Humans, Shoes and eCommerce
This is the story of building my startup in Pakistan, now going global.
(The story was originally published on Jan 29, 2013. A lot has been changed since then, updates at the end of the story.)
I grew up in a small town of Punjab. Life got me to a good university in Lahore (BS Physics). While studying I started learning internet, especially social side of the web, and was helping few small businesses use it.
During vacation in May 2010, I went to my town to spend time with family. Every evening I used to visit Panchayat (a local meeting in town). It was the time when Facebook was blocked in Pakistan.
There were these three guys in their 50s discussing the news story. Though none of them ever used Facebook or even Internet, they were blaming Facebook. This is when I interrupted the discussion, and the idea of a startup was born.
“Facebook is not responsible for blasphemous content, it is just a social platform.” I said to them.
“Young man, who you are?” Asked one of them.
Me: “I use internet, I know Facebook, and you?”
“I make shoes, handmade shoes.” He replied.
So over the next few days I visited their unit, where a group of 5 craftsmen was stitching leather to make shoes. I felt proud to see what they were doing in my hometown. They were using almost no machinery to make different kind of footwear for men.
But everything wasn't going well. Their business was/is getting down because of limited resources, decline of demand in local market. I offered some help, but we couldn't get start. I went back to my college.
But this time, instead of attending classes, I started reading HBR and interesting business books from library. Finally I had to drop out of college, as I wasn't attending any class at all. But, a new person had born inside me. I started learning about how people were building companies around the world. I would spend hours on computer, making notes of how organizations like Zappos, Google and TED are impacting world in different ways.
All this lead me to either join a creative gang, or starting something new. I followed the second and riskier thought. Though I didn't have much practical experience of building a business, but I said to myself “it would go fine.”
I started working off the idea of helping those craftsmen in my hometown, and making that a sustainable business. My plan was to build an online shoe store. We named it Hometown, as the company was started from my town.
I went back to my town, met with Hussain, the shoe master of the unit, and started researching on how we can get start. It was clear to me that we needed some initial capital to get start. So I started a job to manage some cash and was also applying to get a grant if any. Meanwhile, I called my friend Sidra Qasim to join me as co-founder. Thankfully, in Nov 2011, we managed to win a seed fund of $10k from P@SHA Social Innovation Fund.
We moved to Lahore to get in touch with the designers, find good quality raw material, and building website etc. Both of us were living in hostels, and using KFC as our office. KFC people would let us work there and had power in Load Shedding.
On the other side, back in town, Hussain was working on the shoes. Our major goal was to make the best possible footwear within resources. Something which we would want for ourselves and can proudly tell other people buy and wear every day.
The hard work of four months, collaboration with craftsmen resulted in making shoes, which were highly comfortable and lightweight. We thought, now is the simplest part: SELLING. Which of course turned out to be the most difficult.
Spending 60% money on inventory, left very little money for marketing and operations. So I and Sidra used all of the free services to build website and communication tools (mostly Google).
On June 06, we launched our online store. The website had no payment gateway or a shopping cart. But I would still call it a store, because we made sales.
Suddenly (but not so surprisingly) we were out of cash. Everyone was recommending us to buy Google and Facebook Ads. But how could we do that? Instead of taking loan for marketing budget, we planned to interact with people, both online and offline. We sold our first pair on 5th day of launching our website. I wrote a hand-written letter to our customer, I still write one for each new customer.
Honest communication, delivering on promises, and most importantly showing human side of our business helped us increase both our traffic and sales. We screwed up several times too, but somehow we managed to get those customers back. One of our customers (or friend as we call them) from Paris paid us more than the price, because he wanted to support us. (Thank you James!)
This was the all E-Commerce we were doing.
Like a local farmer’s market, instead of just a transactional experience, we took it as an opportunity to interact with people who were coming to our website or meeting in person. It helped Hometown grew organically.
Then we received an order from someone whose email address was @google.com. This might sound normal to many of you, but believe me we were just few people from a small town now selling shoes online. We were like, OMG, weren't expecting such high-profile customers. I thought we were over promising in our marketing/communication.
We were afraid, what if we ship him our shoe and he wouldn't like. He can write any bad thing about us online. So I and Sidra discussed, let’s not ship shoes to him and apologize for being out of stock. But it was against our vision of ‘being human.’ So we finally shipped him our shoe.. and he loved it! (Recently he bought another one for his brother on Christmas). People started giving examples of our communication.
In August 2012, Google and Punjab Government launched ‘Innovation Campaign’ where they featured Hometown as an ‘ Innovation Hero .’ We felt great.. started working harder than ever.
Same time, we were applying at different startup accelerator like YCombinator and AngelPad to name few. We couldn't make it there, but learned quite a lot through the application procedure.
Then fortunately, Govt of Punjab started its own Tech Incubator - Plan9. Like many other tech entrepreneurs from all over Pakistan, we applied and participated enthusiastically. Hometown made it, along 10 others startup (out of over 500 applications). It is now over two months since we are here, we have got two new people in our team, a designer and programmer. Now working on to add more products, shifting on a better platform. The plan is to grow both our impact on our craftsmen and sales.
Most recently I got selected as Acumen Fund Pakistan Fellow, a prestigious leadership program to empower new leaders of Pakistan. 2013 is big year for me and Hometown.
Building a startup is never an easy thing to do, no matter in which part of the world you live. It gets worse when there is no ecosystem at all, and services like YouTube, Facebook can be banned any time. When PayPal is not supported in your country and it takes you 2+ months to figure out payment solution and affordable global shipping.
But we are learning invaluable lessons from our mistakes and achievements. Hussain, who once was anti-Facebook, is learning English, now uses an Android Phone, laptop, email and has a Facebook account.
It is all about humans. Like you, like me.
This is an on going story, you may see the updates below.
Feb 06, 2013: I am invited to participate as a speaker at Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas — Gosh I've never been to US before, actually not even on a plane. In order for me to go there, many things needs to be taken care of. Passport, Ticket, Travel Budget and most difficult of all, the US Visa. Moreover, because of my commitment with Acumen, I will have to plan the trip accordingly.
Oct 08, 2013: First time flying out of country, to participate in Global Entrepreneurship Summit Kuala Lumpur.
Feb 14, 2014: I managed to get funds and US Visa, now leaving for US. Will participate in the pograme at Downtown Vegas, as well will be briefly visiting San Francisco and NYC. I have read, listen great stuff about the Silicon Valley and how warm are the people at the cold city of New York.
April 02, 2014: Instead of the spending 10 days in US, I ended up staying for close to two months. The experience was magnificent in term of learning and challenges for me, got to see a clear picture of that world. Met to many of those online only friends, they are way more amazing then what I thought. Also, some of our leather was delivered at Medium office. ☺ The best part is I visited and met with people at my favourite companies like Zappos, Google, Acumen, Warby Parker, Everlane, and Keep Trucking etc. Lived like a common US citizen, stayed with a family in Noe Valley, CA for 20 days. They were amazing. Now getting back to Pakistan with lessons learned and after building some new bridges.
April 15, 2014: We are now a Delaware C Corp. It would allow us not only use online payment gateways and other eCommerce services which are not offered in Pakistan, but also sets with our long term goal of becoming a leader in men fashion.
May 09, 2014: We recently re-branded into Markhor, with the goal to make handmade footwear for the modern gentlemen. We're doing this by working closely with local craftsmen like Hussain, helping them earn fair wages and keep their art alive.
May 28, 2014: After battling against bones cancer for over a year, Hussain lost the fight today. RIP.
July 09, 2014: Last month has been extremely tough on the Markhor family, but thankfully Hussain was able to inspire his sons in his final days. His elder son (25) has now taken charge of the workshop and the younger one (22) today opened a small clothing shop in the town.
KICKSTARTER: Yes, we are launching first signature collection of Markhor Shoes exclusively on Kickstarter. In all my honesty, I promise you wouldn’t find a shoes like these in comfort and modern designs. Did I tell you early bird get to emboss their name on the shoes too!!
Follow the campaign here.. Now..