Building businesses in Sri Lanka, the Good the Bad and the Ugly.


Back in 2016, we noticed that there was a significant influx of businesses being set up here in Sri Lanka. A behaviour emerged that we could verify through Google search data. “Startups” a global phenomenon that Sri Lanka was catching the tail-end of.

I no longer get anywhere near the amount of time I used to have to just zone out and put my thoughts together in the form of these blogs. It’s this weird zen-like alone time where you can get lost in your thoughts with nothing but unhealthy amounts of caffeine and Lo-fi music.

Today, I thought it was a good time as ever to talk about a business we’ve been working on diligently for the last 3 years, how we set it up, fought competition and set up for success.

Being rejected a dozen times over was definitely a blessing in disguise.

When Surge Global (the digital media company I founded) was just starting out and we were struggling to find our feet, our customer acquisition strategy was rather aggressive. We were the exact opposite of what “inbound marketing” is today, it wasn’t bad, it was just “inefficient”. 
To me it was fairly rudimentary, rather than talking about the services we focused, I wanted to go after segments of the market we can add a lot of value.

I started with a list of industries to tackle and “Accounting & Finance” was one of the segments that stuck out on the top (Alphabetical lists, ftw!)
We took some time, did a bit of research, turned it into a powerpoint deck and took it to accounting firms around the country to sell as a service. It made sense on paper, it made sense financially so I thought “why not take it to a few accounting firms”. Me being the overly ambitious 21 year old at the time, got far fewer “sit-downs” with management compared to what I had hoped. It was one of those sobering moments that make you understand that things are only going to get tougher from here on out. I kept on ringing, and we managed to get 14 meetings (If I recall correctly) from businesses with various sizes including one of the big four.

We wanted to build businesses not because we wanted to make a quick buck, we really wanted to have an impact. As idealistic as our goals were, all 14 of these meetings ended with a we’ll get back to youorI don’t think we have the budget for thiswith one slightly more smug
this’ll never work, I’ve been in marketing for the last 10 years, you can’t do this”.

Me with my wounded sense of pride, decided to take an alternative route. I hired this one guy, an accountant who wanted to take a gamble. When we started, we had no customers, no office, and no revenue at all, we had a website wireframe and a plan. I forked out a little bit of cash from my savings which I had through my YouTube days to be able to pay him some money, and incentivize him with a minor stake in the (virtually non-existent) business. Today, Aabith Sabeer heads the operation with a team of nearly thirty people.

Our strategy was blatantly simple, we were transparent and we focused on giving a shit.

Remember, this was 2016 Sri Lanka. I felt like a kid in a candy store when it came to SEO difficulty. It was an absolutely untouched market, unless you were selling direct products on the internet, you could dominate keywords and that’s exactly what we did. We went after giant clusters of keywords that had just enough search traffic to make it viable and we wrote about it.

Keyword difficulty for bookkeeping services
Data-extracted from KWfinder

The main financial services and products were too competitive, so we worked around the edges, incorporations, the tax advice and nooks and crannies hidden behind the big contracts. These things had very little literature that was localized but carried a whole lot of frustration and agony to founders. 

Data extracted from KWfinder

The government website was a bit of a disaster when it came to providing information. It was confusing people a whole lot more than it was helping. It needed to have information business owners needed, things around intellectual property, registration laws, taxes and the nuances around all of these things, but had little to nothing that was easy to digest. So we shared everything we knew. Not stuffy blog posts for the sake of it, but good content that had value over long periods of time that we made sure were up to date by a couple of refreshes every now and then. 

The blog posts about Sole proprietorship registrations and Private limited company registrations did so well that they still rank on the first few keywords. 

Google Search carried out on the 14th of July 2019

We used loss-leaders to generate the first set of customers and we were upfront about everything. Our cost, our margins and the how we operated. Despite everyone who we spoke to saying it was a bad idea, in our heads it all intrinsically made sense. We were founders, we were the audience, we could relate to it. Naturally, traffic started flowing in, we gained credibility and more importantly we gained a few customers. 

Local Influencer on Company Registrations in Sri Lanka

We naturally started getting competition, people found out the fact that “there’s money in it” and of course the market retaliated. It started with our blog posts getting copied word for word, and every element of our business being offered in the same manner down to the business model. Of course, it was down to what they thought the business model was. What they could see on the outset. What they didn’t realize is the fact that we’re really a data company.

Example: Content/Design aesthetic of Simplebooks
Replica content from competitor with similar aesthetic

It’s clean, stored and structured. The data behind Simplebooks.

From the very beginning, one thing we knew we’d have over the competition is data. During one of my talks 3 years ago I mentioned that “the reason we chose this field is because we can out-smart an accountant in search rankings over marketing agencies any day of the week” Over the years, this has neutralized to a fair extent, competition has gotten smarter and have understood that the internet is something you should give a bit more credit to.
Reference: Video explaining how Simplebooks acquired customer

But history repeats itself, “I’m fairly confident in saying that reason we’re sticking it through is that competition hasn’t understood that there’s more data-science behind this than marketing” and I’m happy to fight the data of an accounting firm over a technology company any day of the week. Simplebooks currently having registered over 1,000 operating businesses in Sri Lanka with 2-3 more getting set up every single day. We’ve become a household name in the SMEspace (at least in the central areas of the country). The team has built a rhythm and an operating process that is slowly digitizing.

Extract from Simplebooks Investor Deck

But if you sit back and think about it, each registration captures an interesting set of needs. It fosters the relationship between the founder and the support she or he needs. We’re uniquely positioned to understand all the problems a small business owner faces with a user-base large enough to gauge a cross section of the economy.

Extract from Simplebooks Investor Deck

The future of Startups in Sri Lanka

We’ve been listening to these problems, diligently adding layers of process to every step of the way. Understanding the ones that cause the most amount of hassle, the ones that business owners are willing to trust us with, and the ones that we want to partner with. 

As we speak, the team has been working together with multiple banks, financial institutions, legal houses and the people who shut us down a few years back about integrating everything together. From registrations to digitized legal services (an integration the Sri Lankan government has yet to provide). We took the annoying way out, worked in a silo and built an entire ecosystem around it, that actually works.

Extract from Simplebooks Investor Deck

Over the next year, we’re rolling these out to the public. A single platform that lets you register your business, set up your bank accounts, manage your legal work and possibly help you raise capital or take out a loan. This is the kind of optimistic utopia that makes you want to run a business. 

So why am I writing this blog post anyways? Mostly, to say thank you. Thank you to the literal thousands of business owners that trusted us with their business, their goals and aspirations and took a bet on us when we were two guys hustling our way through it all. Thank you to those who stuck through a startup that was fixing its process and finding its feet, and thank you for sticking with what is a market leader. We’re not complacent, on the contrary, I think we’ve never felt so alive. 

I’m writing this post in a horribly noisy cafe, in the heart of Colombo talking to a few partners around the world about how we’re looking at solving similar problems to similar countries, I can tell you one thing. We’re very bullish on Sri Lankan business.

About the author

Bhanuka Harischandra

1 Comment

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