Atoms Shoes: Young Pakistani Couple's Entrepreneurial Journey From Okara to America

Atoms shoes, founded by a young Pakistani couple, has attracted $8.1 million investment, according to media reports. Atoms' investors include Silicon Valley based venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian.  It's the latest success in the entrepreneurial journey that Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali started in Pakistani town of Okara around 2010.

Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali Wearing Atoms' Sneakers
Okara, Pakistan: story began in 2010 when twenty-something Waqas Ali met a shoemaker Muhammad Hussain in Okara at a local panchayat (council meeting), according to Dawn. Waqas brought up the idea of selling shoes online but it did not particularly appeal to Hussain who thought people want to touch, smell, wear and feel shoes before buying them.

Waqas soon dropped out of college and persuaded Sidra to join him in pursuing his dream of selling shoes online. They chose "Hometown" as the brandname for their shoes and set up their business online. The initial funding was a $10,000 prize Waqas won in a competition for start-up sponsored by P@SHA Social Innovation Fund, a Google-backed grant program for Pakistani entrepreneurs.


In 2014, the company was rebranded as Markhor, named after a wild goat which is Pakistan's national animal. The company specialized in high-end hand-crafted leather shoes sold online to mainly western clientele.

Markhor website lacked Paypal or any other financial transaction service for cross-border transaction.  Ali applied for and received a B-1 business visa to travel to the United States and open a bank account there. This enabled them to accept payments online for their shoes.

During his visit to the United States, Waqas met with other e-commerce entrepreneurs from companies such as Warby Parker and Everlane, and met the company’s first two angel investors, who each invested $15,000 to help get Markhor (then called Hometown) off the ground. The success of a $107,000 Kickstarter campaign, a few months later, was due in part to the connections Ali made on his trip to the United States, according to an article in The Atlantic.

Sidra and Waqas were accepted in YCombinator, Silicon Valley's top incubator. The incubator introduced them to top venture investors in San Francisco Bay Area.


The couple has now started their second business, an online retailer for minimalist sneakers branded Atoms.  The company has recently raised $8.1 million Series A funding, according to Tech Crunch. It is being led by Initialized Capital, the investment firm started by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan, with other backers including Kleiner Perkins, Dollar Shave Club CEO Michael Dubin, Acumen founder and CEO Jacqueline Novogratz, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, TED curator Chris Anderson, the rapper Chamillionaire and previous backers Aatif Awan and Shrug Capital.

Atoms offers shoes in quarter sizes for "perfect fit".  The company says it's not unusual for people to have different size shoes for each foot. It sends customers three pairs of shoes and allows them to keep the left and right shoes that fit them best.  It offers free returns for the rest.

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Riaz Haq said…
#Pakistan's Airlift raises $12 million in country's largest Series A to build a mass transit system. It offers #rideshare system using higher capacity vehicles enabling urban commute. #Transportation #VentureCapital #startups #Uber #Lyft via @MENAbytes

Airlift, a Pakistan-based eleven-month-old decentralized mass transit startup, has secured $12M in Series A financing, it announced in a statement today.

The round is led by First Round Capital, a leading US venture capital firm with notable investments in Uber, Square, Roblox, Looker, and Notion. The round which is the largest Series A ever raised by a Pakistani startup also marks one of the largest financings in South Asia this year and the first time that a US-based VC has led a round in Pakistan. The round was also joined by Fatima Gobi Ventures, a joint venture between one of Pakistan’s leading conglomerates Fatima Group and Gobi Partners, and Indus Valley Capital.

Founded by Usman Gul, Ahmed Ayub, Awaab Khaakwany, Meher Farrukh, Muhammad Owais, and Zohaib Ali earlier this year, Airlift enables users to book rides on premium quality (air-conditioned) buses (and vans) that have fixed routes, stops and times, in Lahore and Karachi.

The users after signing up and logging in, can reserve their seats by selecting their pick up and drop off locations or browsing the routes. Airlift’s mobile app that’s available for both Android and iOS allows users to track the buses in real-time and make payments as well using their credit or debit cards (the users have the option to pay by cash too when they board the bus).

“Airlift is spearheading the third wave of ride-sharing, in which higher capacity vehicles are playing an increasing role in enabling urban commute. With this financing, Airlift is looking to invest in technology and operations to scale its vision for a decentralized mass transit system, initially focusing on the developing world,” the startup

“In the future, mass transit systems will be dynamic in nature, catering and adapting to the changing needs of the urban population. Our vision for a decentralized mass transit system is a new concept, one that will fundamentally redefine how people commute in urban centers,” says Usman Gul, Airlift’s co-founder and CEO.

Prior to moving to Pakistan, Gul previously worked at DoorDash, the largest food delivery platform in the US. Tony Xu, Founder/CEO at DoorDash, which was valued at $12.6 billion in the last round, was among the first few angel investors to support Airlift. In August, just five months after launching operations, Airlift closed seed financing of $2.2M with Indus Valley Capital and the Fatima Gobi Ventures co-leading the round. In October, only two months later, the Company has secured Series A financing, increasing its total capital to $14.1M and setting a new precedent for startups based in Asia.
Riaz Haq said…
This Couple Escaped Arranged Marriages in Pakistan. Now They Run a $14 Million Brooklyn Shoe Brand
When Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali landed in the U.S. not knowing a word of English, they had no idea how far their entrepreneurial journey would take them.

Instead, the two zeroed in on Kickstarter. The platform didn't allow people to launch projects from Pakistan, so they decided to register the company in the U.S., and in February 2014, Ali borrowed $3,500 and boarded his first plane. Several of his Twitter contacts agreed to make introductions in America, and by the time he returned, he'd raised $30,000 from two investors.

With some of that money, he and Qasim went to work on the Kickstarter campaign. And on September 22, 2014, at 8 p.m. Pakistan Standard Time, the two held their breath and hit the "launch" button. To their utter amazement, they raised $107,286. On a roll, they blew off her father's strong objections and got married on March 8 — International Women's Day — and applied to Y Combinator again.

This time, Ali and Qasim got in. They could barely speak English.

The couple arrived in Mountain View for YC's summer session in 2015. For three months, they mingled with Harvard and Stanford graduates launching buzzy tech startups while the two wrestled with rawhide and supply chain headaches. At night, they submersed themselves in English, watching American movies with subtitles and listening to startup podcasts. "Honestly, how I knew they were awake was if the audio was on," says Antoine McGrath, who later became their housemate. "It was 24/7."

Neither Ali nor Qasim could believe they'd made it this far. They finally seemed on the verge of being on their way.

Until, once again, they weren't.

The more they looked around — and down — the more they noticed that, in America, and especially in Silicon Valley, people weren't wearing leather shoes, not even to work. Their target customers actually wore sneakers. Even in Pakistan, where business attire does mean dress shoes, Markhor wasn't selling; it was too expensive and people weren't used to buying that kind of thing online. Once again, they'd made the mistake of not researching their market. The consequences sunk in on the final Demo Day, when of the 60 or 70 YC people who had bought Markhor shoes, only a couple wore them.

But Ali and Qasim realized they'd missed something even bigger. To get as far as they had, they'd taken whatever path was available — even if it led them slightly astray. It was time they charted their own direction. So they sat down together in their rented apartment, and Qasim asked her husband: "We can go home and start again, but we are here. We are part of an important opportunity. What is that?"

Ali typed the question into a Google doc they titled "Project K2," named after a mountain straddling the Pakistan-China border that is the hardest in the world to climb. Then they kept writing other questions to ask themselves: Why are you in the shoe business? If you want to make shoes, why not go work for Nike? Is this the thing we want to do for the rest of our lives?

Every day, they went to Golden Gate Park with a pile of books and case studies about companies, founders, and products, and sat there reading, mining for answers. They'd discuss their thoughts, and write their insights in notebooks, which Ali would type into the document. "Many times, we were coming up with new questions," says Qasim. Why do we need another sneaker company when there are so many already? What else could our brand be?

Riaz Haq said…
This Couple Escaped Arranged Marriages in Pakistan. Now They Run a $14 Million Brooklyn Shoe Brand
When Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali landed in the U.S. not knowing a word of English, they had no idea how far their entrepreneurial journey would take them.

Slowly, their mission emerged: It wasn't so much that shoes drove them; it was instead the idea of taking something people use every day and perfecting it. A shoe was a great place to start, because it has so many aspects that can be innovated. If they could get it right, they could possibly one day expand to other essentials. They'd also learned from Markhor that they were infatuated with quality and detail in a way others weren't. That would always differentiate them.

By asking themselves so many questions, they came to a conclusion, clear as it was painful: To do this, they would once again have to scrap everything and start anew. But this time, they would know their market sole to soul, and they would have their new road map.

Recharged, they ran around to shoe stores pretending to be students learning about the sneaker industry, trying to find out what people liked to wear every day. They interviewed men and women on the street, snapping photos of how their feet moved as they walked, stood, and sat. They decided that incredible comfort and perfect fit would be their selling points, which meant, for one, making their sneakers in quarter sizes — a unique feature. They called the new company Atoms to reflect that they would go to an atomic level for quality — right down to the oval eyelets that ensure the custom laces stay flat.

It took some time to talk a factory into accommodating their exacting needs, but they found one in South Korea. As soon as their first sample arrived, they held another event — it was informal, at their place — inviting everyone they'd met through YC for Pakistani food and free size 10.5 Atoms. This one worked. The right people came — and they spread the love on Twitter and Instagram.

The couple had also realized, through Project K2, that they wanted to create their brand around the urban artsy community. They were inspired by companies built with intention: Nike's first focus on running; Patagonia's environmental ideals. "If we are to build a global sneaker brand and are allocating a big part of our life to it, it has to be about our interests," says Ali, who also writes poetry while Qasim is a painter. "Creativity, art, music, inspiring storytelling has to be a theme."

One day in October 2018, Qasim and Ali got an email from Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit cofounder and VC. He was flying into San Francisco that night around 11 p.m. and wanted to come straight to their place. He had previously met the couple at YC and bought the leather shoes, and was now hearing the buzz about their pivot. "I fondly remembered how obsessed they were with quality," he says, "and sneakers are more the vibe than dress shoes for most of us tech execs."

When he showed up at the house they shared with four others, they led him to the basement, where they'd set up a little sample shoe try-on area. He was so exhausted that he just lay on their couch and talked for about an hour and a half. They wanted him to test Atoms, but didn't have any for his 14.5–size feet yet — so they handed him a pair to take home to his wife, Serena Williams.

When arguably the greatest tennis player of all time gave the shoes her thumbs up, Ohanian became the lead investor in Atoms' Series A, which raised $8.1 million. Day One Ventures' Masha Bucher, who also invested in the round, having gotten to know Qasim and Ali, says, "Atoms' secret sauce is them being such good partners in all dimensions." She was particularly impressed by how powerfully they operated as a couple both at work and home — the respect with which they spoke to each other, the way they deftly navigated egos, and how they carefully thought through decisions together.

Riaz Haq said…
This Couple Escaped Arranged Marriages in Pakistan. Now They Run a $14 Million Brooklyn Shoe Brand
When Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali landed in the U.S. not knowing a word of English, they had no idea how far their entrepreneurial journey would take them.

In the midst of all this, they had a little girl named Aliff, who just turned one. Meanwhile, Qasim's family in Pakistan has also been changed by Atoms. Her younger sister ended up starting her own business in reproductive health products. Her mother, Akhtar, has become a headmistress of a school, where she opened a computer lab for all older students. "If I could go back," Akhtar says, as Ali translates, "I would really let my daughters be themselves and support them so they could follow what they want to do with their lives."

Akhtar says she had ambition, too, as a girl, maybe to be a doctor or pilot, but that was so radically out of the question that she channeled it into teaching and becoming the first woman in Okara to drive a car. Today, she has high hopes for her granddaughter Aliff. "Her mother and father broke out of the cage in Pakistan to do things their own way without support from us," Akhtar says through Ali, whose voice cracks with emotion as he translates. "I'm confident she will do great in life."

The big challenge for Atoms these days is growing its own family. In its way, hiring has been as hard as firing. Then there's inflation and, as ever, supply chain issues to deal with. But in their endless quest for the perfect everyday sneaker, Qasim and Ali have learned how to find their way forward. "Every time we are stuck," she says, "we just go back and read our original Google doc from the YC days. We know what we have to do: Just ask the right questions."
Riaz Haq said…
The tennis pro, 37, arrived on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in a yellow Versace dress adorned with pink flowers and a pair of neon Nike sneakers underneath. The Reddit cofounder, 36, wore a white tuxedo jacket with black pants, a matching bow tie and custom leather Atoms shoes.


After Atoms – the company which has Alexis Ohanian, Serena Williams’ husband, as one of the main investors – decided to sell masks on their website, Ohanian announced the distribution of the first batch of free masks in New York, following the launch of “Give One Get One” campaign.

Ohanian is a board member at the shoes manufacturing company Atoms. But even though the company is focused on shoewear, its newest products, following the sanitary crisis, are face masks. And besides selling, they also decided to donate them.

The charity campaign, as stated on Atoms’ official site, goes like this: “For every mask sold, we will donate one mask. Atoms is not planning to make a profit from mask sales. We have priced the mask to cover the costs for us so we can continue to make masks at scale”.


Serena Williams and husband Alexis Ohanian at F1 US Grand Prix in their Atoms masks!

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