26 year old Sameer’s most striking feature is the shock of salt and pepper hair on his lean college student frame. The Karachi University and Nestio alumni moonlights as adjunct faculty and occasional speaker and co-founder but his recent claim to fame is Social Champ — a social media scheduling app that in its long list of fans counts Guy Kawasaki, Peg Fitzpatrick and Jehan Ara.
Social champ competes head on with tools like HootSuite, Buffer, Sproutsocial and Agorapulse by simplifying the daily sharing schedules of media account managers. Sameer’s company, Ouzel systems, started off with selling technology services three years ago and gradually morphed into products. Social champ was Ouzel systems third product idea that caught fire when a number of global social celebrities wrote rave reviews and demoed the product. The influencers became fans because Sameer’s product delivers validated triple digit increases in reach and impact across social platforms at unheard of speeds.
Usama Noman, Talha Yasin, Altaf Qureshi, Mubariz Siddiqi, Suhaib Nadeem and Amin. Six names linked to three chat bot focused startups that all trace their origin to a single pin location in Karachi. Usama Noman’s Botsify helps customers build artificial intelligence (AI) based bots without writing any code. The bots can be used to answer frequently asked questions and fast track online sales by reducing the size of the conversion funnel.
Altaf, Mubariz and Suhaib’s Wukla uses similar bot based technology to bring legal services within easy reach of individuals who don’t understand how to get the law on their side but would appreciate any legal help they can get. Wukla is unique in its dual focus on serving both Enterprise customers and retail consumers at the same time. All three founders are practicing lawyers who felt that the time was right to bring the centuries old legal profession within the domain of technology.
The third bot based idea was inspired by the first two. 17 year old Amin interned at the Nestio this summer for three weeks. His Higgins Engine applies common language, syntax and conversation principles to chat bot scripts to make AI based bots more effective and efficient. Higgins engine’s first local implementation was based on Usama Noman’s Botsify.
These teams are not just changing the technology landscape in isolated insular pockets. Jehanzeb’s and Daniyal’s MandiExpress.pk is rewiring the fresh produce scene in Karachi. If you need home delivery of fresh iceberg, rocket, celery, lemons or organic produce for your salads, breakfast, lunch or dinner at below market prices, you will love MandiExpress.pk.
Mandi connects customers and farmers to each other. They deliver fresh, cheaper produce with longer shelf live to city kitchens and also ensure better, more timely, revenues for farmers in Gadap and Gharo by providing fairer prices by reducing the number of middlemen. Jehanzeb’s team started off serving large restaurant kitchens but quickly scaled up services to target retail customers this fall.
Mubariz at Wukla volunteered as an in house lawyer and advisor when MandiExpress.pk reviewed their first investor term sheet. Botsify is building both MandiExpress.pk’s and Social Champ’s first customer service and support bots. Across tables, Nestio, Botsify, MandiExpress.pk and Wukla are all exploring Social champ’s engine for their internal social marketing desks.
The eight entrepreneurs, four startups and one college student above have a common thread that links them. Yes, they all have customers, been covered by media, represented Pakistan at the recent APICTA Awards in Taiwan and are using technology to change a small part of their world. But the common thread runs deeper. They are all Nestlings — part of the Nestio community in Karachi that houses and incubates promising startups and gives them wings.
The nine are part of a much broader group that includes just under a hundred startups that have run the incubation cycle in the last two years at the Nest. Backed by fresh ideas and young founders, these teams are transforming lives by exploring new models in education (Techtree, Ejadtech, ELN, Wondertree), cause driven media coverage (60secondFilmFestival, Auratraj, JayDee), design, services and inclusion (Paimona, Sheops, Sukoon) and stackable, reusable, affordable low income housing that can be deployed at short notice at locations suffering an unplanned influx of refugees and survivors (Modulus-Tech).
The deeper connection? A space that lowers the cost of failure as well as takes a shot at making a difference in an area that matters to you. An experiment that provides structure to the chaos associated with starting up a new business or exploring a brand new concept. A family that encourages you to make mistakes and try new ideas as fast as you can. A sanctuary with a support network that not just opens doors, produces media coverage, connects with investors and rewires your mindset but also comes together to lend a helping hand in dim, dark moments.
Think about that for a second. A hundred startups that face the same vexing questions, the same challenges, self-doubt and frustration — but tackle them together. Collaboration and support, not competition, is ingrained in the genetic code of the Nest.
That one line — collaboration and support, not competition — really defines the soul of an ecosystem. Shared connections, inspiration, experiences, and challenges. Innovation doesn’t really happen in isolation. It happens as a group of makers tackle the same problem using different approaches in parallel. One works, the rest fail; without the failures the one that works would never be.
Is such a network really needed? Despite the perceived glamour associated with building up new tech ideas, the startup community has a rarely discussed dark side. Represented by a single word. Failure.
For every four teams that survive and move on to the next stage there are nine teams that get left behind or fall apart. For every founder that makes it there are seven who don’t. Admittedly the ratio at the Nestio is significantly better than the 94% failure rate associated with technology startups across the world but that is the benefit of self-selection, structure, access to funding and the larger support network.
The bigger question however, is the real cost of failure. How damaging is it? Walking away from the wreckage of your dreams is traumatic. Founders need open, accepting networks to heal so that they can try a different approach after healing. Remember ecosystems need failures as much as they need winners. For without the failures there wouldn’t be any winners.
The Nestio in-house philosophy regarding failure is a little different than conventional societal thinking. On day one of the founder’s boot camp we hear one of the mentors state it again with emphasis:
“The one thing we learn to do every day is fail. Just like athletes learn to handle pain and discomfort as part of their daily training, founders need to learn how to fail on a daily basis. Every time an assumption is proved invalid on testing, a potential client says no, an employee turns down an offer, a shipping deadline is missed and a product, feature or project blows out, crashes and burns, we learn, we cross it off, we move forward. It is painful, distressing, frustrating, heart breaking and it hurts but it is part of the growing process. And no it is not a setback, it is more a cause for celebration. Muscles tear and break before they rebuild and become stronger; ideas need to do the same.”
“The more powerful the concept, the higher the required tolerance for pain, for trauma, for failure; the farther you would need to move away from your comfort zone. It’s like getting wet when you go for a swim. Failure is pervasive and built in the process of starting up. If you don’t like the water, don’t get into the pool.”
A supportive ecosystem understands this message. It accepts that while the first attempt to fly may not necessarily work, without trying, without failing we will never learn to fly. Sure the multiple attempts use time, effort and precious capital; some leave deep scars as well as emotional damage but yet every single failure sets the foundation for the next big step.
The challenge though lies with educating families and changing the social mindset. Spending six months of your life chasing a dream and failing is better than looking back two decades later and wondering what could have been. Multiple low cost failures ultimately lead to the discovery of the right mix of ingredients you need to make things work. So what if on your attempt to change the world you fell flat on your face. Yes it was painful but it you get up and try again, you can only get better with each new attempt. Even if you don’t succeed the process makes you more open to helping others out in similar positions down the road. The mindset leads to a more accepting, collaborative, progressive society.
There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to trying, stumbling and falling down. Taking a year off from your pre-designed development schedule to learn how to build a concept from the ground up and convince the world to use it is great education. There are so many ways you can put that to work in your personal and professional life. 11 year old Nazar Khan and 9 year old Hadi Khushnood who pitched the billion book exchange in Chinese Taipei this December, get it. More importantly so do the two sets of parents and grand parents who are raising them.
If we seek innovation, risk taking and transformative impact we need to encourage not discourage this behavior. That really is the first step towards a more innovative community. A higher tolerance for exploring the path not taken; a higher tolerance for failures.
For dreamers, a gift of wings is not enough. If we are committed to flying we also need to invest in longer runways. Rather than ask why, as a family, we have to learn to ask a very different question.
Jawwad Ahmed Farid has volunteered as a judge and mentor for the PASHA Asia Pacific ICT Award delegation for the last ten years. He teaches rocket science at FinanceTrainingCourse.com and serves as a member of the Board of Advisors at the Nestio.