Salman & Bismah a Super Couple That Carved ‘Manto’
Reviving the culture and stylizing clothing for both men & women of Pakistan, while bringing Urdu alive through digital print designs.
Bismah & Salman Parekh aren’t only the founders but a dynamic couple that gave us the ‘Manto’, which made us feel Urdu again. The salty taste in our wardrobes, and a variety of literature that cover our bodies and embrace our souls.
The Inordinate Beginning
“One's not half of two; two are halves of one.” E.E. Cummings probably said this about our super duo who shared their story with Startup Insider about how they walked to become to-date’s most beloved brand, ‘Manto’! They feel humble especially when they see various big names appearing in their designs. Some brands tried to get on with the same idea but it was okay for them as Urdu is not anyone’s domain but doing it with grace and in good quality is definitely a virtue!
Unconsciously, ‘Manto’ has inspired so many startups by just jumping the bandwagon using Urdu literature, celebrities, etc. At the same time when Bismah was designing and writing odes to some legends on cloth, Salman was identifying some businesses who were illegally copying their work. There have been days when they had to put people behind bars for using their copyrighted designs and then some got away because Urdu can’t be claimed!
How is the Jigsaw connected?
Shalwar Kameez in the culture of the Subcontinent is mostly considered a dress code for Friday (Jumma) or Special Islamic occasions like Eid but Salman on a random day decided to wear a Kurta Shalwar instead of his western clothes while studying in the UK. His international friends were surprised and inquired about his clothing. ‘It is my national dress’. It was that moment when he realized that his dressing was making an impact, an actual representation of a Nation’s culture. The voice echoed in his head, “Look Pakistani as much as you can!”.
While doing a degree in E-Commerce, Salman built a brand that reflected the culture and uniqueness of Pakistan. From that point there was no turning back. Initially they launched the brand with only basic Kurta Pyjamas, but a couple of months down the line they tried Odhnis. As the result was outstanding, they focused more on R&D in that area.
Whereas Bismah has always been an art student so she got admission in NCA Lahore but instead of joining, she ended up doing marketing and business from Karachi. They both met when they were in a college where Salman was there for a very short time before he left for his degree in the UK. Bismah always had more inclination towards arts but after their marriage she learnt proper designing tools and did her formal digital textile diploma from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS). Initially she thought of working for some big brands but she didn’t. After starting their own brand, they saw some Pakistan’s finest designers wearing Bismah’s designs and sometimes her designs were compared to the brands where she once thought of working as a designer. ‘That is an incredible journey, isn’t it!’.
What is success to you?
Making our parents proud is the biggest success for us. Whereas on an organisational level, the benchmark of success is quite simple, “Can we create something that people would miss if it wasn’t there?” Fortunately, the relationship that ‘Manto’ has built within its customers, we feel extremely confident in the work that we do. And that’s success for us, we are a community and they keep us on our toes so we keep doing better and better each day.
What makes you a successful brand?
A business that’s profitable, sustainable and growing is considered to be successful. Gladly, we are all of these; but in addition, the reason why we believe success has been on our side is mostly due to employee job satisfaction and their retention rate that is above the industry standards. On the other hand, most of the customers that shop with us keep coming back for repurchases, giving us motivation that we’re doing it right, hence, successful at what we’re trying to achieve, joy & customer experience.’
What is your advice for the newbies of business?
"In my early days of exploring the business opportunities, everyone advised me to do something that is ‘unique’. Although, I was also puzzled why people are so “fancied by uniqueness” when in reality, everyone is resistant to change! For days, I thought about all things that are rare in our culture and e-commerce ecosystem, then I realized the missing ingredient was ‘honesty’! At the time when we started our business, the consumer trust in the online purchasing ecosystem was tarnished by the early rise of the e-commerce industry scams and frauds.
Being a victim to an online scam myself, I could finally feel the power ‘honesty’ has! If anyone asks me now for advice, I simply say, ‘Be Honest’.
Retaining the dream team
They both believe that due to the growing opportunities in the sector or increased desire in young adults (Gen. Z) to explore the right place for themselves, the startup culture has increased the average employee turnover rate in Pakistan. Engaging high-performers for a long- period of time in the growing organization is a priority, and we try to enable the culture of learning, feedback, and fair pay to retain our team members. When building new policies, we both often ask ourselves on a personal level only one basic question before hiring the new team player:
“Would I happily choose to work in Manto if it wasn’t run by me?”
Your sip of motivation during any struggle or challenge?
It is extremely difficult to have a positive outlook. Taking a pause during stressful thinking is the most important task during such times. Once calmed down, it’s always important to first acknowledge the situation and reality, and then under-stand that this can not be the end, regardless of how difficult the situation may seem to be!
Is there any secret ingredient or formula of success or is it just luck?
Luck definitely plays a very important role, but luck can also be influenced! Luck without hard work doesn’t last long. In fact, it’s the continuous pursuit that enables more opportunities for luck.
Salman here specifically mentioned the role of her wife that turned his luck, he said, "I can't imagine what Manto would look like if Bismah wasn't there. Maybe, there would not have been any success story without her key role." From where we see it, for Manto and Salman, Bismah is surely that secret ingredient.
How do you both keep your professional roles not affect your personal life?
Yes, you’re absolutely right, as husband and wife and being colleagues it's a challenging journey, not easy for either of us. Obviously leaving ‘work at work’ when we are coming back home is a task in itself but we try to do it and accomplish most of the times. Because yes, there are disagreements, tensions, and so many other official things, and they definitely are a challenge for us as a couple but we have to take on that challenge and act maturely and not bring them home. So we have to be on our toes and understand that it’s not ‘me’ vs. ‘you’ but it’s ‘me and you’ vs. ‘Challenges’. And this keeps us going.
Things that contribute to your productivity, happiness and success?
As the company grows, so does the work. It’s very easy to get lost in the workflow, 24/7, but probably defeats the purpose. I had to create a balance of my life where everyday I’d be doing different things.
Who is your role model and why?
'Seth Godin for sure. I became so emotional when I first heard him speak I realized that I’m not stupid! And he spoke what I used to think that maybe no one else understood. He inspired me to become a better businessman and a marketer.'
Today, Salman and Bismah feel proud not only to create a brand that competes daily with the top high street fashion brands globally but that is also 100% ‘Made in Pakistan.’ Every piece sold helps create jobs in Pakistan, while putting Pakistan’s presence in the global fashion landscape, shining in its own style; modish and trendy yet affordable.