How I Did It? Up and Close with the Musician Entrepreneur, Haroon Rashid

Haroon Rashid is a British-born Pakistani singer-songwriter, music producer, composer, director, and social activist. Formerly a member of the pop band Awaz in the 1990s, Haroon has sold millions of singles and albums worldwide and has performed at large venues such as the Wembley Arena.

As the founding CEO of Unicorn Black, an animation production company, he is the creator and director of the 3D animated children’s television series Burka Avenger which received critical acclaim. His company has also produced Teetoo and Tania, Quaid Say Baatein, and other successful animated series.

Exclusive Interview

What’s your educational background, and on what projects are you currently working?

I have done my BBA in finance from George Washington University in Washington DC. But I have educated myself a lot in the field of recording studio engineering, as well as spent many years learning about video making and animation. Also over the years, I have taught myself Music and songwriting skills. Education is an ongoing process in my mind.

What’s your backstory & how did you come up with the idea of Unicorn Black & Burka Avenger?

As a musician, many of my songs touched on social issues such as corruption and interfaith peace. Living in Pakistan, many of the issues are staring you right in the face and you can’t ignore them. I became interested in producing and directing a movie in 2010. I began writing stories and short-listing ideas. It was important for my story to be more than just entertainment. My goal has always been to address issues, make people think, and help change hearts and minds. In 2010, I read about girls’ schools being shut down by extremist elements in Pakistan. Like most people around the world and in Pakistan I was appalled. Pakistan has one of the lowest rates for female literacy and this was the last thing we needed.

I started imagining a teacher fighting back. The idea for Burka Avenger grew from there. She is a schoolteacher in her everyday life but disguises herself in a Burqa-like costume to fight the baddies. I have always been anti-guns and I wanted to reinforce the message that the pen is mightier than the sword. So her weapons are books and pens. Literally, she clonks the bad guys over the head with books. Her motto is “Justice, peace, and education for all”. Instead of a movie, it ended up being an animated TV series which worked out great because there is hardly any local entertainment for children. The Burka Avenger is a great role model to the kids of Pakistan and the show’s women empowerment themes and importance of education for girls are essential. The show imparts these great messages and morals without being preachy.

Since then we have been working on some exciting projects at Unicorn Black. We just launched an English learning app partnering with RELO (the Regional English Learning Office). The app allows children and adults to learn English in an entertaining and engaging manner. I encourage you to download the app from the android app store. Just search Burka Avenger.

Other recent projects are a mother health and nutrition animation project for Unicef. As well as online safety, privacy, and security animation project for Facebook.

We are aiming to launch 13 Burka Avenger comic books by the end of this year. We are super excited about that.

Some of the other notable projects from the recent past are Taazi.com a music portal to promote Pakistani musicians; as well as “Teeto and Tania” an animation series that highlights Pakistani heroes and role models.

From a Singer to an entrepreneur, what exactly made you think to switch your career?

That is an interesting question because to be a successful musician in Pakistan you have to be an entrepreneur of sorts and market your own music through music videos and other means. I would spend my own money recording my albums and music videos and then I would go out and recover my investment through shows. Of course, it built up step by step from very basic recordings and music videos to be able to do lavish recordings and videos as the success hit. So for me when I set up my Unicorn Black animation production studio and started working on Burka Avenger it was something I was used to doing all my life. I believed in the concept just the same I had self-belief my music career. But above all I attack any project I am excited about with an incredible amount of passion and this allows me to focus huge amounts of energy to see the project successfully through to the end. Luckily all the time and energy and money were rewarded with a critically acclaimed award-winning tv series.

How did you build Pakistan’s first digital content delivery platform called Taazi.com? You had your own money or did you raise capital for it?

The idea behind it was to create a product that I as a musician myself wish existed. The concept was to make a music platform for musicians by musicians. Where musicians get to retain all their rights and most of the revenue. It was a very challenging project and very programming-heavy. I invested my own money.

When I originally came up with the concept of Taazi in 2012 at that point youtube was banned. The Taazi app that we built is truly exceptional and I am exceedingly proud of that. However, it is hard to find a good model to financially sustain a platform
like Taazi when music is considered a free product in this day and age. People can get all the music they want for free on billion-dollar platforms like Youtube. The whole model of music has changed. We are planning to ramp up Taazi in the coming months when things get better with the Coronavirus situation.

As a celebrity why we don’t see you on TVCs or social media?

I am so busy with the day-to-day or working on my own exciting projects that doing TVCs almost seems frivolous to me. If something exclusive and a great project came along I would then definitely be interested in being part of a TVC. Otherwise, it is not something I would actively pursue.

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your entire business portfolio?

The most important thing is to continuously deliver outstanding products. The other thing is that rather than spend millions on advertising we were able to leverage press coverage to highlight the great projects that we were working on. Anytime we launch a new project we make sure we hold a press conference and invite the print and electronic media and simultaneously send out a well-written and interesting press release with images and video.

How do you manage your core team?

I am very lucky that much of my core team has been with me since the inception of Unicorn Black in 2012. We have a great relationship. It is important for me as CEO to roll up my sleeves and get involved and put in as much hard work as anybody. I think it is also very important to motivate the team by sharing the big vision with them. Then it is easy for them to realize that the everyday tasks are leading us to a bigger goal. I think nothing succeeds like success. And all of us as a team have tasted success and critical acclaim so we always strive to do the very best work possible and not cut corners.

How do you plan your day? What is your daily routine?

We have a morning team 9:30 am meeting and we plan out the day from there. These morning meetings are super important.

What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?

It takes vision and then the ability to channel one’s energy in a massive way into achieving that vision. It takes self-belief, it takes an understanding that failures are just part of the journey to achieving your dreams, it takes the ability to communicate,
motivate and excite people, partners, and employees about your vision, and most of all persistence.

What is your chief aim in life?

My chief aim in life is to create content whether it be music, animation, movies, or comic books that impact people in a positive manner. I truly believe that it is my duty as someone who is in a privileged position to help bring about a positive social change.

Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?

In the past, my biggest disadvantage was linked to my biggest advantage. It is my ability to become very excited by an idea or project and pursue it relentlessly with unbounded energy. The problem arises when you become excited by multiple projects. Sometimes I would try to work on too many projects at once and then naturally one or the other projects suffers. Now I have learned to focus on my strengths and work only on those projects that I am most passionate about and no more than 2 projects at a time.

Lighter Side

My favorite quote is
“Never put off for tomorrow what you can do today.”
— Mark Twain

My favorite personality is
Nelson Mandela

My favorite movie is
“Jerry Maguire”. It is a great story about the underdog’s journey to achieving success.

I recommend reading
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My hobbies are
Travelling, cycling, working out, jamming on my guitar, reading books, and reading news articles online.

I am energized by
Whenever I get a eureka moment for a new idea, concept, script idea, or song idea I get very excited and jump up and pace around the room.

My Advice for young startups
No one tells you how hard it is to be a founder. Building a business is certainly not easy. Entrepreneurs often ride a roller coaster of highs and lows that feel even more intense when the going gets tough. No one succeeds in business alone, and those who try will lose to a great team every time. Build your own great team to bolster your success. And most importantly; set goals and remind yourself of them each day.