If you ask any entrepreneur about hard it is to build a company, they’ll tell you that it was the hardest challenge they’ve ever faced. This is a universal truth for all entrepreneurs. However, some have it slightly easier than others. In Colombo, anyone trying to build a startup has a large support system. But for the entrepreneurs outside Colombo, the grind is significantly harder. Yet, that doesn’t stop the determined from building a successful company from scratch. This is what we learned from the story of Sharanyan Sharma – the founder of Extreme SEO.
Moving to Colombo and laying the foundation
It all began when Sharanyan moved from Jaffna to Colombo. Initially, it was because he was trying to move to Australia. But he did not get his visa and his family lost a large amount of money in the process. So Sharanyan’s father asked him to start studying in Colombo. Respecting his father’s wishes, Sharanyan started pursuing a Bsc. (Hons) in IT degree at SLIIT.
In his first semester, his grades were average. But studying at SLIIT back then, wasn’t so easy for Sharanyan. This was because Sri Lanka was in chaos at the time. This was in the middle of the war and Sharanyan’s parents were living in Jaffna at the time. Sharanyan feared the worst because he hadn’t heard anything from them. During the war, there was almost no communication between Jaffna and the outside world. The only way to travel to Jaffna was by sea or by air even that could be done after a hard fight to get permission.
After three distraughtly weeks, Sharanyan breathed a sigh of relief. His parents were alive and safe. However, they were unable to support him financially. Sharanyan evaluated his options and decided to do what he did best – driving. He got a job as a driver, making deliveries in a Canter Truck and then in a van. Everyday Sharanyan would take the vehicle at 5 PM and make deliveries all over Colombo until 3 AM. He then would get some rest, before he had to be at SLIIT at 8 AM until 4 PM. On the weekends, he’d make long distance deliveries to Kurunegala and Maskeliya.
Needless to say, Sharanyan’s daily routine with his job as a driver was tiring. Yet, after three months he fell in love with driving. Even to this day, he spends a big chunk of his money on his car to satisfy his need for speed. But Sharanyan wasn’t contempt with being a driver for the rest of his life. He wanted to do more. So in 2008, quit his job, dropped out of SLIIT and moved to Vavuniya.
Taking the first step as an entrepreneur
When he arrived in Vavuniya, Sharanyan moved into his brother’s house. He was determined to use what he learned at SLIIT to start his own E-Commerce business. But, to make this dream a reality, he first needed a computer. He had his eye on a Pentium 4 PC that was priced at Rs. 48,000. However, he only had Rs. 16,000 to his name. Thankfully, Sharanyan was able to negotiate a deal, with his brother putting in a convincing good word being a temple priest.
Sharanyan got his first computer, now he had to figure out how to make money with it. He googled around and found tutorials on link-building for websites. But, tutorials can only get you so far. They only teach you the basics. So to learn more he joined a forum for webmasters. Here he learned the basics of Search Engine Optimization (SEO for short) and found a mentor.
Sharanyan learned the basics of SEO from his mentor and then attempted to get certified. Without being certified, he found it impossible to gain clients. The first time he tried to get certified, he failed. But the second time he succeeded. After being certified, his mentor introduced him to his first client: Michael S. who gave Sharanyan a simple job. All he had to do was put Michael’s website on 4000 web directories and media websites. The task took him three months and he got $5. A tiny amount, but it was first dollar Sharanyan earned after entering the world of digital marketing.
The amount he earned from his first job was tiny, but Sharanyan saw a future. So he decided to expand his reach and find more clients. He began by publishing articles advertising his skills and got jobs from many webmasters. He continued making directory submissions for $5. The only difference now was that he only took five or six days instead of three months. Four months into 2008, he was earning $40 monthly. He would also gain more certifications to secure more clients. Thus, Extreme SEO now has a small but prestigious collection of certifications.
Venturing deep into the world of digital marketing
As 2008 progressed, he was venturing deeper and deeper into the world of digital marketing. Towards the end of the year, he had fully embraced his new career. He was a dedicated digital marketing soldier. For proof, one only needs to look at the story of his wedding night.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about the responsibility” – Sharanyan Sharma
Sharanyan got married in March 2008. However, he and his wife didn’t celebrate their first night together like a typical couple. They had a deadline to meet in the morning. So they got married inside the Vishnu temple in Dehiwala. Immediately afterward they took the train back to Vavuniya and worked through the night to meet the deadline. Even to this day, Sharanyan maintains this level of dedication to his clients.
Sharanyan describes this dedication saying, “It’s not about the money. It’s about the responsibility.” His foreign clients had high expectations. This was because his big foreign clients had even bigger clients. But his clients were being paid $500 from their bigger clients. He was merely getting a $5 cut for doing all the work. Sharanyan didn’t know it at the time, but he was and still is dedicated to his responsibilities. Luckily, his wife also respected his dedication and cooperated with him.
The birth of Extreme SEO
Eventually, his dedication paid off. Sharanyan started getting recurring orders. Too many recurring orders. So in September 2008, he decided to expand his team by hiring two more people and renting out a small office. Once he got the office, he bought a few plastic stools and the necessary computers. A few days later, his team started working and with that, Extreme SEO was born.
However, Extreme SEO is only the subsidiary on the surface. The real company is a larger beast called, Shree Vengadeshwaraa Networks (Pvt) LTD. However, at the time, the difference between the two was only in name. It was in 2009, that the company truly started to grow. Yet, this growth wasn’t without challenges.
It was time for Extreme SEO to move into a new office and expand their team even more. However, they were faced with an interesting dilemma. They would interview people but hadn’t arranged a workspace for them. Sharanyan would tell the promising interviewees, that they could start working in a month. Within that month, he was running around getting tables, computers and plastic stools for them.
The challenges of a young startup in Vavuniya
Of course, financing all these expansions wasn’t cheap. It came down to the point that Sharanyan needed additional financing. However, he didn’t seek investors. Rather, he sought a Rs. 30,000 loan from Sampath Bank. Initially, he was rejected as he needed guarantors. However, he didn’t have any references in Vavuniya. Nonetheless, he was still able to secure the money and fund his expansion plans. Today, he proudly says that he could walk into the same branch and get a sufficient amount of money he wants.
Another challenge Extreme SEO faced at the time was bandwidth. Back in 2009, they were working with Suntel CDMA connections and used five Rs. 299 reload cards, every single day. Yet, the biggest challenge was the work itself and the deadlines. Many of Extreme SEO’s clients were from the US. As such, they’d only come online at 11 PM. So after greeting each other good morning, the clients would share their requirements with the Extreme SEO team. This was especially taxing for Sharanyan personally. When he finished his work, he had to walk home. This was a long 3 KM in the middle of the night, with his wife who was 8 months pregnant at the time.
Thankfully, by 2010 things got a bit easier. The Extreme SEO team grew from 11 to 20 people. With this growth, they decided to open a second office. This second office would become the place where project managers would work at today. Here, they would be working with clients to identify their requirements. Meanwhile, the rest of the team would be working in the previous office handling different aspects of operations.
The big break and government bottlenecks
Fast forward to 2011 and Extreme SEO got their big break. Hiroyuki Koyama (Managing director of Daruma Capital Management Co., Ltd.) from Japan decided to hire Extreme SEO as their preferred digital marketing partner. As the digital marketing partner, Extreme SEO was to manage their client’s digital marketing needs.
This was their first B2B corporate customer. Hiroyuki would continue to give regular orders that would be valued at anywhere between $9000 and $11000. For a young company, this was huge. But getting this payment wasn’t always easy. In 2012, Hiroyuki’s payment was delayed. After speaking with their bank, it was found that the cause of this delay was the Central Bank.
The Central Bank would clear Extreme SEO’s account. But not before Sharanyan threatened to pull the company out of Sri Lanka. He told them that all he needed to was his laptop to run the company because he had clients across the world. By the time they solved the issues with Central Bank, thirty-five days had passed without anyone getting paid. Even back then, the Central Bank didn’t make it easy for small businesses to make money.
The Extreme SEO Empire expands
2011 was also the year Privileged Server Technologies was born. Initially, they only had 3 servers running Rackspace. Eventually, they’d get a dedicated server from IBM. This was a startup Sharanyan built to offer an optimal hosting solution exclusively for Extreme SEO’s clients. In other words, it was to make Extreme SEO’s job a lot easier. Today, it hosts the websites of many important organizations in Sri Lanka. A prominent example being SLASSCOM.
In 2012, Sharanyan gave birth to another company called 7 Arena Technologies. This was a startup that focused on building better websites and apps for Extreme SEO’s clients. By the end of the year, Shree Vengadeshwaraa Networks was offering three services. Extreme SEO would continue being the face of the company. But as a whole, Sharanyan’s company had expanded into a small empire.
This success would eventually lead him to win the young entrepreneur of the year award in 2012. Furthermore, this was also the year his company could finally afford to reimburse the employee’s for their travel expenses.
Building the right corporate culture the hard way
In 2014, Extreme SEO had doubled in size. Seeing the sheer size of the company, he appointed a manager. Sharanyan handed the complete day to day operations of the company to a new senior employee. He made this decision was because the new senior employee had better command of English and qualifications. Sharanyan believed that an educated person could scale his company higher. He was very wrong.
Within 8 months, Extreme SEO was spiraling downhill. Employees were leaving and clients were unhappy. The biggest bombshell was when employees who had been around for almost 3 years handed in their resignations. This rang alarm bells for Sharanyan. He investigated the matter personally. What he found was alarming. Under the leadership of this new senior employee, the culture within Extreme SEO went from a startup to that of a typical company. This had alienated many of the employees. As such, they chose to take extreme measures and handed in their resignations.
Sharanyan would take matters into his own hands. He took control from his old senior employee and set out to reform the company. Reforming the culture was a challenging and time-consuming task. By the time it was done Extreme SEO was no longer in a healthy financial position and lost some of its best employees. Thankfully they were able to recover from this situation within ten months. However, Sharanyan still needed someone to handle the day to day operations. That’s when he decided to appoint Kokul Krishnan as the Manager of Extreme SEO in 2015.
Kokul was passionate about everything related to digital marketing. Sharanyan seeing this passion believed, he could be the right person to run Extreme SEO. However, this time he was more careful. Sharanyan set some impossible milestones for Kokul to which he was completely oblivious. Kokul was expected to fail, but he defied the odds and proved Sharanyan wrong. And so in 2015, Kokul Krishnan became the official Manager of Extreme SEO.
By the end of 2015, Extreme SEO had completely transformed itself and returned to its roots. Today it’s a company where nobody uses the terms boss and employee. Everyone calls themselves co-workers who are working towards a common goal. For those in leadership positions, it’s about being open and ensuring they can help everyone else.
To describe the Extreme SEO culture in his own words Sharanyan said, “If a co-worker comes and tells me that he needs money to finance an operation for someone in his family, I’ll make sure he has the money. Whatever, troubles our co-workers have, we’ll be sure to help them out.” This is the culture at Extreme SEO today. If you want to truly understand how they balance work and freedom at Extreme SEO, their blog has a nice post on it.
Where Extreme SEO is today and its plans for world domination
Today, Extreme SEO team is a successful name in the world of digital marketing. Locally, they have large clients the likes of Anton, Abans, MyStore and FindMyFare. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Their biggest clients are located outside Sri Lanka. Over the course of its lifetime, Extreme SEO has completed over 68,400+ projects. And this success has been recognized with a bunch of awards. These awards range from Sharanyan being the 2012 Sri Lankan Entrepreneur of the Year to multiple Global Reader’s Choice Awards.
Today, Extreme SEO is one the largest company in the Northern Province. This is in terms of revenue, infrastructure and their expertise in digital marketing. It has a monthly turnover of $20,000 – $25,000. But Sharanyan has no plans of being confined here. Recently, Extreme SEO opened a third office here in Colombo inside WTC. They also have a small team in India, which will be moving into an office in Calcutta. In 2017, they plan on taking on the world.
In 2017, Sharanyan hopes that Extreme SEO will conquer tougher challenges. By tougher, we mean promoting sites that have been banished from Google. Typically businesses with such websites only have 3 options: shut down, get a new domain and restart or try everything to get on Google search. That last option is extremely challenging if not impossible. But that’s not going to stop Sharanyan and the Extreme SEO team. The little company that started with a Pentium IV PC in Vavuniya has come a long way and it has no plans of stopping on its quest for world domination.