On this week’s edition of ‘The Founder’ we feature Ismail Sadurdeen, Founder and Managing Director of UNIVISER. He is armed with a BSc. (Hons) in Economics from the University of Nottingham, UK, and he was the first Sri Lankan student to be elected as “Union President” at the University of Nottingham.
1.In your own words, what is UNIVISER? UNIVISER is a platform that allows prospective students to chat with a nominated student Ambassador of a university prior to enrolment. They can be a current student or an alumni. Our business model is business-to-business (B2B), meaning that we licence our technology directly to universities in their own branding and we work in the background to help them generate and nurture high quality leads.
2.What inspired you? My own experience! The difficulty I experienced when transitioning from high school to university, and more so when going to a new country. New students suffer from depression, anxiety, culture-shock and correspondingly, there was a high percentage of dropouts from university. Hence, I thought a majority of these problems can be fixed if they can talk to someone before they even come to the UK. Shortly after this realization, I founded University of Nottingham’s first Buddy Program called “Global Buddy” where we paired new students with student volunteers. The program was a massive hit and even today the program runs at the University of Nottingham, pairing over two thousand five hundred students each year. When I left the UK, and moved back to Sri Lanka, my first job was at a tech start up. It was in fact here that I was inspired by the world of technology and decided why not digitise the Global Buddy Program that I began at the University of Nottingham and scale it to universities worldwide, that was how UNIVISER began. I find the quote noted herewith very powerful when I am always asked this question about my inspiration, I never intended to start UNIVISER, certain fortunate events driven by the love and passion for solving this problem culminated in founding UNIVISER. “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. Hence you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something; your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever,” Steve Jobs.
3.What was the journey like, starting from scratch and building the business up to where it is right now? I don't have a technology background; my degree was in Economics. There was a huge asymmetric information gap and the learning curve was steep. People advised me to find a technical Co-Founder to help me, and in fact, I spent almost six months telling people my idea and asking them to come on board as my CTO with equity. That process was difficult and I found no one. I was really frustrated at this point for having spent almost half a year stuck in one place. Then I was inspired by stories of tech founders who do not come from a tech background but have a good domain knowledge and experience and managed to do amazing tech companies. Hence, I took upon the challenge and determined to build my own team of developers and somehow figure it out.
I invested a lot of time reading books, online courses, going for events and workshops, and finding mentors from the tech community to help me.
4.What were the hardships you faced as an Entrepreneur, what was the toughest one yet? One of the biggest challenges I faced as an Entrepreneur was cash flow management, every day you are constantly deciding between R&D investments or marketing; it’s about finding the right balance.
5.Being an Entrepreneur, what was it like facing the global pandemic? How did it affect the business? As we are in the tech business, the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise. When the pandemic struck, student recruitment moved to one hundred percent digital, and since we are a tool for lead generation in the digital space, we were able to capitalise on this tailwind. I wasn’t thinking of raising capital for UNIVISER but with the pandemic I was able to see how big of an opportunity we had in front of us and we are now in discussions with potential investors.
6.What has been the most frustrating thing about being a start up? Being a start-up has its advantages of being agile and nimble, but also at the same time being a larger organisation gives you better bargaining power when dealing with clients and you will be able to attract high quality talent as people are more certain of their jobs. Overall, I like operating at this level for the time being.
7.Explain a few marketing strategies you have implemented, and what makes them successful? As a start-up I don’t have the budgets to run expensive digital marketing campaigns. Since we are also in the B2B space, we directly approach decision-makers of universities via email or LinkedIn. I have also visited a few education fairs and conferences overseas. If it is a Sri Lankan university, I request for an introduction. But most of the time I just cold call, pick up the phone, introduce myself and UNIVISER and ask for a meeting to come and explain how we may be able to add value in their student recruitment process. It works well. You get rejected a lot and end up feeling really bad about yourself, but over time you learn not to take it personally.
8.What motivates you to do what you do on daily basis? I really love the fact that through UNIVISER I can help students and families around the world make better decisions about their university choice and help universities by getting them high quality students that better match their own unique environments.
9.How did you get the initial start-up capital? I had some savings from my job and I was also supported by GoSL and ICTA. UNIVISER was selected for the SPIRALATION start-up accelerator where I received a LKR One Million Five Hundred Thousand grant and Ten Thousand US Dollars of Amazon Web Services (AWS) credits. I also secured an interest free loan of LKR One Million Five Hundred Thousand via Erambamu Young Entrepreneurs. I was also fortunate to have paying customers from the start which really helped with cash flow management. The first client I pitched to was, Royal Institute, when I had just an idea and no product. I just showed them some sketches of a prototype on a piece of paper of what the system may look like and they decided to take a chance on me and said they will implement the software if I built it. This gave me the confidence to build the product as I knew I will have one paying customer.
10.What separates UNIVISER from its competitors? I think the fact that I did not build UNIVISER as a tech first solution but did it in an offline manner initially, at University of Nottingham, and then used technology to scale it up, gave us the edge of really understanding the problem to make the experience better for prospective students, student ambassadors, and the universities. Furthermore, by having our R&D Centre in Sri Lanka, we have cost advantages which we can pass on to our customers.
11.What is your take on the current state of the tech industry in Sri Lanka? For me, I found it to be very helpful and supportive. As someone coming from a non-technical background, I have learned a lot from the industry. There is massive growth and opportunity for Sri Lanka and I am confident tech will become a major exporter in this next decade.
12.Why did you decide to enter this industry? As someone with an Economics background I saw massive potential for super normal profits in a tech product because the marginal cost equals zero. What this means is that for every additional customer you bring on board the additional cost of serving that customer becomes almost zero. The other reason I love the tech industry is the ability to achieve worldwide scalability. I can be sitting in my living room in Colombo while serving a customer in Japan due to the beauty of the internet. My family comes from a business of traders. One thing I really disliked about trading is the fact that there is very little value addition and you almost always end up competing on price and you’re at the mercy of suppliers. But in the software industry, when you build your own product you compete more on intellect and creativity, which is very fulfilling.
13.How did you discover your passion for your business? My father and both my grandfathers were businessmen. I feel that from a young age in small doses I was exposed to business in a healthy way. It was a very natural thing to want to do some form of business after working somewhere first. I still help my dad in the family hardware business. I am helping to transform the old traditional business into a more digital one.
14.Who are your role models? I’m inspired by all Entrepreneurs who have been able to add value to society. One of the first biographies I read was Jack Ma and reading his story really motivated me in my start-up journey
15.Was your family supportive of your new venture? Yes, my family is very supportive. I am very fortunate to come from a privileged background where I do not have to worry about having a roof over my head, three hot meals per day, and having a car to go around, so I can focus entirely on UNIVISER. Although, at first when I said I wanted to quit my full-time job to focus on UNIVISER they were a bit hesitant, which is normal for parents who are generally concerned about their children’s futures.
16.Have you tried and failed with anything in the past? Before starting UNVISER I did a few business ventures which all failed and I lost money. I tried to start a brand selling coconut-based products like oil, coconut flour, etc. I had also invested in a restaurant business and that failed as well. These experiences have been invaluable.
17.What is the end goal for UNIVISER? UNIVISER is still in its early stages, there is a long way to go. I always take things one step at a time. I have my next five-year vision for UNIVISER and I prefer not to say it until I am able to execute it.
18.What advice would you give other start-ups? If you are contemplating starting any business make sure you really love it, and are passionate about the problem you are solving. You know you have a passion for something when you happily do it burning the midnight oil even if someone does not pay you for it, but you have the self determination to and discipline to keep going. Entrepreneurship is a marathon, so do not get burned out trying to sprint it! Make sure to be careful with your cash flow management and focus on getting customers and not just building your software. After a while if you do not have paying customers or are losing money, pivot or kill it. Do not let the sunk cost fallacy set in and most importantly get trusted mentors and advisors to keep you in check.
What do you think of the current start-up ecosystem in Sri Lanka? I think we are at the early stage of developing the start-up ecosystem. There are many people supporting young Entrepreneurs and I am confident that within the next decade or so we will have many great start-ups coming out of Sri Lanka.