Geopolitics, drone strikes, terrorism and this summer’s catastrophic floods dominate perceptions of Pakistan, a vast culture of 170m peoples. What’s less understood about Pakistan is that it has a very connected, globalized and educated urban middle-class and its relationship with a large diaspora in the West. Indeed, the world’s largest WiMAX network is located in Pakistan.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that the notion of coworking is finding its way into the country. The bustling and vibrant city of Karachi is home to the suite401 coworking community, located in the stylish beachfront neighborhood of Clifton. With resident, nomad and day-pass plans ranging between 750 and 7500 Pakistani Rupees ($9-90), coworking in Pakistan seems as though it’s within the reach of most professionals.
Last month, I had the pleasure of talking to founder, Faizan A. Leghari, on suite401′s history and its plans for the future.
Imran Ali: Tell us a little about the background of suite401. What were the motivations for coworking in Karachi?
Faizan A. Leghari: A friend and I had started Viaduct, a creative design and development company. After six years of hard work, ups and downs, we managed to shift to a bigger/better office, and had ample space to spare. The first thought that occurred to us was that we could utilize the space to help others find an easier way to start their business. Of course since this is a two-fold sort of a thing, given that we operate our own small setup within the same space; but the main idea behind keeping a larger space than what we required was to try and offer such a facility to people who’d want to start up cheap and quick, like we did years ago.
Unless I’m mistaken, we’re the first and only such space working specifically for this purpose. Other “instant office” spaces are either way too expensive or don’t offer the same coworking sort of format that we do.
Imran: Do you see much collaboration between residents, what kinds of work are they engaged in?
Leghari: It’s been quite hard to even get people to understand the coworking concept and get people to use it. We’ve seen many people think along the lines of “what if someone else there steals my ideas/clients.” Still, we’ve had start-ups like MediConnect work from here, as well as small magazine publishers, business process outsourcing companies, consultants and event management people. Sometimes these residents were able to help each other out, given the contacts of one were helpful to the other and vice versa.
Imran: What were your greatest challenges and surprises in bootstrapping suite401 and the largest operational challenges? Have the recent floods had an effect?
Leghari: We’re operating the space at a key location in Karachi, and as such, it’s quite expensive to maintain. Operationally we’re quite well-equipped, since we have UPS for the necessary things like keeping the Internet running, we have a 4MB DSL link as the basic, plus on-demand 1MB chunks through WiMAX for people that need it. We also have a backup generator for running the complete facility and have a kitchenette, an office boy for serving tea/coffee, security etc. All this really adds up.
The floods haven’t really directly affected us, but the recession has been having adverse effects, given the fact that fewer people are starting up new companies or would rather go for a 9-to-5 which pays 100 percent of the time. This makes it more difficult to attract people who have the need for such a space.
Imran: What’re your plans for the future?
We’ve been operating for good part of a year, our aim was to see if we were able to gain enough momentum to maintain such a facility. Given that there is nothing similar in the country and we’re the first to offer it, we have a tough road ahead of us. It remains to be seen if we keep having repeat clientele or long-term residents, which would be the key reason for us to have the space grow further.
If that happens, we’d aim to set up similar facilities, and have a chain offering “nomad” memberships, within which you can travel inter-city and utilize spaces in other cities within the same membership.
Internationally there is already a “coworking visa” which allows spaces worldwide to offer free-days for travelers, or discounts, but this isn’t something official. We’re already listed there and offer free days for any international travelers in our space if they’re members of any other space within the coworking visa community.
Imran: What’re the key pieces of advice you’d give to people thinking about coworking and people thinking about establishing a coworking space?
I believe that anyone who wants to scratch their itch of having a startup, being their own boss and suchlike, coworking is for you. It gives people the opportunity to start with the minimum possible investment, no long-term contracts, and you have an instant office available to you with all the required facilities. Working from home is what some startups may opt for, but having an office-like environment around you puts you in a different sort of mode altogether. Work is taken seriously, and separation between work and home is always helpful. Furthermore, if you have a client visiting, it’s always good to have a set up within which you can serve them better.
For someone thinking about establishing a coworking space: go for it! But bear in mind that in Pakistan at least it is still quite a new concept and you’ll have an uphill battle for the most part. It would go well if you already have a set of friends with startups, that would need a space, and you can provide them that and have instant customers for you.
On the other hand, don’t lease out a space and bear that burden if you think that you won’t be able to get anyone interested. That’s the worst thing you can possibly do. Also, know when you have to pull out. This is just another business, and if things seem to be going south, a gradual shut down is much better than dragging it along; clients may stop, but your expenses won’t.
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