not let men enter the premises. As the only woman at Queno, I therefore have to accompany Maaz Haider, my Sales Lead. Secondly, it is a herculean task to meet school owners or the relevant people, due to the multiple levels of hierarchy involved. Once we meet someone from admin, the response usually is: “We already have software installed,” and we have to spend a considerable amount of time explaining the difference between a mobile app and software. Finally, if we do manage to satisfy the admin and get to speak to the IT team, they feel threatened because they think that using our app will cost them their jobs, so they often make up excuses to stop us going further.
When a school is on board, we visit them to impart training to the teachers, admin staff and parents on how to use the app. In some neighbourhoods this is a challenge as neither the teachers nor the parents are very tech-savvy and teaching them requires a lot of time – and patience.
Afternoons are spent at the office, working on incorporating the changes our clients (current and prospective) have requested for their app – and this literally takes hours because a single change or feature requires multiple test runs. Maaz oversees the testing phase, Zubair looks over development and I finalise the design.
Because Karachi is a huge market, we have hired freelancers in Lahore and Islamabad to pitch our app to schools there and following up with them also takes time. In the meantime, we field calls from our existing client base (46 schools so far) and troubleshoot any issues that may have cropped up.
Although Queno is gaining recognition, it has not been an easy ride. My mother brought me to Karachi from Hunza when I was two years old. As a single mother, she had to work as a seamstress to make ends meet, yet she encouraged me to study as she thought that was the key to securing a better future for me.
It was in 2016, my final year at Sir Syed University, where I had enrolled for a BS degree in Computer Science that I, along with Zubair (who was a classmate then) developed an app to help patients make hospital appointments. We pitched our project to Nest i/o; it was accepted and this gave us the opportunity to interact with the business world for the first time – and which made us realise that our project would not work. So we began working on Queno.
Before enrolling in university, I had taught for a year at a school, so I knew the challenges teachers face dealing with heavy attendance registers and writing homework assignments in every child’s notebook. That was the germ that inspired Queno – an app that would streamline these tasks.
When our incubation at Nest i/o ended, we pitched at IBA’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Development and were selected. Zubair and I had to do everything ourselves because we had no money. We had to freelance at nights and after a year we made enough money to hire a couple of developers.
During our incubation cycle at IBA, we won the first prize at the GSMA Mobile Money Hackathon Asia in 2017. We were so happy to get a sponsorship trip to Barcelona, but it was not meant to be. Our visas were rejected because the embassy feared we would not return to Pakistan. That was the day I decided that I would take my company to such heights that I would not have to convince people about how much I love my country and that no matter how successful I become I would always stay here.
By the end of 2017, we were selected for Pakistan’s top accelerator programme Invest2Innovate (i2i), which was organised by the Karandaaz Women Entrepreneurship Challenge and a year later, we found an angel investor in Jawad Saeed Mian.
Recently, we received an email from Wadi – OMAN Tech Fund (OTF) asking us to pitch for their accelerator programme. It couldn’t have happened at a better time, as by then we only had Rs 80,000 left in our account. Zubair went to Oman (money was so short that Zubair had to skip meals) and returned having secured seed funding worth $100,000. It was a dream come true! A company that was about to end operations due to insufficient funds had been scaled up in the Middle East.
In the next five years, my ambition is to have at least 100 schools using Queno and double the number of our team members. We are planning to incorporate digital canteens (and give parents the ability to make online deposits into their children’s lunch accounts, instead of giving them cash) and a school transport tracking system (connecting parents with the school transport system and enabling them to locate their child and the school bus at any given moment during their route).
Despite hectic days, we make it a point to leave work at six o’ clock. I then either go to the Jamatkhana and teach children religious studies there or to the Pakistan Girl Guides Association where I have volunteered as a leader. After that, I head home. I have an early dinner with my family and then it’s soon time for bed. I need the rest because I have plenty to do the next day.
Farida Kanwal is Co-founder and COO, Queno.