Tech bandits come to Pakistan: Economic Hit[wo]men in Startup land

Pakistan has many internal and external aggressors. We cant blame every thing on external elements, as we are, ourselves to blame for letting things get out of hand. A strange thing is happening in Pakistan, in the race to the top of Tech stardom.

Before we dive in to the details, to understand what’s going on; a brief history lesson is needed. What we read in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man an autobiographical book written by John Perkins published in 2004, provides us with Perkins’ account of his career with engineering consulting firm Chas. T. Main in Boston. What we are witnessing is a page right out of the book and a chapter out of history. The aggressors are a different breed, but the methods and mandate almost similar.

 According to Perkins, his role at Main was to convince leaders of underdeveloped countries to accept substantial development loans for large construction and engineering projects that would primarily help the richest families and local elites, rather than the poor, while making sure that these projects were contracted to U.S. companies. Later these loans would give the U.S. political influence and access to natural resources for U.S. companies.[1] He refers to this as an “economic hit man.”

 In the 5 years I have been part of the larger local tech community we have seen a transition in the tech ecosystem. We went from a largely BPO and Hire-to-Build narrative to a startup hungry nation. Which is a fantastic transition to witness. Every one and every thing under the sun, progressing towards startups. The goal; to attain economic freedom and break free from middle-class shackles. That is the fantastic bit of this story. The desire, drive and success of Pakistanis trying to use the power and reach of the Internet in pursuit of their dreams is commendable. What a time to be in Pakistan.

 The not so fantastic part is, that is giving rise to a new type of technological colonialism. In the absence of domestic funding or at the right scale or without the right appreciation for the startups at home. With that, its open hunting season for foreign VCs , Funds and Angels. It is this Angel category, that is not so Angelic , once you peel the layers of the onion. (We want all the reputable VCs and Funds to come and excited by the ones reaching out to do due diligence)

Imagine this scenario: If you are a cash hungry startup, with limited access to domestic capital and un-realistic demands local of investors to take a 50-80% bite out of your equity. You are out of luck. Well typically you were, but not really. My self and many others, who are involved with mentoring the young startup community, started getting calls from eager beaver startup founders, who couldn’t contain their excitement. Just weeks prior they had given up on their dreams, they resented being in Pakistan, they thought they were being dealt with unfairly, calling into question their belief some times. A vulnerable lot. Emotionally, mentally and financially. We need to nurture them, that is where we have failed miserably.

 So what was getting them so worked up? They were calling and unanimously repeating a few names and offers of 10-100k of patient capital. They had all found their savior(s). Formerly un-heard of Angels(in the Pakistani ecosystem), mostly foreign origin(migrants them selves in their now chosen lands) and with some really prominent yet cryptic back stories. (As in you could Google them but to the unordained, they would seem fairly legit)

 Slowly but surely, seeing & seizing this opportunity from Silicon Valley and beyond, a new breed of hit[wo]men started emerging on the scene. Friendly and at first glance harmless men and women, typically multimillionaires/trust fund babies/ inheritance Angels – empathizing with the cause of Pakistan and our youth. Oh how they “believe in them” how in their own native land(s), they are the champions of causes that are challenging our Pakistan and our youth. How they want to help, “oh just do a little some thing”. I tried to ignore the misgivings I had for these types of Angels. But your “gut” is rarely wrong.

 Then an other interesting thing started to happen; this lot started traveling to Pakistan. They started identifying and socializing with what I call the bottom of the pyramid Pakistani IT folks. Not to demean any one, but the scum of the earth types, who have no real jobs, have no technical background, have never done a startup, never written a line of code, but some how show up every where and get their pictures taken. You get a fair idea, every industry has these “kalakars” we have ours, this Angelic lot started finding these “idiots” and started harvesting relationships with them. This did not happen over night.

 This too is entirely our fault, take the example of a parent who has 5 kids and plays favorite with the smartest two, the other 3 are susceptible of being naughty or just play into the hands of the less than welcome “outsiders, neighbors” etc etc. We should have watched out for our own, but we didn’t. They have 0 background in to what’s going on but they are on Whatsapp. They are living the dream, getting their pictures taken, creating and making industry events and presenting awards on subjects where they sometimes cant even spell the underlying technology let alone understand the ramifications of how they are being played. The other lot being played are CEOs from our Telcos to our Banks to our FMCGs and Govt IT bunch. You ask how? In the effort to feed the beast which is their “ego” they are championing the cause of these “kalakars”. Truly we have been trumped.

These Angelic Cyber Colonials picked up on the weakest link of the chain. They spent the better half of the last 2 years harvesting Pakistan’s cumulative equivalent of “Donald Trump supporters”. I raise my hat to them, they have single handedly with their money their gravitas and the free trips become masters of this circus of “IT Dimwits”. Given the lack of hero’s an entire breed of these folks are hero worshipers. As soon as some one familiar, reaches out to them from the West and wants to meet them; they put on their 2 sizes too small Valima Suit and show up. Slowly and gradually these “Angels” started getting invited to industry events or the lack their off, started creating with the “IT Dimwits” new events, new groups, new forums, new Whatsapp groups. With that came the condescending dis-information drive, the playing down of Pakistan and Pakistani startups along with every thing else in their way, whilst our own “village idiots”** cheered them on. Saying stuff like “Mashallah we now Have IT GURUs in Pakistan” (I am quoting from a whatsapp group). These imported gurus are cashing on the frustrations of our most vulnerable and its not just to create an “arab spring” equivalent.

These Angels are some of the worst type of people out there, they have the money the motivation and now the access to our youth to destroy and entire nation worth of rising stars and entrepreneurs, whilst leaving in their trail a sense of low self worth, self esteem and apologetic mind set. The sad part is that the one who can call out this bullshit fear the isolation within the ranks and cant live without their egos being stroked, they are the first ones to get in line to get their pictures taken, so the “Angels” are thriving.

 This proves that any one with money can get access to our most vulnerable. In this case young startup founders and the “village idiots of IT”, they are able to shape the narrative and their own glorious past stories and not a single person has fact-checked these people or their bullshit, they continue to spew hate and an agenda backed with “showing Pakistanis the way”.

 I thank them for taking the time to partake in our ecosystem. But whilst I must agree that they bring stories of and steer conversations towards building sustainable companies and ecosystems, their intent is perhaps exactly the opposite. Them downplaying Pakistani and Pakistan origin mentors and offering sage advice on domestic challenges and on mentorship is borderline arrogant without knowing the ecosystem. By flying in and meeting some folks and perhaps getting second hand info, its quite naive to think that the only veterans are the likes of them and their own friends, who actually aren’t even based here and are mostly inheritance millionaires, which no one needs to apologize for, just call a spade a spade.

 The worst part is, there are some within this lot who I am sure mean well, but they got tied up with these shallow arrogant and useless types, and are basing their view entirely on their self-hating Pakistani social circuit friends. As a participant in the ecosystem it is glaringly evident that they are cashing in on the insecurities of the “village idiots of IT”, given the fact that most their comments, engagements, awards ceremonies and media appearances are weaved around the same group of 8/10 common folks. Imagine all it takes to fuck over a large segment of our startup and investible companies, can be fuelled by 8-10 people and a few outside Angels.

 What these “Angels” are doing is not helping the ecosystem with their passive aggressive comments and observations, Facebook posts, Whatsapp rants and tweets about “oh how glorious Pakistan and Pakistani startups would be , IF only we could fix X or do what Y is doing ??? Btw we haven’t even gotten to the part where they are doling out money and advice on religion. The toxic mix gets worse, we will only focus on the money for now.

 They are talking down an entire fraternity of Pakistanis who are working very hard to build up the ecosystem by offering cheap cash in exchange for their even cheaper values.

 So like the Perkins’ account of the years gone by here’s what’s happening. These Angels are coming to town, they don’t need to convince governments any more, they need to just write checks to the Startups, before that they ensure, that they give board seats to their so called friends in Pakistan. So that their interest is protected. Their friends along with the Village Idiots, slowly but surely are government folks, people of political influence and any one in a position of power happy to take funds in exchange for favors or to be invited to Amreeka or elsewhere for “good time”. Cheap..Really cheap.

The reality is, where this money is going is in 3 very well calculated places. Grants to startups that would typically find it tough to scale, To them I say take the money and probably more. Use it to your benefit but don’t get driven by the Angels agenda.

 The second lot is the scary one, companies that have the potential to sit on and collect oodles of data on youth and youth related preferences (So startups in the hyper local and data space).To them I say, you have your entire life ahead of you, don’t sell short.

 Last but not least, retired so-called Pakistani veteran CEOs of Tech/Banking/Obsolete Multinationals and their “NEW” so called startup companies and ideas. These hit(wo)men have the right idea, they are trying to get into a parasitic relationship within the right constructs of society. The young, the under-funded and old guard, all where they can play to ego, cash or one final shot at making it big.

Startups, consider you self warned. If you see some one or some thing that looks to good to be true, it probably is. Fellow ships and foundations are the new tool of this economic warfare, run as far away from those as you can. If some thing is free, always remember you are the product.

 

“village idiots”** are those individuals who are perpetually free and clear to do any thing but work, not to be confused with the hard working startup entrepreneurs. But rather the free loaders at every award ceremony.