While the Indian and Pakistani governments were bickering last week about who sets the agenda for NSA talks between the two nations, it so happened that we were having a heart-to-heart chat with some of the stakeholders in the Pakistani startup ecosystem to get an inkling of what is driving the young entrepreneurs there.
What started off as a curious urge to find a startup with Pakistani and Indian co-founders to feature on Independence Day, soon turned into a treasure hunt of sorts with the discovery of one startup after another poised for takeoff.
We found seasoned entrepreneurs who are putting their money where their mouth is by seed funding young startups because no one else will do it. We found a school dropout who is an auto and travel enthusiast and is now instrumental in building the startup community from ground up. We found MBAs from top schools in Pakistan preferring to remain in the country and make a difference, to Cornell graduates who have come back to their country to startup. We found four prodigious talents who have taken the ‘dhaba style’ business and modernised it into a money-spinner. We also met some mentors and leaders, convinced that this is just the beginning of a new Pakistan story.
Says Sahr Said, Founder of BeautyHooked, “I believe Pakistan’s e-commerce sphere is going to create a huge opportunity for tech disruption. There is growth in our Internet penetration, online payment initiatives are mushrooming, and there is growing trust in the online storefronts. It is estimated that by 2017, the size of our e-commerce market will reach over $600 million from its current size of $30 million spent on online purchases annually. So now is the right time to build tech products that solve problems because opportunities are endless if ideas are executed right.”
Looking beyond the threat lens
“We are at a tipping point,” says Khurram Zafar, entrepreneurship evangelist, and Executive Director of the LUMS Center for Entrepreneurship at the prestigious LUMS University, over a late night Skype call from Lahore. He says, “I see it happen sooner than later. We have 120 to 130 million people on mobile, 3G growth is remarkable, and the smartphone population is expanding. The girl, who works in our house, had downloaded Viber on her phone so she could talk to her brother in the village. Today, a lot of vendors are selling smartphones on installments, making it easy for people to own one.”
He points me to his recent blog on why investing in the local economy makes sense. Khurram writes, “This is a great time to enter Pakistan. Equity in technology companies is relatively cheap, assets are portable (predominantly intellectual property) in case one gives too much weight to country risk, operations are already on cloud platforms outside of Pakistan for many, and exit opportunities exist globally. The fundamentals of the on-ground businesses are already very strong. The Karachi Stock Market index has been growing north of 40% for the past few years (30%+ in $ terms) and broke the highest ever 32,000 KSE 100 index points barrier a few days ago. Most of that is driven by foreign investment into rock solid businesses by investors who can see past the FOX news propaganda and realize that the nation, that is often deemed to be on the brink of extinction since its founding in 1947, is as resilient as it is resourceful!”