Startups In Sri Lanka Are Mostly Fucked

A speech at the launch of Venture Frontier Lanka

Personally, I think words like entrepreneurship and innovation are over-hyped.

Lots of people in Sri Lanka are entrepreneurs, from the Bombai Muttai man to a family running a kade, but they don’t make a big fuss about it. If you want to publicly burn a lot of money doing something self-indulgent and dumb, you can call yourself an entrepreneur and be proud.

Innovation is also something that I think is over-hyped. Most companies that make money do something boring repetitively, along with a bunch of similar competitors. Most innovations you see that are fun or interesting are burning investor cash and either die or start to suck once they hit market realities. Besides that, like genetic mutations, most innovations are useless or destructive and do not and should not survive.

If you can’t tell, I’ve been in the Sri Lankan startup community for almost 6 years now and I’m a bit jaded. Aside from startups being difficult anywhere, Sri Lanka is especially horrible, for a few reasons.

Talent, Or Lack Thereof

Sri Lanka has a higher education system that actively makes people less employable. We are one of the few countries where higher education means higher unemployment. Statistically, you are better off dropping out before your O/Levels.

Worst of all, we waste our young people’s time. Every time I talk to a young person they tell me they’re studying and I feel so bad, because for most local students, it doesn’t lead anywhere. We do not have room in our universities, and if you do get in you waste years on strike. When graduates get out they find themselves older and less employable than rich kids that studied abroad or at private colleges, or who just went to Royal or St. Thomas’s.

I say this not to go on about the education system, but just to remind you that Silicon Valley didn’t come out of nowhere. People didn’t just sit around and chant the mantra ‘Innovation, Disruption, Entrepreneurship’ until startups appeared out of the ground. As a valley, it was surrounded by mountains, the biggest one being Stanford and other amazing universities. They also lived in a country with an immigration policy that attracted the best global talent and made their local talent better.

Sri Lanka today is not a valley surrounded by mountains of solid education and industry. We are both literally and figuratively an island. Until we build the infrastructure that creates and attracts talent, we will not be competitive with the world.

Investment No

At the same time, there is very little investment money into startups, and for good reason. Why would you invest in something so risky and annoying to maintain when you can earn 14% on a fixed deposit or more on property?

Many people say lack of investment money is the cause of the problem but I think it’s a symptom, and honestly a rational response.

Markets Small

The biggest practical problem is simply that our local market is way too small. Our addressable market is smaller than a mid-tier Indian city. We simply don’t have enough users or money for startups to scale and attract investment.

Global Competition

Finally, Sri Lankan companies have to compete globally, especially online. At YAMU I initially thought our competitors would be other websites, but they’re not. Our competitors are Google and Facebook, and in terms of advertising, they’re killing us, and possibly society.

If you start a startup, especially online, you’re competing with the world, and being in Sri Lanka is, for the reasons mentioned above, a disadvantage. The Sri Lankan passport is ranked worse than North Korea, which gives you a sense of our competitive position in the world.

So

So, thank you very much for attending this launch of Venture Frontier Lanka, but I think you should all give up and go home.

Just kidding. Look. Starting a startup is nuts. You either have to be dumb enough to not think about all these disadvantages or crazy enough to not care.

The default condition for a startup is struggle and the default exit is failure. Given my experience, I cannot in good faith recommend this life to anyone. Just, go away. Do something else.

If you insist on hanging around and trying your dumb idea in this impossible market, these people at Venture Frontier Lanka will try to help you.

This government was also try to help you, for as long as they exist. And jaded founders like me will try to help you as well.

I know this sounds pessimistic, but that’s where startups start. A startup begins with a problem that seems impossible and a solution that seems dumb. A startup ecosystem involves a lot of people trying and failing while connecting and learning until something breaks through.

Will Venture Frontier Lanka be the startup program that finally breaks through? I honestly don’t know, but they’re good people, they have good connections, and I can’t think of anyone better than Heminda to give it a shot.

It only takes one huge success to make all of the losses disappear, and that’s the power of words like entrepreneurship and innovation. These are fundamentally empty words, but you sometimes get a company or an organization that fills them up 100 times and makes it all worthy and attractive for the next 99 fools.

So here’s to being that one that breaks through. As hard as it is, I am crazy and dumb and I think Sri Lanka can do it. Here’s to the success of Venture Frontier Lanka, and all the ventures they will launch, as improbable as they are.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. indi@indi.ca. Videos: tiny.cc/indication and podcast: anchor.fm/indication. patreon.com/indication

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