I fell into a burning ring of fire – I went down, down, down and the flames went higher!

The Ring of fire in Tech: Nauman Akbar, founder and owner of MessageMuse, a full service digital marketing agency, discusses the challenges faced by start-up tech companies

Interviewer: We are speaking with Nauman Akbar, the founder and owner of MessageMuse, a new digital marketing company based here in Lahore. Nauman, tell us about this new venture of yours.

Nauman Akbar: MessageMuse was started about a year ago with the vision of growing a Pakistani based IT company that offers a full spectrum of digital marketing services to those in other countries. The company has all the growing pains of any new company plus the added challenge of partnering with companies and individuals throughout the world.

Interviewer: What types of digital marketing services does MessageMuse provide?

Nauman Akbar: We offer all the services that a company or a public figure will need to start and to grow their presence in this space: Website design, SEO services, logos and branding, enterprise, iOS and Android app development, and reputation management. This allows our agency to plan a digital marketing strategy that can grow with them.

Interviewer: Even though MessageMuse is new, you are not new to this industry, are you?

Nauman Akbar: Absolutely not. In fact, I am one of the old guys in the digital marketing arena. I have been around for a long time and have seen the technology change and the services expand over the years. But what has remained constant are the challenges that all new businesses face related to scaling and the financials. That will always be there.

Interviewer: Let’s talk a bit about the scalability issues that face new companies. Are there some unique ones that face IT companies?

Nauman Akbar: Absolutely and it lies in the expertise of the staff you hire. If you are going to provide certain services to your clients—particularly in IT—you have to hire or contract with experts needed to create the best, most innovative projects for your clients. This isn’t an industry where people easily cross-train to fill in the talent gaps. It’s not like your dot.net guy is going to become a graphic designer and vice versa.

Interviewer: So recruiting and hiring in specific areas of expertise is part of the challenge?

Nauman Akbar: Yes, but luckily Pakistan is a country rich in IT talent. I see the challenges more in the area of having only one person per specific skillset and keeping a steady flow of work for that skillset.

Interviewer: Let’s take the first challenge you mentioned—only one person per specific skillset. What do you face in the way of those challenges?

Nauman Akbar: There are a couple of limitations. First is the productivity that one person can provide. Projects come to us as they present themselves. I may have a month where I get requests for seven website designs but no app development projects. That means some of my staff will be very busy while others will be idle.

The other challenge is the precarious nature of having only one person doing a particular job. Any emergency or illness, particularly at the time of deadlines, can put you into some stressful situations. Managing through those periods can make you grow old fast.

Interviewer: You also mentioned the challenge of project flow. Tel us about that.

Nauman Akbar: Well, as I said, once you hire someone with a specific skillset, then you have to keep him busy for there to be a financial benefit to your company. Hiring someone to do a project is great and it creates productivity for as long as the project runs but what happens after that? The minute we start a new project, I have to be thinking about how to get the next project in the works for that skillset.

Interviewer: So it appears that there is ongoing pressure for the digital agency owner.

Nauman Akbar: Yes, it is and it requires that you switch hats often. One day I am the marketing department, out presenting to clients and trying to get new contracts. The next day I am an in-house workflow manager following up on project deadlines. And then I am the HR department trying to recruit great talent while continuing to assess the work of those who are already working for me. And if it gets too busy in a particular area then I get to roll up my sleeves and start working on whatever needs more manpower at the time.

Interviewer: With regard to wearing many hats, what advice to do you offer?

Nauman Akbar: Educate yourself as much as possible. Talk to others who have been in business for a while and ask their advice. Oh, and get used to working without much sleep.

Interviewer: No sleep?

Nauman Akbar: Well much less sleep unless you have a business like MessageMuse that has clients in the US. Just when it is time to go to bed in Lahore, my US customers are just getting up and are ready to talk. And when your customer wants to talk, you have to be available to listen. Your ability to accommodate time zone differences is a big consideration when you decide where you want to do business.

Interviewer: So why did you decide to do business in the states?

Nauman Akbar: Originally, I was contacted by an IT broker in the states to partner with him. So the idea grew out of that concept. But Pakistan is in a sweet economic spot right now. We have a lot of highly skilled IT talent at reasonable salaries which makes pricing of digital marketing services very competitive. The issue is having the contact person in the US. Most people purchasing IT services usually need that middle man that they can meet with face to face until they gain trust in dealing with an offshore company.

Interviewer: So you think Pakistan is in a good spot for IT growth.

Nauman Akbar: For now. But as prosperity comes to Pakistan, salaries will rise and our competiveness will decrease. We can expect things to change over the next 7 years. But by then IT services will look very different as well.

This is both the exciting and frightening part of owning a start-up in the IT industry.

Interviewer: Wow so the industry and your business will be in flux in the out years. What else might our readers find interesting about digital marketing agency start-ups?

Nauman Akbar: I would think that people would be surprised by the number of hours you spend doing up-front work for a potential client–work that may never get to be a contract for an actual project. In all my time in the business, I have never been able to determine which projects will come to fruition and which will be a wasted effort. Clients have come to expect this presentation of material even for the smallest of projects.

Interviewer: In addition to the upfront investment of effort, what are some of the other challenges you face?

Nauman Akbar: Actually I see two major challenges in my day to day running of the company. The first is the client’s limitations—whether it is their lack of understanding about digital marketing services or their sense that they hired you and they have to do nothing further.

Either way it limits how you can serve them until they understand more about what digital marketing can do and what it can’t do without help from them. An effective program is a joint effort which requires as much from the client as it does from the digital agency. As an example, a client needs to understand that a digital agency has to have content from them. Without it, there is nothing to share and nothing to get customers excited about.

Clients also have to understand that we can do a lot to help their business but we are not magicians. We cannot offset overpriced or poor quality products and services. It is still a commodities world and people will seek out the best value with the best service. A client being open to change in order to be competitive is important so that digital marketing tools can get their brand out to the public.

Interviewer: And what is that second challenge?

Nauman Akbar: Getting paid. It is probably one of the most frustrating and, sadly, one of the more frequent challenges in this and many other industries today. The time when people honored their commitments is gone. Instead, even though you do work that the client really appreciates, payments are either slow or non-existent. All your time and manpower are put into a project for which you cannot collect.

Interviewer: Are there any solutions to getting paid?

Nauman Akbar: Some of it is how you structure your payment milestones. That will let you get some money up front but ultimately you may have to chase the client for payment. Unfortunately, even if you take legal action there are usually no assets to be had. When people owe you and don’t pay, I have found that you are one of many who are owed.

Interviewer: What about the work you have done?

Nauman Akbar: Of course you don’t release source code until all payment is made but if the client walks away, you still have a project that is not paid. And you have code or a website that is specific to a particular customer that can’t be used for much else.

Over time, however, I have come to understand that if you give a person reasonable time to pay and a few reminders and still payment is slow or doesn’t come, that is a good indicator to cut your losses and shelve the project. Rarely do people who have a poor payment history change their pattern. While it makes you furious as a business owner, there is little that can be done about it and it seems more common than ever these days.

In the end, these failed projects end up being paid by the other customers.

Interviewer: What are your future plans for MessageMuse?

Nauman Akbar: I want to grow my company slowly to give me time to establish a consistent customer base. I also want to partner with more brokers in the US. My goal over the next two years is to establish brokerage connections with another 4 brokers in the US and perhaps one in England. With that expansion, it means spending time in the states to build those relationships. It is an aggressive plan for expansion considering that I still have to maintain operations here in Lahore. It is like keeping a lot of plates twirling all at once with oceans in between them. But I will admit it—I am a serial entrepreneur so to me it looks like a lot of fun. I love that ring of fire.

This article is brought to you by Nauman Akbar, founder and owner of MessageMuse, a leader in offshore digital IT services. We are a full service digital marketing agency offering website development, enterprise app solutions for businesses, mobile app development, reputation management, logo design, and branding. We currently have customers internationally and in the US. We are now expanding our services to South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. We are a registered business with the Delaware Secretary of State. We welcome individuals, businesses, and brokers to check out all the services and skills we offer. Give us a call at +1 (704) 315-2120 or check out our website at https://www.messagemuse.com/ or send us an email at agency@messagemuse.com. Let us help your business find creative digital solutions at any price point.