“If you develop a positive Mindset and a learning attitude then you can go forward and succeed”


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John Keells X, operating under John Keells Holdings is one of the best corporate accelerators for Sri Lankan startups that want funding, mentoring, access to markets and other resources to grow fast. JKX provides startups with unique opportunities and avenues for growth, contributing to the development of entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka. Mr. Wishanth Wijesinha, the Assistant Vice President at John Keells Holdings and Head of John Keells X is a remarkable corporate figure responsible for the execution of the JKX startup accelerator program, ensuring the success of many early stage startups. Joining with Exposition he shares, his experience in guiding startups, his thoughts on the startup culture and some pointers for life in general.

Q:

Sir, shall we first start by recalling your educational background ?

A:

I schooled at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. I did my A/L’s in the science stream studying Maths, Chemistry and Physics. After A/Ls I got the option to continue my studies at the University of Colombo. I followed a degree in physical science and specialized in computational physics. While doing the degree I completed CIMA as well. Why CIMA? because doing CIMA opens out a lot of options. In addition to that, I was quite involved in sports. During school I played cricket and basketball and the same at university. I was involved with the Rotaract club as well.

Q:

What was the starting point of your career ?

A:

So, straight after university I joined JKH as a management trainee because the program gives you so much exposure into the diverse businesses that JKH operates in, within a short period of time. You also get direct access to learn the processes and nuances associated with each different business. This is an ideal program to figure out your strengths and weaknesses, and to learn what sort of business you could thrive in. Even after university I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do, so this program made a lot of sense. Not deciding your career path early on in your career is not such a bad thing. The most important thing is to always have an attitude of learning and to be open to change and challenges that come with it. Don’t take decisions in a hasty manner, especially when it is to do with your career.

Q:

You have a mathematical background, but you took up on a career in management. Was it challenging ?

A:

This was the reason I took up CIMA, which is management accounting and not pure financial accounting, something you could apply in a practical sense in whatever field you work in. When you do something like computational physics, you either go into being a lecturer, do a PHD or something related to research but I didn’t want to do anymore studying. The transition wasn’t really challenging because if you really think about it, management is sometimes all about numbers. Coming from a mathematical background actually helped me in managerial work. I felt it sometimes gave me an advantage because you tend to look at everything in an analytical way . The discipline associated with reading for a degree for four years and the principles I learnt along the way also helped me in kick starting my career. However, sometimes being too analytical may not be good, so it’s important to strike a balance between the numbers and take practical decisions. So in a sense, there was no real “shift” from physics and mathematics to the management field.

Q:

As the head of JKX how would you describe JKX ?

A:

I love to refer it to as a startup for startups. It’s a very recent initiative by the John Keells Group. We have been around or about three years now. We like to think of it as a launch platform for Sri Lankan startups to access the market faster and learn more about their startup in a short period of time. In a nutshell, that’s what JKX is.

Q:

Why did JKH take the initiative to start JKX and how do you support startups to grow?

A:

So what do startups really need? They need funding, business mentoring, domain expertise and know-how, access to markets and other resources to get them going. There’s no point in having the best product in the world if you can’t go out there, launch it in the market and get that much needed feedback from your current and potential customers. This is what we refer to as the customer discovery process. So then we thought what does JKH have that could be useful for startups? Since we are a big company, we have access to customers and channels in about seven industry verticals and also the domain knowledge and business expertise associated with those industries. We thought we could help startups with these, along with funding to build a support platform for startups in Sri Lanka. We were in an ideal position to use our strengths and resources to bridge this gap. The learning associated with the startup accelerator is a two-way street. Whilst the startups benefit a lot through the mentorship provided, JKH can in turn learn a lot from these startups. It gives us a channel to collaborate with this vibrant, innovative community in Sri Lanka. The main purpose of the program is to provide a platform for innovative ideas that can disrupt traditional business models. No single company has a monopoly on the best ideas and “Open Innovation” although fairly a new concept, is most definitely the way forward.

Q:

Do you think there’s good potential in Sri Lanka for the startup culture?

A:

I definitely believe there is a lot of potential that can be unlocked with the right environment and support. We have to be optimistic. Sri Lanka is vastly different from Silicon Valley, Israel and the vibrant startup communities all around the world. We should not try to imitate them but there are a lot of things we could learn from these eco systems in order for Sri Lanka to be a formidable force in the global startup arena. Sri Lankans have a negative attitude towards failure. That kind of attitude is one thing that could be holding us back. This mindset needs to be fixed, but there is no direct solution. Most parents in the past did not want their kids getting into startups knowing that it is much less secure than most traditional jobs. When they advised their kids on career path, they would rarely recommend entrepreneurship. If you fail once in Sri Lanka, then that’s it, you are considered a failure, but in places like Silicon Valley if you have failed once as a founder, investors are more likely to invest in your next startup, because they know you have failed once and you (hopefully) will not make the same mistake again. That’s an amazing way of thinking and that kind of a positive attitude fosters risk taking. Sri Lanka also needs more ‘full time” founders. You need to go ‘all in’ in order to be successful. Having said that, the funding landscape in Sri Lanka during the last few years did not facilitate ‘full time entrepreneurship’ and you would find very few quitting their jobs to take on the challenge of building a business from scratch. However, I have seen an immense improvement over the last two and a half years in the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem. More entrepreneurs are taking bigger risks, there are more avenues to raise funding and there have been many startup support initiatives and platforms that have been launched. The energy in this space is amazing. This is a positive trend and I’m sure it will only get better.

Q:

What do you think is the reason for our local entrepreneurs not playing that much of a part in the global market unlike foreign entrepreneurs?

A:

Solving local problems and playing only in the Sri Lankan market is not such a bad thing. There are plenty of sizeable problems in Sri Lanka that need to be solved and sometimes it can only be done with a startup like approach. Having said that, some startups with global potential don’t get there because they don’t think big enough or they are comfortable with where they are. This is a decision that needs to be taken by the founding team. Going global is a huge challenge and most are not willing to take that risk. They confine themselves to the 21 Million market in Sri Lanka. Then there’s a subset of startups who want to go global but lack the expertise and support to do so. They lack access to those markets. For an example, if you want to enter a foreign market you need to answer some critical questions. How do I access that market? Who are the partners I need and where can I find them? Who can provide me with these connections? What level of localization in the product would I need? What is the competitive landscape there? What are the regulations in that country that could be a challenge? Sometimes you need a totally different team to the founding team to scale and go global. These are some tough decisions to be made as a founder.

Q:

So with regard to JKX, are you helping the startups that join your programme to go into international markets?

A:

Not at the moment. Most of the startups in our programme are working on the Sri Lankan market. However, we can provide support if they want to expand. As a large conglomerate, we have many connections in global markets and we can help the startups with this. Startups could look at the Sri Lankan market as an ideal test bed, a sandbox environment in which they could test their products. Get your product right in Sri Lanka and then go and launch in international markets. However, if the product doesn’t work in Sri Lanka it doesn’t mean that it will not work in another market.
Sometimes your product may not be right for the Sri Lankan market, in terms of the product itself or the timing of the launch. In this situation it only makes sense that you launch in another country.

Q:

As a professional who is involved in guiding startups, what is your opinion on entrepreneurship and the mind set of emerging entrepreneurs?

A:

Like I mentioned, I have seen a huge improvement in the mindset and maturity of startups over the last few years. I had the privilege of speaking to hundreds of startups during the last 2 to 3 years and it is quite evident that things are only getting better. There’s an array of funding and mentoring opportunities in addition to accelerator programmes for startups, so the support environment is much better for a startup than 4 years back. However, not everyone can ‘start a startup’. What an entrepreneur has to realize is the hard work that needs to go into building a business from scratch. It may take ten to fifteen years of hard work and perseverance, but the end result could be much better than working for someone else. The journey of a founder could be lonely and tiring one, and you need to be willing to take this risk.

Q:

JKX startup programme, is it currently operating only in Sri Lanka or is it open to global entrepreneurs as well?

A:

The programme is operating only in Sri Lanka at the moment but we opened out applications to countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Even though we got applications from those countries, we could not accommodate them due to logistical reasons. The program required frequent interaction over a 3 to 6 month period, so it was a bit complicated for them.

Q:

What’s the nature or the background of the entrepreneurs that you have dealt with through this programme? Is the majority young crowd, graduates or undergraduates?

A:

It’s actually a nice mix. We get a lot of undergraduates, graduates and even guys who have worked and quit their jobs. It’s quite encouraging to note that some took the bold step of quitting their job to pursue their passion as a startup. There are also some who work on their startup while doing another job. So as I said, it’s quite a mixed bag. There is increasing interest from graduate and undergraduate levels.

Q:

When you get applications for this startup programme, are you looking for certain criteria? What are they?

A:

Yes, we focus on three main criteria. First we look at the scale, whether the particular startup has a significant scale and if it has a big enough market in Sri Lanka or beyond. Secondly, we try to select startups that are well aligned or complement the verticals that JKH currently operates in. This is where we can create the maximum impact as we can directly offer support in terms of mentoring, business know-how and access to markets and customers. For example, if there is a startup in the retail space, we could directly provide them access to our Keells supermarket chain, give them an opportunity to run a pilot in one of the supermarkets and connect them with retail business experts. This is where the synergies between the startup and JKH are the best. The next criteria would be the capability and complementary skills of the founding team. Who are the founders of the particular startup? Who are the key team members? Do they have complementary skills? For example, are they all techies? Are all of them into sales and marketing? Another important factor could be domain expertise in the particular field they are operating in. For example, if you are from an educational background, the chances that you would succeed in an education startup could be higher. These are the main criteria, although we also look at the progress and traction to date as well, that is how well have they executed to date.

Q:

With the mentorship of JKX, what kind of startups have you initiated so far?

A:

We have supported startups in a wide array of industries to date. In the previous batch from 2018 we had startups ranging from fintech companies in the peer to peer lending space, loan aggregators, payment solutions to ag-tech startups in the IoT space and automotive e-commerce platforms. In the 2019 batch of startups we have an education startup providing gamified educational applications, an e-commerce platform for premium branded products, a SaaS ERP application, a truck aggregator and a B2B marketplace for the construction industry, all extremely interesting businesses. All of these startups are working on significant problems in the Sri Lankan market and we are quite happy with the progress to date. Excited to see where this journey will take them.

Q:

The main idea of our magazine is to bridge Management and IT. So how do you think it is possible to bridge Management and IT through startups?

A:

Management is about utilizing and deploying the resources available to you in the most efficient way possible. The problem with IT professionals in Sri Lanka is that they could fall into the trap of being obsessed with the technology that they are building. Some common thinking would be, “hey, my app is great, it’s going to be the next Facebook!”, but they don’t focus on how to execute it and take it to market. Most people start off with the product but what’s needed is to go out and try to solve a real problem that exists in the market. When solving a problem through a product or a service, it’s important to take a customer centric approach. Any startup has to solve a problem. If there’s no significant problem being solved, then that technology or startup is going to fail. At the end of the day, it’s all about creating the best user experience. In startups due to the lack of resources, the same person has to play multiple roles or “wear different hats”. Sometimes the same person will handle coding, sales and marketing and
even accounting. So I feel they automatically become good managers as they learn how to deploy their time and energy in the best way possible to ensure the success of their startup. I’m not saying they become perfect managers, but it certainly helps to bridge the gap between Management and IT since you start thinking from the customers point of view. In startups we always emphasize on “GOOB” – Get Out Of the Building – to go out there and talk to users. A customer first mindset will always help to bridge the gap between tech and management. Improving soft skills and people skills is also quite important and goes a long way.

Q:

What do you think is the most important thing for one’s success?

A:

I would say the most important trait is a learning attitude and the willingness to be corrected. When we speak to startups during the screening phase, we try to assess if the founder is willing to learn. For example, you may be the best developer, the best accountant or the best salesman out there, but you need to stay grounded and remain humble in everything you do. Letting your ego get in the way is something you should be aware of at all times. It’s also vitally important to be able to recognize your strengths and weakness, and to take immediate action where necessary. Sometimes you tend to develop a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to weaknesses, which only other people will notice, so you need to be open to constructive criticism.

Q:

Finally, what is your message to the undergraduates?

A:

To always have a positive attitude of learning and to keep your career options open unless you are absolutely sure about the path you want to take. Some people will say that you need to figure out what you want to do by the age of 25, and it could work for some people. There’s no perfect blueprint to follow as it all depends on the individual. You need to figure out your strengths and utilize your time productively. Unlike 10-15 years ago, there are many free resources available for individual development, so read a lot and keep learning because what you learn will not go to waste. Finally, whatever challenges are thrown your way, it is vitally important to stick to your beliefs and never ever compromise on honesty and integrity. You should be able to be true and honest to yourselves that you have acted professionally and always done the “right thing”. Wishing the undergraduates all the very best in everything you do.

Exposition Magazine Issue 15

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