#19 Yasir Shirazi: The Immigrant Entrepreneur Creating Global Impact

updated on 10 February 2021

Immigrants bring a distinctive cross-cultural experience to the table. It is due to our exposure to unique situations that we can identify innovative solutions and create immense value globally.  

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After the one hour conversation with Yasir, we felt understood. For the first time, we spoke with someone who had been through a similar journey. He left his country and built a successful platform that he transformed into a sustainable business. This is our dream, and we will make sure to follow every single one of his pieces of advice. 

Yasir is currently the founder and CEO of Instakin. Before that, he worked for Total in Pakistan, Siemens in the U.S. and Germany before launching successful digital ventures: Parhlo and SocialCxN. The cherry on the cake, he’s an alumnus of Babson College and Harvard University.

Yasir is also an avid traveler, who wants to constantly learn more about the world that surrounds him. He’s traveled to 38 countries so far, how many have you visited?

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups-and-down, the late nights, the early mornings, the failures and the victories.

In a few words; we want to share the real stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Everything in Italic symbolizes the voice of the writer, aka, us at Venture Insider.

Introduce yourself — tell us a little bit about your journey?

I’m originally from Pakistan where I grew up, went to university and even got my first job. I left this first corporate job to go to the US, where I studied for grad school. I ended up launching a second career at Siemens, which later brought me to Germany. 

On the side, I have always worked on my own ventures. I’m currently the Founder and CEO of Instakin, a social impact venture that aims to facilitate the life of millions of immigrants globally.

What did you dream of when you were a kid?

I have always had an interest in business, from the very early beginning. It was very clear in my mind that I was going to try to create something value-based. The internet brought plenty of opportunities, and I was lucky enough to surf the wave, it’s now my third tech venture, it’s been a while (laughing). 

You had a comfortable job in Pakistan, why leave everything behind for the U.S.?

I knew that if I wanted to create an impact, it had to be in a place where this impact could be fostered, where the stakeholders would align with my vision. Remember, 15 years back, tech wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. Even though I had a nice job back home, I wanted to do something different. It wasn’t the safest choice, as leaving everything behind always embodies some level of risk. My colleagues at the time told me that I was making a mistake, but honestly, this was the best decision of my life! 

I felt that the US was the ideal place where I could start something impactful on a global scale.

On top of that, I also understood the value of network and education. I was fortunate to study at top universities, and suddenly came in contact with people from dozens of countries who shared ideas and thoughts on how to make the world a better place! I was getting new ideas and new perspectives. It made me understand that it was all worth it. 

What passions did you have at university, and how did you nurture them?

I had a very keen interest in Entrepreneurship from day one. I spent most of my time figuring out how great businesses are built. So I was more at the innovation lab than at any other place on campus. 

I also took the time to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, brainstorming ideas and trying to understand their views on the world. 

As an immigrant, the opportunity cost of leaving your home is very high. So you need to make the best out of it in every way. I decided to create my own journey. 

Can you elaborate on all these startups that you started?

Sure! So, two of them are actually running right now. They’re doing very well but let me speak about the failure first. 

It started when I was right out of college. I was working for a company and honestly couldn’t complain about anything, it was a pretty good job. One day, I went straight up to my boss and I said: ‘I will be leaving, I’m going to start my own venture’. 

I started a software business around 2006  But within a few months I decided to pivot.

The local market was simply not ready for any major software-driven solutions. This experience taught me a lot about early product market fit, validation, and team-building. 

What about the successes?

Let me focus on Parhlo (which in Urdu language means: read). I come from a family of writers and so, naturally, I started writing as well. One day, I wrote something, which I thought was pretty good, but I couldn’t get it published anywhere. 

This was around 2011, and I wondered how it could be so tricky in this age to get published? 

So, I set up a website and did it myself. That’s how Parhlo was born. 

Suddenly we went from having just a few hundred visitors a day to a few hundred thousand a day. Now, there are more than 7,000 contributors, predominantly from South Asia, who send us content related to their personal experiences or opinions, and we take care of publishing it for them. 

It feels really good when our team is able to support upcoming writers to create impact via our platform. It’s very powerful. 

Why continue to create companies, instead of focusing on one?

Yeah, why create multiple ventures? Good question. 

When we started each of my previous startups, we had a particular audience in mind. It was group-and language-specific. We knew that these would scale into value-based ventures and would turn sustainable while creating impact. Today, these ventures have their own teams, and run on their own. That’s the reason I don’t have any problem stepping back and being not involved at this point.

Instakin is different. It is a high-impact venture. It goes above and beyond a specific localized audience. It is a venture that we are creating for the global immigrant community. That’s why I’m now working 24/7 on making sure we achieve our vision because the impact that we have already created here is huge! 

What’s your advice for the people out there who want to build an online audience?

You need to find very committed early adaptors, online users who become customers and love your service so much that they would refer you to others. That is the optimal validation towards building an online community.

Once you’re able to find these committed users, you need to continuously create value for them. FOCUS MATTERS. 

Instead of spending efforts  just on advertising for brand awareness, focus on high-service levels/delivery and just generally creating a brilliant customer experience. That is how you can build your tribe of believers. Secondly, be specific. Don't try to be everything for everyone. It is a mistake.

How do you grow a team effectively?

That’s a great question!

For any startup, the most important hires are the first five. If  you onboard folks in the core team  who are not the right fit, all the subsequent hires won’t likely be a good fit either. You may end up with hires 6 to 20 being less relevant  for the company.

Personally, I went after people who I believed would be the best possible fit in terms of developing a solution and who aligned with my vision.

In the early days, I would simply reach out to people. I would explain to them my vision and hear their feedback. When you grow a startup, nobody will come for the benefits you’re offering, big companies do that much better than you. People will join if they understand and believe in the value you’re trying to create. Having frank and honest conversations is the best way to figure that out.

One advice to all the aspiring entrepreneurs out there?

Perseverance. Immigrants are known for this trait. You need it if you want to become a  value-driven entrepreneur. Many people start an exciting venture but give up too quickly. I would recommend thinking outside-the-box for solutions and viewing challenges as opportunities. 

What’s Instakin’s mission?

Our mission resonates very closely with personal experiences that my friends and I went through in our immigrant journey. I’ve been an immigrant for the last 13 years and, when I decided to move to Germany a few years back, I realized that there was a lot of documentation work needed from back home in order to proceed with my new residency. 

There was no optimal solution to manage these time-critical tasks back home. You either had to rely on busy friends or random unverified vendors to get things done for you. A process that should have taken not more than three days took a couple of weeks. I’m sure many in the immigrant community can relate to such instances. While you are so far away from home, you have limited access to reliable services. We can Yasir, we can! Moving from one country to another comes with its load of bureaucratic hassles. 

That’s when I first realized that there was a need in the market for a solution that would solve the painful process of managing tasks back home for immigrant communities. This is something people want to solve immediately, they don’t want to wait. Our research has shown that immigrants globally face similar challenges not just for documentation but for multiple everyday tasks. In the last 10 months, we have spoken to immigrants in USA/Europe originally from India, Bangladesh, Uganda, Egypt, Morocco, Philippines, Nigeria, Mexico and Pakistan. It is amazing how similar the stories are and how uniform the needs of this global community are.  

Why do you relate so much to immigration?

This is very personal. I'm an immigrant myself. I'm trying to create value around a problem that I faced multiple times in the last decade. 

Traditionally, immigrants are an underserved market for their financial needs. Look around you, there are solutions for gen X, gen Z, or millennials, but nothing oriented specifically towards immigrant communities. There are more than 250 million immigrants globally that remit more than half a trillion dollars every year to their home countries. If you look up IMF and World Bank Data, half a trillion dollars means that this community is bigger than the GDP of dozens of countries combined. This is an incredibly untapped market! And we are bringing transparency and trust into it.

Why Antler and how was your experience there?

These guys have been super helpful and brilliant. The way they work with their Founder Community is the reason I decided to go with them. 

I knew from the beginning that Instakin could get massive, but if you want to scale something up, you need a strong network of supporters (a tribe of believers) around you. That’s where Antler comes into the picture. While I was 30 seconds into my pitch, I remember that one of the Senior Partners stopped me and said ‘we know what you’re talking about, you don’t have to explain’. That was amazing.

My initial motivation was to find people who understood the problem I was trying to solve. That is the most important attribute. Not everyone can relate to problems faced by Immigrant communities. Secondly,  Antler’s network is impressive. The brainpower that they bring in is enormous. Overall, they have been very supportive so far, and I can only be grateful. 

If you could change one thing in your journey, something you now have regret for, what would it be?

The way I look at it is that we all make mistakes, like  my first venture that didn't take off. Nonetheless, it taught me a lot. 

Honestly, I think I would do everything again. From trying to start ventures to moving to the U.S., I don’t have any regret. It is all part of learning and improvising. 

What was the most significant challenge you have faced so far?

One major challenge that many  immigrants live through is leaving their family and networks while moving to a new country. Without exception, I also faced that challenge. This is probably why I travel back home frequently.  

Families provide the energy to build and grow. So, one has to find a way to balance these two. Being away from your immediate family is very hard.

When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?

There have been multiple moments, but one that comes to mind is when COVID hit. Travel wasn’t possible anymore, and I suddenly realized that everything can quickly fall apart. My family is in Pakistan, I live in the U.S., the flight takes 30 hours. I let you imagine how hard it was. 

Do you have an inspiring figure?

In my career, I’ve been very fortunate to have amazing mentors. I will also say that, from my perspective, inspiration can come from different sides, not only from human beings. I’ve always been extremely inspired by the places that I’ve visited. Iceland was simply stunning, I was fascinated by its history.

<b>Yasir in Iceland</b>
Yasir in Iceland

One book?

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger was a good read on how the world actually operates.

The one Billion Dollar Question: How do you relate with the human on the other side of the screen?

First of all, data is only as good as how it is used. Otherwise, it’s just an Excel file or a tool in front of your screen. I believe what you’re referring to falls under the concept of social collaboration. 

We have to think of the internet in terms of human connectivity. It is not just about standardised interactions, they can be personalised. 

Let me give you an example. Once, a reader of my news website reached out, requesting that if we’d write about a specific problem that he was facing in his local community, people would get to read about it, take notice, and there will be corrective action put in place. Three weeks later, I got an email from him saying ‘thank you so much. You guys wrote about the problem, and now it’s been fixed’. That is an impact in its most organic form.

So, I’m not just looking at numbers, I’m looking at how much value and impact is being created at the end of the day. Once you take that perspective, the human element is prevalent. I don’t think any business can survive based solely on numbers. Collaboration and personalization have to be key attributes in your value proposition. 

Our Main Takeaways

  • Being an immigrant entrepreneur is double the challenge: not only do you need to work harder than ever to create value, but you have to do it away from the people you care the most about. 
  • Quitting your job is probably less risky than you think: it might seem like a big deal to leave a  comfortable corporate job. However, a lot of spectacular things might happen as a consequence of leaping! 
  • Travelling brings inspiration: enough said. 
  • With perseverance comes success: the main reason startups fail is the entrepreneur giving up. 

Inspiring story Yasir, thank you very much.

The last few words

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