He began his career as a mere unpaid intern. Eventually, he would rise to become the CEO of Sri Lanka’s first telecom operator. Then he’d cast it all away. Today, he’s the Chairman of the Board of Investment and an active angel investor. His mission is to help the youth of Sri Lanka build successful companies. But who is Dumindra Ratnayaka?
A chaotic university life
Dumindra’s journey into the world of telecommunications began at the University of Moratuwa. The year was 1983 and he had begun pursuing a degree in Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering. Originally, he was set to graduate in 1987. But then in his final year, the second JVP insurrection had begun.
As a result, the university was closed for extended periods. Not wanting to waste his time, Dumindra decided to get a job at Fentons, which was the agent for PBX switches. Initially, he got a temporary job that paid nothing. But eventually, he got a job repairing damaged circuit boards where he earned Rs. 100 for every circuit board he fixed.
Fast forward to 1989, Dumindra Ratnayaka was ready to face his final exams. But as he was about to face them, the university was closed once again. By now, two years had passed since he was supposed to graduate. And he was still an undergraduate.
The birth of Celltel
Despite not being able to graduate, 1989 was a turning point for Dumindra Ratnayaka. He had heard of a company trying to bring cell phones to Sri Lanka. This company was none other than Celltel, which just entered the Sri Lankan market. He reached out to Lalith Seneviratne who was the CTO of this company. Lalith told him that there were no vacant positions, but he could join as an intern.
And so, Dumindra joined Celltel in 1989 as an unpaid intern. However, life as an intern inside Sri Lanka’s first mobile telecom network wasn’t an easy one. The engineering department consisted of nine people. Each of these people had fancy titles except Dumindra, who was introduced as, “Oh he’s nobody.”
However, he didn’t consider it to be an obstacle. Dumindra describes his internship saying, “It helps a lot because you don’t have your qualifications. You can roll up your sleeves and work alongside everyone, asking questions, and learning without hurting your ego.”
Eventually, he would climb the ranks of the corporate ladder to become the CEO of the company. But right now, he was at the bottom of the corporate ladder as an intern. He was tasked with visiting and helping build Celltel’s base stations. During these visits, he had to drill rocks, climb cell towers, and various other tasks and engineer would never have to do.
Yet, this would a be short-lived career. In April 1989, DMS published an advertisement calling for engineers. Dumindra applied for the position and got the job, which paid Rs. 3,500 per month. It was here at DMS that he was introduced to computer systems as they were the agents for WANG PC’s. As such, he spent much of his time hacking into their file systems and experimenting with the PCs.
Six months later, Dumindra got a call from Vajira Jayasinghe – his old supervisor, while he was an intern at Celltel. He was told that Lalith had left Celltel and Vajira had taken up the position of CTO. Dumindra was told that there was an opening for an engineer for Celltel’s telecom switch.
The position paid Rs. 12,000 and came with a car. The benefits were great but the reason Dumindra accepted the offer was that mobile phones seemed revolutionary, even if they were huge boxes. And so in December 1989, Dumindra Ratnayaka officially joined Celltel.
The unpaid intern rises through the ranks
When the new year of 1990 dawned, cell phones were sold for Rs. 100,000, voice calls were priced at Rs. 25 per minute, and Celltel barely had 1000 customers. This was the company and industry that Dumindra joined as an engineer. However, he was still officially unqualified.
Luckily, in 1990, the University of Moratuwa finally reopened. Dumindra sat for his exams and finally graduated. He was now officially qualified as an engineer and returned to work. As he returned to Celltel, this time as an engineer, his old colleagues joked, “Mara wada ne? Now have to call you sir instead of machang.”
He began his career in switch engineering, then expanded into base stations, and wireless engineering. He even explored software engineering where he built a software that helped identify the best location for a base station. But he didn’t stop at being an engineer.
Dumindra later moved into planning, expansion, and customer service, which he describes as a unique experience as call centers were non-existent at the time. As time passed, he rose to the rank of manager. Afterward, Vajira made the decision to migrate to New Zealand. As such, Dumindra was made CTO of Celltel.
He credits his rapid rise through the ranks due to Celltel being a small company. As such, Dumindra was always getting involved in different areas.
Elaborating on this he said, “Everyone welcomed a helping hand. It’s a matter of learning everything about the business. As you move up the ladder, you need a broad set of skills. As an engineer, you need technical skills. As a manager, you need HR skills. As you become CTO you need to ask, ‘What is the job of a CTO? Is it to provide the best technical network or a network catering to consumer interest?’ You have to give the customers what they want.”
The CEO of Sri Lanka’s first mobile telecom network
By now, Celltel had become a large company and the Sri Lankan mobile telecommunications industry had other players. There was Callink, which was owned by Singapore Telecom and is now known as Hutch. Secondly, there was Mobitel, which was a subsidiary of Telstra at the time.
In just ten years, Dumindra Ratnayaka rose from being an engineer to the CTO of Celltel. Then in 2000, Michel Schluter – then CEO of Celltel, left the company to take up a position in Millicom International, which was the holding company of Celltel. After a six-month transition period, Dumindra was officially appointed as the CEO of Celltel.
“When you have a culture of responsibility you deliver. It doesn’t matter where you deliver it from.” – Dumindra Ratnayaka
One of his acts as CEO was to have everyone spend half a day inside the call center. This was because Dumindra too spent time answering calls from customers. Listening to their frustration Dumindra learned a lot saying, “If a customer complaint is received by the call center, all they can do is say they will inform the engineer. But if the engineer does nothing then customer care is on the line.”
As such, Dumindra instituted this policy so that the rest of the company would understand the valuable job the call center does. And then he wanted the rest of the company to actively support them in resolving complaints by customers. This policy would be the foundation, upon which he would change the culture at Celltel to be one of responsibility.
Dumindra described this culture as, “When you have a culture of responsibility you deliver. It doesn’t matter where you deliver it from.” Elaborating on this, he takes the example of the engineers at Celltel. They had the responsibility of ensuring that calls could be made at any time without issues. As such, they took the responsibility of paying electricity bills for base stations and requested to be reimbursed later.
The culture of a company doesn’t change overnight. Yet, Dumindra believes that the culture of Celltel did change to one of responsibility. As such, he felt he didn’t need to monitor the company, eliminated short leave, and instituted a first name basis.
How Celltel transformed into Tigo overnight
In 2007, Celltel transformed into Tigo. The reason for this transformation was because Millicom had multiple telecom operators. Millicom wanted to build a strong united brand amongst all these operators. The brand they chose was Tigo in Latin America, which had the image of a youthful brand.
However, when such decisions are made, a company risks losing everything it gained from its previous brand. But for Celltel it wasn’t a loss. This was because it was seen as an old brand that was associated with bulky old cell phones. Dumindra shared that young people described it saying, “Celltel is for my father, not for me.”
Thus, the company cast its old image overnight. When people woke up the next morning, their phones read Tigo instead of Celltel. When they went to get a reload they were told, “There’s no Celltel now. It’s Tigo.” Within a week, the company had repainted all of its billboards across the island in the same color.
The entire process took six months to plan. However, the transformation of Celltel to Tigo was done over the course of a single week. But two short years later, they’d have to undergo another transformation. In response to this second transformation, the marketing manager told Dumindra, “Oh no! Not again!”
When Tigo transformed into Etisalat
By 2009, Millicom had three telecom operators in Asia located in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos. However, they decided to move out of Asia and focus on Africa and Latin America. As such, the operators were put up for sale. Etisalat chose to buy Tigo in Sri Lanka.
Alas, this meant that after two short years, the company had to once again transform. This time it was from Tigo to Etisalat. After the sale was complete, they had asked Dumindra to remain as the CEO. He announced this sale at the staff convention that followed.
Dumindra took the stage, took off his t-shirt with the Tigo logo, and put on a shirt that had the Etisalat logo on it. He then told everyone that there was an Etisalat t-shirt underneath their chairs. Everyone took these t-shirts and wore them over the shirts they were already wearing. Soon afterward, the brand was changed once again.
The challenges of introducing new technologies
Over the next three years, the company grew by 100%. Dumindra states that this growth was because Etisalat was keen on investing in the Sri Lankan market. This investment allowed the company to upgrade its existing network infrastructure. Initially, this network was optimized for voice calls. But when Etisalat came in, the network was optimized for data.
“You can cover the entire country with 3G. But then 4G comes along and before you’re done 5G is here.” – Dumindra Ratnayaka
Additionally, the company also introduced 3G in 2010. However, Dumindra admits that this was too late. Both Dialog and Mobitel had already introduced 3G many years prior. The reason for this delay was because as Celltel, it couldn’t attract investors due to the war. By the time the war ended, Milicom had already lost interest because it was selling the company.
Nonetheless, with the investment from Etisalat, Dumindra focused on the future. At a conference, an expert once said, “After 5 years Sri Lanka’s smartphone penetration will only be 2% or 3%.” Dumindra responded by saying, “It will be 50%” And so he embarked on initiatives such as the Etisalat Appzone saying, “Technology is useless there are applications for people.”
Ultimately, Dumindra admits that its challenging for a telecom operator to succeed. This is due to two factors. Firstly, the price wars have set prices to unsustainable levels. Secondly, it requires continuous investments. Dumindra elaborates on this saying, “You can cover the entire country with 3G. But then 4G comes along and before you’re done 5G is here.”
Saying goodbye to the telecom industry
When Dumindra celebrated his 50th birthday, he reflected upon as his life thus far. He had spent 25 years studying. Then he spent another 25 years working in the telecommunications industry and was involved in every aspect of it. So for the next 25 years of his life, he wanted to do something different.
He gave a one year notice to regulators. And then in January 2014, he submitted his resignation. Finally, on the 31st of March 2014, Dumindra Ratnayaka officially retired as the CEO of Etisalat. And immediately after he resigned, he got his chance with a job offer to do something different.
“I think I’m quite happy. The knowledge I got as an engineer and over the years running a telecom company as a CEO, I’m giving it back.” – Dumindra Ratnayaka
A few years’ prior, Dumindra had met Dr. Harsha De Silva for a friendly chat and joked that he would join Dr. Harsha’s campaign. Immediately after he left Etisalat, Dr. Harsha called Dumindra and said, “Join my campaign. You said you would!” Dumindra agreed but on one condition: he wouldn’t take any government jobs. And so they went into the mess that was the 2015 General Elections.
Dumindra brought his expertise in marketing to the table of the campaign. He shared that they focused on marketing Dr. Harsha’s knowledge and skills. The target market was the intellectuals and youth in Colombo. When the dust settled, Dr. Harsha received a record number of votes from Kotte and had the third highest number of votes in the Colombo district.
When the campaign ended, Dumindra parted ways with the government. Afterward, he was requested to sit on the board of the ICTA and BOI, where he also serves as its chairman. But Dumindra Ratnayaka’s focus in life is now to help the youth of Sri Lanka build successful companies. As such, he’s acted as a consultant and has been involved at various stages of companies. This includes startups, which he has supported freely and invested in.
Dumindra Ratnayaka’s lessons for startups
Today, Dumindra is involved in various initiatives to help build startups like StartupX Foundry and Venture Frontier Lanka. He describes a startup as, “An entrepreneur or group of entrepreneurs realizing a dream. For a startup to be successful, the entrepreneurs need to be passionate. If you’re passionate then you’ll be successful.” This is why before he invests in a startup he always asks, “Is the entrepreneur passionate about the idea?”
“Two things. If you don’t make mistakes you don’t learn. Never consider a problem to be a problem.” – Dumindra Ratnayaka
Dumindra once met a university student with a great idea. He then asked the student if he was willing to drop out and work on the idea. However, the university student immediately backtracked. Dumindra commented that “A passionate entrepreneur would’ve immediately dropped out of university.” A successful startup has a passionate entrepreneur. Its success is defined by what the entrepreneur wants.
But why do many startups fail? Dumindra sees two commons reasons. Firstly, startups don’t understand what they want to do. Secondly, they don’t understand the ecosystem. He learned this from others who had this knowledge. As such, he believes it’s crucial that entrepreneurs engage openly with their investors. Even if it’s with an email honestly sharing their status and issues, investors would help.
But when asked about the most important thing he’s learned over the years, from being an unpaid intern to the CEO that oversaw a telecom operator go through two transformations, he says, “Two things. If you don’t make mistakes you don’t learn. Never consider a problem to be a problem.”