Organizations of all shapes and sizes are in a race to transform themselves digitally. Even though at the core of it, this just means automating processes, digital transformation sells better. They have large open workspaces for their employees. They spew out buzzwords like AI and Blockchain out the wazoo. The more nerdy the jargon, the more technology forward they can appear. Statisticians of yore have suddenly become sexy with titles like data scientist or data analytics specialist. Software engineers have become API integration maestros and the lifeblood of companies trying to bridge the gap between the old and the new. Take any self-respecting business blog and it will tell you that the future is already here. However, is the future fully “here”? Let’s take a look at some of the ways business in Pakistan could improve.
Editor’s Note: Despite our commitment to publish positivity and promote optimism on ways business in Pakistan could improve – it is equally important to understand that things aren’t perfect and certain facts need to be accepted – because optimism shouldn’t come at the cost of practicality. This article sheds light on some problem areas that entrepreneurs can see as opportunities. It is Startup Magazine’s ideology to ensure that entrepreneurs receive a complete and as realistic as possible a picture of the world and this article is a snapshot of the same – from an outsider’s perspective.
I had the distinct pleasure of spending some time in a country that on the face of it, seemed removed from the revolution mentioned above. Namely Pakistan. What I found here, in addition to forward thinking businesses like Ignite, powering some great incubators like NIC, or Velocity and futuristic corporate headquarters ala Telenor and Jazz, was a country that was still widely operating in the past. It seems decision makers prefer the era “when things were simpler” and automation was a far cry.
As is the case with most developing nations, it seemed that the aforementioned future had entirely missed the country and did not seem to be anywhere on the horizon. There were some distinct differences in how work is done in the future-driven and the not-so-future regions of the world. This article is a collage of my experiences across the two of them.
1. Where Pakistan stands
As part of doing a start-up in Pakistan, I had the good fortune of talking to a very wide range of clients. They included public sector organizations, multi-national companies as well as educational institutions. The biggest shock is having to deal with executives who have both their feet planted firmly in the colonial era, those that had made their money overseas and were now back in Pakistan, and those who had been born into old money. Essentially, people not fully immersed in the system.
The other aspect of doing this was understanding the “youth” of Pakistan. Understanding this was important for me as we grew our start-up and had to hire full-time employees and interns. We also had to deal with fresh grads now doing free-lance work in order to get content written or design work done as it was cheaper than full-time employees.
2. Education system in need of reform
Let’s start with the higher education system. There are some schools of repute like NUST and LUMS, but there are barely any standards when it comes to academia otherwise. This leads to a major gap in the availability of qualified personnel. When insufficiently trained candidates secure jobs, they automatically take the standard of organizations down. The Western education system focuses on learning concepts and open communication. In Pakistan, the focus is on memorization. Western educational institutions are a bastion of free speech and exchange of ideas about all topics. This helps cultivate young minds into thinking of things bigger than themselves and their surroundings. When they graduate, they pursue these ideas, or at least bring this expansive thinking to their jobs and life.
In Pakistan, I found university students also open to ideas but they were mostly along political or ethnic lines. There was no discussion about what they could do to improve their surroundings. It was as if they had made peace with their circumstances. Given the current (and really, past) scenario in Pakistan, one can’t blame these kids. Inherently, though, these kids bring a less than serious attitude when it comes to punctuality, respecting deadlines and following through. For a lot of them it has become more about that the system has given up on them, so they have given up on the system. Moving abroad, any which way possible, is the last remaining straw for some students, pursing promises of wealth, stability, law and order and respect for merit.
3. Clients need help in more ways than one
I was primarily in Islamabad and our start-up focused on providing digital services to clients. Essentially a digital boutique consultancy helping clients grow their digital foot print. I came across a slew of people, and each one was a learning experience. For starters, at many places, I was taken for a naïve kid from abroad who doesn’t really know how things work in Pakistan. Which was true for the most part. However, many people I spoke to about buying services from our company instead started telling me about their business problems instead. Which I found odd until I realized that I was supposed to assume that because they had so many business problems, they desperately needed my services, but had not the means to pay for them.
Clients are not mature enough. There were so many instances where clients I met were asking for something that they saw in 1995 but only now had the resources to get developed. In this case, I learnt, that give the clients what they want. They are not interested in fancy digital transformation pitches. MNC’s have been doing digital transformation globally and are not interested in random boutique agencies. Smaller companies don’t get the point. They want to sell their goods, collect the money and go home. Who has time for digital transformation?
4. Public services need to digitize post-haste
Public sector in Pakistan still seems to be stuck in the 60’s when Pakistan was last on an upwards trajectory. Apart from the officers, they are staffed by an army of peons, cleaners, cooks, servers and guards. The government is simultaneously the biggest and least profitable employer in the country. Despite spending fortunes on digitization in various organizations (CDA being a prime example), there are various levels of government operations that are still old-school. It seem some departments are impervious to any notion of digitization and continue to do work in the pre-internet era.
More importantly, the executives in these organizations can come in to work as they please and leave when they feel like it. There is a severe lack of accountability. At a large government run logistics firm, we tried to sell our services by structuring and submitting a legitimate proposal. We were asked to report at a specific time and day where the head of that department wanted to discuss details with us. We showed up but our contact was nowhere to be found. After a few hours and covering a few miles pacing up and down the corridor, we were informed by the admin that the gentleman we had come to see had left for home. When we tried to complain, their reaction was to ignore me, keep me out of the loop for any future conversations and essentially blacklist me. For pointing out that someone was not doing their job well.
4.1 Personal experience
I had a lengthy chat with a middle-man about how to deal with this firm and he told me that one had to be extremely patient and diplomatic when dealing with such clients. They end up paying, but it may take many months of cajoling, pleading and coercing. He also told me that the relationship between my company and the service vendor had to be put on hold because I had created a scene at the client site. So essentially, the market is so small that you may do something in one end of the city, but it will create a ripple effect impacting everything else as well. This might not apply to the majority of the cases, but that might be because the majority of the cases simply accept this terrible relationship as normal.
In fact, I can also attest that the few employees at public sector organizations that do try to stick to principles and ethics are not very popular and are viewed as thorns in an otherwise smooth gravy train.
5. Private sector are needlessly rough seas
Dealing with MNC corporations in Pakistan was also a learning experience. I was happy that at least this was an arena that I was experienced in would easily connect with folks at a corporation, I was right and I was wrong.
I was right because the executives at corporation seemed to be more accountable for their actions, appreciated my pitch decks and were able to chat with us on a variety of topics other than the immediate task at hand. Wrong because working at a corporation in Pakistan is not the same as working at corporation in the US. First of all, corporate politics starts much earlier and seemed more intense than what I was used to – and I have worked in Fortune 500 companies. Since Pakistan is a tiny market compared to the Western countries, budgets are also minute. Third, like most clients anywhere, clients demand the world in exchange for a pittance.
6. Saith culture
This could be an entry all by itself. The third group of executives that I dealt with was at a large industrial group that we worked with. In local parlance, this was working with a ‘saith’. ‘Saith’ literally means ‘business owner’, however, it contains more royalty than that. The group that we worked with had multiple business interests including textiles, newspapers and fertilizers. They specifically got us to set up a web-based CMS for one of their businesses. More than that though, we ended up providing a lot of business planning for a renewables venture they were experimenting with. I mention this only to impress upon the fact that when you work with a ‘saith’, you may end up doing all sorts of work. The best part, though, was that the ‘saith’ is the big dog. No underlings, no bureaucracy. If the ‘saith’ likes you, he will make full payments, on time. He can like you and you can like him and he will pay. If that does not work out, however, you could lose out on many an opportunity with no reason given.
7. What’s the upside?
In an underdeveloped market, anything goes. If you are able to make inroads and bandy about the correct ‘contact’ name, you might even get away with murder.
Payments, at least when they come on time, come in full. This is a double edged sword. As a business proprietor, this puts more money in my pocket. As a country though, this is problematic. It gives rise to the informal economy which is cash-based and untraceable. It also gives me the option of not declaring my income since there is no paper record and all me to avoid paying taxes. This is one of the biggest problems Pakistan is facing.
People in general like long meetings and even longer lunches. The day typically starts at 10 am but can last till 9 pm not because the slow pace of work just stretches the day out ad infinitum.
8. Finding solutions within conflicts
The scope of work is limited. In the West, often times I find organizations getting bogged down by digital transformation initiatives just because of the need for massive change. In Pakistan, I found companies not bothered by grand gestures. They were comfortable and did not want to rock the boat. So we had pitch them solutions that would help become even more comfortable e.g. become a service vendor with an easy installment plan. It was almost like saying, ‘for less than the cost of your daily tea break, we will schedule your social media posts!’
Especially in public sector organizations and ‘saith’ run companies, there is little concept of financial planning and budgeting. Yes, it exists. But if they want something, they will get it done without the effort of getting approvals and if they don’t want something, it can be the perfect fit, but still won’t fall through.
Last and most important, get a local business partner. It will do you wonders. In my case, not only was my partner able to help me navigate local politics and find prospects, but he also gave me some coaching on the nuances of doing a business in Pakistan at every step of the way. At times, I did question his methods and tactics but in the end I chose to accept that he was local and I was not.
In conclusion, would I do it again? Absolutely. The reason being that while it is a smaller economy and less opportunities, I will be free to do whatever I want. No regulation. If I want to set up a cement factory, or start business selling t-shirts or perhaps even run a television channel, all it takes a little faith, some contacts and lots of persistence and if enough people keep at it, who knows, business in Pakistan could improve.