In November 2012, Invest2Innovate launched our first Accelerator program for seed-stage social enterprises in Pakistan. The i2i Accelerator piloted with five start-ups that convened in Lahore for monthly two-day workshops (we were hosted at the Lahore University for Management Sciences, i.e., LUMS). The sessions, on topics ranging from governance to legal compliance/registration to operations to branding & marketing, were led by more seasoned Pakistani entrepreneurs and experts. The goal was threefold: (1) to expose i2i Enterprises to local mentors who understood the Pakistani landscape & context, and how to build businesses within these realities, (2) to provide hands-on support to help grow these businesses, and (3) to build trust & transparency between entrepreneurs & potential investors before they pitched for investment.
On Sunday, the 1st Class of the i2i Accelerator – BLISS, Milk’Op, EcoEnergy Finance, OPEN & Renewable Energy Solutions – pitched to a group of investors at Plan 9 (the Punjab Information Technology Board’s incubator) in Lahore. There was a lot of energy in the room as investors engaged with the entrepreneurs in Q&A after their five-minute pitches and sat down with each entrepreneur in 10-minute deep dives (somewhat akin to speed dating). At the end of the evening, almost every investor requested a follow-up meeting with at least one enterprise, and almost everyone was interested in joining i2i Angels, the investor community we are building.
As the Founder of i2i, I walked away from Sunday night exhilarated, emotional, relieved, but also introspective. The event went well, but it was by no means perfect. Our ability to make an impact in Pakistan’s entrepreneurship environment also does not hinge on this pilot or on this first event. This is just the beginning, and we have a lot of improvements to make, and a lot of work ahead of us. Below are some of the biggest takeaways I had from the whole experience:
1. I am so excited by the amount of energy, talent & support we have from the Pakistani entrepreneurship community. One thing that struck me time and again over the past few months was how many successful Pakistani entrepreneurs were willing to give their time to our i2i Accelerator – people like Zafar Khan, (CEO, Sofizar/ConstellationCK), Naeem Zamindar, (CEO, Wateen), Monis Rahman, (CEO, Naseeb Networks/Rozee.pk), Parvez Sufi (Founder & MD of Pharmagen), and Roshaneh Zafar (Founder, Kashf Foundation), to name just a few. Babar Rashid Khan, the founder of Uth-Oye! and the Associate VP of Stoneage, ran a brilliant session on marketing and branding, while Asher Hasan, the founder of Naya Jeevan and Sadaffe Abid, the former CEO of Kashf, led informative & dynamic talks on topics like operations and asset protection. The amount of people willing to give their time and energy further showcases not only the immense talent we have in this country (and in the Diaspora) but also how engaged this community would like to be – how our own success is contingent on how much we pay that success forward.
2. Financials, financials, financials. As Khurram Zafar, (CIO of the Lahore Stock Exchange) told me after the Investor event, the financials, cash flow statements, balance sheets, need to be up to par. Regardless whether these start-ups are “social” enterprises or not, their financials need to be compelling & ready for investor scrutiny. I know that was one of our shortcomings, and moving forward that is something we need to focus on much more, whether that means more targeted sessions or hiring an in-house investment officer for the i2i team.
3. A good pitch makes a good first impression. Some people have great businesses, but come up short in articulating that to a room of investors. First impressions are (almost) everything, and really set the stage for future engagement with an investor. While we started focusing on our pitches before the Investor Gathering, our team realized that this is something that needs to be drilled from the very beginning of each Accelerator.
4. Quality over quantity. The i2i Accelerator will run from September – February each year with up to 10 entrepreneurs. Our next application process will begin in June, with our i2i angels, board members, & team playing a key role in the final selection of the next class. But while it would be cool to double the number of enterprises in the next Accelerator, we would also rather focus on quality over quantity – i.e., 7 or 8 good enterprises versus 10 so-so enterprises. i2i also wants to focus not just on the business, but also on the entrepreneur – are they someone who can take constructive criticism well? Do they have the passion & determination to see their business through? Are they someone who is driven by the why behind their product or service versus just the what? We want entrepreneurs who are hungry, ambitious & willing to persevere through all obstacles, especially in an environment like Pakistan.
5. Trust & transparency is key. Pakistan has an opaque investor environment – tricky to navigate and difficult to engage. There is an enormous trust deficit on both sides of the spectrum – for entrepreneurs who are afraid someone might steal their idea, and for investors who are afraid an entrepreneur will just run away with their money. As an intermediary in this space, it is key that we weave those mechanisms of trust & transparency into every part of our process – from engaging our investors in the final selection of our enterprises, to sharing progress & updates on our enterprises through the course of the Accelerator, to monitoring post-investment. As we continue to build i2i Angels – our angel investor community (Yusuf Jan, the co-founder & EVP of Mixit was our first official Angel, yay!) – it is vital that we not only find good enterprises, but also like-minded investors who are excited and committed to helping us grow this community.