MeriTaleem: The Story of a Failed Startup & What I Learned from It

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.

The team that launched MeriTaleem.com

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.

Why MeriTaleem?

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.

Most days towards the end were like this

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.


  • Farhan

    Thanks for the share! Was a serious read until I read the name of the university you got in Sweden LOL. Anyway like they say, failure is just a path to success!

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Haha. It sure was funny but the university is amazing and the city itself is really beautiful. If I could, I would move there without a second thought. Thanks for your comment.

  • faaria

    Good luck for future. Never give up.

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Thanks.

  • Good Luck for the future….and don’t feel bad about university of Sweden…(wink)

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Haha. I don’t. :)
      Thanks

  • ViV

    Bribe, greasing palms and wheels. Thats how you build a business everywhere in the world. No matter which the country, inept, silly and jealous people are found at the helm of authoritative affairs. They squeeze an entrepreneur for his ambition, vision, insight and wisdom.
    You should perhaps look for an investor with connections and influence. Not a lot of money is needed at the beginning for a tech startup. I will just mention the name NTS and you will understand the rest.
    Do you think that before public launch, one should get a registered company, bank accounts, and stuff? So that no time is wasted when the product/service starts rolling in order to gather momentum?

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Hi Viv. I would just say that bribe does get things done but I am not built that way. I believe doing things fairly and honestly so I would rather fail ten times than pay bribes to get my work done.

      As far as the legalities are concerned, so yes, the sooner you start with them, the better you will be. It will be a learning experience so you’ll have to plan accordingly. I did not anticipate me taking so long to get even the smallest of things done and that’s what has resulted in my failure.

      • Nasir

        Good man, never bribe which is the ill of our country (Pakistan). I left Pakistan because I refused to bribe. Then I pursued a different career in Civil Engineering. Got my degree while working part-time to finance my studies in the UK. Hard work and tough going but I never gave up. Qualified and with some experience I secured a job appointment in Pakistan (Chashma Barrage) with a French Company. WAPDA superiors were all too discouraging and jealous of my success as they came know I was rejected to enter WAPDA in the past for not bribing. I am proud I did not. I am now retired having pursued a very successful career working all over the world keeping away from Pakistan only for one reason: corruption and bribery. You appear determined, and I can assure you will win, don’t give up – keep calm and carry on.

  • Hasnu

    Hats Off to you brother for what you did is not at all a piece of cake..! I expect this platform to be the default portal for admissions in Pakistan so please don’t stop and keep it going dude.. (Y)

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Thanks. IA.

  • lambs are cool

    Does tech startups get patents in PK? So that no one is able to copy/steal their idea / technology or clone it?

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Nope. No patents for tech or startups. Even if you patent elsewhere, lack of strong laws in Pakistan don’t leave you with any options if someone decides to steal or clone your idea/tech.

    • John Doe

      You CAN NOT patent or copy right a business idea, anywhere around the world, since it is intangible. You CAN patent a design or process methodology though. For further information, you can refer to “The Intellectual Property Organization of Pakistan Act, 2012”

  • John Doe

    I think SECP is not that bad. I can register your company with in a month, I am sure there must be some mistake from your side. Other than that I completely understand your situation, because I have been through it. But when I was about to hit the rock bottom in terms of cash, I decided to quit because you can feel the failure coming already. Best of luck for your next venture :) True Entrepreneurs never quit

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      I now know how to get things done. I was using a firm earlier and that caused stupid delays. I am wiser now. Thanks for your wishes and I agree, I should have been more careful. :)

  • Asif Seemab

    You should have hired a consultancy firm to incorporate a company for you. It takes 2 weeks against a fee of Rs.10-15K only. For countrywide cash collection you could use EasyPaisa,Jazzcash or UCash etc by avoiding the regular commercial banking channel. These should have been done before even signing out the MoUs.

    It looks like you did right tings in wrong order. I believe there is huge potential in this business and I would recommend you to start it again with full force.

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      If I knew this magic formula earlier, you would have been reading a very different story. Every first-timer makes mistakes and I made mine. I own them and understand better now how to get stuff done. Getting SECP to incorporate your company in 2 weeks is a myth and only those who have back channel connections are able to get it done. Going the right way, you’ll never be able to get it done so easily. Same’s the case with EasyPaisa and other telcos. They too have banks at their back so they take even longer than a regular commercial bank to open your bank account.

  • iBzOtaku

    Honest question. How did you expect your product to generate revenue?

    • Farhan

      They used to charge a service fee for anyone using the service along with the admission fee for university.

      • iBzOtaku

        You mean the students?

        • Usama Shahid Khan

          We planned to do this, yes. But since the platform never took off, we never were able to generate any revenue.

  • Abbasi

    Thumbs up for all the effort you did rolling the ball in such uneven roads. The lessons learnt which you shared are much of a value to others who plan to dive in similar oceans in Pakistan.

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Thanks.

  • Lahories

    It’s good to see that how with the open heart you write each and every detail.I think you have wasted your energies in wrong direction. A lawyer can help you to registered your company within weeks i have recently registered a company in Lahore and he charged me about 7k to all the work done. On other hand your marketing plan wasn’t good. As you should have to hit the social media to build an effective community and there is also lack of attraction for the foreign students on your site.

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Like I said, I am wiser now and know better about how to get things done. But when I started, I was clueless with not much help. So I suffered. But iA will be careful next time.

      We did the social media campaign but did not invest heavily into it since our marketing was to be done in a very different way than just relying on social media. It just didn’t work for us as we hoped.

  • Haisum

    I really appreciate your efforts and i will either create sub online educational portal or will promote your portal having proper and fast information.

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Thank you Haisum.

  • Muhammad Asim Ayaz

    You are a person with Positive energy indeed. Your time will come insha’Allah….

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      IA. Thanks.

  • Ali Ahmad

    You’re a Brave man brother – and if you are back to a job you never hoped for (because of your families and baby daughter) that makes you more of a Hero (in my eyes)

    Shit happens but if you can do this – You can do similar things at your job (with company resources this time)

    Don’t kill the spirit. Start something new next time (even if you’re 40)

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Thank you. And not giving up iA. Let’s see where life takes me. :)

  • Sheldon Cooper

    I was working in Ovex and saw the effort Usama and his team put for meriTaleem(MT). No doubt the idea is/was brilliant but as he said, country like Pakistan, no support and no cooperation. May U, farrukh, ars, farhana and annie succeed in ur goals, in this world and hereafter.
    P.s. Im the IT guy with beard (hodor)

    • Usama Shahid Khan

      Hahaha! Shuja bhai! Kaisay hain? Thank you for the best wishes. :)

  • Don’t give it up, one day everyone will be using this to get admission, IIn US majority of people compares uni’s and colleges onlines and then right choose for them, one day it will work here too. Good Luck.

    • Try to support your site with Ads and promote it via blogs.

  • JV

    @usama_shahid_khan:disqus Thank for sharing your experience, I am COO of 10th month old startup ustaad.pk. I can understand the difficulties you have may have faced. But most of these issues can be resolved by hiring experienced hr in operations.

  • He’ll be back.

  • Ozi

    after reading your article . I visited the website for admission process . one thing i found it missing was filter criteria . Like i want to filter the best or high ranking universities for my admission. Adding this feature would be a great help

  • Salman Iftikhar Khan

    Good luck Usman Bahi. Best thing is you have guts to tell the world about your failures in such a positive way which is very rare. I am friend of Zeeshan Waseem (met you once in Sahiwal on furqan event). We also tried to run startup by providing services by creating a mobile application but got failed. Now doing job to support my family financially and hoping one day we shall surely be succeed.

  • Swaleha

    Despite your dreams and your dedication, I appreciate that you didn’t go for unfair means. Such people are rare and you should be proud to be one of them :).

  • LimaOne

    Thanks for sharing your story. I also have gone through something similar and can feel your pain. I however suggest you to NOT to give up the idea. You made a sound decision to keep the portal running.

    Whenever you feel like you are flexible enough to give it another try, just go for it. Look for mentors, seasoned entrepreneurs, professionals etc to back you up. Try getting in touch with people like Mir Muhammad Alikhan, Farhan Masood, Ashraf Choudhry etc.

    You don’t necessarily need to hire someone highly experienced to lead your company, you can also convince someone to chair the board and help you guys get on the feet. Trust me, you will find many once you start looking this way.

    One big mistake you committed was to hire fresh graduates. Had it been one or two professionals with decade or two of market experience, you would had gained some traction. A good Business Development Manager/Marketer (Someone very good at closing the deals) was your need to make universities sign contracts. This is the most tricky part of your trade. Universities are skeptical to sign for a concept unknown to them as they fear any dent to their repute as well as being associated to something that failed (if things did not work out).

    Contracts were the backbone to your startup. If your team signed just a handful of universities, technical colleges, institutes etc AND showed the output in terms of admissions the signed institutions received from your portal, those numbers alone would have given you more contracts year by year. Domino effect.

    I wish you all the best and hope to contribute and collaborate together some day and make the education platform in our beloved country among the best in the world.

  • Tutor Citi

    Worth noting point, “it is difficult to have business deals with corporate sector and nearly impossible with the government” Best wishes for future Usama…

  • Shah

    In all your article I didn’t see a mention of privacy of info of the students. While Career guidance and couselling portal is a a fairly good business, though not groundbreaking but I have serious doubts about this admissions management site that you wanted to build.

    UCAS in Pakistan can beat be emulated by the HEC at federal or provincial level and not by a private individual. I can imagine the privacy concerns with handing out personal info to a single company.

    Maybe you could sell your solution to the HEC directly (I can imagine even more hurdles) but frankly I don’t see how this would be a successful even if everything went positive for you.

  • Amir Anzur

    Just think about it this way that your next startup will be a breeze compared to the first. I am sure you will be back to the startup scene after getting a little breather in the corporate world. The best time to start a startup is when you are getting a pay cheque so I would start using the evenings and weekend to work on your next idea (or refine the MeriTahleem idea until it makes money). Good luck and thanks for a good read!

    Amir

  • Junaid

    Heard about thia startup & funding a year back when I was actually starting my own. It gave me inspiration that yes I can get funding in Pakistan even on equity basis not interest loans, after its successful. However ur story little disappointed me but still the passion u have & intention of coming back is remarkable.
    I want ur advice at this stage, m successfully runing online shop startup n small software house with established office & team of 8 now all by my own small saving of few lacs but to grow faster in this highly competitive market, badly need an investor now so can u guide me in this regard? How to get the real investor wjo r ready to invest on equity basis because mostly I meet r interested in monthly returns which startup cannot commit initially u know.

  • Saqib Tanoli

    You should have changed your business model to work with private schools instead and then wait for few years until you have all the universities connected.