Building a Startup in Pakistan: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

by Usama Shahid Khan

Startups and entrepreneurship are the buzz words in today’s world. The seemingly overnight successes of Google, Facebook, Twitter & Uber have inspired people, especially young university graduates, to stop working for others and go out to try their luck. Over the last 5 years, we have seen exponential growth in the number of startups across the world. Being a founder of a potentially million dollar startup at a young age is the most cool you can get these days.

Pakistan is no different. With the 6th largest population in the world and internet penetration rate being the highest in Asia, we are on our way to be the technological hub of innovation. A few years back, entrepreneurship was inspired in young Pakistani university students through business plan competitions and startup hackathons where they were told to go out and set up their businesses and follow their dreams instead of climbing up the corporate ladders (which frankly there aren’t enough of in the country anyway).

In leading universities across the country, a course on Entrepreneurship was added to the curriculum to “teach” the students how to set up their businesses. Even though the content mostly just included discussing rags-to-riches stories of now-successful businessmen, it was enough to spark the startup flame in a lot of the graduating students. I was one of them.

What I’ve Learned from Being an Entrepreneur for 4.5 Years

Fast forward 4.5 years and here I am with three failed startups, insightful experiences and little clue about what to do next.

Don’t get me wrong. I have learnt more in these last 4 years of building (more like trying) technology startups than I did studying technology for 4 years at my university. It’s because of my entrepreneurial journey that I have been able to meet so many amazing people, develop my skill-set and realize what success means to me. It has been a roller-coaster ride and I have thoroughly enjoyed all the goods and the bads that came with it.

Since I am at a turning point in my life now which may or may not be the end of my entrepreneurial career, I thought it would be a good time to share the lessons that I have learnt on the way. I’ll start with the goods.

The Good

Startups are like drugs. They inspire you to go out of your comfort zone and test new waters. They make you go ape-shit crazy when you visualize hitting your first $100k and quadrupling it the next year. They constantly pump adrenaline to your always-awake brain and drive you restless. They get you the popular-kids-at-school importance at technology events and social gatherings.

You get to talk to successful startup owners and entrepreneurs on equal terms. You get respect from guys twice your age for trying something that most others won’t. Your creativity hits sky high and doesn’t seem to ever come down. Here’s a list of top goods that I experienced over the last 4.5 years:

1. You get to learn, a lot

brain, creativity

 Learning everyday (Source: hekademia.com)

Building a startup is going through your entire university education, masters and PhD, all in the short duration that’s normally known as the market window. And the cherry on top is that you have to clear every assignment, quiz and exam in order to proceed to the next.

Unlike academics, you don’t have the room to fail while building a startup. This amazing combo of hard studying, combined with hard work and to complete all assignments in a small duration teaches you many things and prepares you with bigger challenges everyday. You’ll be surprised how you’ll get to learn about things which you never even considered or knew existed before you started off.

The more time you spend while working on your startup, the more you learn. Not a day will go by when you won’t learn a new thing. Unlike academics, you won’t get a degree in the startup world, but if you play your cards right and put in the right effort, by the end of it you’d have mastered your business. And that fact alone should motivate you enough to go out and give your business idea a shot.

2. You become creative, automatically

creative mindsetCreative mindset (Source: smallbiztrends.com)

Just like a drug heightens your emotions and feelings, working on your startup will inevitably make you creative. You’ll test your limits by trying every trick in and out of the book. To make your startup work, you’ll try new methods, develop new mechanisms and build new things on a daily basis.

Creativity becomes central to everything you do. Your mind starts thinking on ten different tangents to identify the best possible solution to your problem. You’ll start exploring new ways of doing your tasks. Google will become your best friend and you’ll spend more time searching for the best practices and the latest trends relevant to your work than you do on actually doing it. Your problem solving skills and analytical brain will come handy while working on tight deadlines.

You’ll literally burn the midnight oil almost daily. Weekends? Forget they exist. Instead, you’ll wonder how people can spend their time just watching TV, going out with friends or at the movies. And this combination of creative mindset and persevering attitude will eventually define a new form of you that’s in every way much better than before.

3. You get million dollars advice for free

startup advice, bewildered manStartup advice from the gurus (Source: Entrepreneur.com)

Generally people in Pakistan rarely ask for advice and those who do rarely get the right type. But that’s not the case in the startup world. Once you find your way to the right people, which is not at all difficult these days thanks to many entrepreneurship and startup events, you’ll hit the advice jackpot. Any good businessman knows and practices networking for a living.

Being a startup founder, you do the same. And in meeting tens of successful entrepreneurs and million dollar gurus, you’ll eventually get to discuss your business idea with them and seek their advice. In any other industry, you can’t even get 2 minutes of their time to discuss even work with them. But when you are a startup founder, it raises your respect level. And since only a startup founder can understand another founder’s struggle, your new mentor will just give you million dollars advice for free.

What you do with that advice is completely up to you, but when you hang out with the right people, talk to them about your startup troubles and seek their advice, more often than not, they’ll share amazing tidbits and knowledge nuggets which will eventually help you build your million dollars startup empire. They might even open up new doors for you which might lead to amazing opportunities for you to take benefit from.

The Bad

With every high, there’s an equal and sometimes even more devastating low. Startups are no different. In fact, anyone who has ever tried setting up anything, let alone a startup, knows that failure is inbred to everything they do. You will fail 10 times in one day in order to succeed one time in 10 days.

And these failures often are part of the journey. But there are some bads that leave a mark on you and leave you wondering, what if you didn’t have to go through them. Here’s my list of top bads being a startup founder in Pakistan:

1. You know nothing

i know nothingYou know nothing! (Source: eevalancaster.com)

Like Jon Snow, you too know nothing. Even though you are learning one new thing on a daily basis, you’ll also run into ten different problems with no immediate solution everyday. The irony of the moment will be when nothing will seem to work when you need it to. Murphy’s law is very much real and it always strikes you when you are already submerged in the deep ocean of startup troubles.

This is why you are forced to learn new things on a daily basis and be prepared to handle tomorrow’s problems today than the other way around. In the rapidly changing world, your competitors are already way ahead of you and you’ll have to hustle and hustle hard to keep them at the bay while you work your way to swim with the big fishes.

2. You break down every other day

nervous breakdownNervous breakdown (Source: masonandmasoninsurance.com)

Building a startup is twice as hard as hitting the gym on a daily basis. Being at the gym, you are only physically exhausted. But when you are working on your startup, you’re also mentally assaulted by the daily troubles that come your way. Every other day, you’ll feel an intense nervous break down that makes you question everything you are doing and have you explain yourself why you should continue.

Your life choices will become narrower the more time you spend on your startup and before you know it, you’ll start questioning every decision you’ve ever made in your life that has led to this moment. You’ll be the first person calling yourself crazy for trying out something new and taking the road less traveled.

Many nights you’ll want to give up, but will start afresh next morning, only to find your way back to giving up at night. Entrepreneurship is not easy. And it will make sure to have you tell yourself to give up every single day of your startup life.

3. You have no one to talk to

lightbulb, idea, alone

You are alone. Or are you? (Source: lifehacker.com)

When people are stuck in any situation, they have someone close to talk to and discuss their problems with. Normally it’s the parents, best friends and/or spouses that you can open up with and discuss all that’s bugging you. But that’s not the case when you are building a startup.

As I said before, only a startup founder who has struggled to be successful can truly understand how painstaking the process to set up your startup to be a booming business is. But unless you have a business partner going through the same mess that you are, or have a startup founder best friend available to talk to every other day, forget discussing your issues with anyone except yourself.

You’ll find yourself speaking in monotone to yourself in the mid of a crisis. Don’t be alarmed. You are not mental. Just entrepreneurial.

The Ugly

Welcome to the startup land. You’ve just stumbled upon the best million (potentially billion) dollar idea and you can’t wait to get started with your magical journey of earning your first million dollars.

However, you have no idea what lies ahead of you and where will you end up if things don’t go the way you anticipate. In the spur of startup high, you haven’t considered the worst possibilities that can happen. You may never have to face them and instead get not just one but many million dollars before your startup finishes its 2nd year, but that’s a big may.

More often than not, you might just fail. And some of you will just might fail big time. It’s a well-known fact that less than 10% startups join the big boys table and in a country like Pakistan, your odds are only going to be worse. Here’s the ugly part that no one likes to experience, but will have to if they end up failing while building a startup in Pakistan:

1. You grow old

older than i lookYou grow older than you actually are. (Source: collectively.org)

Picture this. You have just graduated from the university and are high on startup events and are passionately motivated to start something of your own. You love startups and everything about them. Incidentally, your mind has also just been illuminated with a million dollar idea. You give up pursuing a corporate career and instead head out to work on your startup. You start gathering the required resources and seek family and friends support. And you get it.

You get started building a kick-ass web platform or a mobile app to target a niche market and start using Facebook to market your new venture. People encourage you and you continue with your work. You are now preparing pitch decks, calculating financials and are working your way towards raising the first round of investment. Fast forward 4 years.

With any luck, you have become financially stable. But in the more common case that you haven’t, here’s how you will be: in your late twenties and still doing exactly the same thing as you were 4 years ago. What has happened in these 4 years besides you growing old? Nothing. And that’s the sad reality of most of the budding startup entrepreneurs these days. While trying hard to make their startups successful, you have aged more than your friends and have yet to start your career again in case your startup fails.

2. You are misplaced

misplaced, alone, uniqueYou are uniquely misplaced. (Source: articles.bplans.com)

Working on a startup makes you handle ten different things on a daily basis. It teaches you a great deal about various fields you’ll be constantly dirtying your hands in. You will have to be the CEO, the janitor and every possible role in-between all by yourself. And this prepares you to be the jack of all trades. But what happens when things take a turn on you? What if your startup fails? Where do you go next?

You have expenses to take care of and are fed up of living on noodles all the time. You want to earn a decent living and hence you go out searching for a job. And that’s where you find yourself out of place. In the last few years of working on your startup, you have learnt so much about so much that you yourself are not sure about your strengths anymore.

You can easily justify your position as a jack of all trades, but when an employer asks you why should he/she hire you, you are clueless. In today’s age, everyone is looking for experts to join their teams and grow their businesses. And in being the jack of all trades, you have become the master of none. The irony is that you will know much more than the person who’ll instead be hired on the position you applied for, yet the employer would want to place the safe bet on him than you.

3. You have no idea where you’re headed next

how can i know where to go nextWhere to go next? (Source: reallifeanswers.org)

This is the classical dilemma that you’ll eventually be faced with on a daily basis. Whether you are still working on your startup, or you have shelved it to move on to something better, you’ll be finding it hard to identify where you’re headed. Your heart still wants you to follow your dreams but your bank account tells your mind to do otherwise.

And amidst all of this, you are exhausted beyond measure on a daily basis to figure out what to do next. If you are desperate, you try knocking as many doors as possible but rarely anyone would answer. And if by some luck, you do get a door opened for you, you would soon realize that this is not the one you should have taken.

You can’t go back because that would be suicide. And you don’t want to continue here either. You are stuck in limbo and God knows for how long. By any luck, you’ll be able to figure out your true destiny sooner than later. But if not, keep your boat afloat for as long as you can.

The Way Forward…

the way forwardNo matter what, keep moving forward! (Source: livesadvice.com)

Startups are not easy. Everyone knows that. Success is the combination of a million sacrifices. No-brainer. But what your role models won’t tell you is the daily struggle of keeping yourself sane to keep moving forward until your hard work is rewarded in form of success.

No one can predict the future. Not you, not your investors and for sure not your mentors. What you can do is believe in yourself and give it your all. But what happens next is not your fault and you should never blame yourself for it. It’s up to the God to reward you the way He sees best. So keep at it and don’t lose hope.

If your startup is not taking off, go do something else. But keep moving forward and eventually you’ll be able to define what success means to you and how best to have it. In my experience, you will always get what you aim for. Maybe not the way you wanted, but it will definitely come to you sooner or later. So chin up, put your heart and soul in delivering nothing short of best and may the odds be in your favor!

IT engineer turned entrepreneur, Usama has 5 years of experience in building technology startups & setting up new business ventures. He holds a Masters degree in Technology & Social Change from Lund University, Sweden.