Entrepreneurs talk shop at IBA

Published September 29, 2022

KARACHI: The programme featuring speeches on entrepreneurship at the Institute of Business Administration on Wednesday began on a sleepy note with salary-drawing bureaucrats and lobbyists pontificating about the challenges of e-commerce in Pakistan.

But the event took a turn for better when actual entrepreneurs stood up to talk about their businesses. First came Hamza Abdul Rauf, co-founder and director of Telemart, an online marketplace with a focus on consumer electronics.

“I love a business model that involves selling homogeneous products. That’s where you truly get tested as an entrepreneur,” he said while quizzing students about the unique selling proposition (USP) of an online store that offers stuff that’s also available from other web-based platforms as well as brick-and-mortar outlets.

“If your preferred USP as an entrepreneur is low pricing then it’s a bad answer. It’s not sustainable as your competitors will beat you by burning more cash,” he said. Telemart firmed up its market position by introducing in 2015 the option of purchase protection Takaful or Islamic insurance on products like mobile phones — a feature that’s gaining renewed traction these days as snatching incidents are on the rise in Karachi once again.

When Covid-19 hit, his firm expanded its product base to include health and fitness items. It sold 150,000 masks in three months and turned over within two months the inventories of board games like Monopoly that it would previously process in five years. Orders went up 10 times subsequently and the platform has so far attracted 55 million visits, he said.

Next speaker was Dr Sara Saeed Khurram, a self-described “doctor bride” who went on to co-found and lead Sehat Kahani, a tele-medicine company.

She had the idea of launching the startup back in 2014 when a Karachi-based nurse asked her to speak to patients through a laptop-mounted camera from Lahore. She received a financial boost when she won $25,000 in an international business competition. She opened a chain of clinics and hired nurses who helped patients conduct videoconferences with mostly stay-at-home lady doctors.

Going against the advice of her friends and well-wishers, Dr Khurram decided to launch an app in 2018 that aimed at connecting a patient to a doctor within 60 seconds. She rolled out the app in December 2019 but the response remained lukewarm. Only seven doctors signed up rather reluctantly. A few months later, Covid-19 happened.

As luck would have it, a civil servant in the bureaucratic mishmash happened to remember that a tele-medicine app existed. The government took no time in onboarding Sehat Kahani and the app took off overnight. Subsequently, Dr Khurram rolled out a separate revenue-generating service segment for the corporate sector.

With 7,500-plus doctors, the company serves 523 blue-chip companies and has conducted 1.3 million patient consultations so far.

The last entrepreneur to address the students was Arif Lakhani, co-founder of Qist Bazaar, a startup that sells electronic items on instalments to people who may not have any income proxy or even a basic bank account.

“About 55 per cent of our customers make less than Rs50,000 a month. About 12pc customers own micro-businesses like a bun-kebab stall,” he said, urging the students to think about businesses that cater to the “real masses” as opposed to the moneyed segments of society.

In the absence of any credit history or documented proof of income, teams of Qist Bazaar visit the place of work of a potential customer and approve the purchase request within 24 to 36 hours. “Our experience is that 99pc of our customers pay back and pay back on time,” he said without revealing the average annualised interest rate his company charges its customers.

He said “instalment” is a “taboo word” in many low-income neighbourhoods even though most businesses and middle- and upper-class people buy assets on similar terms without any hesitation.

“We try to explain to people that they end up paying roughly the same amount in instalments if they account for the going rate of inflation.”

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2022

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