As you walk into this particular store, you’re immediately faced with shelves and shelves of comic books. Delving further in, you see action figures from DC, Marvel and even popular games such as Dota and Overwatch. There’s also masks, cosplay items, trinkets and movie posters as well. Located on the first floor of the Liberty Arcade in Colombo, Red Dot Geek, or RDG as it’s fondly referred to, takes everything you love about comics, movies and games and crams it into a few square feet of awesomeness.
Starting off with a simple Facebook post, Red Dot Geek has been on a unique journey since its inception, and is now one of the leaders in a growing market in Sri Lanka.
Before delving deep into Red Dot Geek, it’s important to know about the team behind it all. Red Dot Geek is the pride and joy of Sulaksana De Soysa and Layan Perera*, who were helped by their family members as well. Summing himself up in a sentence, Sulaksana De Soysa says,
“I’m the sort of person who sees an idea through, regardless of how long it takes. Never giving up is my motto”.
From a very young age, Sulaksana was a geek at heart. From reading every single comic that he could get his hands on, to watching television shows, starting with Smallville, Xena and Hercules. Hailing from Matara, Sulaksana studied there until grade nine, after which he moved to Colombo to carry out the rest of his school education up to his A/Ls.
After completing his A/Ls, Sulaksana was employed in a private company. From there, he moved on to another company. (The names were not disclosed due to personal reasons). He realized that while a company job was good to support him, it did not come close to a dream job.
His dream was to do something with comics, and so he made plans to kick-start it on the side. Throughout all this time, Sulaksana had been on the lookout for comic books, but not only for collecting. He wanted was to make these comics available to more people in Sri Lanka as well.
In the good old days, Sri Lanka didn’t have a comic book seller. The closest thing they had was Vijitha Yapa, which had an extremely limited amount of comic books. The few active comic book enthusiasts in those days had to resort to waiting for new stocks in Vijitha Yapa or ordering online. For outstation cities, they had to rely on purchasing them online. Sulaksana noticed this, and in the back of his head, the idea stayed.
In this radical plan, he was not alone. His childhood friend from school, Layan shared his interest as well. However, they did not know how viable the venture was. But three years ago, they both traveled out of the country. Then, everything changed.
There, they came across a comic book store. Enthralled by the sheer amount of books they saw there, the idea cemented itself in their heads. The duo were determined to somehow open up a comic book store in Sri Lanka.
After they returned to Sri Lanka, Sulaksana and Layan delved into the arcane art of setting up a comic book store in Sri Lanka. While it may seem as simple as buying comics from abroad and selling them in Sri Lanka, the process wasn’t exactly that simple.
Sulaksana first enlisted the aid of Dinuka Perera, a fellow comic book enthusiast and an administrator of the Geek Club of Sri Lanka. Dinuka and Sulaksana then asked around to see if the idea of bringing down comic books to Sri Lanka would be a feasible one.
Once it seemed apparent that there was indeed a niche of comic book lovers in Sri Lanka, Sulaksana asked Dinuka for permission to post advertisements on the Geek Club Facebook page. Dinuka of course, agreed in an instant. However, before posting, Sulaksana needed a name for his store.
What’s in a name? For Sulaksana, it was a combination of the things he loved and held dear to his heart. Red was his favorite color. The geek part, he explains in his own words, “We didn’t want to limit ourselves into just being a comic book store. By putting “geek” in the name, it ensured that we could someday be all things geek. It’s room for expansion.”
As for the dot, to this day, he jokes that he has no clue how the dot made its way into the name. As the story goes, Sulaksana and his partner decided on the name and logo almost simultaneously and it just matched so well they decided to keep it. The uniqueness and the rhythm of the name have struck many in the community as open and friendly.
Once the name was decided, Sulaksana and Layan immediately started checking for domains. Luckily, their chosen domain was available, and they both lunged for the mouse to purchase it.
After that, it was simply a matter of bringing down the first shipment of comics. Easy peasy, you say? Wrong! Using the contacts he made on his travels, Sulaksana had made plans to ship down comic books and distribute them throughout Colombo and a few outstation cities as well.
However, then came the matter of deciding what comics to ship down. Sulaksana decided to go with the typical Sri Lankan mentality “Bring Batman, it will sell.” So after much deliberation, he decided on comics of mainstream characters like batman, superman and the flash, and a few others recommended by his friends who were comic lovers.
But once they actually began ordering comics, the ride got a little bumpy. The first problem they ran into was (as in most cases) money. They of course, ended up paying from their own pockets for the initial stock. To this day, Sulaksana says, they still haven’t recovered that initial investment (and the continuous ones after that) since all funds are invested back into Red Dot Geek.
However, after all that hassle, Sulaksana was armed with a name, logo, and his initial stack of comic books. So of course he proceeded to create a facebook page and market Red Dot Geek and the comic books. Thus, on the 15th of June 2016, the first advertisement was published on the Geek Club of Sri Lanka. Red Dot Geek was born.
Sulaksana and Layan initially sold 5 comic books for a price of LKR 1,400/-. From there, as word spread through the ever active geek community, Red Dot gained a following and an accompanying fan base as well. It certainly helped that Layan was a suave web designer and their initial website was launched almost as soon as their first advertisement went up.
Customers would list down the comics they wanted and make a down payment. They would then receive their long awaited comics within a month or less. But Sulaksana’s customers were not only from Colombo. They also had customers in cities like Kandy and Anuradhapura as well. He describes the ordering process as, “Sometimes if we got an order in the morning we had it couriered via CityPak to the customer by that evening itself. And for outstation cities we never took more than a day. In that way it was a real challenge to keep it up.”
Despite the challenges, he found several dedicated customers looking forward to his deliveries regularly. One of them, he said, was Kovida Bakmeedeniya. Sulaksana credits Kovida for helping him at the initial startup phase. Kovida would order a number of books and then make an advance payment of 30% two months before so that Sulaksana had enough financial resources to place the order.
With increasing support from the geek community and parties such as the Geek Club of Sri Lanka and GamerLK, Red Dot Geek grew in popularity. Apart from these communities, Sulaksana also credits mainstream media and Facebook promotions for the rise in popularity of Red Dot Geek in its initial days.
One of the major challenges that Sulaksana, Layan and Red Dot Geek faced was keeping a profit from the sales of comic books. In fact, he explained that during the first few months of Red Dot Geek’s operations, they actually sold batches of comic books at a loss.
If they sold books worth LKR 100,000/-, their actual cost to bring down the books was around LKR 150,000/-. Luckily, this problem was soon to be solved in the coming months. As time went on, they worked out the ropes and grew their customer base as well. What initially kicked off as 20-30 customers has since expanded to over 100 monthly customers.
“Marvel, DC and other publishers are not allowed to sell comic books directly. So they have third party distributors who do the job for them. These distributors are our suppliers now”
As they went on, Sulaksana was redirected from the comic book store he built contact with on his travels into direct contact with the distributors who sold comics worldwide.
However, because of the minimum order quantity set forth by the publishers, Red Dot Geek is required to make a minimum purchase of comic books worth $1000 from the distributor. Anything less would not be accepted. So if orders from customers amounted only upto around $750, Sulaksana would pocket out the rest to place the order. However, this presented a new issue. That of selling all those extra books.
There was also, he stated, the occasional customer who would pre-order a large amount of books, then mysteriously disappear once the order was shipped down. And then Sulaksana had to struggle to sell those books as well.
As time went on, Sulaksana observed that many in Sri Lanka were averse to trusting online sellers. They preferred to walk into a store, look, touch, feel the book, and then buy it. Getting people to build their trust in Red Dot Geek was one of the hardest challenges they had. But this challenge set in motion the next step of their plan.
From the time they started Red Dot Geek, Sulaksana and Layan had a dream of setting up a physical store someday. They knew from the start that they wanted their location to be in Colpetty. On a random walk through liberty arcade, a corn cart caught Sulaksana’s eye. Thinking that if they could afford a space here, he might as well try, he and Layan went to meet the management. Fifteen minutes later, a deal was struck.
Sulaksana immediately called for backup from a few close friends like Akhila Weerasinghe and Shanil Wannukawatte. They set to work designing the store. The Geek Club of Sri Lanka provided huge support in making the design come to fruition. Meanwhile Sulaksana ordered a stock of comic books, graphic novels and posters for the launch.
Finally, on the 30th of September 2017, Sri Lanka’s first dedicated comic book store, Red Dot Geek found its home. The launch was a successful event, with most of the geek club pitching in to either help or attend. For them, this was a sign. It was a sign that geek culture was growing and being accepted in Sri Lanka.
Once the store was set up, Sulaksana’s dad agreed to run the store so that it wouldn’t clash with Sulaksana or Layan’s day jobs. He and Sulaksana can be found hosting stalls in various events as well.
Reflecting back on how business changed after the physical store was set up, Sulaksana says there definitely was an increase in the customer base. “Sri Lankans are still old school. Rather than just calling and saying ‘I want this issue of this comic’ they prefer to come to a store, browse and feel the book before they buy it”. He also said that since opening, the physical store has helped people of the older generation reach him. He adds that quite a few of those are now regular customers.
In addition a physical store also gave them the chance to sell uncollected pre-orders. So they then implemented a two week pickup period. They told customers that if their order wasn’t picked up in two weeks, they would be put on the shelf where anyone could buy them.
In addition, deliveries grew less, as more and more people started to flock to Red Dot Geek. This made the business easier to conduct as well.
Despite all the improvements, however, Sulaksana does state that Sri Lankans are still somewhat reluctant to invest in comic books and graphic novels. Other countries, he goes on, are not like that. People value the physical book, the actual experience of reading a comic. This is why they have a larger customer base, he further explains.
“We’d get a group of teenagers walking into the store, with a few interested in buying comics. Their friends would immediately ask why they would waste money when they can read it for free online” he explains.
The lack of a large customer base also impacts the existing customers, he explains. Since Sulaksana is unable to order small quantities from the distributors, sometimes orders can be delayed by a month or so until other orders also get added on. Fortunately, he added that most of his customers have been very understanding of the situation.
Additionally, the website that was launched for Red Dot Geek was also hampered with the launch of the store. This was because they now had to keep track of sales made in the store. And then ensure their website accurately listed the stocks available. As such, they’re currently revamping their website. But Sulaksana says the delay cost them a few outstation customers.
Not at all! Red Dot Geek is joined in the market by Collectique, Funko Pop SL and Yamato One, the other big names in this field. Collectique deals in pranks, cards, and action figures. Funko Pop SL meanwhile deals in funkos. Finally, Yamato One, deals in all things anime. One would think that meant a Cold War between the stores. Yet, in reality, the situation is very different.
Recognizing that it would be stupid to compete over a small and growing market, an unspoken truce was formed. Sulaksana made it a point to see what action figures Collectique was shipping down, and making sure they don’t overlap. He also talked with Funko Pop SL about shipping down funkos before he actually brought them.
Meanwhile, geek jewellery, which they expanded into a few months ago, was done when the previous retailers moved out of the country.Meanwhile Yamato One and Red Dot Geek have a strong friendship. While Red Dot Geek ships down manga, Yamato One would handle posters, key tags and trinkets, etc. One can usually see Red Dot and Yamato in adjoining stalls playfully ribbing each other in various events.
Even new additions to the market, like Jolly’s Toy Shop make it a point to speak to the old timers and agree to the unspoken truce. All in all, the geek market is a peaceful place.
Since its inception, Red Dot Geek has been supported by the Geek Club of Sri Lanka. From spreading the word, to initial orders, recommendations and setting up shop, the mutual understanding between the two parties is strong and long lasting. Sulaksana states that “without the Geek Club, we wouldn’t be here today”.
As Red Dot Geek progressed, it collaborated with the Geek Club for many events throughout the year. Two of the largest events in Colombo last year were free comic book day, and Halloween fest. Additionally they partnered with the Kandy Geek Club for free comic book day in Kandy as well. This is without counting the larger events like the Asus Lanka Comic Con and the Play Expo of 2017. More recently, they also collaborated with EAP films for the Black Panther movie premiere.
Almost two years since the business first launched, Sulaksana says he’s happy with how far they have come. He also, however, says this is not enough. He dreams of having a comic book store like the ones in other countries, where there is enough space for people to walk in and relax with their favourite comic. His plans are to shift locations in a year or so, if all goes well. However, he will still be remaining in Colpetty, as his desire is to remain true to his dream.
In addition to that, for the near future their expansion plans include branching into mugs, caps and t-shirts. This should be done by the end of next month, he teased. While he does acknowledge that this means some communication with brands like faniacs are needed, he remains confident that he will be able to successfully continue it. Several more ideas were hinted upon, but not disclosed.
While other e commerce ventures sweat over the process of creating facebook promotions and websites, Sulaksana’s venture started out from a simple post on Facebook. He identified a problem in a community and solved it. Now he is the proud owner of Sri Lanka’s first comic book store.
“I’m proud and honored to be a part of a community I’ve loved since childhood. Our journey has been immense and we had support every step of the way.” – Sulaksana De Soysa
Throughout its journey, Red Dot Geek has been connected to the community through the use of social media, from identifying the initial problem, to the first advertisement, the website, and then their store. They kept on reaching out, kept on communicating. And this led to them becoming a part of a tightly woven community in Sri Lanka. To this day, Red Dot Geek’s strength comes from the community backing them up.
*Names have been changed due to privacy
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