Dubai-based Zohare Haider, founder of three startups including a digital agency and a restaurant information aggregator, says he wishes the money pouring into the startup sector in Pakistan via venture capitalists (VC) had happened a decade earlier, adding that the ecosystem will eventually find its footing.
“The VC ecosystem in Pakistan woke up way too late in Pakistan,” Haider told Business Recorder, adding that at the moment the country has “more people accessing more capital with less idea of how to use it.”
But he said this is the way an ecosystem will eventually come to exist - “a large quantum of funding will enable an environment for people to be able to pursue ideas with the expectation many will fail”.
“You need a large injection of capital that will enable more people to pursue entrepreneurship - the ecosystem doesn’t thrive because you’ve got people who have an idea and get money for it, it’s the quantum of both that happens in a volume that allows for an ecosystem to form.”
But he says that is okay as VCs want money to be poured into the economy to fuel growth through which new entrepreneurs mushroom.
Using Careem as an example, he said cofounders Mudassir Shaikha and Magnus Olsson “built this ecosystem and Careem became a conduit that enabled the creation of second- and third-generation entrepreneurs.
“It’s amazing how much value they have generated. At the same time, they are looked upon as inspiration.”
He also believes it is important to develop and train people’s mindsets and attitudes. According to him, Pakistan has a lot of work to do but he is optimistic – “the government over the last few years is doing good work with national incubation systems.”
“I want it to work. I just want more people to understand the responsibility we have towards this opportunity.”
Founding jalebi and the role of incubators
Haider admits he has loved food his whole life - “as a Pakistani it’s hard not to. I could eat my weight in biryani and pulao”.
That love for food led to his first venture Foona, which he set up when he graduated from the US and moved back to Pakistan.
Now defunct, it was a platform to help consumers find restaurants and leave reviews - “like Zomato and Yelp – we were really ahead of our time.”
That venture was his side hustle and passion project for a long time as he worked at the British Council.
The idea for his second startup, Digital Street, came around 2014 when he needed more money for Foona – but it was too early for VC funding and his job didn’t pay him enough to fund it on his own.
Described by Haider as a mid- to up-market digital agency that does branding, design and social media marketing, Digital Street started in Dubai and grew from 2 people to almost 20 people.
Haider then decided to entrust his team with the company and wanted to expand on Foona. However, Covid hit and he realised the model we were thinking for Foona would not work.
They went back to the drawing board to come up with an idea that would work in a post-pandemic world and ended up building a menu to streamline the way restaurants manage their menu content on digital touchpoints like aggregators, websites and call centres.
They got space into a venture studio in the UAE that allowed them to talk to restaurants and understand their problems.
They then got accepted into Tech Stars, an incubator that operates out of Colarado in the US.
“They’re mostly in-person which makes them more special unlike Y Combinator which is pretty much virtual now. Tech stars is decentralised so they operate in different markets and regions based on partnerships which is pretty amazing.”
As part of a 15-week programme, startups spend two weeks doing a speed dating exercise with experts to get feedback on their ideas.
“It’s a meteor shower to the face. It’s really brutal, you have to be vulnerable and be prepared to emerge victorious in some way,” warns Haider.
“And it hurts because everyone has ego and pride and everyone loves their idea but we started seeing a pattern of experts in various fields saying what you’re selling is not scalable.”
His team switched their business model to the supply side – they decided to look at inventory as they had been told no one has been able to get it right as far as technology is concerned.
“It didn’t seem very appealing to us at first, it was confusing. How has no one been able to get inventory right – it’s such a basic thing.”
Now Jalebi positions itself “as the world’s only inventory-first restaurant operating system which means we are designed not to help them generate revenue – even though we have a POS that lets you sell – we are designed to help you optimise and save cost on every order you serve by helping you see critical data and insights.”
Jalebi has on-boarded about 30 brands across 4 markets (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Oman) that are poised to use the platform across 100 locations that will become operational in the next few weeks. It is only just emerging from product stealth mode and will roll out with a handful of customers. It hopes it can serve home chefs as well as 5-star hotels and restaurants
Why mentoring is important to Haider
Haider says the three things he wishes he had when he was starting his journey as an entrepreneur was access to capital, an ecosystem “that would enable us to make mistakes fall and learn” and mentoring.
He believes it’s important to have a relationship that is free of bias and where “a mentor or mentee come together on equal footing, they both have knowledge to dispense and share with each other”.
While they may not always have the time, Haider believes founders have an obligation to pass on what they know.
The most important thing he would like budding businessmen to know is the importance of having a good finance and legal infrastructure “even if it means make a few mistakes or spending a bit of extra money because these things will protect you as you go forward”.
It’s also important to talk to the right investors and learn how to pitch ideas.
“These things get missed out. We might look at videos on YouTube without the full context of how that plugs into our particular situation.”
His advice to entrepreneurs is to ask themselves why they want to become an entrepreneur.
“Are you trying to solve a problem or are you trying to get on the cover of a magazine.
“If it’s the former, then you need to find a real problem people really care about or don’t understand exists, then find a quick way of proving it exists and solve it.”
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022