Dear startup ecosystem, let’s have a heart to heart


Within the startup ecosystem in Pakistan, there’s a lot of focus on trivial outcomes (awards, photo-ops).

Sometimes I wonder why. Other times I binge on Netflix.

Then one day, I had a light bulb moment.

People sometimes don’t see the obvious that is right in front of them.

Netflix can wait. It’s time for a heart-to-heart…

Dear Incubators

90% of startups fail. You exist primarily to minimize this risk. Everything else comes second. Your broken structures and lax adoption of best practices are failing startups.

Entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to describe the scene as chaotic and free for all. Only in Pakistan do startups hop incubators in search of free office space. That’s just dumb.

An incubator without structure is nothing more than a glorified Internet cafe. In such a place, no real work gets done. People simply “hang out” all the time. It’s time for clear rules that don’t bend, a consensus on a clear value proposition, and a commitment to higher standards. Let’s pave the way to success without the need to “incubator hop.”

Besides that, consider implementing the following best practices:

  • Application deadlines.
    Whenever a deadline is pushed, you insult serious entrepreneurs who submit applications on time.
  • Quality over quantity.
    It’s better to have 5 good startups than 12 mediocre ones.
  • Skin in the game.
    Provide upfront funding to the startup so it doesn’t hire an “intern” to work on its MVP.
  • Fix your websites.
    Make all facts accessible and avoid puffed statistics – it’s 2016.

I don’t want to diminish what you’re doing. It was unimaginable 4 years ago that startup incubators would exist in Pakistan, but here you are. I just see some visible cracks, and the good news is, it’s not too late – let’s get the basics right.

Dear Mentors

I think you’re fantastic. You are somewhere between a critic and a cheerleader. With your advice, you can change the downward trajectory of a startup. You have the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. Would you mind explaining why you are lately demanding equity stakes or payments for time spent advising? Or worse, to make introductions?

Predatory advising is the last thing this ecosystem needs. At the very least, the hope is that you:

  • Have a firm belief in the entrepreneur, not the idea.
  • Ask questions without judging.
  • Share wisdom, not spray information.

If you call yourself a mentor and can’t relate to anything above, it’s time to call it quits – no hard feelings.

Dear Angel Investors

As a risk-averse person, you will accept a lower return for a lower risk. Startups, however, are high-risk, high-return investments. Although you understand this somewhat, the Lavaria Town plot is more tempting and offers a higher return. Go for it if that’s your calling.

If you still decide to invest in a startup because you can see the bigger picture, please keep in mind the following:

  • You will not get the majority or half of the equity in the startup; you are not a partner.
  • You will get a board seat if the founding team agrees that you can add considerable value.
  • You will not act as the CEO; that position is already taken.
  • You will not disguise your investment as a loan.

This might seem unfair and investor unfriendly, but it is the required first step in developing the culture – think outside the plot.

Dear Entrepreneurs

I appreciate what you do. History will remember you fondly. But here’s the thing, shit will get worse before it gets better. This is a long con, not for the faint-hearted and certainly not for a “wannabe.”

You should eat, breathe, and sleep your product. You do not do this on the side while making $5 logos on Fiverr. You do this after you have made enough $5 logos and can survive in the startup trench.

Focus is the key. It’s the key to developing an unfair advantage. To create an unfair advantage, ask yourself the following:

If you are competing:

  • Is my product 10 times better than anything else on the market?
  • Is my story 5 times better than my product?

If you are monopolizing:

  • If I had 24 hours to live, would I be doing this?
  • Do I have the most competent team possible?

A solid unfair advantage will set you apart from the herd – you have one job.

Startup ecosystems are not built overnight, I understand that. It takes years, sometimes decades. It will certainly take decades if things continue as they are. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Back to Netflix.

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