By Sonya Rehman
Muhammad Mustafa and Suniya Saadullah Khan are the very definition of a young ‘power couple’ driven by a dream to create long-lasting social impact in Pakistan.
Mustafa, a Stanford graduate with a decade’s experience in the local telecommunication sector, and Khan, a rocket scientist who once worked as an engineer with the Williams Formula 1 race operations team, were both drawn to social entrepreneurship during graduate school and longed to return to Pakistan to spearhead their own company.
Speaking of their young start-up, Mauqa Online (‘mauqa,’ an Urdu word meaning ‘opportunity’), launched in December 2017, Mustafa reveals that it was during business school in Stanford, that the husband and wife duo mulled over a plan to put together a digital platform for the underprivileged who didn’t have access to employment opportunities.
To make ends meet throughout college, Khan mentions that she worked as a cleaner in a cinema, and as a waitress to cover her tuition fee and that it was this experience which made her realize the stark difference between manual labor overseas compared to Pakistan, the latter of which she considers to be unethical and exploitative.
“A majority of the domestic staff in Pakistan don’t have fixed working hours and the concept of overtime pay doesn’t even exist here,” she says.
Currently only operating in the capital, Islamabad, in addition to the city of Rawalpindi, Mauqa Online matches domestic workers with employers after meticulous background checks on both sides.
“When we first launched our start-up, it was more of an experiment to determine if there was any demand for domestic helpers,” Mustafa states, “So when the first customer called for a booking, we didn’t have a single employee! So I went to the customer’s house and worked as a Mauqa helper ironing clothes for three hours. That is when Mauqa Online was born.”
Funded by Stanford’s Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), the start-up has served 500 customers, crossed 10,000 hours of service and currently manages a team of 20 fully trained domestic helpers – a number they hope to increase to 500 by the first half of the new year.
“All the helpers on the Mauqa platform are our employees,” Mustafa states, while speaking about the start-up’s business model, “We conduct rigorous trainings to ensure all customers receive a high level of service. Since we are an on-demand service, customers book us for only a few hours or a few days…think of us as the ‘Uber of domestic helpers.’ We charge the customers for the number of hours they have used our service, and in return, we pay our helpers a monthly salary. Depending on performance (which includes ratings by the customer), our helpers can earn more than Rs. 25,000 per month.”
States Khan; “Our customers rate our helpers’ service after a job – our back-end system ensures a customer won’t be matched with a helper they previously rated poorly. The same rule applies for our helpers as well.”
“There’s a lot of growth potential for a start-up or new service in the country,” Mustafa replies, when asked about the young couple’s decision to move back and set up shop in Pakistan, “There are so many basic services that do not exist, and anybody offering them will find a ripe market here.”
“This is home for us,” Khan adds, “I’ve had the privilege of studying and working abroad and that was a fantastic personal growth experience. However, I never wanted to be part of Pakistan’s brain drain and kept exploring opportunities where I could use my skill-set to help others achieve their personal dreams. With Mauqa, we have currently enabled over 30 people to increase their monthly income by over 100% and become financially stable – this is the best validation of our decision to move back.”
But while start-up culture is thriving in Pakistan, the stakes are always high for young entrepreneurs ditching the financial stability of full-time employment.
“It was now or never,” Mustafa says, “The shackles of high pay and stable careers are difficult to break. But we both thought that if we didn’t take the leap of faith, there would never be the right time, nor the right opportunity. So we just dove in.”
While the local start-up ecosystem still has its fair-share of shortcomings (primarily the lack of local investors), how can young Pakistani entrepreneurs be better prepared before launching their own start-up companies?
“Don’t underestimate the power of design thinking,” Khan says, “This approach is central to how we operate at Mauqa Online – we spent more than three months understanding our consumer’s needs and requirements (being a two-sided platform this includes understanding the mindset and pain points of both our paying customers, as well as our helpers) and the insights we gained caused us to pivot multiple times from our original idea. Most entrepreneurs are so fixated by their idea of a perfect product that they do not conduct any meaningful customer research before launching – that’s a sure shot recipe for failure.”