4AM Calls

Yesterday, I had the chance to catch up with the inimitable Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali, Acumen Pakistan Fellows and co-founders of Markhor. For those of you who don’t know, Markhor is startup that is crafting some of the world’s most beautiful men’s shoes, reviving a waning craft in Pakistan and making a major splash globally.

Markhor ran by far the most successful Kickstarter campaign out of Pakistan, raising more than $107,000, and Sidra and Waqas are now part of the select few high-potential startups in Y-Combinator – an unlikely turn for a shoe company in the midst of a bunch of tech startups.


So, what do we have to learn from a pair that has their sights set on building a $1 billion-plus company selling luxury, made-in-Pakistan shoes to the world? A lot about a lot of things, but I was struck in particular by some lessons about tenacity and humility.

I asked them what they’ve learned at Y-Combinator so far, and Sidra shared, “one of the great things about the program are the mentors. How it works is that, if you set up time with a mentor, you get 20 minutes, no more. And when you meet with a mentor, they ask you three questions: ‘What did you do last week?’ ‘What are you doing next week?’ and ‘How can I help?’ You have to be ready! And what I like about that is that it communicates that their time is valuable, and that your time is valuable.”

Waqas took the point further as we started to talk about how to teach people how to use networks well. “You know, when I reach out to someone, whether a mentor or someone else I’m trying to connect with, you have to know how to write that email in a way that is clear and respectful and gets to the point. And you have to know how to handle that communication. Especially if I’m in Pakistan, I know that I might have to be available at 4AM to take a phone call. And I am.  Sidra and I will be taking 4AM phone calls for years to come. That’s OK.”

For me this connected back to Tuesday’s post about the power of humility. What I hear Waqas and Sidra saying is that, as they are reaching out to the far edges of their networks, they have to do that with a certain posture. If someone is willing to take a bet by giving  their time to help, it’s Waqas and Sidra’s job as to mirror that respect back – in this case by accommodating that person’s schedule at crazy hours. Their power in this moment comes from putting their ego aside, choosing not to frame that interaction as one with lots of power dynamics, and simply doing what it takes to make the connection they are trying to make – in this case by being ready to jump calls at 4AM, again and again.

The equation is flipped because, in taking this stance, Sidra and Waqas are essentially unstoppable. No behavior, whether a rejection or a slow reply or someone asking them to twist themselves into knots to meet their timing, can stop their forward trajectory.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur running a startup, a leader of a nonprofit, or a fundraiser of any stripe, the biggest trap is to allow each interaction to become a measurement of your worth, to take it all far too personally. What Waqas and Sidra model is the power of an unshakable commitment to mission: when the goal becomes our purpose, when we exist to achieve that goal, then we do what we have to in service of that mission – no questions asked.

Every great company has a story, and Markhor’s is a beautiful one that’s still being written. It is a different story coming out of Pakistan, it is the craftsmanship of Pakistani artisans, and it is some really beautiful shoes. It’s also an unfolding story of two amazing entrepreneurs who dream big and back up every dream with a willingness to show up and work harder and smarter every day.

In reflecting on where they are in their journey, Waqas shared, with a twinkle in his eye: “In our first month, we sold seven pairs of shoes. And we lost money on each pair we sold! Now we are selling thirteen pairs a day. And that number keeps going up.”

That’s what overnight success really look like.

[bonus: the best riff ever about 4AM]

4 in the morning

My summer cold, which I was sure would pass in 24 hours, is entering its second week. So, Nyquil notwithstanding, most mornings this week I’ve been awake at 4 in the morning. This feels like the worst of all times of day to be awake, doesn’t it?

Why is that? Where did I even get this idea about 4 in the morning? How did 4 in the morning get such a bad rap?

The slam poet Rives might have the answer. Check out his “4 in the morning” lyrical origami at the 2007 TED Conference. I don’t want to summarize any of it, for fear of ruining the effect. See it for yourself and you’ll see how Rives has the uncanny ability to take any topic and make it captivating, humerous and profound. His “mockingbirds” riff still gives me the chills. (check it out; it’s 4 minutes long)

Rives is just one of the speakers at the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Conference who defies easy classification. TED is a conference about the spread of ideas. It brings together some of the smartest people on the planet, and asks them to give 18 minute TED talks on their area of expertise. So the next time you’re thinking about watching a Seinfeld rerun on your DVR (“it’s just 22 minutes long,” you think), check out a TED talk instead.

I’m continually amazed by how transcendent the speakers are. Who could imagine being captivated by a biologist talking about the fastest movement in the animal world; a doctor and researcher explaining graphically why some countries are rich and others are poor; a brain scientist talking about her personal experience having a stroke; or computer scientist who modified a Wii remote control to make a $50 whiteboard (the market price is $2,500).

To me, TED is about the raw power of ideas, and of community, to change the world. It is also about how influence comes from the ability to communicate with people outside your field of expertise (see: the Obama campaign).

And listening to these speakers, one cannot help but think, “Wow, maybe I can do something totally fabulous that makes the world a different and better place.”