Shakya Lahiru Pathmalal
This article will briefly discuss my entrepreneurial life, its highs and its lows. It will also look at some of the policy changes needed to make entrepreneurial journey easier. What is to be an entrepreneur? I believe entrepreneurs are essentially problem solvers. They see problems that need to be solved (in this context, within a given market) and they set about solving it.
I have lived a few lifetimes before coming to Sri Lanka. I studied and worked, in the US and Australia, in different fields and then ended up in Afghanistan; partly to gain experience in counterterrorism and security studies and partly to prove a point that I could survive in a conflict environment. When I returned to Sri Lanka I engaged in policy work, and worked at a Presidential election campaign; which we lost. This was my first great encounter with failure and was not going to be my last.
At that point in life, I realized that I needed a change. I wanted to do something in the corporate sphere. But given my expertise I thought I would not be hired to do a job in the corporate sector. Not a lot of people want to hire someone from a policy and security background. So I ended up setting sights on starting something on my own.
I soon realized that Sri Lankans did not have any real option to buy products on-line. There were a few ventures that did groupon models (coupons being sold), and Kapruka that sold products and services to Sri Lankans abroad. I felt strongly that if I were looking to buy online, there would be others too. Luckily for me I met with Murtaza Moosajee and Dilendra Wimalaseka who were thinking along the same lines; later Kalinga Athulathmudali joined the ranks. The culmination of this thought process led to what is known as Takas.lk. We embarked on a journey to get the Sri Lankan consumer to buy online. A journey that we are still very much committed to today.
At the time I started takas I was broke. I really had no money and at the same time I wanted to get married. While we raised money to get takas off the ground there was no real money to live off. I was fortunate enough that Osk, who had quit a lucrative job in the Middle East to come marry me and Deshal who is one of my best friends, subsided by dream and ambition for a good two years. Here I learned one of the greatest lessons in life; which is that journeys are best done with a team. We almost always stand on the shoulders of our team members and loved ones to reach greater heights. All what we have achieved to date has been done with the backing and sacrifice of family, team and friends.
Anyone’s entrepreneurial life will have challenges, but perhaps one of the greatest and most common challenges stem from being constantly reminded that what you have embarked on will not pay dividend. One of the main phrases an entrepreneur will hear in their entrepreneurial Lifetime is that ‘it cannot be done’. Not everyone will say it in the same way, and at times his or her comments are well intentioned. You are however constantly reminded that the odds are not in your favor and that efforts are in vain. Thus, the greatest challenge that an entrepreneur must endure is the challenge of self-belief, when almost everyone around you thinks it just cannot be done. As such, the main challenges that are faced by an entrepreneur are internal. There are times of great highs and times of deep lows in the journey. This is something I have not got use to this date, and still grapple with. I believe this to be a constant journey of self-realization.
Additionally, one of the keys in helping entrepreneurs is making access to capital markets easier. Sri Lanka is a small market, so having access to both markets (to sell products and services) and capital can be very difficult. The state has to play a role in increasing the market Sri Lankan businesses can access by cutting down red tape where possible and getting access to larger markets (through FTA). This will provide the means for local businesses to attract capital to grow, from here and abroad. It will also support Sri Lankan entrepreneurs to think and aim larger. Easier access to capital through institutions and state banks for start-ups either through loans or co investing is a must as well.
One of the other main challenges Sri Lankans face is that of mind-set. I believe the state should play a pivotal role in changing Sri Lanka’s antiquated education system to meet the demands of the 21st Century. Our education system is geared towards producing risk adverse professionals who all too often leave these pastures post-free education to the West.This has essentially become Sri Lanka’s aid package to the first world. We should encompass a more holistic approach to education, where children are thought to think independently, embrace change, challenge norms and take risks. This I believe will help us create better and more productive citizens, and even professionals. There has to be concrete measures taken to change the current curriculum in public schools to meet these objectives.
Summing up I would state this. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. This African proverb means that an entire community of people must interact with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. There is no difference in bringing up world-class entrepreneurs. In such an environment when the odds are never in your favor it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur. With the correct mindset, with help from team members and loved ones and a policy that supports their journey, I believe we can essentially create incredible entrepreneurs who will help take this country forward.
This story was first written for Advocata. The author of this story is the co founder Takas.lk, , current Board Member of the Lankan Angel Network and a former Board Member of Peoples Bank. He can be reached at Pathmalal@gmail.com for comment