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How To Start A Business While Going To University? SurfEdge Reveals How They Did It

How to start a business while going to university? SurfEdge reveals how they did it

Are you a Sri Lankan undergraduate? Then we have a question for you. What do you want to do in the future? Do you want to become an employee for a big corporate or do you want to start something on your own? If you chose the latter, this post is for you.

SurfEdge is a Sri Lankan tech startup that’s founded and operated by Sri Lankan undergraduates. Yes, they are all reading for their degrees while working on a tech company. We know you may have heard of them or even similar stories of students starting their companies. Well, that’s not news. But here the thing. In this post, these guys shared everything from how they started to how they negotiated their first project. They went all in and shared every little detail so any undergraduate can follow their roadmap and start a startup.

To put things in perspective, here’s a little intro about SurfEdge.

SurfEdge was founded in 2014. Their goal is to Make Lives Smarter through technology. Some of their innovations are GuruPaara.lk (they call it the Google for Sri Lankan A/L classes) and, Hackathons.lk, the Sri Lankan Hub for Hackathons, GuruPaara Compass, GuruPaara ForumKohoKoho App, a one-of-a-kind Awurudu app.

They have participated for various Hackathons since 2013, winning several as well and this year, one of their Co-Founders won the Award for the Student Entrepreneur of the Year – Sri Lanka at Global Students Entrepreneurship Awards (GSEA) and represented Sri Lanka in Frankfurt Germany with the other Global Winners.

This is their story.

How did everything start?

Everything started back in 2008 when we were (Adhisha and Chamath) in grade 10 in the same class at Royal College. We were into tech back then and we created a messaging app. But this was no ordinary messaging app. This app could keep your messages safe, and only the end users can see the message after entering a PIN. Even your mobile service provider couldn’t see it. The same SMS charge would apply. Back then, there weren’t many messaging apps and within few weeks we had over 1000 downloads from Sri Lanka as well as India.

So did you know how to code and create apps?

Yes. Back then we learned Java programming and one of our friends, Roshnal was, in fact, one of the youngest programmers in Sri Lanka. By then, we were Oracle Certified programmers. So yeah. We knew how to code. It’s not like we suddenly decided to create an app.

Then there was a competition called Oracle – ThinkQuest (A Global Competition) which was published by the school and we submitted our app for that. And we became the 2nd place winners under Innovation category. In other terms, the SMS App became the World’s 2nd Most Innovative App at the Oracle ThinkQuest Competition.

So the prize for that was to visit Silicon Valley for about 3 weeks and we got free air tickets for parents and also Apple laptops as well. We participated in workshops and training programs at Oracle HQ and etc.

That visit opened our eyes. We saw companies like Google, Facebook, and many others.

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So what happened to that app?

That was built in Java Mobile platform (J2ME). We had published it in Java app stores and downloads were coming in as well. But then mobile technologies started changing and we were more focused on our A/L exams. Then we relaunched the application for Android (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.arc.tedlk) but there were some privacy policies and issues due to the encryption. So we had to leave the application as it is.

How did you start your company?

All of us in our company are friends since we were at school. During the school days, we were a gang of tech kids. Whenever there is a tech-related problem, even the principal used to call us.

So during A/Levels and after, we thought of starting out a company. After A/Ls we usually meet at Chamath’s place and geek out on crazy ideas! We had a bunch of really crazy ones. Once we even thought to create electricity out of gravity.

Then, we got a web development project. We got it from one of Chamath’s contacts. This was another web development company and they outsourced their project to us because we were cheap labor. We had to develop a website for a major Hotel Chain in Sri Lanka.

By then did you know how to build websites?

Sort of. We knew websites but not in a professional level. Not the frameworks or anything serious. We knew how to create a website and the rest, we learned.

How did you negotiate the charge for your first project?

Basically, we didn’t know what to charge or anything for that matter. We didn’t even talk about money. We just started the project and we delivered. We can’t disclose the name because we had to sign NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) and stuff.

Did you know what NDAs were?

We had no idea about those. We just signed. And the worst thing was we didn’t get paid for anything because this intermediary company screwed us and they took the project. For this day, that website is still live.

Then we created a Facebook page. We started promoting things and our friends at school and people around us knew that we are doing something like this. We didn’t have a website back then.

Then we got the chance to create a website for an event company. We tried to negotiate and charge some amount for developing the site but it failed. So we did it for free.

Why did you decide to do it for free?

We just needed to get started. Money was not an issue because we were at home. Finally, it went as a partnership. We said, for all the photos you upload, we need our logo in each of them. They agreed. That opened another door.

Then we got a project to create a learning management system. That was the first project where we got paid. The total project was Rs.60, 000. This was more like Rs.6 million back then. After about 6 months, we completed the project. Finally, we got some money.

Chamath and I (Adhisha) had a joint account and that’s where we deposited the first payment.

Then we started promoting the things we did on Facebook. We didn’t do any Facebook advertising because back then we had no idea. Then we got some projects through our contacts.

Then we came up with our own project. That’s GuruPaara.lk.

Did you know about sending quotations and invoices?

We knew, but to send a quotation back then, we needed about 10 guys (in 2014 when we started off). So many arguments about the amount, the design and it was a big deal for us. But we made sure that it was perfect. Basically, we looked into all the details so it took a lot of time to create even a single quotation.

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How did you fund your business?

Chamath had a hosting account and that’s where we hosted all the projects. Other than that, there were no serious costs in the beginning. Cash was never a bottleneck. It was purely our labor in the beginning. Nothing else.

How do you make money from your own products?

Earlier it was GuruPaara, GuruPaara Compass, and GuruPaara Forum. We started off without thinking about how to make money out of them because we were more passionate about creating things that can improve lives of Sri Lankans. We felt like we were born to innovate and create great tech products.

In order to cover the in-house product costs, we did so many client projects. Then we felt like we are diverting from our core mission, which is building great products. So we created a thing called SurfEdge Design Engine. That’s where we do external client projects.  We don’t brand SurfEdge as a web development company. We want SurfEdge to be much more than that.

In the beginning, we were funneling money from our external web development projects to carry out our own projects. Because of the promotions, we not only got Sri Lankan projects but even some foreign projects. Once, we did a promotion called the Growth Weekend where we gave a free analysis to anyone who submitted their website. Also, one of our co-founders are in Australia and through him, we received some projects.

Let’s say I’m a developer. How do I find a client from Australia?

Here’s what we did. We started contacting different foreign agencies. We just randomly started contacting them. We even reached out to a lot of Sri Lankan artists and hotels. We made a list and we started cold messaging them on Facebook. Simple as that. Most of the time, nobody replied. But some replied and we managed to get some projects. So it’s your persistence and nothing else.

Do you have any mentors who helped you?

When we started, we had no idea about what a ‘startup’ is or basically anything else. But we started going into all kinds of networking and startup related events. That’s when we met people like Tharindu from Shoutout, Bhagya, Kanishka from PayMedia and Aloka from Starupxfoundry. They have been advising and educating us since then. They basically showed us the path. More than business, we learned so many things from them.

I’m (Adhisha) not a very sociable person but I started going to a lot of meetups, just to collect their business cards. The more we went to these events, people started recognizing us.

How do you manage time with your education? What time do you work on your projects?

I (Adhisha) think it has become a practice now. Normally I go to university at 8 am and come back home at about 7 pm or late because I have additional responsibilities since I am the Vice President of the University Society of Computer Science. Then work on studies until about 10 pm or 11 pm and then till late night maybe 2 am or 3 am I work on company stuff.

Clients don’t care whether we are undergraduates or not. They need the work delivered on time. So every moment of the day we have to live with it.

Sometimes people ask me (Chamath), whether we do SurfEdge as a part-time thing while studying. But the answer for that is, “SurfEdge is always full time and the others are sort of part-time”. While at lectures, even if an email comes, we (shape eke) respond. That’s how we work. As soon as we get home, it’s SurfEdge again.

How did you divide the work among your team?

Basically, we created small teams around each project. One would take over GuruPaara, one would take over Hackathons.lk. Likewise, we divided the work.

The main branding and marketing guy was Adhisha.

We never considered SurfEdge as a part-time gig. This was our main thing. The degree was more part-time than SurfEdge. Sometimes the lecturers, have told me (Chamath) that I have to choose one. Either my degree or the startup. But I somehow manage.

What time do you work on SurfEdge? Do you get enough sleep?

Well, we hardly sleep. Mostly 3 to 4 hours a day. Every Friday, all of us meet at Chamath’s place and we work till the next morning. When we had to intern at companies because of university requirement, the missed work is caught up at Friday hackathons which we call as ‘FridayHack’. We catch up all that by working until next day.

Why should someone start a business while they are still studying?

Here’s the thing. We are far behind with the way things are moving in the world. But, those who don’t start something while they are studying are even behind us.

What have you gathered that “others” have not?

To start off, we didn’t even know how to shake hands. We never got that opportunity at the university. Now we are hiring people. For me (Chamath) I’m learning technology in the university. Whatever we do at SurfEdge is clearly applicable to what I’m learning at the university. I know everything before the lecturer says because I have done it at SurfEdge. Let’s say someone is teaching PHP. I have already learned them at work.

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What are some of the resources you used to learn things?

I (Adhisha) used to follow a lot of courses online. Courses from Udemy and Coursera. I used to even go to corporate workshops. Most of the time, I was the only student there.

Especially me (Janith) and Chamath (who run the tech arm in SurfEdge), we have to stay up to date with all the new technologies. Because of all the content available on the internet, it’s much so easy to learn new things. It has taken me to a level where I personally don’t see learning something (even from scratch) as a challenge anymore.

How do you agree on certain things among your team?

We sit down and discuss until we come to a conclusion. Most of the time, there are disagreements but somehow at the end, we come to a consensus. Our goal is to make a decision. We don’t have time to drag a decision for weeks because of the tight schedules we have. Mostly we all discuss everything. But sometimes, for crucial things related to the business, us three (Adhisha, Chamath, and Janith) would discuss separately and come to a conclusion.

There were incidents where some had to leave SurfEdge but I think that’s completely natural and it’s a part of the game.

What kind of apps and hacks do you use among your team?

We use Trello. We use the free version. Then we use Facebook workplace.

What about your personal lives? Hobbies?

Here’s the thing. Most of the time, you have to sacrifice things you like, to do things that you don’t like. But in our case, we have not sacrificed anything because we are already doing what we love. (Adhisha)

How do you manage during the exam times?

During exams, we take leave from our work. Then others will cover the work for us. If Adhisha has exams, we will share his workload. Clients don’t care whether we have exams or not. So it’s our duty to deliver what we have promised them.

There are these hectic days where we have project deadlines/meetings and university exams on the same exact day. Those are the times that we literally sacrifice our grades by choosing the client over the exam to make the client happy.

Chamath is doing great in his university, probably one of the best students when it comes to grades. Adhisha and Janith have also managed to get good grades despite the workload.

What are you parents thinking about your business?

They are really happy about SurfEdge. Chamath’s parents have been continuously supportive letting everyone stay and work at their place. 2012 achievement was an eye opener for them. They saw the potential. So they believe in us.

What advice do you have for a Sri Lankan undergraduate who wants to start something on their own but have no idea how to do it?

Learn to do it. That’s the only advice. If you have a decent internet connection, basically you can learn anything. That’s how we did it. Even if you want to create an app, you can learn online. We all learned everything from PHP to Photoshop online.

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Following are the undergraduates at SurfEdge and their universities in case if you were curious.

1. Adhisha Gammanpila (University of Sri Jayewardenepura)
2. Chamath Palihawadana (Informatics Institute of Technology)
3. Janith Gamage (Informatics Institute of Technology)
4. Charu De Silva (La Trobe University)
5. Lakindu Gunesekara (Informatics Institute of Technology)
6. Dumendra Yapa (University of Greenwich)
7. Sanila Vindula (S.L.I.T.T)
8. Harshana Serasinghe (University of Sri Jayewardenepura)
9. Tehani Wanniarachchi (University of Sri Jayewardenepura)
10. Madusha Prasanjith (Informatics Institute of Technology)
11. Rumal Ganegoda (Edith Cowan University)
12. Geeth Maduranga (University of Sri Jayewardenepura)
13. Senthuran Ambalavanar (Informatics Institute of Technology)
14. Supun Wanniarachchi (Informatics Institute of Technology)
15. Ishan Dissanayake (University of Sri Jayewardenepura)
16. Kanchana Godage (University of Sri Jayewardenepura)
17. Randula Edirisighe (University of Sri Jayewardenepura)
18. Vihanga Ashinsana (Informatics Institute of Technology)
19. Damian Perera (Informatics Institute of Technology)

Image credit: featured image is from flexuslabs.

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