A fresh start

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Three months living in a Hawaiian rainforest planted the seed for an organic food startup in Pakistan. PHOTOS : JEHANZEB CHAUDHRI

Three months living in a Hawaiian rainforest planted the seed for an organic food startup in Pakistan. PHOTOS : JEHANZEB CHAUDHRI

In November 2011, I quit my job as an account executive at a multinational company in Chicago, got on a plane and landed on the island of Maui, Hawaii. I would spend the next three months farming on one of the most beautiful tropical islands in the world with absolutely no idea about farming, and I would be living in a tent in the middle of a rain forest. This was part of a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) — for five hours of work, five days a week, I got free housing, free food and the opportunity to explore the island.

The farm I worked at was run by a humble family tending coconut trees and harvesting papaya, pineapples and various other delicious fruits. There were 16 of us working on the farm, from different parts of the world, and we were all there for different reasons. We lived mostly off the grid but had access to the Internet, electricity and most living amenities.

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We drank filtered rain water, exchanged our fruits for other items from neighbouring farms and if we wanted, we could visit the city, which was only a hitchhike away. The farm made money by selling its produce and smoothies off the side of the road, with a little smoothie shack on the road to Hãna Highway. I was living in paradise: no stress, no 9–5. It was during my time in Maui that the farming bug entered my system and I learned the value of self-sustainability.

I returned to Chicago in February the next year, and over the next six months I decided to go to Pakistan and start my own farm. This never happened, and here’s why: finding resources in Pakistan was, and still is, a nightmare. So I took a slight detour and started up my first venture, called laborforce.pk. While living in Chicago, I could search online for any worker that I needed. For instance, if I ran an online search for a plumber, using my zipcode, I’d get at least 10 highly rated plumbers to choose from. They would visit my home, fix the problem and provide after-sales service. In Pakistan, on the other hand, if I needed a plumber, I would have to rely on word-of-mouth to find someone reliable. With Labourforce, we aimed to end this reliance and represent low-income employees online.

While setting up Labourforce, I enrolled at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi to undertake a Masters in Computer Science — something my 10th-grade self would have never fathomed. My educational background until this point had been in the liberal arts, but I then ended up specialising in Wireless Sensor Networks and Data Science (which is a combination of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Big Data).

Labourforce gave me my training wheels and was a precursor to another venture, one that focused on a niche industry — food, particularly premium quality fresh produce. Using the development structure of Labourforce and the idea to connect low-income workers with the market, we aimed to connect farmers directly with the consumers. We live in an agriculture-based economy, but we don’t enjoy the fruits of our own labour — literally. Thus Mandi Express was created and I eventually — albeit with detours — arrived at my original goal, formulated during my time in Hawaii. Our growth was slow. For two months, Mandi Express only received one order and that too from a friend. But within four months, we had sales upwards of 200,000 and we are expanding every month.

A dislike for sales got me to quit my job in Chicago, but I learned that sales skills were crucial to my two new ventures. When you are starting off, it is imperative to sell your vision. You will find yourself giving sales pitches to your first few employees, to your early suppliers, and even your parents. Without the ability to persuade, to speak succinctly, and communicate the value of the product, no entrepreneur can be successful.

During the initial stages, I had to learn how to reach out for help. I have always considered myself to be very independent but you cannot build a business alone. I was fortunate enough to have a number of mentors who guided me and helped me find resources.

With most jobs that I have had, I have either quit or been fired. I didn’t have a long-term career growth plan attached to most of these jobs. I have always faced criticism about my views on entrepreneurship and the thousands of ideas that I have discussed with my friends and family. Most people don’t like to take risks, but I’ve learned that these risks can bring great satisfaction. Today I work a lot more than anyone I know, but it gives me joy. With experience, these risks can be minimised — for instance, early on, I hired a childhood best friend who turned out to be a slacker, but I learned very fast that hiring the right people and setting the right tone at the start is crucial. Every start up requires its own mix of skills and faces unchartered territory, which means making a lot of blunders. The rule of thumb is not to make the same mistake twice.

Make it work

Persevere

Perseverance comes when you are passionate about what you are doing. You will need this.

Find the pain point

Work out the feasibility of the product beforehand, target a particular market and then talk to the target customer to truly understand the ‘pain points’ or problems. Entrepreneurs create opportunities for themselves by offering solutions to pain points.

Do the numbers

The numbers never match up, but if the numbers are negative you know that there’s no future here. If they are very positive, get them checked by a professional and then rechecked by another. This gives you more confidence and something to test your hypothesis by.

Experiment

Read The Lean Startup. The best thing I learned from it is to experiment and fail early. Learn from your mistakes, optimise and then experiment again. Do this quickly and without putting too much capital in right at the start. This way you can validate your ideas before digging into your life savings. Most people think they’ve stumbled upon the secret sauce and if they talk to anyone about it their idea will be stolen. That is mostly not the case because execution is a lot more important than just an idea.

Be picky

Don’t listen to every bit of advice you get but pick and choose from an arsenal of perspectives. In Pakistan, everyone’s a critic and a so-called expert. Don’t let bad advice get you down.

Jehanzeb Chaudhri is the founder and CEO of labourforce.pk

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 20th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Sep 30, 2015 - 11:25AM

    He forgot to mention “bhatta”…no business in PAK without BHATTA
    Same in India. Recommend

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