Meri Taleem is a one-stop platform that aims to empower students all over Pakistan by giving them access to academic counselling, information on possible career paths and online college applications. You can connect with Meri Taleem on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.
Introduce your two ventures to us.
Usama: Cloud9 Startups is an incubator for technology-based startups, housing, mentoring and at times investing in aspiring entrepreneurs. Habib Ahmed, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor in the UK, and I, founded it. I am currently managing it and also working on my own product, Meri Taleem.
Meri Taleem offers much needed free academic and career counseling through both online and offline channels, informing users of degree options, admission procedures and available scholarships. We are also currently working on integrating Pakistani universities’ admission applications in our platform to allow both students to apply from the comfort of their homes and universities to expand the seeding pool of applicants. The long-term vision is for this platform to become the de-facto information resource for education in Pakistan, and our users to make the best choice in terms of their education. Thus the name Meri Taleem.
Can you tell us your entrepreneurial story from graduating to Cloud9 and Meri Taleem?
Usama: I graduated from NUST in Information Systems Engineering in 2011, and that is where my interest in tech entrepreneurship really took seed. I started learning about the local software industry during that time as well through internships at TechGrid and Visual Soft as well as being funded by trg Tech to conduct research on CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) software as part of my final year project. NUST also started offering an entrepreneurship course and I jumped to enroll. I learned about the concepts of business that a technology graduate might not be aware of, how others build their companies from scratch and turning an idea into a business model. The lecturer himself was a serial entrepreneur, having opened 3 successful businesses in Pakistan. That class and the industry experience made me think that, yeah, I can see myself opening a software business a few years down the line. But my goal at the time was to find a job at a good company to get some experience under my belt. Engro Corporation offered me a position in Lahore, and I packed up my things in Islamabad and moved. 5 months later, I was in a blind. My job revolved around industrial automation while I wanted to work in software; should I quit or try for an internal transfer? What happened next completely changed my life.
There was a Lean Startup Machine workshop in Pakistan around November 2011 that I chose to attend on a whim. If you are familiar with LSM, it is a school of thought founded by Eric Ries and pertains to the building of companies on a set of assumptions about the problem you are solving, your potential customers and how you are building value for them. At this workshop, we were to come with a business idea on Friday, pitch it, shortlist the ones the attendees liked most and divide into teams to work on them throughout the weekend. However, we were not to create a prototype, but to validate our business models by talking to customers, figuring out the pain points our product or service would solve, and adapt our idea to increase value for end user. My idea was actually chosen and worked on during the workshop, and the validation and adaption of that idea was the basis of my first entrepreneurial venture, GradOven, months later. It was not however just working on and seeing progress in my idea that was the nail in the coffin for my corporate career path, but the story of a 19-year old university student who had come all the way from the US to talk about a business she had launched just 3 months ago.
“I saw a niche need in my local community that I could build a business upon, and had a general vision about the e-commerce platform and technology that could let me do so. I spent $350 on outsourcing the platform development to Pakistan, and the team helped me determine what I needed in terms of platform functionality. Within a short time, I had a quality product ready for launch. Within a week, I had earned back my $350 and $400 on top of that!”
Her story moved me. If a university student with limited technical knowledge and a tight budget can do something like this, what is stopping me? I already have a Bachelor’s degree as well as solid technical experience. That was it then. Time to try my luck in the startup world. November 30th 2011 was my last working day.
The 1st of December I was back home, trying to find partners and team members. The first idea I worked on was GradOven (short for Graduate’s Oven), with a friend from NUST. The idea was to house recent university graduates, helping them set up their own businesses through internal seed investments, office space and mentorship for 6 months. Not only did we want people to start their own businesses, but also teach them the skills they needed to increase their value to employers in case they wanted to enter the corporate world at a later stage. However, this venture was non-profit since we focused more on our incumbents’ skills and business acumen than their companies themselves. Plus, graduates were also not extremely keen on going through a 6-month workshop of sorts when they could start earning at an established organization right away. Soon I was thinking of suspending GradOven working on another idea on the side because this was a critical point for me, having quit my job and all.
My next idea was Meri Taleem, an online platform focused on educating and counseling students of all grades on choosing the fields of study and careers they are most suited towards, as well as making sure they have the information and resources they need to get in the academic institutions they wanted to. It would also have collaborative features which students could use to discuss plans among themselves and contact university advisors. The market was all students in Pakistani educational institutions. Business plans, initial prototypes and social media accounts were made. That was how Meri Taleem was readied to be launched, but I ended up not working on it for a while as another opportunity arose. Habib contacted me as he had heard about Grad Oven via Facebook and had the following conversation with me.
“Hey, I see that you are trying to do something of tremendous value in Pakistan. I reside in UK but have Pakistani roots and want to help with this project or others of this sort. Do you know other social entrepreneurs?”
I replied in the positive, talking about the companies being formed in Pakistan and how getting investment, especially seed capital, is the hardest thing to come by for those trying to start even the smallest of businesses. I also asked about how he wanted to help. We discussed Grad Oven and Meri Taleem, and he was very interested in Grad Oven despite it being a not-for-profit organization. Next thing I knew, he was giving me guidelines on how to pivot Grad Oven from a non-profit business model to one that focused solely on incubating business ideas with the potential of becoming both local and international market players. Investment, mentoring and market opportunities would come from outside while we would hold a certain amount of equity in the companies sprouting from our organization. I loved the idea and decided to hold off on Meri Taleem to focus on pivoting.
We re-branded as Cloud9 Startups, and made our launch public at Islamabad’s first Startup Weekend, which I had organized. We gave cash prizes and free incubation space to the top three winners, and ended up investing in all of them.
Cloud9 is primarily a tech incubator, because tech products or services can be built faster, improved upon continuously, offer more value through customer support and yield a quicker ROI than any other type of product/service. Secondly, we are also an investment center. Keeping these in mind, our process has been to collect business proposals from young entrepreneurs in Pakistan and have them reviewed by our local and international investors. Feedback, directions and deliverables are given to those ideas that have potential, and we in Islamabad work with founders to deliver on those milestones and build their product or service. We help them raise money, connect them with those with the specialized knowledge to guide them properly and make sure they have all they require. Since we hold equity in these startups, both parties involved are stakeholders and want to see the startup succeed. If they fail, we fail – high risk and high return.
When we launched, a year had passed since I started my entrepreneurial journey, and things were beginning to look up. However, I realized that it was more of long-term investment and held great potential for profit 5+ years down the line if some of the companies we incubated became major market players. I decided to pitch the concept Meri Taleem through Cloud9. My Cloud9 co-founder, Habib, shared my vision and plan with our board of investors, and I received funding for it after a while. That is how I started working on my own idea through our own incubator!
I was extremely happy about Meri Taleem being funded through Cloud9 Startups, because all I had at that time was an idea. Investors are usually interested unless you have a prototype or a few leads to follow up on. I was lucky to be given the opportunity to work on my idea just on faith in my abilities and Meri Taleem’s model. The next year was spent talking to people, understanding the issues potential users were facing and determining features to be included. Contrary to what I advocate to our class in Cloud9, I outsourced the work to another company. Fortunately the experience turned out really well and I was able to really connect with the team over there. I was the only one working on Meri Taleem for months and just increased our numbers to 4. We are looking to expand our team exponentially in the upcoming months to cater to our customers’ need.
What problem are you trying to solve with Meri Taleem?
Usama: Let me tell you a personal anecdote to put things in perspective. I was invited by a top ranking Pakistani university and conduct mock interview sessions to prepare its upcoming graduating class for the real interviews they would soon be sitting in. I asked everyone where he or she saw themselves in 5 years. To my surprise, more than 90% of the interviewees were unsure. They had no real interest in the field they had devoted 4 years of their life to. When asked why they had chosen they field they were in, they answered that their father or elder brother or someone in the family had asserted multiple times that this field was the one to be in, whatever the reasons for the latter. The next question was if they would study a different subject if give the chance, and most answered in the affirmative, mentioning areas of interests such as mathematics, music or photography. This exchange begs for some questions. Would these students’ career trajectory be immensely different if they knew all their options 4 years ago? Would that difference increase their quality of life later on? Does the lack of interest in their fields affect the quality of the skills taught in college? Does that make them less attractive to recruiters looking for top-notch talent? Meri Taleem attempts to solve the problems students face in choosing careers or pursuing interests. Our students gravitate towards careers in medicine and engineering of social pressure and misconceptions about the other options available. Incorrect and incomplete information forms the basis of this issue, and we want to bridge the gap between what students know and what they need to.
Meri Taleem has three elements – summarizing information, career counseling and online admission processes. The informative platform provides information to students entering or within about all the universities in Pakistan, specifics of the programs offered, application deadlines as well as skills and expected compensation associated with each program/career path. Students can filter searches using desired degree level (Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate), major and locality. For example, someone interested in Arts and Drama can find all such programs offered in Pakistani universities. As for career counseling, we offer that both online and offline to supplement the information in our database and help those who require additional assistance or feedback on their career plans. The online community allows anyone to post questions for our advisors to answer, or initiate a frank discussion with his or her peers. A student also has the option to set up a meeting with an advisor in major cities and discuss his or her issues in person. Both the preceding elements are completely free for users and do not generate any revenue for us.
Our centralized online admission center is where we will generate revenue and bridge the present gap between students and universities. Currently one has to go to university, get the relevant forms, fill them and attached documents, get the application attested by a government official and then submit. People applying to universities in other cities have to get documents sent to them by people they know, and mail them in. That is the traditional process; it is inefficient, inconvenient and time-consuming. What we are trying to build, with the collaboration of the universities of course, is an online system where a student in Sialkot can apply to IBA online. Since online payments still have to catch on in Pakistan, a fee voucher is generated which the student can take and pay for at a bank. The university responds to the student with further instructions on the entrance exam or its decision. The system saves time and money, while students can apply to more universities and universities can get a bigger pool of applicants.
That is the current scope of the project, and we are aiming to cater to 2-3 million students on a yearly basis. Future goals involve posting of entry-level jobs and internships exclusively for students. We at Meri Taleem hope to one day help everyone who comes to us in transitioning from a student to a professional.
So when you were developing Meri Taleem, do you think that looking back at the process of the few years you’ve worked on it you have made any mistakes that you would like to change if you went back?
Usama: Keep in mind, you will always look back and point out something you did wrong or should have done differently. I have made a lot of mistakes along the way, yes. One would be when I was working on the business plan for Meri Taleem. I prepared spreadsheets, financial models, and text documents, all to show investors that funding this idea would generate a positive return. I spent too much time doing that when I could have been building the product. Another would be how I did not know my market as well as I should have in the start. It was students coming out of education institutions uncertain about what to study in college, let alone which college to study in. Many of them do not even know English that well. Those problems are the crux of the matter and what I should have modeled the concept of Meri Taleem on, not pick and choose which students’ problems Meri Taleem would solve. And of course, Meri Taleem could have been built quicker. There are many other mistakes I made but which entrepreneur has not made mistakes? I could have joined Facebook or Google, and would not have learned in a year what I picked up on developing Meri Taleem for a few months.
What was one thing you look back and think, “I did this right”?
Usama: When starting GradOven, I knew that I had to know people in Pakistan and develop a network in the local entrepreneurship ecosystem. Most entrepreneurs all around the world need to do so. There are many reasons behind that. Firstly, you will never know or have everything you need to move your business forward. If you do not know how to do something, be it the implementation of a technical feature or prepping for an investor meeting, you should know someone who knows how to, or someone who knows someone who does. There are only so many hours to a day, only so much energy you have and only so much money at your disposal. You will always need help, and your network is the first place to look for that. Secondly, when you own a business, you are a walking advertisement when meeting new people. Your vision has to be sold to your potential team members, investors or mentors. If you cannot sell an idea to those around you, how can you sell it to customers when you launch? Thirdly, there are limitless sorts of entrepreneurs and business model, all from which you can learn from. As an entrepreneur, you have to keep learning and what better way to do so than from others like you? I made it a point to attend entrepreneur courses, events and workshops ever since that Lean Startup Machine workshop in 2011, connecting with local entrepreneurs as well as learning about their companies and how they work. Mashable and TechCrunch became everyday destinations for me to learn about the innovation happening in the other parts of the world. I read everything I could get my hands on, and met anybody and everybody who could help or vice versa. The people on Cloud9 board consists of those whom I shared my vision with in the start.
Were there times when you were very extremely frustrated and overwhelmed and just wanted to give up?
Usama: Every other day. When you have something in the pipeline, you will always be unsure of how it will turn out and where you are headed. The fear of the unknown that constantly haunts an entrepreneur can be a great motivator but can also paralyze. Not letting that inner doubt affect your goals and work is part of the process. Those who succeed have always failed multiple times in their lives, but you have to close your eyes to the fear of failure and open them on the promise of tomorrow.
Can you tell me about any one or two of the start-ups that are in Could9?
Usama: Currently Cloud9 has worked extensively with 3 companies, one of which is Meri Taleem. Another is Hybrid Signals. Based in Karachi, it allows brands to manage their social media as well as helps them to see how their strategies are affecting user engagement or how their current strategies can be optimized for increased engagement. The third one is also Karachi-based and called OBeeBle. It is a remote workforce management solution that works on Android and web platforms. Currently we are looking to create a few of our own projects as well as mentor some more startup ideas of others.
On average, how much money do these startups need for 6 months?
Usama: It varies among startups, depending mostly on the stage of the project, and whether the team will do the coding themselves or outsource it. The cost to start a business is lower in Pakistan than most countries, but startups at Cloud9 require $10,000 – $20,000 on average. These funds support the validation and development of a prototype, initial marketing and customer acquisition. We favor teams that can code the prototype themselves, as that both demonstrates team ability and can lower their costs to $10,000, sometimes even lower.
Would you look for in an idea that could be a good asset for Cloud9 and you can really help it. So what is it that stands out when you are looking at ten to fifteen ideas etc.?
Usama: The first thing we look at is the team. Ideally a team should consist of 2-4 people, with one half have business knowledge and the other being able to code the prototype. Most of our applicants are techies who know how to build but not market, and communicate the long-term vision of, their product. Most of our mentoring involves business and networking skills, so a shortcoming in those areas is not a deal-breaker. Being able to build your vision is the crux of the matter. What good is an idea if the founding team cannot deliver it? No one wants to invest in an idea when it is clear that those you are funding cannot turn the idea into reality.
The second thing is the business opportunity the idea supports, not the idea itself. An idea by itself has no value, whether it seeks to create a new service or improve on an existing one. Even the most forward-thinking ideas will be laughed at if it has not been developed. If you told someone the concept of Facebook before it started, they would question the need for such a service when there exist many like it, such as Friendster, MySpace and Orkut. The number one prerequisite for a business idea is that solves a problem. If you solve a problem for someone, they will pay for the solution. Look at Square; people are now able to collect payments on the go and not have to own a cash machine, and they are willing to give up 2.3% of what collect to achieve payment mobility. The third is the growth associated with the business. How much is expected ROI? What growth is expected over the next 5 years? How will our in this business pay off?
What are the biggest falls you see that these young entrepreneurs and start-ups go through in Pakistan?
Usama: One of the biggest dilemmas Pakistani entrepreneurs face is trying to replicate a Silicon Valley business model end to end in Pakistan. I have been done that myself. The mindset of consumers and economic landscape in Pakistan is completely different from Silicon Valley. Even NYC or Boston startups operate very different from their counter-parts in Paulo Alto. We cannot assume that a product and service will immediately be picked up by early adopters and later pass on to other consumers just because the technology is cutting-edge or is widespread in other countries. Pakistanis do not adopt new technology easily unless it is delivered to them directly, such as mobile Internet. People here have constraints of all sorts – financial, social or accessibility. We need to think more about how to deliver new technology to consumers, and not just much about which new gadget or software can be introduced.
What is your opinion on how we are heading in terms of tech entrepreneurship?
Usama: My answer today is starkly different from what it would have been 1 or 2 years ago, and I am glad it is; a lot has changed for the better in the Pakistani startup ecosystem recently. Many angel investors and serial entrepreneurs outside of the country have started to invest in startups here. A reason behind that is that a lot of Pakistanis are returning from abroad after gaining experience at leading corporations and starting companies with their eyes on foreign markets. This started happening between 2007 and 2009, and today we are seeing these companies working with this or that international brand on high-quality products and services. We have the 2nd or 3rd largest number of IT freelancers in the world, many of which are rated highly by their clients in North America and Europe. Our software companies are gaining credibility in foreign markets, every new tech company is looking to build something for users all around the world, and entrepreneurship is enthusiastically being supported by the government as well as private institutions. Plan9 is a great initiative funded by the Punjab government, and can boast to have incubated very successful products and services. i2i (Invest to Innovate) is another accelerator founded by Kalsoom Lakhani, which is attracting exceptional talent within its program. I would say that we are definitely heading in the right direction in terms of enriching Pakistan’s tech entrepreneurship culture.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Usama: Everyone works differently, but I think three things are extremely important for anyone building their own company. Firstly, you have to have a laser-focused plan to get where you want to at every stage of your business. Nothing comes together the way you want if you were shooting arrows everywhere and hoping one would hit its mark. You have to spend a certain time planning your actions, but be careful not to confused planning with progress. Secondly, use your resources well, especially time. As a founder, you can spend all your time working on unnecessary tasks while the actions that hold the highest value for your business are not given priority. Know the opportunity costs of every decision you make and factor it in to your plan. Everyday I think about whether what I am choosing to focus on is actually worth focusing on at the moment. Thirdly, be persistent. Have your eye on the bigger picture as well as the immediate task you have to complete. Ups and downs come and go, but the vision in your head should never falter. Engrave the end-goal in your mind, otherwise you will give up at the slightest hurdle.