by Usama Shahid Khan
An Information Systems Engineer turned entrepreneur turned project manager, I started my career in the hot summers of 2011 when I joined Avanceon and moved to Lahore after graduating from NUST.
As luck would have it, I could not adjust well there because I always thought there’s a higher purpose to my existence and hence I quit my job and moved back home to start working on my first venture, GradOven.
Spending 6 months on setting up this “novel” social enterprise and after failing hard with zero cash in my hands, I shifted gears a bit and set up Cloud9 Startups (C9S) which was to be an angel investment platform for young Pakistani entrepreneurs who had a great business idea but no funds to make it happen.
After having tried for over an year to find potential investments for the investors on-board, I dissolved C9S by the end of 2012. For a brief duration, I worked in the customer support role for a Malaysian startup, before finally convincing my ex-partner from C9S to invest in my idea of setting up a one-stop shop for higher education enrollment in Pakistan, MeriTaleem. Since April of 2013, I worked on setting up the platform, building the traffic, publishing relevant data, raising funds, attending a fellowship and convincing the universities in Pakistan to adopt this “new” model of conducting admissions.
Spending 6 months on setting up GradOven and after failing hard with zero cash in my hands, I shifted gears a bit and set up Cloud9 Startups (C9S).
Fast forward to 2015, I got married, earned a Masters degree and ran out of the funds I had raised and had to look for a job to earn a living for my family. Currently I work as a Project Manager at White Rice Communications. The work is not as exciting as it was when I worked on MeriTaleem, but it’s helping in paying the bills so keeping at it.
I have just completed my 5 years of “professional” experience (if it can be termed that way) last week and looking back, I realize that I have learnt more than any college or university could have taught me, experienced more than I could have in a job role and endured much more than I had anticipated.
Fast forward to 2015, I got married, earned a Masters degree and ran out of the funds I had raised and had to look for a job to earn a living for my family.
It’s no secret that building a startup is always tough. But it’s always interesting to read about the stories that shape up a startup to become what it does over a few years. We often read about the success stories and not much about the failures. So I’m listing here the 3Ws of setting up MeriTaleem and 1H of it failing badly. Let’s begin.
What is MeriTaleem?
In a nutshell, MeriTaleem aimed to be the UCAS of Pakistan. For those who are unfamiliar with either, both of these are a one-stop web portal that provides information, career guidance and an online way to submit admission applications to the universities in Pakistan.
We listed up all the 170+ HEC recognized universities and the programs offered across their campuses. We also advised the students about what career they should choose based on their interest and industry situation in Pakistan through live chat, email and phone calls.
We developed a full-fledged admission applications system that could link up with any university in Pakistan and worked well taking into considerations the significant limitations that exist due to a non-coherent admission process in-place across different universities.
In a nutshell, MeriTaleem aimed to be the UCAS of Pakistan.
In MeriTaleem’s 2.5 years of existence (talking about the public version here), we served over 50,000 visitors per month and attended to over 5–10 queries on a daily basis. I still answer all incoming queries on the cell number given on the website.
Who built MeriTaleem?
Initially just me, I brought on Faisal Khan of Ovex Technologies as the Chairman who wholeheartedly supported the initiative and me during out initial days. We used Ovex’s office space and resources to launch MeriTaleem and it was because of his guidance and mentoring that I was able to craft a “workable” business plan and raise funds to make it happen.
I started MeriTaleem after raising $10k from a private UK-based Pakistani expat, Habib Ahmed, who invested this amount on just a business plan when I did not even have a single line of code written, let alone have a MVP. And to this date I thank him for having believed in me enough to let me try setting up MeriTaleem when I didn’t have any experience or skills to set up a new business.
In MeriTaleem’s 2.5 years of existence, we served over 50,000 visitors per month and attended to over 5–10 queries on a daily basis.
I raised an additional $37.5k in early 2014, less than a year after I started off from two separate private Pakistani investors. After launching MeriTaleem for public in May, 2014, we also got awarded the [email protected] Social Innovation grant worth $8.5k.
I recruited a team of talented content writers and social media evangelists, but one mistake that I made was to hire people who were very fresh in their professional careers. This was also because I could not spread myself too thin with the funds I had and my goal was to have the funds last as long as possible due to which I was unable to afford experienced resources. I outsourced the technical development to a services company in Rawalpindi with whom I spent days and nights building MeriTaleem and perfecting every big and small feature.
MeriTaleem has also been helped by the good folks at Invest2Innovate along with a lot of well-wishers, mentors and startup community in general who helped promote it and provided me with valuable suggestions to make it a success.
My father is a University Professor and I have lived on university campuses (GIKI and NUST) most of my teenage years and adult life. Having a university professor as a father, I was always in touch with university students and saw them suffer because they made a poor career choice due to lack of counseling and guidance during and after completing their high school education.
I recruited a team of talented content writers and social media evangelists, but one mistake that I made was to hire people who were very fresh in their professional careers
I also witnessed my father counseling the young lads who were hopeless as they weren’t able to perform well due to lack of interest in their chosen field of study and guide them to make the best of their circumstances. In addition, as a nation, the lack of career counseling has been producing uninterested professionals and jacks of many things instead of masters of some. This itched me often and I wanted to do something about it.
During my final semester at NUST, I took the Entrepreneurship course taught by a seasoned entrepreneur, Mr. Mohsin Lodhi. Of the many things that he taught me, the most valuable was to never be afraid to try something new and be resilient and consistent in your efforts. I realized later that it’s tougher than it sounds and is never a guarantee to success (I’m a living proof of that). But that’s a different story.
In October, 2011, I attended the first and only Lean Startup Machine (LSM) event in Lahore and the team I was a part of came up with the idea of MeriTaleem. That’s where I got the inspiration of working on this idea. Eventually, when I got the chance, I worked on it to see if it works and as expected it was a hit with the students. Students can use MeriTaleem to find information (last updated in 2015) about available courses/degree programs in HEC-recognized universities and also read handy guides on how to choose their careers and why they should choose a certain course.
Of the many things that Mr Mohsin Lodhi taught me, the most valuable was to never be afraid to try something new and be resilient and consistent in your efforts.
They could chat up with MeriTaleem’s team and discuss their career options. They also have the option to post their queries in Forums section to be answered by others, but somehow they are not using it. In addition, we built an on-site social network that could be linked with Facebook for students to make new friends as well as connect with potential university fellows.
MeriTaleem was launched after careful research conducted personally with major universities’ administrators, admission department heads and students. A central database of all study programs was developed and rolled out to the public. Further, a centralized system for conducting the entire admission process was made that would ease the life of students in applying and the admission officers to process the large number of applications along with data retrieval, export and analytics features.
During my 3 years of working on MeriTaleem, there have been many ups and downs. I still remember the day when I signed (verbally) the first university and they promised to use the system when finalized. I was very excited about it and felt as if the time invested has paid off already. But as more and more time passed, things started becoming more and more grim. The signed MoUs did not mature into contracts, the system didn’t function as I wanted and the legal matters with SECP, FBR, banks and telcos seemed to never end.
How MeriTaleem Failed?
Of the many things I learnt about building a startup, the biggest challenge that always posed a threat to MeriTaleem’s success was me trying it in a country like Pakistan. Even though there was a significant demand and need by the students to benefit from MeriTaleem’s services, changing mindsets of the university representatives was a big challenge, one that I could never overcome that led to eventual collapse of the whole project. But that was not the only reason why I failed.
The signed MoUs between MeriTaleem and universities did not mature into contracts, and the legal matters with SECP, FBR, banks and telcos seemed to never end
Apart from the universities, the legal processes in Pakistan are overly complicated and it takes ages to get even the most basic of the process such as incorporating a private limited company done. I applied for company registration in May, 2014 and after repeated visits to SECP’s offices and many personal requests to one Assistant Director there (because I never paid a Rupee in bribe), I got the Incorporation certificate along with other relevant documents in September.
What happened as a result was disastrous to MeriTaleem as we could not sign any contracts with the universities we spoke to and signed MoUs with. Any startup only has a small market window that makes or breaks it. And ours was the summer season in which majority admissions are conducted across all universities in Pakistan. When we were finally a registered legal entity, we approached the universities to sign legal contracts for us to provide the agreed services free-of-cost, but to our surprise (and worse expectations), they (understandably) doubted our capabilities to deliver what we were promising.
It took us more than 8 months to sign up one of the banks to open up a bank account and allow us to accept nationwide payments from students.
We then pivoted and started targeting the universities we had not approached earlier and with some success signed up around 10 more MoUs with them. With the system ready and the payment channels in-process, we started processing the other formalities such as collecting true information and reflecting the same on MeriTaleem. That’s when we realized that a signed MoU is worth nothing if the people signing it are uncooperative. Despite many emails, phone calls and in-person meetings, we could not get them to deliver their end of the bargain and hence had no data, no information and no commitment from them to use MeriTaleem.
While this was happening, we tried to work deals with telcos and the banks to open up the bank accounts for payment processing. The way things work in Pakistan’s corporate sector, you’d be lucky if you can get into an agreement in 6 months. It took us more than 8 months to sign up one of the banks to open up a bank account and allow us to accept nationwide payments from students.
Similarly, our contracts with telcos did not materialize due to many issues, most of which pertained to snail-slow processing on their end and legal formalities. We blame Government departments to be insensitive towards startups and new companies, but the corporate sector is even worse when it comes to delivering legitimate services that they ought to provide to grow theirs and our businesses.
Among all of this chaos, my team members eventually started losing motivation due to lack of achieving any significant milestone except securing funding to last an year or two. Two of the key team members left and a few new hires did not last beyond their probation periods. As willing as they were to deliver when the time came, they became a cash-consuming burden during the last months of MeriTaleem.
The corporate sector is even worse than the government when it comes to delivering legitimate services that they ought to provide to grow theirs and our businesses.
Eventually when the formalities sorted out and we were ready to take on the market yet again with renewed vigor, better features and an evolved business model, one of the investors backed out and did not pay the last chunk of committed funds. That was the last blow due to which I was left with no option but to ask my team to leave MeriTaleem and start looking for alternate employment opportunities while I tried continuing MeriTaleem on my own.
Any business can’t survive without cash in hand and if there’s no revenue coming in, the biggest of the investments are all going just down the drain causing the slow and agonizing death of your business. In my case, the business could not even set up properly before it had to be eventually shut down.
I had the option to raise more funds but after spending more than 3 years on a concept that did not prove fruitful in Pakistan’s tough market, surviving on peanuts as personal salary and spending the prime of my professional career in setting up MeriTaleem, I eventually decided to call it quits and move ahead with my life.
In my case, the business could not even set up properly before it had to be eventually shut down.
I still feel the urge to go back to MeriTaleem and try to make it work yet again, but my responsibilities (I recently became a father of a beautiful baby girl) and Pakistan’s situation tell me otherwise. I sometimes feel like a failure myself and other times justify the failure based on the way things unfolded for me.
Amidst all of the disappointment, I do wonder what if it had worked out and paint the imaginary picture of earning millions and enjoying a comfortable living while helping out students in choosing and excelling in their dream careers. But I believe everything happens for a reason and you can either accept the reality or let it break you. I for one refuse to give up and even though I could not make MeriTaleem successful, I am hopeful that my life will take me to other experiences and eventually I’ll get where I’m destined to be.
All Is Not Lost
Before you feel bad about me or MeriTaleem, I should tell you that the platform is still live on web and is currently serving all visitors that come its way. I have also made it a point to respond to the phone calls I receive through the number given on the website (though due to my other commitments I can’t respond to the emails or be available for live-chat).
Due to my work on MeriTaleem, I was able to get admitted to the prestigious SIDC fellowship which paved way for me to earn my Masters in Technology & Social Change (probably the only degree in the world with this title) from Lund University, Sweden.
I have learnt invaluable lessons and had unforgettable experiences, made amazing friends and met many awesome people, and have had an overall rewarding career that has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride. I haven’t earned even half of what my peers have, who followed the traditional corporate ladder upon graduation, but I am happy. I know that I am destined for something good and I am working my way towards it. How long it takes for me to get there is on the Almighty but I am surely going to try my best to keep on moving forward.