Local entrepreneurs share their newfound learnings
Many industries have suffered greatly at the hands of the pandemic. No sector was spared. It’s amazing to see that despite all the hardships and obstacles start-up companies had to face during the pandemic, they still preserved and seem to be doing better than ever. Some even used the pandemic to further improve their business and develop certain areas that they never thought would be beneficial for their brand. Brunch spoke to a few companies to learn their stories and find out how they overcame the struggles that came with the pandemic. ‘Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise’: Univiser Founder and CEO Ismail Sadurdeen Univiser is a site that provides reliable real-time solutions to help university students connect and build valuable partnerships through a single common sense platform with just a few clicks. Conveniently obtaining one-on-one access, personalised guidance, and relevant information from an advisor is hard to find and could at times be expensive, so Founder and CEO Ismail Sadurdeen filled in that gap for an exclusive platform that provides a single space to build meaningful peer-to-peer relationships. Talking to Sadurdeen on the challenges his startup faced with the pandemic, he commented that Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise for them. “We signed up more clients than before, especially clients who were on the fence. Since our solution is a digital tool for student recruitment and now recruitment is 100% digital due to Covid-19, we were able to capitalise on it.” He also mentioned that it seemed like quite a challenge at first; the inability to meet clients and pitch their solution was daunting as they are in the B2B space but in fact, he noted that it made his life so much easier when he had to work from home, especially when dealing with foreign clients. The pandemic was the start of a success story for Univiser and Sadurdeen also added that during this time, they made more money than pre-Covid-19 times. Now with the country opening back up, they are more prepared than ever to take on what’s to come, with the experience and knowledge they gained during the pandemic. ‘We focused on conveying what we represented as a brand’: Empire Clothing Club Founder and CEO Owin CKEmpire Clothing Club – a brand that embodies the spirit of the hustler, the achiever, the rebel, and those who aim to build their own legacy and provides high-quality clothing items with fresh, distinct designs that encourage individuals to conquer from within and build their own empire – did indeed conquer the pandemic. Speaking to Empire Clothing Club Founder and CEO Owin CK, he commented that the pandemic did come with its downfalls, especially the first wave, where they had no way of sending their products to their customers. Giving us more insight into their Covid-19 situation, he explained: “It was a tough situation which saw a lot of retailers unable to sell their products, and they temporarily closed down their shops and stopped branding activities. But we saw this as an opportunity and started engaging very heavily on our social media channels, inviting industry leaders to go on live sessions, to educate our followers on mindset, growth, and business, by bringing in CEOs, national athletes, media personalities, coaches, and young entrepreneurs.” In a clever marketing strategy, they turned the doom and gloomy pandemic into knowledge on how to successfully grow their brand’s online presence. This strategy led to their online presence growing over 300% in a period of a few weeks. Owin explained: “We shifted focus from sales to focus on what we represent as a brand and conveying this to provide content that helped us gain 3,000-plus followers during this period of time.” This focus on brand and branding during a tough period led to record sales of Empire Clothing once the country opened up again, showing the love and support their audience had for them during this time. Owin commented that he and his team at Empire would be creating more content than they ever have before. They will be sticking to their core values as always, pushing individuals to build their Empire State of Mind, all whilst improving their product and providing quality clothing solutions to the market. He further commented: “At the same time we’d be catering to our clientele of professional executives by providing them with our All-New Work Leisure Polo range, which are premium and highly comfortable fabrics that they can wear comfortably in the workspace. New trendy work attire, for the new normal!” ‘Understanding team dynamics is difficult’: DishServe Co-Founder Fathhi Mohammed DishServe is the latest innovation to come out of Covid-19. DishServe is a three-sided marketplace and consists of the DishServe platform, restaurant brands, and a network of cloud kitchens. We spoke to DishServe Co-Founder Fathhi Mohammed about what challenges they had to face in order to make DishServe a successful operation, to which he responded that since the very first day, there were many challenges they had to overcome. Their biggest challenge was that all four of the Co-Founders were in different locations, himself being in Sri Lanka, Rishabh in New York, Stefanie in Jakarta, and Vinav in Mumbai, which made communicating a bit tough, but with the advanced technology available, they made it work. He also noted that understanding the dynamics of the team happens during physical meetings, and with them not being able to fly to a country to see each other, this understanding and level of communication does not happen. Through their tireless efforts, Fathhi and the team truly believe that DishServe has made significant progress toward its initial objectives by laying a solid platform for assisting Indonesian home cooks. The company now intends to capitalise on its success by supporting restaurant chains with their expansion plans. Sharing their next steps, Fathhi stated that they are currently collecting data, adding that according to the affordability, their network of cloud kitchens has helped restaurants expand to new locations. Once they have the adequate data in hand, they will be able to further help these restaurants to decide on the ideal locations to move to, so they may be able to obtain a sizable financial gain. ‘Start-ups are geared to face a situation like the pandemic’: Arteculate Asia Founder Enosh Praveen Speaking to Arteculate Asia Founder Enosh Praveen, a serial entrepreneur himself who wears many caps on the challenges Arteculate faced, he explained: “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.” Enosh is also well versed in the startup industry and has coached many local and international-based startups to success. Using this knowledge, he stated that 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.” He also observed that in his opinion, 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. But, despite their advantage, they will face many challenges, one of which he was facing during our conversation: a power cut. “I think this in itself is one big challenge. Working from home with a lack of infrastructure. A major culprit being occasional power cuts that put people offline that interrupt workflow. Startups are the ones affected most as speed and timing matter most to them.” He also added that yet another culprit that affects working from home is the poor internet that we all experience continuously. We asked him what the pandemic and the changes it has brought meant for new startups, and those trying to build startups, to which he said: “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; it is indeed any entrepreneur’s journey.”In a country like Sri Lanka, where taking a startup from concept to market was already a challenging process with a series of obstacles to overcome, a situation like the pandemic only made things far worse for those that managed to get their businesses off the ground. However, displaying the truly indomitable Sri Lankan spirit, our entrepreneurs have managed to keep bobbing and weaving through blow after blow to the economy, but we have to hope for – and also work towards – a better business environment, for all of our sakes.