Shoes, crafted from leather by hand, are being produced in Okara and picked up all around the world by a Pakistani startup, Markhor.
This remarkable export activity is the result of the hard work of two young entrepreneurs, Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali.
Over five long years, they have successfully identified indigenous shoe-making talent, built its capacity to an international standard and found a market for its products beyond Pakistan.
The story began in 2010, when Waqas met a shoemaker in Okara called Muhammad Hussain at a local panchayat (council meeting). The two men could not have been more different.
Waqas was a young boy in his early 20s, kindling an interest in social media marketing. Hussain, then in his 50s, loathed the internet and considered the possibility of a nationwide ban on Facebook an absolute necessity. And yet they had the one thing in common that drove them past their differences: both men possessed a brilliant curiosity to learn.
Though Waqas knew nothing about shoe-making, he felt compelled to change Hussain’s opinions about the digital world, and the best way to do it was to connect Hussain’s craft to an international audience online – a journey that was riddled with challenges.
When Waqas first broached the idea of selling shoes online, Hussain’s response was of shock and horror. He said, “I know how people buy a shoe. They hold it. They smell it. And then they move on to the next one. Selling online will rob them of that experience.” When Waqas pushed him further, Hussain finally succumbed and said, “This is madness. But I am with you in this madness.”
As time passed, they became both students and mentors for each other.
|Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim of Markhor — Publicity photo|
Recently, when I visited the Markhor office in Lahore, Waqas was in the US, developing business and personally delivering shoes to some of Markhor’s customers. I was lucky to meet Sidra, who was happy to recount her entrepreneurial journey with Waqas, and insisted that luck had nothing to do with their success. “I hate the word ‘lucky’,” she told me.
Before Sidra and Waqas got together for business, their families knew each other in Okara. Waqas was grappling with a waning interest in Physics at FC College and a growing curiosity in social media marketing until he stopped attending classes altogether and started helping local businesses with their communications and promotions online. When he met Hussain, he knew he would not be able to put him on the world map while pursuing an undergraduate degree in Physics. So Waqas dropped out of college and didn’t utter a word of it at home. He knew his parents, both of them teachers, wouldn’t understand, and see his business idea as an unnecessary risk.
With all his boats more or less burnt, Waqas had to succeed. He realised he couldn’t create a new business on his own. Recounting his story, Sidra said, “Nobody really takes a lone young man seriously.” In other words, when Waqas knocked on doors – between investors, vendors, customers and potential partners – nobody gave him what he wanted. Waqas needed a partner who could match his ambition and make up for his weaknesses. That was when Sidra came on-board, with challenges no less daunting than his.
Living in Okara with her parents, Sidra, like many young women her age, was expected to teach at a local school and eventually get married. Entrepreneurship was far too outlandish an idea and she, like Waqas, decided not to share her entrepreneurial ambitions with her parents. Instead, she said she wanted to pursue a job opportunity in Lahore. After much opposition, her parents reluctantly let her go in the hope that she would soon buckle under the hardship of independent living and come home. To expedite her return, they denied her financial support.
|Sidra performs a quality check — Publicity photo|
Sidra’s input in the business began to open doors. Lack of funds, however, stifled new opportunities. The duo was forced to do odd jobs and learn the skills they could not outsource but needed desperately, like digital marketing. Together, Sidra and Waqas applied to the limited universe of grant opportunities for start-ups; they read the Harvard Business Review for inspiration; they explored online marketing tools – learnt how to code a website and harness the tools of social media. Finally, their brand, initially titled ‘Hometown’ as a nod to the core team’s Okara origins, was assigned a digital footprint. It was a website without Paypal or any other financial transaction service and labeled an online store. It was the only platform they could use to make sales.
Within five days, the website was approached by its first customer in France. Essentially, Hometown customers were not only buying a pair of fine quality shoes from an obscure part of the world; they also had in their acquisition, a story. Each shoe came with its own history, as though it were a living, breathing thing, shipped across continents for adoption, accompanied with a personalized hand written letter from Waqas.
Despite the time and effort its co-founders put into Hometown, until early 2011 they had not worked long enough to understand the many pitfalls of starting a business. They had an intriguing, unique product but the sales were not enough to sustain operations. Lack of funding returned like a recurring nightmare and the duo were pushed out of action.
Down but not out
Sidra returned to her home in Okara where her laptop was banished to the darkness of a cupboard. In Lahore, where Waqas was relentless in his search for funding, a competition for start-ups advertised a prize of $10,000 to four separate winners. A month later, Hometown won the prize money. It seemed they were saved at last.
|Markhor’s range of shoes — Photographs courtesy Markhor’s Facebook page|
In August 2012, Google and the Punjab Government Innovation Policy featured Hometown along with other companies that had made an impact through business and technology. Waqas had not seen a happier Hussain, who after all his doubts and suspicions, was glad to be wrong. He had developed an online presence, started using an Android phone and a laptop and was happy to connect with his buyers. Not only that, he began to learn digital communications and English with more fervor than ever before. But the setbacks, it seemed, were still not over. In 2014, Muhammad Hussain died from advanced bone cancer. Hometown had lost an invaluable friend and its lead craftsman.
Soon after, however, his son Junaid stepped in to fill the vacuum. The fruit of the partnership is evident from the impact their brand, which was renamed Markhor in May 2014, is making.
|Waqas and Sidra with the Acumen Fund team — Publicity photo|
Both cofounders have benefited immensely from fellowships at the Acumen fund. Sidra elaborated on other steps Markhor is taking to enhance social impact. For instance, “Markhor offers 70% more pay to craftsmen compared to the market rate. Also, its first 25 employees will get the opportunity to gain equity in the business, depending on how they perform in the first eight months of their time at Markhor.”
Besides better, more equitable human resource policies, Markhor is also influencing the power imbalance in the leather industry. Until Markhor started full-scale operations last year, shoemakers in Okara were stuck in a 60 to 90 day credit cycle, which meant they had to wait at least two months to get paid for the sales they made.
Markhor has challenged that culture with advance payments, titling more protection in the favor of the craftsmen as opposed to the retailer. Moving forward, Waqas and Sidra share the ambition of creating a million new jobs across multiple industries in multiple countries; a mission that is likely to keep them occupied for a significant amount of time.
Just to give Dawn some perspective on Pakistan’s potential alone, Sidra made a comparison: “We export leather goods worth 100 million US dollars and that could easily be the net income of a single large leather goods manufacturer in India.”
|Waqas delivering shoes in the US — Publicity photo|
According to Sidra, in 2003, Lahore had 25 outlets of high-end, hand stitching units for leather goods. Today, less than 5 such units have survived due to dwindling international orders and the proliferation of cheaper, relatively easier to produce shoes with thermoplastic rubber (TPR) soles. Beyond a set of personal challenges that both propelled and stymied growth at Markhor in its infancy, the young entrepreneurs at its helm now face an entirely new set of challenges. Their goal to establish Pakistan as a major exporter of fine quality leather products will demand a special effort in the days ahead and given what they have so rapidly achieved, it seems they are primed for the challenge.
Interestingly, Waqas had never sat on a plane or traveled out of Pakistan until late 2013. Not even two years later, he has already toured across the US several times, and a majority of Markhor’s clients happen to be foreigners. Considering this, one can at least be assured that the company is moving in line with its ambition, highlighting the plight of the talented but hidden craftsmen of Pakistan, perpetually drawing a silent parallel with the endangered, iconic mountain goat from whom it borrows its name: the Markhor.