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Startup Culture of Pakistan: Two Decades of Evolution

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Entrepreneurs build nations.

Name any country, be it an economic power or amongst developed countries of the world, their economies were built by entrepreneurs. In the past one decade, Pakistan too has seen entrepreneurs emerging, however, for us to uplift our economy to where it is ought to be, we need entrepreneurs to come at the forefront. Where the past seven years saw a rise in the number of startups in the country, the journey began two decades ago, the evolution of which can be broken down into three phases.  

Phase One - The Dot Com Boom

Entrepreneurship in Pakistan took its first steps in early 2000s when ‘the dot com boom’ had already started disrupting industries across the world. Startups like, and, came into existence and the foundation of the country’s startup landscape was laid. Their founders disrupted traditional markets and introduced a completely new way of doing business – online marketplaces, something absolutely unheard of before by the locals.

Giving the example of PakWheels, back in 2003, Suneel Munj disrupted the traditional marketplace for classified ads for cars by bringing together the buyers and sellers on one platform – an online automobile trading platform. In 2014, PakWheels became one of the first few startups to raise investment; US$3.5 Million were raised that was one of the largest deals closed by a Pakistani startup at that time. It was through this startup that for the first time, Pakistani nationals experienced the power of internet in bringing convenience to their lives. To date, PakWheels stands as the undisputed king of automobile trading.

Then came in 2007 when the two brothers, Zeeshan Ali Khan and Imran Ali Khan, disrupted the real estate industry of Pakistan by becoming the first online marketplace that brought together the buyers and sellers of properties on one platform. What started off in a small room by two entrepreneurs is now the largest online real estate portal with its clientele spread across the globe. The startup raised its first round of investment in 2014, and to date, it has raised four rounds of investment equivalent to a total of more than US$130 Million and employs more than 3,000 Pakistanis.

The same year, 2007, was founded by Monis Rahman that became Pakistan’s first online portal to connect job seekers with employers. Shortly after its inception, the startup raised US$2 Million that further helped scale it. Rated among Pakistan’s top job portals, today more than 95,000 employers actively post openings on with more than 6 Million professionals registered on it from across the country.

Phase Two – The Rise of Incubation

While with the emergence of PakWheels, Zameen and Rozee, startups did begin to crop up, however, an ‘ecosystem’ that nurtured and supported passionate individuals with a flair for entrepreneurship, did not exist in the country.

It was in 2012, with the advent of Plan9 – Pakistan’s first tech incubator, that entrepreneurship took a leap forward. Startup incubation was introduced in the country. These were the times when entrepreneurship was unheard of.

From year 2012 to 2015, incubators like The Nest I/O & NIC and accelerators such as PlanX, started to emerge, and energies were channelised into acquainting youngsters in the metropolitan cities with entrepreneurship. While incubators and accelerators were going through a formative phase, efforts were being put into replicating Plan9 model in universities across Pakistan. The youth and their households had now started seeing entrepreneurship as an acceptable career option, an alternate to conventional career paths – finding a job or joining family business.

Then came years 2016 and 2017. This was the time period when Pakistan started seeing a mushrooming growth of incubators nationwide with startup founders pouring in from not just the metropolitan cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, but tier-two cities as well. By this time, where the inclination of youth towards startups was increasing fast, the lack of funding to scale them was the underlying challenge faced by Pakistani entrepreneurs.

While seed investments into startups had started taking place by 2016 such as MangoBaaz, however, it was still not institutionalised. VC culture was almost non-existent in the country. For the ecosystem to expand and strengthen its roots, startups had to scale and getting access to funding channels had now become a necessity waiting to be fulfilled.

It’s not as if Pakistan did not have individuals with the capacity to invest in startups; large business owners were always there but had to be convinced to invest their money into idea and early stage startups. There was a major gap between entrepreneurs and investors that needed to be bridged to keep the ball rolling.

This was just the right time to bring the two together on one platform, under one roof. Idea Croron Ka – Pakistan’s first business reality show, was launched. For the first time startups appeared on mainstream mass media. Entrepreneurship was now no more an affair of the privileged youth only; it had reached to the masses. Idea Croron Ka was not just a TV show but a movement. On a mission to ‘redefine heroes’, it became an equaliser that gave youngsters across the country a level playing field and access to investors regardless of their background, financial standing or network.

A new culture was born – the startup culture; a culture that made entrepreneurship a household concept. Besides instilling hope in the youth, one of the biggest contributions of the show was that it took the word about emerging Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosystem across borders.

Phase Three – The Influx of Foreign VC Funds & The Dawn of Pakistan’s VC Landscape

Fast-forwarded to 2019, foreign venture capitalists were drawn to Pakistan and began investing in homegrown startups – Kleiner Perkins, Tiger Global, firstminute Capital, First Round Capital, 20VC and Hustle Fund to name a few. Aatif Awan, Founder of Indus Valley Capital, played a significant role in attracting foreign VC network to Pakistan.

Startups like Airlift, Bazaar, and Tajir came to lime light with hundreds of millions of dollars being raised collectively. How successful were they in pulling off the VC funds, that’s another debate all together. What’s important in all of this is the recognition that Pakistani startup landscape got on a global stage, the foreign exposure received by our entrepreneurs, and more so, the confidence to dream big that was infused in aspiring entrepreneurs.

As a consequence of foreign VCs injecting funds into Pakistani startups, the local VC ecosystem started to take shape. The startup landscape of Pakistan was ready to see the rise of another dawn.

Zayn Capital, Fatima Gobi Ventures, Sarmayacar, 47Ventures, Deosai Ventures, HBL Ventures, Karavan, i2i Ventures, Virtual Force and Walled City Co., are a reflection of this progression. Years 2021 and 2022 saw the boom of VC funding in Pakistan.

Where is Pakistani Startup Ecosystem Headed Next?

The evolution of Pakistan’s startup ecosystem is a depiction of the trend seen in any emerging economy – taking off from e-commerce vertical to travel & logistics, followed by fintech moving on to edtech and healthtech startups. Now the wave is headed towards Artificial Intelligence.

Pakistan’s rapidly developing technological and entrepreneurial landscape qualifies it to become the next tech hub and innovation centre of Asia. However, it is largely dependent on how fast startups scale horizontally across different verticals. The challenge here is that, other than the tech sector, the industry dynamics in Pakistan in almost all sectors still largely operate on conventional models and methods.

Disruption is required.

‘Digital Transformation’ is the need of the hour if startups are to disrupt local industries.

‘Innovation’ is the key word here. The future of Pakistan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is meshed in innovating, disrupting barriers and changing who you work with. As large corporations seek to increase their competitiveness globally, the missing link is to scale and come up with innovative ways to capture new markets at lower costs. This is where the role of startups comes into play.

Where startups need to work closely with corporations and leverage their learnings to offer innovative and viable solutions, organisations on the other hand need to display openness in shifting away from traditional ways of working and incorporating startups in their systems. Startups' innovative ways of doing things paired with companies' experiences is that ingenious, disruptive combination that will bring unmatched value addition to the economy benefiting players at all three ends - companies, startups and masses.

The biggest strength of our country lies in the burgeoning young population brimming with ideas that can alter the way of doing things. As a developing country, Pakistan does have its fair share of challenges, true, but if seen from the lens of an “entrepreneur”, challenges are nothing but opportunities waiting to be explored.

Published in Aurora on 2nd Feb 2024