All things digital in Pakistan.
This is the age of digitization where you see the likes of “tech hub” and “tech cities” spring like wild mushrooms. Though it is applaud-able, but the key question is not about what their physical structure will be like or what are the resources going to be? The real question would be that who will occupy those spaces? Who is coming together as the right ingredient to make it work?
Human capital is one of the most valuable components for any idea to work effectively and for any space to be disrupted.
“It’s the people! You take an idea and have an amazing team and it can do wonders.”-Tania Aidrus.
The former Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Imran Khan, Tania Aidrus was invited to the National Incubation Centre [NIC] Islamabad for a live discussion and Q/A on “Building Pakistan Bit by Bit”.
The idea of digitizing Pakistan and involving technology in this fast-paced world is truly fascinating, however, the various components involved in materializing this idea is a challenging task.
In the exclusive session with Tania Aidrus, the former special advisor to the Prime Minister, highlighted just this! Here are some chunks from the insightful session.
Who is Tania Aidrus anyway?
As a Karachiite, born in Canada and raised in Pakistan, Tania Aidrus was growing up to be a doctor. However, 1 month at the medical school, Tania was quick to realise that she cannot pursue this as a career. Eventually, with her parents’ support and taking guidance from her friends who were leaving for higher education to the States, she was able to secure a few acceptances from the universities abroad. She packed her bags and boarded the plane to follow her passion for business and entrepreneurship.
In her 2nd year of MBA, she joined heads with a few class fellows, sharing the same passion stemming from their backgrounds, they founded a company, called Click Diagnostics, by building a mobile application that would connect patients in the rural areas with the doctors in urban areas. A step at introducing tele-medicine 15 years back.
This project did win some good grants and competitions; however, winning competitions was not enough to keep the project sustainable. When reality hit hard, Tania Aidrus had to bid farewell to the company and take up a full-time job at Google.
Little did she know that a summer internship at Google will become a job that will span over a decade of her life.
Tania Aidrus and Google!
Tania Aidrus rose through the ranks and became the director of product management for the Next Billion Users [NBU] at payments for Google in Singapore. For 11 years, Tania worked, fought, and exceled to make certain Google products more inclusive to Pakistani community.
“You reminded me of the fights we had at Google to localise Urdu language let alone any other regional language. I was in the team that also got YouTube unblocked in this region.”
Tania was responsible for digitising payments in emerging markets particularly looking at countries that were trying to take a leap from the cash at hand to digital payment methods. Furthermore, she started the Google’s business in South East Asian frontiers, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc. by leading these teams as country manager.
All the roles that she took over at Google were largely focused on expanding the digital ecosystem including product launching amongst businesses and consumers.
Companies like Google are apprehensive to open up physical offices in emerging markets like Pakistan because they want to see the numbers coming out of them too. Which is true as Tania emphasises that for any company such as Google, you have to first gain success in your own home turf and then branch out towards emerging markets depending on what the digital requirement is at that time such as, localisation or changing languages or even becoming more voice based.
Hence, the project NBU was relatively targeted at emerging markets to cater to the vast target audience/users of the products.
But, companies like Google are not set up to tackle markets that home grown startups and businesses have a better understanding to solve. The ability that YOU have to localize your product down to a regional language such as Siraiki or Punjabi, for a particular community is what Google can never achieve. They can only do so at a certain point and on a certain level.
“Opportunity is now! Next 5 years will define what the future will look like for this country.”-Tania Aidrus.
Covid-19 accelerated Digital Adoption?
Fin-tech has become the talk of the town, just as tele-medicine has simultaneously come in the spotlight. A common debate is whether Covid-19 accelerated the process of digital adoption or was it a product of this pandemic uncertainty and will it eventually die down?
Tania Aidrus gave insightful numbers that support the growing fintech market and its construction. There are estimated to be over 4.5 billion internet users and 3.8 billion social media users that have increased since, the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit and this number continues to increase. Keeping these soaring numbers in mind, covid-19 has only assisted in the acceleration towards digital adoption. It is not something that is temporary so you should not expect it to come back to the starting point like a pendulum swing.
The digital acceleration is clearly visible through the broader acceptance of doing things remotely including managing/conducting businesses and government bodies investing in their venture capitalists [VC] infrastructures. These things have not happened in the past 5 years but have sped up in just past 6-8 months.
More disruption, Less visibility.
Moreover, the Next Billion Users product is about finding the right product fit for the large audience in emerging markets who have a different way of engaging with technology and internet.
For discussion’s sake, let’s take you and me for an example. We are part of an emerging tech market in Pakistan where whichever startup we look at has started from the smaller screens of a mobile phone. We use social media platforms and mobile applications to reach out to our audience easily and quickly. So, our content is localised, indigenous, and bi-lingual.
We hear so much noise about disruption in Pakistani business ecosystem in terms of fintech, healthtech, agri growth, dotcom, etc. but we have very less visibility of those disruptions compared to our neighbours.
For you and me, this is a question to ponder but for Tania Aidrus, this is a billion-dollar question, literally and figuratively!
Tania believes that for any visible disruption, an ignition is needed to catalyse this process. That ignition is YOU. The young leaders and heroes who are passionate enough to say no to multi-national companies and start their own work to tackle the domestic problems they see around themselves.
This constitutes the first phase of any tangible action and this already exists in Pakistan!
The second most important phase is the access to capital and not just any capital but the right capital! Tania explains this difference between the capital in this side of the world and other parts of the world through the size of the economy. From a venture capitalists’ point of view, you have to have the confidence that the domestic businesses can get to about a billion dollars in valuation.
Although India has the same GDP per capita as us but the population is 6x larger than us. Similarly, Indonesia has similar population to us, but it has roughly 3x the GDP per capita than us. Moreover, they have good home grown startups and businesses tackling their own domestic issues. The problem lies in good domestic businesses in Pakistan that tackle the domestic audiences’ issues and relieves their pain point to grow.
Investors see the bigger picture, which unfortunately does not show serious institutional money coming in for startups to grow and scale. There are slight investments coming in but again that is available for the first phase in the step because the well runs dry by the time the second phase is reached. There is no proper follow up on where the money will come from.
This is where the human capital comes in to play because a lot of risk-taking decisions are going to be people driven. Contrary to what you and I believe in that these decisions will be taken driven by an outstanding idea or by Pakistan being an opportunity, but it will be led by the fact that the entrepreneur on the steering wheel and the people backing that entrepreneur are credible enough to attract investors to bet on them!
Local investments take over family money.
A bonus point in the Pakistani startup ecosystem is the emerging options of good local funds that are replacing the conventional family money which was the main driver for startup finances. There is a developing and relatively establishing institutional investor mentality in Pakistan that can bring about a good level of autonomy for startup founders to focus on their work more passionately.
This type of mind-set is a good contrast from the typical form of investment where if you injected money in a business or a startup then you also demanded control. We all have heard similar stories from entrepreneurs or founders in the startup world that I was offered X amount of investment money, but I have to give away 51% of ownership or returns to the investor too.
The problem lies with the investors. They need to understand this concept that if the entrepreneur shows promise, skill and passion in the game then for you to let that entrepreneur work with that same consistent passion and zeal, you have to pull out your controlling demands.
“If that person is operating with a long-term vision, hunger and aggression for a startup, and you take control of that person then you have basically taken control of that individual.” -Tania Aidrus
Apart from these major issues, some hindsight issues in Pakistan include the lack of awareness of the startup culture and the “startup breed” along with some local examples for other to look up to and aspire. You can realise the gravity of these issues from your own childhood days. You had limited examples of businessmen who started their own work and reached a certain level. They were subtly labelled corrupt and/or were looked upon as an anomaly that did not fit the social fabric at that time.
This kind of mindset is still persistence to this day however, it is a positive sign that the percentage is reducing as the startup ecosystem is being highlighted, promoted, and now supported as well.
Tug of War between Private & Public sectors
“Agreement and alignment at the top level is necessary to
curb resistance on every level of the step.”-Tania Aidrus
Digital Pakistan is a rock-solid vision. The intentions behind digitizing Pakistan and its institutes are also pure and razor focused. However, to every ying there is a yang. To build an ecosystem, you have to consider multiple factors and stakeholders involved. Moreover, a clear distinction of roles should be established. There are certain areas where the government has set roles and the private sector cannot cross that line while in certain areas, the public sector has to take the back seat and let the private sector handle because of its expertise.
The issue with certain government policies is that they over-regulate too early in the process that not only delays the growth but also hinders it too. A good example is when you head to a bank to open a corporate bank account. How many of you can get a guarantee at the age of 23 years old to open it or get a set amount of seed capital to show that you have your finances sorted?
Not many of you!
China is a good example of regulating at a point where they know that they can regulate and control the process without hindering the growth of the startup and the economy as well.
Interesting Insights by Tania Aidrus
- Go for the right type of capital. Taking the wrong type of capital on the wrong terms is more detrimental for you and your startup than continuing to bootstrap.
- Entrepreneurs need to know that your future will be dependent on the type of people you bring on the capital table.
- Indulge in a network where you get exposure to opportunities, and right type of investments to tackle the domestic problems and pain points.
- Entrepreneurs need to have passion, trust-worthy attitude, and the initial drive to avail opportunities which will eventually throw the whole concept of risk of investing in Pakistan out the window.
- Emerging markets have similar problems, and complexities in dealing with governments including corruption. So, work and look beyond this scenario now.
- It is easier to convince non-Pakistanis to invest in Pakistan rather than Pakistanis abroad. So, think about this situation and develop a mindset accordingly.
- To get the hockey stick growth, one must look for the right Growth Capital and Set your sight above the roof.
Tania Aidrus’ words of wisdom
Do what you are passionate about. Don’t worry about trying to find a problem that will help make a startup, or that will get to a certain valuation, because at some point going down a startup you would then want to hit your head on the brick wall. If you feel that what you are working on is far bigger or larger than an artificial goal, then you would want to move ahead and work on it with full zeal. You will have a different resilience level for it, and you need to feel good about what you’re working on. That will get you through the ups and downs of the crazy startup journey.
“Control the things you can control while let other things take their own course and follow your heart and do what you’re passionate about.”-Tania Aidrus
Covid-19 has given Pakistan a chance to become the golden egg in this digital ecosystem. For us to put Pakistan on the map, all stakeholders and elements involved have to realise our roles and come together to prevent Pakistan from being a loser in the next decade of digital ecosystem/space.