Mr. Lasantha Wickramasinghe, the founder and CEO of Builtapps Business Solutions, is a successful global entrepreneur and pioneer among Sri Lankan online entrepreneurs as well as a guiding force in the industry. He is a professional digital marketing consultant and a startup enthusiast specializing in industries related to online marketing, e-commerce, freelancing, innovations, and technologies.
Mr. Lasantha Wickramasinghe shares the details of his entrepreneurship journey with Exposition Issue 16, in addressing our questions on building a promising career as an online entrepreneur.
Q1: Behind every success lies a story that is not evident to the beholder, filled with challenging experiences and ceaseless effort.
Can you give us a short recap on how you started your journey and how you chose this path?
I faced the Advanced Level examination in 2002, but after 2 failed attempts I realized I had to follow a different path. Coming from a middle-class family, I did not have the option of attending a private or foreign university, and there were limited job opportunities for me under the circumstances. Hence, in 2005 I started my first job as a Management Assistant at the Department of Museums.
I have always had an interest in IT since my late school years, when computers had just started commonly being used in Sri Lanka. Along with this and the interest in pursuing my own business, I realized that it would be difficult to find the time or capital required for it simply through my current job, which led me to search for online opportunities. I started somewhat blindly because there was very little information available on the subject and there was no clear path or person to follow, unlike today. During this time, the concept of online freelancing started gaining attention in Sri Lanka, and I attempted some projects. Then Fiverr emerged and I joined the platform after studying Graphic Designing. As I went on, I worked in the field of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Services as it gained a higher demand. It was when I realized that Fiverr or any other freelancing opportunity is a source of active income. It requires much effort to earn and maintain. However, even carefully built-up profiles in such a platform could be lost in a moment, so that one can only reach certain limits. This led me to look for ways to transform active income into passive income, such as Google AdSense and YouTube content creation.
Since I was already familiar with AdSense, I invested in it, exerting my efforts on it in parallel to freelancing. Building a reasonable income through AdSense is gradual and takes some time. With my strategy of building passive income, I focused on building up websites to a certain position where my active involvement becomes less required, rather than giving all of my attention to a single website. With time I was more attentive to AdSense and hired some remote employees as the workload increased. In around three years my website count had exceeded one thousand. Likewise, over time I gained more experience and was able to establish myself in the field.
Q2: Lasantha Wickramasinghe is a modern example for any entrepreneur dreaming to reach success. So, can you tell us about how you ventured into entrepreneurship?
After eight years at my job, I decided it was time to engage full-time in my own venture. That is why I started a small office with four employees in the upstairs of my home, with the name “Builtapps”. As it grew, we moved to a different location and opened a branch in Galle. By then I was financially stable, and I focused on one of my main targets which was building a business that could bring in foreign investments or partnerships, which I believe is something that we can do for the country. I tried getting projects being outsourced by foreign companies, which could be done here in Sri Lanka. However, I had no educational qualifications in the field or major programming knowledge and had less recognition as a company even though we had gained much experience by completing many projects. Even though it was not easy, after many rejected proposals, a New Zealand company offered us a small project. With the successful completion, the company continued working with us for further projects. Meanwhile, we opened another branch in Kaduwela. We continued work in AdSense as well as our own production services while investing in specialized teams as startups. Since its start in 2002, during the past 18 years, the company has grown to become a network itself and now we have around one hundred employees.
Q3: It could not have been easy to learn and develop a company in this field, especially during an era where it was still new. Could you share with us how you learnt and the sources you used?
One thing I must say is that, up until now I have not pursued any courses or professional qualifications regarding this field. Ever since, I have always focused on experience. As a company, throughout our journey, there were different challenges on our way. While moving forward, we always turned them into the biggest learnings. I believe that the experience and knowledge we gained from overcoming those challenges are so valuable and could not be gained through any form of formal education.
I do not mean that everyone must make mistakes. Actually, during our time, we had no clear idea on which path to follow in order to reach our ultimate goal, and on the other hand, we had only very little information regarding these subjects. This has been the reason for most of our mistakes. Nowadays, newcomers to the industry can easily gain enough information to identify the path that must follow, but ultimately what makes them stable is facing challenges while working within that particular industry.
Q4: You must surely have faced numerous challenges in your journey as a young entrepreneur linked with innovation. If I were to ask, what is the biggest sacrifice you had to make?
I believe, we consider something as a sacrifice, only if we have to give up something we like for something we do not. Instead, if we are doing something we enjoy and contributing our time and resources towards it, I personally do not view it as a sacrifice. Of course one could say that they worked sleeplessly for something. That is the dedication. To this day, I usually sleep only two to three hours a day, but still, I do not feel any stress about what I do because I simply follow my passion. Therefore, I do not think there is such a sacrifice I made.
Q5: As a Digital Marketing Consultant, and a professional with much knowledge on the subject, what is your opinion on Sri Lanka’s Digital Marketing field and its attractiveness to entrepreneurs? What is the piece of advice that you would give regarding venturing to foreign markets?
In my perspective, digital marketing is not that popular in Sri Lanka because it is somewhat insignificant. The main cause is that the Sri Lankan audience is considerably small and very easy to reach. As an example, we can reach the required audience for an event easily through promoting through some YouTubers or an article, instead of taking the trouble to conduct a marketing campaign. Therefore, it is quite difficult to succeed in Sri Lanka by focusing only on digital marketing. By simply considering the size of the audience, we all know that a Sri Lankan company will not need to conduct social media campaigns worth millions for their products. Thus, I would rather say that newcomers to the digital marketing field of Sri Lanka should not limit themselves to the local market and instead, they should target international markets as well. It is simply because international markets possess a larger target audience, highly marketable products, and higher budgets, and it is a great opportunity that would be profitable to both parties. All they need to do additionally is having a thorough understanding of the market, through studying the content and familiarizing themselves.
When targeting the international market, I must say that there are no special barriers being a Sri Lankan company, unless they are ready to take over the challenge to start from the beginning. It would be wrong to assume that a newly started company would straightaway receive projects, so they must be prepared to work towards building an impression by following a strategic plan. It is also useful to explore different alternatives to approach companies, such as reaching out directly or going through others like partners, agencies, or connections formed through other opportunities like trade fairs. As per my experience, there is a higher possibility of acceptance when these foreigners are approached by their natives.
Q6: The ‘Online Entrepreneurs’ Club’ was started under your initiative. What was your motivation for starting this, and what is its purpose?
Though I had many problems when I started online freelancing, I practically had no one to ask and there were fewer people in the field to begin with. That is why we started a group called ‘Fiverr Club’ to discuss the common problems we faced. With time the number of members grew, reaching around ten thousand in a year. As I progressed focusing on growing passive income by diversifying my business and becoming an entrepreneur, I wanted the others as well to take the next steps. Consequently, I changed its name to ‘Online Entrepreneurs’ Club’. Over a time of around eight years, we now have over seventy-five thousand members connected with us. With the multitude of options related to e-money or online investments that we see today, we try to lessen the possibility of any new entrants being pulled into any scams or high-risk ventures. The group forum contains much helpful information to newcomers and provides resources to find a correct path in the field. Apart from these, we have opportunities to form partnerships and we provide our suggestions to the government for the further development of this industry.
Q7: You are the founder and Chief Executive Officer of “Builtapps Business Solutions”. What makes your company strive towards standing out from traditional digital marketing companies?
Normally, most digital marketing companies tend to promote products of other companies. But when considering our company, the number of third-party products or services we have marketed have been very few over the past years. Our focus has always been on our own products and services; whether it is websites, mobile applications, or other solutions we developed, or those of a partnered company. We mainly focus on projects that are beneficial to us in the long run as well as to the ones we can work on long-term.
Q8: Could you briefly explain what Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is?
If I were to explain simply using an example, there is not much difference between an online business and a local business. Whether it is a product or a service you are selling, you could compare it to selling a product in a shop. If you were to open a shop in the middle of a forest, even if it is a good product or well-organized layout, you still would need to make some effort to promote and attract customers to your shop. SEO is something similar to that. It is simply, promoting and ranking your online content so that more people would get to see it. Here, on-site optimization can be done through good content, design, graphics, proper layout giving priority according to the importance of content, and so on. Then, as off-site optimization, we create backlinks and promote them on social media platforms. When link-building, a fact that determines the quality is the source; it adds value to use a site with related content. Of course, there are many more technical details, but those as well can now be found and learnt online. However, it is important to have an idea of why we are doing it, as it can help you to achieve your goal easily, sparing much time and effort.
Q9: Since digital marketing is a broad concept and includes many aspects like content creation, promotion, SEO, and much more, what would you say is the most important?
Marketing first requires a quality product. When it comes to the digital marketing of a website, every single aspect is important, from the creation of the website, purchasing a domain, hosting the site, the content, graphics, to the videos used. All these should be of the best possible quality and should match the requirements of the user as well. Only after this, we can consider SEO; so likewise, a balance is required for the success of a site. Another very important factor is that the content we create should have a good demand in the market. For this, the content should be unique and novel.
Q10: The mission of your company is to provide clients with the best possible digital marketing services. To what extent has your company been able to accomplish this vision, and what recognition/ awards have you received for these efforts?
Actually, company wise yet we have not received any awards. We have not focused much on external service, but personally, I have received some recognition and awards at events. Last year I also received the ‘Deshamanya’ award.
Q11: You are both a local and a foreign investor. As a successful entrepreneur, what is your opinion on investments?
This is a subject that many seem to have confusion about. As an investor, I would never just invest large sums of money in a company. The reason being, if I myself as a newcomer had received a very large sum as an investment, despite being motivated, due to the lack of experience I would not know how to manage that money effectively. Whether it is marketing, HR, or finance, I lack knowledge in those areas, and it most likely would be a waste. Many newcomers make the mistake of simply coming up with an idea without any further market research or planning. They search for investments with the mindset of it is a unique idea that is guaranteed to succeed. The truth is that a novel or innovative concept alone would not guarantee success. There is also a suitable time to enter the market. There is no better example than the sudden emergence of online services during this COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes ideas and technologies can be too ahead of their time to enter the current market. Most importantly, anyone can have a concept but what matters is the decisions on whether and how you execute it. Therefore, it is better to design at least a prototype of your idea and conduct some evaluations to validate it before searching for investments. This not only lessens the risk of failure but also increases the chance of gaining investment, as it displays more potential.
Q12: Could you give your view as an entrepreneur about building trusted partnerships?
I think building trusted partnerships is very important and should be encouraged. Individuals possess different strengths and partnerships can help bring them together for the development of an organization. Therefore, it would be advisable to form partnerships with individuals who are trustworthy and have the capability to contribute actively towards the venture.
Q13: As a personality that stands out as a successful entrepreneur, what are your future expectations?
I have many personal goals, but besides, I have plans with the OECSL regarding Sri Lanka’s Tourism and Hospitality Management industry, to structure and develop it to become the highest foreign revenue source. This will be beneficial in handling brain drain in the country, and as well to the economy although sometimes the income is personal. It will offer opportunities for students with limited chances for higher education, to develop soft skills in digital services.
Another expectation is to gain due recognition for online entrepreneurs in society. Though the situation has improved with time, many have false impressions on the subject, and even successful freelancers face many challenges like social pressure or discrimination.
Most importantly, we are working towards the development of this industry. We are already in the process of cooperating with the government and third-party institutes that would be beneficial. Our goal is to target school-leavers and those facing unemployment to establish this industry.
Q14: Could you share with us your thoughts on the unavailability of PayPal in Sri Lanka, and your recommendations?
In my perspective, the unavailability of PayPal should not be a barrier for freelancing. Common platforms like Fiverr and Upwork support alternate methods like Payoneer and direct bank transfers. It is a problem faced by those doing Dropshipping on eBay. When approaching international markets with our products, using PayPal increases the conversion rate because it is trusted compared to local or third-party payment gateways.However, I believe those with an actual need would always find a way. Nevertheless, having PayPal would help create a new market for our products internationally.
Q15: Even at this moment there may be thousands of individuals who expect to be a part of this industry. So, on a final note, what is your message for them? Would they have any opportunity to connect with you?
No matter what the industry is, in order to succeed, one must enjoy what they do. This keeps one motivated through any challenge. Moreover, one must focus on finding the most suitable path for themselves instead of blindly following others. Since talents, skills, resources, and all are specific to a particular person, they must be given careful consideration, when choosing a path. If the path they decide to step in is digital marketing, they will be able to find plenty of resources on the internet, as well as courses and opportunities to build experience by working.