Dulitha Wijewantha & Ragularuban Nanthagopal were on the fast track to living comfortable lives. Both of them were earning well at stable corporate jobs that allowed them to live comfortably and maybe a bit more. However, after one sushi dinner inside Naniyori, they decided to throw it all away. To pursue their own definition of happiness, the duo is gambling everything on an app they built called Alakazam to revolutionize marketing for small businesses.
The developer that fell in love with marketing
Prior to his life as an entrepreneur, Dulitha had a comfortable job as a developer at WSO2. He joined the company after spending a year at DSI, building POS systems for the company. Despite coming to the interview wearing a T-shirt and pair of jeans (that made the receptionist question what he was doing there) Dulitha was hired on the spot.
At the time, WSO2 was exploring multiple industries. That meant developers like Dulitha had to work with various cutting-edge technologies. This included exploring obscure programming languages, which became a hobby for Dulitha. But the most exciting prospect for him was meeting with customers.
Dulitha describes these meetings saying, “Sometimes when you deploy software you don’t see the customers. But when you see them you empathize with them and their problems.”
And one of these meetings took him to Silicon Valley. At the Valley, he saw the different ways technology can be used and also various business models for them. Dulitha was fascinated by this. He had fallen in love with identifying how to sell in different markets. He decided to travel the world to understand different markets. An experience he shares is that Americans are always interested in new tech but Australians are the exact opposite.
The marketer that fell in love with software development
Meanwhile, Ruban too had a stable job in marketing at a travel company. This mainly involved sending newsletters via email and SMS ads. As such, he had late nights free to hack on his own thing. One day, he decided to put it to good use. He figured that he could build a better live chat application compared to what the company was using.
So he began learning how to code from Google and started building an app called Click Connector. He jumped in head first and mastered the dark arts of software engineering. It wasn’t long before Ruban was able to call himself a developer.
After 8 months of hard work, Click Connector was ready. The application went live and Ruban found over 100 users for it. However, he decided to put the project on hold. He needed a team to take it forward and had nightmares from the 8 months he spent building it all alone. So he shelved the idea until he could find someone else to work with.
The birth of Cabbage Apps
After 4 years, Dulitha decided to quit his job at WSO2. He ditched the stability of a corporate job to work at startups like ShortKast to help build and scale their products. He described this decision saying, “I didn’t want to be a technology specialist by getting a Ph.D. I’m more interested in building something and seeing how people use it. There’s insane happiness in that.”
One fine day, Dulitha got a call from his old classmate Bhanuka Harischandra – CEO of Surge Global. He said, “Dude there’s this guy I want you to meet. What do you say we meet for dinner?” Dulitha agreed and that’s when he and Ruban first met. Over the course of multiple plates of sushi, the trio discussed ideas for fintech and marketing products.
After this meeting, Ruban quit his job and a company was born. That company was Cabbage Apps, which was a small services company. Ruban describes its original vision as, “build and manage multiple SAAS products for startups.” But the duo soon hated the idea. The problems they tackled were easy pickings. They were hungry for a challenge.
Delving into the world of marketing automation
So they decided to pivot Cabbage Apps towards building a single super marketing product. The duo remembered that they had a deep interest in marketing. But they also thought it was far too complex. In contrast, if you had a problem with software development, there’s a clearly defined answer.
Both Dulitha and Ruban felt that marketing too could be as easy as software development. So like ye average techie, they went ahead and built a chat response system. But nobody was using it. Dulitha and Ruban pitched it to multiple companies.
But the duo had learned they made a costly mistake the hard way. Not only was their product not unique, but they hadn’t identified their customers. As such, the people they had pitched the product to didn’t find it to be exciting or useful.
Taking these lessons to heart, Dulitha and Ruban decided to focus on small business owners. They actively decided to avoid enterprises because there were too many decision makers. However, every small business has different problems.
So how do you build a product that serves all of them? The duo decided to speak to all of them and find out. What he learned was that every small business needed a larger audience. Dulitha explained this saying, “You can’t increase sales from zero. If you have a site and it only has three people, then you need more people to increase sales.”
Having understood this, the duo looked at how small businesses typically solve this problem. The first approach is to experiment and understand how complex tools such as Google Adwords and Facebook Ad manager work. But then Google or Facebook would change algorithms and it’s back to square one.
The second approach is to hire a marketing agency. However, this approach can be expensive. Furthermore, it’s hard to find a good marketing agency. If by some miracle a good agency is found, you’d soon learn that agencies prefer clients with deep pockets.
Seeing these challenges, Dulitha and Ruban decided to build an app to make the first approach simple. An app they would call Alakazam.
The process of giving birth to Alakazam
However, Dulitha and Ruban didn’t know what form Alakazam would take. So they looked around for alternatives. It was when they looked at fitness apps they had their eureka moment. “Why not make social media into a fitness game?” would form the basis of Alakazam. Like a coach, Alakazam would be a marketing assistant for small businesses.
Alakazam would teach you things and show you how to achieve your goals within a set time frame. But this meant a software that worked across interfaces and mediums. As Dulitha describes, “The hardest thing about marketing is that it changes. But you don’t want to change your tools just because something changes.”
So if you take a picture, Alakazam would have to tell you if it’s good. Then it has to help you identify what’s the ideal platform for it. And then it needs to help you write the perfect caption with the right hashtags. Finally, it would need to do all this while keeping your overall strategy in mind.
And that’s the most important task of Alakazam. Its goal is not to simply help you execute campaigns. Its goal is to help build businesses. That also means measuring the performance of campaigns on a weekly basis. Afterward, it would have to take this data and then help you draft a strategic plan to meet the goals of your business.
Of course, it’s easier said than done and getting it done means a lot of iterations. Many of these iterations will require user feedback before going back to the drawing board. This is because while assistive, Alakazam has to deliver value. Not only once but over the course of several weeks.
The unglamorous side of entrepreneurship
But while they were trying to visualize what Alakazam would look like, Dulitha and Ruban were broke. The duo had severe cash flow problems. But they couldn’t fix it because it was out of their control. In that instance, Dulitha chose to crack one of his fixed deposits open for the company to survive. However, this wasn’t a move he could repeat.
“If you hire people and they work for you, then you need to make sure they get paid.” – Dulitha Wijewantha
Meanwhile, Ruban was more focused on learning how to manage the team. Previously he had led a marketing team. But this was the first time he had ever led a team of developers. The dynamics were completely different. At first, they took in anyone that was willing to work on Day 01.
“We need leaders. If you’re going to the moon, then you can’t have passengers on board. You need astronauts” – Ragularuban Nanthagopal
But it wasn’t long before Dulitha and Ruban realized that large companies had hiring processes for a reason. They were forced to make some hard decisions with the team. In retrospect, they don’t regret it with Ruban saying, “Alakazam should be able to run on its own with leaders.”
The hard part about finding investors
Fast forward to September 2017, Dulitha and Ruban had two options: get funded or find more customers. Initially, when the Cabbage Apps was born, there were investors keen on funding the company. Yet, the duo had rejected these offers. They didn’t want others involved when they weren’t sure about what they wanted to do.
Dulitha explained this by saying, “You can bullshit in front of investors. But unless you know what you’re doing, it’s hard to work with people. Eventually, they will know that you’re bullshitting.” Of course, they did figure out what they wanted to with the idea for Alakazam. But that idea came about 8 months after Cabbage was born.
Nonetheless, now that they had a clear idea of what they wanted to do, the duo was optimistic. They had cash flow problems. But those would eventually be sorted once the projects were cleared off and customers can clear payments.
“When raising a round, you should be able to succeed even without the money. The money only means you’ll get where you want to be faster.” – Dulitha Wijewantha.
And so Dulitha went and began pitching to get funding for Alakazam. It wasn’t long before their optimism died. Some investors were more keen on investing in fads. Too many wanted them to revise their valuation or demanded a bigger stake. The remainder thought they were absolutely ridiculous.
But Dulitha and Ruban knew when seeking funding they had to speak to everyone, including people that would never fund them. They soon realized that it would take a long time for them to get funded in Sri Lanka. Many startup founders they spoke with remarked that it would take 6 – 9 months to find investors in Sri Lanka.
But Dulitha and Ruban couldn’t wait that long because of their cash flow problems. Dulitha decided to try his luck one more time and pitched to another investor. The investor sadly rejected him stating that he didn’t understand Alakazam. But he gave Dulitha some valuable advice saying, “If you’re good then you’ll only need to give up 15%.”
With these words ringing in his head, Dulitha analyzed the pitches of successful startups accepted into Y-Combinator. He knew that their pitch had to change. He had to clearly communicate the vision they had for Alakazam. He was going to explore his second option to seek funding in Singapore.
The investors with the right questions that open possibilities
Prior to departing for Singapore, Cabbage Apps took on a few more projects. Once the projects were confirmed, Dulitha took on extra credit card debt and booked a ticket to Singapore.
As he stepped on the plane, Dulitha felt at peace realizing the traveler inside hadn’t been on a plane for what seemed like forever. Once he landed and connected to the WiFi at Changi airport, the blissful feeling disappeared. Dulitha’s phone was bombarded with a barrage of notifications from a terrified Ruban.
Initially, Dulitha had planned to meet potential investors two days after coming to Singapore. But in a sudden turn of events, the meeting was pushed forward to the very he landed in Singapore. This was the message that Ruban received and desperately tried to relay to Dulitha who was blissfully enjoying the skies. Once he got the message, there was little time to waste.
He jumped into a cab and raced to the meeting while preparing his pitch deck on the way. Once he’d finished delivering the pitch, the investor was impressed. So much so that he asked Dulitha to pitch it again to his sales and marketing teams. Over the course of his trip, Dulitha pitched Alakazam to 20 investors in Singapore.
He recalls these meetings as, “the place where I heard the right questions.” Many of the Sri Lankan investors he met had asked questions of doubt. Whereas the investors in Singapore asked questions that gave him ideas for alternative business models that Alakazam could explore. They also encouraged him to think big to expand beyond Sri Lankan into Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the rest of Asia.
However, the Singaporean investors were only interested in giving large sums of money. But neither Dulitha nor Ruban was comfortable with the idea of taking so much money so early. So after Dulitha returned to Colombo, the duo decided to raise a pre-seed round. This would be smaller than the initial seed round but one they could raise faster.
The magical moment when you find the right investor
To raise this pre-seed round for Alakazam, Dulitha began reaching out to the contacts he had obtained while in Singapore. But as he was scrolling through Linkedin, he found a local investment firm called Third Lane Ventures. Despite his previous experiences with local investors, Dulitha took a chance and sent a message to Sanjiv Ahangama – the Managing Director of Third Lane Ventures.
“A person that uses the product is the best person to reach out to.” – Dulitha Wijewantha
The two later agreed to meet and Dulitha pitched Alakazam. After seeing the pitch, Sanjiv introduced Alakazam to his other investments. Three meetings later, Third Lane Ventures agreed to invest in Alakazam for its pre-seed round. Dulitha and Ruban had finally found the right investor.
Where Alakazam plans to go next
When I asked this question from Dulitha, he responded with a devilish smile saying, “World domination my friend!” And that wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Of course, the duo has had to cross numerous challenges to get as far as they have. And even then not all of them have been conquered.
But Dulitha and Ruban are adamant to help a million businesses grow across the world use Alakazam. As they look towards the world optimistically, their sights are firmly set on conquering Asia and expanding beyond. And so, with that smile on his face, Dulitha continues, “I don’t know who I’ll meet on the way. But I don’t think it’s impossible.”