Nestled away in the top floor of a nondescript building on Tariq Road, Karachi, is the office of DotZero, a facility established to serve as an incubator for ideas and innovation by bringing together some of the brightest minds in Pakistan under a shared environment.
The concept behind this shared workspace is simple; tech-savvy start-ups apply to use the facilities and benefit from the networking opportunities as well as synergies that the environment offers them. Each successful applicant is allotted a separate area of the office and is provided with the facilities needed to get their projects off the ground. DotZero charges each team a nominal amount in lieu of rent but they operate on a no-profit/no-loss model.
“The idea is to give something back to the community,”
explains Misha Rizvi, the marketing coordinator at DotZero.
“The board of directors consists of successful entrepreneurs in their own right and they came up with this concept to boost entrepreneurship and facilitate innovative ideas which, if carefully nurtured, have the potential to become very big.”
At first glance, the DotZero office looks very impressive and it is apparent that a considerable sum of money has been invested into making the facilities spacious, comfortable and conducive of an environment that inculcates creativity. There are two shared conference rooms as well as a number of individual offices which house the different start-ups and their teams as well as an expansive corridor replete with workstations meant to be shared by smaller teams.
The office atmosphere exudes a sense of purpose, determination and commitment as it is rife with activity with individual teams nestling around, bouncing ideas off each other and working towards establishing their respective businesses. Some of the ventures that DotZero hosts relate to innovations within the P2P (peer to peer) marketplace, consulting and financial software, as well as back-end support for websites.
Two of the founders of DotZero that we interviewed have had an impressive track record of entrepreneurship as well as a strong academic background, a fact that augers well for the future of this venture. Imran Moinuddin, a Stanford alumnus, worked in New York before returning to Pakistan to found NexDegree. Similarly Farzal Dojki, a graduate from New York University, has been involved in three different start-ups and has experience at Morgan Stanley prior to returning to Pakistan.
Both exhibit a steely resolve to chart the future of this venture as a leading business incubator in Pakistan.
“Looking back at our journey as entrepreneurs, we wish there were avenues for mentorship and guidance,” explains Imran. “If we had received help with even simple things like finance, operations and marketing as well as hiring the right people for our teams, our paths would have been much simpler.”
Similar sentiments are echoed by Farzal. “It is very important for us to establish ourselves as an entrepreneurial ecospace,” he elucidates. “As we operate on a non-profit model, our interests are separate from similar ventures which go to the extent of charging their clients for every single cup of tea they consume.”
Both Farzal and Imran went to a painstaking extent of explaining how they believe that Pakistan has a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit and that, with the right mentoring and guidance, these ideas can help in taking the services industry to new highs. They point to resources such as freelancer.com, which has a very active Pakistani presence, and ensures the livelihood of hundreds of self-employed individuals as indicative of the will to chart one’s own path. The uncertain economic climate has also made it difficult for talented individuals to find worthwhile jobs and therefore there is also a prevailing need to create opportunities for oneself, a need which they feel can make DotZero viable and sustainable.
It is inherently clear that the founding members are firmly invested in this model as they have relocated their respective teams to operate within the confines of DotZero, thereby ensuring their presence at the location daily and building a hands-on approach towards managing it.
Another positive aspect of the approach adopted by the DotZero team is the sense of team spirit and the genuine desire to see all the different start-ups working in their office succeed, grow and prosper. The normally affable and mild-mannered Imran bristles when asked about whether they partner with any venture capital firms who are capable of providing these entrepreneurs with financing, networking opportunities and disruptive innovation that they need to fine-tune their business model and take it to the mass-market level.
“The terms and conditions offered by venture capitalists in Pakistan are abysmal,” he laments. “Their demands of equity stakes can go up to 40 per cent, whereby the industry standard is between 20-30 percent in the developed world. Such high demands can kill the entrepreneurial spirit and prevent people from working hard.”
Similarly, Farzal maintains that intellectual property is zealously guarded within DotZero and that the spirit of camaraderie prevents companies from stealing and replicating ideas. Every week a different startup presents its progress to the rest of the DotZero community and encourages criticism and feedback. These sessions are closed-door, meaning that nobody from outside the office is allowed to participate, thereby maintaining privacy.
The team at DotZero also harbours ambitious plans of moving into various cities across Pakistan. “We wish to see a DotZero office in Multan, Sialkot and Faisalabad within the next five years,” says Imran who remains convinced of the opportunities that these tier-II cities present to the ‘entrepreneurial ecosphere’ that they are striving to build.
DotZero has also managed to partner itself with a number of organisations that are actively working for the promotion of the IT services sector as well as i2i (invest to innovate), P@SHA, Pakistan Innovation Front, StartupGrind and others.
However, it is also important to look away from the shiny veneer that is the DotZero space and realise that their venture is still in its infancy and that the ‘ecosphere’ which they aim to build still needs fine-tuning and support. Swathes of empty office space belie the directors’ claims that if they accepted every single proposal that came their way they would soon need to rent out the entire building as opposed to a part of the top floor.
Farzal brusquely states that the application process for start-ups to be part of DotZero is extremely rigorous and demanding as each application is vetted by the board of directors who then check for the sustainability of their business model, future plans and ambitions as well as background checks to ensure that the team reaches a certain moral and ethical standard.
These ‘checks’ currently consist of either personal recommendations from individuals working at DotZero, or guarantees taken by IT industry CEOs and leaders who vouch for the individuals applying to be part of the ecosphere. If a team of entrepreneurs are unable to provide these personal guarantees they will not be allowed to enter and be part of the team, regardless of their innovation and creativity.
“These checks are undertaken to ensure that people respect and maintain high ethical principles, particularly because the office operates 24 hours per day” states Farzal. However, this is a problematic approach, particularly because it implies that personal connections are, at the end of the day, a higher priority for acceptance into the program as opposed to the talent and drive that the potential candidates will bring. In a nepotistic society like Pakistan, this condition may end up killing the entrepreneurial spirit that DotZero so desperately wishes to take root.
Despite all the fanciful talk of ‘networking’, ‘training’ and ‘funding opportunities’, currently DotZero can only offer subsidised office space to its clients and not a whole lot more. The eventual goal is to reach the model of a business accelerator, but Misha is quick to stress that they are still some distance away from that.
However, the necessary groundwork is being laid, with various partner organisations being tapped by the team to help with expansion and outreach as well as to establish DotZero as the primary contact for arranging conferences, networking events as well as trainings on soft skills within its environs. The brains behind DotZero are certainly driven, focused and creative and they are steadfast in their desire to promote and help entrepreneurs. As it is still in its infancy, the venture has some teething issues, but there is no doubt that once they overcome these bottlenecks DotZero will only thrive and grow.