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Fronting Pakistan’s Tech Transformation

Zeenat Chaudhary profiles Badar Khushnood, co-Founder Bramerz and
Updated 08 Aug, 2023 11:14am

In the early nineties, young teenager Badar Khushnood was captivated by an XT computer – one with an 8088 processor and floppy drive to be precise. A family member had presented it to him along with the statement, “This is the next big thing.”

Although he had no knowledge about computers, he did have a curious mind and a penchant for engineering, and he began tinkering with it. This was to be the start of a journey that eventually led him to become one of Pakistan’s most prominent tech personalities. A journey that encompassed consulting for Google, Facebook and Twitter, co-founding (a direct-to-consumer e-commerce platform) and Bramerz (a full-service digital media and marketing company).

My own interest piqued by this range of experience in the world of tech, I manage to chase him down and set up a video chat. He is in Islamabad hosting investors from Portugal who have signed on to acquire a majority share in Bramerz and “We are about to drive back to Lahore, and I figured this would be the best time to chat as it’s only going to get busier. Do let me know if the background noise is too loud as I am in a café,” says Khushnood, who is sitting in an outdoor café with greenery in the background. As we begin our conversation, the fact that we are both Punjabi immediately creates a comfortable environment, allowing us to switch to a more casual Urdu-English.

After briefing him on what to expect from this piece, I do not need to say anything more than “Tell me about your background,” for him to enter storyteller mode, while I become a happily engrossed listener for the next hour and a half, especially as he speaks animatedly, jumping from one thought to the next. I sense his train of thought is as fast as an Asus ROG Strix Scar 18 (one of the fastest CPU processors to date – and yes, I had to look that up).

Born and raised in Lahore, Khushnood attended Crescent Model School and then did his BS in General Science from Government College Lahore from 1993 to 1995. By his own admission, he was “an average student” (in a school where average meant someone who scored 90/100 rather than 98/100) with an interest in science. He wanted to pursue pre-engineering post-matriculation and join the Pakistan Air Force, but his father had other ideas. “I brought home a few engineering-related textbooks and when my father saw them, he asked my mother whose books they were. When she said they were mine, he told her to ask me to return them, because I was to study general science in order to take over the family business.”

Nevertheless, engineering did end up making inroads into his life – albeit in the form of computers. As Khushnood tells it, he was interning at a company which had several computers lying around unused. When he questioned this, he was told that no one knew how to use them. This was when he had an epiphany that the computer skills that he had earlier taught himself would come in quite handy. Next, while studying for his Master’s from the Lahore School of Economics (he was rejected from LUMS – “I will tell you why this fact is important later.”), he took up different student jobs to pay for college, including teaching a short course to the graduating class. And finally when, at his first job at the Nishat Chunian Group, where he worked from 1998 to 2001 as Deputy Manager Marketing, he was assigned to one of their top customers located in Hong Kong. “My point of contact in Hong Kong would fax her order to us, and in those days sending international faxes was quite expensive. I asked her why she didn’t just use email instead. She had no idea what I was talking about, but when I explained she convinced Nishat’s senior management to send me to Hong Kong to set up her email account.”

This was the start of Khushnood’s career in tech – or martech to be more precise. At Nishat, he used Alibaba to source manufacturers, suppliers and exporters as well as generate business leads and he soon became known as “the guy who knows how to use Alibaba.”

Then, the Small & Medium Enterprise Development Authority (SMEDA) approached him for help in developing a B2B portal. “I reviewed their work and recommended changes, which they incorporated by asking me to join them. So, I moved from retail marketing to a government job.”

After three years with SMEDA, he was approached by Taiwan-based ASUSTeK Computer Inc., to be the country manager for their components business. He helped them explore the Pakistani market and set up solution channels. In 2005, a friend sent him a link to a job opening at Google for a country representative in Pakistan. “I did not have a background in software engineering and zero hopes for getting a response from Google. But I did apply on August 25, 2005 and I received a call the next day. After a year of interviews and background checks, I received my contract on August 28, 2006.”

Google asked him to come to the US, but the process would have taken even longer so he ended up working in their Hong Kong office.

As there was an eight-month interim period between the time he left ASUSTeK and joined Google, he used the time to co-found Bramerz with Amer Sarfraz and Zeeshan Saleem (hence ‘Bramerz’). None had a tech background, but they had the zeal to become entrepreneurs.

The initial business idea was to retail refurbished computers, but this did not work out. Then they hit upon exporting khussas to Iceland, which didn’t work out either. Eventually, they landed a freelance project for an Australian company for an email marketing project and Bramerz turned into a martech company. When he joined Google in 2006, he left Bramerz to avoid any conflict of interest, promising to re-join after two years. The two years turned into nine; years that he describes as his “pivoting moments.”

At Google, he started by working on a project initiated by Google’s co-founder Larry Page. Page wanted “ears and eyes in countries where Google did not have a presence on the ground. Countries like Colombia, Chile, Malaysia, Romania, the UAE and Turkey. Within six months, most of them had Google offices. Pakistan was a unique case due to regulatory and policy issues, despite the fact that we are one of their largest untapped markets.”

At Google, he also worked on several projects which, among other things, enabled him to introduce new tech tools in Pakistan. In this way, he was able to help individual bloggers as well as media entities to set up their own YouTube channels. He was also involved with Google Maps Pakistan, working with hundreds of local contributors to make Pakistan “one of the best-mapped countries until 2014.”

After leaving Google in 2014, he joined Twitter as a consultant for Pakistan, looking after media partnerships and verifications. A year later, he joined Facebook as a product growth manager. He says that although “the learnings from all three companies were immense,” it was time to honour his commitment to Bramerz and return there full-time.

As a proactive go-getter, nothing made more sense to him than running his own business, especially one “making a difference to Pakistan’s tech space.” In this respect, he also serves as an Executive-in-Residence at LUMS for their MS Technology Management & Entrepreneurship programme, which he helped start (he reminded them that they had rejected him as an MBA candidate). He is also a founding board member and mentor at several local start-up incubators and was an active member of the Pakistan Software Houses Association until his tenure ended in 2022. Currently, he is leading the private sector narrative at the National E-commerce Council, where he drafted Pakistan’s first e-commerce policy in 2019.

As a workaholic, there is no such thing as a weekend on his calendar. He occasionally cycles, but his days off are mostly engaged with “giving back to the academic and start-up ecosystems.”

As we end our conversation he offers up three short life lessons. “One, money can buy you a bed but not sleep, so don’t follow money. I have learnt the hard way that ability is a poor man’s wealth. Two, as humans, we do not have control over our lives, so aim for what you like but be flexible. Three, bring excellence to anything you do.”

Badar Khushnood’s last lesson sums him up perfectly.

Zeenat Chaudhary is a former member of Aurora’s editorial team.*