Pakistan-born Imran Aftab was traveling in 2004 when an AOL Time Warner colleague posed a rude question.
“Imran, you’re from Pakistan, yet you seem normal,” Aftab recalled. “What is the problem with the rest?”
Aftab, then director of global outsourcing at AOL, spent half an hour explaining that there was more to the millions of Pakistanis than the public perception after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy.
“People see all bad news. I thought, ‘How can I change things even at a small scale through business?’ ”
After that trip, the chemistry major decided to use his knowledge of outsourcing at AOL to start his own business that could make money while also helping his fellow citizens in Pakistan.
The business he created is called 10Pearls, a profitable custom software company based in Herndon, Va., and Pakistan. The company has more than 150 software experts supervised by Aftab’s brother in a 33,000-square-foot office in Karachi. Only about 15 employees work in Herndon.
Aftab creates customized software for all kinds of interfaces, including mobile platforms, kiosks and Web sites. Clients include NVR, Time Warner Cable, Discovery Education, National Geographic and Zubie, a spinoff of Best Buy.
For Zubie, 10Pearls helped develop an Android and Apple application that allows people to see where their cars are located, diagnose auto repair issues and track historic routes.
Although 10Pearls is relatively small, with revenue of less than $10 million, Aftab said it has been profitable since it began 11 years ago, making Web pages for handyman businesses.
The company, which Aftab calls a social experiment, reminds me of the “double bottom line” businesses that Washington sports mogul Ted Leonsis espouses. That refers to businesses that earn profits while accomplishing some social good.
“I see that business causes positive impact,” said Aftab, who makes three visits a year to his native country. “It can change things even at a small scale. Business is a good way for people to learn about each other.”
The enterprise isn’t all about altruism.
Pakistan is a good candidate for outsourcing because of its large English-speaking population — 180 million or so — that is tech-savvy and has mathematical skills. Its labor costs are also far below those of the United States and other developed countries.
The labor-cost difference, which Aftab refers to as “a labor arbitrage,” is helping drive his profit margins. He calls it a “blended shore model.”
Pakistani software developers earn about a third to half of what it costs to hire someone with similar talents in the United States. When the less-expensive labor in Pakistan is “blended” into the entire cost structure of the company, it increases 10Pearls’ competitive position.
To lure creative millennials, Aftab owns a sister company called Game Plan8, which produces car racing, zombie and other games for mobile platforms.
“People in this day and age want to be motivated intrinsically,” Aftab said. “It’s a sense of achievement that they build a game that people are playing around the world.”
Aftab’s first break in life came early. He had dropped out of an elite Jesuit high school in Karachi because his family could not afford the tuition.
The principal of the school called in Aftab and his father.
“I still remember the day when I sat across [the principal’s] desk accompanied by my late father. I had dropped out of school, unable to continue the higher education in this private school, due to the financial hardships that my family was facing. Bishop Lobo slipped a white piece of paper in front of us and in his booming voice said, ‘Please write down the amount you can afford.’ ”
Aftab stayed in school and ended up earning a full scholarship to Bard College in Upstate New York, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After earning a master’s in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in 1997, he joined JPMorgan Chase, where he evaluated deals for the investment bankers.
“I knew I had to make money for my family,” said Aftab, who has several brothers and sisters. He had taken corporate finance and stock market courses while pursuing his postgraduate chemistry degree at Chapel Hill, which gave him some comfort about entering business.
The investment bank job taught him to take a hard look at business opportunities, estimating cash flow and finance and distinguishing a good business from a poor one.
After Chase, he worked at Microstrategy and then AOL Time Warner. He oversaw more than $150 million in outsource spending across seven countries at AOL Time Warner.
In June 2004, following the discussion with his colleague about the perceptions of Pakistanis, he approached his brother Zeeshan Aftab, who lived in Karachi. Aftab’s idea was to start a software company that created Web sites, portals and digital logos for small businesses.
“I took $2,000 from my pocket and told my brother to quit his job,” Aftab said. “I said we are going to do something very simple. I am going to find small businesses who need help, and we are going to do it cheaply for them.”
He started calling friends, asking them if they knew anyone who needed small software jobs for as little as $200. He visited digital marketplaces online. He walked through strip malls, visiting small businesses and restaurants, asking if they needed help with their online logos, menus or Web sites.
Most told him to get lost, but a few small jobs started dribbling in. First-year revenue was a paltry $50,000. He kept his job at AOL Time Warner, then took consulting work to make ends meet while he pushed his nascent business forward.
He knew the bigger money was in developing software applications, but he had to build experience first. He quit AOL Time Warner in 2005 and worked as a consultant while he expanded 10Pearls.
Bigger contracts started coming in, including one from a big telecommunications firm that needed help. During the Great Recession that started in 2008, business stagnated and 10Pearls pivoted to mobile applications.
“I could see that mobile was going to grow explosively,” he said.
The company’s big break arrived in 2011, when it won a highly competitive contract to build a mobile application for Social Radar, a Washington company started by Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen. A key part of Social Radar’s business is that the app allows users to interact with people in the immediate vicinity.
The deal with Chasen helped establish 10Pearls’ credibility. That led to more and larger mobile app contracts.
Aftab, who lives in Herndon with his wife and three children, owns the largest share of the company. His brother owns the rest.
He said the U.S. and Pakistan offices, as well as customers, keep in touch via Skype, telephone and online. Even in a small way, he said, he feels he has broken down barriers and helped at least a few people make a better life.
“My employees in Pakistan have developed a better appreciation of the entrepreneurs and professionals in the U.S.,” he said.