I belong to a virtual clan of digital natives who can’t imagine life without social media, but the growing negativity that I witness online about Pakistan often makes me want to disconnect, so that I could focus on the positives that exist here despite all the gloom.
One day when I was about to go offline for these same reasons, a beautiful picture of Karachi beach caught my eye on Facebook. The picture had John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Don't ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" set as the caption. Interestingly, it was uploaded by Abdulrahman Rafiq, a Pakistani entrepreneur from Bay Area, San Francisco, currently in Karachi.
The picture appeared as a glimmer of hope that appears online every now and then when people engage in and promote activities that help portray a positive image of Pakistan. I decided to interview Abdulrahman to find out his opinions on what should make us hopeful about Pakistan - especially with respect to Pakistan’s tech industry - and more importantly, to learn from him about life in the startup lane.
Currently Director Projects and Operations at Inspurate, Abdulrahman is a physicist by education, and worked at tech giant CISCO before taking the entrepreneurial leap. He started his journey by launching a social venture called the Pakistan Science and Engineering Foundation (PAKSEF), with an aim to bring together Pakistani engineers and scientists to devise knowledge-based solutions to problems. He later launched South Asia Relief, which helped people affected by the 2008 earthquake by providing a disaster management and coordination platform in South Asia. SA Relief is still actively working on different social projects such as the Social Lighting Initiative to bring power to homes built for flood victims in rural Sindh.
In his early days as an entrepreneur, Abdulrahman worked on providing a service to assist students in SAT and GRE exams, managed a social community blog service called ‘WadiWallah’ for denizens of Silicon Valley, and provided consulting services for a mobile-based restaurant ordering and payment service. Working on all these projects at a time when social media was still emerging, he decided to launch his company Inspurate, this to build tools that could help small businesses and entrepreneurs effectively execute their business strategies online.
Fariha: When do you think the time is right to take the plunge and launch a startup?
AR: In my opinion, one is forced to take the plunge. This force could come through your surroundings, the economy, a social cause or having a burning desire to make a difference and fill a void. In my case, it was attachment with my own land and the desire to do something for my country, Pakistan.
FA: How do you go about developing an idea and then making a business out of it?
AR: To begin with, you need to have an idea around something that a community or other businesses will need. Such ideas are everywhere, all you need to do is observe your surroundings, keeping the legal aspects in mind, of course. To start a business, you should first identify the people whom you want on board and then pivot your business model without expecting a large influx of investment. Next you need to build a team - and this requires you to be passionate for your idea - so that you can attract the right people and turn it into a product.
FA: What do you need to ensure before getting your product out in the market?
AR: With your initial business model and team in place, you need to get a prototype developed, as investors want to see something tangible before investing. If building this prototype requires investing yourself, do it and launch it. Get some users to use the prototype, refine and scale the product, market it and go to venture capitalists. You can then continue updating the product. If you get money through venture capitalists, you should decide if you want to take that money considering the conditions of funding. Having said this, it is important that you keep tweaking your business model from time to time. However, remember that as an entrepreneur you need to be flexible and don’t lose focus of your goal.
FA: Can one launch a startup while studying or do you need corporate experience first?
AR: My suggestion is to spend some time in the corporate world, stabilise your work, build your career as well as your standing in society first. You can start building up on your idea while working, as long as it doesn’t give rise to any conflict of interest.
FA: When it comes to business and technology, there’s a lot of talk about Silicon Valley. Could any Pakistani with a brilliant idea go there and be noticed?
AR: Silicon Valley - or Bay Area as it is largely called - is a very merit-based society where socially people live in silos, but professionally, if you are needed, you will be accepted.
FA: Does being a Pakistani or a Muslim affect your chances of success in the Silicon Valley in any way?
AR: The good thing about people in the Valley is that they don’t hold any barriers and the doors are always open. A lot of discrimination that we get to hear about is hyped up. If you are good, you are supported and the bottom line is to distinguish between hype and reality.
FA: Is it particularly challenging for women to do business in the Silicon Valley?
AR: Women, I would say, do have to go the extra mile to prove themselves. However, Silicon Valley also has many initiatives to support women. For example OPEN Silicon Valley Women Leader Forum is an annual conference in which all speakers and core volunteers are women. This event gives women an opportunity to network with other women including prospective investors. So, your gender doesn’t really affect your chances of getting funded.
FA: What’s your impression of Pakistan’s technology sector?
AR: I am very optimistic about Pakistan’s tech sector, as I see a lot of talent. Amazing products are coming out of here and there no longer seems to be any reason for large companies to go outside of Pakistan to get software applications. The future looks even more promising after seeing the support that entrepreneurs and startups get here through initiatives such as Punjab IT Board’s Plan 9, which is Pakistan’s first nationwide tech incubator.
FA: How could Pakistani technologists use their success stories to improve the overall brand of Pakistan?
AR: One is pleasantly shocked when you take all the success stories from Pakistan’s IT sector, considering what popular local and world media is reporting about Pakistan. This highlights the need to promote the achievements of Pakistan’s IT industry even more, and can be done by organisations such as P@SHA and PITB through creating viral videos featuring the positives. It is important for these videos to either be in English or have English subtitles so they can be understood by the international audience. The government then could extend its support by spreading these videos through international news agencies while we as individuals should improve on our social media skills and work on promoting such content.
Another very important step required to promote Pakistan’s IT industry is to have a formal umbrella comprising the foreign office, a board of investment and most importantly an active ministry of IT.
Abdulrahman is clearly hopeful about Pakistan, specially the IT industry and would like to continue supporting it in various ways. He believes that the more one thinks about an idea without executing it, chances are that you will start having doubts about it. No professional education on entrepreneurship could tell you if your idea is going to work or not, and only after the product launches will you know if it’ll be successful or not. You have to invest time and money and if it does not work, you gain experience based on which you can improve and try again. Startup ideas never remain what you initially envisioned them to be. The key to success is to keep trying and never losing hope.