Sri Lankan and Australia mix in odd places. Education. Immigration. Cricket. That second cousin, twice removed, who Skypes every Wednesday. A sizeably set of industries with large commercial interests in the other country.
They’re competing in a global market with locally-built software, and by all accounts, they’re doing a fine job of it. It’s not every company that can list as their customers the people who put the first man on the moon.
But to tell their story, one must start with Visio.
Visio, or more accurately, Microsoft Visio, has a long history. Put it this way: there was a company called Axon Corporation back in 1989. They renamed to Shapeware in 1995, and then put out their first product: Visio, a diagramming tool (they also renamed themselves to Visio later on). In 2000, Microsoft bought them for $ 1.5 billion in stock. Visio, rebranded under the Microsoft name, proved massively popular – people used it to map out everything from random brainstorms to databases to business processes.
But ten years ago, if someone had approached the Visio team then and told them that someone would come along and steal their thunder, they probably wouldn’t have believed it. Yet people did. Gliffy. Inkscape. Draw.io. Lucid Software. Google.
In 2008, Cinergix unveiled Creately, their web-based diagramming software, in tech startup central – Silicon Valley. Nobody had seen these guys before. They were unknown even in Sri Lanka – a bunch of coders hacking out of a seedy, run-down house in Borella.
And they were a hit. A year later, they rolled out Creately to the public. Since then, with no sales pitches (other than the text on their website) and none of the usual contract-hunting, they’ve racked up an impressive global customer base – purely off the strength of a free-to-try web app, a well-aimed bit of press publicity, and a lot of work.
Creately, and the team behind it, lives in Orion City, Dematagoda. About a hundred feet behind the big Virtusa building is a right turn leading to what Orion calls “the Nest”. In here are what one might call “new blood” – lean companies that mostly work on their own products, as opposed to the outsourced engineering work that make up the biggest chunk of Sri Lanka’s software industry.
The story starts with Chandika and Hiraash in D.S. Senanayake College, in the early 90’s. Back then, they had an active school computer society. With few teachers in the entire country capable of teaching the subject, the students were left to their own devices. Which meant that a hard core congregated and began hacking. Like MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, which spawned the first generation of hackers, the D.S. Senanayake College Computer Society was a small hotbed of creative geek activity. Chandika and Hiraash quickly found their way to the exhibition circuit, showing off neat things that they’d come up with.
Hiraash, in particular, found great success here. By the time he finished school, he’d build a mapping application for Colombo – this was before Google Maps existed – and racked up quite a number of university-level awards. While Chandika went on to the University of London, Hiraash snagged his first job, as an associate at a brand-new startup.
All told, he had a good run on the bleeding edge – when he switched to Zone 24/7 a year later, he was working with smart cards, fingerprint scanners and SIMs – everyday tech that, back in the 90’s, was practically science fiction to a large part of the world.
Meanwhile, Chandika had graduated from the University of London and made a beeline for Virtusa. He’d already started a company called Xeont; they built websites, but it didn’t quite work out. Virtusa was a two-year stint for Chandika; it was one of the best companies he’d ever seen, but eventually, he packed up and left for Australia for his Masters degree.
The story picks up again in 2007. Chandika found himself working, with a few other senior researchers, on a program that could coment on images. It was meant for collaborative learning, but Chandika started using it to make memes out of people’s Facebook profile pictures. People loved it.
This evolved into something else: diagramming.
“Day in and day out, you see this,” says Chandika, referring to the everyday art of diagrams. “I realized that we apply a great deal of knowledge when we create a diagram. Take a network diagram: a lot of thinking goes into how it’s set up. But on the final output, all that expert knowledge is lost, ironed out, and you end up with a simple image that tells you what’s connected to where.”
“That was our proof of concept, our validation,” says Chandika. “Hiraash was at Zone. Another friend, Dumindu, was at WSO2. We Skyped. We talked. And we decided to take the plunge.”
“You know, when all of this happened, I was shuttling back and forth between the US and Sri Lanka,” adds Hiraash. “We threw around names, code…and then in 2008, I was left with a tough choice: keep doing what I did or join the guys and work on our own company. I thought to myself ‘It’s not every day, right?’ and packed up and left to join Chandika.
“Our first place was this really, really seedy place in Borella. We wanted a cheap place to hack; we got it. It was right next to a shady massage parlour. We’d walk around in shorts and ignore everything except the code and each other. We were coders. And janitors. And whatever else we had to be.”
Chandika laughs. “We wanted a massive whiteboard; we were so cheap that we went to Kotahena, got a huge piece of plywood, and got a guy to paint it.”
Cinergix had a problem: they were competing with Microsoft. They had a team – a handful of people in a run-down place in Borella, one person in Singapore, another in Australia. They had a product. That was all.
So in 2008, they applied to the Fall event of Demo. Demo was the place to launch. From 1987 to 2010, some of the best products had launched there – Java and Skype being just two of them. The top media and the top tier of the tech industry sat in. Every year, about a thousand companies applied; only seventy got in.
“Walt Mossberg was having coffee right next to our table!” grins Chandika, referring to the iconic journalist christened “The Kingmaker” by Wired.
They tried to pitch to Mossberg, but he waved them away. Then, with a frenzied spurt of last-minute coding, they aced their Demo pitch. “They were like ‘You guys are good to go’,” says Hiraash, “And that was amazing. We’d also applied for the TechCrunch50 – TechCrunch and Demo are rivals – and we sent Jason Calacanis* an email saying ‘We got selected to Demo, are you interested?’ They called us, but didn’t give us anything official, so we launched at Demo. They were bitching about TechCrunch at Demo: I remember someone on stage saying that Micheal Arrington was as good a mentor for business as Britney Spears for musicians. We went and had a look at TechCrunch as part of the audience.”
*Jason Calacanis eventually had a massive falling-out with TechCrunch.
What Cinergix launched at Demo that fall was not what they have now. Hiraash heads over to YouTube, finding an old video about the app. Creately works by giving each object a certain amount of knowledge. Each object can communicate with the other, with connectors actually linking objects rather than just visually charting something. He shows me this by building a crude network map, dragging and dropping routers, an ISP and a bunch of computers onto the chart. He links the computers to the router by drawing a line between them. As soon as the routers are linked to the ISPs, they – and the computers attached to them – change their status. They’re now connected to the Internet.
“Knowledge Objects understand how to communicate with each other,” he explains. “It wasn’t just a drawing platform. Objects dynamically change based on their connections, their interactions and so on. The problem is we didn’t really have the best representation of this. We couldn’t show this off very well.”
“And we had hardware players like Samsung who wanted to use this for different purposes,” says Chandika. “People just wanted to draw.”
“A lot of people secretly hate diagramming. They don’t want to draw, they HAVE to draw; all they want to do is get this part of the documentation done and over with. From that moment, we were all about making life easier for these people.”
As Hiraash runs me through the product as it is today – a freely accessible, Flash/Flex-based web app – Chandika talks about the how and the why.
“Every company is different. We choose to focus on one thing – making our product easier. It’s not about adding n+1 features – but if we shave off half a second off the time you take to make a pretty flowchart, we’ll do it. It’s about creating something clean and beautiful that helps people be more productive.
“A lot of people, when they start a company or a product, don’t see the value of focusing on a single problem. Being a product company is not about solving the adjacent problem. It’s about solving this one problem as best as you humanly can. That’s how you get love from your users.”
But enough philosophy; how does Cinergix operate?
Chandika is close-mouthed about their finances and the investors involved. On an operations front, they’re broadly split into two camps: products and marketing. On the marketing front, they’ve got “about 800,000 people using our product, and honestly, we haven’t sold to a single one of them.”
“You didn’t have to pitch to NASA?” I ask.
But no, apparently, they didn’t. They believe that in the old saying – that if you build it, they will come. Nevertheless, they’re the first people I’ve seen who trust their product enough to not market it. Not a lot of companies can brag about having 800,000 customers without a single pitch.
As for Orion City, that is a humorous necessity: despite their success, nobody took them seriously. Sri Lanka’s shirt-and-tie culture gave them a rap on the knuckles.
“We were hanging out in shorts and trying to interview people and it didn’t work,” recalls Hiraash. “At some point we started wearing shirts for interviews and then people actually started showing up for work the next day. We then moved to Orion, because nobody would really come and work at Borella. Some things you want to swim upstream against: some things you don’t.
And as for the future? They want tighter integration into Google services. The app is on Flash; they want to move away from that. They want to be on mobile. They want to get people in every local university using Creately for every little thing.
They have plans.
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WordCamp Colombo, Sri Lanka 23rd September 2017 at the BMICH WordCamps are community-organized conferences covering everything related to WordPress. This is the first WordCamp which organized in Sri Lanka.
WordCamp Colombo, Sri Lanka
23rd September 2017 at the BMICH
WordCamps are community-organized conferences covering everything related to WordPress. This is the first WordCamp which organized in Sri Lanka.
(Saturday) 8:30 am - 5:30 pm
Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo
#ngage is a free and open forum of tech and social media enthusiasts from all walks of life that come together to share knowledge, exchange ideas and discuss emerging trends
#ngage is a free and open forum of tech and social media enthusiasts from all walks of life that come together to share knowledge, exchange ideas and discuss emerging trends in technology and the internet.
It is a community driven event that is open to the public, typically attended by IT professionals, Internet buffs, entrepreneurs, bloggers and journalists.
Agenda for #ngage
* Being relevant in the age of the inevitable
– Isura Silva (General Manager, Sarvodaya-Fusion)
* “Lost in Translation” – How to engage with the language.
– Aysha Maryam Cassim (Teacher. Translator. Writer.)
* The art of sci-fi: on being a Sri Lankan author in an International world
– Yudhanjaya Wijeratne (Author, Big Data Researcher)
Design expert Danny Setiawan from NYC will be giving us a talk at The Hive on User Interface, User Experience, building web platforms, and looking at each and every touchpoint
Design expert Danny Setiawan from NYC will be giving us a talk at The Hive on User Interface, User Experience, building web platforms, and looking at each and every touchpoint from the consumer’s perspective.
Come join us – for an interesting discussion on the 27th!
(Wednesday) 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
MAS Innovation Center
#50 Foster Lane, Colombo
An inspirational session on how Psychology helps you design better user experience. Big ideas will be explained with real design examples.
An inspirational session on how Psychology helps you design better user experience.
Big ideas will be explained with real design examples.
(Tuesday) 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
iHack 3.0 organized by the UCSC – ISACA Student Group for the third consecutive year, is a 24 hour software development competition, intended to provide students with an opportunity to
iHack 3.0 organized by the UCSC – ISACA Student Group for the third consecutive year, is a 24 hour software development competition, intended to provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate and improve their software development and problem solving skill to apply for the real world problems and find effective solutions.
In iHack3.0; it is scheduled to comprise of teams of students of private and state universities of Sri Lanka who will be tasked with providing an innovative solution to a problem selected by them based on a set of given scenarios.
All participants will be provided with refreshments throughout the event as well as a participation certificate while winners would receive prizes.
Participants would also receive the opportunity to present their talent to industry experts as well as network with like-minded individuals from different universities & higher education institutes.
october 7 (Saturday) - 8 (Sunday)
University of Colombo - New Arts Theater (NAT)
Kumaratunga Munidasa Mawatha, Colombo
We will be at Hall A- stall no 20,21,22 under the banner of VEE Power Solutions one of our subsidiary of SAW Group.
october 13 (Friday) - 15 (Sunday)
Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo
ICTA is organizing a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) Exam Review Workshop in partnership with (ISC)2 Colombo, Sri Lanka chapter. The maximum seats allocated per company is limited for
ICTA is organizing a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) Exam Review Workshop in partnership with (ISC)2 Colombo, Sri Lanka chapter. The maximum seats allocated per company is limited for 3.
The fee is highly subsidized with limited seats available per programme and will be reserved on first come first serve basis upon Payments.
Training Resource Provider: (ISC)2 Colombo Sri Lanka Chapter
Dates: 17th, 19th, 24th & 26th October 2017
Time: 8:30AM to 4:30PM
Workshop Fee: LKR 20,000/-
(EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION: LKR 15,000/-)
Special rate for University Students (Final year undergraduates) and Full-Time lecturers: LKR 10,000/-
(EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION: LKR 7,500/-)
Early Bird Cut-Off Date: 26th September 2017
Application Closing date: 06th October 2017
TICKETS : https://goo.gl/forms/C8sUdNz0mboZfsS43
17 (Tuesday) 9:00 am
The Popular Sri Lankan ICT exposition INFOTEL , organized by The Federation of Information Technology Industry Sri Lanka (FITIS), will be opening its 2017 edition from November 2nd – 5th
The Popular Sri Lankan ICT exposition INFOTEL , organized by The Federation of Information Technology Industry Sri Lanka (FITIS), will be opening its 2017 edition from November 2nd – 5th at the BMICH
2 (Thursday) 9:00 am - 5 (Sunday) 6:00 pm
Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo
Dev Day is an international software developer conference hosted here in Sri Lanka for the last four consecutive years. The conference has seen top notch global and local software thought
Dev Day is an international software developer conference hosted here in Sri Lanka for the last four consecutive years. The conference has seen top notch global and local software thought leaders share their knowledge, experience, and insights, with the software community. The core target audience consist of developers, tech leads, architects, project managers, Agile practitioners, DevOps engineers, security consultants, and entrepreneurs.
(Thursday) 8:30 am - 6:00 pm
Cinnamon Grand - Oak Room
Sri Lanka's Largest Celebration of Video Gaming & eSports returns in December. 8th, 9th, 10th December 2017 at the Sri Lanka Exhibition & Convention Centre. More details and registrations coming
Sri Lanka’s Largest Celebration of Video Gaming & eSports returns in December.
8th, 9th, 10th December 2017 at the Sri Lanka Exhibition & Convention Centre.
More details and registrations coming soon.
december 8 (Friday) - 10 (Sunday)
Colombo Comic Expo - the ultimate gathering of comic book fans, cosplayers, artists and gamers from across Sri Lanka! 8th, 9th, 10th December 2017 at the Sri Lanka Exhibition & Convention
Colombo Comic Expo – the ultimate gathering of comic book fans, cosplayers, artists and gamers from across Sri Lanka!
8th, 9th, 10th December 2017 at the Sri Lanka Exhibition & Convention Centre.
More details coming soon.
8 (Friday) 8:00 am