Airlift Mafia: Pakistan’s buzziest startup has created a new class of founders

After graduating from college in 2016, Yahya Humayun jumped headfirst into management consulting. He joined Ernst & Young in Lahore as an associate consultant. But within a year, he realized that the job wasn’t the right fit for him. Humayun wanted to do something that was fast-paced, created an impact, and changed lives. His big break came in 2019, when he joined Pakistani e-commerce giant Airlift Technologies as a customer experience optimization executive. “They were solving a huge problem for Pakistan at the time — [they were] solving for mass transit,” Humayun told rest of the world.

From Airlift, he joined two other startups before setting out to launch his own venture, Pattern, an app looking to disrupt the restaurant dine-in and takeaway space, where little innovation has taken place over the years.

Humayun credits his time at Airlift, and the company’s founders, for part of his success. They “inspired me and many others in the growing startup ecosystem in Pakistan, and they have helped our team at Pattern raise a six-figure angel round,” he told rest of the world.

The atmosphere at the Airlift office was inspiring, Humayun recalls. He and his colleagues would talk about solving the next big problem during lunch and coffee breaks. “Back then, there was so much inefficiency in the B2B retail supply chain, and when the pandemic hit, we decided that this was the time to take the plunge and launch Dastgyr,” he told rest of the world. Humayun was an early investor in Dastgyr Technologies.

Humayun is a member of what’s becoming the “Airlift Mafia:” former employees of the Pakistani company that have gone on to launch their own startups. In a country where corporate and management consulting jobs have long been considered the only “stable” job options, the success of Airlift has helped change the destiny of many young professionals. Akin to the “Paypal Mafia” in the US, “Airlift Mafia” includes the founders of several prominent Pakistani startups such as Dastgyr (which raised $3.5 million in a seed round in July), agri-tech supply chain startup EasyFresh Technologies (which delivered over 1,000 tons of produce within the first three months of its launch), and inter-city courier service Parcel Logistics, among others.

Founded in 2019, Lahore-headquartered Airlift Technologies is a logistics solutions startup that started out in the mass transit space, building an Uber-like service for public transport with air-conditioned buses instead of cars. When the pandemic struck in March 2020 and Pakistan went under lockdown, Airlift suspended its transit services and pivoted to quick commerce, and it is now in seven other Pakistani cities. In August 2021, Airlift raised $85 million in a Series B funding round, an unheard of amount in the Pakistani startup ecosystem until then. The company’s investors include former Y Combinator president Sam Altman, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, and Bain Capital’s co-chairman Steve Pagliuca, among others.

Humayun said that the success of startups like Airlift is one of the reasons entrepreneurship has been thriving in Pakistan in recent years. 2021 was a landmark year for the country’s startup ecosystem, with young ventures raising nearly $365.87 million in funding, a figure greater than all previous years combined. Basically, lots of great people get together, and each person takes responsibility for building something, and that is when [the] magic starts to happen,” Muhammad Mustafa, co-founder of agri-tech supply chain startup EasyFresh, told rest of the world.

“Finding myself in a place where another startup was being built from scratch, I knew I had to give myself another shot.”

Mustafa started his career in 2004 in a traditional job as an IT analyst at consumer goods company Procter & Gamble and began working as an executive at telecom giant Mobilink in 2011. But the corporate jobs failed to give him a sense of fulfillment and he wanted to try his hand at “building things.” So, in 2017, after returning to Pakistan with a master’s in management from Stanford University, Mustafa launched Mauqa Online, an on-demand domestic help service. He struggled to keep the venture afloat after his funding got flagged by the government. Locked out of capital, he shut Mauqa Online in May 2021 and started looking for a job that would give him a steady salary. As luck would have it, the job he found was at Airlift. He started working at the company in a retail and strategy position in June 2021.

His brief time at Airlift taught him that it wasn’t impossible to run a startup and raise funding in Pakistan, Mustafa said. “I was really inspired [by Airlift],” he told rest of the world. “Finding myself in a place where another startup was being built from scratch, I knew I had to give myself another shot.”

In September 2021, Mustafa and three other co-founders launched EasyFresh Technologies, which focuses on Pakistan’s fresh produce supply chain and promises to eliminate middlemen, raise earnings for farmers, and provide higher-quality produce to retailers. In less than a year since its inception, EasyFresh has already attracted investors such as the Dubai-based Cianna Capital, early-stage investor Deosai Ventures, and MAGM Holdings.

Mustafa said that his experience at Airlift taught him some tough lessons. “I didn’t know there would be sleepless nights and nightmares, that I would run out of money. I never thought I would end up in a place like that,” he said. He and his co-founders are more prepared now. For instance, they haven’t incorporated EasyFresh in Pakistan — the startup is affiliated with Kadr Technologies in the United States. They have also accepted that hardships are inevitable. “Insomnia is a given,” he added with a wry laugh.

As several Pakistani startups begin to mature, Saif Ali, general manager at Dastgyr, expects the emergence of several “mafias” in the coming years. “As managers, we go out of our way to ensure that our talent is equipped with the skills that they need, and are getting the exposure that they need to make that happen. This is something we are deeply invested in,” he told rest of the world.

The emergence of founders with pre-existing roots in the startup world also suggests that entrepreneurship in Pakistan is becoming widespread. “We constantly have young, scrappy people coming forward and saying, we have a far more efficient way to solve these problems,” Ali said. “It creates a fertile landscape for tech-driven solutions, for founders to come in and build new companies that add value to society as a whole.”

Leave a Comment