In 2011, Shehan Selvanayagam told his mother that he was quitting his corporate job to build a startup. In response, his mother offered to pay him to keep his corporate job. Shehan declined the offer but it exists to this day! This is despite having built a 7-year-old business, which is Loops Solutions that has made a name for itself amongst the many digital marketers in Sri Lanka with an international presence.
Shehan boarded his flight to the digital world at Sri Lankan Airlines. It was September 2005 and he had joined the company as one of its first e-commerce executives. He along with his team built the e-commerce division for the airline. Within six months, this department was raking in $5 million per month. Shehan describes this time saying, “We were doing 90% of all e-commerce transactions in Sri Lanka and we were learning on the job since there was no one to teach us at this time.”
The success of the e-commerce department of Sri Lankan Airlines did not go unnoticed. Nations Trust Bank soon hired them to build a similar team for the bank. Shehan spent 3 years at Nations Trust Bank handling automated channels for the bank. But it wasn’t long before he found himself hitting a barrier and feeling that he no longer had room to grow.
He was not alone and so he, along with a colleague, left Nations Trust Bank and set out to build a software development company. They gave up on the idea after two weeks because the industry was too crowded. So they decided to become a digital marketing agency instead. But despite their intentions, this was a market in its infancy.
Nevertheless, in January 2011 they got their big break. Mihin Lanka wanted a company to handle their digital marketing efforts. Kapila Chandrasena – then CEO of Mihin Lanka was willing to give the contract to Shehan. All he needed to do was get an office and setup. Shehan immediately got cracking and set up shop in his spare bedroom. This bedroom was the first office of the agency that would become Loops Solutions.
Despite having gotten their big break, the young Loops still had an uphill battle to win. Shehan had made a vow not to take a salary for six months to help the business grow. Digital marketing was still in its infancy and had few believers. To top it off, one month after moving into their first office, they were evicted by Shehan’s wife who refused to put up with people messing up the house anymore.
Despite the speed bump of eviction, fate was about to smile on Loops. AC Nielsen released a report proclaiming the future of marketing would be in digital. Suddenly everyone wanted to explore the wonders of digital marketing. Since Loops was one of the few companies that offered digital marketing, they received clients left, right, and center. These early clients included big names such as Elephant House, Amana Takaful, and Hutch.
The “Loopies” as they called themselves now, put their heads together to understand how to best satisfy their new clients. In the early days of digital marketing, this was fairly easy. This was because the digital space was not cluttered and only had two major social networks, Facebook and Twitter. This gave them the freedom to experiment with different ideas.
Furthermore, people loved it when their favorite brands joined social media. The community welcomed them with open arms and posts like, “Welcome Elephant House!” In the old days, even simple ideas went a long way. Shehan describes this era saying, “You didn’t have to think of a campaign. You just did something simple and it worked. It was very easy those days.”
With every new client Loops grew in size and so too did the costs. There was a tradition at Loops to order pizzas for everyone if they were working late. But as the team grew, the practice became too costly to continue. Maintaining cash flow had now become an important and delicate balancing act.
Shehan describes this saying, “In a startup, your biggest enemy is your cash flow. You can have revenue but if you don’t have cash flow it will kill your business overnight.” Loops had giant corporates as clients. But these corporates could take close to 3 months to make payments. Meanwhile, Loops had more bills, more employees and so more expenses that needed to be met.
As the company kept growing, it became clear that Loops was no longer a startup. They needed to streamline the company with clear processes. This is the very thing that startups despise. “That’s part of growing up,” said Shehan.
And for the company to grow, Shehan understood that they desperately needed a competent management team and a clear structured approach. He entrusted this task to Wasaam Ismail – the first general manager of Loops to head the new management team. He accomplished it while maintaining the playful culture of Loops, which Shehan didn’t want to lose.
Once the management team and organizational structure in place, another realization dawned on Loops. It then became clear that investing in staff was crucial. After all, people work not only for money. They also seek job satisfaction by playing a key role. So it was decided to reinvest profits back into helping employees grow. This involved not just workshops and other training programmes. It also involved formal education such as degree programmes.
By the time Loops had implemented these changes, it was a completely new company. The startup had grown up and entered a new world. The digital world too had undergone a transformation. New social media networks rose and existing platforms had evolved. Meanwhile, the digital marketing sector had suddenly ballooned to include 100 – 200 digital marketing agencies.
Shehan recalls, “At a point, there were more agencies than IT companies so we leveraged our connections with clients and started building multiple touch points by offering different services, giving us an edge.”
With everyone entering their space, Loops decided to enter into everyone else’s space. They evolved from a Facebook agency to a digital agency. They built a video team to create animated videos, a web team to create social apps, and a non-digital creative agency to run ads offline.
Today Loops works with clients in eight countries. They have offices in both Sri Lanka and Australia. Additionally, they’re also looking at expanding into Japan by early 2018. However, this wasn’t part of the original plan. Initially, Shehan and the team had no designs of expanding outside Sri Lanka for at least the first six years.
But then by a stroke of luck, they got an opportunity too good to resist. Shehan was in Qatar and had casually met one of the senior managers of Oreedoo, which is a telecommunications provider and one of the largest corporates in Qatar. At the end of the meeting, the manager had asked Shehan to delay his flight to meet the senior management team of Oreedoo the following day.
Shehan agreed to delay his flight. As he boarded his new flight to Sri Lanka, he did so having convinced Oreedoo to outsource its campaigns and videos to Loops in Sri Lanka. With one of the biggest companies in Qatar among their clientele, it was much suddenly easier to approach other companies. And then it wasn’t long until Loops got Viber as a client and now works with them in eight countries.
But some clients overseas believed in the stereotype that Asian companies were incompetent. Yet, the clients that chose Loops did so because they produce quality content. Additionally, because they were an Asian company all of Loops’ offerings were price competitive. However, before entering any market, the team had to do a lot of research.
This research is a combination of both online and offline visits to the country to understand how the market dynamics work. “That’s because social media and digital media is all about understanding the culture. For example, in Nepal Momos is the unofficial national dish like Kottu is for us. The Nepalese also don’t like local TV but love local movies,” explained Shehan elaborating what they try to identify with this research.
Shehan credits all of Loops’ success today to its employees past and present. Where does Loops Solutions plan to go in the future? Wherever the world of digital marketing goes in the future. But in Shehan’s eyes, there’s no such thing as a future in the digital world. Rather, digital is merely going to become one of the norms and a key component.
In his own words, Shehan explains this saying, “Digital will be one of the main aspects of a marketing campaign. But you will still need TV and other ads. If a person watches a TV ad, then they interact with the brand online. It’s all going to be an integrated approach and targeted advertising will play a critical role. We are excited about the future. We might be big, respected and well known now, but we’re still as playful as we were in our first bedroom office. So, no matter what the future throws at us, we’ll play our way to success.”
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