Startup Valley

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Jammu and Kashmir is known to always be on the boil with unrest. But it is also positively simmering with restless entrepreneurial energy.

Mir Muneeb finds Manjhi: The Mountain Man a very inspiring film. He can relate to the film based on the life of Dashrath Manjhi, a labourer in a village in India, who carved a long path through a hill using only a hammer and chisel. "He sacrifices everything to achieve his goal," says Muneeb, a 26-year-old computer science graduate who had to cut a similar path to launch his startup in Kashmir.

When he tried to pitch an idea to a top official at Barista Lavazza, one of the biggest coffee restaurant chains, for a franchise outlet in Srinagar, the official scoffed at it. Muneeb recalls: "He said, 'You sound childish. Businessmen don't talk like that. Kashmir is good for only natural beauty and nothing else. Kashmir has no scope for us'."

That telephone call became the turning point of his life. "It broke me. For the next one week I couldn't laugh, eat food and sleep properly." During that phase, he also realised that when an entrepreneur like Karnataka-based V.G. Siddhartha could start his own brand (Café Coffee Day), why couldn't he?

Today, Muneeb now owns his own café lounge — The Other Side Café — in the heart of Srinagar. His business is thriving and he is expanding its outlets across the Valley. A few kilometres away, Abid Rashid, 24, and his two friends have been continuously coding for eight months. They have finally developed 'Pipe', an android app. The app, which was released on Google Play Store this month, enables consumers to receive only such information that is relevant to them and they are acutely interested in. The one-week-old app has already delivered about 21,000 messages for consumers globally, including regions like Germany, United States and the Middle East.

Kashmir is always in the limelight for violent strikes, insurgency and civil disorder. Many large multinational firms fear to set up their operations in Kashmir, which has been described by former United States President Bill Clinton as the 'most dangerous place on Earth'. But Muneeb and Rashid are among a new breed of young entrepreneurs and startups emerging in the Valley, proving that they too can innovate like the Flipkarts, Amazons and Ubers of the world, and create jobs. They are selling these innovations not only to the local market but to other parts of the country as well as globally. These solutions are being developed in areas ranging from agriculture, horticulture, and handicrafts to information technology.

Though India now ranks third among global startup ecosystems with more than 4,200 new-age companies according to IT industry body Nasscom, a region like Kashmir is still disconnected with this boom. Experts say the need for entrepreneurship in Jammu & Kashmir has reached fever pitch, given that the number of unemployed youth in the State has crossed one million.

"The problem of unemployment has assumed serious dimensions both in terms of scale and intensity," says Dr. M.I. Parray, director at the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (JKEDI) which is located in the historic town of Pampore, more famous globally for its saffron. "Our focus is to change the mindset of the youth and motivate them to take up entrepreneurship as a career option and create jobs not only for themselves but for others as well," says Dr. Parray.

A study that American aid agency Mercy Corps International conducted in the Kashmir Valley revealed that lack of education and training is considered the number one barrier to entrepreneurship. This is followed by access to finance and business development services.

"If you look at the places where there is conflict, you will see that a large number of youths are unemployed," said Michael Dell, one of the richest tech billionaires and chief executive of personal computer maker Dell, during his visit to India in September. He was of the view that about 70 per cent to 90 per cent of jobs in India are going to be created by small and mid-sized firms and not big companies.

Despite all these challenges and not having a friendly startup ecosystem like in Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai and Pune, the Kashmir Valley is going through its own startup revolution. Here are profiles of six such startups emerging from the Valley that are thriving and creating jobs.

Loudbeetle.in

Asia's largest Iftaar party by the Dal Lake in Kashmir was organised by Loudbeetle.in

This May, Indian playback singer Nikhil D’ Souza performed at a musical concert titled 'Sukoon' at the University of Kashmir campus. The aim of the concert was to create awareness against the disturbing rise of drug abuse in the Valley. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in July, Kashmir hosted Asia’s largest Iftaar party, spread over a 1.6-km stretch on the banks of the Dal Lake. About 3,000 people, including at least 1,000 orphan children from the Valley, broke their fast at the venue. Both these events were organised by Loudbeetle.in, a small event-management startup.

"I come from a downtown area which is only known for stone-pelting. Not everyone is doing that," says Ahmer Khan, the 23-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Loudbeetle.in. Mr.Khan launched the firm three years ago and is located in Rajbagh, Srinagar, surrounded by hotels, restaurants and schools, "I used to organise events at my college," he says.

Right after launching the company, he organised the Kashmir Cyber Games Championship 2013. The first ever e-gaming championship attracted over 500 participants aged between six and 43.

The company also organised Kashmir's first international film festival where documentaries and short films were showcased by filmmakers from all over the world including places like the United States, Germany and France.



Ahmer Khan, Loudbeetle.in's founder and CEO.


The film festival was held after two decades on such a scale after a militant group had forced shutting down of cinemas in the Valley. It screened the first Kashmiri feature film, Mainz Raat, shot in 1964 and Bashir Badgami’s Habba Khatoon, a film about the eponymous 16th-Century Kashmiri Muslim poetess and ascetic made in early 1970s.

The festival also screened The Last Day, a film by Siddhartha Gigoo, which depicts the plight of Kashmiri Pandits who were forced to flee their homes in Kashmir fearing religious persecution due to the eruption of armed insurgency.

"We get threat calls not to conduct events, but that is part of the game," says Khan.

"The challenge is that we don't have multinational companies here to sponsor the events."

The Other Side Café

'The Other Side Café' is a multi-cuisine food café and lounge.

Twenty-six-year-old Mir Muneeb can't recall many happy childhood memories. When his older brother, with whom he was very much attached, left the Valley for higher education, Muneeb lost interest in studies. His relatives taunted him and told their children not to mingle with him. "They thought I would spoil them," he says. After qualifying for a mechanical engineering exam, he dropped out midway to pursue a Bachelors degree in computer applications and developed an interest in photography. Many hotels in Srinagar adorned their walls with his pictures, some of which got nominated for a national award. But he still was not satisfied.

"I wanted to be my own boss and gain respect from my community," says Muneeb, who also rejected a job offer from the Craft Development Institute, which is part of the Ministry of Textiles.

"The Hospitality business is the backbone of business in Kashmir and this sector always enthralled me," says Muneeb, who decided to set up a Barista Lavazza franchise outlet.



Mir Muneeb, founder, The Other Side Café.


But Muneeb belongs to a family of doctors and did not have any experience of running any business. He managed to secure some space in Sara City Center, a shopping mall in Srinagar. But when he tried to woo coffee restaurant chain Barista Lavazza for a franchise outlet in Srinagar, a top official at the firm refused to partner saying that Kashmir was a conflict zone and there was very little scope for business. "Their rejection was a disappointment for me. I thought, 'Why not to come up with my own brand? Why not bring in something unique which will depict Kashmir’s identity?'"

For many months, Muneeb spent his nights researching online about setting up a café lounge of international standards. Seeing his passion, his parents sold their property to support him with money. Working day and night with the labourers to build the café lounge took a toll on his health, and he went into depression. "A psychiatrist advised me to take a break," he says. The other challenge he had to face was from the government. He had to run pillar to post to get various licences.When he was just in the process of opening the café , a government official landed up at his premises for tax collection.

"For testing the purity of water at the lounge, the official asked me to pay a huge amount of money," he says.

Despite all the difficulties, Muneeb's hard work has finally paid off. Last March, he launched 'The Other Side Café', a multi-cuisine food café and lounge. The venture is doing brisk business thanks to its uniqueness. Uzma Qureshi, an alumnus of National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad helped him design the interiors. The theme is based on the chinar leaf and its colours that are a symbol of Kashmir's heritage. It revolves around the seasonal colour changes of the chinar leaf — green, yellow, orange and maroon.

The café-lounge offers multicultural cuisines including Italian, Lebanese, continental and Irish besides different varieties of coffee and mocktails.Being a talented photographer, Muneeb also decorated the cafe with his own pictures as well as books. The profits earned from the café-lounge has helped him launch another venture called 'Baked Bliss' which sells bakery items. What has increased the demand for its products is that it is the only bakery venture that prints digital art, photographs and corporate logos onto the cakes.

"I focused deeply on ambience, food quality, service and hygiene," says Muneeb, who now keeps getting invitations from universities to talk about his entrepreneurship journey.

iQuasar

iQuasar's young team has seen floods, landslides and violent strikes. And lived to continue business as usual.

Located in Kashmir's Budgam district, surrounded by houses and paddy fields, iQuasar provides software services to global customers like NASA, the United States Postal Service and multinational telecommunications corporation AT&T.

Named after 'quasars' — the brightest and most distant objects in the known universe — the firm has survived floods, landslides and violent strikes. Fayaz Bhat, 51, a former Infosys consultant who along with his friends founded the firm says the team had anticipated these hurdles. "We wanted to create an example and send a positive feeling to the society and inspire other budding entrepreneurs."



Fayaz Bhat, co-founder, iQuasar


The company employs about 60 people and has become an authorised reseller of Google and Microsoft Apps for enterprises. It also provides services such as custom software development and business process outsourcing.

Bhat says the major challenges that tech startups are facing in the Valley is the lack of infrastructure such as fast internet, continuous supply of electricity and presence of Research & Development centres like those of multinationals like Yahoo, Microsoft and Google. The Valley also lacks venture capital firms that could invest seed capital in startups. New-age firms have to rely on banks, which are reluctant to provide loans as these ventures have no assets, unlike traditional companies.

"Also there is a fear psychosis about Kashmir because it is always in the news for negative things," says Bhat, an alumnus of National Institute of Technology in Srinagar. He also lamented that even for local technology implementation projects, the government gives preference to companies from other States. And ironically, they in turn outsource it to local tech firms in the Valley. "Multinational companies need to build a bridge with the Valley," he says.

"Kashmir is not truly connected with rest of the country."

KashmirBox.com

KashmirBox.com works directly and indirectly with a community of over 10,000 artisan families.

Right before the Eid festival this year, when online retailers expect a surge in their sales, Muheet Mehraj who runs KashmirBox.com, an e-commerce startup, had to face a loss of hundreds of orders placed on his portal due to a three-day ban on Internet services imposed by the government to prevent scaremongering by miscreants.

"We couldn't even wish customers on Eid," says Mehraj, the 25-year-old co-founder and chief executive of KashmirBox.com, based in Nowhatta, a historically important town in Srinagar and famous for the Jamma Masjid.

Despite such a hostile environment for entrepreneurship, KashmirBox, which sells Kashmiri products like apparel, accessories, food and craft online turned profitable this year. Mehraj said the market opportunity to sell such products is worth about $8 billion (Rs. 51,000 crore). About 75 percent of its business comes from various parts of India. It also exports the products to markets like the U.S., Canada, Middle East and Europe.

"When I bump into Flipkart and Snapdeal officials at various conferences outside the Valley, they are curious to know how I run my firm in such an environment," he says. A computer applications graduate from the University of Kashmir, Mehraj, founded KashmirBox four years ago, along with his friend Kashif Khan, an engineer from Jammu University. Affected by the plight of local Kashmiri artisans, the founders vowed to make a difference in their lives by creating a global marketplace.

"This is what sets us apart from Snapdeal and Flipkart," says Mehraj, who has a team of 20 people. The startup works directly and indirectly with a community of over 10,000 artisan families. It has devised a royalty program through which the artisans, producers and designers involved in every product are mapped. Then royalties are credited into their bank accounts in real time at the time of the sale.

The firm aims to replicate its model in other parts of India, especially in the Northeast region. To tackle situations like Internet disruption due to bans in future, they are setting up a back-up centre in Delhi. "Solutions come from places where there is resilience. We are best at 'jugaad'," says Mehraj.

MyRahat.com

Instead of bothering people with unwanted messages and notifications, Abid Rashid's Pipe app lets consumers receive only such information that they are acutely interested in and which is relevant to them. The one-week-old app has already delivered about 21,000 messages for consumers globally.

An information technology graduate from Karnatak University in Karnataka, Rashid had earlier launched a custom software development firm called iGear at the age of 18. He eventually decided to develop his own product instead of providing software services. So he created FuelMyPhone.com, a website that helped people recharge their prepaid mobile phones online from their homes. The service, which was available before smartphones became ubiquitous, was a runaway hit. Within four months of its launch, it got over 800 users.



Abid Rashid of MyRahat.com


"Ideas are good, but we don't have venture capital investors here to scale them up," says Mr. Rashid. "Banks charge 17 percent interest and don't invest in such ideas."

Rashid then joined hands with another startup MyRahat.com, which offers a variety of products and services to people through its common service centres. His mobile recharge product was embedded there. He also created a tech platform at MyRahat.com that is now providing various e-governance services across 1,500 centres in the Valley. These services, which are mainly catering to rural consumers, range from buying of seeds for cultivation to recharging prepaid mobile phones.

"I am very optimistic about the future. I see an increasing number of people launching their own startups," says Rashid, who is building a team and scouting for funding to turn 'Pipe' into a scalable business venture.

Go Kash Adventures

While pursuing his bachelor's degree in law at the University of Pune, Danish Mir, 26, would often get requests from his friends to get them goods like shawls, dry fruits and handicraft items from his hometown in Kashmir. It was then that Mir smelled a business opportunity.

A stint at Wipro BPO helped him learn various customer service skills that came in handy when he launched his own e-commerce venture KashmirBasket.com. The startup sells Kashmiri products like dry fruits, handicrafts, silk items, saffron and spices.



Danish Mir, founder, Go Kash Adventures


"I was able to convince my family and friends to provide me seed funding," says Mir who hails from Rohama, a village in Kashmir, about 75 km from Srinagar city. But his co-founder left the firm when it became difficult to raise money. "Unlike venture capital investors, banks give funds based on the assets you have," says Mir.

Last September, he faced the biggest challenge of his life. He had to shut down the venture as the Valley faced one of the worst floods witnessed in more than a century.

But Mir didn't lose hope. This May, he not only relaunched KashmirBasket.com, but the experience also inspired him to start another venture, Go Kash Adventures, an adventure travel startup. It manages activities such as camping, rafting, skiing, trekking and paragliding. In fact, most of Mir's revenue is now coming from this firm.

The firm conducts small group tours like safaris, expeditions and offers Kashmiri cuisine for customers in tourist spots like Ladakh, Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gulmarg. After penetrating the Kashmir market, the firm expects to expand its services in States such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. "We are all aware of the startup boom in India and want to be part of it," he says.

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