“I like people, I like speaking, and I like creating impact,” says Umer Khan, Evenement CEO, founder of Activ8 and Service Punch, and co-founder of the Pakistan Human Capital Forum.
“Everything starts with belief. With the will to Make It Happen!” this is the cornerstone of Umer Khan’s motivational training model and also the personal belief that has enabled him to build two successful enterprises in diverse and competitive fields. Organizations that create tremendous impact and provide a creative home to more than twenty full time employees.
Umer’s journey as an entrepreneur has been an interesting one, and so Profit sat down with him to get the inside story.
We met at the bright and buzzing creative hub that houses offices for both Activ8 and Evenement. Instantly one is stuck by the productive and comfortable vibe of a busy team working in sync. Motivational quotes line the funky latticed walls as colleagues exchange queries and easy banter across the open plan space. The team has recently relocated to their ecclectic first floor offices after a massive fire destroyed their existing home. Umer uses the fire as a starting point for his narrative.
“Seeing all you’ve built destroyed by one faulty wire gives you perspective. For me, as someone who espouses the power of positive challenge management for a living, it gave me the opportunity to live up to my convictions and in fact, to test my own beliefs.” says Khan looking back on the fateful day last October.
Colleagues and employees tell this Profit reporter how Umer never stopped, never slowed down and most importantly did not let the team despair. We understand from the team that despite the massive financial hit, the company closed its most successful financial year to date and each team member not only owns that success, but attributes it to the unflagging belief of their CEO.
So what are those beliefs, and how have they played a role in Khan’s entrepreneurial success?
Straight out of GIK with an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering Umer was shortlisted for an engineering job. However knowing his passion lay elsewhere, as did his natural talents, he relentlessly kept at the interviewer to give him an opportunity in marketing instead.
Before having conducted a single workshop, he dubbed himself a trainer, and without any track record whatsoever, convinced Dupont to give his proposed training programs a shot.
He had a vision to bring together the HR community and he created an organization that now has three impactful and active chapters.
He saw a space for improvement and created Service Punch | The Service Conference to begin a conversation about service in its truest form.
These achievements sum up Umer Khan’s belief system. Know what you want, believe that it is attainable, understand what it takes to achieve it, and be ready to execute in the moment. Use each set back as an opportunity to learn and grow, and stop at nothing to make it happen.
“If you are good at studying, it follows that your parents want you to pursue a particular set of studies and specific type of career. I studied engineering but I never planned to pursue that as a career.” Khan always knew that he wanted to create something of his own, something that would leave a lasting impact and touch people’s hearts and minds. After GIK, he dabbled with a few internships and jobs before continuing his education. “I was in Agha Khan Hospital Karachi with my mother and I found out that an ex-colleague from GIK had found employment in the sales department at Engro. That gave me a big boost. I made a bunch of calls to Engro from a payphone to a lady from HR to interview me. Before that, I had, had my fair share of failures. Everything was telling me to believe in stereotypes, but Engro was my first experience that gave me confidence and since then I have started believing in myself and my dreams.”
In 2001 Khan, decided to pursue further education in business and went to Virginia Tech University for an MBA – “with just enough money for my first semester” and a promise to return if he failed to find funding for his the rest of his education. Come back he did, but only armed with a degree – only to find that there was nothing in the job market to interest him.
“Even if you have strong points and interests, they are not always aligned with your purpose. Sometimes they can indeed become a distraction and that happened to me.” To make do in the interregnum, Umer found himself teaching assignments. “LSE, UMT, you name a business school and I was teaching there. I taught courses ranging from organizational design to marketing research, and I started calling myself a trainer. I didn’t have any company or proper experience, but I still got a chance.”
When Dupont had a team-building engagement and reached out to a trainer they had heard of, who teaches, Umer jumped on the opportunity. They never asked him about his experience, instead, demanded a training plan. “I gave them a list of topics I would be coaching on and they hired me. I believed this was something I could do and I worked hard to make that belief a reality. It hasn’t been easy and the learning curve was massive. But if you have a vision and are on the path of realizing it, then you have to be in a mindset to seize opportunity and roll with the punches.”
Although training was his passion, Khan’s first entrepreneurial venture something quite different.
Venturing into event management
Sometimes while running training courses, he also ventured into event management. In 2004, he launched Evenement. Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy & Arts became his first client. “Even there we have enhanced our rates in multiples of at least a hundred.”
Khan doesn’t believe in any given type of event, keeping his range and repertoire vast, though the initial idea was to specialize managing expat weddings. “We built a whole model based on the specific needs of expats because we wanted to go where the opportunity was. Back then, planning a wedding was not a huge trend and people coming from other countries had to depend on their relatives to make all the arrangements, as they had neither much information nor any real avenue to find what they wanted.” Umer continues “But as I stepped into the event management industry, I realized that the corporate world is my main strength and though the weddings paid a lot, corporate work was where I felt at home. That said, we haven’t restricted ourselves to any particular category, but now it’s not just me. I have an entire team that looks at different sectors. With clients, we strongly focus on cultivating a relationship where we cater to everything – from the smallest possible meetup to the biggest scale event.”
“Part of knowing what it takes to achieve your goals is surrounding yourself with people who complement your own abilities with their diversified skills. And in order to have the most effective team, you have to create an environment of ownership and autonomy.” This is what Umer set out to do with EVENEMENT his event management company. Empowering individuals has always been a passion for Umer and seeing the impact of empowered employees led him to create an initiative that’s sole purpose is harnessing hidden potential and maximizing individuals, Activ8 Training & Development.
With Evenement up and running, Umer had the chance to transform his passion into a second viable business. One which both diversified and complemented the corporate side of his events business and one in which he could realize another long term dream. A partnership with his father.
“Since my first training with DuPont, I have multiplied my daily rate as a trainer about 25 times.” Fourteen years ago when he began training he was just a name, doing independent training or partnering with other organizations. Today he has multiplied his daily rate more than twenty-five times and established Activ8 as one of the premiere training and leadership development companies in Pakistan.
Evenement has been through eventful times, the most explosive being Khan’s splitting with his partner and co-founder in 2012. But Khan looks at these as a natural course of events that ended up to his advantage. “Like every business, there were several directions to take and several routes to follow, and I think that we had a great time together. Then came a time when we should have separated and we did.”
Taking a lesson out of this division and commending his partner at the same time, he said, “You need to continue to move forward. Certain distractions and hurdles always come but my best advice to anybody would be: faced with a challenge, try to get out of it double quick and move forward as soon as possible. I would give credit for this to my former partner too because the total time it took us from discussing our division for the first time to being fully operational separately in our own business was three weeks.”
When asked what he would do differently if he gets to do it all over again, he said that except being “less lazy,” he will do it “with the same people, in the same way, without any regrets.” Since he feels that he hasn’t given off his best yet and, that remains his driving force, so he would do better there. “I would totally want to move ahead to do justice to the dream and to the opportunity.”
He considers himself his own biggest competitor. “The only thing stopping us, or any other business, from going forward or going bigger is our own self. For anybody who is doing it the right way there is no way of losing business due to competition. The pie is big enough for everyone to grow without affecting anyone else massively. Besides the more people there are, the happier I am. Not only that leads to customer awareness,but also keeps on filtering the best. So clients also realize the brands who give them value and those who don’t.”
The choice of training and event management professions sometimes also comes in handy for Khan because it brings in overlapping clients. Arranging events for a particular organization brings Khan close to their business practices, challenges and objectives, allowing him to design custom-made consulting and training projects for them. “At least 70% of our clients are in both businesses and I expect that eventually, the remaining 30% will also come to the fold. We take great pride in being able to provide a unique and holistic solution to our clients.”
The biggest challenge for him is the same in both these industries as well. “The relations you build are not with the businesses, but with people. Every time a person goes from one place to another, you have to recommence from the scratch. The value that you have brought to a particular organization evaporates the moment people you had worked with depart. We need to develop maturity and understanding that while having relationships is great, one’s value should be seen in what you contribute to the company and not to the people who brought you in.”
He is proud of his accomplishments outside these two companies as well and that is where he believes most work is yet left to be done. Khan Co-Founded the Pakistan Human Capital Forum (PHCF) with Adeel Anwar and Faraz Aslam about five years ago. Since then the organization has grown into three chapters across the nation: Mughal, Mehran, and Margalla. With more than 200 members, it has dozens of organizations as part of it and while it is not revenue earning, to Khan “it creates impact.” This month the forum held its 40th session.
The Service Punch Conference is another of his initiatives. The conference has held two editions in the last four years and gears up for the third edition in 2018. Service Punch is a profit making venture, but Khan wants to take it to the level where it creates tangible disruption in the service space. “We find that in the customer experience and the business mindset a lot has been left to be desired. And there was not one platform providing a narrative. I think one thing which is still missing and I would like to do more of is to take Service Punch to the level where it creates that service revolution that we were aiming at. We have engaged enough people but there’s one thing that I believe in: a huge opportunity is there for the taking.”
Speaking on how long he thinks it will take him to get there, he said, “Since we have the right kind of people and right kind of organizations, I am looking forward to the next 3-5 years to really help create a service revolution.”
Both straight talking and affable, Khan closes our conversation with his view for the future. With big aspirations for both EVENEMENT and Activ8, I ask if there are other business ventures he has in mind. He doesn’t say anything specific, but there was definitely a twinkle in his eye, that leaves one wonder, what they can expect next from the intrepid entrepreneur.