While one might argue that the tech sphere in Nepal is still rather infantile in contrast to its Silicon Valley counterparts, the past few years have pushed the nation to grow more and more digital. Technologies and services that one would only perceive in Hollywood flicks have slowly but steadily started to become an accepted part of urban Nepali life. Today tech has begun to encompass every possible aspect of our lives and has been changing the way we interact with our community. Atulya Pandey happens to be one of the trailblazers who is at the helm of elevating Nepali tech to new heights.
I first met Pandey two-and-a-half years ago. Back then it was to talk about Pagevamp, a company that he and a couple of his friends started during their undergrad years from their dorm at the University of Pennsylvania. However, during our conversation then, Pandey had also mentioned a new company called Outside that he had just co-founded with his partners Sujan Shrestha and Vincent Sanchez-Gomez. At the time Pandey referred to it as Outside.Tech which sought simply to solve their client’s tech needs. However, with changing times also came changed ambitions; since then Pandey and his team dropped the ‘Tech’ and have managed to exponentially grow Outside to not just be a tech company but a venture that truly embodies the Nepali entrepreneurial spirit.
Now Pandey introduces Outside as a design and technology studio based in Kathmandu. And what does this exactly mean? In Pandey’s own words, “We do a lot of creative design, branding, software development, and enterprise website development. In other words, a lot of our clients come to us with their own mission and goals and we try to bring it to life through design and technology.” Currently, Pandey and Outside have amassed an impressive portfolio of projects that ranges from domestic SMEs all the way to international legacy entities. A few familiar names might include Inside Himalayas, Vogue, Amazon, and the Statue of Liberty Foundation.
However, much like any innovative venture, Outside did not start shining from day one. In fact, it started when Pandey decided to make a gutsy choice to move back to Nepal from New York where Pagevamp was then based. This was in 2015, and at the time Pandey and his team sought to focus on Asia expansion by building a team in Kathmandu. But for better or worse, things do not always work out the way that we usually want them to. Pandey shares, “Pagevamp had its ups and downs. By 2018, it had more of a stagnant growth and we did not want to go ahead and get more investment and keep pumping it in. Pagevamp had always been a little more investor dependent, and we wanted to remove our dependency on investment.” This is when Pandey began to weigh in on the positives of the cards he had on hand. He understood that over the years they had managed to build a solid team, developed an expansive global network, and had a wanting to do something different.
Thus began the first inklings of Outside as an entity. Pandey and the team decided that they wanted to shift from a product-based investment-heavy business like Pagevamp and instead move into a service-based model and start providing design and web-software solutions to clients. During this transition Pandey also realised that for Outside to truly stand out as a company, it could not afford to function as your everyday outsourcing company, it needed to be more. “We didn’t want to just be another outsourcing company or an off-shore hub. We were more excited about working with businesses that had a social mission, where we could help them amplify their impact through our technology.”
Putting money where your mouth is
An intriguing question one might have for Pandey and his co-founders is why would anyone pluck a growing enterprise from the bustling New York City markets, only to base it primarily in quaint Kathmandu? Certainly, one would have access to more clients and investor pools when they are based in a city like New York? Well, Pandey boldly answers this query, stating that a big part of the Outside identity has to do with their hometown of Kathmandu. “We very much stress on Kathmandu. We are a Kathmandu-based studio and this is a stigma that we have constantly been fighting,” shares Pandey. He explains, “Sure we can still say that we are a New York-based agency, after all that’s where my co-CEO is. We could even say we are a London-based agency, we have our creative director there. And this has been what a lot of people have advised us to do because when you’re talking about a global agency these are the core hubs. But we wanted to fight that notion and we wanted to put Kathmandu front and centre. We wanted people to see that really awesome things can come out of Kathmandu.”
Pandey does note that this change of perception cannot happen by simply just basing companies in Kathmandu, it is also equally important to actively invest in developing and growing the communities here. “If the whole technology community here comes together, then we grow, but also Kathmandu’s brand name as a tech hub is bolstered.” Outside itself has gone the extra mile to bring more elements of Kathmandu into their brand, be it through changing logos and colour palettes or by unabashedly embracing their Kathmandu roots. And this has actually seemed to work in favour for Outside. Pandey admits, “We have realised that a lot of our global clientele actually has a positive affinity towards Nepal. Even when we send out random emails, people are interested to find out that we are from Nepal.”
What is even more important is an intuitional process that encompasses the community all the while getting things done. Outside, in particular, has supported a working model based around three core pillars: a start-up studio, an agency, and a community of builders. First of the three, and perhaps the most straightforward pillar happens to be the start-up studio. Here, Pandey explains that they have managed to integrate existing products like Pagevamp with other possible in-house products that they can offer their clients. The agency end on the other hand appears to function as the service arm for Outside. Through this, anybody or any business can reach out to the company with their own sets of challenges and needs. And finally, the builder community aspect works to solve the fallacies that the company has noticed in the Nepali tech and entrepreneurship community. While the start-up studio and agency allow for a steady income source for Outside, the latter pillar works to bring together a scattered tech community in Nepal while also creating an atmosphere for knowledge sharing. Examples like Oustside’s design workshops and their DevOps community are all institutional efforts to uplift not just their own but the whole Nepali tech community through a process of knowledge sharing.
While Outside is determined to do a lot for the sake of the wider Nepali tech community, investing in the community also includes investing in the company’s own people. Pandey shares an interesting occurrence that came about within Outside, “The guys at the company happened to play futsal after-hours to socialise and have some fun. We had invited the women in our company to join in too but a lot of them were not particularly enthused by the idea.” A bit more introspection led to Pandey realising that a key reason behind this disinterest of their female staff towards futsal stemmed from them being shunned away from sports as kids, thus having never had a chance to enjoy the sport like the men in the company had. “We can’t ask them to come to play all of a sudden,” tells Pandey. However, they were able to come up with a solution to the problem. Pandey explains, “We were able to find an organisation called We United that goes around Nepal and trains female football coaches. We partnered with them and had our female staff go through a four-day boot camp with their coaches. Not only did this introduce them to the sport, we also noticed that the training programme helped with their personal and professional confidence levels as well.” Pandey goes on to state that while something like this might be seen as a minor thing, it subtly encourages employee confidence, networking and increased productivity in the workplace.
Tech in Nepal
When asked how he would define the IT space in Nepal, Pandey says, “It is the highest potential industry with ridiculous demand, but I don’t think we have the supply of talent to meet this demand.” According to him, the IT industry is one where the physical limitations of national geography and political borders hardly matter. “You could come up with a webpage design in Kathmandu and easily email it to a client at the other end of the world,” elucidates Pandey, adding, “Unlike other industries, we don’t need to worry about costly logistics, just a bit of good wi-fi will do.” Unfortunately, something that Pandey does note is that oftentimes when we talk about the tech scene in Nepal, we are simply referring to a few metropolitan hubs in the country. “Ideally anybody anywhere could remotely be a part of the tech industry. Sadly, in our case there are certain economic, educational and infrastructural barriers to this,” tells Pandey who firmly believes that tech companies in Nepal need to work towards minimising the barrier of entry to the tech sphere in places outside of the handful of metropolitan hubs in Nepal.
In terms of how Nepali tech would fare against its foreign counterparts, Pandey believes that the tech space here is not lacking in innovation or technical skill, rather an area of concern that has handicapped the industry here is a low volume of skilled manpower and a poor focus on user experiences. “We are a part of a talent-based industry. And despite being rather condensed, the talent here is certainly capable of delivering globally competitive products. Even so, the problem here is that with such a small talent pool, the entire tech sphere is forced to try and one-up each other to hire the same people,” he explains, adding, “As for the products that we put out, where we might have been missing out on against global competition, is in regards to the emphasis that we put on user experience. You are able to communicate your product more effectively if your design is better, and in Nepal, I think a lot of companies tend to under-invest in this area.”
Pandey further goes on to explain that tech is no longer just about tech. While he believes that tech innovations that have been raised and nurtured in Nepal are just as good as any international competition, he also says, “Taking a product to an international market in itself is not a big feat. The real challenge is being able to understand different markets and reiterate your products accordingly. Tech is one aspect of it, understanding new markets and the cultural nuances that come with it is a whole other game.”
So how can these problems stalling Nepali tech be solved? Well, Pandey seems to have a few opinions, the first one focusing on education. He states, “Companies like us need to be more proactive when it comes to working with universities. Oftentimes we find that students that come out of these schools don’t really know that much. With tech evolving at such a rapid rate, it seems that the curriculums here aren’t able to keep up. I’d even say that a majority of computer science graduates here usually end up starting from scratch in their first job.”
As for the government and policymaking end of things, Pandey admits that he does not hold a lot of high expectations. He says, “Sure there are a lot of policy-level investments that need to happen to take Nepali tech forward. But for me and solely getting my work done, the most I’d ask for is good internet and regular electricity.”
Apart from these things, Pandey also believes people still tend to undervalue the cost of labour required to create a quality digital product. “We need to make people understand that our work is not just a matter of copy-pasting a single line of code, but rather a process that requires a significant amount of time, energy, and skill-set.” What Pandey does not want the Nepali tech industry to develop is a reputation for cheap labour. And while a low salary in NYC would certainly pass as a good wage in Kathmandu, Pandey holds the notion that it is not something that we as a nation should be striving towards. He explains, “When you start fighting for cheap labour, then there will always be labour that’s cheaper than what you are offering.” Instead, Pandey wants Nepali tech to be able to hold their value and work to deliver the quality of that value, instead of always undercutting costs and compromising quality.
The Nepali tech industry has certainly grown and continues to grow at an exponential rate. Pandey and Outside’s journey is a testament to that. As a matter of fact, Pandey shares that despite all the adversities that enterprises have had to face over the course of a global pandemic, Nepali tech companies have managed to stay relatively unscathed. Outside even managed to almost double the size of its team over the last year. And this is simply because of the intangible nature of tech innovations and how people are gradually warming up to these changes. “Businesses have begun to realise that while a shop might be able to sell products for 7-8 hours a day, a website can do that 24/7. And customers also have grown to become more adoptive of digital services and technologies,” believes Pandey.
“We are living in an exciting time for tech but we have to collectively figure out where we want to go as an industry,” Pandey adds. He goes on to emphasise that we need to actively begin to expand the talent pool that we have available in the country and give more Nepalis the exposure to be able to dream bigger.
Pandey concludes by saying, “We are in a situation where we have the ability to determine what sort of tech industry we want to create. And we certainly don’t have to follow the likes of places like the Silicon Valley. What we should strive for, is to create an industry that is equally innovative and healthy.”
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