Young entrepreneurs from Sri Lanka betting on the mobile VAS market in developing regions, story of Square Mobile
Tharindu Dassanayake and Akila Wijethunge are two young entrepreneurs from Sri Lanka who co-founded a startup, Square Mobile, while pursuing their graduation. Tharindu believes that he can change people’s lives by making great products and that’s why he chose to take up the path of entrepreneurship. Square Mobile develops mobile VAS applications and they have partnered with distributors not only in Sri Lanka but in other developing nations as well.
Edited excerpts from our conversation with the young Sri Lankan entrepreneur, Tharindu:
I graduated from Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya and have a major in Computer Engineering. In the second year of my university, I developed a SMS-based application, Word Puzzle for Etisalat Appzone. It was a local competition targeted towards university students. I didn't have much knowledge about programming at that time but I participated in some workshops and learnt things myself and developed this app.
It was the changing point of my life. It was recognized locally and internationally. It became the finalist in m-billionth South Asian awards 2012 which was held in New Delhi and we got special merit awards at e-Swabhimani, best e-content award in Sri Lanka. It was a great experience for us. Especially with m-billionth, I got chance to talk with South Asian delegates and business people. With the exposure I got from these events I thought there is a good potential for mobile VAS to make great revenues.
As a university student, sometimes it was hard to manage business with academic life. But it was a great experience. 3 months back, we graduated and started devoting full time to Square Mobile. Finding a proper office space at a good price was tiresome but getting initial funding was even more challenging. We raised some initial money from our friends and family, and since then the revenue from Word Puzzle has helped us sustain operations.
These things still look fairly easy. We had a real hard time making deals & agreements. Lawyers are not only expensive but very hard to find for our field of operation, IT and communication. Personally, cultural barriers posed difficulties. Convincing our parents about starting a business was not easy at all and it was worse for my co-founder because of the gender.
About Square Mobile
Currently, most of our apps serve the people with no internet connectivity. Word Puzzle is an interactive Mobile VAS which aims to improve users’ English language vocabulary. The service records each user’s response to vocabulary based questions and then ranks users in comparison to other players. This creates healthy competition and provides an incentive to learning. And it is all just via SMS. Mobi Mind Star is the SMS version of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’. It helps people to improve their knowledge via SMS in the form of an easy game playing.
Our apps have big potential on making great revenues, especially in African region. Our apps are based on subscription charging for users and we work on revenue share with our partners. In Nigeria, biggest market in African region, we got more than 25, 000 subscriber within 2 month for our applications. We are adding almost 300 subscribers per day and expect around 100,000 users in the next six months. Right now we are setting up for two other big markets, Kenya and Vietnam. Approximately we are reaching to more than 200 million subscriber base now. We are now directly talking to other local operators to host our services with them. Sri Lanka is a great launch pad for our apps. In Sri Lanka, it’s the top game in Etisalat appzone and is featured in the most used apps here.
There are lots of players in the Mobile VAS market, it’s a really competitive one. We needed to be more innovative. If you see, word puzzle is a simple game but we applied some social gaming concepts to it. The added advantage was that it became more competitive and got more potential to get viral. We are highly adaptable to new technologies and trends. We have a dream to become a global player in telecommunication and mobile industry by making valuable mobile content.
We started our journey with Mobile VAS and now we on the process of expanding it to Mobile App. We have a plan to launch global mobile app market space. We will be focusing on middle east countries as they show the highest smartphone penetration in the world and thus present a great market opportunity.
We have also started our new product call Gyppzy. We started it as a Square Mobile product but our plan is to operate it as a separate venture. It’s an itinerary planner for travelers and we have initiated it locally but we have a plan expand it worldwide. We have received USD 5000 seed funding from ICTA, Spiralation program for Gyppzy.
We are looking for a growth hacker now, someone who has a good knowledge about startup marketing, UI/UX and we are also looking for a business partner in India to expand Gyppzy. We are also looking for funding opportunities to expand our team and infrastructure now.
Starting up in Sri Lanka
2 Years ago, when we started the business there were less opportunities for start-ups. But now it’s growing really well. ICTA, spiralation program has done a great job in last few years. It’s a great platform for Sri Lankan startups. Nowadays there are good number of funding opportunities as well. Before we got selected for spiralation program it, it was hard to find mentors for startup. We could get local and international mentoring with them.
Now, SLASSCOM has initiated a program for making 1000 start-ups by 2020. There are great upcoming opportunities for entrepreneurs. I really feel there should be a startup hub for Sri Lanka entrepreneurs because we need to share our ideas and get feedback from likeminded people, get funding and mentoring. We need to build a startup culture in Sri Lanka. Most of the Sri Lankan youngsters are looking for jobs in large companies and parents are not very positive towards entrepreneurship too.