What not to do, Murmurings from Popinjay

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One of the many things not happening in our tech ecosystem is startup postmortems. We do not know, to this day, why Madiha agreed to sell Savaree to Careem — if indeed there was a sale, and not to Uber. Although the latter reached out to her first — presumably. Travly actually went in the opposite direction. They somehow managed to make a mockery of everything. I am talking about both founders and investors who publicly blamed one another. And these are relatively well-known startups. What about all the others who never found their foothold. I think incubators should reach out and help founders write a postmortem in case a startup is no longer operational.

The purpose of a startup postmortem is not to cry over what’s lost. But rather to celebrate the learnings from the demise, and also to distinguish yourself from the apparent failure. This seems easy on the surface but if you have spent good years of your life building something, it’s actually a pretty hard thing to do. By writing and sharing what went wrong you help the ecosystem and in many ways yourself. If someone is paying attention, they can avoid making the same mistakes. Also, it’s a great way to open yourself up for what you are going to do next. Saba ticked all of the above by writing this post, though it’s not exactly a postmortem because brand lives on for now. I hope others will follow suit. Not to say that I want more failures, but more conversation to avoid them.

With that said the way things unfolded left me confusing. For someone who doesn’t normally attend events like Digital Youth Summit, and relies on Us, Pro Pakistani and others for startup and tech news, and who is not in close contact with Saba, reading her story as the first thing is a head-scratcher. The story is in reflecting mood but a reflection on what? I had no idea what was happening. All I get to know was, she is stepping down. Which could mean a lot of things, for example, a fall out with the investors or something? I read it twice but couldn’t figure out what is going on. The next day Us breaks the news of Popinjay shutting down, following it up with an update that the legal entity will continue to exist as of now.

The latter had to be the first. If Saba wanted to control the message she could have announced what her stepping down means for Popinjay before reflecting back on her journey. Her post is actually good but only in hindsight, and so is her interview with Kalsoom on Facebook.

It’s hard not to like Popinjay. They had a product you can actually buy (something that remains a challenge for most startups in the country), a great story to back it up and a rebellious female founder. What could go wrong? Saba sighted three main reasons 1) funding 2) being a solo founder building a hardware product with operations in multiple countries and 3) not having a must-have product in an industry she aptly described as fickle. I do not have much to say on the first two. For the most part, I just agree with Saba. I do have some thoughts on the third reason though.

An acquaintance got shocked when I said that physical products are really hard. According to him, they are easy because you don’t have to worry about making them. You just have to sell them. I was the one more shocked at the end. I think that’s probably the reason I am seeing more and more online stores selling “Bespoke Peshawari Chappals” now a day. Even if you have found your perfect manufacturing partner, call Saba for a reality check, remember what you are asking your customers to do here. You are asking them to visit your web store, believe you have the best chappal or bag at that price and place an order without touching one. I don’t care how good of a theme you are using for your online store, that’s a lot if you ask me. Especially if your target customer is from Pakistan.

I love the word fickle Saba used again and again to describe fashion industry. The industry as a whole, local or global, operates on “throwing enough shit on the wall something is going to stick” mantra. That’s not because people in fashion are clueless. It is what their customers demand. When was the last time you wandered around in a shop you knew only had a couple of shirts hanging everywhere? There is no concept of product differentiation in fashion. What made Popinjay successful was not a differentiated product—although the bags did look cool. Popinjay became what it is because Saba told a great story (helping craftswomen, transparency etc). That’s not to undermine what she has done, but rather a testament to her abilities. I do not know many people who can do the same.

An often sighted criticism on Popinjay and Markhor, at least from the local community, is that they are highly priced for a Pakistani market. While it’s true. I do not know if they had a choice. For one I still do not know if you can find enough customers from Pakistan who are going to leave fancy retail shops and flock on your website. If you want to do that, pricing low and building a mediocre product is not the way. People change habits, either because they see something truly inspirational, or they see something utterly cheap. Given the scale of Bata, Service and similar others, I do not know if you can compete on the latter. Remember hardware has marginal costs. Unlike software, every new copy of your product costs money. The only way is to target the top of the market.

So what is the lesson here? Do not build a hardware product? Yes and no. Saba mentioned the business was still good, and was probably going to get better—according to her. What made her make this decision was not the disappointment towards what Popinjay is today, but rather what it could or could not be moving forward? You can still build a sustainable business if that’s what you are aiming for. It is going to be hard but you can do it. However, if you are looking to build a hardware business at scale, make sure you have a differentiator, and that differentiation has to be a part of your product. It is not the story or the blind faith on the internet, and certainly not the expectation that humans make rational decisions. Most humans are rational. We just happen to spend our money irrationally.

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