Few years ago, we didn’t know anything about online retailing. If you wanted a TV, you go to a shop and buy it. But things have changed since then. Now Sri Lankans are more comfortable in purchasing online. That’s where Takas.lk comes in.
Within few years, Takas.lk has become a household name in Sri Lanka. Even cats and dogs talk about Takas.lk (I’m just kidding, but who knows? Maybe they do!) If you have not heard about Takas.lk, you have been living under a rock my friend.
Takas.lk is one of the largest online retailers in Sri Lanka. From Electronic Items to Clothing, they have more than 8000 products for sale online! They started back in 2012 after competing for Venture Engine; and been growing at warp-speed since then.
Even though we are witnessing a successful business today, lot of hard work, mistakes, failures have been in their journey too.
Lahiru Pathmalal, the CEO of Takas.lk shares some of the biggest insights on starting an online business. If you want to really know what it’s like starting a business in Sri Lanka, you are reading the right interview! Enjoy.
If someone asks you in a cocktail, “what do you do?” How would you answer?
I would say, I work for Takas.lk
Can you outline a typical day of your life?
I get up late generally. Around 6.30 and have a cup of coffee. Then head to work. Any kind of entrepreneur will tell you that there is no actual time; you can leave whenever you want but generally work will keep you till very late. Probably 8.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m. I go home and play a game of poker online and go to sleep.
If someone tells you that you need capital to start a business, how would you reply? How did you fund your business?
You do need capital to start a business. But it also depends on the type of business. If it is like a completely tech company that you’re setting up with bunch of your friends, you may not need much capital. But our business needs lot of capital because we are in the retail business.
Also it depends on how fast you want to grow. Whether you want to grow organically or much faster; so I think it’s a combination of all of these.
How important are angel investors and venture capitalists? How did you approach them? How can you win a competition like Venture Engine?
I was lucky because in my business there are co-founders; the ones who started the company with me. They actually knew some of the angel networks and we got money from friends and family as well. That’s how we raised the money. It comes down to the network you have.
But the need of a good network was a challenge before 5 years ago. Now you have enough competitions like Venture Engine where if you have a great idea, you can meet angel investors.
If you apply for Venture Engine, you can compete on their guidelines. There is no prize money involved in it. The whole idea is to network and get investors to invest in your company. But that has to be negotiated with the investors directly. Venture Engine helps that process.
How can someone win a competition like Venture Engine?
To win, your business idea has to be good. You have to be solving some kind of a problem. It has to be scalable. So, the market size matters a lot. Eventually it has to show some profit.
What is the best skill or trait one needs to become an entrepreneur?
Persistence! Not giving up.
How important was your formal education in becoming an entrepreneur?
It’s an evolving road. Today I might think it’s not very important. Tomorrow I might think it’s important. So it just depends. If you’re a very skilled professional; let’s say you’re coding and you’re tech, I would imagine it’s insurmountably important on what you do.
Education does not happen in a vacuum no? That’s how you build your network, make friends, and build teams. All of that are important when you are running a business.
If someone wants to start their own online startup, what is the best advice you can give them?
A business has to be scalable. It has to make money. Those are the things which I would think about when you’re starting a business. Scalability is the most important thing. You need to reach to a very wide market.
What is/was your biggest fear? How do you overcome it?
If you overcome fears, sometimes it doesn’t drive people to do great things; so you don’t have to overcome your fears. When it comes to startups, one of the biggest fears is fear of failure. I guess that’s my fear as well.
And talking about overcoming ones fear; why would you want to overcome it? The thing is, sometimes the fear of failure will drive you to do, right? If you’re not scared to fail then you could be like, I don’t really care. I’m not going to turn up to work today. It all depends on the way you look at fear. Most of the time, I believe fear is a necessity and a blessing in disguise.
What were some of the main tipping points (if any) or “A-ha!” moments? How did they come about?
There have not been very many tipping points. Takas.lk is still a startup. We are still very small. The fact that people are buying a lot of stuff online is an A-ha moment.
What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money?
I don’t agree with this question to be honest. It depends on whether you learn from your mistakes or not. What is a mistake? Something you’ve done wrong right? So if you keep on doing the same mistake again and again, maybe you’re an idiot. Nobody is 100% right all the time. Mistakes are generally blessings in life. You learn from it and you become hopefully someone better. Continuing to make mistakes is a mistake. Anything else is just life.
What is your favorite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The fact that there is no routine is the best part of being an entrepreneur. This company is not very big. We are doing something small. But it can possibly be very big at one point. You get the opportunity to make something small into a big thing and you get a little bit of attention for what you do.
There are tons of people working for corporates who make more money than I make. But they don’t get that attention and they don’t have that profile, which is fine too. I guess that’s the most interesting part about being an entrepreneur.
What are some of the hacks/apps that you use to increase your productivity?
We use Slack at office to communicate with one another.
When you feel demotivated and frustrated, how do you overcome it?
People feel demotivated all the time. It’s essential like everything else in life I guess. Your biggest enemy is yourself. Even in startups, throwing in the towel before, will be the end of it. Awareness of that will keep you pushing forward.
I don’t have any particular advice on it. But I was watching a Facebook video which suggested to think of demotivation as clouds in the sky. If you’re the sky, clouds will come and go but sky will not change. So you don’t generally change. But the sky can be sometimes cloudy. Sometimes it’s not. So once you realize that depression or lack of motivation is a part of life, you will start to realize that it’s not the end of the world.
So the idea is not to give up just because you’re feeling miserable today. Who knows what tomorrow might bring?
How important is to find a mentor to a startup? How can a beginner entrepreneur find a mentor in Sri Lanka?
At present you can find them online, read about people and you can email them. Ideally you should know them or there should be somebody who can introduce you to them. Then you can build a relationship with them.
If you don’t have any contacts, I would start with an online search for people who are talking about what they do. Then somehow try to contact them.
How would you find appropriate partners for your startup? What qualifies a person as a partner?
I think personally partners and you have to share the broader vision and ideally your partner should have a set of skills which you don’t have. If I’m not good with tech, my partner should be good. Otherwise there is no use of having a partner who has the same skill set that you do. But the critical aspect is sharing the same vision. It’s like birds of a feather flock together kind of a deal. If your partners don’t probably have the same values, it might be difficult.
That’s very different from building a company by the way. When you build a company and you hire people, those employees can have different values but do things which you’re not skillful. But with partners, you better be on the same page.
If a professional wants to start a business part time, what would you suggest? How should one balance life and work?
Part time is fine in this environment but part time will probably not get the business to where it should get. As a proof of concept or to validate your idea, you can do something part time. But if you want to achieve full potential, you will have to give your 100%.
What are some of the blogs and websites that you follow? Any book recommendations?
Book recommendation -The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs by Amy Wilkinson
What makes you happy?
Lots of things make me happy. The Sri Lankan cricket team maybe winning one of these days might make me happy. If I answer in relation to Takas.lk, if our customers are happy; we are happy. If our employees are happy; we are happy.
What is the toughest decision you had to make in your life? How do you feel about it now?
This is a fluid question. Again if you think about your life, in your younger days you might perceive something as a tough decision but now when you think of it, which may not look very tough. That’s why they say not to make decisions at the heat of the moment. It’s important to take your time and analyze before you make decisions.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
I watch lots of movies. Read about cars. Watch videos on YouTube and I travel a lot.
What movie, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, do you have to watch when it’s on?”
If you could talk to one person from history, who would it be and why?
Never really thought about it but I suppose if I want to speak to somebody from present that will be Bruce Springsteen. I’m a huge fan of Bruce.
What’s the best investment you have made so far?
Good question. Best investments in your life are your friends. Treat them like good investments and you’ll be better for it. That’s your network.
If you could have one billboard anywhere in Sri Lanka, where do you want it and what would it say?
I think we have a billboard in Colombo overlooking the American embassy on Galle road. The thing with billboards is, lot of people wants to add all kinds of things; but billboards are essentially only to put your brand. If you’re very smart, maybe a catch phrase. Most thinks that there’s so much of space on a billboard and they can put tons of stuff. But nobody’s going to read everything. Billboards should be used only for top-of-mind awareness. Not to anything else.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Hard to say because the journey is not over yet. But I’ll tell you this much. What I do know so far is it’s much much harder to make money than to spend money. When you make money, don’t spend it. That is a big mistake. Don’t spend all the money you make. Most people do. I’ve done it. You know you’re making money, but that is not going to continue.
Another lesson we have learned the hard way is putting your customers first. They are your greatest ambassadors. If we fail to do that, we have to spend more money and try to convert more people.
I mean, honestly we’ve been guilty of it sometimes because it seems easier to spend money to get new customers. Greatest marketing activity you can do to a company is spend time on building relationships with customers.
That’s all folks. If you have read it so far, I know you must have taken something out of this interview. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to share it on Facebook and like our page. Just hit that Facebook button (on to your left) and share it!
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