Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2021

Interview: Zeeshan Aftab, co-Founder & MD, 10Pearls

On survival in an ecosystem built for disruption.

MARIAM ALI BAIG: How would you define 10Pearls as an organisation?
ZEESHAN AFTAB: 10Pearls is a digital technology company. We provide technology solutions to organisations that seek to improve their digital transformation journey and implement new business models using technology. A lot of companies are trying to use technology within the framework of their existing business; for example, a retailer wanting to set up an e-commerce presence because his walk-ins have reduced. Then there are the people who have grown up with mobile phones and who think about business only in terms of technology; they are the ones coming up with new technology based business models which disrupt the existing marketplace.

MAB: So, two distinct customers? Traditionalists and disruptors?
ZA:
To an extent; some traditional organisations are also setting up new Strategic Business Units (SBU) that revolve around apps. For example, although HBL are working on embedding technology within their traditional businesses (e-banking, etc.) they also have a separate team working on new business models based on apps.

MAB: Where does 10Pearls come in?
ZA:
We are enablers. We help organisations think through ideas. We help them with the user experience, business process, modelling, implementation and post delivery services. Basically, we help entrepreneurs think through the processes. Many entrepreneurs do not have a tech background; they don’t think in terms of scalability, implementation, the technology required, the backend process and so on.

MAB: Typically, how long does it take to build an app?
ZA:
When a company initially approaches us with an idea for an app, we put them through a discovery phase to help the founders think through the process. Initially their idea is to create an app for XX category of users and which will perform XXX function – that is usually the level of workflow they are looking for. However, once you get into the detail, countless different workflows are identified. For example, a healthcare company in Dubai came to us with a basic workflow and pattern; yet, after four weeks, we found that 250 screens had to be developed, although they originally started with 15 to 20. It is only when you dive into the details that you start to identify the user flow; if I press this button, where do I land? How do I get back? How do I use the next feature? This is how a mind map of the application is created. Once you identify the user journey, you can work on the technical architecture and finally identify the resources required. The way it works is that about every two weeks we deliver a result to the founders for feedback, which usually leads to other features being added – this is how it becomes a journey. Founders usually come to us with a single idea and it is only when we dive into it that we find it is much more complex and requires more time and resources. We usually recommend that the Minimal Viable Product (MVP) be out in the first 90 days, but without in-built options or features. The market changes constantly and you have to keep testing it – we call this the build-measure-learn process. You build something, you roll it out, you measure it, you find a mistake, you fix it and go back to market again. This is the process.

MAB: How long has 10Pearls been in existence?
ZA:
Seventeen years.

MAB: Given the pace of change and disruption, how does a technology company survive for 17 years?
ZA:
You will not survive more than six years if you are a traditional technology company. If you cannot disrupt yourself every year, you will not grow exponentially. At 10Pearls we have kept changing our business models. We started as a marketing solutions company, dealing with websites, email, automation and so on. When the market pivoted towards digital content, innovative applications and enterprise solutions, we moved away from marketing automation (we literally laid off customers) and ever since, we have been reinventing ourselves every two years. If you don’t do this, you end up becoming a lifestyle company; doing the same stuff again and again and going down.

MAB: What is the definition of a lifestyle company?
ZA:
A lifestyle company is when you go to the office in the morning, spend the day there, come back in the evening, spend time with your family and then go to sleep. In other words, you are not trying to grow the business or do anything new. Even after 17 years, we are constantly reinventing ourselves; looking for the right spot to grow the business. It is like an orbit. In the tech business, size matters. If you are a company of less than 50 people, you are in one orbit. When you grow to becoming a 200 people company, your orbit changes as do your customers and the solutions you offer. When you are a 500 plus company, it becomes a completely different ballgame and by the time you are 1,000 plus, you are at the top of the game.

MAB: Where does 10Pearls stand currently?
ZA:
About 850 people.

MAB: What are the challenges involved in finding qualified people in Pakistan?
ZA:
Pakistan is full of talent. People don’t have to go to university to prove their talent; we have hired people from Pakistan Chowk and seen them grow; they have gone from design to coding, to emerging technologies, building apps and working on VR and AR. They have the appetite to learn and grow; it is about how much are you willing to invest and what opportunities you offer. In our initial two and a half years, we were unable to hire university graduates because we could not afford them – and anyway they would not have joined us, because we were a small company. That was how we realised that university degrees, although good to have, should not be the only criteria. We hire for talent – which means that whatever it is that you claim to know, you know how to do it best.

MAB: Do you foresee a time when apps will go out of fashion?
ZA:
We are seeing this already, especially with the emergence of super apps – which are essentially like a marketplace where five to six different functions can be performed using the same app. For example, Dubai Now provides access to a wide range of private and public sector services. The issue is that if an app can only perform two or three functions, people will end up not using it. Some organisations have realised that apps are not necessarily a good model and are moving towards mobile optimised websites or Progressive Web Apps (PWA), which, although they function like apps, are websites.

MAB: Would that be the future direction?
ZA:
That is the debate. Google have developed Flutter, a single source IU software which cancels out the need to create different apps for Android and iOS. Different people are thinking differently; there is no single strategy that fits all. Every organisation has its own priorities; banks, because of security concerns, will always want their own app – they would not want their customer information to be integrated into third party apps – which is why banks like Alfalah, HBL and Meezan are developing super apps. They are trying to identify the services their customers want and integrating them into the app.

MAB: What has been the impact of the pandemic on the software industry?
ZA:
In the beginning it was chaos and many software companies started to lay off people. No one knew what was going to happen – but what did happen is that everyone moved towards technology and digital and the result is that today every organisation is spending heavily on technology, apps and e-commerce. Today, all technology companies are hiring and business is growing. Covid-19 has definitely accelerated the growth of this industry. n

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