Born in Dehiwala Colombo, Tony Weeresinghe dreamt of becoming an engineer. Not having enough marks to enter the engineering university he desired in Sri Lanka, Tony started his career in programming. Then he applied to MIT in the US and to his surprise got selected. But his parents couldn’t afford to send him to America.
Later on, Tony ended up founding a company which created the world’s fastest trading platform and won the best trading platform in the world for 3 consecutive years. That company is called Millennium IT (and coincidently abbreviated to MIT; his missed opportunity.)
In 2009, MIT was acquired by the London Stock Exchange and Tony became a member of the executive management board at the London Stock Exchange. He left LSE in 2013 and started his latest venture Ustocktrade; a company that has the potential to become a Unicorn as they say in the startup world.
This is Tony’s untold story.
Who did you want to become after school?
After school, I wanted to be an engineer. But I couldn’t get enough marks to go to the university I wanted. I decided to find something in engineering. The only company that had to do something with engineering was Seidles. So I joined them as a management trainee. My first salary was Rs.400.
How did you start programming?
Well, my first program was an inventory system for Seidles and later the director wanted me to create an accounting program. I agreed and took his computer home. There was a sudden power fluctuation and I busted the computer!
Later I joined DMS to learn more programming. My salary was Rs 1500.
What was your early career like?
My first project at DMS was to build a money market product for Citi Bank Colombo. They liked me so much that I became the project head.
Back then, DMS had the Oracle agency. They made me the head of Oracle. I still remember when I said I’m from Oracle, people would ask where that Chinese restaurant is. Oracle gave me a target to generate USD 500,000 within 3 months. I don’t know whether it was luck or whether I really had the knack for it but I managed to hit the numbers.
After a few years at Oracle, I got a call from the Sun Microsystems regional head. He said they want me on Sun. I asked for 10 times of my current salary. To my surprise, he agreed. But there was a catch. They wanted me to make USD 1 million in sales. (They were doing only USD 80,000 at the time).
When did you start Millennium IT?
I bought the local agency for Sun Microsystems for Rs.18 million in 1996. I didn’t have the entire amount so I borrowed the rest. That became what’s known today as Millennium IT.
How is Millennium IT different than any other company?
When I started Millennium IT, I wanted to create a company where employees were so happy to work. I asked everyone to buy shares of the company. For every rupee they put, I said I’ll match with one rupee. We were the first employee-owned company in Sri Lanka.
When I started, I promised to build a campus for MIT in 3 years. One employee said “Ayyo Tony, to buy tea here we have to pool money. How are you going to build a campus?” I did it within 5 years.
I cut down all the products that we had and decided to build our own products. This was against what everybody was doing because nobody bought anything from third world countries.
It was a challenge but I knew that Sri Lankan engineers could do it. I’m very proud to say that close to 80 employees at Millennium IT have started their own companies today.
How did you end up on the London Stock Exchange as an Executive Member?
We had a good run at Millennium IT and we sold the company to the London Stock Exchange in 2009. They wanted me to join the executive management board. When I joined the share price was around £5. My task was to bring it to £15.
When I left the London Stock Exchange after 3 years, the share price was over £30. The CEO of the London Stock Exchange said I helped them to cut down their cost by 70% and increased their productivity by 7000%.
Why did you leave London Stock Exchange?
One day, coming out from dinner, I saw some children begging. My heart sank and I told my wife Cindy, that this dinner could have probably fed them for a year. I told her that I wanted to elevate these people from poverty and the only way I see this happening is by giving them the same education that we received.
Cindy and I decided to build schools for underprivileged children in developing countries, so we started a charity, The Cainan Foundation.
How are you going to find the money? That was everyone’s question. I spoke to everybody and realized that financial sustainability was a problem for any charity. Initially, people give money but not forever. So I decided to start a commercial company to sustain the charity. That’s how I started Ustocktrade.
What is Ustocktrade?
Most of the time, smaller guys get played out in the stock market. I wanted to protect them and democratize wealth. That’s why I started Ustocktrade.
Ustocktrade is an Alternative Trading System (ATS) that allows you to trade securities listed on the US stock exchange. Ustocktrade offers benefits that were once available only for the rich.
Simply put, now Sri Lankans can trade stocks which are listed in the US stock market using Ustocktrade for just $1 per transaction.
This is just the start. We are planning to take Ustocktrade to every part of the world.
How will Sri Lankans benefit from Ustocktrade?
Sri Lanka’s budget deficit was approximately USD 5 billion last year. What if 10,000 Sri Lankans can trade and make USD 100, 000 each? That’s one billion. If 50,000 Sri Lankans do the same, that’s 5 billion USD.
What beliefs or habit have impacted your life the most?
One thing I strongly believe is I have been blessed. I have a very personal relationship with Jesus. There have been so many miracles in my life. I have had support coming from nowhere and people who don’t even know me offer to help me. With this blessing, I feel like I can take over the world.
What are some of your favorite failures or mistakes?
One of the mistakes is I tried to be perfect and missed a lot of opportunities. Now I tell people, it is better to have 80% of a working system than 100% of a non-working system.
I’m also sad that I couldn’t convince most companies to make their employees as their wealthiest asset. So that’s what I’m doing now at Ustocktrade. I make sure that they have enough money so that they don’t have to work anywhere else.
I also did a lot of mistakes in my personal life, when I started to put work in front of my family. Now I have changed. Family comes first. I got a second opportunity to do that.
What advice would you give to a Sri Lankan entrepreneur?
One thing I tell Sri Lankans is not to imitate. I’m not saying it’s bad. We all have to make money. But I want the next Google or Apple to come from Sri Lanka. If you have a brilliant idea, just go for it. It’s going to be tough. No one said being an entrepreneur is easy.
What is your best investment so far?
Oh yes. The biggest investment was starting Ustocktrade with my family. All my friends told me don’t do this. Especially not to get my wife involved. They said it’s gonna be a disaster.
We have managed to find a balance and that has made my life really rich. I think that’s the best investment I ever made in my life.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I love gardening. I grow plants and all my children say the garden is my second wife. I work out as well. I always tell people if you don’t look after yourself, you don’t get another body. Mainly I don’t want to be a burden to anyone. I also go to movies and music concerts. I love dancing too.
Well, that’s the story of Tony Weeresinghe; a legendary entrepreneur in Sri Lanka.
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