TinTash was founded by two Stanford graduates, and focuses on providing game development and other services for companies all around the world such as Chillingo, Halfbrick Studios, Bitzer Mobile and Common Sense Media. It is based in Lahore, Pakistan. Learn more by reading our most raw interview ever below.
Can you introduce yourself?
Jazib: I am the Chief Operations Officer (COO) for TinTash, as well as a lecturer teaching Business Writing and Communications at LUMS. I am also a consultant for d.light design, an America-based social enterprise currently being set up in Pakistan. I studied Electrical Engineering from Stanford from 2001 to 2005. I worked at Techlogix and Wateen in Pakistan afterwards, and then completed my MBA from LUMS.
Could you tell us a little bit about TinTash?
Jazib: TinTash is a development studio where we work on our own products as well as services for larger companies around the world. TinTash was founded in 2008, but I was not an official employee at that time, and joined full-time in 2009 as soon as I graduated. However, I fully understand what changes and stages the company has gone through, as I have always been involved behind the scenes. When I joined, it was a small company of 5-6 employees; it has evolved quite a bit since then.
The products we have worked on have always been games because we’ve always thought that games are something even someone not living abroad can do very well. Now, if we wanted to make an original productivity app, that would a little harder sitting here in Shadman, Lahore because you would not be able to run it by your target market and get detailed feedback. So we have been focusing on games for a few years, and it has made some money. However, no game has made so much money that we chuck services altogether and only focus on our intellectual property.
So, in order to finance our operations and IP development, services have been running and growing in tandem. From the perspective of services, we are looking to learn from working with others and sustaining a cash flow, with both this experience and capital being invested into our own products. TinTash is not looking to be the next Techlogix, because there are countless companies that provide technological services that are high quality and low cost. That is not the area we want to compete in. Our criterion is high-end clients and only projects we can learn from.
What do you mean when you say, “high-end clients”?
Jazib: So when I say we only want to work with high-end clients, I mean people or companies who have a substantial amount of work and will not just pick the lowest bidder. Not that these clients do not want to save money, but they are not looking to work with firms which counter an offer of, say, $5/hour with a $1 for the entire project, just to get the contract. One of our biggest clients is Stick Sports, for whom we worked on Stick Cricket, which is the most popular Cricket Game in the world. We have worked with Common Sense Media in the Bay area, BBC Games in Los Angeles, MTV, Chillingo and Design consultancies in the US. We have also worked with companies in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Can you tell us a little bit about the founders and how they met?
Jazib:Murad Akhter and Mannan Amin were both Masters students at Stanford who graduated in 2007. They did not know each other well in Stanford, but were introduced by mutual friends after they came to Pakistan. Murad had been planning to come back for some time because his family was here, and Mannan was a Fulbright Scholar who was required to return to Pakistan after graduation.
Murad is a CS guy, and after working at Apple and Microsoft in the US, he wanted to work on an entrepreneurial venture in Pakistan. Mannan’s background is technology entrepreneurship, so both these guys had similar interests. No wonder people thought it would be a good idea to introduce them to each other.
When they did meet, both of them agreed that services should not be the core focus of their venture and the most practical IP they can develop is in the gaming industry – there is little reward when you are developing software that is not your own IP.
What were the initial steps they took when they decided to make a game development studio?
Jazib: Initially, there was a bit of investment from several people who were interested in supporting a gaming company in Pakistan. After that, the first thing was to put together a team with the right skills in both engineering and art. The first hire was a developer from Techlogix who was looking for a change. Interestingly, that hire was through another startup, Rozee.pk. The second engineer was a fresh graduate from FAST who was really interested in games. All these hires were people who wanted to work in gaming, and the pitch TinTash made while recruiting was centered around us being a gaming, not software, company, since initially they only intended to work on products. Getting a talented art team was much harder. Initially, artists were picked from universities without a proven track record for producing strong graphic artists or people interested in games. They had to be trained extensively, and during that training the art that was being put together was not at par with the quality of games we wanted to launch. So TinTash decided to partner with another gaming company in Lahore, Mindstorm Studios, whose art team was more substantial. They were working on the game Cricket Revolution at the time, and had experience in 3D art.
Time and money were being spent on training a team which might or might not have a hit product. In gaming, you cannot tell whether your game will take off with consumers or not, and you cannot sustain a company for a long time without revenue. So, TinTash started to work on services in tandem with IP development, and that model has been working for us. The original plan was to keep doing services and products, but eventually kill services. However, several years later, we have not had that one big product hit that can sustain us, so services have become more regular. We have hired 10-15 people with experience in services to maintain revenue.
What were the initial problems that TinTash faced?
Jazib: The first challenge was setting up a proper office space that has the infrastructure necessary for a software house. You need large rooms for collaboration, good IT systems, spaces to brainstorm, white boards, etc. On top of that, reliable electricity, gas and water cannot be taken for granted in Pakistan. The expensive solution would be to set up a custom building, but we were always financially stressed because we were re-investing revenue into our own product. So, we had to choose a location that came as close to fulfilling our needs as possible, and improve facilities gradually.
Secondly, finding and convincing the right talent to join a startup they have never heard of is hard. A lot of parents do not support their child’s decision to join a startup, because they want them to join an internationally known company with higher and stable compensation. However, that is getting better. Potential employees come here, they talk to us and understand what we do, and sometimes decide that the level of exposure and diversity of opportunity we provide is worth more than the experience at a traditional corporation. Many of our employees leave to work at larger companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, or start their own companies. We train them well enough to do so, but the initial challenge to convince them that TinTash is a place worth working at still exists.
On top of that, nobody is trained to work on games in Pakistan, and you end up hiring people with an interest in it. Out of the initial batch of people we hired once we started scaling, most were not even CS students. They had studied Telecom engineering, but we hired them because we needed solid engineering talent that could be quickly trained to work on games. Many came to us because they were interested in software and frankly, were not able to get the jobs they wanted. Consequently, some left within a year after receiving offers from Ericson and Motorola. Most ones that did not leave after a year are still with us.
Making sure talent does not leave after you hire it is a challenge in itself because of the high churn in the software industry. Every time a new software company opens up, they offer above-standard salaries to attract the best engineering talent, and you end up losing some employees along the way. Of course, there are other reasons employees leave. There is location, company culture and nature of the products employees work on. We cannot guarantee that everyone will get to work in the area they are most passionate about. What we do is take the project that makes most business sense to us, and allocate human capital accordingly.
Lastly, when it comes to actually running TinTash, it has been a challenging process. Murad has had experience in Microsoft and Apple, but Mannan and I do not. Getting together the systems and processes needed to run a software company involves a lot of hunches and second-guessing your decisions. Sometimes I feel like that I would be much better placed to be running TinTash if only I had worked at a larger company. But that comes with working at a startup. You learn as you go.
What about legal and administrative problems?
Jazib: It took us some time to understand how to register the company, how to pay taxes, what legal deadlines we had to meet, what would happen if those deadlines passed, and the general to-dos associated with opening a software business in Pakistan since we had never done it before. For example, we learned the need to register with the Pakistan Software Export Board, as there is no tax on software exports in Pakistan. That rule is in place till 2016, after which it will likely be renewed.
On the administrative side, accounting and legal matters have sometimes been an issue. We are caught right in the middle of having too much work that we need a dedicated accountant and just enough that we can handle it in-house. Thus, we do not have a very formal accounting and legal department; I handle that myself with limited help from a hired accountant. Hiring more people to oversee that aspect of the business would be a waste of money.
What game are you currently working on?
Jazib: We have done a soft launch of a game called “Itsy Bitsy City.” It is a social game in which you can build different properties and interact with different characters in a city. The users immerse themselves in a virtual world similar to SIMS, but have to employ long-term strategies, decide what to build and handle the implications from each decision they make.
What is the most important thing you look for while recruiting?
Jazib: Once I know that the person sitting on the other side of the table is above-average competence. I want to know why he or she wants to work with us. Is he excited about startups? Has he done his research on TinTash? Does he understand games? Does he understand what makes a good game? Does he know what the big players in the industry are? If he or she is someone who is excited about working in this space, has some idea of what we are doing, and has an interest, that person is more likely to be a good employee than somebody who is talented but applying everywhere. The funny thing is that some of our best employees have ones that had very low grades. Very little of our interview process revolves around grades and past academic results.
In terms of gaming, is it planning to move to a different sector?
Jazib: If we want to grow as a company, we need to diversity beyond games and enter other spaces. Game projects are risky, and you never know if your product will be a hit. We have been looking at web applications and QA testing because of their demand, and we need to offer even more services. TinTash is currently in the process of trying out monetization of other areas. We recently tried monetizing our artistic talent, but there are thousands of large teams in Eastern Europe and Philippines churning out animation and art for movies and games. We cannot take up art contracts in which we have to setup a team of hundred people and dedicate those to a client. However, we are looking to experiment more.
How did you get your first contract?
Jazib: That was through a reference. Murad and Mannan knew people from Stanford who were working on a project and a portion of their work was outsourced to us. We attended some conferences and scoured through LinkedIn to capitalize on that first contract, and began growing our clientele.
And do game software houses usually rely on that first contract to references?
Jazib: A lot of times when people set up a software house, the decision to do so is based on a contract that is already in place. They know work is available, so they leave their jobs and set up a business to follow up on leads. You can grow organically from that point; do good work, and your clients will refer you to others who need similar help.
What do you think has been Tintash’s biggest mistake if there has been one in the last 2-3 years?
Jazib: In my opinion, and the co-founders may disagree, was the lack of importance we gave to improving and building our services side in the beginning. Back then, we were focused on creating our own products and spent quite a lot of money on that. If we had devoted some of that time and effort on finding international partners and locking them into multi-year service contracts, we would have had more capital to finance development of our own products.
Is working here stressful?
Jazib: Working in a startup is always stressful, and this is no less. Our margins are thin on the services side, and whatever profit we do make is invested back into product development. There are points in time when I am worried if we currently have enough money to sustain our employees for the next X months. We have not yet run out of capital yet, thankfully, but just coming close to it is incredibly stressful. Working in a startup puts you in situations that would almost never come up if you were working at a regular job, receiving a paycheck every month and not worrying about paying your co-workers. Here, you are the last person to get paid; you have to take care of everyone else first. It is a huge amount of stress at times and not for the weak of heart. I think that for 90% of the people in my immediate network, this lifestyle would not make sense at all – often working late or on the weekends and worrying about the company 24/7.
However, it is definitely rewarding. You get to mentor a lot of people and help them to think about what can be differently from the status quo, the potential reward from taking risks. You feel like you are doing something different; creating jobs and making a difference in the society. Entrepreneurs have a different skill set than those working in corporate jobs; you are doing a lot more than you would be if working in a 9-5 job. However, you are doing so because you are pushing yourself to the limit. And our lifestyles are more flexible; we do not have to be in the office at a certain time. All these itty-bitty things I might not be able to do somewhere else, I can do here.
What is the culture of software entrepreneurship here in Pakistan?
Jazib: I would say software is now one of the default forms of entrepreneurship here in Pakistan. A lot of smart kids do end up going to tech schools and many among them look towards opening their own software businesses. One reason is that they are not interested in working for a multi-national and enrolling in their managerial programs and such. Another is that there is always work available in the global software industry, and you can get contracts if you are technically skilled, whether your area of expertise is back-end, front-end, mobile or web development. If you enjoy software and you can deliver a quality product or service, you will find work. Also, tech companies such as Facebook, Apple or Google get continuous media coverage, and many are inspired by these stories of starting small and finishing big.
You are also involved in d.light. What is it?
Jazib: d.light is a social enterprise that provides solar lanterns to of-grid population. For example, out of the 190 million in Pakistan, about 100 million live in areas without electricity. Not that there is an immense amount of load shedding, there are just no electricity grids over there. d.light attempts to solve this problem by selling an inexpensive and portable solar lantern, with the solar panel imbedded in it. These can run for years with just one payment throughout the lifetime of the lantern. Cell phones can also be charged, so that helps off-grid areas get both (electric) light and mobile connectivity. The lanterns are better than the current kerosene lamps because they do not need anything except sunlight to run for years and years. Kerosene lanterns need constant refueling, do not provide that much light and end up costing the user a lot.
I work as a consultant for d.light since they do not have an office here. Manufacturing happens in China. I am currently making deals with organizations that are already involved in these areas to sell and distribute these lanterns.
Is it generally required for game development founder to have specialized knowledge? Is it required or recommended?
Jazib: No, you do not have to have a formal education in game development. However, you need to understand software development, how gaming companies work, how games work on a high-level and how to follow through on an idea.
What do you think is the most important skill that you learned before and that has helped you run the startup?
Jazib: I was always an efficient multi-tasker in school. I did not want to do just one thing or be exposed to just one environment; I tried to experience a little of this and that. That has helped me a lot. I am not satisfied with only one activity and hence entrepreneurship is comfortable since my role and responsibilities evolve continuously. I get to try and improve multiple areas of the business. Other than that, the habits of thinking big, experimenting and networking with different people have also helped.
Do you think an aspiring entrepreneur should have a “job” before taking the plunge, or jump in right away?
Jazib: I have yet to reach a resolution on this. On one hand, I encourage people to start their careers with entrepreneurship because I feel that this is the time one is most likely to take the plunge. If it does not work early on, you can always work somewhere else. On the other hand, it is also good to have some experience under your belt in a professional and well-managed company, as you will likely find multiple entrepreneurship opportunities in the field you are in once you know it well. For example, one of my friends worked at 3M, a distribution company, for several years and eventually left to become a third-party dealer for them. He knows their products, can sell them well and ventured in entrepreneurship as a result of his experience there. If you do spend your early years working in a larger corporation, you will find solutions of the needs or problems that company’s industry faces. Now, doing something entrepreneurial after working a regular job holds less risk that jumping right into it, because of your networks and experience. However, people get comfortable in those jobs and many wish to never actually become entrepreneurs.
In the end, I recommend that if you find a problem you are passionate about, give it a shot before working somewhere else. Do it for a year or two, but then make a decision. Can I keep doing this? Is this going to work out in the long run? People seem to think they are at a disadvantage if their business does not work and they turn to jobs at someone else’s company, but that is not true at all. I have a lot of friends who tried something entrepreneurial and decided not to pursue it; the skills they acquired transferred to their jobs at other companies and paid off. They are more confident in their decisions, have an innovative mindset and are willing to shake things up within the company to increase value for customers. Also, they can always go back to working on their own business after some corporate experience because they usually figure out why it did not work the first time.