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Forget diplomatic chill, Indian and Pakistani startups and talent are hooking up on the quiet

Entrepreneurs and tech talent from both sides of India-Pakistan border have been collaborating with each other for years now, but it’s still strictly hush-hush.

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New Delhi: Despite the chilly diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, entrepreneurs and workers from both sides of the border have been joining forces. This warming up of business ties has been spurred by the growing startup ecosystem in Pakistan, the demand for affordable technical talent, and shared cultural and linguistic contexts.

Speaking to ThePrint, several Indian and Pakistani entrepreneurs based in London, Dubai, and India said these collaborations have been happening for several years, but they are generally kept under wraps because of the fraught geopolitical climate. All spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear their businesses may be hit by backlash.

These collaborations take different forms, the entrepreneurs said. While some startups use cost-effective freelance talent from Pakistan to develop their products, often via platforms like Upwork and Fiverr, others are cross-border joint ventures.

For instance, a London-based Indian entrepreneur claimed that he hired Pakistani tech talent because he got more “loyalty” from them. Another Dubai-based Indian business owner, who has a Pakistani partner, said that “nationalities don’t matter” when it comes to work. A Pakistani startup founder who lives in Dubai asserted that he had hired an Indian team for their “professionalism”.

Such statements, of course, are rarely made publicly because of the volatile reactions they may evoke.

Last month, for instance, a Pakistani investor received praise as well as a barrage of critical comments when he tweeted on the need to “bury the hatchet and look ahead”.

Aman Nasir, a partner in an early-stage venture capital firm called Sarmayacar, had in his tweet advised Pakistani founders to “travel to India” once a year and speak to their Indian counterparts “to learn from their experience/knowledge”. He had also said that “Pakistan’s future lies in regional integration and trade with the world’s fastest-growing economy.”

According to reports, Pakistani startups raised $347 million in 2022 despite the country’s weak economy and an overall decline from the previous year. India, on the other hand has seen a 15,400 per cent growth in start-ups in the past six years.

The overriding sentiment in the comments to Nasir’s tweet seemed to be that he was wearing rose-tinted glasses. But on the ground, Pakistanis and Indians are already hiring and tying up with each other, especially if they happen to be operating out of more ‘neutral’ territories.

Also read: Chennai is India’s fastest-growing startup hub, says report. Pune, Hyderabad closing in

‘It’s about getting the best work done’

For a Dubai-based Pakistani with an advertising-related business, it doesn’t matter whether the talent’s passport is blue or green. And visas are less of a necessity given the growth of remote work.

“There is no dearth of talent in both countries and my association with Indians is purely based on professionalism,” he said. “I want people who can give a good user experience to the client.”

This business owner has been working with an Indian team for at least two years.

“A couple of years ago, we were looking for good talent in the market and someone recommended an Indian team. We got in touch with them and they did the work for us. We have an advertising website and we have been working with the Indian team ever since,” he said.

Remote working made this arrangement possible, he said. “It is not necessary to travel to India to work with people there. Most of our work happens online and over calls. More than eight years ago, when I was working with a company which had its office in India, it was very problematic for me to get a visa. Sometimes it would take six months. So, I know what the challenges are and how to navigate them,” he added.

Another Dubai-based entrepreneur, an Indian who works with a Pakistani business partner, said: “When you connect with people one on one, you realise that nationalities don’t matter. What really matters is the work that you are doing. I work with a Pakistani partner and we hire talent from both India and Pakistan… ultimately, it’s about getting the best work done.”

He added that his company recently launched an Instagram filter, for which they scouted for good tech developers in both India and Pakistan. Ultimately, they found a suitable candidate in Pakistan. “We saved a lot of cost because of this collaboration,” he added.

The entrepreneur pointed out that Indians and Pakistanis have been collaborating for a long time, especially on foreign soil, but their stories do not come out in the open for “obvious reasons”.

“Outside India, [Indians and Pakistanis] have been collaborating for a long time. The minute they move out and there is no restriction that they cannot work together, they collaborate,” he said. “Wherever you have a bigger Indian subcontinent audience, you will see them collaborating in large numbers.”

This, he said, was because Indians and Pakistanis were able to connect at an emotional, social, and cultural level.

“We can talk to them in Hindi or Urdu — language is no barrier. Even the market demands are very similar in both the countries, and hence it is easier to collaborate,” he added.

Pakistani freelancers in high demand, ‘more loyal’

A London-based Indian entrepreneur said that a huge number of Pakistani web developers and designers were offering their services on gig sites like Fiverr and Upwork, often at more competitive rates than their Indian counterparts.

“In the past couple of years, I have noticed that almost 60 per cent of the talent on platforms like Fiverr and Upwork comes from Pakistan. There are fewer Indians, but they are more expensive and often not up to the mark,” he claimed.

“By sheer volume, there is a lot of talent from bigger towns like Lahore and Karachi on platforms like Upwork and Fiverr. So, a lot of collaboration in terms of hiring freelance talent is happening,” he added.

Elaborating further, he said that most of the best tech talent in India is already acquired by well-funded startups. As a result, non-technical and more cash-strapped startups turn to freelance platforms to find tech workers.

He pointed out that people would earlier hire Russians, Ukrainians, and other East Europeans for a lot of tech work, but their “rates have gone up five times” because of the crypto boom. Indians, too, charge relatively high fees, while Pakistanis’ rates tend to be more cost-effective.

Comparing typical wages, he said that an Indian freelancer working on UX and UI design would ask for $5,000 per month, while a Pakistani would work for $3,000.

The other advantage of working with Pakistanis, he claimed, was their “loyalty”.

“In India, there is a high attrition rate because it’s largely a techie’s market. They can get poached easily and leave you when they get more money,” he explained. “With Pakistanis, there is a certain loyalty. Maybe because of lack of opportunities in their country, or any other reason, they stick around longer.”

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Why India’s Unicorn population hit a peak & dropped off in 2022


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