Entrepreneurship was embedded in Khalid Bajwa’s psyche, though he hadn’t realized it yet. After college, the young upstart had no wish to become employed and answer to someone else’s demands upon his time. “I never wanted to do a job. I was very clear on that from the moment I graduated. I wanted the freedom to do things my way on my terms and I was lucky to have kicked off freelancing while I was still in university so I had a proof of concept for myself and my family that I could make this work. For five years that’s what I kept doing and picked up a lot of skills along the way which came in very handy when Patari happened,” he says.
Demise of one startup, birth of another
Trading in the stability of a job for the thrills, and cons, of hustling had its share of benefits for Khalid. He recalls, “Working for some of the top companies around the world, I acquired considerable technical knowledge. Somewhere along the line I also became a UI/UX designer. I found myself taking over client projects and getting involved in aspects far beyond the programming side of things. I dabbled in everything from marketing to feature specs, to UX flows and design. The more I did it, the stronger the itch became to do something on my own.”
Thus was born Dabba, Pakistan’s version of Hulu. Khalid spent two years honing it, but it never took off. “TV networks refused to partner up and put up absurd price tags,” he rues. Perhaps an inevitable outcome when replicating a Silicon Valley startup in a country not quite ready to support an entrepreneurial ecosystem. But Khalid wasn’t ready to quit yet. He went for something more universal than TV- music.
While Dabba would have been Pakistan’s counterpart of Hulu, Patari became its Spotify. Khalid relays, “As frustration over Dabba’s inaction mounted, I finally decided to pay heed to the idea of one of my cofounders, Faisal Sherjan, of doing music instead. Humayun, my other cofounder, convinced me to apply to Plan9 for incubation. And Patari was born in earnest. The demise of Dabba became the genesis of Patari.”
Patari is a music streaming site. ‘The biggest repository of Pakistani music ever assembled,’ claims Khalid. The preppy, yet clutter free, aesthetic of the site oozes urban charm and attitude. It is clearly targeted at the smart phone wielding youth of today, but the team has been indiscriminate in stocking up on music across all genres-from vintage to pop.
After experimenting with several words (Bansuri, etc), they settled on Patari for its ‘desi-ness’ and catchy sound. All the music on Patari is legally licensed. Khalid feels Patari owes its success to the two key issues it solves: “Users didn’t have a singular destination to listen to all of the amazing Pakistani music our artists produce. And musicians didn’t have an avenue to promote or monetize their music.” This author feels a third attraction is that fans of Pakistani music are not limited to Pakistan alone. A one stop website which not only stores but also curates music will enable easier discovery for fans who are not familiar with the pop culture of the country.
Khalid is enthusiastic about Patari’s role beyond simply being a storehouse for music. “The concept of Patari is ever evolving. Beyond just a digital platform, we now see it as a space for music. We are sponsoring gigs and concerts and enabling new music to be created. We are coming up with a new initiative called ‘Patari Aslis’ through which we fund new music initiatives. A singular and unique space for musicians to create, promote, and perform their music-that is our vision.”
Not quite Spotify
Anything new breeds uncertainty. That’s why, for surface value, it’s easiest to claim Patari as desi Spotify. But while it does borrow heavily from the music giant’s idea, Khalid is quick to elucidate on the differences. “It’s foolish to go against an incumbent by trying to do what they are doing. Hence we are focusing on creating our own niche. Spotify, or similar services of its ilk like Saavn for example, don’t have their focus on Pakistani music, even though they do carry it.
Our biggest strength is our razor sharp focus on Pakistani music. The way we can stay current. The way we can focus and customize Patari music to its audience, Spotify and Saavn can’t do. It does not make business sense for them, but it does for us.”
Starting up in Pakistan
Starting up anywhere is a risky proposition, but doubly so in Pakistan. Khalid is mindful of the traps. But in the six months that he has been an entrepreneur, the signs have been positive. “Even in these 6 months I am seeing a rapid growth in the number of startups around. New incubators are springing up, more and more people are breaking out on their own and taking risks. Investors are starting to warm up to the idea of investing in tech. Gradually things are changing and it will only get better from here,” he affirms warmly.
For scaling up, the founders are focusing on two principle segments. “First is the product itself,” Khalid shares, “The tech and infrastructure side of things. Our backend setup, devised by our CTO Iqbal Talaat, is very scalable in nature and it continues to get bigger as our audience grows. Most of these are centred on increasing user engagement. Things like link and songs of the day, recommendations of the day, radio, social Networking etc.”
Patari’s second scaling vision is horizontal growth, focused around all things music of course. “Everything comes back to music, but auxiliary areas are being explored as well. Enabling gigs and creation of original content is something I already mentioned. We are partnering up with some corporates to make that happen on a bigger scale .We are also working on expanding our reach beyond just streaming into content created around this music. Our Haftanama is a huge hit with our users and we are working on spinning it off it into its own product. A weekly magazine of sorts, with the very unique Patari flavour and original content- both text and audio-visual. It’s all in its infancy but we are gradually building up to that goal,” Khalid sums up.
The industry and Patari’s place in it
“Downloads are dead,” Khalid says confidently. “Music streaming is the way of the future.” Patari being a relatively unique player in the field aims to dominate a large chunk of the pie. Khalid agrees and the numbers are in his favour. He adds, “Globally streaming revenues are rising exponentially and that’s a trend that will continue. Put together all streaming services out there. The reach is up to maybe 200 Million people. That’s a very impressive figure but less than a quarter of what Facebook alone has. And music is as fundamental to people as social interactions are. Hence, there is a magnificent amount of growth potential here. The only thing that might change are different models being explored around music itself.” But they aim to keep Patari evolving with the music. So challenges seem exciting rather than problematic to the young entrepreneurs behind the startup.
The cost of money
Patari’s ambitions would benefit from investor money, but the cofounders are interested in remaining lean for as long as possible. “This is a completely self-funded venture. We always believed that money has a cost to it. It creates as many problems as it solves. Remaining lean, nimble and having the freedom to manoeuvre at will are very important to us. We will raise funding in all probability, but we would like to defer it for as long as we can to get the maximum leverage.
That leverage will yield maximum mileage for the young and hungry team behind Patari who share more than just a vision. The four cofounders-Khalid Bajwa, Humayun Haroon, Faisal Sherjan and Iqbal Talaat- share a strong friendship and most importantly, a deep and abiding love of music. “There are a lot of people in Patari, all of whom bring something unique and valuable to the table. There is one common thread though. We live and breathe Pakistani music. The unique build of specific expertise, quirkiness and love for Pakistani music that this incredible team brings to the table is the firepower that keeps Patari going,” Khalid says.
Patari recently signed up with EMI, after a long running public dispute. Their archives will be visible on the site. They exclusively released Noori’s new album. Patari also carried Coke Studio and is working closely with Nescafe Basement on their new season. They featured exclusive releases of Bin Roye and Karachi Se Lahore. “And most excitingly,” Khalid flourishes, “PSL T20’s official anthem was released exclusively on Patari.”
The ups and downs of starting up
Khalid stresses that while doubt is the constant foe of any entrepreneur, much of it didn’t play into Patari’s inception. Not because they were confident of its success. But because after two years of failing with the TV project, they had nothing left to lose. He exclaims, “We were desperate. It wasn’t really so much, ‘God this has to work,’ as much as, ‘Let’s give this a shot. And see if it works’. Patari almost instantly went viral! And then it was like being strapped to a rocket ship which had a mind of its own. There was no room for doubt amidst the crazy growth and excitement.”
Ironically it is the success which has fostered the doubts. Khalid muses, “After all the love Patari has gotten and the trust so many people – users, musicians, brands and friends and family-have shown in us, I do fear for the responsibility we have now.
A constant fear lurks somewhere of letting all these people down. Its natural I suppose. Every entrepreneur struggles with it. But the weight of expectations is exciting and over-bearing at the same time. It only makes us work that much harder knowing there are a lot of people we have to prove right. And probably an equal number to prove wrong.”
When it comes to discussing the future of Patari, Khalid doesn’t shy away from dreaming grand. “As Ahmer Naqvi, our director of content puts it, ‘Patari has to be as ubiquitous as having an NIC.’ That’s the only future we want for Patari.”
For fellow dreamers seeking to follow their passion in life, Khalid has some unoriginal, but invaluable, advice:
“It’s the biggest cliché you will hear. But there is no way around it – Do what you love. Always. Life has a brilliant way of working out, of bending to sheer will, of a desire to make something happen for you.
Don’t spend your hours and days in a shitty job that you don’t love, doing something you don’t like. Don’t over-think any of this. Just Do. And work hard. Work your ass off. There is no shortcut. You just have to work your asses off.”