It’s almost five-thirty in the evening when I walk into Majestic City, in Bambalapitya. Around me, Colombo is changing, casting off the bored cloak of the 9-to-5 office worker and settling down into its evening dress – a dress made of fading sunlight and traffic. Offices are closing; lights are turned off, machines powered down. People are winding down, packing up and heading home.
There’s a shop on the third floor that has no such qualms. Even at this hour, a steady stream of people flows in and out, ogling racks of expensive graphics cards and motherboards. Every so often somebody walks away, crestfallen at the price of some high-end component or the other. This is Redline Technologies, which bills itself as the be-and-end-all for enthusiast PC hardware in Sri Lanka. And indeed, it is. On its shelves are everything from closed-loop liquid CPU coolers to hideously expensive – and rare – gaming mice.
Few people would believe that there’s a market for any of this – exotic, custom-built PCs upward of 300,000; cases for Rs 20,000, premium keyboards for just slightly less, or graphics cards upwards of 50,000 rupees – in fact, most retail tech shops won’t touch this stuff. Nevertheless, over the course of its four-year existence, Redline has proven everyone wrong. Not only are they pushing the numbers, but they’re thriving.
As I enter, a man in a grey shirt is talking to a customer seated in front of him. The customer has a very specific demand: a gaming PC for 200,000 rupees. He wants to plays the new Assassin’s Creed, perhaps do a little bit of 3D rendering on the side. Another one awaits his turn. And behind him, another.
The story behind this place starts with two friends:
Sabreen Reffai and Zaffran Zavahir.
Sabreen had an early start with computers. His parents brought home a couple of black-and-white PCs – this was before color displays arrived on the scene – and got him to learn programming. Progress was swift: black-and-white gave way to color, Mortal Kombat gave way to CounterStrike.
Eventually he ran into a problem all gamers must face sooner or later: upgrades. More specifically: a graphics card. Up until this time, there’d been others to do the hardware for him – when his computer broke down, someone would come over to fix it. This time, he took apart the PC himself. He poked and shuffled stuff around and thought “Hey, this isn’t so hard.”
Pretty soon, he had a PC – a secondhand Core 2 Duo he’d bought off a friend – kitted out with an Nvidia 8800GT. He was over the moon; he thought he had one of the best PCs at the time. He was wrong. A friend pointed him towards Gamer.lk, an online forum that was turning into the de-facto hangout for anyone with a passion for CounterStrike, DOTA or PCs.
Perhaps this friend should share in the creation of Redline, for Gamer.lk – GLK for short – turned out to be instrumental in the matter. In GLK, Sabreen found that not only was his machine outclassed, but that there was an entire community of people like him. People who loved their hardware. One of the biggest topics on Gamer.lk was a forum thread where anyone can post details of their personal gaming machines; Sabreen, posting as RZ, made his way into this thread in leaps and bounds. His progress can be traced here in upgrade notes and secondhand sales on the GLK classifieds section, as he souped up what he could and sold off what he couldn’t.
Then in 2008, he sold a few sticks of RAM to a fellow named Zaffran Zavahir. Zaffran, a fun-loving, carefree character, was obsessed with hardware; his approach to system-building combined equal parts zeal with positively clinical procedure.
“He was practically a prodigy,” recalls Sabreen. “One of his rules was that you shouldn’t talk near an open motherboard, because even a microscopic amount of saliva in the air would do damage. Hell, he’d have stopped breathing if he could.”
The two quickly struck up a friendship, based on a mutual love of PCs. Every time his computer went bust, Sabreen would drive the whole thing over to Zaffran’s place and they would spend hours taking it apart and putting it back together.
“So one day we were discussing how hard it was to get good hardware in Sri Lanka shops, and Zaff said: ‘Why don’t we do it? Why don’t we start a shop?’” I said I didn’t know how to start a shop. Zaff said he did. He had money, too. So did I.
“Before we knew it, we had a thing. We came up with the name, set up the company – I did invoices, the logos, the artwork – Redline was born. The name resonated with what we wanted to be – always pushing the limit, never going back to being normal.”
Almost instantly, they were in business. They set up shop in Thalakotuwa Gardens, a place that Zaffran managed to find them for a very cheap price. It wasn’t anywhere near as glamourous as the shop they currently inhabit – early photos from those days show Zaffran bent over builds in dark spaces. Sabreen put up a post on Gamer.LK.
That worked well. Over the years, Sabreen, posting as RZ, had racked up quite a reputation on GLK. He had even been an active contributor to the Gamer magazine, which was the closest thing GLK had to an official print presence. Zaffran, despite taking a backseat on GLK, has nevertheless acquired an underground tech guru status – the sort of person other experts went to when they were uncertain.
Soon, they had enough orders on their hands and a supply chain stretching from Malaysia to Sri Lanka. The next step was to bring down their own graphics cards. At the time, the graphics card market in Sri Lanka was at an all-time low – dealers kept very high margins and thrived on the fact that consumers didn’t really know what they were doing. The duo went on Alibaba and found a brand that had carved a legitimate reputation for itself: Axle.
“There were tons of scammers, and we literally had no idea who they were,” says Sabreen. “So we literally spent ages searching and cross-checking, and we found these guys. The first order was still scary, though. We made the order for the first shipment of graphics cards – and wondered if we’d just sunk all our money.”
Through all this, they had their day jobs – Sabreen worked at Sarva Integrated and Zaffran at Nadastar. “We’d deliver PC’s at one in the morning,” recalls Sabreen with a grin. “We built up foreign contacts, sources, did shipping – I remember carrying a Coolermaster Cosmos I halfway across Malaysia – 21 kilos of metal clear across the country.
“This theoretically should have been hard, but none of it ever was. It was insane fun. Even driving at 1 AM in the morning to deliver a customer was exciting. And that’s how I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. Even now – we’ve let certain mundane things get boring, but the core of the business is insane fun. I’m doing a quotation right now for a PC we may never build and I love doing it.”
There were moments of frustration when each threatened to pull out and go their separate ways. “When you spend a few years in each other’s faces, you have to learn to give and take a little,” says Sabreen. “We learned. It was like a marriage, honestly.”
The Second Gear
Redline grew. Soon they had their first employee: Gayan, who wandered in to buy something and ended up working for Redline, incidentally establishing a trend for all future employees. They shifted to a corner of Majestic City. This too, was a far cry from today’s space – it was a muted, gloomy place that gave off the reputation of an underground modders’ club. I remember getting lost trying to find the place in 2012.
They expanded, buying a storefront in a prime location on the third floor. It was a flagship store, custom-designed – and very expensive at the start. It was a graduation of sorts, and with it came the realization that they’d mismanaged a bit. “We couldn’t do a lot of what we wanted to do because we’d tied up our money in all sorts of things,” says Sabreen. “We realized we needed better control, stock-keeping, marketing – it was the first time we’d considered bringing in anyone on a directorial level.”
The first addition was Kushan Dodanwala, the lanky, sarcastic editor of the Gamer. He was a techhead who wasn’t satisfied with being a banker. He’d already had a good rapport with Sabreen on the Gamer magazine; in fact, he’d been one of Redline’s first customers. Kushan turned the offer down, but a couple of months later, Sabreen came back and offered him a directorship and shares. He accepted.
Next was Rashid Dahlan, who’d been at Amba Research. Rashid had, incidentally, met Sabreen long before Zaffran arrived. Rashid had been one of their most frequent customers – they even had a special “Rashid price” on gear. Two became four. Between them, Rashid and Kushan sorted out many of the kinks in the operation in record time.They also cemented what outsiders call “the Redline life” – a supercharged work/play cycle where everybody works, goes home, gets online and blasts the living hell out of everyone else in whatever game they’re playing at the moment.
“Honestly, they were the only people we’d have got on board,” explains Sabreen, when asked about the choices. “They were and still are the only people I can imagine working with. We had to find people who got along with and thought alike.”
Others joined. Now, four years after its birth, and many, many custom PCs later, Redline’s expanding again – they’ve bought the space that used to house the Breadtalk near the Bambalapitya Police Station on Galle Road. Their track record is growing larger. The brands they push are a mix of the new and the old, established and the experimental: by the time the shops in Unity Plaza, Redline will have moved on to greener pastures.
And Sabreen Reffai, the man in the grey shirt, has just finished explaining to his last customer why spending a lot of money on a motherboard won’t necessarily improve his performance. “Honestly, it would be better for you to keep the money and not buy anything,” he says. The customer, impressed by this honesty, walks out with and a promise to return. Perhaps he will: perhaps he won’t. Nevertheless, he’s learned a thing or two about building PCs.
“And I think it’s fair to say that we’re still juggling between things we can do, we want to do and HAVE to do,” says Kushan Dodanwala, dropping by for a chat after he’s dealt with his customer.
“Yeah, there’s definitely lots on that to-do list,” agreed Sabreen. “We never expected to be a retailer: we started off building systems. Somewhere along the line we lost a bit of focus on the branding. We want to become a household name. Not ‘ah, that store’. We want to be Sri Lanka’s largest system builder.
“People have done this before, of course – except they’ve done it haphazardly. We want to do more than just selling a PC: we want to be an end-to-end experience. You walk into our store. You don’t need to pick parts: we’ll build it for you, whatever you need – and you can guarantee that it’s the best thing you can buy or build in Sri Lanka. That’s the Redline ideal.”