Star Tech: COLABS, Pakistan’s fastest-growing flexible workspace, eyes UAE, MENA markets

The startup's main mission is to redefine the future of work in Pakistan by creating avenues and opportunities for the country’s youth


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Fri 7 Oct 2022, 4:57 PM

Last updated: Thu 3 Nov 2022, 3:28 PM

COLABS, an entrepreneurial co-working platform that was launched in Lahore, Pakistan, in May 2019, has been striving to innovate the local ecosystem by creating new work experiences. It is also supporting and collaborating with young entrepreneurs in Pakistan’s burgeoning startup ecosystem.

COLABS’ big idea and main driving mission is to redefine the future of work in Pakistan by creating avenues and opportunities for the country’s youth bulge, who are below 27 years of age and make up around approximately 64 per cent of the south Asian country’s population.

COLABS is a big idea, whose time has come, in a country known for its budding raw talents and demographic dividends that are yet to be realised.

COLABS, which is planning to expand to Karachi — Pakistan’s most populous city and in the Indian subcontinent — and the nation’s capital within the next three to five months, wants to be a disruptor and goes beyond a physical workstation and a desk.

The startup’s productive spaces and an ecosystem of entrepreneurs and partners form the bedrock for its members to integrate and establish themselves in the domestic market.

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Since inception, its capacity has grown four-fold and another 100,000 entrepreneurs are likely to join forces soon.

Pakistan’s growing community of startups, including their founders, will be serviced by COLABS in a seamless integrated manner and live up to the concept of co-working.

Data shows that COLABS has over 1,500+ seats, and over 100 companies and 100+ partners (universities, venture capital [VC] funds, corporates, government and industry leaders) through its diverse system of freelancers, startups and enterprises.

COLABS’ interconnected entrepreneurial initiative, COGROW, enables local and international companies to accelerate their growth in Pakistan.

COGROW has hosted over 250+ events (spanning across diverse sectors such as technology, business, art and culture), which has garnered a footfall of over 200,000 visitors since 2019.

COLABS also provides back-office support to its clients for assistance pertaining to legal, human resources apart from assisting international brands navigate the local market at an affordable cost.

Omar Shah, 33, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and co-founder of COLABS, is an investment banker by profession, who takes a keen interest in emerging markets’ private equity (PE) and VC investments.

The germinal idea behind COLABS came to Omar and his twin brother, Ali, in September, and the startup was launched in the summer of 2019, by transforming a weather-beaten and dilapidated towel factory, which was constructed in 1958, on Gurumangat Road, in Gulberg, Lahore.

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Omar, a graduate from SOAS University of London, has a knack for recognising both potential and talent — in individuals and startups — a trait that has served him well over the years, and more so now as CEO of COLABS.

He gave up a lucrative job after spending the last decade working in investment banking across emerging markets in London, Mexico, Turkey and Pakistan.

2014 was a defining year as Pakistan’s ecosystem was beginning to take shape, when Omar served on the board of the country’s largest music streaming platform, Patari.

He attributes Patari as his first connection to Pakistan as an investor and that’s when he decided that he wanted to branch out into entrepreneurship.

He hails from an old and reputed family in Pakistan that has not only been involved in real estate for over a century but also played a pivotal role in weaving a new narrative and identity for the young nation, which was carved out of India in 1947.

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Omar’s lineage is deeply entrenched in the cultural capital of Lahore, where his 18th century family home — the well-known Haveli Barood Khana, a preserved gem in the Walled City, is situated.

His great grandfather, Mian Amiruddin – the first Muslim Lord Mayor of Lahore in 1946 — was a visionary.

Also, though not directly related, Allama Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet and philosopher, was married into the family as he was very close friends with Mian Amiruddin’s father, Mian Nizamuddin (Allama Iqbal's daughter was married to Mian Amiruddin's son).

Omar and Ali are determined to create a community and an entrepreneurial hub in the field of innovation and technology.

“Co-working is an innovation to real estate,” according to Omar, who is in his elements while cycling around Lahore in between back-to-back meetings, myriad phone calls and Slack messages.

He would cycle from one end of the city to the other to get a sense of his bearings during the collective anguish shortly after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

UAE calling amid expansion plans in the MENA region

COLABS aims to replicate its business model in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as a hub for both startups of all hues within the next 18-24 months.

However, the expansion will not just be limited to co-working spaces alone, but also through COLABS’ entrepreneurial ecosystem that it has built in the region, which is undergoing a radical transformation on the back of cutting-edge innovation powered by artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and robotics.

For instance, this year, COLABS has signed an extensive six-month partnership with the Egyptian fintech company, Paymob, a leading omnichannel payments gateway and financial technology enabler in the MENA, Afghanistan and Pakistan (MENAP) region. The partnership will focus on workshops and events to be held at the COLABS’ headquarters in Lahore.

COLABS is also currently partnering with a UAE-based business accelerator programme for women-led startups, called 60 Day Startups.

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