From Zero To One: The Tale Of Katha

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Entrepreneurship is a scary journey full of uncertainty. This uncertainty breeds fear in even some of the toughest individuals. After all, they are gambling everything on the hopes that their idea will be a hit. For many that take this game, they will walk away in defeat. Some will need extreme patience and resilience to win. Then there’re the likes of Mahen Ratnayake and Mudith Uswatta, the founders of Katha. They are the lucky few that see their idea become an instant hit.

Katha in case you’re lost is a new social media platform that’s all about your voice. In simple terms, communicate with your friends privately or with your followers publicly by using short voice messages called voice casts. Think of it as Twitter or Snapchat for voice. It reimagines podcasting and gives you the power to make an impact with your voice. It also gives the power to make money with its paid channels where your followers can pay a certain amount of money to interact with you.

A few screenshots of Katha in action (Photo credits: Katha)
A few screenshots of Katha in action (Photo credits: Katha)

Since its public launch, Katha has been making waves and has become one of the top apps on the Play Store and iTunes. This is how Mahen and Mudtih achieved this dream. This is the story of Katha.

The birth of Katha

It all started 2 years ago at the HSBC Youth Entrepreneurship Awards 2013. Among the many contestants was Mahen who was pitching a carpooling app. Observing him from the shadows was Mudith, who was there as an observer. Fast forward to April 2014, they would both meet once again at the launch of the crowd funding platform Crimso. This time, neither of them was hiding in the shadows and both of them quickly became friends.

A few months later, Mahen and Katha would meet again and discuss ideas over a few drinks. While doing so they learned that the Colombo Hackathon was happening the very next day and decided to register. The next day they showed up at the Colombo Hackathon. Every team here was well prepared with an idea, plans on how to sell it and the prototype. Every team except Mahen and Mudith that is.

Mahen and Mudith at the Colombo Hackathon (Photo credits: Ushan Gunasekera)
Mahen and Mudith at the Colombo Hackathon (Photo credits: Ushan Gunasekera)

They just showed up, quickly whipped up an idea for a CRM for your social life and pitched it to the judges. Despite the odds being stacked against them, Mahen and Mudith were able to make a successful pitch to the judges. They were one of the winners of the Colombo Hackathon and the judges from the Lankan Angel Network got them into Venture Engine.

Suddenly they found themselves in the big leagues. Mahen and Mudith decided to drop everything in their CRM and focus on a single feature: voice messaging. Thus, Katha was born.

Building a company and a platform

With the birth of Katha, Mahen and Mudith would go on to become finalists at Venture Engine 2014. This allowed them to negotiate a deal to obtain the necessary funding to make Katha into a fully-fledged usable app. However, it would be almost a year before they would obtain the money. This was due to two major issues. The first issue was that Mudith wouldn’t be working full-time at Katha as he was in charge of sales and marketing for a software development company. Mahen would take the full-time post but only after he had finished his degree at APIIT at the end of the year. The second issue was the complications that arose with foreign investors.

However, by February the following year, Mahen and Mudith had signed the necessary agreements. They received the money and an office space inside the Lankan Angel Network incubation space. Now it was time for them to build an actual company. This is, of course, easier said than done, neither Mahen nor Mudith had ever built a company before.

However, both of them quickly learned that they could no longer afford to be naïve. Thankfully, they found two mentors in the Lankan Angel Network that would help them every step of the way. These were the same judges from the Lankan Angel Network that got them into Venture Engine 2014: Eric Wikramanayake & Prajeeth Balasubramaniam. With their support, the entire journey to bring Katha to the masses would become a lot easier.

With a solid foundation now in place, the two founders began to split the work in their respective roles. The first step was to find developers and build a proper app for Katha. Despite having made successful pitches at the Colombo Hackathon and Venture Engine 2014, all they had was a few UI designs – they hadn’t written a single line of code! After a bit of head hunting, they found a few freelance developers. Together with these 3 developers, Mahen would work on bringing Katha to life.

Testing the app as it was born (Photo credits: Katha)
Testing the app as it was born (Photo credits: Katha)

Meanwhile, Mudith would be focused on marketing Katha to content creators. Any social media platform needs people that can generate great content to attract users. They first approached stock market industry because Mudith used to be a stock broker and they felt there was good research content. And so they approached first approached Frontier research.

Frontier research was a company that produced research reports for high-end investors. They wanted to monetize a way of reaching mid and low range investors. Seeing the features Katha offered its paid channels, Frontier research signed up as their first beta channel. Soon after, they were able to get Verite research which was behind Manthri.lk also signed up for a beta channel.

Now they had serious researchers. The next step was to get content creators that would attract the general public. This is when they approached Yamu. On a daily basis, Yamu gets hundreds of calls from people asking various questions but they didn’t have any way of monetizing the process of answering these questions. Once again, Katha introduced its paid channels and Yamu too signed up for a beta channel.

By September 2015, they had a few beta channels and a good looking app was starting to take shape. And so the decision was made to launch the beta version of Katha.

From beta to official launch

On the 15th of September 2015, an email would be found in the inboxes of the many that signed up for Katha’s beta test. After being delayed a few times, the Katha beta app was finally here. It had a bunch of bugs across the app, but that’s how betas are. Katha was here and the beta testers loved it. It was a refreshing and rare sight to see a well-designed Sri Lankan app.

Mahen and Mudith sharing the story of Katha at ReadMe Talk (Photo credits: Siyath Ranathunge)
Mahen and Mudith sharing the story of Katha at ReadMe Talk (Photo credits: Siyath Ranathunge)

Following the beta launch, the months that followed would see both Mahen and Mudith regularly meet beta testers.  The purpose of these meetings was simple: to learn how they could make Katha a hit from the people that were actually using it. This feedback would go a long way in shaping Katha into the app we know today. At the same time, they would also start publicly promoting Katha offline. This when both Mahen and Mudith took part at our inaugural ReadMe Talk meetup and got a stall for Katha at ICTA’s Spiralation pavilion at Infotel.

They were also exploring more industries for possible content creators and got a few more channels following the beta, such as Decibel.lk and GroundViews. Slowly but surely, Katha was gaining momentum and everyone was now waiting to try it out. Yet they still couldn’t launch. Why? Bugs. They would fix one bug and two more would appear in its place. Unlike with the beta, they didn’t want to release a broken app. The official launch needed a quality app that worked perfectly.

And so Katha’s launch would be delayed until finally the bugs were squashed. Seeing how long it took them to launch the beta and do an official launch, this taught both founders a valuable entrepreneurship lesson: budget for double the amount of time you think you need to do something.

Finally, after 4 delays Mahen and Mudith decided that the core functionality of voice messaging was working perfectly. And so they officially launched Katha.

Katha today and in the future

On the 12th of January, Katha officially launched on iTunes and Google Play. Three days after its launch Katha quickly rose into the Top 20 free apps in the Entertainment Category on iTunes and the Top 100 apps on the Play Store in Sri Lanka. One week after its launch Katha become became one of the first Sri Lankan startups to be featured on Product Hunt. Since its launch, Katha has seen some amazing content from its users. If you’re a developer that has what it takes and want to join Katha’s journey, they want you to apply at [email protected]

Today, Katha is one of the hottest Sri Lankan apps there is. Tomorrow Katha hopes to become the go-to voice platform by building things, modifying them and breaking them. We wish Mahen and Mudith the best but with their current outlooks, it looks like Katha won’t need our luck in achieving its goal.

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