We first saw the startups and then went into the main hall for the opening keynote and a set of panel discussions covering a variety. Afterward, we went into the many workshops before venturing into the world of the investors. Then we found another set of panel discussions on Artificial Intelligence, User Experience, and MakerSpaces. And now we’re back in the main hall where we found another set of panel discussions, the Hemas Slingshot Startup Battle and the closing keynote that marked the end of Disrupt Asia 2017.
The blockchain revolution
After a quick lunch, we moved on to the evening panel discussions for Disrupt Asia 2017. The first was about blockchain. Now for those of you not sure what blockchain is, it is a digital ledger in which transactions made in cryptocurrency are recorded chronologically and publicly. The discussion first started off with its history, how the whole concept came into existence.
The panel then focused on other aspects such as its anonymity and what it entails for a company to utilize blockchain. According to Jayamin Pelpola – Founder & CEO at Moneyworkz Technologies, the total amount of deposits in Sri Lanka tally up to around Rs. 4 Trillion. Therefore, Jayamin points out that even Sri Lanka is no small market for a blockchain revolution.
The case for digital security
At the end of the day, technologies such as blockchain are utilized to find new ways of bringing services to people. This requires one to collect information, sometimes sensitive. Hence, digital security is something that is of prime importance in today’s context. This was the focus of the next panel discussion that followed the blockchain session at Disrupt Asia 2017.
When it comes to security, often you would find that emphasis isn’t given as much as it should. After all, security shouldn’t be an afterthought. Our computer systems should be secure by default. So why isn’t security perceived as important as it should be? According to Jerome Samarasinghe, there is a lack of ability to communicate to the business owners the importance of security. He states that it’s a matter of the technologist being able to communicate the importance of security to the decision maker.
A lot of today’s startups tend to be tech driven. Some of these techies let their guard down with digital security simply because of their know-how around technology. Ima Hassen – Managing Director at Quantei highlighted that this is a mistake you should never do. Additionally, when you start bringing in security much later, things might be too late or even expensive at the latter stages. So who’s ultimately responsible for security in a company? Everyone. But it usually starts with the top.
Fast Scaling Startups: Opportunities and Obstacles
Startups. The public perception around this term has changed dramatically over the years. During the third evening panel discussion, Chalinda Abeykoon – CEO of CrowdIsland shared how everyone wants to build a startup today, making the term a buzzword. Yet, if you go back seven years ago, only a handful ever even thought of starting their own company.
Ultimately, starting a business is only the first step. But actually seeing your business through to success is another thing entirely. Sometimes, this might even revolutionize an industry. PickMe is one such perfect example. The taxi hailing app has certainly changed things around for the tuk tuk industry in Sri Lanka. Drawing inspiration from the company’s success, Jiffry Zulfer – Founder/CEO of PickMe,, shared that sometimes it is better to view things from an outside perspective rather than inside the industry itself.
Additionally, with so many people wanting to do startups today, Jiffry emphasized that now would be the perfect opportunity for anyone to start off. He mentions that as long as there are confidence and validation, you should just go for it. As the discussion progressed, one common thought was emphasized throughout. The importance of team and culture should never be underestimated when it comes to growing your startups.
The Hemas Slingshot Startup Battles
Once the final panel discussion on the main stage at Disrupt Asia 2017 had ended, so too did the workshops, the investor forum, and the panel discussions of Stage 2.0. The many attendees that left the main hall in the morning and the startups that were outside, were now on their way back into the main hall to witness the conclusion of Disrupt Asia 2017. Once the seats were filled, the doors were closed and the final segments of Disrupt Asia 2017 had begun with the Hemas Slingshot Startup Battle.
Organized by Hemas Slingshot, which is a startup incubator and seed accelerator program run by Hemas, the startup battle this year followed the same format as the ones we saw at Disrupt Asia 2016. Entrepreneurs would pitch their startups to a panel of judges to obtain funding. The only difference this year was that rather than three startup battles happening in parallel, there was to be one grand startup battle that would take place on the main stage at Disrupt Asia 2017.
This was the Hemas Slingshot Startup Battle. The competition which commenced in early June came to its conclusion on the main stage at Disrupt Asia 2017. It was here we saw the four finalists of the competition take the stage and pitch their startups to a panel of judges. So who were these four startups that became the finalists? They were: DirectPay, GetFitBy, HybriTeq, and OliveScript. To learn more about them check out Part One of our series where we spoke about the startups at Disrupt Asia. So who were the winners of the Hemas Slingshot Startup Battle? The Runner Up was Direct Pay and the Winner was OliveScript.
The finale: The Evening Keynote
“Kevin, do your parents have a business? Are they entrepreneurs?” were the words used by Kevin Petrovic – Partner at CustomSpace and President at Carbon70 Holdings, to open the closing keynote at Disrupt Asia 2017. The two questions that Kevin opened with, are the ones that people ask when they see his ventures. However, his answers were always, “No.” His parents are first generation immigrations from Slovakia who work as chemical engineers. His parents gave him a good education, but Kevin never planned on being an entrepreneur.
And then in 2007, Apple launched the iPhone. Kevin thought it was the coolest thing in the world in the world and used his savings to buy one. A few weeks later, he traveled to Slovakia and started showing off the phone and everyone thought it was exciting and wanted one. But they couldn’t because the original iPhone was only sold in the US at the time. So Kevin spoke with his cousin and decided to buy iPhone’s from the US and sell them in Slovakia.
Initially, his parents gave Kevin money for two iPhones and his cousins gave him money to buy one more. Thus, he bought three iPhones and sold them in Slovakia for a profit. Over time the venture grew and they expanded into different products such as tablets and cameras. Yet, it still wasn’t a full-fledged business. It was still only Kevin and his cousin.
They got their products from partners across the world and sold them back in Slovakia. And many partners couldn’t believe it when they first saw Kevin. He shared that he once took a flight to Hong Kong after school to a meet a partner to purchase iPhones. When Kevin got to Hong Kong, the sellers couldn’t believe that a kid like Kevin was there to buy 20 phones. And this was how Kevin took his first steps into the world of entrepreneurship.
A few years later, towards the end of his secondary education, Kevin and his friends Rujul Zaparde and Shri Ganeshram were looking at a few companies: Airbnb, GetAround, and Turo. They looked at these companies and were inspired to create FlightCar, which allowed you to share your car with people at the airport. At first, they thought it was completely crazy and thought it wouldn’t work. At the time, Kevin, Rujul, and Shri were only 17 and had never rented a car. But they liked the idea of FlightCar. So they began researching into insurance, rental prices, and every other aspect to identify if the business was possible.
However, a different problem soon arose: university. Kevin, Rujul and Shri knew that university was a great opportunity, but if they took it then FlightCar would have surely failed. So they made the decision to take a gap year and build FlightCar and keep university as a backup plan. When Kevin told his parents, they thought he was insane. So he made a presentation that helped convince them to give him permission to setup the company.
With the blessings of their parents, Kevin Rujul, and Shri were ready to set forth on their journey to build FlightCar. But they had no idea where to start. They were completely lost when it came to knowing how to start a business, finding people, and raising money. They needed help, and they found it at a local startup accelerator called The Brandery. There they learned a lot, but soon afterward they decided to join YCombinator.
“Everyone needs help when starting out. So don’t be afraid to go out and find that help.” – Kevin Petrovic
Having obtained all this knowledge, Kevin and the team took their first steps. They made a list of what they needed to do before they could ask their first customer to pay them money. This list included the absolute basics of running a business such as legal aspects, banking requirements, insurance policies, which cities to operate in, the operational model, and a website.
Once the website was up and running, they accepted bookings and got an email when each one was made. The data from the email was copied into an excel sheet that was used to monitor reservations. It wasn’t the most efficient way but it worked in the early days of FlightCar. But the company soon found itself in a position where it needed funding. Kevin and his team were only 18 years old, knew very little about their industry, and after four months only raised very little money.
FlightCar needed customers to attract investors. So Kevin and the team began operating out of the train station across the airport. There was no sign and Kevin admitted that it was very shady. Nonetheless, they got customers and soon had their own parking lot. But then they found themselves facing another challenge: they didn’t want people to see that FlightCar had no cars. To conquer this challenge, Kevin shared that they used the money they raised to rent cars from the rental company and added them to their system with fake names. This helped them meet their goals as people soon thought that they had customers.
Eventually, FlightCar raised $5.6 million in a seed round to grow operations and expand into three cities: San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles. As they expanded, they were plagued with scaling problems. But after three and a half years, they found services like Uber and Lyft were becoming cheaper and we were coming closer to developing autonomous cars. Investors began seeing the future in on demand rides and driverless cars. As such, it became harder for services like FlightCar to raise money. Seeing this trend, Kevin and his friends made the painful decision of selling FlightCar.
Following the sale of FlightCar, Kevin sat down and create a list spanning over 10 pages of everything he felt that went wrong with the business. Afterward, he began speaking with his friends and found that one of them was running a warehousing business. Kevin decided to join the company and help it grow. That company is CustomSpace, which provides workspaces for startups.
“You can help a company grow and that itself is entrepreneurial” – Kevin Petrovic
Having shared his entrepreneurial journey, Kevin then went on to share a few lessons that he learned on this journey. The first was to simply start small because you can make more mistakes. Kevin explained this by saying that it’s easier to learn when you start small because it’s only you and as long as you don’t repeat it, failure helps you learn. He added that investors are more inclined to invest in those who have failed once.
His added you can do your business on the side. Kevin admits that investors hate hearing this. But doing your business on the side gives you a safety net. He added that certain startups were born as side projects. Kevin then went onto remind the entrepreneurs to make something people actually want. But how do you find what people want? Create a product and ask your friends to pay for it. If they agree to pay for it then they likely will want it so it’s a good way to test. But Kevin went onto say that people don’t want to switch from what they’re already using.
Afterward, Kevin told the audience, “When you can’t innovate then copy.” He points to the different payment gateways across the world that do the same thing and follow the same business model. “But if it was easy then everyone would be doing it,” said Kevin. He went onto say that the good thing about small countries like Sri Lanka was that they don’t have the problem that large countries like the US have, where if there’s a good idea then you’ll find 10 businesses executing it.
Kevin then shared that 33% of companies where a founder is mentored by a top performing entrepreneur is by extension top performing companies. He stated that entrepreneurs should get help from investors and mentors. If the entrepreneurs make it worth the time of their mentors, they will find support. Kevin moved onto to tell the audience that businesses should always talk to their customers. He reminded everyone that they are not their customers saying, “If you don’t understand how your customers then you’re doing it wrong.”
He went onto tell with the audience that it’s really hard to build a successful startup. He shared that after a meeting, he one went home and slept because the company was in such a bad situation. But this is natural because every entrepreneur will have good days and bad days. It’s tough but you need to be prepared for them. Kevin concluded the closing keynote with the words, “Only you can decide your success. If you don’t put in the right amount of work, you won’t get there. There are so many obstacles that you won’t expect in startups. But with startups, if you don’t try you won’t succeed.”
All good things must come to an end
With the conclusion of the evening keynote, Disrupt Asia 2017 came to an end. And with that, we conclude this series, which initially consisted of nine articles. After all, this was a massive conference featuring: a variety of startups, an opening keynote to take Lankan startups to the next level, a series of informative workshops, gave us a glimpse into the world of investors, and more panel discussions on a variety of topics.
When we tried compressing it all into one simple article, it read like watered down alcohol. And so after chopping things down where we could, we had a series that spanned six articles. That’s double the size of our series last year. But Disrupt Asia 2017 was twice the size of its predecessor with many valuable lessons. To not share these lessons would have been a shame.
With that being said, we hope you enjoyed this series and learned something new. Here’s to Disrupt Asia 2018.