It’s 8.30 AM on a Thursday morning. It’s a lovely morning and the traffic in Colombo was terrible as always. But somehow, we arrived at the Hilton Colombo, just in the nick of time. Some say that the hall had a selection of sandwiches and iced coffee but we chose not to check. Why? Because Disrupt Asia 2016, was about to begin. In case you need a little recap, Disrupt Asia was a massive conference organized by ICTA celebrating startups.

Disrupt Asia had a massive showcase of 35 startups and many valuable knowledge sharing sessions for the different stakeholders of the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem. Many of these sessions happened in parallel throughout the day until lunch. Here’s what we learned at the sessions we attended.

The startup revolution

The opening keynote speaker at Disrupt Asia 2016 was Jean-Francois Gauthier – COO of Compass. He shared with us that there’s an explosion of startups in every industry. This is a revolution. What does it mean for jobs? Old companies want to increase productivity from employees bit eventually they destroy jobs by automation and outsourcing. This is why startups are now the number one job generation engines.

Jean-Francois Gauthier – COO of Compass speaking at Disrupt Asia 2016 (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
Jean-Francois Gauthier – COO of Compass speaking at Disrupt Asia 2016 (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

Jean went on to share with us that power structures have also changed with few big companies controlling assets. But now the startups are disrupting it. This change is bringing a change of values. The table below highlights the old power values and the new ones replacing them.

Old Power ValuesNew Power Values
  • Centralized governance where managers are always in charge
  • Informal management where self-organization is encouraged
  • Control resources and try to create a monopoly eliminating the competition
  • Collaboration is welcomed with many open-source projects being pursued
  • Secrecy is a high priority. The separation between private and public spheres.
  • Transparency is a must
  • Professionalism. Specialization
  • A do-it-ourselves “maker culture”
  • Employees have long-term affiliation and loyalty to a company but less overall participation
  • Employees have only short-term conditional affiliation to a company but heavy overall participation

Jean-Francois then shared with us that the younger generation learns faster. Today a 22-year-old will build a startup. Within 2 years he/she will learn to do financial planning, dealing with customers, design products, hiring etc. This means in 10-20 years we’ll have 5-10℅ of the population with a wide range of skill. And it’s happening globally. In Canada, Asia, Europe, and Latin America it’s growing. This will happen in Sri Lanka too.

Jean-Francois Gauthier – COO of Compass speaking at Disrupt Asia 2016 (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
Jean-Francois Gauthier – COO of Compass speaking at Disrupt Asia 2016 (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

Some examples Jean-Francois shared at Disrupt Asia 2016 to prove his point were:

  • In Waterloo, Canada: A small town near Toronto with 500,000 people and next to the US market next door. Today this small town has 1,100 startups, few of which are unicorns. The success of Waterloo is the community culture. In this culture, a startup reaching series B helps those startups in the seed
  • In Bangalore: It was known famously as the back office back in 2000. Back then a simple application would take developers in Bangalore 3 years to build whereas those in Silicon Valley would only take a few months. However, today Bangalore is one of the top startup cities. In 2012 it ranked #15 and #11 in 2015 for its startup ecosystem, globally.

Then there’s Colombo with 8 million people which makes it a larger than Waterloo. India is right next door. According to Jean-Francois, what’s we need to do is think about startup ecosystems. As Michael Porter in the Competitive Advantage of Nations said, we need to have interconnected businesses. But the most important thing is entrepreneurs. For Sri Lanka to truly have a huge startup eco-system, entrepreneurs would need to:

  1. Network locally because relationships are the most important thing. Then ask directly what you want.
  2. Build a community by offering to help and ask for help
  3. Network globally by visiting Bangalore, Singapore, San Francisco and other famous startup ecosystems. Develop informal relationships then help their communities grow by asking for help and offering it.

Jean-Francois concluded by encouraging the entrepreneurs in the audience at Disrupt Asia to make the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem great. For in 15 years, it will be they who’ll be known as legends. The legendary entrepreneurs that kick-started a startup revolution.

Building the startup ecosystem in Sri Lanka

Following Jean’s session was a short break before Disrupt Asia 2016 split into multiple tracks. We chose to take a look at the many startups that were exhibiting their products and keep an eye on what was happening on the main stage. At the main stage was a panel discussion which was focused on building the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem.

The panel discussion was moderated by Anushka Wijesingha – Chief Economist at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, the panelists were: Ruwindhu Pieris – Vice Chairman of SLASSCOM, Muhunthan Canagey – MD/ CEO of ICTA, Jean-Francois Gauthier, and Fayaz Hudah – Programme Head at ICTA.

The panel discussion on building the startup ecosystem in Sri Lanka at Disrupt Asia 2016 (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
The panel discussion on building the startup ecosystem in Sri Lanka at Disrupt Asia 2016 (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

During the early stages of the panel discussion, Jean-Francois highlighted some key ingredients needed to create a successful startup. Fayaz also shared some of the challenges entrepreneurs face. One of the biggest challenges he highlighted is the lack of experience.

Muhunthan also made some interesting reflections during this panel discussion. He stated that when it comes to supporting startups there are areas the government should and should not get involved in. However, at the same time, Muhunthan stated that the government should show the same level of interest and investment to the software industry, as they do to the tourism industry. He also commented on the state of payment gateways in Sri Lanka. Muhunthan stated that the government has stated that it is committed but right now they’re waiting for approval from the Central Bank.

The panel discussion on building the startup ecosystem in Sri Lanka at Disrupt Asia 2016 (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
The panel discussion on building the startup ecosystem in Sri Lanka at Disrupt Asia 2016 (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

Meanwhile, Ruwindhu stated during the panel discussion that one of the biggest challenges startups say they face is to find funding. However, he highlighted that there’s plenty of money available saying, “look at all the cars people drive in Sri Lanka!” The challenge for entrepreneurs is not in finding funding, but in communicating their ideas and needs. Ruwindhu also went on to say that one of the most beneficial things for the Sri Lankan eco-system would be a shared workspace for the top startups in the country.

Bootstrap vs funding

Following the previous panel discussion, we were treated to two more panel discussions at Disrupt Asia 2016’s main stage. Both of these panel discussions revolved specifically around money. The first of these panel discussions was titled: Bootstrap vs Funding.

The panel was moderated by Mangala Karunaratne – Cofounder & CEO of Calcey. Meanwhile, the panelists were: Lahiru Pathmalal – Cofounder & CEO of Takas, Chandika Jayasundara – Co-founder & CEO of Cinergix and Ehantha Sirisena – CEO/MD of OMAK Technologies.

The panelists of the session: Bootstrap vs Funding (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
The panelists of the session: Bootstrap vs Funding (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

During the panel discussion, one of the key points illustrating the pros and cons of funding were shared by Ehantha. He stated that the governance aspect becomes bigger with funding, which costs the founders control. However, by choosing to pursue funding, entrepreneurs can use it grow their network as well.

Towards, the end of the panel discussion, Chandika gave an important reminder. He reminded the entrepreneurs at Disrupt Asia 2016 that they should bootstrap until they feel like they know what they’re doing. Keep bootstrapping he told the audience until they had proof, then pursue funding.

Fintech of tomorrow

The following panel discussion we saw at the Disrupt Asia 2016 main stage was also revolving around money. This panel discussion was about the technology used to provide financial services aka Fintech. Consider the state of Sri Lankan fintech, this was easily one of the most interesting panel discussions we saw during the morning session.

The panel was moderated by Kanishka Weeramunda – Founder of PayMedia. Meanwhile, the panelists were: Rohan Mutthiah – COO of NDB Bank, Channa De Silva – CEO of LankaClear and Conrad Dias – Group CIO at LOLC. The combined banking experience rather than tech experience the panelists brought to the table made this session even more interesting.

The panelists of the session: Fintech of tomorrow (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
The panelists of the session: Fintech of tomorrow (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

During this session, Rohan stated that many banks would like to say they are innovative. However, the truth is that banks aren’t truly innovative. Fintech in Sri Lanka he said, needs to change. He went on to state that the fact, he a banker is attending a forum such as Disrupt Asia 2016 was progress. As we’ve seen in the past, it’s all too common to see startup events frequent by those in the tech industry.

As the panel discussion progressed, the other panelists too shared their thoughts on fintech. However, it was only when the Q&A session opened that they were truly challenged. A member of the audience asked why the banks denied PickMe a support for cashless payments. It was only until Uber came to Sri Lanka that the banks went to PickMe and started making offers.

Channa replied that the reason for this was that the system wasn’t ready when PickMe requested it. The system was still in development back then. He then went on to state that before such a system can be implemented, our banks had to spend time (a lot of it) to get many of the basics right. Not exactly the most favorable of answers. Such a system should have been available ages ago. Needless to say, Rohan was right when he said that our approach to Fintech needs to change.

The startups battle & the rest of Disrupt Asia 2016

A sneak peak into the next chapter of our Disrupt Asia journey (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
A sneak peak into the next chapter of our Disrupt Asia journey (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

As we mentioned before, Disrupt Asia had a TON of things happening at the same time. The opening sessions were just another step in our long Disrupt Asia journey. Stay tuned because we still have more stories to tell. Stories from our very own brutal startup battle: Voltage 230. There’s a lot more coming your way.

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