HOW TO WIN EMPLOYEES—AND KEEP THEM

FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW; THIS COMPANY IS WRITING ITS OWN RULES, AND CORPORATE SRI LANKA SHOULD TAKE NOTES

Picture this: All walls covered floor-to-ceiling in artificial grass; a sizeable boxful of Mars bars, M&Ms and Kit Kat in the middle of the boardroom table; and colourful scribbled post-its adorning the glass walls. Welcome to Surge Global, a three-year-old digital marketing company headed by Insta-famous founder @bhanoob.

If the names Surge Global and Bhanuka Harischandra don’t ring a bell, a glance at any social media site may bring you up-to-date. But then again, as he says, “I don’t think anyone above 25 years knows me.”

At first meeting, Harischandra doesn’t come off as the founder/chief executive of a borderline million-dollar company based in Sri Lanka with an international client base. But then he gets to talking. Running his third startup-turned-fully fledged company, he knows a thing or two about being a boss. But even more refreshing is his take on the “problem” most larger corporates are yet to grasp, let alone solve: All it takes is total transparency and fair-mindedness to run a successful company. It’s not rocket science. “We already know that we are not perfect, and are not the end all. And you’re probably not going to make a million a month working at Surge.”

Harischandra thinks most employers are insecure. “That’s because they don’t get people who want to stay on in the company, so they try to do everything they can to keep them. When you try to do that, you create this weird loop.”

His approach is somewhat different. He believes that you should not outstay your tenure at a workplace, no matter where it might be, Surge or otherwise.

“Everyone who works at Surge is probably going to leave at some point. But what we want to do is make the organisation ridiculously different in terms of culture and whatnot, that even though it doesn’t become the ‘final destination’ of your career, it’s going to be that 3-5 year window where you can pick up all the core skills you need to become a badass at what you do.”

“If we say we are a company that’s entrepreneurial by nature, we want people to eventually leave us to start their own thing,” Harischandra says. The number of Surge alumni who have now started their own companies bears testimony to this.

A YEAR AGO, SURGE COMPRISED OF JUST FIVE PEOPLE, including founder Harischandra. Today, twenty 20-somethings fill the company’s premises in the heart of Colombo. The company is also building a complex in Rajagiriya that can accommodate 90+. Surge is aiming for the stars.

Harischandra admits the reasoning behind his Gen-Z posse as this is the audience that consumes the content he creates, essentially on Instagram. “This is the type of people we want to attract. They are not looking for a comfortable life, they really want to grow.”

While most leaders are asking the question, “How can I best manage millennials?”, Harischandra asks “How can I best manage people my own age?” Everyone at Surge is below 30 years: the average age is 21. But this is a good thing, he insists: “When people with experience join us, we want them to unlearn everything they know. It’s easier for them to learn something from scratch rather than have some background and try to fit themselves into our mould.”

Surge recently assumed top-of-the-mind recall when Harischandra flooded social media platform Instagram with photos and vlogs on his daily goings-on and the company’s growth.

There is no slow ascent to his day: no sipping coffee while flipping through the newspapers, no leisurely scrolling through emails and no idle chit-chat. Working 16-18 hour days – from the time he arrives in office to the wee hours of the morning – Harischandra is on the move, from conference calls to brainstorming sessions and meeting clients, all the while with his front camera rolling.

“When I tell someone that I work at least 18 hours on a Sunday, they don’t believe me. So I put time stamps on my Insta stories, and there’s a story up once every 2 to 3 hours, which shows what I’m doing.”

At any given time, on any given day, for the past year (and still), Instagram users knew exactly where he was, what he was doing and who he was meeting. Total, nonstop content creation.

“In the whole process of gaining inbound traffic, there’s three things we follow: content, distribution and insight. You tell the right story to the right person and measure the data it leaves behind. You then use this data to restructure the story, thereby changing the distribution and acquiring new data. You do this process repeatedly to achieve success.”

Embarking on this social media takeover with an aim to bring in new recruits had the desired effect. Overnight, every 20-something, either undergraduate or in a gap year before university, wanted to be a part of Surge. The result was over 150 CVs coming in every month – so much that it became a problem and the company had to introduce a filtering system.

“We needed a way to filter the 150 CVs to 5 fully finished people; and from those 5, we would hire 1 really good person,” he explains. To arrive at the top 5, the company requires all applicants to complete three online courses and certifications: Google Partner Program (complete Google AdWords/analytics certification), Facebook Blueprint (complete certification) and Hubspot Academy (complete inbound academy). “It’s important they know what we do here before they join,” he says, identifying a key mistake most companies make when hiring people off the bat.

According to Harischandra, these certifications are far better than any university degree on media and marketing Sri Lanka can offer students. “This is the bare minimum to understand. From then on, we will teach them advanced analytics, how media works, how distribution channels work, etc.”

He also feels that most companies waste time negotiating salaries. The salary structure at Surge is freely available on their website. “If you don’t like it, don’t apply,” he declares.

“I’d like to say that I had this strategy all figured out, but I’m not that smart,” he laughs. Rather, Harischandra follows marketing personality Gary Vaynerchuk of VaynerMedia, a 600-man company making $1 billion a year. “If I was working in media, I would only want to join them and nobody else. The guy (@garyvee) who runs it shares every single minute of his life on social media.”

In achieving total transparency, Harischandra wants to share Surge’s P&L statement publicly – A real live dashboard with their revenue breakdown. Although dissuaded to do so by his investors, he feels it’s only a matter of time before he wins them over to the idea.

FOR A YOUNG COMPANY WITH investor funding and no conglomerate backing, its founder and team know exactly what they are doing, and what they can offer potential clients. Retaining talent was never an issue, and there is never a shortage of clients.

“AS A LEAD GENERATION COMPANY, OUR ENTIRE BUSINESS CENTRES AROUND THE FACT THAT WE CAN HELP YOU GET SALES; SO IF WE CAN’T GET SALES FOR OURSELVES, IT KIND OF DEFEATS THE PURPOSE”

Harischandra doesn’t appear to believe in competition, willing to share industry insights and information with others for free. “People in Sri Lanka don’t understand competition. They think competition is stealing a client. To be fair, if someone takes your client, you’re probably not adding enough value to the client in the first place, and deserve to lose them!”

With several big name clients in Sri Lanka, the company is now looking to go global. “A majority of our clients are not in Sri Lanka, so we are not a local company although we are registered here. We have a billion-dollar company in Australia, and distributors in Singapore and tech companies in Canada as clients. We are already global,” Harischandra laughs.

“As a lead generation company, our entire business centres around the fact that we can help you get sales; so if we can’t get sales for ourselves, it kind of defeats the purpose,” he says, explaining the strategy behind a lineup of clients in the pipeline.

And how did this happen? “A lot of customers found us through social media.” Welcome to the digital age.

SURGE GLOBAL is a media tech company that provides fullstack marketing services including analytics, customer acquisition and lead generation. “Full stacked marketing is where we do every single thing in digital from running ads, testing landing pages and managing conversion funnels to content creation, videos and distribution,” he explains.

With its starting retainer at $3,000 a month, sans ad spend, Surge services don’t come cheap. “If we can really pinpoint your exact ROI, and if you’re making money by working with us, you shouldn’t have a problem,” Harischandra reasons. This seems to work for the company. They’ve already signed contracts for 2018, with some for 3 years running, which cover all their costs based on projection. “It’s a very comfortable place to be”, says Harischandra.