It was in the early 2000s when a group of five young, ambitious high school graduates from Sri Lanka realized their burning desire to strike out on their own. They were enthusiastic about entrepreneurship and yearned to make it big – building a company synonymous with quality and excellence.
Despite barely being out of their teens, the five friends proceeded to register and launch their company, Vesess. They called themselves “The 5,” and their company logo was five fingers and a palm. Initially they dabbled in several fields, trying to test the waters and see what would stick. One of their early products was a Flash-based Valentine’s card, which they hoped would appeal to the younger generation of Sri Lankans.
The biggest stumbling block the entrepreneurs faced was that not many people in Sri Lanka used the internet. They understood this was the future and it made sense to invest their time and resources in building a tech company, but there was very little traction on the ground. Furthermore, attitudes towards entrepreneurship were not as widely-ingrained – bigger companies felt uncomfortable working with startups as they felt they didn’t have enough experience and exposure to be reliable partners.
Reality hit hard when they tried to market their proprietary financial application, called Investor. It was aimed at facilitating the transition from traditional stock brokerage processes to digital. People wanted applications to monitor trends and analyze data, so theoretically the product should have taken off. Unfortunately, prospective clients were not convinced of the company’s viability and the idea tanked.
Verge of collapse
Vesess faced an uncertain future. Some tough decisions needed to be made to ensure the firm stayed liquid and didn’t collapse. Cash flow issues meant they weren’t able to afford extravagant salaries and three of the original founders parted ways with the company, concentrating on their individual careers instead. The two who chose to stick it out were Lankitha Wimalarathna and Prabath Sirsena – currently the CEO and creative director of Vesess.
“We wanted to do something really beautiful – like Virgin. Build a brand which can be extended into any vertical […] We tried utilizing our skills in print design and web development but it was difficult and we almost collapsed,” explains Lankitha.
In 2004, Sri Lanka was hit by the huge Indian Ocean tsunami that brought death and widespread devastation. The entrepreneurs wanted to help their country recover from the disaster and Prabath had an idea to design a site which would assist in transmitting information. Within 24 hours, the duo had a small web page ready, which provided contact information for all humanitarian organizations and government agencies working on the ground for disaster relief. Their site quickly became the sole point of reference for anyone interested in assisting Sri Lanka recover from the disaster.
“We started getting responses and inquiries from everywhere in the world, particularly Western countries,” explains Prabath. “Anyone who wanted to help got in touch with us and that was the turning point for Vesess.”
Social good led to opportunity
Soon after the tsunami, Vesess landed its first international project – designing web pages for a British company. They were able to do a good job, and with word of mouth, the number of projects started to increase rapidly. Prabath explains they were active in forums and discussion groups across the internet and positioned themselves as a “standards-compliant” web design firm. This, he claims, helped Vesess immensely as they were able to build credibility.
But as Vesess scaled up, both Prabath and Lankitha started to understand other pain points. One major problem was the lack of an effective and smooth online payments gateway. As a Sri Lankan company, its international clients had to route payments through traditional mechanisms like banks. This meant heavy transaction costs, often about 10 percent of the total billed amount – a figure most clients were unwilling to pay. Fintech solutions like PayPal didn’t work in the country and the entrepreneurs knew this was a problem faced by many more.
“We went to local banks to find a solution but the situation was really bad. We were a young company and they were hesitant to give facilities to us. But we had the courage to look forward. We incorporated our company in the US and built a mechanism to facilitate payments,” recalls Lankitha.
What they came up with was Hiveage (previously Curtbee), an online billing, invoicing, and payments tool targeted at freelancers, “solopreneurs”, and small businesses. As they had the foresight to register their company in the US, they were able to integrate PayPal for a seamless experience.
In 2009 their product was featured on Lifehacker and yet again Vesess was propelled into the limelight. They got thousands of signups and inquiries from more payment providers. Finally banks were also interested in collaborating with them and were belatedly given permission to build their own SaaS model. Today, Hiveage serves 45,000 businesses in 140 different countries.
Despite a steady stream of success, the entrepreneurs weren’t content just to sit back. Vesess’ new service, launched in September this year, is called Vgo – a cloud-based SaaS logistics technology platform that’s trying to help traditional taxi and logistics companies compete with disruptors such as Uber.
“We’ve always had the objective of going into enterprise SaaS and met with players in the logistics and transportation industry who were looking at the same lines […] Vgo provides necessary tools from dispatch to mobile applications as well as call center technologies so that companies can focus on their core business,” explains Lankitha.
Vgo started with seed funding of US$1 million, with Vesess one of a total of four investors who participated in the round. It’s already managed to snare several paying enterprise customers and Lankitha says they’re in discussion with many more. “The rate at which it has grown is great.”
The days of solely providing consultancy services are almost at a standstill – Lankitha says they’re very selective when it comes to projects now and prefer to concentrate on their proprietary solutions instead. Vesess currently employs a team of 15 people but they’re scaling aggressively as they see strong potential for Vgo. “In 5 years we want to become a platform-as-a-service company. We’re looking to expand our fleet and operations beyond the Sri Lankan context and also enter into an IPO in the near future.”
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