By now you probably know what Disrupt Asia is. But in case you’ve been living under a rock, Disrupt Asia 2016 was a Sri Lanka’s first conference about startups and a massive one at that. In the morning we saw quite a few interesting sessions about the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem. Fast forward to the post-lunch period, it was time for the startup battles like our very own Voltage 230 to begin.
Approximately 35 startups were present at Disrupt Asia 2016. All of them would participate in the startup battles. Now these weren’t the type of battles that involved startups battling it out to the death. No, instead the startups all competed to gain funding from investors. At Disrupt Asia 2016, there were three startup battles. The first by John Keels X, another by Hemas Slingshot and then there’s Voltage 230.
Voltage 230 was a Shark Tank style investor pitching platform powered by us at ReadMe, along with Hutch and LOLC. Yes, we at ReadMe hosted an event similar to Shark Tank. We made sure to make it a brutal challenge for the brave startups that took part.
To do so, we invited a few investors that represented a mix of personalities and came from varying industries. These investors were: Thirukumar Nadarasa – CEO of Hutch Sri Lanka, Ruwindhu Pieris – Vice President of SLASSCOM, Kamantha Amarasekara from LOLC, Conrad Dias – Group CIO of LOLC, Ishara Nanayakkara – Director of LOLC and Mangala Karunaratne – Cofounder & CEO of Calcey. It’s important to emphasize that they were here as investors and not as judges.
The only thing we asked the investors do is to listen to the startups pitching at Voltage 230. If the investors liked the idea, then they can fund it. Yet, the opposite was also true. The investors could choose to not fund bad ideas. If all the ideas were bad then they could choose to leave Disrupt Asia 2016, not investing in any of them. With those rules in place, we selected 5 startups at Disrupt Asia 2016 to make their pitch to the investors at Voltage 230. Here’s what they had to say.
The first startup to pitch at Voltage 230 was born to tap into the potential of young engineers in Sri Lanka. ParaQum’s vision after 2 years of work is to create high-performance products and become a global name. Their strategy is to focus on state of the art technologies that will get revenue in the future. So what do they sell? ParaQum’s flagship product is a 4K HEVC encoder, which they created before anyone else in the world. Additionally, they also offer a few other advanced networking products for service providers and enterprises.
How much they want from investors: $ 2 million for 10% equity
How they’ll use the money: With this money, ParaQum would invest in making their products better and building new ones. Additionally, it would allow them to be more flexible and it would help them survive a bad day. This is important for them as they currently operating by bootstrapping.
Reactions from the investors: The investors had a few questions about the products and its applications. But overall, ParaQum made a good impression as the first startup that pitched at Voltage 230.
BizPay is a payment platform for small businesses. It’s a cheap alternative to expensive payment gateways offered by local banks. It also supports other payment methods such as eZcash. However, it doesn’t deal with any sensitive data. Instead, it aggregates payment methods so that data is easily sent to the banks. To cover their costs and make a profit, BizPay charges annual fees from merchants and a small transaction fee. Additionally, instances of BizPay can be deployed as a platform.
How much they want from investors: $2-3 million
How they’ll use the money: To diversify into different segments.
Reactions from the investors: The investors weren’t happy because they felt the presentation was very vague. They had this feeling because BizPay never stated how they’ll use the $3 million to grow. Mangala went on to say that it showed a lack of focus and worry. At the end of the Q&A session, Ruwindhu gave some feedback on how BizPay could have given a better pitch.
LiveRoom took the stage and introduced themselves as “the Pokemon GO of e-commerce”. It’s an Augmented Reality app that allows you to demo a product in the real-world before you buy it. To do so, you the customer can use the LiveRoom app to scan a QR code on the page of the product. For e-commerce merchants, LiveRoom has a web app. With this web app, merchants can add QR codes for the items and also view analytics about their products. To use this service, LiveRoom charges a subscription fee from merchants.
How much they want from investors: $300,000 in exchange for 15% equity.
How they’ll use the money: To further refine their product.
Reactions from the investors: The opening question thrown by Thirukumar was, “Does anyone want this?” The response from LiveRoom’s founder was, “Why not?” The room burst into a loud round of laughter before the investors started questioning LiveRoom once more. At the end of the Q&A session, the investors agreed that it was an innovative product. However, they were unimpressed because LiveRoom’s founder was unable to share certain important facts such as by how much LiveRoom increased e-commerce sales or basic Sri Lankan e-commerce facts.
This is a product of SquareMobile that wants to help businesses communicate in a more meaningful manner. To do so, first ShoutOUT needs data from the business about its customers. This data can be entered manually or imported from an existing platform such as Magento and Shopify.
Once it has the data, ShoutOUT can automatically send messages based on certain conditions specified by the business. These messages can also have a personal touch added to them. Currently, ShoutOUT supports both SMS and emails. To use it, a business would have to pay based on how many customers it has and for its on-demand email services.
How much they want from investors: $250,000 for 12% equity
How they’ll use the money: To spend 18 months runway to work on their product further.
Reactions from the investors: The investors weren’t happy to find the revenue forecast missing during the presentation. This gave to the investors, an impression that there was no long-term plan for the business.
Sri Lanka has a large population only a small percentage has invested in stocks. Agaya Holdings wants to change that with their new platform: Veediya. To do so, it extracts information from financial reports and standardizes the terms. Afterward, it allows you to compare different companies based on a bunch of factors. Currently, it only allows you to compare publicly listed companies.
How much they want from investors: $500,000 for 10% equity
How they’ll use the money: To gain more users. Afterward, they’re looking at expanding into other small Asian countries like the Maldives. Then they want to expand into larger markets.
Reactions from the investors: The investors were confused at the end of the pitch. It was only in the Q&A session that the Agaya team revealed that they wanted the investment for the whole company. Towards the end, the investors remarked that amount didn’t make sense. Once again, another startup got a lesson from the investors on how to give a proper pitch.
As we learned in the opening sessions of Disrupt Asia 2016, Sri Lankan fin-tech is a mess. Businesses don’t have a simple and affordable way of accepting online payments. Customers, on the other hand, don’t have a way of making secure online payments. PayHere wants to solve both these problems. To do so, it’s offering customers a secure digital wallet. For businesses, PayHere is offering an easy to use, secure payment gateway. There’re no annual costs to be paid. Only a transaction fee of 3.3% + Rs.30 per transaction.
How much they want from investors: Rs.50 million for 7.5% equity
How they’ll use the money: To carry out a massive awareness campaign about online shopping. At the same time, they want to increase the number of merchants they have.
Reactions from the investors: The first question thrown at PayHere was by Thirukumar who asked, “Why should we trust you?” Easily the hardest question any startup dealing with sensitive data would face. The response was that with PayHere, customers would only trust one entity rather than 50 different e-commerce merchants.
The other questions weren’t so challenging and in the end, the investors were impressed. However, Mangala said that the valuation was a bit too high. And so Dhanika Perea – PayHere’s founder walked off. As he was walking off Ruwindhu interrupted him to say that he could have negotiated. Ruwindhu gave him another chance to negotiate but Dhanika chose to decline.
A typical visit to a bank can be tiring due to long queues and early closing times. Some banks have chosen to solve this problem by extending banking hours. However, this results in longer queues and more stress on the staff. To solve this problem, PayMedia has an unmanned banking kiosk. This machine would allow banks to operate 24/7 by being able to do 90% of tasks a bank does. They’ve already installed a few of these kiosks at certain banks and LECO offices.
How much they want from investors: $1 million
How they’ll use the money: To be used for research and development as well as to gain more clients.
Reactions from the investors: The investors had a few questions to ask about how the system works. Luckily for the PayMedia team, they were able to give satisfactory answers to all the questions.
Small businesses struggle to maintain cash flow and use outdated means of managing their invoices. What WebInvoiceMaker offers is an interactive online invoicing platform. Yes, that’s all there is to it. Needless to say, this was the startup with the simplest pitch at Voltage 230.
How much they want from investors: $25,000 for 10% equity.
How they’ll use the money: To hire new people and build audiences. It would also be used to further develop the product
Reactions from the investors: The investors acknowledged WebInvoiceMaker as a startup with a great product. However, they still had many questions. The main question was whether they knew the real costs of acquiring customers and getting a decent share of the market.
The final startup to make its pitch at Voltage 230 wants to make international call cheaper. Vinota allows you to make calls anyone to other countries without paying for expensive roaming charges. But why use a service like this when there’re free services that allow you to make calls using the internet? Because while access to mobile connections is still higher than access to the internet.Vinota made its debut in September last year. Today it has 4500 paid users, earns $30,000 per month and is growing by 20% every month. According to the stats, Vinota is very popular with migrant workers in the Middle East.
How much they want from investors: $150,000 for 20% equity
How they’ll use the money: On advertising to gain more users
Reactions from the investors: The investors had a few doubts about how the app worked but overall, they were impressed.
Once the startups had made their pitches, the investors shared a few comments. Ruwindhu was the first to speak commending the entrepreneurs at Voltage 230 for their technical skills. However, he highlighted that they need to work on their communications skills.
Ruwindhu went on to ask everyone to put themselves in the shoes of an investor. It’s a lot easier than the technical challenges as long the entrepreneurs change their mindset. Ultimately an investor needs to make money. Yet not a single pitch showed how the investor will make money.
Conrad who had been mostly silent throughout the event added to Ruwindhu’s statements. He too acknowledged the technical skills of the entrepreneurs. However, the ideas need to be more fleshed out. An investor needs to make money. They may not make money tomorrow. Maybe not even in 10 years. But at some point, the investor needs to see a return.
Mangala was next to share his comments. He commented that some of the valuations were unrealistic because the product hadn’t been built yet. However, he too acknowledged the technical skills of the entrepreneurs. He was especially interested in the tech powering LiveRoom.
Thirukumar then gave the entrepreneurs an important lesson. He shared with everyone that he was a qualified engineer. Yet, as the CEO of Hutch he spends 90% of his time on non-technical issues. These issues involve a bunch of non-technical things from finance to marketing. No startup should have a team that’s completely technical. That’s only 20% of the package. A startup team also needs strong marketing and finance input if it’s to succeed.
Thirukumar also felt that some of the startups were a bit too aggressive and optimistic. He suggested that they put their plans to expand abroad on hold. Instead, they should focus on one product and one idea in Sri Lanka and get it right. There’s too much competition across the world he adds but Sri Lanka has amazing talent. The only thing Thirukumar says is that we need to focus because focus wins the game. Whereas too much ambition will only dilute your plan.
In the end, none of the investors were so impressed that they chose to invest on the spot. They also chose to be lot kinder than originally planned. However, four of the teams that pitched at Voltage 230 are now in private discussion with the investors to secure funding. We’ll be announcing the lucky startups once they finalize the deals with the investors. And so with that, Voltage 230 and the other startup battles at Disrupt Asia 2016 came to a close.
By the time we were done it was almost 5 PM. It was time to head back to the main stage for the final chapter of Disrupt Asia 2016: the closing keynotes. This was where we learned the startup hacks from Brian Wong – CEO of Kiip and the government’s plan for a digital Sri Lanka.
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