Gridiron sports fans are famous for their love of statistics and trivia surrounding their sport. One bit of trivia they might not know, however, is that last season’s popular Facebook fantasy football app was developed in Karachi, Pakistan – a city known more for its chronic ethnic and sectarian bloodshed than football scraps.
The app, called Game Day Pick ‘Em, allows NFL devotees to pick teams and compare their results with friends and leading TV analysts. Game Day Pick ‘Em – a major hit in the US and quiet profitable for the startup that created it – is just one example among many of a small but increasingly vibrant software industry here.
Long in the shadow of their more illustrious counterparts in India and East Asia, Pakistan’s software industry is today making strides thanks in part to the rise of mobile and social media led gaming. And it’s a boon for the country’s fragile economy.
Pakistan’s IT industry’s global share is currently estimated at $2.8 billion, according to the Pakistan Software Export Board, and that includes a global sales revenue of $1.6 billion. Over 30 small studios, concentrated in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, are now mainly devoted to developing games for Facebook or smart phones.
“With the surge of web-based and Facebook apps, the industry here really took off in 2008-2009 … catering for the Western market,” says Ahmed Hashim, founder and CEO of Cynis media, which created the Game Day Pick ‘Em app. Cynis, which was founded in July 2010, now has 22 employees and counts websites like AskMen and Pizza Hut among its numerous foreign clients.
That’s a good thing for Pakistan says Murad Akhter, CEO of Lahore based-startup Tintash. He points out that because smart phones and tablets are relatively new platforms worldwide, “you’re not going to have a lot of people with a lot of experience working on mobile games or apps anywhere. So it levels the playing field and that allows us to compete."
A typical successful CEO
The profile of a typical successful CEO in Pakistan today is someone who has either studied at or spent time working in the US and therefore has a network of contacts within Silicon Valley, says video game developer and business journalist Jazib Zahir.
Mohsin Ali Afzal, the soft-spoken founder of We R Play in Islamabad, is one example. Mr. Afzal graduated with an MBA from Berkeley in 2008 and interned at LucasArts before returning home to start his company in August 2010.
Operating from a converted warehouse in the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital, We R Play now has a staff of 35 employees, mostly under 30. Dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts, We R Play workers – almost half of whom are women – work in a laid back atmosphere reminiscent of the Silicon Valley startups they aspire to.
Desks are lined with action figures and sci-fi artwork, while the rec-room has a large Pakistani style lounge with traditional rugs and cushions, as well as a Table Tennis table.
When it comes to producing quality work, though, Afzal has proven his company is anything but lazy. Among their list of accomplishments, We R Play developed Gardens of Time for Disney subsidiary Playdom, which became Facebook’s most popular game in 2011.
Working in a politically and economically volatile country has its challenges.
“We’ve had days when we haven’t had electricity at," says Azfal, recalling the times before he could afford generators. "There have been days when the Internet hasn’t worked and we’ve had to go to coffee shops just to download our tasks.”
At other times, he adds, “There have been days when people haven’t been able to come in because the roads were blocked from protests. These are part and parcel of working in Pakistan.”
But the main challenge facing the industry is creating original content, says Mr. Zahir the business journalist.
Currently, these companies are doing outsourcing work for Western companies like back office coding and artwork. What gets more attention and generates more revenue is when businesses make original software and keep the rights to the intellectually property. That's just starting to happen in Pakistan. Before Pakistan is recognized as a country producing original software, not just outsourcing services, that has to be stepped up, he says.
“Providing services bring in clients. It needs efficiency and you have to satisfy the clients. You do that by being efficient with your processes and meeting deadlines," says Zahir. Creating new, original products, on the other hand, is trickier. "It’s less to do with efficiency and more to do with talent. It’s a much bigger risk.”
Apple’s app store and the Android Market provide a good forum for startups to take those risks. It's a forgiving market driven by impulse buys, says Mr. Akhter, whose resume includes stints with Apple’s headquarters as well as with Microsoft. His company’s app Fish Frenzy, for example, has now seen over 2.5 million downloads.
“I think people are more open to taking risk than they were in the past and that’s a good development. Wherever you have startup activity you have innovation and that’s a really good sign for the country.”