What does it take for a man to reach his full potential? Good advice – more than anything else. And this was exactly what Bilal Ather got during his journey in creating Wifigen – a tool that gives free Wi-Fi to customers in exchange for their information. It is a software that operates on a subscription based model, costing around $20 per month only per access point, and uses permission-based Facebook API to give user access.
So where did it all begin?
Mr Bilal was just an ordinary guy who like many other A-Levels students was not sure about his future. He figured out very early that he did not want to go to a university. He then planned to get an ACCA degree and decided to become an auditor. But this did not work out.
Thinking that a career as a rock guitarist might be the thing for him because he had participated in several school gigs before, he decided to try his luck in singing. But Mr Bilal was counselled by his father who being a good mentor told him he would not be able to have a stable career in singing, rather he should utilise his other talent, in computers.
He first used a computer when he was only 5 years old. This was where his passion for the world of computing began.
Then, a friend from England told him to take a certification in Cisco and work in networking technology. He went on to complete two CCIE certifications.
Still 21 years of age, he was used to getting many job offers. He even turned down the offer of a big telecommunication company in Saudi Arabia and rather chose to do a job in Beaconhouse. But thankfully within six months of his work there, he realised that his talent was being wasted and his job role was not utilising his Cisco expertise at all.
A company from Abu Dhabi called him to give training sessions in Cisco. This company also specialised in disaster recovery solutions. After gaining some experience, Mr Bilal left the company to form his own company – Ikhtira Systems – in Multan, a city chosen specifically because there was no competition in disaster recovery services there. Lahore already had so many companies doing similar work. His company’s name ‘Ikhtira’ was taken from a band he was a part of in high school. But just like the band, the company suffered heavy losses and failed within 10 months of operations.
Mr Bilal was distraught; he did not want to go back home and ask his parents for support. People used to look up to him and appreciate the fact that he started a company at 22, and now they were making fun of him. He did not even have money to buy lunch for three consecutive days.
Destiny then led him to a guy who told him to start freelancing on the Internet. He had a network of very supportive friends in Multan. Even though, he did not have money to buy his own Internet service, being the geeky genius he was, he started hacking into other people’s Wi-Fi. Freelancing started making him some money. He got his first project in 10 days and although he only made $35 for his first project, he was relieved that at least now, he was earning something. “Things then started moving in a good direction. Freelancing really helped,” he recalls.
With the confidence of some money in his pocket, he went back home and started living with his family in Vehari. But his parents were upset with his routine. He used to sleep all day and work all night. His parents worried that no girl would marry him if he continued like this. Mr Bilal then got the opportunity to move to Lahore. He started helping Arfa Karim’s parents in setting up their institution in Plan9. He didn’t charge them any money, just utilised the space for his own work. By this time, he had started working on Wifigen already.
During his freelancing gigs, Mr Bilal got a project from someone who turned out to be John Russell Patrick, the ex-VP of IBM. He pitched Wifigen’s idea to him, but although John liked the idea, he said that he did not invest in early-stage companies. Mr Bilal was nonetheless adamant that Mr John could at least mentor him. Thus, began the journey of a mentor turning into an investor.
Mr Bilal then went on to do a project for another lady who had her own consultancy company in New Zealand. She introduced him to someone who wanted to be a reseller for this product in New Zealand, but was told to complete the product in two months. Mr Bilal argued that he needed funds to complete it in such a short period. The reseller in New Zealand agreed to fund the project without taking any equity. A lucky break, you may call it. He then hired some people on freelancer.com to help him build his product within 45 days. The proposed timeline for project completion was 60 days. This left a 15 days leverage to further test the product and eradicate any flaws.
But that was not enough for him. He was surprised to find that anyone could apply at Plan9. It was a very open community that really motivated him. He went on to launch his own company in New Zealand. Within three months of incubation, he raised funding from his old mentor, Mr John.
Then during a business trip to Singapore, he met a representative from Changi Airport who was really interested in deploying Wifigen on their airport. Mr Bilal then started beta testing Wifigen on Singapore’s airport. Later on, he got Unilever Pakistan on board too. But this was only the beginning. He signed on the biggest deal in the history of Wi-Fi at Tahiti Island, which wanted to use Wifigen to give a better experience to tourists. Wifigen then was seen as a product with a huge application in the tourism industry.
Mr Bilal has been trying to integrate artificial intelligence with Wi-Fi for the last three months. He realises that machine learning is necessary to make things easy for the advertisers and the people who will be using its Wi-Fi. It will allow the advertisers to know exactly who the end user is and how deep his pockets are, so they can accordingly pitch them different products.
He wishes to move into more markets as business expansion will be the key driver of Wifigen’s success. His company currently has a multi-million dollar valuation while trying to raise another round of investment. For all those aspiring entrepreneurs out there, he has only one thing to say: “Keep failing until you are ready to change the world.”
Header photo: Screenshot of the Wifigen website, the service is not yet available in Pakistan.
This piece first appeared on MIT Technology Review Pakistan and has been reproduced with permission.
The writer is a CEO and Founder of TriumF Media, a digital media scientist, a movie buff and a cultural critic. She tweets @mehreen_omer.