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Taking Sri Lankan start-up culture global: Enosh Praveen on Arteculate Asia 

2 years ago

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Sri Lanka, though a “sleepy little island”, is one that booms with industry, and not just the big ones like apparel and tourism. Entrepreneurship is very strong in our little paradise, and we have, over the last decade, built our very own flourishing start-up culture, especially in tech. There are the big tech start-up stories we all know like PickMe, as well as the smaller stories set to innovate ands become their own powerhouses over the next few years, like text-based pharmaceutical assistant Healthnet, the literally lady-driven cab company Pink Drives, and agriculture spectral imaging analysis apparatus Spectrify AI.  [caption id="attachment_123395" align="alignnone" width="825"] F'up Friday's Startup Meetup - October[/caption] Arteculate Asia is the platform documenting all these monumental startup stories. Artecualte’s goal is to document and showcase the startup stories and take their learnings and experiences across the region.  The Sunday Morning Brunch chatted with Arteculate Asia Founder Enosh Praveen, a serial entrepreneur himself who wears many caps. In addition to being the Founder of Arteculate Asia, Praveen is also Co-Host at SPIKE Sri Lanka, Co-Organiser of F'up Fridays and Former Ambassador of Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards Sri Lanka.    [caption id="attachment_123106" align="alignright" width="442"] Arteculate Asia Founder Enosh Praveen[/caption] What sparked Arteculate? And what does Arteculate do?    Storytelling. It has been a passion for me since my school days, where I remember creating magazines ripping off CR book pages with handwritten fonts, multiple scraps of images and article cutouts pasted on top of each other. I would sometimes even glue-in printed photographs along with the narratives and end up with a handful of bulky pages. This is when I also discovered photo-copy machines, and I simply used to reproduce multiple copies of the master file and distribute them to my close-circle of classmates during library hours.    Fast forward to a few years later, soon after my degree and masters, I found myself dabbling in a new website bringing local entrepreneurial stories to life. This was a great beginning as we suddenly had access to some amazing stories across the island, which we had the privilege to take to our audience. However, over time what I realised was that we’re catering to a limited number of readers within the country and our larger purpose would be to reach beyond borders, to showcase Sri Lanka’s startup ecosystem to the region, to attract more business opportunities and investments. That’s how Arteculate was born.    Showcasing startups to the region - how does that work? Is it through competitions? What are Artecualte’s other platforms?    This completely happened by accident. Even though we were heavily involved with tech and startup stories within Sri Lanka, we gradually realised that we have capped our audience for this niche here. However, the trigger point for that realisation was when we stepped out of the country to meet some startup changemakers in neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Cambodia. We realised that there’s such a lot of exciting activity happening in the region, and to them, the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem is almost unheard of. This was, in a way, heartbreaking for us after our years of unearthing startup stories within the island. This is when we switched our perspective from showcasing local startups to a local audience, to showcasing local startups to an international audience.    We began connecting with regional startup ecosystems in neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and also started creating platforms for knowledge transfers between startup founders and entrepreneurs. One such programme was a talk-show we hosted soon after the lockdowns were imposed, with panellists representing five startup ecosystems within the region on “Re-imagining Startups in a Changing World”.    We also facilitated a startup pitching session for early-stage entrepreneurs through Founder Institute in Sri Lanka with up to 15 investors and mentors, and more than half of them joining from the region. In a very recent example, we connected a Cambodian startup with a leading Sri Lankan startup, who were tackling two very different problems, but were able to gain invaluable insights from each other’s perspectives.    What is Sri Lanka’s startup culture like?    I’ve had the privilege of a front-row seat for almost a decade, and certainly, it has picked up a lot of mainstream interest lately. I think the pandemic gave it a shot of steroids, and literally, everyone you meet is armed with a startup idea now.    I would say there’s a lot of interest, mainly because of the hype. It’s very few who see that startup mindset is a lifestyle and not a fad. It’s not all awards and celebrations. Really, it’s a lot of long nights of hard work trying to solve challenges that sometimes you never even thought of. I’m not saying it’s entirely bad, but maybe there’s a bit too much icing than real cake when it comes to our local startup ecosystem and how people view it.    Having said that, it is hard to ignore some of the great work startups are doing locally. Take for example PayHere, which has been working towards simplifying digital payments for businesses and Arimac, which has built a robot called Diyazen, and another product called Nero, one of the largest Sri Lankan video games to date.    Adding to that, some great support systems like investors, accelerators and incubators like ICTA driven Spiralation Programme, HatchX Fintech accelerator, Kickass programme for women entrepreneurs and Lankan Angel Network, we do have the recipe for success in the making.    Does Sri Lanka’s startup scene have the potential to grow into a hub along the lines of Silicon Valley?    This indeed has been a dream for many and has sparked real initiatives like the Yarl IT Hub, a long-running startup accelerator from the Northern Province, dedicated to uplifting startups and entrepreneurship.    Although there are numerous building blocks under the surface to creating an ecosystem on par with the western world, we’re certainly on the right track. It might not be an overnight affair to replicate anything close to Silicon Valley, but undoubtedly we should invest more in our infrastructure and facilities as a country to be more conducive to encourage startup ventures.    Then there’s our culture too, which on one hand heavily regards occupations such as the doctor, lawyer and engineer, and on the other hand, shies away from anything to do with failures. From kindergarten to A/Ls we’re only taught to follow the books and maintain ranks and we’re never allowed to challenge the status quo. From an entrepreneurial perspective, both these embedded qualities within our culture are serious hindrances to encouraging anything related to entrepreneurship. In fact, the best way to begin change is from the education system itself.    How did Arteculate Asia, and the startup community in general, handle the pandemic?    I think the pandemic accelerated our growth without warning. As many were turning towards digital solutions and services, we also saw a spike in demand for startup stories and publicity campaigns. It was overwhelming work during the initial few months of lockdowns, but we adapted soon by expanding our team of writers.    It was also surprising to see some of the impressively creative ways local startups were pivoting to newer ideas, to capitalise on the situation and to serve their customers. Prime examples in my view would be PickMe, the ride-hailing service introducing gas and grocery delivery, the Keells supermarket chain refining their e-Commerce services and delivery logistics, and Healthnet introducing the world’s first pharma-assistant.    I think startups as a whole, by their very nature of being small and agile, were better geared to face a situation like this pandemic. Sadly, not every single startup was able to make it safely to shore, but most certainly they were able to navigate quicker than the larger, mostly rigid corporates.    What has the pandemic and the changes it has brought meant for new startups, and those trying to build startups?    In my opinion, I think the pandemic actually gave a glimpse into a real startup safari, maybe on a global scale. It’s the fact that you predominantly navigate through uncertainty and always have to be prepared for any catastrophe is indeed any entrepreneur's journey.    [caption id="attachment_123105" align="alignright" width="825"] The Selfie at Seedstars Asia Summit 2019 Cambodia that went viral[/caption] What was your personal favourite moment of the Arteculate journey?    It would be my selfie that caught fire in Cambodia! From Colombo to Cambodia: what we discovered at Seedstars Asia - was the title of an article that hit the mainstream newspapers across Cambodia and Sri Lanka, all because of a random picture that I took with a group of regional startup finalists at the Seedstars Asia Summit which took place in the city of Phnom Penh in 2019. My memorable moment was clicking the picture itself, which has its own interesting backstory to it, and one that I’ll never forget.    What’s next for Arteculate?    We have our hands full right now with our regional focus, with immediate expansions into Cambodia with some regional partners and a possible expansion into Pakistan slated for later this year.    Right now we’re eagerly looking forward to joining as media partner for Asia’s trendiest startup conference RISE taking place in Malaysia in March 2022 and then go along to join Seedstars Global Summit 2022 in Lausanne, Switzerland.    In a nutshell, though, our sole mission on this journey is to help startups and tech companies articulate their stories for wider reach and publicity across Asia.    What do you think Sri Lankan startups and entrepreneurs need to keep in mind when navigating the new normal?    Uncertainty is the bedrock of any entrepreneurial journey. Most often than not, founders and startup teams that can live and thrive in uncertainty are the ones who reach the end of the pipeline to create meaningful products and companies.

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