Undertaking an entrepreneurial pursuit in Pakistan is no easy task. Someone who can attest to that is inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Farhan Masood. His fascination with technology was fostered from a young age as he had access to gadgets in his early childhood. In fact when he was only 8 years old, Farhan’s father presented to him a book about Visual Basic. He was given the challenge to learn the computer language something which he took to with a natural affinity. Many times Farhan has cited his father as the person responsible for spurring his passion and encouraging him to keep going. Speaking to TechInAsia he said, “My dad loved technology, and he was the first guy to go and buy the latest piece of hardware. My curiosity strengthened because of him,”
Oftentimes money was tight in the household and Farhan did not have access to the learning material needed to progress his passion. However he did not give up and used his shrewd nature to befriend the shopkeeper of a local bookstore, Naveed. Farhan Masood would often bunk school, skipping classes to go to the bookstore and teach himself the expertise of his passion through the books available in the store. Another challenge he encountered was in relation to internet services in Pakistan at the time. Service providers were very limited and the only option was dial up internet. On top of that, the ISP’s charged on an hourly basis which made consistent use extremely difficult and expensive.
Once again using his diplomatic skills, Farhan was able to negotiate with an ISP by the name of BrainNet. The agreement involved Farhan developing and managing their web portal for free in exchange for unlimited internet usage. Using the resources now available at his disposal, Farhan would continue to refine his art and become a skilled and capable individual.
One of the first major breakthroughs for him occured when he was just 19 years old. While he was helping his father around the family printing bureau a government official approached him and explained that there was a dire need for English/Urdu name plates to be installed at a government facility near Islamabad. However the dilemma was there was no way to input Urdu characters on a computer. Due to the financial situation at the time Farhan jumped at the opportunity and committed to completing this new task before him. Using his expertise from calligraphy, typography and computing, Farhan was able to create the first Urdu word processing software in the world. The fonts he would go onto create would be used by the likes of Emirates. The program allowed for the conversion of English characters into Urdu/Persian/Arabic and as such at the age of 19 he was recognised as the originator of the three languages on the internet. The expressiveness of the feat stems from the fact that conversion algorithms did not exist at the time and to view Windows in a language that was not English, you needed to download Windows in that language. He said about his commitment to his work, “Most of what I have done in life is because I have made a commitment to do something that I actually have no clue about, then I would go and get stuck in it.”
The exposure and recognition allowed him to drop out of college and he landed a job with the provincial Punjab government. He was allocated to an advisory position for the Minister for Finance where he would digitise old physical land records, but after a government change was allocated as an advisor to the Minister for Interior. He was invited to work with NADRA which at the time was undertaking the momentous task of providing every citizen with a digital identification card. After a while he felt he had no choice but to resign and he disagreed with the government’s vision for NADRA and the methods in which they collected data. About his resignation he had this to say, “Even though it didn’t work out, I have no regrets. I’m thankful to those guys, they gave me an opportunity to find something else,”.
Fast forward to the year 2000 and Farhan Masood finds himself in London where he lands a job with US firm EDS(Electronic Data Systems). Unfortunately because he did not hold a UK or US passport, he was unable to obtain a permit to work in London. Due to this unforeseen predicament, he moved to Dubai to work with a subsidiary of EDS that was handling many projects with the Dubai government. Among his major achievements he was responsible for streamlining the immigration and judicial systems. He also made complex algorithms to track metrics such as worker productivity, speed cameras, and automatic recognition systems. He was held in such high esteem by his colleagues and the UAE government that he was even allowed to bypass a specific labour law. The law stated that those without a graduate degree were barred from holding managerial positions but the law was amended for a day to allow him to sign contracts and bring in new employees into the fold. He was also able to invent the world's first Arabic optical card.
He spent a good few years working in Dubai before moving back to Pakistan in 2005. One of his friends, the owner of a luxury goods store gave him a challenge and said, “Farhan, why don’t you build me a system, which automatically recognizes customers as they walk in, despite my manager having never met them. Why don’t you create some magic?” In usual fashion, Farhan took the challenge head on and went straight to work. After doing a considerable amount of research, he discovered the technology required to make such a system existed and it could be easily tweaked for the specific needs of clients. It was thus that his biggest and most successful project, SoloInsight was born.
He spent many long hours talking to managers in factories understanding the need of potential clients. Things seemed to be going well however it was not all smooth sailing. One his side projects due to lack of proper planning tanked financially and he lost a great deal of his money. Such setbacks did not stop Farhan however as SoloInsight’s flagship product the SmartXS was finally taking form. A 3D facial and iris recognition system, the SmartXS had 4 initial versions, all manufactured in Pakistan ranging from the size of a fridge to a PC.
Seeking to expand overseas, Farhan was able to convince investors to look at his startup for investment, being invited to meet a VC. He traveled to the US Consulate with the invitation and the other required documentation. However he was bluntly told by the consular officer, “We do not want to do business with Pakistan, you can leave the embassy now,”. Farhan speculates that at the time his visa application was rejected because of the political climate in the Middle East and surrounding regions due to the Arab Spring in 2011. Farhan thought that his dreams were shattered as he could not reach one of the biggest markets in the world. However he was still trying to figure out a way to reach the US.
Head of the MIT Enterprise Forum in Pakistan at the time was Azhar Rizvi, a close friend of Farhan Masood. He recommended Farhan to apply for the MIT Business Acceleration Program. This was because the winner of the program wins a MIT sponsored trip to the US. He was told that the consulate could not negate the trip and that he could talk to figures who could help him expand. He registered in the competition and eventually beat 6 other teams to win the coveted prize. During his 10 days at MIT, Farhan met a number of people including Carter Kennedy who is now the CEO of SoloInsight while Farhan Masood holds the position of President and CTO. Companies like IBM expressed interest in his work and he was able to secure investment money.
The visit to MIT showed Farhan that he needed to take a step back and mold the company into a more professional entity. He hired people who specialised in the fields of law, finance, and marketing. With these events, he found success in his efforts to expand the company and moved offices to Chicago. The company grew rapidly after this, garnering 42 clients in 2 years compared to 54 within 10 years while in Pakistan. SoloInsight has developed into an international corporation and has offices in the US, Pakistan, China, and Australia.
However the man behind SoloInsight has many more achievements worth mentioning. His company has been able to tap into a multi-billion biometrics industry and has notable clients such as US Apparel, Nestle, PepsiCo, PEL, and the Pakistani Army. The company has 119 clients with 114000 daily users. He has won multiple awards including the Global Innovation through Science and Technology Award, presented to him by (at the time) US Vice President, Joe Biden, for running the largest blood donation network in Turkey. He is also a part of the Go Green Pakistan campaign which aims to support sustainable social and developmental progress in Pakistan. In 2013, MIT recognised him as one of the world’s most brilliant minds, and his company is recognised as having the fastest facial and iris recognition technology in the world
All in all, Farhan Masood should serve as a role model and essential figure in the history of Pakistani entrepreneurship. He is a man of great dedication and a formidable work ethic. In the face of substantial adversity he was able to create one of Pakistan’s biggest companies and has built an international reputation as a genius.