The iPhone Entrepreneur: Jahanzeb Sherwani
When it comes down to it, innovation is a rather unremarkable — even boring — process. There’s no dramatic storyline that leads to the critical moment, no crescendo of suspenseful music accompanying it, no light shining down from the skies — it’s often just the result of a large number of individual steps that lead someone towards the eventual outcome. But it’s incredible how such an unremarkable process can lead to remarkable results. Such was the case of Jahanzeb Sherwani’s path towards becoming an entrepreneur.
In 2008, Jahanzeb was in the final year of his Ph.D. program in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top 4 Computer Science graduate programs in the US. His research focused on technology for developing regions, a topic he was passionate about ever since his undergraduate education at the Lahore University of Management Sciences six years earlier, where he studied both computer science and social science, and found a deep desire to use his technical background to impact social issues.
His research brought him back home to Pakistan, where he was collaborating with researchers at Aga Khan University’s Community Health Sciences department and at Health and Nutrition Development Society (HANDS), on designing, developing and evaluating a system that would let community health workers dial a number and through a conversation in Urdu or Sindhi, access refresher training material on maternal and child health. While this research was fascinating, it did involve significant amounts of downtime. “I would go to HANDS’ office, excited about working with them to convert their Sindhi child health brochure to spoken form, and they would say ‘we’d love to work with you on this, but we have a donor meeting that we need to prepare for so come back in two weeks!’” Being an aggressively productive person, Jahanzeb didn’t want to waste any time, so he used one of those moments to begin a weekend side-project that has ended up becoming the focus of his life.
“At the time, I’d connected my TV to my PC so I could watch movies on it, but it was a pain to not have control of the computer at the same time.” He tried a wireless keyboard, but it was clunky, and not elegant enough of a solution for him. Jahanzeb had gotten an iPhone by this time, the original iPhone 1.0, without an App Store, and was curious to see whether he could use it as a device to control his computer. “It was a simple idea: could I use the glass screen of the iPhone as a wireless touchpad to control my computer?” He wouldn’t know he usefulness of the idea unless he made it. And even if he made it, he wouldn’t find out if it was worth anything unless he charged for it. And that’s exactly what he did.
The Perpetual Builder
Throughout his life, Jahanzeb has always been building things. Not physical things, but software. When he was 8, his parents bought him his first computer, a Toshiba MSX, that one had to write programs for to get it to do anything useful. And while playing video games was always a big part of his childhood, he was always interested in learning how to write his own. When he was 14 and his hard drive crashed, armed with only a floppy disk running Microsoft BASIC, he spent hours making a simple program that let him use the keyboard to draw and play music. Fast forward to LUMS, he wrote a number of social applications that let students vote on issues, access their course outlines and even a message board that enabled students to communicate in a public forum across the university. At CMU, he had built two side projects that had excited two different sets of his friends to want to build a startup company with him: one was a direct spin-off of his research on voice applications on mobile devices, while the other was an online social gaming website.
He loved to build things but what really fascinated him was how these creations were being used by other people. And so putting a creation out there was a key part of that process for him. When he wrote Touchpad, the iPhone app that let you control your computer from across the room, he couldn’t wait to share it with the world. And it turned out that the world couldn’t wait for it either.
“This was before the App Store, when you had to hack your own iPhone to be able to run an application on it. I had never owned a Mac nor had I ever programmed for one before, but I really wanted to control my PC from my iPhone, so I was motivated!” A few Google searches later, he had found detailed, yet complex instructions on how to write an iPhone app from a PC, as well as an Open Source project to start tinkering with. A few hours later, he had written his first iPhone app, and a few days later, he had turned his iPhone into a wireless touchpad to control his PC. “It was really exciting to take my idea and make it real”, he said, “and I couldn’t wait to see what others would think about it.”
He put up a short video describing what he did on YouTube, and created a free blog to describe how to install the app, which he called ‘Touchpad.app’. “Clearly, branding wasn’t my strong suit,” he adds with a smile. He sent these links to various tech blogs, and before he knew it, it was on the front page of sites such as Digg, Gizmodo, and Engadget. In three days, the YouTube video went from 0 to more than 100,000 views. “It was crazy! People from all over the world started downloading the app, using it, asking for features and bug fixes. It was hard to say ‘no’ to them.” He kept listened to what his users were saying, fixed the bugs and continuously added features. Eventually, he discovered that the biggest feature his users wanted was to be able to see the remote computer’s screen on the iPhone, so instead of controlling it from across the room, they could do so from anywhere in the world. After a bit more work, he came up with a unique way to do that, one which worked far more elegantly than any other app available at the time.
After making exactly what his users wanted, he wanted to test to see how much they’d be willing to pay for it. Since there was no App Store, he put together a bare-bones payment mechanism using PayPal which worked exactly as he intended: customers would pay him for the feature, and it would automatically get unlocked in the app. He decided to charge $15 because ‘it sounded right’. The only question was: how many people would pay for it? Since he was selling online, he knew he would get instant feedback and that’s exactly what happened. As a graduate student, his monthly stipend from his university was $2,000. With the iPhone app, he earned more than twice that amount, $5,000 in just one day! “That was the moment I realized this was going to be big”, he said. But even he had no idea how big it would become.
Over the next few months, Jahanzeb learnt a tremendous amount both through his academic research (his main ‘job’) as well as through his iPhone app (his ‘weekend side-project’). Juggling his Ph.D. research responsibilities during this time was tricky and his thesis advisor was convinced he was going to drop out since he’d seen the ‘green of money’. It was a uniquely interesting point in his life, where he had one foot in high tech entrepreneurship, and the other in community healthcare for developing regions. “There was a point when I was in rural Sindh, running user studies for my research by day and doing customer support for my iPhone app by night. By day, I was working with low-literate, low-income brown women who were providing basic health services to their community, and by night, I was working with highly literate, high-income white men wondering why their mouse was 5 pixels off from where they clicked for the $25 app that they had just paid for. On one hand, kids are dying of diarrhea here, and you’re worried about 5 pixels? It was an eye-opener to experience the stark dichotomy that exists in our world first-hand.”
As difficult as it was to juggle his academic research with his startup responsibilities, Jahanzeb did exactly that. In less than a year after his iPhone app’s success, he successfully completed his Ph.D., and decided to devote 100% of his time to his startup. “It was a little difficult to choose between continuing the research that I cared about and had worked on for years, and the startup that was relatively younger, but I realized that while my Ph.D. had honed in my innovation and research skills, I had a lot to learn about building and scaling products and services to large user bases.” The research project he had built for HANDS was not ready for prime-time: it was a research prototype, not a commercially viable product. Jahanzeb knew that he had a lot to learn about building and scaling an organization, and his startup was the vehicle through which he would learn that. He packed his bags and moved to Silicon Valley to build a team that would help take the startup to the next level.
Building a Team
The team is what makes a business. If you don’t have the right chemistry amongst the group, you can have the best product in the world but the business won’t go anywhere. When he created a company around the product (which went through a number of names: Touchpad.app, Touchpad Pro, Teleport, Jaadu VNC, and finally settled on iTeleport), he started to build the team.
“Over the next few months, the product suffered while I looked for other people to work with. There were a number of failures that haunt me to this day: friends that I worked with where the relationship didn’t end up working out. But I knew that to make something great, we had to have a team that was great. And I didn’t want to compromise on the dynamics of the team at any cost. I wanted to work with amazing people that I respected and could learn from, and I was willing to wait till I found those people.” Jahanzeb went to networking events and reaching out to everyone he could through his own personal and professional network. Even though it had been two years by that point, he still thought of it as looking for a co-founder. “I’ve never been the kind of person that craves the limelight — I’ve always preferred having an amazing team of people to work with, and I felt that the best days for the company were ahead, so it made sense to have the next person joining me be a co-founder and not just an employee.”
Vishal Kapur, the eventual co-founder of iTeleport, had an incredibly compelling story. He’d grown up in the US, received his BS and MS in Computer Science from MIT, worked at a large enterprise (Oracle) and then was an early employee at a startup (Truveo) that was later acquired by AOL, and was just starting up his own company. What resonated most with Jahanzeb was the fact that they both shared a common vision for what they wanted to do in their lives. “Vishal had named his company Maha Software and in addition to registering mahasoftware.com, also had mahasoftware.org registered because he wanted to do something for impact, not just profit. That really struck a chord with me,” he said. After meeting at an event where Jahanzeb was speaking, they began working together and eventually became business partners. Although they tried to juggle their goals of creating profit and impact in things like volunteering at Khan Academy in the summer of 2010, they quickly realized how difficult it was to manage the balance and do everything well. They made a decision to focus on building the company with the hopes to have the luxury of spending time on impact in the future.
Over the next two years, others joined their team in Silicon Valley. Jason DiCioccio was a friend they’d made at a coworking space who later joined iTeleport. Faraz Khan had been a friend of Jahanzeb’s from his A’Level days at Karachi Grammar School, and had returned to Pakistan to start a software company after graduating from Cornell. While the team was working on iTeleport, they jointly came up with the idea for their next big thing. When Jahanzeb had started iTeleport 4 years earlier, remote desktop access from mobile devices was a novel idea, but it had become commoditized by then. However, what they saw as an opportunity for innovation was in the space of collaboration. “It wasn’t just about you controlling your desktop and me controlling mine, but rather you and I sitting at our computers, working together, as if we were on the same computer at the same time!” This simple idea was what eventually became his next company: Screenhero.
While it was a little disconcerting to build a company from scratch, this time it was different. It wasn’t one person coming up with the idea of iTeleport and building it in a vacuum. It was a team of incredible people that worked well together, founding a new company together, building upon many years of combined experience.
Jahanzeb and his team of 3 co-founders were accepted into Y Combinator, the prestigious seed accelerator program, raised a seed round of funding from the top investors in Silicon Valley, hired more employees and built a product that has received the highest praise from some of the biggest names in the industry. “We learnt a lot through iTeleport and we were able to avoid some of the mistakes we had made.” Screenhero’s focus is on enabling people to work together like they’re in the same room, even though they may be on opposite sides of the globe. Real time collaboration is key.
While it’s still early to see how well Screenhero does, Jahanzeb give a confident nod. “What I’m happiest about is how good it feels to come into work every single day. Many people slave away at jobs they don’t enjoy in the hope that there will be a payout at the end of the struggle. For me, I want every day of my journey to be something I truly enjoy. Life’s too short to work on things you’re not excited about.”
Advice to Budding Entrepreneurs
Startups are launched every day and there are only a handful that really stand out. There’s a great deal of trial and error and a lot of competition. “Well, if someone’s interested in starting something and hasn’t yet done so, I’d start with the basic questions. If you can find the answers to questions like, ‘What are you afraid of?’, ‘What’s stopping you?’, and ‘Why aren’t you taking that first step?’, you’ll actually break a big problem into little, more manageable bits.”
Jahanzeb feels that growing up in Pakistan instills a very different mindset than what is needed to be a product-oriented business. “We’ve always viewed ourselves as consumers, not producers, in the global economic system. It always felt like it wasn’t our place to make something, that the things we used were made by ‘other’ people; those who were smarter, better trained, elsewhere, not us. I remember being blown away at Carnegie Mellon when I saw that undergraduate students had started their own gaming companies and were successfully selling games they themselves, even if at a small scale. I didn’t know that was even possible! As simple as it sounds, I didn’t realize that it was possible to make something and sell it, all while going to school.” The mindset just isn’t developed as much in the younger age groups.
While he did have a world-class education both at LUMS in Pakistan and then at CMU in the US, it is interesting to note that the first 9 months of his entrepreneurial success happened entirely while he was in Pakistan. “I wrote the first lines of code in Karachi, and then in Umarkot in rural Sindh. There’s no reason why anyone in Pakistan can’t do the same thing; you just need the skill and time, but there’s nothing else stopping you anymore.”
Jahanzeb learnt the hard way that advice isn’t always worth listening to. “You are your own brand. The way you deal with customers, with your product, with the way you want things done, it’s something that’s very personal to you as an entrepreneur.” For the first two years, Jahanzeb constantly second-guessed himself and assumed that he needed to replace himself with a ‘qualified CEO. “I even asked for advice from people who had very different styles and priorities, and assumed they knew better than me. But you shouldn’t take advice from others without filtering it. You are the only person that knows the kind of company you want to build, with the values you want.” Also, he adds, “The best advisors are the ones that ask the right questions, not the ones that supposedly give you the ‘right’ answers, because there are no right answers! The entire process of building a business is a hypothesis about product-market fit and finding your path towards that goal. Even the best advisor will only be able to guide you in asking the right questions that will help you find it but at the end of the day, it’s you who has to do all the hard work. I think the best thing you can do for yourself is believe in yourself, know that you’re going to get stuff wrong, get it wrong, and then learn from your mistakes so you never make the same mistakes again!”
With iTeleport behind him, and his current focus on Screenhero, where does he see himself in the next 5, 10 or 20 years? “That’s a very hard question for me. With a startup, you often don’t know where things will be in a month, let alone in the next year. Five years sounds like a lifetime away!” However, he does have some thoughts. “I’ve always felt the pull of working on something that has impact as its core focus, specifically, impact in the developing world, where I’m from. So far, I’ve kept one toe in that space by advising other companies and organizations in that space. I’m advising Neil Patel who did his Ph.D. from Stanford and is now running a social enterprise in India using voice interfaces for low-literacy users. I also advise Mashall Chaudhri, who runs the Reading Room Project in Pakistan which seeks to provide education to low income students using a unique mix of amazing teachers and exciting digital teaching tools. As amazing as it is to work with these incredible people, I’d love to be involved in something along those lines in a much bigger way. Every time I visit Pakistan, I hear the siren call of that work. It’s alluring because I know I love that work, but it’s dangerous because I know it’s so very difficult. It’s hard enough building a business that serves the needs of people to begin with, but when you add another constraint where the people whose needs you’re serving don’t have much money, it becomes that much harder to provide a service in a sustainable way. But I know that no matter what happens, I will find myself working on something along these lines at some point in my life. It’s where my heart is.”
Also, he sees room for synergies between what he’s done, what he’s doing, and what he might be doing in the future. “The work we’re doing now enables people to work together no matter where they are, and also allows people to teach others remotely in a way that wasn’t possible before. We have online academies using Screenhero for the best one-on-one mentoring experience anyone’s ever known. If we can use the same idea to enable teams to collaborate across continents, or students to learn across cities, that’s an amazing impact that we’ve already begun to achieve, and I can’t wait to see where we end up.”
It truly is remarkable to see everything Jahanzeb has done in such a short time. But perhaps the most exciting part is that it feels like to him, his story is just beginning.
This profile was originally published in the book “A Greener Valley”, supported InfoTech by in 2014 and is being re-posted here with the author’s consent.