Ignore this – even I don’t know what this is about

He put all his 25 years of wisdom into one sentence: It starts with you, it starts with hope. Dammit! To be very cliché: the enormity of what I am doing hit me with a ferocity unlike what I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been meaning to use that sentence for some time without finding a proper moment to do so. Feels good! With that out of the way, I can tell you what’s going on.

So, you know how I am a self-proclaimed sexist, right? For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a startup that employs women (surprise! surprise!) to do digital work from home and hence (very British of me, no? This is in honor of the Royal Wedding coming up – the most I could do.) enabling them to work without fear of any objections from the fam, or any fear of getting hit by a lightning bolt for working with men and burning in eternal fire, or fear of getting blown up into smithereens by a random bombing. It’s a win-win! You work with cute, rich, random guys from around the world AND you earn more than you would working as a teacher at some “best elitist school system” (yep, my son’s Bradford-born Principal, who probably flunked A-levels and was married off to the first Paki guy who would have her because of her enchanté accent *blech*,  told me that when I went for his admission!!), and you can spend the entire day sitting in your room watching Gossip Girl and bark at people around you ‘coz of course you were transcribing the show for a client. Professional and family life become bliss! GOD! I better stop watching Gossip Girl – that was mean even for me.

Anyhoo, so I was saying. Me? Role model? Beacon of hope? Erm? So, I’ve worked with pretty cool people the past 2 years: YPO, Quora, Fission Strategy. Had wonderful experiences including helping to arrange a conference call with Tony Blair and Paul Kagame (I won’t say exactly how much I helped but I did help more than YOU did so stop b****ing and accept I am cooler than you), working on trips to Africa to help build schools for orphans, spreading awareness about the devastation caused by natural disasters in Pakistan and Haiti. But that was all for me. How am I giving hope to anyone?

I guess it might be ‘coz very early in my life I learned that if you wanted something bad enough there was always a way to get it (NOT APPLICABLE if you look like YOU and want to look like Christy Turlington – that ain’t happening no matter how hard you try sista’) and it did not necessarily meant breaking every rule in the book and becoming a rebel. You can find a way around the obstacles in your way – you don’t have to go through them. I wanted to study – do my Masters. Wasn’t allowed to attend a co-ed so I started looking around for options, wasted a year, and found a girl’s college that had started Masters classes that year. The experience was HORRIBLE to say the least BUT I am glad I made the right decision and went ahead with the course. Now when someone asks me what my qualification is, saying I have a Masters from Quaid-e-Azam or saying I have a Masters from Frontier College, makes no difference to my clients. They don’t recognize either institutes. All they know is that I have an MA in English Lit, and that’s all that matters.

Then, I wanted to work. 3 years at a local private school as an ESL teacher were painful, to say the least. Won’t go into details, but it helped on my CV, and I learned some lessons that have helped me with latter work (such as, don’t suck up to the boss – suck up to the colleagues – they are the ones that will cover your ass. If you gals are reading this, which I doubt, you know I love you despite the fact I started with that agenda *grin*).

Then, the hunger to do something more challenging (dramatic, I know!) set in once again. This time, I wanted to work with an NGO or some UN-type organization, or work in an office-environment (whatever that means). VERY FUNNY – like that was going to happen! But it did. I found virtual work. Won’t start a bragging session about the amazing things I did/am doing though the temptation is overpowering.

So, if I can do it, everyone and anyone can. I get applications for work from such a  diverse group of women. Students, bored housewives, working women looking for more work (seriously!), cousins impressed and suspicious of my new found riches and star-status in the fam. But some stories are touching. Like this young mom who wrote to me a couple of weeks back. She has a small baby, about 18 months old, who has some sort of medical condition making him immobile from the waist down. She has to be with her baby 24/7 but promised she could work part-time when the baby was napping. I wanted to cry. If I had enough work to send her I would.  But I don’t. This is where my venture, if successful, gives hope. I told her about my struggle (yeah, I never forget to put in a bit of a brag into everything – I love me), pointed her towards places on the Internet she could find work on, and promised her I’d help her if I ever can. Few days back I pinged her on Skype and I was happy to know she had found a part-time VA job.

Another initiative – in a small town in the remote northern areas of Pakistan we have a team of about 10 women working from an IT Center doing basic digital tasks. Their earnings? Less than $25 each but in a place where a full-time school teacher gets less than $50 a month, these girls made that much working part-time. Plus, how many teaching jobs could there be in a town with a population of less than 10,000 people? This is an opportunity to work without leaving their homes and heading to bigger cities in search for employment. And we hope to send them more work and employ them full-time once some internal structural changes are made which I am hoping will be real soon.

Hope! This is what it’s all about. It’s not me alone but my venture and the lives touched that are rekindling hope in the hearts of many. It gives me courage to go along with my plans, to knock on doors I would never dare to approach, to push myself to the limit to make this successful. There are times when I want to give up and hide under the covers and just be happy with what I am doing for myself. But, I know if I give up now a part of me will always make me feel guilty for not doing it.

I’ll let you all go put those hankies in the washer now. Blow your noses, put iced tea-bags on your eyes, and be fabulous!

Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Accounting

I hate handling money. I absolutely abhor it. I suck at it. For me managing money means spending it and not having any so you don’t need to worry about managing it. That’s BAD – really bad – I know. But what to do? I need an accountant, WDL needs an accountant – BADLY!

Here is what I do to keep a track of WDL’s finances: have a folder on my desktop with 2 sub-folders. One sub is for invoices that have been paid and another for unpaid ones. And THAT’S it! This is hara kiri, I am telling you. (what is hara kiri? GOD GALS – you don’t Google at all, do you? Now is a good time to start … :P) OK so you would think, that’s not too bad. It is! Because I often forget to add invoices to the folders or put them in the wrong folder or something like that. Why I am confessing this? Because unless I admit I have a problem I won’t be able to find a solution to it. About ‘fessing stuff, some people/well-wishers have come up to me and said this blog will be the death of WDL. To them I say thanks for the concern but I have made so far with “this kind of attitude” and I don’t have regular Girl Fridays or Happy Hour dates with my clients. It’s more like Hey there, Can you please work on xyz task and return it by 10 PM? and that’s it. How I talk or what I talk about outside of work hours doesn’t bother them. I’d be surprised if any of my 5 avid readers turns out to be a former or current client. :P Chillax!

Digression thy name is MOI!

Yeah, so what do you guys suggest I do? CFOs are expensive. WDL can’t afford one. Volunteers – dunno where to find them and if I do get someone am not sure she will take it seriously enough. Back when I was partnering as a service provider with a not-for-profit in the US I was surprised to see how almost all of their staff was made of volunteers and each performed her duties like she would at a paid job. Here, in my dear country, I am afraid that ain’t gonna happen.

So, what are my options? Any free software available that’ll manage WDL’s finances? At the business skills course, they’ll be giving us classes on accounting and finance. Am hoping to pick something there – fingers crossed.

So, if you are a VA, which makes you into an entrepreneur, like it or not, you must keep a track of your money. Know what comes in, how much goes out in payments to team members, how much is spent on office stationary and power backup (I have to change the battery for my UPS every year and it cost me Rs. 12k this time), etc. Don’t get super excited by the total figure at the end of the month – learn to differentiate between total revenue and profits. Put aside a certain amount every month no matter how irresistible the lawn sales are – there will be lows and you must be prepared for them. I didn’t listen when a friend advised me to do just that a year back and I found myself so broke I put Oliver Twist to shame – Please Sir, I want some more … (have you noticed how when you are broke even a Rs. 100 DVD, that is roughly $1.2, seems like a fortune that mean, old fate has deprived you of?)

Lap up these words of wisdom, Ladies! oDesk and Elance don’t teach you this. Only experience does. And of course MOI!

OK byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Challenges Facing Pakistani Businesswomen

OK -  I know all 5 of you missed me – I see the love … about 10 hits while I was gone. But hey, I am back, if only for a lil while. ;)

Been filling out forms left, right and center for the Project Artemis course I am leaving for soon. Did I tell you guys about it? It’s AWESOME! I have been selected for a 2 week (is it 2 week or 2 weeks??) course on business leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, AZ. Being sponsored by the US State Department and Goldman Sachs under their 10,000 Women program. The program is for 20-35 years old women with small businesses and no formal business training looking for a little push in the right direction and some mentoring.

Anyhoo … the one question that keeps cropping up as I fill forms upon forms is the challenges facing Pakistani businesswomen. Got me thinking … yeah I am crazy enough not to have ever given that much thought before despite being obviously relevant to what I am doing … but that’s how I am … stop judging me … you don’t know me … I AM STRESSED! I was saying … ?

Yeah, so challenges I face as an entrepreneur.

Here are a few I could think of …

1 – Obtaining Financial Support – HUGE challenge. I have support, people love and are fascinated by the idea of what I am doing. But when it comes to actually coughing up that $10k they become wary – same argument everywhere  … it’s a service and not a product so it’s difficult to put a value on it.

Plus, I have looked at the process of obtaining bank loans in Pakistan and it’s a very cumbersome and discouraging process. Firstly, banks have little experience in supporting innovative startups. Secondly, red-tapism and high interest rates make it a very hard endeavor.

2 – HR Woes – 59% of the total female population in Pakistan between the age of 15 and 24 are educated. 10% of our population of an estimated 18 million uses the Internet. Now you would think women would be falling over each other trying to get a place in WDL. Somewhat true – I put up an ad for a fulltime VA on a local job portal and received over 240 application. Unfortunately, more than half the applicants were men. Goes on to show no one reads the job requirements! The female half were no better. I wrote to all of them asking them to complete a simple demo task which required them to clean-up the data in an excel sheet. Left it to them how they wanted to do it. I SUCK at excel so when I say it was a basic task, I mean it. Right near the end of the email, I put it in nice big, bold, RED HIGHLIGHTED letters that I wanted an update at or before midnight the next day and they had a total of 48 hours to finish the task. Guess how many reported on time? ONE! Yep … only one out of about 120. I thought, OK, so she is the one I have been looking for. I invite her for an interview and after a 45 minutes interview where I explained everything to her and she grilled me with Q&As we finally shook hands on it(virtually of course) and I gave her a warm welcome to WDL. All well, eh? Nope – within 10 minutes she pings me on Skype only to say she had just consulted with her husband and she couldn’t join right now since she had two other day jobs. SCREAMS!!! After this experience and speaking to several other women working in conventional offices doing content writing, SEO and other digital tasks for less than $200 a month working 9 hours daily for 6 days a week I reached one conclusion: we have yet to understand the true potential of online work and that working-from-home can actually be a serious, lucrative full-time job. We need more awareness.

Having said that, I do have some incredibly intelligent, competent and skilled women (OK, girls, don’t take offense – “women” sounds slightly more professional :P ) – they are working form home and doing a brilliant job and I am so blessed to have found them. Ladies, I don’t say it enough so soak it up (soak it in??) .. whatever. Anyway, none of you reads my blog so you won’t know all the nice things I say about you .. duh!

3 – Gender – yep, you heard me right. It all trickles down to the same thing. A 31-year old woman with two kids with a technical startup selling a service rather than a product (cute little teddy bears wearing Sindhi caps or embroidered pashmina shawls would get me more sympathy and probably funds) is the perfect recipe for business harakiri. What does a woman from a small town with a degree in humanities know about running a business? Well, to them I say, I have made it so far without any help form you or anybody else for that matter – with a little push I will soon have you eating a very humble pie with “When I See Your Face, Hope It Gives Your Hell” playing in the background. Yeah, I am juvenile – that’s part of my charm and my stealth attack. :P

4 – Payment Options – How in God’s name are you going to run an online business catering to clients around the world when you don’t have PayPal? Yes, I have talked in great detail about other payment options in a previous post but the simple truth is people just prefer the convenience of PayPal. No one is willing to walk to Western Union 10 blocks away or fill out lengthy forms for wire transfers when they can easily outsource the same work to someone in India or the Philippines and pay them via PayPal. I hate you PayPal and Scott Thompson and whoever else is involved in leaving Pakistan out of its list of partner countries. I have friends in the VA business with PayPal accounts in nearby countries but that does not solve the woes. By the time the money reaches them here in Pakistan they lose about 10% of their total earnings in transaction fees, currency conversion fees, wire transfer fees … you get the picture right? So when you are already getting paid less than minimum wages you just can not afford to lose 10% of it. So what to do??

5 – Lack of Support – This is another one. Lack of support from both family and also from other people already in the business. People either just don’t have the time to help or don’t want to help – I dunno which. We need an advisory board that can help entrepreneurs, female or otherwise, starting a startup or running a small company and wanting to take it to the next level. Some organization do exist that are working towards incubating women-owned businesses and helping with their growth, like SMEDA, but they only operate in big cities like Lahore and Karachi.

6 – Power Failures – This is my favorite … you are working online which obviously requires you to have electricity and we live in a country where unscheduled power failures are a common feature of our day to day life. Spring does not mean beautiful weather and flowers blooming and birds chirping but power-outs every two hours. It’s impossible to work virtually without having a good power back-up and that my friends requires $$$. I don’t blame many of the girls for chickening out of joining me full time because I require them to have not only a reliable and fast Internet connection but also an 8-hourly online presence. Not many can promise me the latter considering we are facing such a gigantic issue wrt power-failures.

These are just some of the challenges put in a very haphazard manner but they are enough to give anyone an idea of what we face. Why is this post relevant to my vow to educate ye all about virtual work? Because you ought to know what you are getting yourself up against.

Another thing I suck at is ending these ramblings … so … yeah … OK …

BYEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee