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Venturing Into Uncharted Waters

Exclusive: Shark Tank comes to Pakistan.
Updated 03 Jul, 2024 04:46pm

In the throes of an economic crisis characterised by volatile currency rates, skyrocketing inflation and backbreaking external debt, Pakistan’s start-up ecosystem can use all the help it gets. Out of 240 million Pakistanis, two-thirds are under 30, positing our country as having one of the largest youth populations on planet Earth. According to a 2019 UNDP report, 23% of Pakistan’s young people wanted to start their own business. Five years on, I would venture the number has likely risen. Today, Pakistan’s start-up ecosystem is experiencing rapid expansion across diverse sectors such as e-commerce, fintech, health tech, agritech, and edtech.

Despite this, distinctive challenges remain – hindering start-ups in Pakistan relative to other countries. The scarcity of venture capital funding, increased costs of hiring and maintaining employees, the reluctance of international investors, and a decline in consumer spending have all impacted start-ups, making it difficult to secure resources. Mix in the oligopolistic market structure and we have ourselves a muddy mire entrenched at the heart of Pakistan’s start-up ecosystem.

Against this backdrop, Grenlit Studios has acquired the rights to the renowned reality TV franchise – Shark Tank. According to founders Usman Malik, Rizwan Siddiqui and Tariq Qazi, the launch of Shark Tank in Pakistan may well help dredge a way out.

Shark Tank debuted in the US in 2009 and is based on the Japanese series Dragon’s Den. As one of the most (if not the most) internationally acclaimed business-themed series, Shark Tank’s format invites aspiring and established entrepreneurs to pitch innovative business ideas to a panel of six established investors (sharks), who deliberate on whether to invest in the venture, determining the valuation and terms if they choose to proceed. Shark Tank’s entrepreneurial format has received extensive success around the globe, with adaptations in countries like Australia, Bangladesh, India and the UK.

This success has been largely attributed to the positive influence the show has had on the start-up scenes of countries like Bangladesh and India. A notable accomplishment has been the democratisation of finance, attributed to the show’s structure. The initiative has equalised opportunities by providing business owners from diverse locations and backgrounds with a platform to present their concepts and receive funding determined on merit rather than connections. An appreciable surge in start-up applications resulted from Shark Tank India’s national entrepreneurship frenzy. Hence, by questioning traditional notions of entrepreneurship and facilitating a culture of risk-taking, the show provides an opportunity for business success.

The question is: can Shark Tank have similar outcomes in a country like Pakistan? As believed by the founders of Grenlit Studios, the answer is a steadfast yes. In line with Grenlit Studios’ motto ‘create to inspire’, the show’s ambitions are not confined to improving Pakistan’s start-up ecosystem.

If executed correctly, Shark Tank Pakistan can concurrently ameliorate the content landscape of our TV industry, a landscape international media companies have been hesitant to scale into.

Malik, a content licensing specialist with expertise in international media acquisitions, mentions how “rare it is for a standalone content company to acquire the licence for a global franchise.”

Upon Shark Tank India‘s success, Grenlit Studios pitched a relatively smaller format to Sony in terms of the production scale, being cognisant of Pakistan’s content and production capabilities. The team is resolute in enhancing Pakistan’s production quality and content domain, aiming for a 50% to 30% augmentation in the production sphere as an achievable objective. As is the case with other Shark Tank franchises, Sony will keep a close eye on all things production.

In essence, Shark Tank Pakistan is envisioned as a catalytic force that will showcase local entrepreneurial prowess and aid in revitalising Pakistan’s content panorama. “We have to bring the revolution of content,” Qazi notes, acknowledging the necessity of consistently generating sustainable content and investing in educational endeavours to prepare the audience for the show. For Siddiqui, “it’s about creating the culture and that is a long-term undertaking.”

To create culture, one must also be mindful of the cultural dynamics at play. The team at Grenlit Studios aims to have a panel of six investors, including two female sharks, to ensure equitable representation and well-rounded viewpoints of many industries. They do not appear disillusioned about the public’s scepticism, as Siddiqui browses through comments on social media, speculating the likes of Malik Riaz and Nawaz Sharif as the sharks.

In that spirit, at the onset of the selection process, the Grenlit team emphasises the importance of venturing outside the elitist realm of venture capital in Pakistan and finding sharks that are self-made. “We cannot have the same benchmark of investors with 50-100 million net worth,” Malik told Sony, who agreed to establish a benchmark that represents the pool of start-up founders Pakistan does have at its disposal.

By presenting diverse and inspirational narratives, challenging stereotypes, and nurturing a supportive environment for start-ups, Shark Tank will showcase Pakistani start-ups not only to local audiences but also to international markets where other Shark Tank franchises may not be present, signifying a wider outreach and potential influence beyond the domestic audience.

However, the hurdles in enlisting sharks are multifaceted. One of the primary obstacles is the challenge of identifying prominent individuals with successful entrepreneurial backgrounds who are willing to participate as sharks on the show, especially female sharks. Additionally, the team recognises the need to recruit sharks who are not only accomplished entrepreneurs but also charismatic personalities capable of articulating on camera and enhancing the overall allure of the show, necessitating rigorous media training before filming. These challenges underscore the intricacies involved in assembling a competent panel of sharks. Pakistan’s first ever Sharks will now include Rabeel Warraich, the founder of Sarmayacar; Aleena Nadeem, who has already made significant contributions to global fintech deals at Ventura Capital; Junaid Iqbal, CEO, Salt Ventures; Karim Teli, who has already spearheaded over 50 successful businesses; Faisal Aftab, IT venture investor; Romana Dada, Forbes featured entrepreneur and Usman Bashir, veteran of retail and gas stations.

For Grenlit, the target audience is of utmost importance in tackling “the content emergency in Pakistan.” As Qazi iterates, “It is indeed an emergency because content shapes the mind.” In light of this, TikTok has been made the official entertainment partner of Shark Tank Pakistan, which will leverage the platform’s popularity with Gen Z and Millennials, thereby catering to the young people of Pakistan.

The marketing strategy entails making crucial announcements, such as disclosing the sharks involved in the show, to build anticipation and spark interest. Filming is set to begin in July and for now, Shark Tank Pakistan is set to air in September 2024 on Green Entertainment. With a well-thought-out timeline and a comprehensive strategy that accounts for Pakistan’s unique landscape, Shark Tank Pakistan is poised to impact our start-up ecosystem substantially and set new benchmarks for content creation in the country.