Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali are a wife and husband co-founding team behind two shoe companies, Markhor and Atoms. Together they have combined their Pakistani heritage and interest in social media and technology to create shoes that are both comfortable to wear and that stand the test of time. In this episode Adii, Sidra, and Waqas discuss their journey from rural Pakistan to the USA, combining craftsmanship and heritage, building a second company, how they define and are defined by labels, and what has ultimately kept them going through their business journey.
Initially, Sidra and Waqas did not set out to create a shoe company. It started through Waqas’ passion for technology and social media. Prior to founding Atoms and Markhor, Waqas had a social media company while still in college. At the time, he’d shown Sidra some of the wonders of the internet and they decided to make a company without even owning their own computer yet.
The two met with craftsmen in their village with the idea to help them sell their shoes on the internet using social media. Waqas saw the potential to use the platform for advertising and selling purposes, as a communication medium to build community and talk about products and ideas.
Sidra and Waqas liked the idea of not just controlling advertising and sales, but having control over the product. When they saw the craftsmanship that went into the shoes in their village, it clicked. Shoes are very hard to make, Waqas explains. They have to be made properly because if they aren’t they will hurt your feet. A shoe that is both stylish and well-made had the potential to be highly profitable—this is where they would focus their company.
Because they were just students, and starting a company is no cheap feat, Sidra and Waqas sought grant money and small jobs to invest in their ideas. Soon enough, Kickstarter came into the picture. Within 24 hours of launch, they met and greatly exceeded their goal of $15,000 on Kickstarter.
With so many supporters on Kickstarter, there was now a heavy responsibility that the couple felt to supply the perfect product.
Often, with any company, idea, or production, the audience only sees the last step in the process--the finished product. They don’t see all of the challenges that go into production. However, the journey that began with an idea in their small village in Pakistan holds just as much importance to the couple as their now widely-recognized brands.
Waqas and Sidra are extremely proud that their product is true to their home country and narrative. Where Sidra and Waqas come from, Waqas explains, they don’t know about things like Kickstarter, Forbes 30 Under 30, and the like. What the two were doing was something new, something that would inspire other Pakistanis to possibly seek a non-traditional life--as they had.
Waqas has always wanted to do something meaningful, to succeed in some way, even if seeking to do so would result in many failures. He didn’t see anything from his country on the internet, which bothered him. He wanted to make a product that would be the same level of quality as a European brand. He wanted to show the craftsmen from his village that there was something they could do that they never thought they could. This journey had a large chance of failure, and as it turns out Waqas would fall in love with that risk.
Sidra feels this has been a very personal and complex journey. She grew up in a small town with her middle class family. The plan for most women in her situation would be to become a teacher or get married, she says. However, when she graduated she was very ambitious and questioned why men and women were treated differently. And when she decided to follow her passions, her family stopped talking to her for nearly two years.
Despite this hardship, Sidra persevered, not just for herself, but for her sisters. It was her wish to show them that there is another option for them beyond a traditional way of life. Once she and Waqas got married and their business got going, her relationship with her family has gotten much better. Today she sees that her sisters have been inspired by her, and have even followed in her footsteps, taking their own non-traditional routes in life.
Inspiring others in their community and country to think bigger and pursue their passions is the true success that Sidra and Waqas have gained from founding their company, they explain.
“Success is not just like making money or making a name… it’s more about opportunity to make a choice, make your own decision.”
When they first came to the United States, they were faced with many challenges. Foremost, communicating in another language. With these challenges came many successes, and Sidra and Waqas’ company, Markhor, would become the first Pakistani startup to be accepted into Y Combinator in 2015.
When they meet new people, Waqas and Sidra introduce themselves as the founders of Atoms. But they find it important to also explain where they came from, their journey, and not just where they are now. When you tell your story you remind yourself where you are from and how you got to where you are now, Waqas explains.
When creating, the one common denominator in any project is ‘You’. You are on the journey. You must know who you are to make decisions that align with that identity, especially, who you are and why you are doing what you’re doing.
Throughout their journey, Waqas and Sidra have seen themselves change and grow through both marriage and business. A deeply personal relationship has been cultivated on both levels. Working with your spouse as a co-founder is extremely hard, Waqas says, because you must differentiate between the issues of the home and of the office.
Making decisions—both in business and in the relationship—can be very tough, Sidra explains, and spending so much time together can become suffocating. While it is hard, the couple agrees there is great beauty in it.
The biggest benefit derived from building Markhor and Atoms, beyond general business success, has been inspiring others. Inspiring people to follow their dreams and go on their own journeys, just as Sidra and Waqas have.
As their companies have grown, they often find themselves being followed, tagged, and added as friends on social media by people from their small town in Pakistan. They try their best to always accept these invitations.
Despite their growingly busy schedules, Waqas and Sidra ensure that they continue to inspire and impact others by taking on a few mentors every year.
Waqas and Sidra’s ultimate goal has always been, and will continue to be, to create a narrative that hard work and passion can breed success no matter where you come from.