BUILDING a dot-com from a small room in your parents’ home in Lahore into the country’s largest jobsite and then growing it into a global brand can be both exciting and challenging for any entrepreneur.
It is exciting because Pakistan still remains largely a virgin land for dot-com ventures, and challenging because the country’s perception keeps potential investors from exploring this market of almost 200m people, with fast-growing internet usage.
It was no different for Monis Rahman, the chairman and CEO of Naseeb Network Inc., who launched Rozee.pk seven years ago. He then moved on to buy Mihnati.com, the largest Saudi recruitment platform, in April this year — probably the first offshore acquisition by any Pakistani dot-com company.
The emergence of Rozee.pk, a jobsite developed by Monis in 2005 to hire programmers and other staff for his Muslim social networking platform Naseeb.com, may have been ‘accidental’.
‘The number of internet users is growing rapidly with the launch of 3G/4G and a fall in prices of smart phones. Prices will fall further, attracting more low-income groups to use the internet’
At that time, buying ads in newspapers was extremely costly — a half-page ad in an English newspaper could set him back by $12,000 at that time, or almost half the investment he’d made in the venture. But his decision to acquire Mihnati (My Job), which was bleeding $0.5m annually, was anything but ‘accidental’.
“The acquisition of Mihnati was an extremely risky thing to do for a small company of our size; it could have been suicidal,” noted Monis in an interview with Dawn. “Still, we went ahead with the deal to turn it into a profitable company in less than six months.”
Why did he take the risk? “Saudi Arabia is an attractive market to expand into, with around 60pc of its population using the internet. Moreover, it’s a difficult country to ‘enter for a business’. So large companies aren’t interested in that market and we knew we could out-execute others,” he smiled.
“We saw so much potential in the company and in the [Saudi] market, and I said to myself, we would fix it. Now the company is wooing clients away from its rivals and growing very fast. We also plan to expand into other emerging regions where the internet is making fast inroads and its usage is rising.”
Born in Lahore, Monis, now in his mid 40s, graduated in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and took his first job at Intel Corporation in 1993. “It was like a dream come true. But looking at my brilliant colleagues stuck at Intel for very long years somehow took the charm of making a lot of money away from me; I wanted to do something that would have more impact.”
He quit Intel in the late 1990s when internet use was growing and Hotmail was gaining traction. New startups like Yahoo and Google were coming up just as he founded his own chip-design consulting firm.
With the dot-com boom around, he abandoned it to start another company, which installed cameras in 3,000 day care centres in the US to allow parents to watch real-time video streams of their children. It was sold when the dot-com crash came about.
It was in the aftermath of the fateful events of 9/11 that Monis decided to launch a Muslim social networking site. In 2002, he moved back to Pakistan, where it cost only 1/18th of what was needed to start such a site in the US.
“After the 9/11 attacks, Muslims in the US were under a severe identity stress; public perception about them had changed dramatically. They wanted to meet and share their experiences with one another. So Naseeb.com grew fast, with over 80,000 people joining it in its first six months, and it was generating big revenue.”
As the traffic increased rapidly, he felt the need hire more staff, and Rozee.pk was launched to save job advertisement costs. Other local companies were allowed to post their ads for free. In two years, Rozee.pk was generating more traffic than the social networking site, and he decided to grow it.
Monis chipped in his own money and raised $2m from two venture capitalists — Draper Fisher Jurvetson and ePlanet Ventures — to add equipment, expand offices and hire more staff to convince large corporations to post their job openings on his site. However, it was not easy for him to change the perception of corporate executives about the internet, as they mainly believed it to be a ‘fun tool’ for their children to chat and play games online.
He was quick to find a solution. Job fairs were organised in Lahore and Islamabad where large companies were given free space to set up their stalls. The results were amazing: 45,000 applicants turned up with their CVs in Lahore alone in one day.
“It was the turning point for us; no company could process 45,000 applications in its office or outlet. We gave our clients the ability to search for résumés, as well as software to power their own job boards and the right to post their logos on the front page of Rozee.pk.
“This wasn’t all. When an employer posts a job on Rozee.pk, he can simultaneously broadcast it on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Today, 66,000 companies of all sizes are using our jobsite to hire people, and we are attracting five times more traffic every day compared with the combined total traffic of the remaining 29 local jobsites,” he said. Over 1m people have found jobs through Rozee.pk, he claimed.
Attracting venture capitalists was even more difficult than wooing companies to post jobs on the site. When Monis was negotiating with potential investors in New York, terrorism was rising. The Musharraf government had declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. Benazir Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack. Investors were worried and ready to back out of the deal.
It was then that he e-mailed one of his investors a list of ‘Top 10 Reasons to Invest’ in Pakistan. “One reason was that we are based in Lahore, where there hadn’t been many incidents of blasts or terrorism. The next day, the high court in Lahore was bombed,” he recalled.
Today, Monis is very optimistic about the growth of the online economy in the country over the next five years. “The number of internet users is growing rapidly with the launch of 3G/4G and a fall in prices of smart phones. Prices will fall further, attracting more low-income groups to use the internet.
“What we need to do is somehow repair our perception in the world and invest in IT infrastructure and training. We are cheaper than India and there is no reason why we should not attract more business and investment from foreign companies.”
Published in Dawn, Economic & Business, October 27th, 2014