“Hackathons don’t build startups. Entrepreneurship requires a long-term commitment,” said Heminda Jayaweera – cofounder of Venture Frontier Lanka. These were the strong words he gave at the opening of the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge Finals.
Over the course of a single weekend, we saw 30 startups pitch. If you want to know, which startups won click here. Additionally, we also got some interesting insights from veteran entrepreneurs. Here are some of the most thoughtful lessons we gathered at the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge Finals.
The importance of finding the product market fit
The opening keynote speaker at the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge was Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya – Regional CEO of South Asia at Axiata. He also served as the CEO of Dialog from September 1997 to December 2016. In other words, he was among the first employees at Dialog and played a pivotal role in its growth.
Speaking at the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge, he highlighted the importance of finding the product market fit. “A big corporation’s CEO thinks of a great idea and then everyone gets excited. But the product market fit isn’t evaluated,” said Dr. Hans. This he argued is the biggest hurdle for both startups and corporations to tackle.
Dr. Hans then shared that it took Dialog 5 years to find the right product-market fit. In the early ’90s when Dialog had entered the market, it offered all the latest digital technologies such as GPRS. Their offerings were better than anything available at the time. “But the market wanted to make calls,” said Dr. Hans. As such, they were one of the smallest players in the telco industry.
The importance of accessibility
But this would change after a survey Dialog conducted. They had shown mobile phones to students, soldiers, and other people from all walks of life. Dr. Hans shared that they learned from this that, “People loved mobile phones but they couldn’t afford it.” It’s important to note that this was the 90’s. The blocky phones that we consider to be relics were Rs. 100,000 and phone calls cost Rs. 25 per minute.
So the company decided to change its approach. It decided to try and make mobile phones more accessible to the mass market. “Suddenly, our market increased from the few rich thousands in Colombo to 21 million people in Sri Lanka,” said Dr. Hans. Thus, it began exploring initiatives such as prepaid packages with Rs. 100 reload cards.
Three years later, Dialog became the top telecom operator in the country. A position the company holds to this day. “After that, every idea at Dialog is tested for inclusion. If it can’t be made relevant for 20 million people then we don’t do it,” said Dr. Hans. But Dialog didn’t achieve this on its own. Without the mudalali and other small business owners, Dialog’s entire business plan would’ve fallen apart.
Dr. Hans also reminded the startups that Dialog had massive capital. This capital was enough to allow it to survive 5 years until it found the right product-market fit. However, many startups don’t have such capital. As such, he reminded the startups that the most essential task for them was to validate their assumptions and find the right product-market fit.
The fundamentals of building a global startup
Another business titan we saw was Ajit Gunewardene – Founder & CEO of Bluestone Capital. He’s also known for serving in leadership roles at John Keels, Nations Trust Bank, Union Assurance, and Odel. Needless to say, he’s a veteran in the Sri Lankan business world.
He opened his speech at the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge Finals saying, “Everything we do must be at a global standard.” We live in a world where borders are becoming irrelevant to business. As such, we compete with the world. So how can a startup go on to become a globally successful entity?
There are a few ways that it can do so. It starts off with some fundamental actions according to Ajit. But before sharing these actions, he warned, “Remember the graveyard of failed startups is overflowing and many come in every day.”
So what are these fundamental actions to build a global startup? The first step is to understand the needs and dynamics of the market. This means having a deep understanding of your customer and market. “This requires research. There’s no shortcut,” he said. Ajit referred to the hospitality industry where restaurants are built and fail because they don’t serve the food customers want.
The second step is to take a step back and fight against bias without rushing to solve the problem. In other words, you shouldn’t have blind faith in your idea. He explained this saying, “People don’t question religion. Whether you go to the church or the mosque or the temple. You don’t question it and it’s the same with ideas. Question your idea as if you’re questioning your religion. That mindset is really important.”
The third step is to ensure that your idea is truly original. “Loosen up your imagination. Get exposure. There’s a lot we don’t know. Read, research, research. Challenge all the existing norms,” said Ajit. He went onto remind the audience that any startup idea exists in some form or the other somewhere in the world. Furthermore, whatever is original today won’t be tomorrow.
Ajit then went onto say, “Once you’ve done this and hopefully you’re still alive and still motivated to move forward and test your idea, build your low-cost prototype. Get as many reactions as possible. Generally, if you get 10 reactions, you’ll get 8 positives and 2 negatives. Discard the positives. The 2 negatives are the honest ones. That’s the input that’ll help you change direction and make your product sustainable.”
Afterward, you need to have a global perspective. You should constantly update yourself with what’s happening in the world. Ajit concluded his session saying, “If you’re still standing, be prepared for the toughest journey of your life. Every emotion will be tested. Every relationship will be tested. You will be taken to the brink of despair. Be ready for that. Prepare yourself.”
The difference between a Founder and a CEO
Mano Sekaram – CEO & Cofounder of 99X Technology was another speaker we saw at the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge. His speech opened by sharing with everyone that founders aren’t the best people to run companies. While we praise founders like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, they’re usually the exception rather than the rule.
So what’s the difference between a founder and CEO? Mano shared that difference was, “Entrepreneurs are in charge of building a business often from nothing and CEO’s run a business once it’s already built.” So what skills does one need to be a capable CEO? Mano’s answer was that it was a mix of skills. But ultimately it comes down to three key factors.
The first is having a strong business model. The main reason as to why startups fail is because they don’t have a viable business model. Mano shared that he constantly questions his business model to ensure that 99X Technology stays ahead of its competition. Therefore, it’s essential to validate any assumptions and ensure your business model remains viable.
The second factor was to build a great place to work. Mano explained that no company is built by one person. Great companies are built by teams of great people. To ensure such people stay requires leaders to have strong credibility. This means firmly adhering to ethics, having integrity, and respect for everyone.
It also means having a strong company culture where people are empowered. Mano added that great CEO’s are typically not the smartest people inside the company. They might not score the highest marks on an IQ test. However, they are emotionally intelligent and can understand people. These are what Mano described as the ingredients to create a great place to work.
The third factor was how they executed ideas. “Execution is a fine art,” said Mano. He went onto explain that CEO’s live and die by their business performance. To ensure that the business performs smoothly comes down to how ideas are executed. Mano then concluded his session by sharing a quote from Malcolm X that read, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
Why are we building technology?
Harinda Fonseka – Founder of Gudppl shared his story at the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge. He added that Gudppl aims to be a sustainable business that generates its own money. This was so that it can cover its costs and solve problems, without worrying about sponsors.
As such, Harinda encouraged the founders to be focused on solving a problem. He went onto explain that by having this focus, they’re open to other solutions to solving a problem. Harinda concluded by sharing that technologies like social media are ripping the very fabric of society apart. As such, we have to ask some deep questions about the technologies we create and how we use them.
How to effectively use social media
“Social media is all about grabbing attention,” said Rohan Jayaweera – Country Manager of Palo Alto Networks & Cofounder of Antyra Solutions. With the hyper-connected world, we live in, having an effective social media strategy to grab attention is essential. So how exactly does one go about getting attention?
Rohan shared that it’s all about micro-moments. This was a term coined by Google. Micro-moments are when you pull out your phone and do something, one of two things will happen. The first is you’ll find something you needed intently. The second is you’ll just open your Instagram feed and scroll through it.
Rohan described the second as, “At that moment, you’re looking for something of interest. You have no intention of what you’re looking for but you’re just thinking, “let me see what is going on because the world should not turn without me being a part of it.”” This is the difference between the two types of micro-moments that occur when you pull out your phone.
He then went onto share his insights on how to attract attention. But prior to that, Rohan gave a stark reminder to everyone in the audience. He reminded everyone of a grim quote that describes social media, which was, “If you’re not paying for it then you’re the product being sold. You’re not the customer.”
Understand your customers
“You guys should be focused on customers,” said Tilak Dissanayake – Owner of Ants Global, who was also among the many speakers. He pointed out that researchers typically focus on advancing human knowledge. Thus, their research is what originally develops technologies like database management systems and computer chips.
Afterward, companies like Oracle and Intel take this research and make into commercially viable products. Then he reminded everyone at the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge that they weren’t researchers. Rather they were aiming to be successful entrepreneurs.
As such, they should focus on the needs of the customers. This means looking at their problems & then proposing solutions to those problems. Additionally, when solving the problem, he stated that it’s important to think about the entire ecosystem. Tilak explained this saying, “When you think about products for customers, think about their operational needs and not just the technology.”
He cited the example of Tesla, which created its own ecosystem. It built an electric car better than most other companies. Along with the car they also built a charging network and batteries that go into the car. Tilak then went onto encourage everyone to keep learning. He stated that with the internet it’s possible to find any information. Including a reference design to build a drone.
What’s next from Venture Frontier Lanka
As you can see, there was quite a lot of things we learned from the many speakers at the Venture Frontier Lanka National Startup Challenge Finals. But what will the accelerator be doing in the future? They’ll be continuing their series of entrepreneurship caravans and startup boot camps. In the future, they’re also planning to launch a national startup accelerator and seed fund.