The idea for my business came from the unlikeliest of places — your squeamishness. One hot summer night in June 2013, a friend — and successful entrepreneur — was chatting with me about Pakistan’s rapidly growing e-commerce industry. When a market grows in this way, everyone connected to the market grows with it. I immediately got to thinking about how I could be a part of this growth. I happen to work for a family pharmaceutical company and we own and market a few contraceptive brands. I know from experience that buying contraceptives from a pharmacy or supermarket is considered a taboo in Pakistan and it occurred to me that people may prefer to buy contraceptive material online, from the privacy of their own home. My friend and I agreed that there was only one way to find out — start a website.
And so, CondomShop.pk was created. We offered our customers a simple premise: shopping for contraceptives in Pakistan is not a pleasant experience, but we promise to make it so. Even in circles where this taboo is slowly breaking, there is always the underlying tension of being spotted by a close friend or relative whilst shopping for such products. Additionally, our research shows that the market in Pakistan is flooded with counterfeit products and since most customers are concerned with purchasing the product and rushing out of the shop, they are often deceived into buying expired or second- grade and even third-grade stock. There would be no such haste online.
Some of the most successful start-ups address an unmet need or solve a problem that hasn’t been solved yet. I really thought we were doing this and everyone who heard about the venture was excited for the same reason.
Our team of three had a very slow start and there was a steep learning curve. I knew nothing about building or running an e-commerce website and had no investment that allowed me to hire a professional. I hired one person to help me run the store, used my rudimentary Photoshop skills and hosted e-commerce content management system (CMS) to build the online shop. My wife — and now business partner — played a crucial role in selling the idea to our friends and family and kept me motivated through the early stages.
We started off with one order a day. For a long time, we hovered at two to three orders. When I look back at that time, I think it would have been the perfect time for me to quit. No one would have questioned my decision. But then, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Today we average over 12 orders a day and our e-commerce family has grown. In November 2014, my wife and I launched our second online store for a leather goods brand, Bear Necessities. We believe the market for leather goods in Pakistan is dominated by a few very exclusive brands which offer the same corporate look, and there aren’t enough options for handmade, vintage and natural-looking leather bags and wallets. Once again, there was a steep learning curve involved in this venture as we knew next to nothing about leather. To this day, we face the most trouble from our suppliers and offering consistent quality is our biggest challenge.
It helped that we were extremely frugal throughout the process of setting up and running these online stores. All initial investments were made on my credit card, which was maxed out very fast. From that point we only reinvested what we were earning, and while that has made our growth process slow, it has allowed us to be very calculated and risk-free. Today, that sole condom shop has expanded to become part of the E-Tail Company (etc). We are a team of five now and we’re already working on launching our third and fourth online store.
While many entrepreneurs have had to take the leap from a stable, 9-5 job into a solo venture, I was lucky in that I was working at my family business when I started work on E-Tail. I never had to quit my job and I could slowly ease into the new project. As I was in charge of marketing at my family business, it was easy to translate those marketing principals to e-commerce. However, there were a lot of skills — like digital marketing — which I had to pick up and learn by doing. Juggling both jobs means that there are no fixed working hours, simply because I’m working all the time. When you own your business, and especially if you’re emotionally vested in it, you work during any free time you get because there is always something to do.
Stepping into a field I had no experience in was not easy. I learned the most from talking to friends, influencers, customers, and doing my own research. When you’re passionate about something, you’re constantly looking at everything through the lens of that particular thing. For everything you read or hear, you ask yourself, “How does this apply to my business?” I feel that level of dedication is necessary to succeed.
Something that I continue to struggle with, however, is meeting new people — I would just rather not do it. But when you’re the person in charge, you have to put yourself out there to find out about and grab new opportunities. You lose out if you don’t. This is where my wife has really contributed to the business, as she is a lot more outgoing than I am and a lot better at PR. Someone at the top has to play this role.
People have mostly been encouraging about my foray into e-commerce. There are some people, however, who will always doubt whatever you do, but one should generally try to avoid such people. Most of the time, their doubt just motivates me to succeed even more. And on days when I have doubts about work, I remind myself that there’s never a dull moment on the job. Just the other day, for instance, I got an email from a potential customer for contraceptives, who asked, “Do you sell X-Ray glasses?”
Make it work:
Chase opportunities, not dreams: Everyone dreams of becoming an astronaut, very few of us get to become one. Learn to identify opportunities in and around your industry and use them to grow. Entrepreneurship is largely about catching hold of opportunities.
Learn to sell: As the founder, no one can generate the passion you can. People also want to hear from you. In the early days especially, you need to sell to all kinds of stakeholders.
Have a mentor: Having a mentor is a game-changer and a competitive advantage.
Hire positive people: Positivity keeps you going in the worst of times. Negative people are like acid and suck all your energy. Positivity attracts positivity and makes work fun. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have fun.
Do not reinvent the wheel: Use the technology that’s out there. Leverage other people’s hard work. It’s all about comparative advantage and eliminating inefficiencies.
‘Done’ is better than ‘perfect’: Don’t waste time over something which doesn’t even matter all that much at this stage. Business is a process of continuous improvement. You will never be satisfied. You’ll never get ahead if you don’t get started.
Persevere: No one made it big without hard work. Get ready for the long haul. You quit, there’s no going back — it’s that simple.
Husain Karrar is the Director at Biogenics Pakistan and partner and CEO at the E-Tail Company.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 13th, 2015.