Against the Odds

Sharanyan Sharma is headstrong and arrogant ; qualities that have served him well in his transition from truc k driver to tech entrepreneur in unyieldingly harsh Northern Sri Lanka

Sharanyan Sharma learned the virtues of resilience early. Growing up in the island’s unyielding North during the war he contended with the lack of stimuli. A go between then swindled his family’s savings, offering to get him to Australia. He was then urged to get a degree, but the insufferably dull professors at the fee levying Sri Lankan technology university failed to spark his interest or engage him.

He drove a Cantor truck part time delivering biscuits and greeting cards around Colombo to earn his living, often weaving his way through the narrow chuck-o-block streets of the Pettah. “I know the streets of Pettah well,” he says. He dropped out of university.

Sharma’s Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) consultancy based in Northern Vavuniya is guiding global firms on optimising their websites to rank high on Google searches. Typical start-up challenges like seed funding, competent staff, market access to scale the business and infrastructure are amplified in Vavuniya; an unremarkable town that emerged because it was, during the war, the last stop before crossing to the Tamil Tiger controlled North.

Challenges were not limited to those of un-sparkly Vavuniya. His payments from overseas clients attracted the suspicions of a Central Bank’s unit cracking down on money laundering and financing of other illegal activity.

Sharma founded Extreme SEO Internet Solutions in September 2008 with one computer. By December that year Sharma had completed over 400 assignments. By May 2010, he had completed 5,100 assignments.

His first big cheque for US$ 5,000 was due in 2008. However it never arrived in to his bank account. “The bank manager told me there was no payment.

I checked with my client who confirmed the funds were wired.” He later figured the Central Bank had frozen the funds. It took him a month; when he made numerous phone calls and visited the Central Bank to explain how his business works, before the money was released. “The officials were often rude and suspicious because I was from the North,” he explains.“Now they understand the nature of my job. I now have friends at the Central Bank.”

With his list of clients growing, Sharma wanted to expand. A proposal for a Rs50,000 loan was rejected by the bank. “I swore to myself then I would never seek a loan from a bank or anybody else,” says Sharma who admits he has a problem with submitting to authority. “I wanted to show this guy what I was capable of,” he says about his admittedly arrogant reaction to the rejection. Most others would have approached another bank or a friend for support. He was riled because the bank manager had also laughed at his business plan.

Sharma funded the expansion through the firm’s cash flow “We brought a few old computers and plastic stools,” Sharma recalls. Soon Extreme SEO had 22 staff, most from Vavuniya. A few were graduates. By 2012 the staff had grown to 40 and he was outsourcing technical and other writing to freelancers overseas. Extreme SEO had painful teething challenges, specifically its choice of being located in Vavuniya.

A few years ago its only internet connection went dead. “I lost nine days!” Sharma says, his irritation evident. In his line of work, one lost day translates to the loss of several clients and several thousand dollars. “This was because the Internet service provider was upgrading its network. The system crashed without warning and I lost a lot of business”.

A few of the clients Sharma lost during that nine-day period he never got back, but he learnt his lesson.

Extreme SEO has since subscribed to several Internet service providers. Sharma also made sure he invested in good technology. Now all his staff are provided laptops.

He has also qualified himself in Google Analytics Google AdWords. These qualifications enable him to train others in developing algorithms for search engine optimisation.Up to then Sharma’s academic record hadn’t been one marked by achievement. He failed his A/Levels. Realising Jaffna was not a safe place for a youth, especially one as stubborn as Sharma who resents authority, his parents sent him to Colombo with Rs600, 000 they raised by mortgaging their home.

Sharma insists the company will always be run his way, even if it means not being able to find investors. Several investors here and abroad have offered to buy his company or invest in shares, but Sharma is not interested. In 2010, he had 23 partner vendors in Australia, UK and US who were licensed to resell Extreme SEO solutions services. Today he has close to 1000 resellers.

Some of Sharma’s top clients include SLASSCOM, Findmyfare, Sprizzi Drink,Pro ISP, Prime Medical Training, Instant VPN, Web Travel Market, ShiftZen, Orchard Orthodontics, and InstantDedicated.

“I don’t want to be an expert in my field. Anyone can be an expert. I want to be an icon,” Sharma says. His company is a member of SLASSCOM and will open an office at Orion City IT Park or World Trade Centre in Colombo later this year and another office in Kerala India. But the head office will always be in Vavuniya.

“No one should ask for favours or hand-outs. If you have a skill, develop it. Work hard to overcome obstacles. Let your skill make money for you. Always deliver on high quality. If your product is high in quality you will never lose customers and you can always grow your business,” Sharma says.

“I really don’t bother about Sri Lankan companies,” he says about new clients. “I want Extreme SEO to be a big player in the digital marketing industry in the Asia-Pacific. I can do this!”