Portrait of #11 Syed Ommer Amer 🇵🇰 [Changing the lives of storytellers]
Against the backdrops of democratic and economic instability which at times are exaggerated by news-media, Pakistan is home to over 15 major ethnic groups, multiple dialects & languages, dress codes and food varying across the region. As a storyteller at heart, Syed Ommer Amer (Ommer) puts it nicely in a few words: “The subcontinent was originally the hub of knowledge”. In global entrepreneurship events, he is found with a big bag of Pakistani gifts, and several cultural stories archived on his online publishing platform, Daastan.
Founded in 2015, Daastan serves as a book publishing platform that aims to “turn every author’s dream to reality”. What sets it apart from the Medium and WordPress peers is a diverse service portfolio ranging from print & digital publishing, book launch event management to online hiring of talent specializing in book publishing. To date, Daastan has accommodated over 10,000 authors under its membership program and has an annual global readership in millions.
To sit at the intersection of a social idea and a successful business is something that took Syed quite a great amount of time and effort. His journey of transforming an unsustainable NGO idea into a business-oriented organization is truly a masterclass on entrepreneurship.
The idea: Listen to your inner voice
Ommer was born into a humble family of educationists actively involved in improving the education sector of Pakistan. Writing and public speaking came to him naturally, “the love of literature was in (his) veins since childhood.” In his university, he completed the draft of his debut book titled, ‘The Forbidden Story’ which he wanted to get published. However, he couldn't find any publisher who would invest in him.
The young man soon realized he was not the only one with a true calling for writing. Many wonderful people of Pakistan hope to voice a personal identity through books, partly in an effort to confront false stereotypes directed at their motherland. Each story told would be a lens for the outsiders to look into the real Pakistan and position Pakistani knowledge as part of the global wealth of treasure.
And there came Daastan, the online book publishing platform Ommer initially set up to “turn parts of the story into the world and make people relate”.
“Becoming the reason someone decided not to quit is what drives me every day to push my limits. The happiness this priceless feeling brings can not be expressed in words”, he shared.
Key takeaway: Listen to both your desire and frustration - one contradicts and highlights the other and vice versa. Here we have Ommer driven to publish a book, well, that’s cool but not enough. He’s actually passionate about giving the voices to the voiceless through writing and publishing, and that is where it all started.
The actual work: Seek chances and momentum to get your idea off the ground
After his first year in university fighting over ideas with teachers and friends alike, Ommer decided that he should venture out more. Onboarding Plan9, a 6-month tech incubation program is an eye-opening twist for the young man, in which he learned that operating a startup is not a one-man show at all.
“When I ran into technical problems, posting on social media was the immediate resort I could come up with. No matter what happens, entrepreneurs must learn to improvise”, Ommer recalled in laughter. He narrated how his prototype website crashed on the brand launch event, in the middle of his pitch. Instead of panicking, he used screenshots to continue the demo. Well, that’s one hell of an improvisation.
In case you don’t know, he has been making a lot of pitches about his idea from then on, obviously with a more functional website. Many organizations including UNESCO, UNDP, The World Bank and even The Commonwealth has awarded his startup enormous grants (over 50,000 USD in total and still counting).
The point is, it all started with a prototype!
Key takeaway: Done is better than perfect. Every decision Ommer makes, from joining an incubator to onboarding a new member contributed to the formation of his initial idea. It matters that you’re self-motivated to get things done. Flaws in operation can be improved over time, yet nothing can replace the power of will at the starting point.
The re-work: Reflect, reflect & reflect (a lot)
After the incubation, although the Daastan idea was then in clearer shapes and forms, Ommer faced a big struggle - his people decided to quit him, time and time again.
“It was just an NGO kind of idea. The business model wasn’t there. Not really convincing”, Ommer elaborated.
He went back to university to finish his degree just as his parents wished for. Fresh right out of it, he rolled up his sleeves to rebuild Daastan from scratch, one more time.
Re-work #1: Focus on the essentials
Ommer returned to WordPress, the website development platform he was most comfortable with. From there he developed Daastan on a freelancer-based model where he and a few other members reviewed and revised work submissions from the authors.
As the platform scaled, a successful hacking attempt wiped out almost two year’s worth of struggle and more than 50% of precious data, which included author profiles and their manuscripts. The Pakistani entrepreneur hit rock bottom, the platform went back to square zero. After having made the same mistake twice here i.e. swinging inconsistently between content and tech, he took a bold decision to step out of tech and let the professionals handle it.
Ommer hired a professional web development company to build him a nice and clean Minimum Viable Product (MVP), while applying himself fully to publishing. Turning to seniors for advice on team management encouraged Ommer to really look into organizational plans in months and quarters, down to each individual goal. This time, he became all the more leadership-ready, well aware of his stand in the company as a specialist and willing to facilitate his personnel as a generalist.
Re-work #2: Focus on priorities
After structuring the team, Ommer got into another tough fight. “Often, I found my team working hard, but then people would still leave”, he revealed, “The team used to work on a project by project basis, so when a project was over many members would be left wondering about the next one.” He distributed the tasks, not the job, and there was no goal for the whole team to drive towards.
For Ommer, ‘Putting one book in every hand’ is not just a motto but a tangible goal. He thinks about the number of households the company should target, then the authors, then the titles, then the money Daastan can make from charging 1 US dollar per month to each author.
“Everything else is secondary accordingly”, he exclaimed, “If we have an IG account with a good following but it doesn’t add to the $1/author objective then it’s still not working”.
When Daastan had their first 400-page novel published, the team considered that as their official win.
No matter how meaningful a mission can be, it should be coupled with a tangible goal to measure the actual impacts. At least to Ommer, media buzz and glossy photographs for their works were only there to solidify team confidence, not the primary objectives.
The people: It all comes down to the people in the end
Along the way, Ommer has collected a lot of learnings, some he learned from the wisdom of his seniors.
Zahin Hussain, his mentor during Youth Co:Lab, helped him improve his management style by giving him direction and tools needed to succeed. Equipped with new knowledge, Ommer not only steered his company out of COVID’19 but also scaled his company 4x.
Mentors ‘lurk’ around. They have their own way to offer help, directly or indirectly, only when they spot the passion and authenticity. Such lessons couldn’t have been realized but for Ommer’s determination to put himself out there and proudly present his brainchild to them.
Which brought him to the second observation: One of the best ways for an entrepreneur to learn is to help his people to learn.
“My colleagues are my family”, he said a-matter-of-fact-ly. The five little words slip out of his mouth like it’s always been there time and time before. “Be kind! Know when to be kind and when to be strict, that’s the key to turning things around”, he continued. What’s heart-warming about this personality is that he appreciates the human side of every team member. “We are all humans, it’s ok to make mistakes, they need to feel assured to make mistakes.”, said Ommer.
The journey of Ommer and Daastan has surely been a test of time for Ommer to explore and complete himself as a professional and a human being.
“The world knows me as a literary enthusiast who fell in love with entrepreneurship and then never looked back!”, reads his LinkedIn profile.
The way he treats his product and people is always a sweet combo of the head, heart and hands, which undoubtedly represents what he is at his core.
Isn’t that just how we should do things? Treasure our own identity, put it in line with our interests and live them all out loud?
By Lê Anh Tú 🇻🇳.
🎤 “When I look back at my life, I want to be very proud of Daastan… proud that it has empowered thousands of storytellers who know there is someone out there they can turn into when they have an idea”.
❤️ TIMELINE OF THE EPISODE:
11’ - Finding your community through sports
19’ - Finding the right mentor + business plan competition = “ah-ah” moment
23’ - Giving everything for the incubation program
36’ - Restarting Daastan from scratch and lessons learned (the hard way)
50’ - Finding (again) the right mentor to put you on the right track
59’ - Their vision? To put a book in every hand…
70’ - … and change the life of storytellers
78’ - Embedding the gift culture in Pakistan
Watch the TEDxTalk of Ommer - The Story of Storytellers.
Connect with Ommer on LinkedIn.
We speak a lot about Youth Co:Lab ❤️
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