Pakistan needs more serial joiners, not serial entrepreneurs
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Photo Credit: Tech in Asia

Shehryar Hydri, the investor and director of marketing and operations at Convo – which raised a $5M Series A Round recently – is known for telling it like it is. He didn’t disappoint

Tech in Asia

Shehryar Hydri, the investor and director of marketing and operations at Convo, is known for telling it like it is. He didn’t disappoint. At Tech in Asia’s first ever meetup in Pakistan, we sat down with Hydri to talk about his startup journey and what he thinks the country needs to do to create a thriving startup ecosystem.

“A key thing missing in Pakistan is that we don’t have product visionaries. And that was one of the key reasons why Convo succeeded, because Faizan [Buzdar], our founder and CEO, is primarily a product visionary who was of the same quality you get in the best markets in the world or in Silicon Valley,” he said. The event was held jointly with startup incubators PlanX and Invest2Innovate at the Arfa Technology Park in Lahore, Pakistan’s second most populated city and the country’s cultural capital.

While Pakistan has good developers and companies who realize that client services isn’t a long-term strategy and have begun developing their own products, it lacks people who know how to build global products.

“You don’t have people who worked at Twitter or Facebook and left those large companies which understand the product cycle from A to Z, and then they start building startups and have good ideas with traction. So most of the ideas in the local market are weak. They’re not global or scalable enough. They can grow into commercially viable healthy startups but they’re not gonna be the next Skype or Facebook.”

Billion-dollar companies in the making?

Hydri is qualified to make these judgements. He’s a key person in the highly visible Pakistani startup Convo, an enterprise social network that wants to replace email in the workplace. This places the Islamabad and San Francisco-based startup in the company of global products like Slack, Flowdock, and Yammer.

Convo has raised $5 million in series A funding, making it one of the most well-funded startups from Pakistan and probably putting its valuation in the estimated range of $20 million to $40 million. Its products have been used by 12,000 companies (he did not state if these are active users).

Hydri also has Groopic’s attention. He serves on the board of advisors at the startup, which consists of computer vision technologists who mainly hail from Lahore’s top university, LUMS. “It’s basically hardcore rocket science in computer vision. That’s a technical thing that gives them an advantage over other teams or other people making similar products. That team will focus on their core, which is that they’re really good at computer vision, and there are five different things they can do, and out of those they choose two or three,” he said.

Groopic’s work is a testament to their technological wizardry. Their debut product, also called Groopic, is basically an app that inserts the photographer into a group pic by stitching two shots together – one taken with just the photographer, and the other with just the group. The novel idea has put the startup on the world map by garnering coverage from international media. It’s now working on its next idea, Ingrain, which embeds ads into videos – in real-time.

Here’s how the Groopic app works:

What’s interesting is that Hydri is involved in startups that have a chance to reach the so-called “unicorn” status, which are bestowed to startups that surpass over a billion dollars in valuation. Slack’s already valued at over one billion, which means Convo, given it is tackling the same opportunity, could also join the club.

But that’s not something that should be unique to him in Pakistan. Product vision can be nurtured and made to go hand-in-hand with an international outlook. “[Startups in Pakistan] are definitely ambitious, but they’re going through a natural cycle of growth where the weak links need to be filled up, and they can only be filled up by trial and error. So when you make four products that suck and don’t earn anything, the fifth product is bound to be better because you’ve learned the hard way,” he said.

Serial joiners

At the moment though, Hydri said that Pakistan does not just lack product visionaries, which he calls “the highest form of the species.” It also lacks people who are willing to join startups. Entrepreneurship has caught on in the last few years, and the country is seeing more serial entrepreneurs entering the fold. “But what we need are serial joiners,” said Hydri.

“It’s not as sexy as being Mark Zuckerberg. What happens if somebody is smart and they’re really good at something, and they go and open a startup and it’s a small product that doesn’t have the capability to scale up to be a billion dollar company, and you have five different friends doing five different startups? You end up with mediocre products that are not really growing. It takes a lot of maturity and suppressing egos to realize that all of us are really smart, and we should be working under one roof on something that’s really cool.”

He gave another analogy. “All of us can sing and carry a tune. So the choice is: do you join the band, or do you try and become the next Atif Aslam? If your voice is very average, please join the band. But your ego will be like ‘I’m going to be Ali Zafar, I don’t want to be a backup vocalist. I want to be the lead.’”

So while the blossoming of startups in the country is an indication of the ecosystem’s growth, it can reach the next level through more mergers and acqui-hires.

As a whole, Pakistan’s talent pool needs to improve in quality. Hydri says that the country can use more product managers and people who understand user interfaces and user experience. On the positive side, he sees an improvement in the quality of talent – from folks who want to get into product management but lack experience, to people who have a portfolio to show and have actually worked in international development teams.

“There’s no silver bullet to solve the problem. It will be very gradual. The only solution is that now products are easy to make because of the mobile ecosystem. The more products you go through, the more you learn.”

Before Buzdar founded Convo, he worked on enterprise products in companies that have global teams. “The entire [Convo] team could follow Faizan to the ends of the Earth because he was somebody who proved himself and delivered on enterprise products in a way that’s never been done before.”

A small matter of culture

Skillset isn’t all that matters when it comes to hiring a startup employee. Culture matters too. Hydri likened it to an arranged marriage – both families, and most importantly the husband and wife, have to be compatible to each other. Startups can’t just hire someone who just wants a paycheck and work from nine to five.

Yet the startup culture hasn’t really filtered out to the masses yet. In fact, startups generally have a negative connotation in Pakistan, and people fear that these companies will collapse in a heap of rubble sooner rather than later. Employees don’t value equity, simply because the success stories don’t exist. That’s why startups in Pakistan struggle to pry talent away from the bright lights of the big firms.

Hydri’s pitch is straightforward. He said that Convo doesn’t have bureaucracy and doesn’t emphasize grand titles. Because project switching is common, titles change frequently based on the work.

“In established companies in Pakistan you have a culture where this guy gets lots of pay, and he has six years of experience. His title is team lead or development manager or some impressive title. He speaks good English and does good powerpoint presentations and knows office politics. I know my work better than him but we still have to take his crap and listen to him. [Convo’s] the exact opposite. We have people with 16 years of experience who are coding right now. That doesn’t happen in Pakistan.”

It’s a pitch that applies not just to Convo, but any startup with a vision and an exciting product. In meeting potential employees, he often closes with a challenge.

“If you want a nine to five, cushy job, go somewhere else. They’ll most probably pay better than us – go to IBM – but you’ll be brain dead. Trust me, if you join any of those companies your brain will get rusty and you won’t be half as good as you are right now […] A year at Convo will be equal to three years at any other company. You will actually be able to walk into Facebook, Twitter, or Google and tell that you’ve worked on a SaaS product with this backend or that frontend and they’ll respect you for the work you’ve done.”

Editing by Josh Horwitz

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia

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Terence Lee

About Terence Lee

Based in Singapore, Terence writes about technology trend and startups in Asia. Passionate about harnessing tech for storytelling, he has picked up web development, sniffing his way around Ruby on Rails, Javascript, and D3.js. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, SGE, Straits Times, and Today. He digs movies, computer games, and food porn.

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