Amidst the many skyscrapers of Kollupitiya, there’s clear view of the ocean that stretches endlessly into the horizon. I’m seated at a waiting area with a swing. Next to me are people glued to their screens seated at long wooden desks. As I walk past a green kitchen into the meeting room I see a sign on the wall that reads, “Collaboration over competition.” That probably is the sentence that describes where I am right now: Colombo Cooperative.
Located on the 7th floor of the new Amana Bank building, this is one of Colombo’s newest and hottest co-working spaces around. Since its launch in May, space has become the home of companies and the host of quite a few events.
But what does it take to build a co-working space and manage it from halfway across the world while managing a 9 to 5 job? We spoke with Sajani Amarasiri – the cofounder of Colombo Cooperative to find out.
Landing a stable corporate job
Prior to embarking on her entrepreneurial ventures, Sajani entered the corporate world following a bright academic career. Having traveled to the US on a full scholarship, she obtained a degree in supply chain management from Duquesne University.
“What matters is not what you know now, but what you can learn and keep learning.”
Yet despite graduating at the top of her class finding a job wasn’t easy for an immigrant. “But it’s the land of opportunity and there’s something for everyone here,” Sajani continues. Her first experiences in the corporate world were as an intern at HSBC and PNC.
Afterward, she joined Amazon in 2012 as a vendor manager for their retail bath and storage team. At the time it was a fast-growing category. Sajani goes onto paint this role as, “A challenge, but it was fun doing the research, onboarding them, and seeing their products on the site.” And then she joined Microsoft.
Sajani joined Microsoft in 2014 as a global reverse supply chain planner. She was tasked with ensuring Microsoft had enough Surface devices and Xbox’s at the right return centers, at the right time, at minimal cost. Sajani recalls this role as, “A tricky one since there is no way to forecast how and when a customer would return a device.”
“I probably worked more than 60+ hours the first six months trying to put a system to make it a sustainable job.”
That was four years ago. Today she leads the Sales & Operations Planning for refurbished Surface devices. This was a role that was previously non-existent at Microsoft. She’s tasked with drawing up plans require looking at products, finances, marketing, sales, and a lot more. The impact of the decisions taken based on these plans was worth millions.
Despite the high stakes, she had a stable corporate job that paid all the bills. For most, this would’ve been enough.
Hustling on the side
But Sajani wasn’t one of these people. So in 2016, Come Shop With Love was born. It’s a startup that offers curated clothes for women. Furthermore, with each sale, a small percentage is donated to charities offering long-term solutions to big problems. This was her first entrepreneurial venture.
“Being an entrepreneur is not glamorous, it’s a lot of hard work and some long periods with no returns to show for it.”
When asked how she met the members of her founding team, Sajani responds with a cheerful laugh, “I married him. he is usually my partner in crime for all these crazy ideas.” As stated on their About Us page, comeshopwithlove.com is a startup that Sajani built together with her husband, Roshane Silva. And his career in tech began quite early.
While pursuing his degree in software engineering at the University of Waterloo, he worked as a developer at IBM Canada. After working at a few startups (including one that got acquired by Google) Roshane too joined Microsoft as a Program Manager Intern in 2010. Five years later, he rose through the ranks to become a Senior Program Manager.
So while working full-time jobs at Microsoft, both Sajani and Roshane built Come Shop With Love from scratch. This was no easy task in the age of fast fashion.
“A product or service will truly succeed if there’s a true need and you are delivering value to your customers. Your MVP will prove or disprove whether the need exists very quickly.”
E-commerce itself is a tough market that requires marketing money to build brand loyalty. Sajani shared that it’s even harder for those in fashion because “in order to stay relevant your inventory needs to move in quick cycles which is hard as a startup.”
Furthermore, Come Shop With Love was a startup that Sajani and Roshane built with their own funds. This philosophy would continue with their next project as well.
This is always a risky approach but Sajani justified it saying, “I was able to bring the product to market super-fast, do it on my own terms, and establish the culture I wanted for Colombo Cooperative.”
Building Colombo Cooperative
“As soon as you step inside, it should make you feel welcome, no matter what socio-economic, race, sexual orientation background you come from. It will be a place where you can focus on doing your best work, and you can leave the rest to us,” states Sajani.
This is the vision that would embody her next project: Colombo Cooperative. Elaborating on why she wanted to build a co-working space, Sajani shared, “I wanted to create a community and a space for people doing awesome things in Sri Lanka to be productive, make amazing connections and network.”
Sajani shared the idea with Roshane and the duo began making the vision a reality. The first step to do so was finding the right location, which was easier said than done. Recalling the struggle, Sajani shared, “We visited countless locations and seriously considered a place in Colombo 7 as a location but it didn’t work out.”
But then they found the right place. Situated on the 7th floor of the Amana Bank building, it had stunning ocean views. Furthermore, it was situated in Kollupitiya, which made it easily accessible to everyone. Sajani describes it as, “there’s a certain sense of ambitiousness and positivity in the air, it was just right to be our first location.”
“The world is heading towards a shared economy. I believe so much can be achieved through collaboration.”
Now all they had to do was transform the empty floor into an actual co-working space that people would love to come to every day. Once the designs were done, it was time to make them a reality.
This is where Sajani’s experience with supply chains and launching products ensured the work was done in 5 weeks. However, since Colombo Cooperative was a bootstrapped venture, the designs had to be reworked. “Sri Lanka is super expensive when it comes to getting nice furniture,” shares Sajani remembering the Rs. 15 million quotes.
Meanwhile, Roshane was busy working on the backend. He had built Colombo Cooperative’s access control system. This was connected to the member management system to automate and ensure members have access at all times. With these systems and the necessary furniture in place, Colombo Cooperative invited its first members on the 9th of May 2018.
Colombo Cooperative today
Today Colombo Cooperative hosts 35 members from over 10 companies. One such company we’ve become acquainted with is Third Lane Ventures. Furthermore, it’s also formed partnerships with teams like TEDxColombo, the Colombo Design Market. Additionally, it’s also become a popular space for hosting events.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t any challenges now. These range from building maintenance issues to the WiFi going down. “But our members have been splendid in terms of helping out as well. That’s the best thing about having the right community in your space,” says Sajani.
Furthermore, managing a co-working space from half-way across the world is no easy task. That too while managing a full-time job at Microsoft. Sajani credits conquering this challenge to technology and her community managers. The current community manager is Amana Azoor and it’s hard to miss her face as you walk into Colombo Cooperative. While Sajani is away, she handles the day to day tasks while hosting events and ensuring the members are comfortable.
Thus far, it’s been smooth sailing for them with very cooperative members. But with any community, there can be disagreements in the future. Sajani looks towards handling them optimistically saying, “we will always keep the community’s best interest when handling disputes.”
“I wanted to create a community and a space for people doing awesome things in Sri Lanka to be productive, make amazing connections, and network.”
Until then Colombo Cooperative simply plans on expanding further. All with the aim of offering more and become the space that allows the city’s entrepreneurs, artists, and anybody else trying to leave a positive impact on the world.