Dream. Build. Rise: An exclusive interview with Zouhair Khaliq and Parvez Abbasi

nic

NIC is one of its kind initiatives that aims to provide an end to end support for ICT based startups by providing them access to world class mentors with proven track record of success

National Incubation Center is the first of its kind initiative that will provide startups with a free of cost workspace, digital platforms, funding and mentorship and best learning modules that will help startups succeed

Zouhair Khaliq (ZK) and Parvez Abbasi (PA) are two veterans from ICT industry with rich experience and tech acumen. They are the co-founders of Teamup, the partner of National Incubation Center along with Jazz and National ICT R&D Fund.

In a short interview with them we have tried to explore the philosophy behind NIC and what role it plans to play in the digital revolution of Pakistan.

PW: Tell us something about Teamup?

ZK: Teamup is a community of some of the best entrepreneurs and professionals from every section of the industry. We have a diverse team of the best mentors with international exposure who help founders with everything from pricing models and marketing to consulting and sales.

PA: Our basic aim is to provide founders the required guidance and advice. We conduct informal meetings and training sessions on regular bases to put them on the right track.

PW: What role Teamup is specifically playing in NIC?

ZK: NIC is a national incubation center that is launched under the public – private partnership. Our role in NIC is to provide selected startups with platform, resources and above all the mentorship so that their ideas can be molded for the larger benefits.

PW: How NIC plans to promote entrepreneurship in Pakistan?

PA: NIC is a unique initiative that aims to provide an end to end support for ICT based startups by providing them access to world class mentors with proven track record. Selected NIC startups will have further access to funding from the ICT R&D fund as well as an opportunity to access Jazz’s marketing and distribution assets and potentially target the 50 million Jazz customers across Pakistan.

ZK: We also have a very interesting curriculum set for young entrepreneurs that will teach them how to build a product, service and even a company. We will also guide them on how to monetize that by giving them access to potential investors. So basically it’s a complete platform that provides support and assistance right from the start, till the end.

Having spent so many years in the industry and experiencing so much, we come to the conclusion that now it is time to give back to the industry and to the country as well

PW: What is your vision for NIC? How it is different from other incubation centers i.e. Plan9,NUST Technology incubation center?

ZK: As I have said earlier, the role NIC is going to play is relatively similar but other incubation centers are primarily academic based whereas, what we bring to the table is slightly different. Our focus is on entrepreneurial side of the things, we have an extensive team of mentors and advisors. If you look up at the list of our mentors on our website you’ll see that we have the finest people from the industry who are on top of their game in their respective fields. All these people bring the premium knowledge, experience and entrepreneurial culture with them. So, NIC is giving the young entrepreneurs a chance to learn from the best in the business. It will be more like hands on training rather than just orientation.

PA: More importantly, it’s a national level incubation center and not bounded by any geographical limitation like the rest.

PW: What inspired you to take this initiative?

ZK: I’ll give the credit to my partner Parvez since he is the one who came up with this idea. Few years back, while discussing the IT scenario in Pakistan we came to realize that to pump up the pace of IT development, we need to put lot more effort than what is already being done as there is always room for improvement. Secondly, having spent so many years in the industry and experiencing so much, we come to the conclusion that now it is time to give back to the industry and to the country as well.

NIC is giving young entrepreneurs a chance to learn from the best in the business. It will be more like hands on training rather than just orientation

Our prime inspiration was to share our knowledge, experience and acumen with the young blood so that they could take our industry and our country further ahead. So here we are, first it was just TeamUp but now we have NIC. We have a firm belief that through such initiatives, Pakistan’s IT scene will be recognized at the global level and gain a great standing.

PW: What are some of the major challenges technology oriented entrepreneurs face in starting/or growing their businesses?

PA: The biggest and foremost challenge is the founders themselves. Normally, a couple of friends or batch mates form a company together, who are all from the same field like engineering, business or computers. This, in my opinion is the fundamental flaw, the group has expertise in only one area; when it comes to marketing, finance or any other aspect they don’t know a thing. Running a business is not based on just a single facet; it includes whole lot more. Therefore, choosing the right kind of partners is very important to create a balance.

Running a business is not based on just a single facet; it includes whole lot more. Therefore, choosing the right kind of partners is very important to create a balance

Another important thing to run a business is passion, because in startup business there are few good days and lot of bad days. So during those bad days there has to be some passion and thirst, that can drive and motivate them to go the extra mile.

ZK: I agree with Parvez. The IT eco-system in Pakistan is still going through its nascent stage so you have to be very strong and determined to make your mark. If we specifically talk about the challenges that our industry is facing, I’ll say that taxation system in the country is a bit problematic; it still hasn’t realized that technology entrepreneurship is a whole different phenomenon. There are no tax incentives for people who want to take up IT projects and neither for investors who want to invest in such ventures but simply refrain from doing so because of the high cost of such projects.

Tax system of Pakistan makes up large portion of that cost. If you look at the West, they have particular investment schemes under which you get 50% rebate on your investment if that startup fails. So this creates a huge risk mitigation that gives a sense of security to the investors. Also, in the western countries like Europe, USA there are angle investors, seed funding, venture capitalists that serve as the key to build startup culture whereas, that is not the case in Pakistan.

There are no incentives for investors who want to invest in such ventures but simply refrain from doing so because of the high cost of such projects

So the eco-system in general needs to evolve to get in line with the new trends, for that we need to work with the government and other stakeholders. There are around 200 million people in our country and a major section of this population comprises of youth, you can’t expect all of them to do Masters and PhD and get jobs. So a more viable system would be to create an environment that is fit for entrepreneurship so that the younger generation start their own businesses and become an asset for this country by becoming job providers instead of job seekers.

NIC has its first batch ready that will start from this month. We intend to take 20 startups and each startup has approximately three to four people

PW: How many startups are being incubated currently, and under what domains?

PA: We have our first batch ready that will start from this month. We intend to take 20 startups and each startup has approximately three to four people. So, in total we have 70 to 80 people present here. We have selected different types of startup for example we have a startup called IoT Home Automation Space. It offers various tools through which you can automate your home. Through this system you can control your lights, electronics & security system remotely, from anywhere in the world. There is another startup that is working in 3G animation, virtual reality and augmented reality. We also have startups that are specially related to ICT and give solutions to number of problems. But the beauty is in the fact that all these 20 startups are from different domains and are at different stages so they can also learn a lot from each other as well. We have created an open environment of cross pollination so that our startups can polish their basic ideas with the help of new knowledge that they acquire from each other. Our basic focus is that entrepreneurs come forward with their ideas, learn from each other and grow together.

PW: How NIC plans to provide support since the mentors mainly residing in main cities – how do you ensure that startups get the required mentoring support in small cities?

PA: The focus of NIC is not just on Islamabad based startups. Our current induction of 20 startups was basically nationwide. A panel including our team along with ICT R&D Fund and Jazz representatives traveled to all the major cities and scrutinized applications that we received from everywhere including small cities. We received over 600 applications online; we accessed each and every one of those applications with great precision. Out of which 180 applicants were shortlisted for interview that was conducted by our panel. After detailed discussion and evaluation of their business ideas, our panel selected 20 startups that now we are working with. So our aim basically is to tap the nationwide talent pool, not just the federal capital.

There are around 200 million people in country and a major section of this population comprises of youth, so a more viable system would be to create an environment that is fit for entrepreneurship

PW: Response to NIC for its batch is no doubt tremendous. What was your initial impression about the young entrepreneurs you interacted with; in terms of quality of their ideas and their attitude?

PA: There is no doubt that Pakistani youth is extremely smart and creative. Some of entrepreneurs that I met during the interview sessions came forward with some really brilliant ideas that left me awestruck. This has further strengthened my belief in Teamup and NIC and has filled me with a fresh wave of motivation. I expect really big things in the future now.

Our doors are now open for the young tech entrepreneurs, come to us and we’ll help you realize your dreams

PW: To drive innovation and ICT capacity building, what are your specific ICT investment recommendations for: government, industry, investors, the general public, the individual, education and research?

PA: This was a wholly new experience for us and we learned so much during the whole process. But the important thing to consider here is that no single individual or organization can bring the change alone, all of us will have to come forward and play our part. Every section of this industry has a specific role that it needs to play in order to maximize the benefits. Our recommendation is that people should team up and bring forth their resources and experiences and create an environment where they can all add value.

ZK: I think we are in a phase where competition is no long relevant, it’s all about collaboration.  All of these stakeholders will have to come forward and create an eco-system that could enable us to move to the next level. It’s really about creating an encouraging future for Pakistan and its responsibility of everyone and not just one segment of the society.

PW: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring entrepreneur?

PA: We just want to say that our doors are now open for the young tech entrepreneurs, come to us and we’ll help you realize your dreams.