Airlift Technologies, a national grocery delivery service, has laid off 31 per cent of its workforce.

The company posted a statement on its official LinkedIn account confirming the layoff of its workforce; “In the light of the significant downturn in global capital markets, Airlift is undertaking a strategic realignment to reduce the surface area of operations and to increase focus in key areas that drive sustainability and profitability.”

“The decision to part ways with talented teammates has been incredibly challenging for the company. For impacted teammates, Airlift stands committed to providing financial and placement support to help find new roles,” the statement read.

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Usman Gul, the 33-year-old co-founder, and CEO commented on the company’s decision to permanently shut down, saying, “I think if the lens of change is ‘Did Airlift offer great returns to investors?’ then yes, regrettably, it was unsuccessful. If you’re talking about bringing Pakistan into a new reality or altering the entire ecology, then by that yardstick of success, we’ve come a long way,” Gul told Rest of World.

“In many ways, Airlift raised the bar of ambition for Pakistani startups in a big way. Our teams at Airlift redefined the standard of execution, strategy, building a world-class culture, developing a cutting-edge product, raising sizable fundraising rounds,” Gul continued.

What is the point of raising the greatest series B in the nation if the business fails 11 months later? Gul believed that these were improper inquiries when questioned about the $85 million that Airlift blew through in less than one year. He said that the appropriate questions to ask were: “What enabled Airlift to raise $100 million-plus in three years? That’s never happened in Pakistan before. What did this team do differently?”

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Airlift was started in 2019 by Usman Gul, Ahmed Ayub, Awaab Khaakwany, Meher Farrukh, Muhammad Owais, and Zohaib Ali as a mass-transit option that connected consumers with buses at reduced costs. Due to the pandemic, Airlift’s transportation operations were halted in March 2020. During the covid pandemic, the company then pivoted its business plan and launched Airlift Express, a grocery delivery service with $10 million in investment. Airlift, last year in August, secured a mega-round of funding of $85 million dollars.

A former Airlift employee described the layoff as “shocking, unexpected, and heartbreaking.”

WHAT FINANCIAL EXPERTS THINK HAPPENED AT AIRLIFT

Ariba Shahid, Financial Journalist at Profit Magazine and DealStreetAsia, while talking to The Current about the layoffs at Airlift, said, “While downsizing is sad considering people lose their livelihoods, sometimes young startups need to scale back operations, recalibrate and start differently or fresh,” adding “In order to do so, they sometimes downsize. There is nothing wrong in doing so. I don’t think any business downsizes unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Taking about the reason behind the layoffs Ariba added, “There are a number of ways to look at it. One likelihood is that Airlift’s funding was contingent on it attaining milestones. So maybe, they did not get the entire $85 million.”

“The other scenario is that they burned through approximately $10 million a month in customer acquisition costs and expansion. It is difficult for consumers to change their consumption pattern and move onto quick commerce. It also costs a lot to expand and grow, especially internationally, like Airlift did in South Africa. The macroeconomic environment with rising inflation and diminishing purchasing power makes it even more difficult.”

“Airlift was one of the bigger names in the ecosystem. The same way Airlift was used as an example while raising funds, it may be seen as a warning sign. However, the global liquidity crunch plays a bigger role at this point in time, in addition to Pakistan’s weakening macroeconomic sentiments.”

“There is no right or wrong way to run a startup at this point because the ecosystem is very nascent. There are no examples locally to follow. However in order to succeed startups need to ensure they are clean, transparent, do not fudge numbers, accept realistic valuations, stop obsessing over large rounds, and know when to stop blitz-scaling,” she added, talking about Pakistani startups.

While answering a question about the situation of Pakistan’s job market Ariba said, “Too soon to say that but yes, one can expect more layoffs across industries considering working capital will be more expensive, political instability, low investment inflows.”

Aitlift’s Lahore office

Dr Aqdas Afzal, Program Director and Assistant Professor of Economics, Habib University while talking to The Current about the possible reason behind the layoffs said, “The reason is not related to the Pakistani market, there is an economic downturn in the entire world. The inflation in UK and US is highest in last 40 years.”

He continued by adding that, “the main input of Airlift’s delivery is fuel and as considering the fuel inflation, they have withdrawn their services from those markets and cities from where they don’t get much sales and find it difficult to drive “sustainability and profitability.”

“I don’t think Pakistani startups are doing anything wrong, as we have seen they have been able to get get a lot of seed money.”

He further said, “In the coming days you will see a lot more startups booming in Pakistan.”

“The government needs to provide reliable, fast speed and affordable internet, because it is slowly becoming the weakest link for Pakistani startups.”

“I don’t think that Pakistan’s job market is collapsing,” said Afzal while answering a question about Pakistan’s job market.

He added, “We are in low value-added end of the spectrum in terms of freelancing skills and we should see if our educational institutions are teaching the level of coding that freelancers around the world are doing.”

Aitlift’s Lahore office

WHAT LAID-OFF EMPLOYEES HAVE TO SAY

Airlift released a database of the names of113 staffers who were abruptly terminated from their positions and were then ‘open to work.’ The employees listed in the database served in various departments of the cash-strapped venture, including operations, human resources, customer service, rider support specialists, and several software engineers, that were based in Pakistani cities including Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, and Peshawar, with the remainder in South Africa.

“The layoff news shocked the entire workforce as we had no idea the company would announce a massive layoff along with closing key warehouses in different cities,” an employee at Airlift Head Office Lahore, told The Current, “I was aware that the stock market was collapsing dramatically, with some well-known corporations laying off a large number of staff, but I had no idea that the capital market’s volatility would have such an immediate impact on Airlift.”

According to another insider, the company was unable to generate sufficient profit to entice international investors, which is why layoffs had to be done.

Khan revealed that he is looking for work and has undergone three job interviews so far. “After the news of the Airlift went viral on social media, I was approached by a couple of companies and individuals, although I have yet to receive job confirmation,” he claimed.

“I have had a wonderful time at the Airlift. The management took good care of the overall staff. The payouts were never delayed,” Husnain Raza, who was employed as a Rider Operations Specialist at Airlift barely a year ago, told The Current. “The company had to take this horrendous step or it could’ve been dissolved.”

Ex-Operations Lead at Airlift Faisalabad, stated that he is not concerned since the company has offered to compensate the employees who were laid off without notice with 1-2 months of salary. “I assume I’ll find another job until then,” he asserted.

The Current has reached out to the founders of Airlift for a comment on why the layoffs took place and about the future of the company. We are still waiting for a comment and until we get one, here is the statement issued by the company on the dismissal of their staff.

GLOBAL IMPACT OF THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN

The impact of the global economy is not just being seen at Airlift or in Pakistan.

Cutbacks, contract terminations, and layoffs have impacted at least 5,600 startup employees since the beginning of 2022 at a number of unicorns, global tech companies in India, and growth-stage startups.

Startups like Unacademy, Furlenco, and many others have cut back and downsized in order to improve profitability. Better.com, a mortgage technology company based in the United States, has also asked employees to sign voluntary separation agreements. These layoffs occurred at Better.com’s India operations, where another 920 employees were let go earlier this month, following a total of over 3,000 laid off by April.

Unacademy, the edtech unicorn, laid off over 1,000 employees and shut down its online education platform, PrepLadder, in April 2022. More than 800 employees at BYJU’s-owned WhiteHat Jr were told to resign because they refused to work from the office.

Furthermore, Cars24, a marketplace, laid off workers in order to cut costs and move toward automation. In this downsizing, the unicorn may lay off up to 600 employees soon.

Alongside startups, some big names, such as Netflix, have cut staff this year, with some blaming the COVID-19 pandemic and others faulting ‘overhiring’ during periods of speedy growth. In 2022, Robinhood, Glossier, and Better are just a few of the technology firms that have significantly reduced their staff numbers.

The capital markets have taken a beating in 2022, and this has filtered down to the private sector. Fears about inflation, rising interest rates, and geopolitical issues have all contributed to a volatile financial market.

Startups, particularly those that profited from a pandemic growth that is now slowing, are beginning to feel the strain as well. Valuations have begun to fall, especially at the later phase, and entrepreneurs say it is far more challenging to raise new funding in such a situation.

A multitude of companies that experienced pandemic-related surges are experiencing a correction as a result of a variety of factors, including rising inflation, economic distress, war, and shifting consumer taste buds. Companies such as Meta and Twitter have publicly announced hiring freezes, and Snap confirmed this week that it is slowing hiring as revenue targets are missed.

If a company is bleeding money, it will most likely begin to lay off employees, preserving only those who are required to work to retain the business’s level of operations. If the company dissolves, the remaining workers may be laid off as well.

Among the most likely causes for layoffs is that the company is trying to cut costs in some way. This could be because the company needs to pay off debts, fewer sales or the company no longer has the financial backing of investors like Airlift.

As technological advancements and automation grow common in businesses, employers sometimes lay off employees in order to cut costs and reduce position redundancy. Moreover, if the employee satisfies certain requirements and is prepared to make the change, the organisation may commit to finding another role for them and transferring them to the position.