Tell us about yourself and your journey that led to where you are today.
The most important thing to know about my journey is that I never planned anything. I am an extremely relaxed person and so after getting an education in the US, I moved to Dubai and started working as an investment banking analyst. I did know that finance was something that I wanted to do, three years in the financial industry collapsed and I had to start from scratch. I started working at a logistics start up and this is where the CEO of that company told me that I was made to work in operations. I worked there for three years and then heard about Uber coming to Dubai. Decided to give it a shot but as I was reading up on Uber, Careem showed up in my search. This was 2013 and Careem had just started its operations. I wrote to them and LOVED both Mudassir Sheikha and Magnus Olsson. I loved everything about them and since they were very small, they could only offer me a position in their call center. I was 28, living in Dubai, making great money, and working at a pretty senior role. I loved my interview with the founders so much, I said yes to the offer which meant I took the role of a call center agent, took a 323 percent pay cut and left my apartment and moved to my parents house. The rest, as they say is history, I worked hard, worked in every department of Careem and finally left four years eight months later as the Head of Expansion for Careem. After Careem, I wanted to take some time off so I decided to apply to my Dream School MIT. Luckily I got in and got my MBA from MIT in my mid thirties. After my MBA, I knew I wanted to move to Pakistan so I got an offer to work as the Head of KeepTruckin’s Pakistan operation. In 2019, I moved to Pakistan after being away for 17 years. Worked at KT for 18 months, then started my own company, failed and now I am at what I consider my forever home, COLABS.
Tell us about your organization COLABS, what is it all about?
COLABS is Pakistan’s fastest growing flexible workspace, thoughtfully designed to enable people and businesses to grow. We aim to inspire collaboration, productivity and innovation through our community and network. Our vision is to redefine the future of work in Pakistan.
The COLABS community today has 1000 seats and over 100 companies across multiple facilities in Pakistan. Our community is a mix of freelancers, startups, SMEs and MNCs (Including Rocket Internet, Patari, SadaPay, 10pearls,USAID, OMD and Coca Cola). COLABS is a hub for young and aspiring entrepreneurs and houses a 1:2 gender ratio within its spaces and a 1:1 ratio with the COLABS team itself. The average age of the in-house member is 27 years.
COLABS today has a network of 100+ ecosystem partners across universities, VC funds, corporates, government and industry leaders (i.e. Lums, PITB, Startup grind, NICs, Uber, Microsoft for Startups and AWS). Through this diverse and interconnected ecosystem, along with our entrepreneurial initiative (CoGrow), COLABS enables local and international companies to enter, startup and accelerate growth in the Pakistani market.
COLABS is constantly innovating, creating new work experiences, and redefining the future of work in Pakistan. Our mission is to knit together a community of 100,000 entrepreneurs, starting with 5000 seats within the next 24 months across Pakistan
You founded Dukan.pk Solutions a while ago, can you tell us more?
Dukan.pk was a company I co-founded with a partner. The idea I believe is incredible. There are five million small and medium businesses in Pakistan that are not able to sell / operate online because they do not have easy access to making websites, payment gateways and delivery integrations. Dukan.pk provides all of that for free. This enables small / medium businesses to reach a larger audience and make more money, even sitting at home. It is great for the Pakistan economy as well. I always want to do something that makes an impact. Careem, we touched so many lives by providing employment to drivers across the region. KT, we made truck drivers be safer and more efficient and at Dukan, our aim was to empower and digitally enable all the SMEs in Pakistan.
However, I believe I really did not understand what It meant to be a co-founder. My partner and I did not spend enough time with each other to understand each other’s visions, working styles and responsibilities. I underestimated the importance of the relationship between co-founders completely and I also feel that I never really wanted to start a company. I felt the pressure, as everyone from the Careem Mafia ( ex-careemers) was starting companies and raising money, plus, a lot of my peers and mentors told me that I would be good at it. While I failed, I learnt a very valuable lesson. I am the kind of person that can move mountains at work to make things happen, just not as a founder, but as the right hand of most founders, and I am now OK with this and at peace. My mental health took a hit while I was a founder and for me that is more important than any recognition I might get being a co-founder
COLABS slogan is redefining the future of work in Pakistan. Who is your target audience and how attuned are they of this notion, rather a buzzword these days – the future of work?
COLABS is a gateway or catalyst for anyone looking to enter the Pakistani market. Our target audience is not restricted by size or is more suitable for freelancers or startups as opposed to SMEs or corporates. The way we have designed our model, we are the right fit for anyone who wants to make the most of their work. We simply make work better.
Work oriented, human centric spaces are just the first pillar of COLABS. It is mainly our ecosystem, both in terms of the community we facilitate and the partnerships we have developed, that help us provide a holistic service to our clients. Previously, if a new player, especially a smaller player, wanted to enter the market and compete against the whales of their industry, they were at a big disadvantage. They did not have the network, structure, support or culture to compete. Very simply, the play field was not leveled for them. With COLABS, acting as that platform, we are able to remove many of these disadvantages for new players and in many ways, we can provide advantages that even large corporations do not have; advantages such as lower administration cost, an eclectic entrepreneurial community, a tech enabled space that removes distractions.
What are some of your organization’s main services?
COLABS provides plug and play offices and desks with flexible monthly plans that don’t lock you unnecessarily into long-term commitments. You can choose from a number of membership types, select your duration and enjoy access to all our services and amenities within the same package.
Beyond offices and coworking we complement our offerings with a variety of meeting spaces, from small meeting rooms, to large boardrooms to spacious event halls.
And our fourth vertical are our VAS services in the form of in-house as well as partner-supported business services. We currently offer a multitude of administrative services such as payroll management, attendance keeping, company registration and taxes, IT support, etc. And through the help of our partnerships we offer our clients outbound services as well, such as marketing and communication planning, SMM, SEO and SME management, etc.
Of course, these are just our product/service based offerings. Built within all our core packages we offer a variety of services that are free of any additional charge, such as front desk services, mail handling, meeting space credits, etc.
We pride ourselves on being very nimble. Even if there is something that is not part of our core service, yet it is important to our members, we will try our best to make it happen.
Tell us about some of the milestones achieved by COLABS?
COLABS is relatively a new player in the coworking sector in Pakistan. Despite being five years behind some of the other big players, and being only two years old, COLABS competes with the market leaders in terms of capacity, occupancy and TOM recall.
In just two years, we went from 0 seats to 1000 seats. We started with 4 employees and now have a team of 100+ dedicated and brilliant employees.
Within our first year alone we were able to host over 180 events and 10,000+ visitors in our Flagship facility.
Even with COVID negatively affecting the overall market in Pakistan, COLABS is currently running at over 90% occupancy.
How important, in your opinion, is inclusion when it comes to ‘accelerating Pakistan’s Future’?
When it comes to the progress of any society or nation, inclusivity & equal opportunity for every inhabitant is a prerequisite. Women constitute almost 50% of Pakistan’s population yet they are marginalized from the general professional sectors. If we are to accelerate the economy or talk about Pakistan’s future, empowering women on every front is a must. So essentially inclusion is not only important, it’s inherent to accelerating Pakistan’s future.
What are some of the challenges Pakistani entrepreneurs, especially women entrepreneurs, face as far as businesses are concerned?
I think most of the challenges women entrepreneurs face in Pakistan have been talked about to a fair amount, but one of the biggest challenges that women entrepreneurs do face is raising funding for their businesses. Investors hesitate to invest in women led ventures because of the prevailing stereotypes that women are less serious about their professional success and will eventually ‘settle’ for family life, which by the way can go parallel too. Women, like all men, can have a successful career and rewarding family life simultaneously.
How is your organization driving inclusion and diversity to empower society?
We take pride in the fact that there’s an open door policy at COLABS. There is no discrimination in who can and can not come at join COLABS. This sort of gives an even playing field in terms of opportunities and exposure to different industries and eco-systems.
How does co-working spaces empower entrepreneurs, especially women?
Co-working spaces are a great place to enable all entrepreneurs, women and men to be part of an ecosystem that provides them with access to good talent, VCs and other collaborative opportunities that can help them grow and achieve their goals. For women especially, co-working spaces can be a safe space for women to work and move freely to focus only on their craft and leave the rest to the coworking space such as COLABS. At COLABS, we have several female freelancers and also women led successful businesses. What we can do for them is to provide a safe space but also ease the pains of finding an office space and endless paperwork that follows.
Questions by Sabin Muzaffar