Driving back to Peshawar from Startup Weekend Islamabad, I was feeling pretty satisfied. Overall, it was a fabulous experience. Not only because the event was very well attended by designers, techies, founders and the seasoned ones from all other cities of Pakistan with emerging ecosystems, but also because one could note several indications that the general entrepreneurial ecosystem in the country is being led in the right direction. Some of them might sound very subtle, but in my view, they do indicate a gradual development of the startup community here in Pakistan. These, I believe are good nuggets for startup community builders in emerging ecosystems across the world.
Firstly, it’s clear that we are moving from an age of prize-driven business plan competitions to hands-on, experiential, hackathon-style contests. One of the main, if not the only, motivation in business plan competitions were cash prizes with no strings. This resulted in students hacking the contest for the sake of the prize, with no real startups being added to the entrepreneurial space. With the advent of hackathon events driven by prizes that could help in prototyping, incubating or funding the startup idea, the more serious ideas are getting enriched and added to the startup ecosystem.
The increasing number of applicants and the number of ideas pitched every year shows this format (Startup Weekend) is gaining traction. The increasing number and quality of the judges, speakers and the guests who turn up for the Sunday pitches is also encouraging. Most importantly, the dedication of coaches, who commit a whole weekend to a Startup Weekend, prove how valuable the experience can be. On the flip side, the trend is also evident from the slow decline in the number of business plan competitions we see around the country.
Secondly, the pitches we hear are shifting towards prototype demos and plots with customer development survey results. This is replacing the culture we had of slide decks stuffed with ‘five-year’ financial projections (yes, five!), even if the startup had no real product in the market or any customer in hand yet. Which used to be pretty insane for a startup that is still experimenting with its business model, and at times, has not even pivoted once after hitting the ground. Again this is a great trend kicking in which will perhaps help us up the number of startups that actually start making money.
The post-pitch session discussions are also changing. I could see several teams approached by leading players in the game who were interested in their ideas.
They were offered a variety of things – from funding and mentorship to the chance of joining their companies along with their ideas. It sounded like getting acquired at the idea stage, which could perhaps be one way of supporting early-stage startups in an emerging ecosystem like Pakistans? This tells us that those bigger sharks in the pool are slowly appreciating the talent that events like these gather, and they seem to be developing faith in some of the ideas and teams, which is encouraging. This might be confusing for people in established tech clusters where events like Startup Weekend have a good reputation. In Pakistan, many assume these are merely another one of those student events for kids.
Another great addition, especially at Startup Weekend Islamabad, was the focus on the legal and accounting side. These are absolutely crucial aspects for a business especially in a country like Pakistan, where information is not that readily available from government bodies and more so if you are an IP-based business. People from a couple of really cool and tech-savvy accounting and law firms gave talks, which were a valuable addition. Of course, this can turn out to be a great niche for such firms as well to diversify into, and say, develop products/packages for startups?
For the new entrants into the startup scene, it was great to see young kids learning the art of networking (perhaps realizing the value of it to begin with). As they say – its not what you know but who you know that matters. And events like Startup Weekend are the best places to meet and connect to great people in your niche specifically and in the tech scene in general.
In previous events you would hear that amateur student occasionally asking someone if they attended ‘Startup Lahore’ or ‘Startup Karachi’. This implied that they thought startup was (part of) the name of the event and not ‘an organization in search of a business model’ as Steve Blank would put it. Or a way of life. Or even a movement. This language gap is something we faced at Peshawar 2.0 as well. Students at Universities and Colleges are talented, have really cool ideas, and sometimes also the drive and the grit to push them forward, but they still don’t get the lingo we use in more established ecosystems and clusters abroad. I know the Internet and social media plays its role in dissemination of new ideas and concepts, but lets be fair, it takes time for things to spread around and trickle down. I only heard ‘Startup Peshawar’ once this time!
Finally, for a great change, no one was given a ‘shield’. A dull product of the boring academic conferences or government inaugurals and a silly expense from an organizer’s perspective. It might sound not that big a deal to those of you outside Pakistan, but trust me, this says a lot about the mindset of the organizers, coaches, speakers and invited guests.
In a culture where mediocrity is celebrated with the most extravagant of souvenirs, where events can’t occur without chief guests and patrons-in-chief, where a poorly written 10-minute speech has to be rewarded with an engraved shield made of metal (that too twice the size of your Frisbee) and clothed in a boring green box, this was a nail in the coffin of an age-old tradition. A tradition of all talk and no action. This was a statement. A statement that the ‘crazy ones’ have arrived.