Our Entrepreneurs — The ‘Real’ Heroes

Entrepreneurship is fast emerging as an answer to many challenges facing Pakistan. It is a South-Asian country of 200 million with the economy growing at 4.24% (2014). Yet, 4 out of 10 Pakistanis live in multidimensional poverty and the unemployment rate stands at 6%.

Countries like Estonia and Latvia are using entrepreneurship as a tool to boost economic activity and increase the employment rate. The respective governments have adopted long-term plans to promote the startup culture. The entrepreneurial landscape in Pakistan may still be nascent and not as strategically planned as other countries. But it is for sure making a mark already!

Year 2012 — Lahore, Pakistan

Punjab’s IT Board, under the chairmanship of the dynamic Dr. Umar Saif launched a state-backed technology incubator called Plan9. It gets its name from the first free-share operating system developed by Bell Labs. An interesting coincidence is that it is housed on the 9th floor of the science park, overlooking Lahore city’s main road network.

There are some interesting facts about the incubator. It charges neither an equity nor membership charges from startups. It is the country’s largest incubation facility. Thirdly, it brought in a new meaning of the term “incubator” — it was no longer a synonym for hospital incubators!

Year 2016 — Pakistan

Fast forward four years, now with the eight incubation cycle running, 130 plus startups produced, some of them with net valuations ranging between USD 6M to USD 1oM, with a sizable contribution to the IT job market job market, what has been acheived above & beyond all of these statistics is the acceptance of a new culture of celebrating and supporting entrepreneurs in the country.

The phenomenon of entrepreneurship is starting to spread at a much faster pace across Pakistan; Universities are setting up their business incubators with the help of Plan9. The younger ones are being “infected” with the WhizKids Program for school children. The presence of other incubators such as I2I and Nest i/o powered by P@SHA are all working together to shape the landscape. International collaborations with initiatives such as the Blackbox, Plan9 — ATX/PAK exchange program, Get in the Ring, partnerships with Startup Chile & Startup Istanbul exemplify the growing stature of the industry.

The number game is definitely starting to improve; Not to mention, the survival rate of startups has improved every passing cohort. Funding channels & access to capital locally is broadening with Travly being the most recent addition.

The number of users for startups’ products has a more attractive trend now. Startups like Patari and Bookme.pk have become popular locally among smartphone users.

An incubators real success is when its graduate co-founders come home as mentors. “9Stars” is exactly about that. What makes these alumni an asset? Why are they so special as mentors?

Courage

A startup co-founder who has managed work for two years despite all odds is sitting next to you. You are offered to ask questions about maximizing benefits of incubation, getting more downloads and what pricing suggests etc. The space to have a casual dialogue with one who has experienced the lows yet managed to grow gives courage to fight on.

Been there, done that

They’ve been in your shoes. Faced the same problems and made similar decisions. It is exactly this positioning that helps in developing a relationship. Remembering from school days, it was easier to discuss a problem with a member of the student council than an administrator. Similar is the case for incubated startups. It is easier to relate to a recent graduate than it is to an industry expert. 9Stars is that connection.

Reflection of efforts

Alumni as mentors are important, not just for incubated startups but for the management team as well. They act as a mirror. Self-reflection, therefore, becomes more effective. Their capability to mentor another startup manifests activities the incubator is doing correctly. The limitation in their capacity to guide ultimately points to a gap in Plan9’s efforts.

9Stars is an effort towards creating links that will ultimately bind local startups together. That connection and the willingness to share knowledge will define the strength of the industry. As the incubator’s efforts reposition alumni across the table, we see transformation from a cofounder of an early-stage idea to a mentor. Each star alumni on the Board of Mentors is connected to an incubated startup working in the same domain. The startup then becomes the mentors “responsibility”.

9Stars gives new heroes to the society, “real” heroes. If Pakistan’s 200 million learn the art of giving back from these heroes, it can find sustainable solutions to many of its socio-economic problems.

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