An online music startup taps into our love for the Pakistani music we grew up with
Patari was never supposed to happen. We had planned to create a Hulu — a streaming service offering TV shows, clips, movies, and other media — for Pakistan. For two years, we tried to make this happen in vain as most TV channels refused to cooperate with us. In this time, we met with a senior media executive who urged us to focus on music instead. However, we were so consumed by our original plan that we refused to give up on it.
As the grind started getting tougher to bear and there seemed to be no end in sight to the wrangling with TV executives, I secretly started thinking about a music platform. I had grown up in an environment where music was always very important. One of my first memories is of my mother doing her chores to the lilt of ghazals playing on full volume. Growing up, the music scene in Karachi was extremely vibrant and I formed an inextricable bond with Pakistani music. Over the years, that bond had faded, but the more I thought about it, I realised that a music-sharing platform could bring back the music I had grown up with.
After one particularly frustrating phone call with a TV channel executive who was insisting on absurd price tags, I slammed down the phone and decided I’d had enough: the TV plan was dead. I called up my co-founders, who were as frustrated as I was. We applied to Plan9, Pakistan’s largest technology incubator, and after being accepted, our Patari journey started in earnest.
Patari is a dedicated online medium that showcases old favourites and new discoveries from Pakistan’s vibrant music scene. This music, to date, has not been offered in one place — much of it is missing or is of bad quality. Patari enables users to search through an extensive library — our state-of-the-art search engine is built specifically to deal with how people spell Urdu in English script — via a beautiful interface. A team of musicians and journalists has compiled playlists that cut across genres, decades and moods to offer music-lovers a window into the wonderful textured world of Pakistani music.
When we started building Patari, I was working as a freelance programmer. Patari’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Iqbal Talaat was the CTO at a Karachi-based company and co-founder Humayun Haroon was also freelancing. Programming pays well — really, really well — and we were all earning six-figure incomes. We gave it up because we were tired of working on products we didn’t care about for clients that we didn’t care about. It was time to focus our energies on something we were deeply committed to and so the decision to leave behind the corporate world was a very easy one.
That said, doubt is a constant foe for any entrepreneur — it never goes away, lurking, ready to pounce at the slightest of chances. As business magnate Elon Musk says, “Doing a startup is like eating glass while staring into an abyss.” Two years after we first set out to create an online streaming platform, we were desperate and doubt didn’t set us back much. We had very little left to lose.
We debuted Patari to 800 users at first, inviting them to test out the system. In two-and-a-half weeks, these users binged on over 100,000 songs. The platform went viral and it was like being strapped to a rocket ship which had a mind of its own.
With our phenomenal growth came great responsibility — something I still fear. While this is something that every entrepreneur struggles with, the weight of expectations only drives us to work harder. There are many people we have to prove right — and probably and equal number of people to prove wrong. It helps that I am a User Interface/User Experience designer and programmer, and have worked for some of the leading companies in the world. This has given me great insight into what makes a good product, what constitutes a good design, how to approach big problems by breaking them into smaller chunks you can attack. Additionally, working for these companies taught me how to manage teams and get really smart people to work well with you — as a rule, the smarter the people on your team, the more carefully you have to manage them.
It is a huge misconception that running your own business is a breeze, with lots of free time. I haven’t taken a single vacation in the five or so years since I graduated and my work goes with me everywhere. As I am not a 9-to-5 worker, this is a culture I have tried to instill at Patari. Those who work with us can come and go as they please, they are free to use Patari equipment and premises to work on personal projects, there is no hierarchy and anyone can (and does!) stand up and say, “Khalid, you moron, you are doing this wrong.” Half of our team is remote and I have not met a more hardworking group of people who work 10 times the amount that people who do regular 9-to-5 jobs do.
One of my favourite stories about Patari is from the day we pitched the platform to a judge at a contest for startups. He asked if we had a particular song by Najam Shiraz. He sat down, put on his headphones and listened to the entire song. He then got up and was walking away when I reminded him we still hadn’t had a chance to give him a demo or walk him through our business plan. “Jawani ki yaadein taza ho gayi,” (“You have refreshed memories of my youth”) he said, with a wave of his hand. “No pitch needed — I am sold.” Right then and there, I knew that we weren’t alone in forming important connections with the music we grew up with. There are generations upon generations who grew up with this music, as important to them as the air they breathe in, and if we can get back that same feeling of excitement when every day was an adventure — of finding that one new song, of discovering that one new band — I’ll know we have been successful.
Patari currently has 25,000 monthly active users. Today, there are 15 million smartphones in Pakistan, 2 million broadband connections and millions of Pakistanis who live abroad and who have lost touch with this music or have never been introduced to it. Our goal is simple, really: we have to get Patari in the hands of each and every one of these users.
Make it work
Confidence is key: One thing that we did have in mind was a very clear idea about what Patari should be, and we weren’t afraid of being confident about its potential. Don’t overthink, work your heart out and if you have an idea you think has potential, just go with it.
Manage perceptions: Learning the intricacies of Pakistani copyright law was something that several people helped us out with, but one of the biggest things we had to learn was to manage perceptions, particularly in light of some journalistic standards in the Pakistani entertainment media. Our contract negotiations, particularly the obstacles with EMI were leaked to the press, and even as we were finalising our deal, there was a lot of speculation that we had to deal with.
Do what you love: Life has a brilliant way of working out, of bending to sheer will. Don’t spend your hours and days at a job that you don’t love, doing something you don’t like. Do what you want to do. Period. Work hard, and remember that there’s no shortcut.
Khalid Bajwa is the CEO and co-founder of Patari and tweets @hisBaajaness
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 4th, 2015.