Stepping down from the iconic brand she’s created has been a gut-wrenching decision for Saba Gul. But the maverick entrepreneur says she is just getting started.
In March of 2011, Saba Gul quit a six-figure engineering job in the US to become an entrepreneur in Pakistan. With $20,000 in personal savings and ‘an idea that lit her fire like nothing had before’, the MIT grad launched a non-profit that would enable women artisans from rural Pakistan earn a fair wage from their craft. In 2013, numerous ups and downs later, she pivoted her business into the high end handbag label Popinjay that was still committed to the model of ethical fashion.
Saba’s triumph in creating a global fashion brand out of Pakistan, her business acumen and the smashed glass ceilings trailing in her wake have made her one of the most looked up to success stories in the country. So, when she announced earlier this week that she was stepping down from her role as CEO at Popinjay, the broken hearts and shocked, disappointed murmurs were inevitable.
Saba says that while this was one of the hardest things she’s done in her life, it does not signal the end of her ambition. In a freewheeling chat with PakWired, she discusses the reasons behind this decision, the challenges of running a startup from Pakistan, the idea that lights her fire now and why she’s committed to entrepreneurship for life.
Why are you stepping down?
There are two to three high level reasons. Funding was a challenge. I raised a total of about half a million dollars in seed funding. We were able to do a lot with it in our first year. We designed and manufactured our products, built up our supply chain, hired our first few team members and even got our first few retail partnerships. We got Anthropologie in our fourth month and CNN was our first press exposure. But it was not enough to get us to our Series A. If I could go back, I would raise a much larger amount. My seed amount would have been able to get us to the next milestone.
I also feel we have a very complicated supply chain that spans multiple countries, products and raw materials. That required building a team in two different countries. As a solo founder that was a huge challenge. I think startups are just too much work for one person in the early days. We had a physical product. We owned every vertical of our business from end to end. At some point, when the stakes get higher, doing all this as a solo founder becomes almost impossible. It means you’re constantly going back and forth and not to justice to any one particular role.
Ultimately my startup philosophy is also where you either go big or go home. While this is not right for everyone, it is what works for me in terms of keeping me challenged and fuelling my ambition. It has always been my vision for Popinjay to go big. It isn’t that we’ve run out of money or that this just isn’t working. It’s that given the challenges that I’ve described, it’s not possible for us to scale at the rate of that vision.
You have teetered on the edge many times in the past, both with the non-profit Bliss and then with Popinjay. Why are you giving up now, when you’ve pulled through in equally bleak situations?
We’ve actually been in situations bleaker than this one. But there is a right time and a wrong time for taking a step. There were many many tough times during Popinjay’s journey. The interesting thing is that when I made this decision, perhaps to investors, it was a strange time to step down. We had recently received multiple new funding commitments. Our revenues were on the upswing and we had upcoming PR opportunities. We had a new creative director. Things were looking as if they were going to improve.
But I still knew that we needed much more to really truly go big. And I wanted Popinjay to thrive, not just survive. I feel that there’s this line between persistence, which is necessary for success in a startup, and stubbornness, which can be a roadblock to it.
I have cultivated a thick skin while dealing with the recurring challenges of Popinjay. I know that results take longer than expected, and they’re harder than expected, in a startup. But I felt I was grappling with the same fundamental issues over and over again. I was still a solo founder. That wasn’t changing any time soon. There was an opportunity cost to my time as well. I have got the brand as far as I could with the resources that we had.
You’ve been hustling since 2011, first with the pilot non-profit Bliss, and now Popinjay to make ethical fashion a sustainable business model in Pakistan. Now with you stepping down after such a long struggle, do you think the two are inherently contradictory?
There is nothing wrong with the model or the concept of artisan-based business. Every business has particular ingredients – be it a founder, a market, a product, a focus, a team – that determines how it weathers the challenges that come up in its journey.
Moreover, our product is a nice to have product and not a have to have product. It’s not solving a hard pain point. Fashion is a fickle industry, subject to changing tastes and trends. There’s a significant amount of money that needs to go into marketing and into creating aspiration in your customers hearts and minds. It’s not just about developing something great.
So, a business model like this will have to be bankrolled by someone with a lot of capital to invest. With our product being made in this part of the world and sold in another, the capital would have enabled us to build a great team in multiple countries. Ventures like Popinjay will benefit from having multiple founders on board. But ethical businesses should make sense and do make sense. Pakistan has a rich heritage and design history. We have uniquely skilled local artisans. It just requires hard working people committed to making this vision a reality. It is happening and it will happen.
When was the decision for you to step down taken? Was it the company’s or your call?
It was completely my choice in the sense that I went to the board and told them that this is what I felt is right. We reached a consensus from there. The decision itself is a rolling process. We started having this conversation a few months ago and now we all are adjusted to it. The conversations about the future of the brand are still ongoing.
Who is poised to succeed you?
It is too early to give substantial news on this front.
Do you think you’ll be staying on as an adviser, or in any other capacity, with Popinjay?
It depends on what ends up being the future of the brand in terms of a takeover, but I am happy to stay on in that capacity.
Is it too premature to ask if Popinjay is open to an acquisition?
The question is premature, but it is part of the conversation. That is a possibility.
How is this move going to affect the artisans of Popinjay?
The primary question on my own mind was what this means for the future of the artisans and the relationship that I have with them. That has been a critical source of discontent in the process of making this decision.
But how Popinjay has made a difference in the lives of the artisans is not limited to the money it put in their hands. The difference lay in allowing them to feel dignity, in creating value and a source of income for them using their own skills, in allowing them to feel pride and confidence in what they could do with their lives, in educating them to do other things within the boundaries of the society and culture they live in and in helping some of them become self-sufficient. These are skills that will stay with them whether or not they are working with Popinjay. Yes, while this means that they probably won’t be part of the official structure of Popinjay, we do feel proud that we have given them the know-how and the education to do whatever they want to do with their lives next.
How are you handling the transition, both professionally and personally?
This is a decision that was very difficult for me in ways that even running Popinjay might not have been. There’s a lot of doubt, fear and ego that came in the way. I had to remove emotion from the equation. It was extremely tough to think about moving on from what had become synonymous with my name. My identity became linked to my business. I’ve been living, breathing and dreaming it for so many years and had pushed all my boundaries – physical, mental and financial – for it.
But then there’s gratitude. This journey has, without a doubt, given me some of the best relationships of my life, from my team, the investors, the artisans, the brand ambassadors and our customers. A lot of mentors, advisers and champions have guided my path. Some of these friendships are for life.
I also feel I have learnt some eye-opening professional lessons that make me well prepared to do whatever I want to do next. Be it manufacturing, supply chains, sales, marketing, fundraising or hiring – all of the things I learnt while building Popinjay makes me very excited to apply them in my next venture.
Personally, and professionally, I am committed to being an entrepreneur more than ever. To creating change, solving problems, building things and connecting people – Popinjay taught me how much I enjoyed that and that is what I am going to do with my life.
I associate deeply with startup communities everywhere. I feel I have a better understanding now of what a startup in Pakistan needs to thrive and succeed. I don’t know the particular idea or industry where I’ll be working next. But I am thinking, brainstorming, reading, researching, meeting people and giving myself time to select the right idea I am going to pursue next.
In a post on Medium you had written about how stress is an ever-present reality for entrepreneurs. Are you looking forward to life without stress for a while?
Yes. I mean I do think that this decision gives me a little bit of mental space to do things for myself that I didn’t have time for ever since I moved back to Pakistan. I can focus on my health, relationships and interests that got hijacked by Popinjay’s priorities earlier. While there will be stress when I return to entrepreneurship again, but I have become better at managing it and making sure that my own self and relationships don’t suffer as much because of it.
What are the key entrepreneurial learnings you have imbibed in the past decade?
One of the big lessons I’ve learnt is to invest in people. Whether it’s your co-founder or team, it is critical to devote the time to strengthen those relationships and build first class partnerships around yourself. Getting fundraising right is crucial. By that I mean raising the right capital at the right time from investors who understand your vision.
In Pakistan you might not have access to as much of a competitive hiring pool as you might do in more developed startup economies. Whether it’s the hiring pool, operational challenges, lack of infrastructure, dearth of mentors or fewer number of success stories to look up to – you have to learn the weaknesses of the environment that you’re starting up in and plan around that to overcome them.
An entrepreneur’s life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important to recognise that your home-run may not come the first time that you start up. Entrepreneurship is a lifelong journey. It should not be tied to the arc of a particular company or idea.
It’s equally important to keep some lines distinct between the founder and the company. Remembering that you are more than your startup, taking care of yourself along the way and asking for help when you need it are invaluable. Finally, being a humble leader who keeps their ears open and appreciates good and bad feedback will go a long way in honing your management capabilities.
In an earlier interview you said that the reason you gave up a six-figure job in USA and moved back to Pakistan is because the idea behind Popinjay lit your fire like nothing else. What lights that fire now?
Using technology to solve big problems in our part of the world – that excites me tremendously. I am industry agnostic right now. I’d like to start by solving a local problem. But I am interested in one that has global applications. I still have the aspirations to build a global company.
What is the worst part about being an entrepreneur, according to you?
I wouldn’t call it the worst, rather the hardest. It’s what I call managing your own psychology. What I mean by that is being able to keep yourself, and your workforce, inspired and motivated despite the setbacks and lows that you might be facing on a day to day basis. Sometimes you might feel you’re at the end of your road. Elon Musk said, “Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.”
That may sound extreme but sometimes things can get just so. And while you’re feeling that way you still have to be able to walk into your office everyday with confidence that inspires your team. You still have to walk into your board meetings with optimism because people really gain positivity or negativity from the leader. Be it your body language, the tone of your voice or the way you conduct yourself – everything sends a message. It is critical that you reflect confidence and positivity despite the stress you’re dealing with because the buck stops with you for everything.
What’s the best part?
The learning curve that comes with this life is very steep. It’s so gratifying, exciting and inspiring to be able to learn so much on a day to day, and sometimes hour to hour, basis when you’re an entrepreneur. Then there’s also the relationships you build along the way. If you have your heart in the right place and are working with motivation, you build a lot of highly meaningful relationships of people whom you serve and the people who serve you.
You are frequently cited as one of the top entrepreneurs in Pakistan and your name is included in various lists of inspiration and success stories. What would you like to say to people who look up to you and were inspired by your journey with Popinjay to have a career in the social impact industry?
My ambition is still there. I am still committed to building solutions, affecting change and pushing past the glass ceiling. Popinjay has made me more likely to succeed with my future ventures. It has given me the strength and lessons I needed to do something worthwhile with my life. These setbacks exist to point you in a new direction. A year from now you might see me doing something different, but with no less passion. I would also like to use my learnings to mentor younger entrepreneurs. I am starting these monthly office hours to share guidance with aspiring entrepreneurs that want to take the plunge but have questions and concerns.
When I was thinking about this decision, I keenly felt that would I be breaking the hearts of young people who look up to what I’ve built. I get so many emails and messages from people who don’t know me but have made important life decision based on what they saw me do. So, I feel that responsibility. What I’ll say to them is that nothing has changed about me. I’ll do important work under the banner of another idea, another company or another problem.
What is your advice to aspiring social impact entrepreneurs?
You have to balance the social impact intentions with the commercial side of it. Many entrepreneurs, who choose this industry, do it because they have an empathetic heart. But they make the mistake of not focusing enough on the business side. I actually feel the impact side is easy. But to allow for your business to scale, you have to focus on the business –building your team, marketing, strategy, vision, growth, etc. Focus on the commercial success and you will naturally create the impact you are seeking. As long you don’t sell your soul somewhere along the way that is. All businesses can be and should be social by nature if you just treat people right and pay them well.
Is there anything you’d like to leave our readers with?
I’d like to tell you this story that illustrates what Popinjay is and always will be to those of us associated with it. One of my dear friends and die-hard Popinjay customer from Washington DC, Salma, wrote to me. She said that she had just run into one of Popinjay’s brand ambassadors at a conference in New Jersey. Two women, complete strangers, started a conversation because each recognized the Popinjay bag the other was carrying. “Saba, Popinjays, dotted around the world, will continue to connect long after you step away,” she said in her note.
These are the kinds of stories that remind me why I started Popinjay and why this journey was so meaningful to me.