Here's the situation: it's the year 2000 and Azhar Hameed started a young company called Etilize, put its signboard on the wall and opens its doors for business. Sajid Hameed soon joined the company's Karachi office and Etilize was buzzing with activity. One thing led to another and somehow, the company was almost bankrupt. Today, Etilize Pakistan is a multimillion dollar firm with more than 200 customers and a 300-member team. With operations based out of Pakistan and offices in the US, Canada and Europe, here's how the company reinvented itself. When the dotcom buzz was at its peak in the mid 1990's, Sajid was working a 9-to-5 job in the US. "There was so much data available. All kinds of it. Data about everything was being researched and used by everyone, yet there was no standardization in the way it was presented." The resident director of Etilize is referring to the huge market of content aggregation. As the Internet hype continued to grow, companies quickly expanded their online web presence, cataloging hundreds of thousands of available products so end customers would be able to search for what they wanted and make an immediate transaction. And all of this was happening without ever having the customer leave his or her desk.
Etilize was formed to bridge a gap between companies and their consumers. Companies needed powerful solutions that would be able to mine through their product data, verify its integrity, standardize it and catalog it so people could find it. "Azhar realized very early on that the demand for aggregating this content would be huge. So we got into the business of providing product information management solutions to companies interested in selling their products on line" says Sajid.
When Azhar established Etilize, he looked to Sajid to work with him in the expansion plans. "We always wanted to return to Pakistan and work here and this seemed like a possible opportunity." Even then, the young team considered other markets where they could set up their operations. "We researched other opportunities to compare it to the situation we already knew about Pakistan. If you remove the political instability factor, Pakistan was always the best choice for our business model. We have access to a large population and skilled talent pool that learns very quickly which is what we needed."
The company was comparing countries such as UAE, Vietnam, Australia and Bangladesh amongst others. "What the deciding factor was the fact that we belonged in Pakistan. And we wanted to grow Pakistan with us." And it has. Information that isn't organized and cannot be 'pulled' into a central location online is useless for a company. "We bring that organization and standardization to the data and help them manage it more effectively" explains Sajid.
When Etilize kicked off its operations in Karachi with 18 people, we quickly realized that cataloging the monumental amount of data in Excel sheets was not going to cut it. They needed to develop something bigger and more powerful. "What we really needed was to develop a product information management system. Something that could help us to clean the data and feed it in, which could then update or synch with a company's inventory online – that's what people need real-time access to" continues the Director. "And that's why we needed to develop to a team that could do just that. After millions of lines of code and numerous tweaks, today our Product services more than 250 of our clients." Today, Etilize is the second leading provider of products and services in its space in terms of market share.
BPO in Pakistan
The BPO (business process outsourcing) bug bit Pakistan in the late part of 1990 and everyone jumped at medical transcription and call center opportunities. Because of elements such as a large population, strong English language skills and geographically central location, Pakistan has been able to maintain some sort of presence in the regular acquisition of BPO projects however, Etilize was one of the first web-centric companies to set up their back end operations in Karachi. While the US office was looking for clients, the Karachi office was buzzing with work. "Few people in the country understood what we were doing. They knew we had something to do with content because our logo said so, but beyond that, there was obviously little else for us to do here but develop the product we needed."
Considering web-based commerce is still quite a challenge, only a handful of local companies have actually been able to engage in online commerce – and even then, they're really small. "When we talk of product information management, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of products that need to meet specific rules and parameters in order to bring the company any benefit."
Etilize has built a profitable business aggregating product information from thousands of vendors in the IT, CE, AIDC and office products industries, and supplying this as e-commerce-ready Web content to distributors and resellers. In fact, our database has content on over 2,100 manufacturers. Due to subject matter expertise, world wide distribution relationships, economies of scale and offshore cost advantages, Etilize is able to provide a solution which minimizes customer's costs by eliminating operational expenses such as catalog maintenance and allocation of database administrators. "We essentially allow companies like Ingram Micro, Apple, Staples or OfficeDepot, to outsource their online cataloging so they can focus on what they do best."
BPO is a way for companies to optimize their operations and increase their productivity. "Efficiency. We are in the business of allowing some of the world's largest retailers and distributors to sell without worrying about the technical aspects of the solution. We take care of all that for them."
What makes this company so different than the others that have been striving to work on a similar model? "The key for growth in our organization" starts Sajid, "is our supply scalability. Whereas traditional BPOs suffer lack of growth because of a lack of demand, that is not the case with us." The key to growing at such a pace has been their ability to scale their organization very quickly. Despite the increased demand, Etilize had a very different hiring policy to manage its people. "We hired a lot of people, but then also realized that we were being inefficient in a number of areas. That's when we learned that it didn't matter how many people you had, rather how much work they produced which made the impact on the bottom line."
You rate the success of any company by assessing how much it has grown over the years. Etilize jumped from being a 2-person organization to more than 300 people. Starting out with no customers, it now has more than 300 customers today including the big names such as WalMart, Apple and Ingram-Micro. But the question we kept asking was the same that most people are thinking: the companies that Etlize is servicing are industry monsters. If Pakistan has such a bad image in the international media, how are they allowing their data to be 'handled' in Pakistan? Isn't that a challenge in itself?
BPO works best when you have smart people working with you. The companies that outsource their "business process" to you, do so because they want to focus on growth. "That's why that first client was so critical. Our US office was marketing to so many companies and even though everyone was impressed, everyone said that they were not comfortable in awarding projects to a company without a track record." Companies want to know if you will be able to competently and professionally manage the work.
They also need to be absolutely sure that you will be able to deliver on time. It's actually a lot easier to pitch for work if companies know that you have an operational or developer presence in Pakistan." And more than anything, Sajid emphasizes on a point that still hasn't been marketed positively in the international community: the population, the skill set and the ability to pick up a foreign language such as English, and speak it without as their own. "There is just so much media highlighting everything political going on, the elements that will enable Pakistani companies to acquire more work from the global market get lost in all the noise."
"It is also important to realize that BPO allows us to handle data and not have to store it. We're managing the data which makes it risk-free from any offline threat that may arise in an unforeseen circumstance."
In addition to the track record, companies in Pakistan haven't been able to convince the international markets that they are adept at disaster recovery. When the November 2007 fire happened in Caesar's Towers, Karachi's Software Technology Park, Etilize managed to move their entire office and have operations back online at full capacity within 36 hours. "We have a disaster recovery plan and a business continuity Plan in place" comments Sajid. And because everyone knew what they had to do in order to initiate the plan, the transfer of operations was seamless.
Perhaps these are the kinds of stories that would help demonstrate the fact that the private sector companies are rather self sufficient when it comes to maintaining their business… even in Pakistan.
So if Pakistan is a good place to get the job done, why did Etilize struggle so much in its initial years? "When we opened up offices in Karachi, we were doing mostly development work. The company was just too young to be able to generate any substantial leads. That's what I had mentioned earlier – we didn't have the track record at the time" explains Sajid. Working in the US obviously has a lot more expenses attached to it than setting up presence and hiring people in Pakistan. "Since we weren't generating any revenue, our savings were depleting."
Times were tough, but the brothers maintained their faith at the line of work they were investing in. "The Internet is the biggest thing to every happen to the world. There were very challenging times but we were always hopeful.
Sajid recalls that the top management was meeting regularly to considering shutting down operations altogether. "We were focusing on how to break the news to our staff that we had failed. We had a speech all written up where we had decided to give a one month salary in advance and let everyone go." All set to deliver this sermon at 9am the next morning, at 8 p.m. an evening earlier, Head office got the call that turned everything around. Ingram Micro's head of operations had called and said the golden words: "We like what you've presented.
Congratulations. You've got the job. We'll send you the cheque in two weeks." The value of the contract was close to half-a-million dollars, but the prestige the brandname would add to Etilize, was invaluable.
"We celebrated the success in the only way we knew – we worked like crazy!" laughs Sajid. After struggling for such a long time, Etilize finally arrived.
One vision. One mission.
When Etilize started, there were, of course, a lot of other players leading the way in the content aggregation vertical. "We looked at their models and did everything they didn't do. Our objective is quite clear: we want to be a very successful company but also be accessible to our clients and our people."
After Ingram Micro, Etilize was on its way. Their objective remained focused from the very beginning: To become the world's number one company, sitting right here in Pakistan. "We never deviated from this vision despite having our mission almost taken off track in the beginning." It was perhaps a childish question on my part, but I still wanted to find out: why was it so important for Etilize to be number one in the world? "
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