Colabs is a Lahore-based startup that aims to build Pakistan’s largest community of entrepreneurs and freelancers through its coworking spaces, business solutions, events, and educational programs. It was started in 2019 by twin brothers; Omar and Ali Shah, as a coworking company, and currently operates two spaces in Lahore, with a third on the way. On the surface, it seems like just another coworking operator but what sets it apart is its ambition to create the largest community of entrepreneurs and freelancers in the fifth largest country in the world.
“We want to knit together a community of 100,000 entrepreneurs and freelancers in Pakistan, starting with 5,000 seats within the next two years,” stated Colabs co-founder and CEO Omar Shah in a conversation with MENAbytes. He previously spent 7 years working in Dubai as private equity and venture capital investor in emerging markets including Mexico, UAE, Turkey, and Pakistan, before moving back home to Lahore in 2019, to establish Colabs. Ali Shah, Omar’s twin brother is a real estate developer in Lahore, who leads the family’s construction and development firm, Sabcon, which develops innovative and modern commercial buildings across Lahore in the past decade.
The startup currently has about 700 members who work from its spaces. It expects to add another 400 when it launches its third site early next year. But how can a coworking company in Pakistan with 700 seats build the capacity for 100,000 members over the next five to seven years, we asked Omar.
(For context, WeWork currently has a capacity of about 60,000 seats in India. It entered the market as a result of a joint venture with a local company in 2017 and has invested tens of millions of dollars to date.)
“As a family, we have been developing and managing properties in Lahore for many decades. Initially, it was traditional real estate but then Ali started Sabcon to do modern, innovative buildings a few years ago, so we understand the space very well. We can design our spaces for more efficient utilization than an average coworking operator and drive higher revenue per square foot at half the build cost. With all the learnings we have from our first two years, we’re ready to scale our spaces all over Pakistan. We’ve created a playbook that allows us to quickly turn buildings of different sizes into coworking spaces in a few months.”
When asked if there’s enough demand in Pakistan to sell 100,000 seats, he stated that the rate at which startup and freelance ecosystems of Pakistan are growing, they won’t have any issues in terms of demand, “It is more about creating the capacity to serve the demand.”
Colabs has been largely bootstrapped until now but to move forward with its expansion, it would need external money, “We had raised a small friend and family round when we started the company and didn’t have to raise any capital after that. We’re now considering raising a seed round as there’s a lot of inbound interest and we’re ready to scale our product.” said Omar, speaking to MENAbytes, without disclosing the details of how much they’re looking to raise. He said that the economics of the business are very strong and they’re profitable even today if they stop investing in growth.
The coworking operator always had plans to go beyond selling office space and seats but is putting them in action now, “We’ve built a community of startups, SMEs, large corporates and some very talented freelancers who come and work from our spaces daily and we’re constantly trying to think how we can serve them better. One small example is that we recently started offering an end-to-end payroll management service for our clients after receiving multiple requests for it,” stated Fatima Mazhar, the recently appointed Chief Operating Officer of Colabs.
She was one of the first ten employees at Careem and led the company’s expansion into 100 cities as its Head of Expansion. Speaking about why she decided to join Colabs in spite of having offers from different leading startups and technology companies in Pakistan, she stated, “Once you visit Colabs, you immediately want to become a part of it. I have always been attracted to ambitious startups that are trying to reimagine the local landscape of their industry. Colabs wasn’t the first coworking space in the country but it was the first one to think on a scale that can make a real difference to the future of work in Pakistan.”
Commenting further on what makes Colabs different from other players in the market, she said, “Our community and network is what we are really proud of. That’s what we believe differentiates us from an average space in the country. We are also using technology to optimize our processes and connect everyone who’s part of our spaces. From incorporation to payroll management, we’re trying to introduce different types of services to help people start up and then scale their companies.”
In addition to helping local startups, Colabs has also made it easy for different international technology startups (and companies) to open their offices in Pakistan by providing them with space and other services, “We have a one-stop-shop offering for international companies that enables them to set up a presence in Pakistan,” stated Fatima in her conversation with MENAbytes.
Since its launch, Colabs has partnered with over 100 entities to organize events and offer different types of perks to their communities. Some of the notable events that they’ve hosted at their spaces include Uber Pitch and She Loves Tech. The company also has its own line of in-person and online sessions where they interview founders and investors from the startup ecosystem of Pakistan. They’re now also working on an employment platform that will connect tech talent with startups in the country.
The Lahore-based startup has built a strong foundation in the last two years but it would have to punch above its weight to be able to achieve its objective of building a community of 100,000 members.
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