Interviewed by Ayesha Asghar
Mr. Tanveer Sharif, CEO Vopium, has been involved with Vopium from the very first day. He holds diplomas in Business Administration from Copenhagen Business School and ESC Rouen, France. With extensive experience in leading diverse teams of professionals in Software and Telecom industries, he comes from a CEO position in Venture Cup, an organization under McKinsey & Company. He has a long track record from the public sector where he worked as an advisor for Danish Parliamentarians as well as for different Danish ministries. Before that he worked in the IT field for Danish companies like, Soft Design and Columbus IT partner. He was also an elected member of Copenhagen County Council from 2002-2006, where he represented his party in the Social and Health Committees.
CodeWeek: Briefly tell us about your professional and personal life.
Tanveer: I was born in a Pakistani-Danish household and received most of my education in Denmark. After completing my degree from Copenhagen Business School, I worked for major IT organizations of Denmark, where I got a lot of experience and exposure. In 2000 I joined a Not-for Profit organization, where I was appointed CEO arm for Venture Cup. The main purpose of Venture Cup was to help entrepreneurs in their business start-up. The company helped them by raising funds and connecting the right mentors. This way we created almost 80 companies and raised 40 million dollars in venture capital for them.
CodeWeek: When and how, was Vopium started in Pakistan?
Tanveer: In 2003, along with two partners, I founded a company by the name of J-Mobiles. The main focus of this company was mobile software development and we were the first in mobile application development at that time in Pakistan. In 2004, Pakistan saw the boom in the Telecom Industry and from then onwards, many major Telecom companies started their services in Pakistan. People who worked for J-Mobiles, moved on to other major Telecom companies. In all humbleness I believe that we were pioneers in mobile development in Pakistan. In 2005 we decided to cease mobile software development for other companies and launch our own product, developing applications for ourselves.
Earlier, it was normal that immigrants living abroad used calling cards for making cheap calls back home. Another option was Skype. People wanted something cheap and easily accessible for staying in contact. Inspired by this realisation we decided to develop our own application, which could provide free and low cost calls all across the country; this was when the idea for Vopium actually emerge.
CodeWeek: Vopium over the years. Its Major business ventures?
Tanveer: In 2008 we managed to raise 2 million Euros from a European investor, after which we expanded in numbers i.e. from 5 to almost 70 employees. This allowed Vopium to expand and introduce our service to the whole of Europe as well as Australia and the US. Then with the global financial crisis, the company was feeling the financial crunch. But in 2010 everything settled down when we signed a major investment contract with Mr. Raghuvinder Kataria, one of the early investors in Bharti Airtel, the largest mobile operator in India and one of the largest in the world. Mr. Kataria became a shareholder in Vopium, investing about U$D 16 million, with Vopium being the first Pakistani company to receive so large an investment from an Indian Investor. This is the result of extensive talent, which we have in Pakistan.
CodeWeek: What were the Major challenges, Vopium faced in the beginning?
Tanveer: Pakistan does not issue license for VoIP operators, even the government is unable to notify a company like Vopium about the legal position in this. Thus, if one wishes to launch a service like Vopium in Pakistan, it is not possible. So very few in Pakistan are familiar with Vopium, but as you move away from Pakistan, you will discover that the company is recognized among major international IT analyst houses around the World. Some major names among these are Gartner Group, Ovum and Frost & Sullivan. Also, CNET, a major technology site, has recently picked Vopium as the best mobile voice application for Android phones.
The whole journey has been a real-time exam for us, when we started off we found many technical challenges. Every passing minute new operating systems were being introduced. Nokia was the dominating player alongside Sony Ericsson, then Apple launched the iPhone and Google entered with Android. Others like Samsung have come along with their own technology. And each operative system is based on different programming language. So we needed different expertise in order to handle different types of platforms or operating system if you like. Along with that we needed to add VoIP as well. It is a constant ongoing process we are all the time adding new features to our applications and to our service in general.
Tanveer: We have organized an exchange program here. We encourage our team members to work in both our offices in Pakistan and our offices in Europe. This allows our employees the experience of working abroad. By working in a different country with new people, in an entirely different setup they gain extensive exposure. This is a new learning experience for them not just in their professional capacity but also culturally and personally. So by the time they return to Pakistan, they understand much better how to improve the product but also how we think and work as a company even thou we are located in several locations around the world. They bring back new ideas and develop them with their colleagues in Pakistan. Our management and development is one, we do not differentiate between the two sections, our employees whether they are in Pakistan or outside are equally important. It also gives our organization in Europe to work with Pakistani culture and this enhances the crosscultural understanding on both sides.
On the other hand, as I have said the mobile world in which we live moves extremely fast. Every phone has an apps store; you can review, download and write a feedback within minutes. The feedback there is immediate. We need to keep ourselves up-to-date every single second.
CodeWeek: Awards and Recognition
Tanveer:In 2008-2009 Danish IT board choose Vopium to represent Denmark at GSMA Mobile World Congress, Barcelona. This served as a great achievement as the event caters to a worldwide attendance of 50,000 people. In 2009 we won an award from Frost & Sullivan. And also in 2009, Telecom TV (www.telecomtv.com) choose Vopium as the best mobile application against Skype.
In 2010, CNET UK (www.cnet.com), one of the most informative sites for the tech savvy, choose Vopium as an Essential Android App under the best VoIP app category for Android phones.
CodeWeek: Vopium, three year from now?
Tanveer: VoIP technology will be the thing of the day. Vopium will be a part of this, but may continue in a new direction where we probably will become integrated with major mobile operators.
CodeWeek: Any Parting words
Tanveer: We have extremely talented people in Pakistan and we should be proud of what we have and who we are. We need to promote our talent worldwide, but most importantly let us promote our talent among ourselves, helping each other achieving our goals.