“ERBEN IOT – MILESTONE 1 IS DONE!!!!” screams a Facebook status, barging into my newsfeed with a video triumphantly attached to it, like a cat bringing home a particularly juicy mouse.
In the video, a developer stands with his phone out, tapping icons on an application screen. In response, a bank of jury-rigged lights wink on and off. This humble demo is the making of something greater: an entire stack of software designed to let people interface with the Internet Of Things. Some of it, I’m told, will be buried in the hardware of all the devices that can possibly fit into the Internet of Things ecosystem; some of it will be open, allowing developers to instantly get to working on their next-generation projects without having to muck around with the basic machine code. It’s called Erben OS, and whether or not it goes as planned, its scope is a grand departure from the me-too app development companies jostling for position.
This is the mouse.
The owner of this status is Sachira Fernando, an unexpectedly tall coder-turned-entrepreneur with an eye for the bottom line.
At 24, Sachira runs a one-year-old company called Erbenlab. It’s reportedly worth at least a million dollars (at least, that was the last takeover offer). Erbenlab, which began with Sachira working from his bedroom, is now a 15-man operation happily hacking away from No 10, Francisco Place, Moratuwa. The Internet of Things is a new venture for them – in fact, when I first met Sachira, he was pitching a cloud-based ERP that did everything from handle inventory to payroll to printing the reciepts. It had just gone live at Tea Avenue, a restarant in Colombo: Sachira was gunning to get it into Redline Technologies, arguably Sri Lanka’s one and only nexus for gaming gear.
This is the cat.
Erbenlab’s seeds lie in one of Sri Lanka’s earliest online magazines: the Erbenizer. The Erbenizer was a strange spark: a blog that exploded with popularity when it started logging parties and upcoming events in Sri Lanka. It was by teenagers, for teenagers, and at its zenith it functioned as a party chronicle-slash-socialite tracker of sorts. At the time,
Sachira started coding at the age of 10, worked his way through a couple of languages, and was examining the almost-new Elakiri.com with the intent of starting his own forum when he ran into WordPress. He and a friend, Yasin Nimaladasa, set up a site. And got themselves a free domain – erbenizer.co.cc – and got a free gigabyte of storage from 000host. Sachira approached some of his friends from Sri Lanka’s college Interact community: were they interested in starting an e-mag?
This was in 2009. He would have been just over 18. Within a year, the Erbenizer had 22 people and was raking in the traffic. At its peak, it became the 11th most visited site in Sri Lanka, drawing traffic from precisely the same social circles that wrote the magazine. Part of its success was that it was fun, filled a niche – Facebook’s event invites hadn’t caught on here at the time – and it was branded as a magazine, and therefore legitimate. The site ran mostly on Google Ads. In between writing and reposting what they couldn’t cover, they ran events. People like it.
“Then a guy called,” recounts Sachira, with some pride. “He said that they’re having a beach party, and they wanted us to promote it. I asked ‘What do we get out of it?’ Well, he thought for a moment, and he said, ‘I’ll give you 5,000 bucks.’ That was good money at the time! We said yes and started monetizing. I think every Friday night we covered some four to five events. Back then there were event posters all over Colombo: most of them had the Erbenizer logo, because we were covering all of them. We had event packages – starting from Rs 10,000 and we had a cover girl for each issue. We promoted, our traffic sent quite a bit of people to the event – we were dominating keywords like ‘party in Sri Lanka’ – and that was more than enough for people to pay us.”
“We tried getting on hi5, but that never really worked; Facebook did better. We collected emails. We collected numbers – about 1500 party people – and sent out SMSes. We were making about 300 to 400 thousand a month on profits, quite a lot of which we put into community service work. We had a massive party to celebrate our first year – free food, free booze, the works. We were there at the right time, at the right place, and it worked.”
By the time 2011 rolled around, there were competitors sniffing around – among them, XtreamYouth, Insider Magazine, Colombo Spirit. Elakiri.com was also heading into the Digital Media Partner phase. 2011 was a good year – their site redesign was recognized by AWWARDS, the web UI community – but by the end, Erbenizer was on the decline. Perhaps the routine of partying got to them; Sachira cane to believe that the present model wasn’t going to survive. The content, the fanbase and the site was there, but everyone was getting busier with other pursuits – including himself. Facebook usage was slowly catching up with Colombo: information had started flowing through group chats and wallposts rather than websites.
“We were growing up,” he puts it. Somewhere in the middle of it all, they recieved a buy offer for Rs 3 million. Everyone hated the concept of selling the Erbenizer, though; that offer was shelved.
“I figured it was a brand,” says Sachira. “It was in people’s minds. The magazine was one thing. This could be more.”
While searching for that “more”, Sachira came across a WordPress theme called Geo Places by a company called Templatic. Geo Places was perhaps the first of its kind: a directory listing that married WordPress’s blogging functionality to a mapping interface. He downloaded it, seeing the potential to market events and places on it.
At the same time, this site called Yamu started. With the same theme.
“His writing was superb,” says Sachira, referring to Indi Samarajiva, who ran YAMU. ” YAMU was different. We charged; they didn’t. They did free listings. At one point, someone came up and said “This site called Yamu gave us a free listing: why don’t you?”
This was probably the silver bullet. The Erbenizer saw the new Geo Places-powered site as more of a business listing page – monetized, of course. Yamu paired the lists with reviews. Free. Soon, Yamu was the de-facto list, and the Erbenizer was on the decline. However, this Geo Places incident proved to be a turning point. Sachira and Yasin had done a great deal of work modifying Geo Places. When Geo Places went viral, that code became a valuable codebase that people wanted to buy. They spun off plugins and suddenly, as Sachira puts it, they were “making a thumping amount of money.” The plugins sold for 30, 40 dollars apiece and the money racked up.
So at the beginning of 2012, they started Erbenlabs, LLC. “With an S,” says Sachira. “The LLC was important. Most of the people who bought Geo Cities were from the US: I figured it would be much better if we were registered on their turf.” (Note: Erbenizer still exists, but as a different platform now).
Erbenlabs specialized in website customization. They had seven people, “working after work”: by 2013, working more or less as a virtual office, they had racked up a list of foreign clients. However, two things happened: one, Sachira was offered a job at a company called Infogrid, a company with a small team but exclusive clients. They wanted him to become an IT manager, and the package was substantial: among other things, they even paid for his fuel. It was not an offer that could be turned down. His partner left for Australia.
A year down the line, working began to chafe.
“I felt I wasn’t growing,” he explains. “The compensation was great, the benefits were fantastic. I just didn’t feel like I was pushing myself.” It was time to take up the reins once more.
REAPING THE HARVEST
Erbenlab began, quite literally, in Sachira’s bedroom. It began, among other things, without the S. Erbenlabs, LLC, was – well, not gone, but done with; it was out of those ashes that Erbenlab, a locally incorporated company, emerged.
Listening to his tale, it’s quite clear that Erbenlab – minus the S – really was a square one of sorts. Sachira started to pitch for project online, pointing to his previous experience where required. The newly minted company grew to 3 people, with him still working for Infogrid. They set a target – to earn a thousand dollars a month – and plugged on. A thousand dollars would have covered the wages, the rent, everything.
One thing led to another. In May, a client called.
” He said ‘Look here, we need a mobile app,'” recounts Sachira, grinning. “It was for iOS. We didn’t have iOS devices. I talked to the guys; we did two months of research, bought some iOS devices and went for it. We went for everything – iOS, Android, Blackberry, you name it.
Then, sometime later, a friend called and told me he was looking for an ERP. He said he’d been through tons of ERPs, but he didn’t like the complex interfaces. He asked if we had an ERP.
I told him we didn’t.
‘Well, can you make one?’ he asked.
And so we did. That was how Cense Cloud was created. We built a product we could market – cloud integration, a per-user payment scheme, the works. How we got into all of this: mobile, ERPs were all accidents, really. We stopped websites, gave up on WordPress completely. Our payroll systems eventually got subsumed into the ERPs. We eventually stopped white-labelling projects as well; we wanted the apps we make to be published with our names attached.”
What Sachira calls accidents is more a series of opportunities and rapid pivots, laid out one after the other like dominos. The same attitude that allowed the team to just up and build an ERP also allowed them to build up other projects – such as a stock market application built with Global Media Networks. Virtual Stock Exchange, as this thing was called, was designed to gamify the stock trading process, even to allow a simulation space – using real data – for beginners to play around with. Erbenlab got the contract for the mobile app component: they set up servers in the World Trade Center to handle the data.
We’re quickly introduced to the development team, the marketing and the QA. All of them, I notice, use Macs, all kept in excellent condition. I’m introduced to whom Sachira calls “the youngest CTO and the yongest CFO in Sri Lanka”: Ajith Prasanna and Kelum Anthony, both of them under 22 years of age. Together, these three run a very deadline-oriented ship: they promise app delivery within six business days, ERP implementation within seven. Erbenlab uses its own Cense Cloud ERP to run its own operations, a nice touch: they have faith in their own products.
Improbable? Possibly, but not impossible, for it works. Erbenlab – no S – recently celebrated their first year in running as a privately held, profitable software firm: the Daily FT ran a short piece on them for the occasion.
ERNENIZE …. EVERYTHING!
Of course, nothing comes without cost. They’ve had to fire people in the past. That’s common for a large company, but unusual for a year-old startup. And their Cloud ERP – the one that went live at Tea Avenue – initially took some serious skunkworks and energy, as last-minute problems popped up left, right and center: at one point, they packed their bags, headed over the Tea Avenue and spent the night coming up with firmware for the old printers that the restaurant used.
Nevertheless, Erbenlab has emerged all the stronger for it. Everything thus far – even the $1 million buy offer – has only served to confirm what they already believe: that Erbenlab has a strong brand and an even stronger future.
“I actually thought about that offer so much I almost fell ill,” jokes Sachira, before pointing out that they’re opening a branch in India, and possibly in Africa later on.
By this time next year they want to “dominate the Sri Lankan IoT market: not to have a monopoly, but to own a chunk of it,” to quote Sachira. They want to not just supply the middleware that’ll connect developers to the myriad of IoT devices available, but set up a plant to manufacture their own devices, starting off with a single unit to convert a house into a smart home – automated and app-controlled lights, alarms, the works. Of course, they have no idea how they’ll get to that part yet: Sachira’s confident that they’ll make it happen once they have the technology in place.
He speaks of reducing app development to a drag-and-drop interface, of expanding into Dubai, Seychelles and the Dominican Republic, and eventually, into Silicon Valley. Sachira is by turns both enthusiastic and secretive: he will talk at length about his vision for the future, but closer details are withheld.
“You will see,” he says, and over the course of the next few days he slowly teases out logos, names, screenshots to the public. For now, they’re gearing up to the launch of Tuk Tuk, which (as the name suggests), lets people scan their vicinity for nearby trishaws. They may or may not be launching with a couple of companies already on board: this he will not confirm.
“There’s even a panic button,” explains Sachira enthusiastically as I, after exploring the beta Tuk Tuk application, handed him back his phone. “We really want to do something for 119 – because a panic button is no use if our forces can’t incorporate it. I need our forces to be ready for this kind of IT infrastructure.”
And the ERP he was pitching to Redline? They bought it.