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Interview with Shan Rizvi – CEO and Co-founder, Pencil News and JustAds

Brands Magazine had an exclusive interview with Shan Rizvi, CEO and Co-Founder of Pencil News and Just Ads.

This 29-year old self-made Karachiite is bringing substantial investment into technology start-ups in Pakistan despite living in New York, Stockholm, Barcelona, Rotterdam, and Helsinki during the last 10 years. Shan is an ad tech wiz, and both his start-ups are utilizing technologies such as machine learning and natural language processing which will play an important role in the future.

Despite growing up in Karachi, he chose to establish his first offices in Lahore because he strongly believes that to be a successful nation, we need to work across linguistic, ethnic, religious and provincial boundaries.

BM: Why this fascination with computers at such a young age?

SR: When I was around 9-10 years old, my father brought home an old 286 office computer previously owned by a friend of his. It did not even have a graphical user interface but it still fascinated me more than magic. While most kids were interested in playing games, I was interested in figuring out how things worked, even if that resulted in frequent computer malfunctions and breakdowns. Before entering teenage, I learned how to format hard drives, install operating systems, and assemble PC hardware by watching computer technicians and it became clear that I could fix my own mistakes.

Perhaps it provided an outlet for my relentless curiosity, and relief from social difficulties at a time when I had recently moved to a relatively prestigious co-education school.

BM: Did you face any difficulty in finding a job upon finishing your education?

SR: Studying and living across Europe was a great learning experience, but there was one major drawback: graduate programs at most companies require proficiency in a European language other than English. More than hundred applications with tailored cover letters, two interviews, and a business relevant part-time job later, the only job offer I received did not materialize due to visa issues.

Fortunately, the perfect opportunity came within months, but yes, it was a difficult time.

BM: What kept you going in the face of these difficulties?

SR: Career disadvantages resulting from immigrant status felt unfair at times, but it was impossible to indulge in self-pity because all immigrants face similar issues which were themselves child’s play in comparison to the suffering of millions across the world. We were so privileged that whining brought guilt.

In addition to that, interacting with peers from all over the world in and outside the classroom had given me enough confidence in my abilities, at least relative to theirs: if they could get opportunities that impressed me, so could I.

It happened sooner than expected. One of my best friends, Rehan, had studied with the founder and an early employee at an ad tech start-up; he thought the company would be a good match for me, and he turned out to be right.

BM: How difficult was it for you to go out on your own?

SR: It turned out to be less difficult for me than it is normally meant to be. Firstly, working at an ad tech start-up for three years and observing all operational aspects greatly boosted my confidence. Secondly, my largest client at that company decided to trust me as an independent consultant, resulting in guaranteed revenue before a company was even registered.

I had zero savings, so one of my other close friends, Ahsan, offered me a short-term loan to help with company registration. Revenue was already guaranteed so there was no stress about the ability to pay it off within six months, but it still required his trust and confidence.

BM: As you mentioned, your co-founder is a close friend. What challenges do you think a person faces whilst doing business with a friend?

SR: Forming a business with a close friend is the ultimate relationship test, one that can only be passed with an empathetic understanding of each other’s interests, circumstances, history, personality, and motivations. It is easier said than done, because such an understanding can only be built when two people are intellectually aligned, emotionally intelligent, empathetic and mindful.

It requires years of extensive reading, thinking and self-discipline to develop these qualities necessary for a winning partnership.

BM: Is there anything that could have made your struggle easier?

SR: It is hard to call it a struggle, because again, it is all so relative. However, more young people will be able to create new businesses and innovations if they receive encouragement, emotional support, angel investment, and quality advice from relevant experts.

BM: What is your style of management?

SR: It is surely evolving, but there are some clear themes.

Firstly, as former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, writes in “High Output Management”, people don’t do their job if they are either incapable or unmotivated. Thus, their motivations must be kept high, and their capabilities either enhanced or complemented. I try to remain mindful of these two factors.

Secondly, given the pace with which technology changes, I don’t believe in detailed long-term plans. It’s enough to have a blurry general picture, because a lot happens between now and then. The more effort one puts into the creation of plans, the more difficult it becomes to deviate from them when circumstances demand. It’s as important to be an agile manager than it is to be an agile developer.

Thirdly, and most importantly, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It is meaningless to tout slogans about dynamic organizations where everyone understands teamwork but to make that happen, one needs to foster the right organizational culture from the beginning, expressing and acting based on first principles every chance you get.

BM: What advice would you give to new comers in the field?

SR: It doesn’t hurt to ask because you lose 100% of the chances you don’t take. The next time you are wondering whether to take a chance, don’t let a low probability of success stop you in your tracks before you have also factored in the cost of trying and the prize.

The psychological penalty of failure is such that people often shy away from risk even if the rewards are disproportionately higher. The bet can be randomly contacting a potential adviser or mentor, or applying for a degree at an Ivy league university, or starting a new commercial or social enterprise.

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