Can the Startup Generation Defeat the Economic Threats Posed by COVID-19?

In Pakistan, entrepreneurs consider it achievable through creative and innovative business solutions
Startup Gen Pakistan

“Ninety per cent of startups can fail. The reason behind their failures is that they do not listen. They feel that they know their business better than other people would know their business. Therefore, while they may be very passionate about their idea, their understanding on how to develop, grow, scale and sustain their business is limited.” These were the sentiments shared by Pervaiz Abbasi, head of National Incubation Center on day one of the five-day boot camp held in Islamabad, Pakistan in November 2019.

This boot camp was offered to eight startups selected from a group of more than hundred start-ups participating in the competition— Pakistan’s first ever digital reality show called The Startup Gen.

The year 2020 rolled up with hopes and dreams. The Startup Gen was set to premiere on January 26, 2020. The event took place in late 2019, and the finalists were now eagerly awaiting the release of the episodes on YouTube. Wanting the world to hear their stories added to their eagerness. However, two days before the launch, on January 23, another news had taken the world by a storm—It was the day when the World Health Organization, in a media briefing, announced the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease.

After almost 90 days of the first media briefing, the world collectively has been on a rollercoaster of emotions: denial, anger and fear amongst others. However, entrepreneurs are a different breed. To quote a famous lyric, “Hope is our four-letter word”. Moreover, hope breeds creativity, which along with innovation is the need of the hour in these trying times.

What better way to celebrate the World Creativity and Innovation Day 2020 than to get inspired by the entrepreneurs who are defying the economic threats by finding solutions using their creativity and innovation.

Bioniks: Designing new products in the face of COVID-19

The winners of the first Startup Gen competition, Bioniks had elicited childlike enthusiasm even from the panel of judges who shortlisted them for the final rounds.

Recalling his enthusiasm at winning the first prize, Mr. Anas Niaz, founder of Bioniks shared, “Receiving the winner’s poster with ‘the big ticket to 4YFN conference’ mentioned on it was one of the best moments for team Bionicks. Our mind-controlled prosthetic arm – which I am proud to say is one of the best prostheses in Pakistan – could get its due recognition and explore investment opportunities.” Mr. Niaz and his team were getting ready to make it to the world's largest exhibition for the mobile industry – GSMA Mobile World Council’s ‘Four Years From Now’ better known as 4YFN, in Barcelona in March 2020. Interestingly the words spoken during a session on Financial Viability by Malik Mirza Managing Director, Finman Group resonate with the current situation, “I have seen big mega projects fail on such small things that cannot even be mentioned in an excel sheet! Why? Because they could not forecast!”

“We could not forecast that COVID-19 would impact us all! Here we were making travel plans and then 4FYN, Barcelona got cancelled. That was the day I realized that the situation around Coronavirus is becoming serious day by day and we had to do something.” recalled Mr. Niaz. Bioniks is now designing 3D face shields, developing reusable masks and working on producing locally-made ventilators. The team at Bioniks believes that with the help of technology and creativity, Pakistan on its own has the capacity to meet all its challenges. “Technology no doubt is important. Nevertheless, what we learned from participating in The Startup Gen is that developing a strategy and having a creative business model is equally important”, says Mr. Niaz. This flexibility and creativity in the face of an unpredicted crisis shows that Bioniks is the true and rightful winner of this competition.

CarHelplineTM: What happens when there are no cars on road?

Some ideas seem very mundane in one country or region. In another country, where these ideas were never thought of before, they are however new and creative. This is what CarHelplineTM is all about. A simple phone number or an app for the tech savvy to get help when your car breaks down on the road. It’s not the phone number or the app but the quality of service which is the real innovation.

“Our car broke down on the road at night while I was coming back with family”, narrated Mr. Rehan Ahmed, the CEO and founder of CarHelplineTM during the during Lahore episode of Startup Gen. “My wife and I, we were a bit frustrated, and in this frustration my wife asked, ‘Why is it that there is no car fixing service available in Pakistan, especially for women whose car break down on the road?’ This simple question was the reason behind founding CarHelplineTM."

“When is car helpline providing service in Karachi? Literally waiting for it” a female comment under the Lahore Episode of The Startup Gen where CarHelplineTM successfully pitched their idea and got selected to attend the boot camp in Islamabad. “This comment was the one that made us realize that market in cities other than Lahore, like Karachi and Islamabad, is ripe for us and we opened our branches in these two cities!” as shared by Mr. Rehan.

The timing of CarHelplineTM’s opening could not have come at a more challenging time though. The recent lockdown due to the COVID-19 disease by both provincial government in Sindh and Federal Government in the capital city reduced their business volume in Karachi to zero and to almost 80% in Islamabad. Mr. Rehan is now thinking of using this time to develop original content on YouTube, making short videos about the inner workings of a car, narrated by women.

Guloona: An online plant and flower shop developing its supply chain, despite COVID-19

“A few months ago, when I would send someone my portfolio, people would not give me a chance. Now, I just send a weblink to my Startup Gen video where I talk about my aspirations and business model and get invited to present my products”, shared Mr. Zaheer Ullah, founder Guloona, an online platform for plants based in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. According to him, participating in Startup Gen gave his business credibility and he saw an increase in his online orders in the weeks after the Peshawar episode was launched.

Just having an online shop in Pakistan does not raise trust amongst the customers. According to Zaheer Ullah nearly 15 per cent of people make a purchase because of lack of trust. To mitigate this trust issue, he must increase the physical footprint of his business. He has found a creative way to do this: “Imagine going to buy eggs and bread and from the same shop, you buy flowers and pots. In Pakistan this could be an innovative idea and we have equipped some retailers in Peshawar to do just that.”

However, the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing city lockdowns has hit this innovative business model of clubbing flowers and house plants with grocery shopping. Almost all big self-service chain retail shops are closed, and only online deliveries are working. Several big orders of flowers for wedding decorations were also cancelled recently. This has compelled Mr. Zaheer to identify new vendors to source fertilizers and even working on expansion strategies.

So, how can startups move out of that 90 per cent chance of failure into the 10 per cent chance of success? According to Mr. Abbasi the key factors are networking, listening to people, mentorship and the teambuilding. These are the ingredients of creativity and innovation, because they encourage multidisciplinary thinking both at individual and group level. Bioniks, CarHelplineTM and Guloona are just a few examples of creativity and innovation which made these startups crisis-resilient. This is exactly what is needed by businesses, political parties, governments, citizens and media – to come together and think creatively how we can defeat the economic threats posed by the COVID-19 disease.

Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in collaboration with The Centrum Media (TCM) brings Pakistan’s First Digital Reality Show for Startups “The Startup Gen - Season 1".

Rebea Firdous

Rebea Firdous

Communications Officer

Rebea Firdous joined the Foundation’s Pakistan office as Communications Officer in January 2017. She has worked as a market and social researcher for four years before joining the Foundation. She holds a MBA degree from Lahore University of Management Sciences and Bachelor in Computer Engineering from GIK Institute. Currently she is working on the digital transformation of the work and communications at the Pakistan office and is fond of the help she gets from the Regional Office in New Delhi.