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RodinStar / Startup

Humans, Shoes and eCommerce

 

 

Awarded the

“Rodinstar” Post 

of the week!!

 

This is my story of building my startup in Pakistan.

I grew up in a small town of Punjab. Life got me to a good university in Lahore for education (BS Physics). While studying I started learning internet especially social media, and was helping few small businesses use it.

During vacation in May 2010, I went to my town to spend time with family. Every evening I used to visit a Panchayat (local meeting in town). It was time when Facebook was blocked in Pakistan. So there were three guys in their 50s discussing the news story. Though none of them ever used Facebook or even Internet, they were blaming Facebook. This is when I interrupted the discussion, and the idea of a startup was born.

“Facebook is not responsible for blasphemous content, it is just a social platform.” I said to them

Young man, who you are.” Asked one of them.

Me: “I use internet, I know Facebook, and you?”

“I make shoes, hand made shoes.” He replied.

So over the next few days I visited their unit, where a group of 5 craftsmen was making handmade shoes. I felt proud to see what they were doing in my hometown. They would use almost no machinery to make different kind of footwear for men.

But everything wasn’t going well. Their business was/is getting down because of limited resources, decline of demand in local market. I offered some help, but we couldn’t do it. I went back to college.

But this time, instead of attending classes, I started reading Forbes, HBR and interesting business books from library. Finally I had to drop out of college, as I wasn’t attending any class at all. But, a new person had born inside me. I started learning about how people are building companies around the world. I would spend hours on computer, making notes of how organizations like Zappos, Google and TED are impacting world in different ways.

All this lead me to either join a creative gang, or start something new. I followed the second and riskier thought. Though I didn’t have much practical experience of startup, but I said to myself “it would go fine.”

I started working of the idea of helping craftsmen in my hometown, and making that a sustainable business. My plan was to build an online shoe store. We named it HOMETOWN, as the company was started from my hometown.

I went back to my town, met with shoe master M Hussain, and started research on how we can get start. It was clear to me that we needed some initial capital to get start. So I started a job to manage some cash and was also applying at various social businesses fund. Meanwhile, I called my friend Sidra Qasim to join me as co-founder. Thankfully, in Nov 2012, we managed to win a seed fund of $10k from P@SHA Social Innovation Fund.

We moved to Lahore to get in touch with designers, find good quality raw material, and building website etc. Both of us were living in hostel, and using KFC as our office. KFC people would let us work there and had power in Load Shedding.

On the other side, back in town, Hussain was working on shoes. Our major goal was to make best possible footwear within resources. Something which we would want for ourselves and can proudly tell other people buy and use it.

The hard work of four months, collaboration with craftsmen resulted in making shoes, which were highly comfortable, light weight. We thought, now is the simplest part: SELLING. Which of course turned out to be the most difficult.

Spending 60% money on inventory, left very little money for marketing and operations. So I used all of the best free services to build website and communication tools (mostly Google).

On June 06, we launched our online store.

Suddenly (but not so surprisingly) we were out of cash. Everyone was recommending us to use Google and Facebook Ads. But how could we do that. Instead of taking loan for marketing budget, we planned to interact with people, both online and offline. We sold our first shoe on 5th day of launching our website. I wrote a hand-written letter to our customer, I still write one for each new customer.

Honest communication, delivering on promises, and most importantly showing human side of our business helped us increase both our traffic and sales. One of our customers (or friend as we call them) from Paris paid us more than the price, because he wanted to support us.

This was the all E-Commerce we were doing.

Like a local farmer’s market, instead of just transactional experience, we took it as an opportunity to interact with people who were coming to our website or meeting in person. It helped HOMETOWN grow organically.

Then we received an order from someone who’s email address was @google.com. OMG, we weren’t expecting such high-profile customers. I though we were over promising in our marketing communication.

We were afraid, what if we ship him our shoe and he wouldn’t like. So I and my co-founder discussed, let’s not ship shoes to him and apologize for being out of stock. But it was against our vision of ‘Being Human.’ So we finally shipped him our shoe, and he loved it. (Recently he bought another one for his brother on Christmas). People started giving examples of our communication.

In August 2012, Google and Punjab Government launched ‘Innovation Campaign’ where they featured HOMETOWN as an ‘Innovation Hero.’ We felt great. We started working hard, really hard.

Same time, we were applying at different startup accelerator like Y Combinator and AnglePad to name few. Of course, we didn’t make there.

Then fortunately, Govt of Punjab started its own Tech Incubator – Plan9. Like many other tech entrepreneurs from all over Pakistan, we applied and participated enthusiastically. HOMETOWN made it, along 10 others startup (out of ~500 applications). It is now over two months since we are here, we have got two new people in our team, a designer and programmer. Now working on to add more products, shifting on a better platform. The plan is to grow both our impact on our craftsmen and sales.

Most recently I got selected as Acumen Fund Pakistan Fellow, a prestigious leadership program to empower new leaders of Pakistan. 2013 is big year for me and HOMETOWN.

Building a startup is never an easy thing to do, no matter in which part of the world you live. It gets worse when there is no ecosystem at all, and services like YouTube, Facebook can be banned any time. When PayPal is not supported in your country and it takes you 2+ months to figure out payment solution and affordable global shipping.

But we have learned invaluable lessons from our mistakes and achievements. Hussain, who once was anti-Facebook, now use an Android Phone, laptop, email and has a Facebook account.

It is all about humans. Like you, like me.

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35 Comments

  1. waqas…

    a very warm welcome to therodinhoods!

    the more i read your website and blog, the more gems i discover! [borrow a book?!!!!] 

    i think your handwritten letter pairs perfectly with handmade shoes! 

    i’ve liked your fb page and shall be sharing it on my personal & biz page. am sure many other rodinhooders will do the same. i think it’s wonderful that you have clients based in india as well.

    all i can say is kudos to your spirit! i shall look fwd to the day when you add women’s footwear to your productline 🙂

    [and yes, i shall look you up if i get to do that trip to pakistan with my dad…]

    p.s: keep sharing your milestones with us…

  2. Now this is what you call true e-commerce.

    Interesting to see that there is demand for niche products such as handmade premium leather shoes.

    One question that comes to mind – how do you manage to get the specifications in terms of size, fit, etc to match the requirements of your customers?

    Awesome work and all the best!

  3. Waqas, come and present this at the next rodinhoods open house in Mumbai!!

  4. A really really really and truly inspiring story. Moreover every word echoed honesty and credibility. Kudos Waqas Ali. Welcome to theRodinhoods. 

  5.  लहरों से डर कर नौका पार नहीं होती, कोशिश करने वालों की कभी हार नहीं होती….Hometown is proof for this proverb.

  6. Woohoo!! The borders are falling! :))

    Waqas, welcome to rodinhoods.  Love your story.  

  7. Waqas, You are an example how an Entrepreneur can touch human life, Inspiring read!  All the best! 

  8. asha, feels good to be sharing my story with fellow rodinhooders like you.

    We simply thought, how we would love to be treated and answer was ‘honest’ and a handwritten note might be. So this was it. Thank you, and just let me know when you’re visiting Pakistan with your dad.

  9. Hi Vinay, thanks for the compliment.

    I have been reading through many e-commerce related post here at The Rodinhood, and noticed something was missing in all cases ‘STORY.’ So I believe my story will inspire people to make changes in their business / communication model.

    Regarding sizing, it is super easy most of the time. Handmade shoes are made to fit if you have a standard shoe size. But we make shoes for people who have specific needs as per to their feet shape. 🙂

  10. Alok I would love to do this whenever I’m in India. Thank you for reading, sharing and inspiring.

  11. Thank you Anamika, glad to be part of The Rodinhoods.

  12. धन्यवाद Ravikant!

  13. They will Abey. I feel like meeting in person with all of you!

  14. Vasanth, I’m playing my part like you’re playing yours. Thank you for the comment.

  15. Thank you Rahul.

  16. Alhumdullila Waqas…. now this is called the true ‘tijarat’…. And loved the way you expressed about your baby (venture) and rightly pointing out that what is generally lacking is a ‘story’..

    The idea, the execution.. man you have surely touched many hearts… M in love with the site too, its so lovely…

    Inshallah will order soon 🙂

  17. HI waqas, it is very very inspiring story. Great

  18. Waquas,awesome story..I predict HOmetown will be the alibaba of your country!

  19. Hi brother,

    I head a proud MADE IN INDIA cloud ERP Software firm and if anytime you need an ERP to handle your sales, inventory, accounting etc just shout out to me & will be more than happy to serve you bud 🙂

    We also have a 90 day FREE trial where we even customize all the modules and give the customer to use, if you happy for 90 days go live & pay from the 91st day, if not we will give your data back to you for free and come back to you once we ready to serve you after sorting out all our shortcomings to make you happy the 2nd time though!

    Your spirit is the only Way 2 go in entrepreneurship, anytime any help required just get back!

    Akshay Shah

    akshay@iwebtechno.com

    9322655704.

  20. Salaam Waqas,

    Super impressed and inspired by your courage and motivation.

    A lot of us hail from small towns and villages and can learn a thing or two from you.

    Another awesome thing about your experience is the fact that you did not wait for the perfect moment or the opportunity and went after full steam behind you passion.

    All the best and if you happen to pass by Dubai, then coffee on me !

    All the best,

    Cheers

    Jassim

  21. Hi there, I’m just testing comment notifications for Asha. Please disregard this message, thanks!

  22. thanks monica! came through!!!

  23. Simply wonderful piece of article.!

    The HUMANE part of this is the most touching one.! Wonder how many business can match that thing you have mentioned. Starting up has always been a problem. People without much research just plunge into their idea’s sometimes. This can be a nightmare most of the times but you have proven to be a man with a GUT’sy’ instinct. You’re guts have won you accolades. Kudos for your spirit in uplifting the HOMETOWN people and giving them a new lively hood.!

    Profitable business idea’s in manufacturing industries generally surround themselves by clinging onto big empires, u’res is a mettle proved with harnessing of needy people, with talent but out of marketing ideas.You are a gem, which Pakistan would love to nurture.

    Well from an Indian perspective, thanks for inspiring this community, we need to go a long way to fade those borders. 

  24. Loved reading it, you’ll go a long way 🙂 All the best!!!

  25. pls check the top of your post waqas.

    your post will always be an evergreen inspiration to rodinhooders 🙂

  26. Hi Waqas,

    Congratulation for HOMETOWN, though the website isn’t available right now, but will surely tell my friends in other parts of the world about your brand, if you can please do send me the facebook link.

    I will be glad to let my friends know about our neighbors success, All the very best.

    See you someday in some part of the world.

  27. Karan, just checked site is accessible.  Probably flaky net connection am on BSNL and its absolutely sucks for the past several days.  Some submarine cable/internet global spam attack crap.  Maybe you have something like that.  I need to refresh multiple times to open a site.

  28. Hi Waqas,

    Lovely bro, really a human touch … 🙂 🙂

    Your website is so simple yet so attractive, hard to resist not ordering.

    However, in case you need any other eCommerce platform with robust functionality free of cost, here is one that I had used couple of years ago for one of my start up project : http://www.prestashop.com.

    Moreover, in reference to some previous comment regarding the brand name, I dont think there should be any problem as your products fall under class 18. I found no identical trade mark registered in same class, atleast not in India.

    Enjoy & wish you excel in all folds…let me know if need any assistance 🙂

    Regards,

    Amar

  29. Read this first on Medium. So happy to have you here 🙂 All the best.

  30. Mind Blowing !! Truly !! Success in face of adversity !! So many lessons to be learnt !! More Power to you Waqas !

  31. ma Sha Allah. Starting from nothing and reaching this point with prosperous future is awesome. You are a true inspiration bro! keep up the good work!

  32. hey waqas,

    when you have a breather pls update us with hometown’s journey!!

  33. Great story Waqas.

    Your store has been added to http://www.shopshoes.in

  34. Hi Waqas,

    Heartiest Congratulations on the success so far.

    Your journey was a fascinating read and very inspiring indeed.

    Keep up the great work

    Regards,

    Ali

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