The startup ecosystem in Pakistan has seen immense growth in the last few years. Regular startup competitions such as StartUp Weekend, StartUp Cup and StartUp Grind have raised awareness not just about the startups already out there, but increased entrepreneurial ventures in general. And with incubators like Plan9, The Foundation by LUMS, P@SHA Tech Incubator and accelerators like Invest2Innovate and PlanX, it has become easier than ever to find the necessary support you need to get your startup off the ground.
I’ve met a few entrepreneurs who’ve gone through the accelerator program offered by Invest2Innovate, so I asked them to tell me the challenges entrepreneurs face in Pakistan and any advice they would give future applicants to the Invest2Innovate accelerator program.
Challenges Faced by Entrepreneurs in Pakistan
1. The Paperwork
The Pakistani bureaucracy can be a nightmare. Registering a business, filing taxes, figuring out import laws and other government paperwork can be enough to drive any one crazy. An accelerator like Invest2Innovate will connect you to people who can guide you through this process.
“In terms of registrations, with a lawyer the legal processes can be handled. In my case having Invest2Innovate helped getting the right person for this.” Mustafa, 3Restart.
Each business has it’s individual challenges. Take EcoEnergy Finance. With foreign founders, they found it almost impossible to get their registration sorted because of local laws, and finally had to resort to local directors just to get registered without further delays.
Ambreen, Founder of Blue Saint, told about her own issues with export licenses,
“A startup is too small and too poor to get an export license. Now without that export license no cargo company or post office will entertain you to send your product overseas. DHL/FedEx becomes too expensive to use. Then everyone else has their own version of how to solve the problem. Someone will tell you to get a local chamber of commerce registration, someone will ask you to bring something else from EBP or TDAP, someone will ask you to check with SBP. Lack of clarity about the nature and structure of startups just makes things more messy because the related authorities have no idea where to park these little fellas or how to treat them as an entity.”
Being part of an accelerator program offers great support in terms of making decisions such as these.
2. Lack of Investors
While no accelerator will guarantee that you will find investors after graduation, they will at least connect you with enough people to get you on the right track. Invest2Innovate is just a few years in, but their graduates – like Popinjay – have already successfully raised capital.
3. Lack of a Support System
Being an entrepreneur – especially a solo-preneur – can be a tough gig. You not only need to hire an entire team, you’re the one responsible for every major decision. With an accelerator program, you get a chance to meet mentors, investors, other entrepreneurs and even form friendships that can sustain you through the tough times ahead. Connections made during the 4-6 months of an accelerator program will eventually form the network of people you can draw different kinds of support from.
Every Invest2Innovate entrepreneur I talked to said the same thing. An accelerator like i2i is more than just a business partner, they provide a whole lot more support than. From finding the right talent to hire, to meeting investors, to even just being around when you need emotional support, an accelerator provides you with the support network you need to get your business off the ground.
“Pakistan is being talked about being hospitable. When starting out, the mentors or seasoned entrepreneurs I met were willing to give time to us. That surprised me. Pakistanis tend to be cynical, so I wasn’t expecting that.” – Junaid Malik, Founder Raise D’Bar.
Other entrepreneurs echoed this sentiment. With a large number of startups, and therefore entrepreneurs, you can find support in unexpected places. Numerous events are organized throughout the year, bringing together entrepreneurs – both new and old, allowing you to meet like-minded individuals and share ideas.
4. Hiring the Right People
Junaid talked about his struggle in hiring the right team for Raise D’Bar, “Generally our education system doesn’t prepare people when it comes to being effective at work. The system doesn’t invoke critical thinking. There are cultural issues as well, loose work ethics, and people don’t take ownership over what they do. Any of this can choke a startup. Finding a right team is the toughest part.”
Mustafa from 3Restart had the same to say, “I think my greatest hurdle has to be the hiring part. Startups cannot provide the perks that established enterprises do therefore keeping the team motivated is a task in itself.”
Advice for Future Applicants
1. Be Open to Change
“Your model and your strategies to achieve your goal will likely change, and you need to be open to seeing those opportunities”, said Jeremy. This comes as no surprise. When you join an accelerator program, you submit your business plan/idea, and most entrepreneurs tend to fixate on that. But the benefit of an accelerator lies in helping you take your idea, improve it, and then move forward.
According to Ambreen, “It’s OK not to have all the answers. i2i will help you find those answers and connect you to the right people to build your enterprise. But the key is to be aware of your shortcomings and be ready to take on suggestions, and at times harsh criticism, with an open mind.”
2. Be Prepared for Hard Work
Interested in starting a business? You better be prepared to put everything else in your life on the back-burner. Every entrepreneur had the same thing to do – this is a 24/7 commitment.
“The most crucial one is absolute commitment. You have to live, breath, sleep your idea for 5 months. Commitment means less time for family, friends, excursions and other things. Be prepared to disappoint a few people.”, Ambreen Malik.
“Entrepreneurship is a tedious journey, one of patience and attrition. First timers, need to abandon everything if they want to succeed. Nothing can have priority over their startup.” Ahmed Khan, Savaree.
3. Have a Solid Team
Having a team that is fully committed to the startup is going to go a long way in ensuring it’s success. According to Mustafa, “No matter how innovative the idea is, the team executes it, so the value lies in proper execution.”
Invest2Innovate requires that at least one of the founders be focused 100% – meaning, work full-time – on the startup, while the rest of the team can be part-time. Definitely spend some time prior to your application looking for a solid team that can help you get the business going.
4. Be Ready for Challenges
Ambreen, having already had a lot of operational and financial experience, said she wasn’t sure what value she would derive from the program but she was challenged every single day she sat down with the i2i team. “They have raised their bar pretty high” she says.
Ahmed, of Savaree, saysm “I thought it was going to be a series of lectures and sessions. I never realized that people will get deep into our business and help structure and problem solve it at a minute level.”
Interested in learning more about the startup ecosystem in Pakistan? Invest2Innovate came out with a fairly comprehensive report. Or are you an entrepreneur looking for an accelerator program? While Invest2Innovate hasn’t opened applications for the 2015-2016 class as yet, you can read all about their program here, learn about past graduates and gain some insight into the application process before applications open in June 2015.