When I asked Sharanyan Sharma to meet me at a small hotel in Colombo, he took no time in finding the place, even though there are many similar ones on the coast. “I used to deliver soda and snacks to each of these places eight years ago,” he says, recalling the time he worked as a driver.
From this humble beginning, he has come a long way to being the Founder and CEO of Extreme-Seo.net, one of Sri Lanka’s leading digital marketing firms. Sharanyan has also started two other companies called Privilegeserver Technologies and 7Arena Technologies.
Now, instead of a delivery van, he has four cars parked outside his house in Vavuniya, as emblems of a rumbling journey through struggles and satisfactions.
Vavuniya is a town in the predominantly Tamil-speaking north Sri Lanka. Sharanyan’s family moved here in 2009 from Jaffna for reasons related to the Tamil-Sinhalese civil war. “It was when I moved here that I met my family after three months. I hadn’t heard from them and didn’t know if they were alive or dead.”
The last months of the civil war in the country were intense and there was no way he could communicate with his family. “I was in Colombo studying engineering at that time. I had to drop out because I no longer had the means to receive money for paying university fees from my family.” To sustain himself, he took up a job as a driver, but within a month he was fired for driving too fast. Curiously, this was the lucky episode that made him realise his path was entrepreneurship.
“Being a driver was by no means what I wanted. All I could think was how to start something on my own,” affirms Sharanyan. “In those days, I was extremely intrigued by e-commerce as it is a space where everybody has an equal opportunity to create a business. So, I decided I wanted to explore it further.”
The problem was that he had neither the money nor an electronic device to start working with. “I had Lkr. 22,000, but even the most basic computer costed Lkr.48,000. I had to borrow money from people in town and I cannot tell you how hard it was. Nobody knew me and they were all reluctant to lend me money,” he explains. However, with his brother’s recommendation, he managed to raise his initial capital from neighbours. “I hadn’t even started and I was already in debt!” he laughs.
Sharanyan hailed from a Brahmin family who expected him to devote his life to his religious duties. They weren’t keen on him starting something anew, and it was hard to face them considering that he did not receive any commission for two months. Then, a US company hired him for a job. “I would receive some articles every morning and I had to redistribute them to about 500 other sites. However, they told me that to them I was just another kid, whom they didn’t know was reliable or not, and so the pay was very low. But I was ok with that. I just wanted to get started! I worked for a month on that project, day and night, and my final payment was $5,” he tells me, without even a trace of bitterness.
“The point,” he continues, “is that when you want to start a business, money cannot be the first concern. It is important, of course, but never the first thing.”
When the time came to expand operations to keep up with the increasing demand for his services, Sharanyan hired a couple of employees but had no money to pay them. “I had literally nothing, so I had to spend the initial sum on buying desks, chairs, and computers,” he recalls.
Today, Sharanyan has employed 65 people, of whom six are differently-abled. “We have I7 computers, which are the best you can find in Sri Lanka. On every floor, we have generator backup and air conditioning. If there is anything missing in office, I make sure that it is taken care of,” he says. At Extreme-Seo.net, employees also receive support in case they need money for house loans or for a wedding. Moreover, they hire consultants in India, China, and Philippines. Sharanyan is thinking of expanding his operations in Mumbai.
In the past six years, the company has carried out about 38,000 social media campaigns. “That first American customer I earned $5 from is still with us,” Sharanyan says. The difference is that they are now paying several hundred times the amount for their services they receive from Extreme-Seo.net.
The fast growth of the company has been possible, says Sharanyan, because at any given point of time, he has a plan B and plan C. “It is more about attitude. It is true that I didn’t have much experience, but I was not just thinking of profit or success. I was preparing against the worst possible thing that could happen to the company, be it from clients, from family or from the market.” Everything in the company is automated. “Say I assign a task that needs to be finalised by 8.30 in the morning and if the concerned person doesn’t do it, there are two others who will be notified that they need to take it up,” he says.
“Nothing is going to affect the destiny of the company because every step is automated and has multiple options of functioning. Time controls everything, but we can control time.”
In his journey of expansion, Sharanyan has never moved from Vavuniya, which is a bit unusual, as it is a small town far from Colombo, where most of the Sri Lankan digital ecosystem is taking shape. He explains, “I have to give back to the community that shaped me, otherwise there is no point in doing business.” Most of his employees are locals. “I am not interested in the education level of who I hire. I am interested in how hungry they are for experience. Many of my employees didn’t even know how to write their name in English. I trained them and now they can communicate through IP" he smiles,
"Even I learnt everything, including English, from my first customer. My best teachers have been the mistakes I made.”
In his company, he wants to spread the idea that business is not just about money, but about gaining experience. The best company, according to Sharanyan, is the one that does the best CSR and spreads social good, not the one with the fattest bank account. “If you look at my personal bank account (not the company’s), it is almost always zero because I want to keep myself ‘thirsty’ at every point,” he says.
“If your glass of water is always full, you will not bother to fill it. Only if it is empty, will you seek out a way to find water. ”
Sharanyan and his company have got several certification (SEO, Google analytics, etc.) won many awards in the past few years. In 2012 and 2013, he was nominated as the best emerging entrepreneur at the provincial and national level. In 2013, he also won the entrepreneurship award in the Asia Pacific region for the turnover and for employing people in troubled areas. Last year, he was awarded the Young Entrepreneur of the Year prize.
"I’ve always wanted to be unique. I have never liked to follow anyone,” says Sharanyan. He adds,
“[although] I want to be an icon, I don’t want to be so because I am from Vavuniya or because of my entire story. I want to be seen for my good work and for the achievements in my career.”
In his career as an entrepreneur, Sharanyan has had to deal with multiple hassles, but he hasn’t let them slow him down. “The government is very slow in acknowledging the importance of technology. There are numerous limitations to the usage of PayPal – which is our ideal means of receiving payments. This means that our clients have to often pay us through bank transfers and a lot of money goes into transfer fees. But you cannot waste your time blaming them. You have to find your way through.”
Now, he is investing small amounts in small startups around north Sri Lanka. “In Sri Lanka, there are only three investing firms and all of them are focussed on the returns they can get. I want to challenge this mindset. I am more interested in how innovative the idea is, not how profitable it will be. It should be disruptive and challenging. It should have the power to wipe out its competition.”
Many other things can be told about Sharanyan’s story, because his entrepreneurial journey has been eventful. He has shaped his own code of conduct through experiences, the reason why he prioritises ‘learning by doing’ as opposed to ‘learning at school’ (he got a diploma, but only after becoming an affirmed entrepreneur). Ultimately, one understands his philosophy when he says: “On every page of my business plan, I wrote ‘never give up’, because that is the first mandatory step to be unique.”
For more info about Sharanyan's story check his personal website