Finalist, Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2016
“Innovation is my passion”
Perseverance makes all the difference when launching your own business. This is especially true in a field as competitive and saturated as telecommunications. Luckily for Sri Lanka’s Tharindu Dassanayake, he had perseverance in spades and a highly innovative vision.
It started in college while pursuing a Computer Engineering degree from the University of Peradeniya. But Tharindu was never too interested in the academic side of things.
“I always wanted to do something new and innovative”
So he did just that when he developed ‘World Puzzle’ – an SMS-based game that made learning English fun and interactive. A simple enough idea, but it took off instantly. In its launch year, the application won the Etisalat Mobile Application Competition. Soon enough, it became the top game in the Etisalat network.
“Word Puzzle is not just another game, it helps all the mobile users to learn English vocabulary in an entertaining way.”
It was from the success of Word Puzzle that Tharindu was able to invest in the start-up funds for his company: Square Mobile. The vision was simple enough: to be an innovative provider of SMS related products.
Tharindu shares that finding the confidence and determination to pursue a start-up was especially challenging. Things got harder when his four colleagues from World Puzzle left the business, bowing to the pressure of their families.
“Most of the Sri Lankan parents want their children to go for higher education and find a job. This is a huge problem with Sri Lankan culture. There is no motivation from the families to take risks and do new things. After graduation, all the founding members were forced to find jobs by their parents. Square Mobile’s co-founder was a female entrepreneur. She left the company due to parents’ pressure to continue with higher education.”
Tharindu himself understood this dilemma well: he was also feeling lots of pressure from his own family to find job security. It was a big risk, but Tharindu persevered. For him, following his childhood dream to become an entrepreneur was more important than falling in line with societal expectations.
He started working with Square Mobile full time alongside his colleague Madura Pradeep. However, the early days were chequered with mostly failures. Without these, he recognizes, it would have been hard to turn Square Mobile around into the growing venture it is today. Fundamental to this growth path was coming across YBI member in Sri Lanka, Youth Business Sri Lanka (YBSL). YBSK gave him training, mentoring and consulting and Tharindu was able to get the insight to growing his business and expanding into new markets.
“Starting the business was not very hard. But when we continued the business we met lots of barriers. So mentoring is the best thing I got from the YBSL. Mentors are always helpful for emerging entrepreneurs. Most of them have gone through the same difficulties we faced those days. So it’s really great to get that kind of guidance from YBSL.”
The support he received also helped him break down barriers in the Sri Lankan market, not yet receptive to start-ups. With eyes on the world, Tharindu also found inspiration in competitions and in the start-up expositions he attended overseas. He proudly represented entrepreneurs in his country while learning from the international start up scene in the US, Singapore and beyond.
“From the day one I wanted to bring our products to the international market. But identifying the right market is very important. So I made initial research online and realized the African region is the best region to expand into.”
By 2013, Tharindu was already introducing World Puzzle into the Nigerian market. There it picked up 400,000 subscribers, 70% of which are paying users. Word Puzzle was Square Mobile’s first premier product. It was soon followed by their second flagship offer: ShoutOUT – a SMS notification service to better connect businesses to their clients. To date it is used by a mix of 30 small and medium enterprises in Sri Lanka. Tharindu has the intention to bring ShoutOUT to the Nigerian market, among others.
With 8 additional staff employed, a turnover of USD 181,000 and significant inroads in the Nigerian market, Square Mobile has much to celebrate. Even so, Tharindu has his sights set on continued expansion, and he sees enormous potential within the African region. Already, he’s begun striking future partnerships in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia.
In the spirit of paying it forward, Tharindu is coaching young emerging entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka. He genuinely wants to create more opportunities for start-ups in his country. This means connecting young entrepreneurs with other entrepreneurs, business leaders at local and international events.
Beyond YBI, he has also served as a mentor for the UNICEF Student Hackathon, Code4good Hackathon, and spoke at the Unbound 2015 Singapore and MIT Global Startup Labs. Meanwhile, he is also finding time to give back by mentoring two college start-ups.
Tharindu is one of the finalists of the YBI’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year title; he is undoubtedly a trailblazer for entrepreneurship in his country.
“My passion is to be a serial entrepreneur. I want to build successful companies, exit and build another awesome company. Because I love to disrupt and reinvent innovation.”
Tharindu’s achievements will be celebrated in April 2016 at the YBI Young Entrepreneur Awards ceremony, supported by Barclays. This year, the awards will be held in the Kampala, Uganda as part of the larger event The Promise of Youth.