In 2010, I received an email from BBC about a possible collaboration with my blog SmashingLists. My blog was uniquely positioned in the industry as far as the branding was concerned because it frequently made it to the then front-page of the internet; Digg’s frontpage. Because of that, I started to receive brand inquiries that were way above my pay-scale.
BBC had just launched BBC Earth and were looking for partners for distribution of their content to get visibility. They got in touch so I could publish their stories on my blog as they didn’t have a blog at that time and were just looking for ways to build their brand.
They were hoping that I would then push this story on Digg and get their brand eye-balls.
Guess what did I bill them for this?
Nothing. Yeap. I thought that I’m getting free content from BBC and that probably is great in itself.
I also completely failed to capitalize my future relationship with them.
This is what happens when you give influence to a Pakistani boy who has no idea whatsoever about the billing structure of the west and is happy to take home; nothing.
In 2010, when I was focusing all my energies on a top 10 lists blog, I met someone on the internet who was very good with viral content creation. He lived in the bay area and ran many high volume sites.
While he didn’t really have any interest in wanting to work with me because he was doing quite well, he agreed to write a few posts for my blog on a rev-share basis because of our friendship. I assured him that I will make my best efforts to market the posts on digg and reddit but failed to get his articles viral. In the end, I ended up owing him some pocket-change with no way to pay the money to him because of unavailability of PayPal.
I was up and coming in the business, still trying to learn my way through it. I didn’t know many people. I had a friend who would receive PayPal payments for me in the UK, but he maintained no balance for me at that time and I didn’t receive any payments in the following weeks either.
While my friend didn’t really need the pocket-change, he did mention once or twice that there’s still nothing in his PayPal.
After I was let down by the likes of Western Union which didn’t allow sending money to anyone with a non-Pakistani name, I concluded that the most cost effective way of sending $15 to US is by shipping him a T-Shirt from the US and paying for it with my debit card.
I met this guy in 2009. That’s 11 years ago. He always wore a hat. He loves them.
He taught me how the systems are gamed. I loved it. We were on the Digg’s front-page everyday. We worked for the top guys. I will probably not name them today. May be they don’t want to acknowledge they gamed the system too.
The system was nothing but a recommendation engine. One of the first I had seen. When Twitter and Facebook ranked posts chronologically, Kevin Rose had the recommendation engine figured out. We just knew how to make the best use of it. Reverse engineering it, I would say.
One of our clients in the sports niche got acquired for $150 million dollars. Almost all of our clients are a multi million dollar properties today.
Over time, struggling between gaming the system for growth, solving an actual problem or doing both at a time, 2020 came.
Today, I’m wondering, how do you build a global business from Pakistan that could one day grow large enough?
How do you hire white people or black people or asian people or anyone to cast them in your ads? Can you? Are there any in this country? If yes, are they actors? They probably aren’t and you probably can’t.
You could outsource though. For tens of thousands of dollars perhaps? Or millions of Pakistani Rupees that you can most likely save in 5 years working in a day job.
If you’re bootstrapped, which you most likely will be because there aren’t any VCs here, what would you do? Would you get that ad made? Or would you pick a hundred ads from the internet, break them apart, and stitch them enough times that they qualify for “fair use” and become DMCA-free. This would probably cost you $50.
Forget about the ads. Not all businesses advertise and advertising could be just one of the many things about building a business. You will most likely require certain kind of digital infrastructure for sure. PayPal? Ability to accept cards i-e payment gateways? But there are none that support this region. What do you do?
You could fly to US or another supported region, setup a company, and use that to setup the rest of the digital infrastructure. But most likely you’ll never get a visa and you probably also can’t afford this travel easily. If you think I’m exaggerating, I know at least 5 tech entrepreneurs from Pakistan who have built multi million dollar businesses but were declined US visit visa.
May be you could fly to one of 31 visa free countries? But they are just as good as your own country as far as the digital infrastructure and access to business tools is concerned.
You could reach out to friends or relatives in US and form a company in partnership with them. You could use that company to setup PayPal, payment gateway and other business tools that you need to begin your business.
But there’s more. You will most likely be banned at some point once you access these business tools physically from within Pakistan.
What do you do then? You could rent a server physically in US. Remote Desktop Protocol. You could access that server remotely and run your business on that. Sounds sketchy, doesn’t it?
But you could get banned for that too. Because it’s not that big of a deal for these multi billion and trillion dollar companies to understand the difference between a data-center’s IP and that of a home in US.
So may be you could buy a Raspberry Pi that you could physically place in someone’s house in US. I’m confident none of my friends or relatives would agree to this. It would seem strange to them that why would someone want to do it? They would think that there could be something malicious going on that could land them in trouble.
You could also buy a laptop and physically place that in their houses and run your businesses with remote access. I know my cousins aren’t going to like that idea. May be yours do.
By the time you would come this far, you would have exhausted 83% of your energies in setting up the the foundation to start your business.
Thousands of entrepreneurs from Pakistan actually have to go through all of this (and more) to actually start their businesses. May be you see a scammer, but I see a victim that turned around his fate and became a hero.
So what happened there? Did we choose that grey hat, or did that grey hat choose us?
I met Zeeshan aka ZSM nearly 10 years ago. I met him after reading this article. He just had his 100th story get on Digg’s front-page which was a very big deal for me since I hadn’t had my first at that point. For people who joined social media later, Digg was like Reddit, only bigger.
To put things in numbers, 1 story getting popular on Digg would roughly mean 50,000 unique visits. 100 popular stories would approximately mean 5,000,000 visits. Assuming an RPM of $5, which is quite low, this should have generated $25,000. In 2008. By a 17 year old. Before Facebook, Twitter & YouTube were a thing.
Zeeshan also happens to have a rare disability called ‘rickets’ that has caused deformation to almost all the bones in his body. But I’ve found him more ‘able’ than most other people I know, including me. Since he doesn’t talk a lot about his disability anymore, I’m not going to do any further talking either.
Zeeshan’s story is extra-ordinary. What he achieved was special. Way more special than what anyone else I know achieved. But Zeeshan in the last couple of years, was very ordinary. He was ordinary because like most successful people, he had found his comfort-zone. He seeked happiness in things outside of work, which I completely understand. But once you do that long enough, you become very ordinary. And somehow, I feel special people shouldn’t be ordinary. They can be ordinary for themselves, but not for the rest of the world. And the world deserves to see more of Zeeshan.
Today, I think would be the first day of that happening. Zeeshan has just started his YouTube vlog. His challenge to himself is 1 vlog a day for at least next 365 days.
My predictions for his YouTube channel are below.
He will cross minimum 250,000 subscribers before year ends, without a Rupee in ad-spend.
He will have minimum 10,000,000 views before the year ends.
At least 1 of his videos will hit 1 million views. There’s a 50% probability that this will happen. But if he gets married in last quarter of 2020, there’s a 95% probability of this happening.
All these predictions will only come true if he completes 365-day challenge.
I’ve recently developed a habit of making public predictions. They can be embarrassing if you’re awfully off. But they are fun and challenging. They also improve my chances of predicting better in the long run.