Over the weekend we saw the first Startup Grind Colombo unfold. In case you’re lost, Startup Grind is one of the largest independent startup communities in the world. It hosts a regular series of meetups featuring individuals sharing how to build successful startups. And at the first such meetup in Colombo, we saw Mano Sekaram – Founder & CEO of 99X Technology share his journey and experiences.
From humble origins to greener pastures
Born as the son of a tea planter in Kandy, Mano grew up exploring the hills with his younger brother. Having studied at Trinity College, as a child he had a simple dream – go to Colombo. He was fascinated by the big companies in the big city and wanted to work for them. “Dreaming beyond our hometown was difficult,” says Mano describing his childhood.
But life would take Mano beyond Colombo and have him travel around the world. His first job was as a Product Manager at Nixdorf Computer AG, which saw him move to New Zealand and traveling constantly. Having spent 10 years at Nixdorf, Mano migrated to Australia where he joined Vertex Technology Australia as its General Manager – Networking.
Traveling across the world, Mano initially felt nervous. It was a foreign culture to him with everyone around him being white. But one thing he soon learned was that skin color didn’t matter. It’s your confidence and skills that matter because a color is just the color of your shirt. “It’s all about having the right mindset. Then you can be second to none,” explains Mano.
“Dreaming beyond our hometown was difficult. During our days, we didn’t have the internet. Just imagining what was beyond the hill was from stories in the newspapers and magazines we used to read.” – Mano Sekaram
However, while he had a comfortable job the stability of the west was not what Mano sought. “This life was a very predictable life. I was not prepared for this,” says Mano. He had a strong urge to return to Sri Lanka. When he did, he found his center of gravity and learned that the world is a small place. So you can easily build a business anywhere.
Returning to Sri Lanka to build a startup
Thus, Mano returned to Sri Lanka and became a co-founder giving birth to 99X Technology in 2004 after spending 5 years at Informatics. 99X would be a software product engineering services company. Its target market? Independent Software Vendors located in Scandinavia. Of course, building a startup in those days was no easy task.
However, at the time there was no such support for startups. Furthermore, 99X Technology was born amidst a 30-year war. Mano describes this time saying, “We couldn’t take risks when we were in our twenties and thirties. There was no ecosystem available to get funded. If you said you were going to build a startup, nobody would give you any support.”
Yet, there was a silver lining. When Mano embarked on his entrepreneurial journey he was in his late 30’s. This meant he had a wealth of experience running companies and selling products in international markets. As such, he didn’t really need much support. However, Mano admits that he did miss many opportunities.
Nonetheless, today one can easily say that 99X Technology is a titan of the Sri Lankan IT industry. With clients across the world, the company has come a long way. Indeed, these days we don’t get too many people asking, “But what is this 99X Technology?”
Creating teams and building a strong culture
In every business, it is the leaders who are the face of the company. The investors, customers, and employees all look up to them. However, these leaders don’t necessarily have to be the founders of the company. The founders might have a great idea but they might lack the leadership to lead the company.
“The entrepreneurs don’t need to be the CEO of the company” – Mano Sekaram
Businesses need leaders who can predict the future, motivate others, have credibility and know how to run the business. Mano goes onto explain this saying, “Leadership to me is a big title because you have to attract people to join you.” These people you attract also need to be smarter than you.
For they are the ones that will be on your team building the startup. He went onto add, “If you’re going to get people less intelligent, well in my case it would’ve been a disaster.” But these people will work for you because they believe in the company culture. And it’s up to the leaders of that business to decide what type of culture they want.
For 99X Technology it was a simple decision. “We wanted to have a very open flat structure, where everyone is equal and we wanted leaders. So we had to build a culture of self-managing teams. That means nobody needs to ask me for guidance because the business needed to make quick decisions,” explained Mano. Furthermore, he wanted people that disagreed with him in his face and challenged him.
To create such cultures, Mano shares that leadership is essential. But before one becomes a good leader, they must be good followers. But leaders are human. And humans make mistakes, which is fine. As Mano explains, “I made mistakes. You will make mistakes. It’s okay. You can apologize and ask for forgiveness. But you can’t repeat those mistakes.”
Taking a Sri Lankan startup global
But at the time 99X Technology was born, it was insane for startups to even entertain the thought of offering services to clients beyond their shores. Mano shared at Startup Grind Colombo 2018 that he was amazed to learn that Skype was built in Estonia. Today, such instances have become the norm rather than the exception. Mano argues that there’s been a massive shift in conducting business.
“You don’t need to be in Silicon Valley anymore. This is a massive shift in conducting business. It’s possible to be in Sri Lanka and deliver a service to a different market” – Mano Sekaram
So what’s the secret to building a global startup? Understanding your customers. Mano explained, “As long as you understand you’re global, you understand the demographics, and you understand the characteristics of the market. Well, then the world is flat. You can deliver services anywhere around the globe.”
“Technology is science but getting people to use your software is an art” – Mano Sekaram
Yet, building software is an easy thing. Getting people to use your software, on the other hand, is the hard part. “Technology is science but getting people to use your software is an art. You need to understand the difference. That is the most fundamental thing because there are clever software programs that people don’t buy” shared Mano at Startup Grind Colombo.
Transforming research into innovation
“There are two things, which are very important for any country – innovation and entrepreneurship,” stated Mano. The battle of between economies will now be between how much innovation can be produced and the speech at which entrepreneurs will utilize these innovations. Having built 99X Technology, Mano has become an active supporter of Sri Lankan startups.
Among the many initiatives he’s pursued, the biggest in recent times is the founding of StartupX Foundry. This is an accelerator open to technology startups across Sri Lanka. But Mano also shared at Startup Grind Colombo another reason why he founded StartupX Foundry was to commercialize the research pursued by 99X Technology.
He explained this saying, “99X is a services company. It’s a mature business. There’s not a lot of innovation but we’ve done different things when it comes to research. But 99X doesn’t have the capacity to take that research and commercialize it. The best way to take our research and innovate it was with a separate entity.”
Having come to this realization, the next question was how this separate entity should function? Ultimately it was decided that shouldn’t simply be a separate business unit of 99X Technology. To commercialize this research required entrepreneurship. Thus, StartupX Foundry became a place where senior employees of 99X Technology could become co-founders.
“We would make 99X into a mothership of ideas. It’s a win-win situation. We get to commercialize our research and give new opportunities to our employees. This secures our future without disturbing our core business. I think that’s going to be the future of any business,” said Mano explaining this strategy.
Investing in startups and helping them grow
Alongside being the founder of StartupX Foundry, Mano is an active investor of startup. In fact, he’s also the chairman of the Lanka Angel Network. So what does Mano look at when investing in startups? He answered by saying, “The most important thing is I look at is the person. It is not the idea because to me ideas are cheap.”
Mano believes that for a startup to succeed it requires a strong team. This team should have the passion, discipline, adaptability, and endurance for entrepreneurship. Everything else such as skills can be bought. But money can’t buy passion and discipline. He also highlighted at Startup Grind Colombo that not all innovators are entrepreneurs.
Innovators he believes are those that build great products. Whereas entrepreneurs would take commercialize these products into something required by the market. Identifying this duo in a startup team is the second thing, which Mano looks at before investing in startups.
“A startup is just a business. It’s always looking to be sustainable and scalable.” – Mano Sekaram
The idea is the last thing which Mano looks at before investing in a startup. He too admits that successful startups are those with disruptive ideas. He cites Uber and Amazon as examples to state that at the end of the day, startups are businesses that disrupt existing business models. Of course, to execute this idea still requires dedicated entrepreneurs and strong teams.
But irrespective of obtaining funding, what should a startup be doing during its first six months? Mano’s answer to that question was to be sustainable. In other words, by identifying how many new customers the startup has obtained and how many of its customers are returning. Both of these involve providing an amazing product or service and understanding customers.
The importance of having strong ethics and credibility
Mano shared at Startup Grind Colombo, that his biggest inspiration was his father who worked at a tea plantation. “There’s so much misuse you can do as a tea planter. But he had high ethics,” he explained. He went onto say that in a capitalistic world, everything depends on share prices and valuations. As such, there’s a strong temptation to bend the rules.
“Never compromise on trust and ethics or it’ll backfire one day” – Mano Sekaram
“But you can’t be a business leader without ethics,” stated Mano to the audience. In the short term, it’s a challenge to maintain one’s ethics as they see everyone cutting corners. But in any organization, if the top is rotten the rest of it will become rotten as well.
So if you don’t keep your personal values then it becomes a habit. Mano explains this further by saying, “Never compromise on trust and ethics or it’ll backfire one day. Customers always want to do business with people they trust.”
What is success?
It goes without saying that the first Startup Grind Colombo ended on a successful note. Featuring a titan that rose up the ranks, we got a lot of food for thought. Hopefully, we’ll see it go towards other corners of the island to share what it takes to build a successful startup. But what exactly is success? To Mano Sekaram the answer was simply, “Success is defining what you want to achieve and then achieving it.”