With a foot firmly planted in a US $ 660 billion industry, Leapset is transforming the face of the IT industry of Sri Lanka. Spearheading the model of bleeding edge product innovation, the Valley-based start-up is well on its way to achieving its ambitious growth plans.
What is the Leapset story?
If we look at what is happening in the world right now, it is very clear that the most successful businesses have a common formula – they identify a real-world problem and attempt to solve it through product innovation. Most of the phenomenal success stories we have heard in the last several years originate from the Valley. Leapset is founded on this exact formula and shares the same attributes - we have identified a problem that is prevalent in the restaurant industry and are solving that problem through our technology platform.
What differentiates you from the other players in the IT industry of Sri Lanka?
We are a true Valley product innovator and this is what differentiates us primarily. The second key differentiator with respect to Sri Lanka is that we diverge from the traditional service-based business model that is predominant here. Our technology platform also caters to millions of consumers and thus is a mass-market platform. These attributes position us very uniquely.
What are the challenges you face being a Valley company with a presence in Sri Lanka?
As a disruptive organisation, we face several challenges: the first is the service-orientated mainstream business model I mentioned earlier. We have found ourselves at odds with the conventional mindset. Consulting services have put Sri Lanka on the global IT map, but it is not scalable; we firmly believe that niche’ product innovation is the way forward for the Sri Lankan IT industry given the relatively small workforce in comparison with regional competitors.
The second challenge is what I term the ‘Enterprise mindset’. There is a natural bias towards large enterprise businesses and people are culturally more risk averse. Start-ups are just starting to come into vogue but are still not fashionable enough for University graduates and young industry professionals. It might take a few years for this mindset to change: people need to appreciate the massive potential for growth that companies like Uber have in order to stimulate that change in Sri Lanka. Leapset, having originated as a start-up, is now backed by Sysco, the largest food distributor in the world; with a 45 percent market share in the US. We have experienced massive growth in the last couple of years.
The third problem we are facing as a Valley company is a strong bias towards technical specialization among industry professionals in Sri Lanka, the origins of which are no doubt due to the services based nature of the industry. In order to generate more value, the industry needs multi-skilled engineers. Being a product innovator, it’s essential that we are able to recruit and retain talent that can engineer products across a breadth of technologies while being generally conversant with aspects of the business. What we are really looking for are full stack engineers who have UI/UX, front-end, back-end services, DB and OS skills along with a good measure of business domain knowledge.
Have you found the solutions to these problems?
We have succeeded in bringing about some change through a number of initiatives.
As you know, our education system does not quite encourage innovation or out of the box thinking; on the contrary students are taught to follow instructions and do not ask too many difficult questions.
We revamped our organisational structure earlier this year and our teams now work in small units or ‘pods’ each containing an average of six members. Each of these teams work autonomously and operate like independent start-ups. This model ensures that each and every team member can contribute across the entire spectrum and there is no hierarchy. Furthermore, the teams are free to innovate and directly control project outcomes. The model enhances creativity, facilitates direct communication and ideation; it also ensures that every team member contributes actively. This new model has been very successful for us so far.
Our internship programme is another key initiative and the training methods we adopt facilitate more out-of the box thinking. The interns work in teams, usually to develop a stand-alone product as a part of an R&D initiative, and actively contribute to all aspects of the software development life cycle including product conceptualization, requirements definition and wireframe design.
Although there was some initial resistance to change, all our engineers can now be considered full-stack developers. Over the past year and a half, we have successfully adopted a number of technical cross-training programmes to bridge skills shortages. This gives us the flexibility to transfer employees across teams and create new pods with no loss of efficiency.
We also have a very competitive interview process. On average only 4 percent of applicants are offered positions and we aim to emulate Google’s model of hiring ‘smart creatives’. Applicants are expected to demonstrate curiosity and good learning ability in addition to core competencies like creativity and aptitude.
We also recognize contribution to R&D and reward our most innovative thinkers with our ‘Hall of Fame’ programme where we adjudge the best engineering artefacts on a quarterly basis and reward the overall winners annually.
Our work environment as well as our unique culture aims to foster and enhance creativity and innovation, and our challenge is to continue to retain our culture as we scale.
What are the metrics used to measure performance in the Leapset work environment?
We have refined our performance management systems over the years and we now have five focus areas: creativity, accountability, passion, attitude and analytical skills.
These attributes are critical for product innovation companies like our own. As I mentioned before, the key differentiation a Leapset Engineer brings to the table is the holistic understanding of the problem, solution and technology. We like to think of our employees as ‘Business Engineers’ and the performance management systems are geared to create them.
The best performers are rewarded handsomely and can expect rapid career growth to leadership positions; due to the nature of our structure and our projected growth plans, we will have many key positions that will open up in the near future.
What kind of experiential growth is delivered to your recruits?
By virtue of being headquartered in Silicon Valley, we are privileged to have access to the latest innovations in product and technology. Our US rotation programme ensures that employees spend a couple of months in the US gaining experience with overseas staff, clients and partners, and we have found that this contributes enormously to productivity.
We also host and participate in a variety of events so that our teams gain different experiences. The experience gathered at Leapset exceeds many alternatives in terms of career enrichment, progression and satisfaction; our Facebook page and blog will give some insight into the culture and engineering experience at Leapset.
In conclusion, what is your closing remark for anyone on the lookout for an opportunity in the IT sector?
The IT industry in Sri Lanka is growing and there are excellent opportunities.
In relation to Leapset as an employer all I can say is – if you are a bright spark and you have the passion and drive to make your mark in a highly dynamic and bleeding edge environment, Leapset is the place to consider.