Every night a two man technology team keeps a vigil for an email from their web host. Today the email came in at 6 am. On Sunday it arrived at the stroke of midnight.
Of the vigil team, one is the founder with borrowed credit cards, Jawwad Farid, the geek behind the dream; the other is M. Arbab, the architect who created the problem in the first place.
And the email. A site suspension notice due to excessive use of a shared server.
Jawwad and Arbab are testing and redefining the boundaries of their brand new business. Content. Traffic. Conversions. With an unlikely partner in just as unlikely a city.
The Beginning. Content 101.Jawwad Farid still remembers his first elective at Columbia Business School. International Marketing, taught by Donald (Don) Sexton. It was the elective that led him to take a first shot at the content business. An idea that focused on teaching Finance to business school students across the world. Incubated, funded, and launched in ten months, the concept died an early death in Southern California. Sometimes destiny is in a "not-to-be" mood but still forgiving, since the failed business spawned a book (Reboot), a course on entrepreneurial failure and an international speaking circuit for its founder.
The Proverbial 10 Years and Change Later13 years later the team behind FourQuants.com looks very similar to its ten year old deceased cousin. Again, there is a four-man team where two of the "men" are women. Content now includes videos, downloadable pdf and excel files and more than 700 posts covering everything between the exotic and the mundane in Finance.
The ten year old "cutting edge" java server pages have been replaced by Php and Wordpress. Surprisingly while technology turned to dust, the analysis done on the business case at the turn of the century is still relevant. The sales team has been replaced by Google Search which generates 85% of the traffic for the family of sites run by FourQuants. And the traffic comes from the most unlikely of places. Other than China the most page views per visitors (10+) are from cities and countries that read like a who's who of emerging markets. Emerging market visitors spend as much as an hour on the site. Paying customers and the bulk of traffic still comes from a mix of the first world and its distant relatives: US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Singapore, UAE, Malaysia, Philippines and India.
There are a few differences though; Unlike the California adventure, FourQuants.com and its sister site FinanceTrainingCourse.com (offering free and paid finance courses) have started to make money. And yes they have traffic; growing traffic; so much traffic that the team has had to switch hosts twice, and hosting plans thrice in the last four weeks.
The Customers - MBA and Finance ProfessionalsEvery few weeks the [email protected] address gets pinged by a MBA or Financial Engineering student from the English speaking world. Sometimes a professor or a professional trainer teaching the executive MBA program or a workshop drops by. On occasions it's a user with a modeling problem to solve, has hit a wall and needs a model blueprint that can help crack the problem. They have already gone through the free content and inquire about payment plans, students discounts (Finance Training has its share of hidden coupons and Easter eggs) or future courses scheduled for release. North Carolina, Thailand, United Kingdom, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, China, Singapore, Boston, New York and Dubai, are all on FourQuants' map.
Agnes Paul, a Fellow in the Society of Actuaries and a domain expert at FourQuants feels that the reason why they have been able to attract customers from across the globe is their approach. "We solve problems that we ourselves faced as part of our risk and treasury practice. Pick up any text book on interest rate modeling and try and build a model with it. The same thing holds true with portfolio risk or Monte Carlo simulation. Computational Finance for the unwary and the needy is more painful than a root canal gone bad."
"Whereas we take that same problem, that root canal, write a model building guide in plain English, not Latin, Greek or Chinese, share the excel sheet we have built using that guide and package the whole thing in a neat little topic specific product. Sometimes we even do a 2-hour video that helps you walk through the model and our approach. And it hands-on, practical and to-the-point because we have been doing practical hands on consulting for the last 10 years."
But it's not just the approach. It is also affordability. The most popular downloads are notes on the first course on corporate finance, an Excel model for pricing interest rate swaps, a guide to forward prices and a study note on calculating Value at Risk. All priced between a large fully loaded caramel frappe or a high end pesto on mozzarella sandwich. The video course will cost you the equivalent of a fine dining meal for two and the Learning Network Subscription, the-one-price-get-all offer at US$ 399, is the priciest item on the menu.
The City for Financial Content?The interesting bit though is the traction the product has received despite the source of the content. The unlikely city of Karachi (official motto: we are in the news again). Says Jawwad Farid, the geek with the borrowed credit cards:
"It is not that outrageous. Let's take a look the credentials of our team. Two Fellows Society of Actuaries, one Columbia MBA, One UCL graduate. The Columbia MBA is consistently rated highly by his EMBA students in Dubai and Singapore and his treasury training clients in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur."
"Take a look at the location. When it came to banking regulation we were number three behind Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) in rolling out Basel II. We have one of the oldest business schools in the region, 100+ financial institutions, a finance and English speaking talent pool and in terms of traffic the 5th largest consumer of our own content."
But there is more to the story than the city of Karachi. Who wrote the e-learning iPhone, iPad & Android apps for FourQuants.com in 25 days? The same design studio that wrote 3 top performing Blackberry apps, Pepper.pk, out of Lahore. Who helped the group understand the traffic and conversion business? Two of the most successful traffic and conversion teams in the world, based respectively out of Karachi and Lahore. If you start looking around there is expertise and talent available in horizontal scaling, social media marketing, payment systems, video streaming optimization and content platforms. All you have to do is ask [email protected], the local technology industry association and you will get the right references.
What about the Startup funding scene? "Funding in Karachi has never been an issue if you have the right credentials and have done your homework. We didn't even ask and received two offers from Angels. One came with a check. Your best hope is not a Pakistani origin US expatriate home for the holidays or in transit. It's a Pakistani origin expatriate who has made this country his home, has run his primary operations from one the three big cities, has seen an exit and has worked for a startup. Anyone else will be a waste of your time."
An Unlikely Partner - GoogleIn 2003 when the team that founded FourQuants.com returned to Karachi, Google was the last company they thought they would partner with. "We were too small and they were too big, there was no context".
But search became an early advantage in the businesses that came before FourQuants and Finance Training. Then came advertising, followed by blogging. Paypal decided to lock a country with 90 million physical users, out of its payment network; Google Checkout didn't. The team, like many other startups in Pakistan, head towards what was available. Last year in March, the group started the FTV channel on YouTube as a joke. Finance Training Video, not Fashion TV, took off with the launch of the FourQuants' Finance training iPhone, iPad and Android applications.
As Arbab, the inhouse social media and SEO expert put it, "If you are in the traffic and content business, you can't live without Google. It's not just one product it is the portfolio of tools that they offer and how they work together. And in Pakistan, working with them is like working with a startup, because of the size of their team."
Three months to LaunchIn December the team sat down to plan their launch events for January 2012. "We thought it would be good to get things done before the Mayan Calendar kicked in". First two tasks on the list were the launch of a new brand to support the financial training iPhone, iPad apps and a redesign of the original FinanceTrainingCourse.com site. The next was reworking the YouTube channel and creating a shopping portal using another Google product (tough luck PayPal). The fourth item was launching the product and the brand in collaboration with a partner in Thailand."Before we even got to the next item on our list, our Yahoo host tripped. Which started a mad rush first for the right hosting partner, followed by the right hosting plan and the midnight vigils praying for another day of Grace. Given the growth we are seeing in traffic, I don't think we have put it behind us, we have just bought ourselves some time."
The content portfolio that the group runs is now averaging 50,000 page views a month, growing at a 30% monthly rate. The content now includes more than 600 posts on exotic financial topics, 60 free finance courses, 12 full length video workshops on computational finance and 40 downloadable pdf and excel study guides on risk management and model building for finance professionals, regulators and risk managers.
The Thailand trip that brought Yahoo down? It was a success with the team locking in the most well respected business school, the largest financial services technology solutions partner and the leading securities regulator as customers."How did you get into this business?" We asked Jawwad. "Because I was afraid I would flunk my first and last PhD. elective at Columbia and went looking for help online in 1999 and found nothing. More than a decade later in 2012 outside of what we offer for free, your choices as a computational and quantitative finance student are just as limited. Yes we have great content but very few vendors offer it for free. And hardly any give you everything you need to get rid of that root canal. We do."