#SupportLocalArtists: Muthumuni on Urban.lk’s newest addition, The Gallery
Trying to imagine our world without e-commerce, particularly after the year that was 2020, is almost impossible. However, we wouldn’t have been able to adjust to an e-commerce world if it weren’t for the efforts of a few visionary entrepreneurs a few years back to bring e-commerce to us and revolutionise how we shopped.
One of the start-ups that helped transform e-commerce in Sri Lanka is Urban.lk, providing a platform for quality tech equipment with friendly and competent customer service and delivery. Established by two engineer brothers, Malinda (an aeronautical engineer) and Kalana Muthumuni, Urban.lk as a concept was developed while Kalana was pursuing his undergrad in computer science and engineering at the University of Moratuwa.
Urban.lk’s newest value addition, The Gallery, is an attempt to showcase local artists’ directory to consumers, both locally and internationally, through the Urban.lk e-commerce platform. The Gallery was born from the realisation that many local artists have trouble being discovered, and as a platform that strives to add value to the communities around them, Urban.lk decided to #SupportLocalArtists by giving them a platform to easily commercialise their craft.
Brunch chatted with Urban.lk Founder and Director Kalana Muthumuni to learn more about The Gallery and how it works.
Tell us about Urban.lk and how it all came to be.
Urban.lk was started back in 2016. At the time we started, the market was flooded with counterfeit and fake products, and e-commerce was not considered to be a proper sales platform. E-commerce is supposed to be about convenience, which was what we wanted to do, and we started Urban.lk with the goal of revolutionising e-commerce in Sri Lanka by focusing on delivering 100% authentic products to customers quickly and conveniently. In 2019, John Keells Holdings (JKH) came on board as shareholders and helped us to grow this vision.
Urban.lk mainly sells tech products and gadgets like smartphone devices and items that you can’t easily find in Sri Lanka. We find these products and try to introduce them to the Sri Lankan market. We have a variety of products available; for example, we carry a range of headphones and earphones that are fast-moving and that people love. In addition to tech products, we have several other items like fashion watches, smartwatches, and even a small range of bakery and confectionery items. The newest addition to Urban.lk is The Gallery, a place where we carry art from our local artists.
What is The Gallery? Tell us more about it and how it works.
What we wanted to do with The Gallery was to create a space where art lovers have the opportunity to discover talented Sri Lankan artists and their work. Sri Lanka has an abundance of talented artists who don’t have a way to commercialise their work and get it to customers. The Gallery is a bridge that can connect artists and consumers through a platform where consumers can discover new artists and artists can commercialise and exhibit their work easily without worrying about logistics. Urban.lk handles all these details, and the artists get their share of the sale as well as a royalty and licensing fee.
Right now, The Gallery mostly carries digital art. When an order is placed, Urban.lk handles the details like printing, framing, marketing, delivery, and other logistics to get the art to the customer. The Gallery aims to make it easy for artists to commercialise, delivering the physical art to the customer within three working days, working with trusted companies like Anim8 and Kent on the production of the artwork.
At present, we only sell physical art through The Gallery. We have plans to make digital art available for download, but that comes with a range of IP (intellectual property) issues that need to be resolved. Once we get that sorted out, we will be able to look at digital art as a product and have soft copies available for download, but our IP laws have to be made much stronger for us to be able to do that. We take IP issues very seriously, and when we first get artists on board, we sign a well-drafted agreement with each artist to make sure their IP rights are not violated.
What led to Urban.lk starting The Gallery?
Urban.lk Founder Malinda Muthumuni and shareholder Dhanushka Gunawardena felt that Sri Lankan artists needed to be discovered on a much larger scale. They saw a gap in the market where we have lots of talented artists who have no easy way to be discovered. At Urban.lk, we carry a lot of high-value products and cater to a niche market that spends a lot of money on entertainment.
Seeing this, we realised that this is a market that would really appreciate the work our local artists are doing and be willing to invest in it, and so we decided to create a platform where photographers and artists can show and sell their work easily.
We also wanted to support Sri Lankan artists and the work they do. Urban.lk is not solely just an online platform. We want to connect and communicate with communities and give them what they want and need. For example, when the Covid-19 lockdown took place last year, we already had the ability to deliver during curfews and similar (we had obtained permission a long time prior for other reasons), but at the time we weren’t carrying groceries. All the other grocery suppliers took a little while to get on board, so we quickly got FMCG (fast-moving consumer good) partners on board and began delivering groceries to our customers because we understood that that was what they needed as a community.
Tell us about the artists who are a part of The Gallery so far.
We launched The Gallery very recently, about two weeks ago, and we started the platform with five different artists. The highlight of the group is Sachi Ediriweera, the writer and artist of Lionborn, the first English language graphic novel produced by a Sri Lankan. He was one of the first artists to come on board to join The Gallery.
We also have the artist Nelluma (Nelusha Lindagedara), who is exhibiting and selling her zodiac series which depicts the 12 astrological signs, a range we selected because the zodiac is something Sri Lankans are very familiar with.
We’ve also included a few aspiring artists like Ranmith Welikaka, a Sri Lankan photographer based in the US, whose theme of art is more moody and highly stylised visually; Rakitha Seneviratne, who goes by the name “Nudleface” and is a digital artist who mainly draws portraits from games we love; and self-taught photographer Dillon whose work captures the magic of ordinary scenery.
Since launching The Gallery, we’ve received about 40 requests from other artists looking to be a part of The Gallery, and in the next few weeks, we hope to add another 20 artists or so to the platform.
How can artists become a part of The Gallery?
We ask all artists interested in being a part of The Gallery to reach out to us. We have crafted a special email just for artists who wish to join the platform. There are no specific criteria for being a part of The Gallery. What we’re looking for is quality work of art that our customers will appreciate. We’re not going to be judging artists and their work too harshly.
As a tech business venturing into art, what was the most challenging part about getting The Gallery up and running?
The most challenging part was actually getting the artists to come on board. Initially, it took us a while to find these talented artists, and we found five artists who were very talented. We weren’t in the same space before, but once we started looking for it, we realised that there are lots of artists having the problem of being undiscovered and not having their work out there.
Another issue was the framing and production process – to sort out good-quality frames and in the right size for the customers. The whole process took about six months and research and development to reach the level of quality we were expecting.
What are the plans The Gallery has for the future?
We are looking at getting canvas artists and other artists who create artwork physically to come on board.
Another priority is to enable these artists to reach an international audience. We’re looking at the western market, primarily. We feel that the art of our artists will be very well received in the western world because our culture and the kind of art that inspired it provides something they usually love, and that’s where we’re going to start.
To take a closer look at The Gallery, visit the Urban.lk website. To apply to be a part of The Gallery, email firstname.lastname@example.org.