As struggling students in the late 1980s, the Quraishi twins sold extra leather jackets to supplement pocket money. That’s how the first roots of capitalism and entrepreneurship took hold in Hilmi and Subhi Quraishi in the transforming Soviet Union.
While pursuing their Master’s degree in applied mathematics at Moscow State University, the twins would often be contacted by commersants—tough–talking men who computed numbers like “calculators”—some of whom went on to become leading bankers in Russia.
They would visit the twins’ Profsoyuznaya Street flat, turn on the bathroom taps to drown out conversation from eavesdropping neighbours, and haggle. In exchange for the black-market goods, they’d leave a couple of Russian roubles.
More than a decade later, the Quraishis, founders of a mobile gaming and educational company, are infusing a subtle socialistic spirit into their business. They are the founders of the Rs4 crore ZMQ Software Systems, based in New Delhi. Besides creating free games that spread awareness about AIDS prevention, the Quraishis donate a portion of the profits to social development. Next month, ZMQ launches its first football-based game called AIDS Penalty Shoot-out.
Their AIDS games function largely like any other—except they come bearing explicit social messages. In one called “Mission Messenger,” an African teenager drops condoms in villages as he’s chased by a pulsating AIDS virus.
Walking into a café in New Delhi’s Connaught Place, footsteps in sync, the twins wear identical glasses and identical beaded red-ribbon pins, symbols in the fight against AIDS. Yet, apart from their thick, bushy eyebrows, you can’t tell they are brothers, born just five minutes apart.
The business philosophy, they take turns to explain, is simple. “Instead of spending on advertisement, we decided to get into producing social games,” says Hilmi .
“If a 50-paise drink can be sold for Rs10,” Subhi adds heartily, “why can’t we package knowledge that costs Re1 and sell it for Rs1.50?”
ZMQ is named in honour of the founders’ father, Zahir Masood Quraishi, a Left-leaning academician. In the fast-growing $50 million (Rs220 crore) mobile gaming industry, the market for social gaming is small, at a mere Rs10 crore, but the Quraishis are betting on it. ZMQ began designing low-level, easy-to-operate games for companies such as health-care firm Dr Morepen to gain market access and gradually moved to larger outsourcing contracts for mobile networks, such as Beelinethe second-largest mobile operator in Russia, and Texas-based software company ClickCE.com.
In December 2005, the Quraishis launched their first easy-to-manoeuvre mobile game under the name, Freedom HIV/AIDS. “Mobile phones are more accessible today with falling prices,” says Hilmi. “Our target was to design low-end games that would reach out to a maximum number of people.”
Since 1998, they have designed nearly 50 mobile games, of which 12 are non-commercial, and directly related to AIDS. “The first game we did for the Delhi State AIDS Control Society cost nearly Rs18 lakh,” explains Hilmi.
“But since 60% of our profit comes from our e-learning division, we decided to go ahead with it,” Subhi says.
The Freedom HIV/AIDS game reached some 12 million users when it was launched in 2005, on 1 December—World AIDS Day. Seven months later, it reached 32 million as different Indian operators ran the games on their networks.
The brothers say people initially didn’t understand why they distributed for free. But the strategy proved to be a marketing boon as the other side of their business, e-learning, took off. ZMQ has designed educational courses for NGOs such as OneWorld, a nonprofit organization focused on international issues, and Johns Hopkins University, where ZMQ also developed communication material on HIV discrimination among youth.
For its upcoming game, AIDS Penalty Shoot-out, ZMQ worked with HIVOS (the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries), a Dutch NGO, and various mobile operators. The game is set to reach four million mobile phone users in the African markets of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Hilmi recently visited Nairobi, Kenya, to obtain a first-hand impression for content development. He recounted spending time in two slums and said the social venture still has a steep learning curve.
“We don’t want to charge for the ideas. We only want to cover our labour costs,” he says. Subhi offers a different explanation. “It stops us from being a slave to technology”.
In September, former US President Bill Clinton invited the pair to the Clinton Global Initiative conclave in New York, which attempts to tackle problems like poverty with information technology.
The twins feel their novel approach—offering free mobile gaming downloads to spread a social message—could continue to help the company grow.
ZMQ plans to expand its e-learning business in eastern Europe, but before that, the twins want to launch an NGO that can sustain their AIDS programme.
“If you see the profits from the social sector,” Hilmi said, “it has the potential of becoming bigger than commercial gaming.”