Serial entrepreneur Sanji De Silva says the pandemic has disrupted two things he cares about; his daily morning cycle ride, and the demand for his company Bileeta’s health logistics management software globally.
Tell us what your typical day looks like?
I wake up at six. I segment my day into four sessions when I’m in Sri Lanka.
I used to cycle several times a week from 6 am to 7.30 am, until the pandemic disrupted that routine. My work segment begins when I’m at home in the morning, usually dealing with emails and communicating with clients overseas.
I leave home for the office after the morning rush hour. At the office, I start my second work segment going up to lunch.
This starts after lunch. I usually work late say until 7 pm or so. Before the pandemic, I used to travel frequently so these sessions don’t work the same way when I’m on the road.
I complete my fourth session, which starts after dinner, past midnight. But this session isn’t one I do every day. I’m on this general schedule 70% of the time when I’m in Sri Lanka.
How do you build a globally competitive business out of Sri Lanka?
I first thought of a global business in 1997 when I was studying in the USA. I launched a web site to outsource software projects from the US to IT companies in India and Sri Lanka, making it possible for these IT companies to go global. The Y2K bug scare back then had increased demand for software outsourcing.This is also when I decided to start an IT company in Sri Lanka since it was expensive to do it in the USA. These were the early days of my ICT entrepreneurship.
What is unique about Sri Lanka is the quality of the tech talent. This is key for success in the IT industry. I got into ERP (enterprise resource planning) software by accident. We were developing various products when we identified a requirement for ERP because customers here were unable to adapt products from western firms to their unique processes and local conditions. With standard ERP, customers get confined to a solution, often something which isn’t suitable. We compete with global companies by offering customized ERP solutions.
However, our business was not scalable as we had to customize the software for each deployment.
As a solution to that, we came up with an enterprise software development platform. The two outcomes of the platform are; now all our ERP solutions run on it, and the second, eLMIS, a relatively new cloud-based health logistics product, also runs on it. The finest feature of this platform is its high configurability and customizability. As a result, we can meet customers’ unique and challenging demands with ease. Now, there is no need for code level modifications to onboard customers. We now have an array of products to tightly meet customer requirements.
Entrepreneurship for me is a steering wheel to achieve what I want; to be an innovator and to build things
How do you become successful out of Sri Lanka?
Talent is one of the key benefits of being in Sri Lanka. The talent here is capable of building innovative solutions. When we launched this platform in 2014, it was selected as the best software in Sri Lanka at National Best Quality ICT Awards competing against 190 other products made by Sri Lankan and foreign companies. We first tested our products and proved ourselves in Sri Lanka and then we took it global.
You have to identify your niche and then build something world-class. That’s what we did with the eLMIS, in the health logistics vertical.
The first eLMIS implementation in Nepal was done on a tight schedule including many customizations. As we had the platform, we implemented it in five months to cater to the entire country.
What about entrepreneurship excites you?
Entrepreneurship for me is a steering wheel to achieve what I want; to be an innovator and to build things.
Innovation can be limited in a company because there are boundaries when you are employed. I became an entrepreneur as a means to thrive as an innovator.
Further, innovation doesn’t pay unless you add entrepreneurship to it. Entrepreneurship makes it possible to take innovation to customers but it also comes with many challenges as you are simultaneously taking entrepreneurial risks.
What is challenging about entrepreneurship?
By deciding to build our own products at Bileeta we took on a huge challenge. Having good talent gave us confidence. But building the product, taking it global, and branding are the challenges we had to overcome being an IT product company from Sri Lanka.
Tell me about a leadership lesson you learned the hard way?
You should treat your team fairly and be sincere about their interests while following your mission as a leader. When your team is fully invested in the company, they will be efficient and they will do their best work. Some of my team have been with me for 20 years. I give them opportunities, ensuring they grow. That’s something I believe in strongly.
How do you effectively align people to a vision while simultaneously keeping an eye on performance management to see if it’s all working?
We have learned over time what the critical KPIs are for our business linking the output of each employee with the output of the company. First, we measure people from the competency level, then we measure them based on their communication skills, and then measure them based on their commitment. We support them to grow in each of those areas.
If their interests are not in the right place that’s when we have to make a decision. Besides those rare cases, we nurture human capital because that’s the core of our business.
If you are optimistic about the future, why would that be?
Covid-19 will change peoples’ lifestyles. There’s going to be less travel, many people will work from home at least some of the time and to enable that, technology will be central. We are delighted to be a part of that technology stack. We offer cloud solutions that work on mobile phones; both critical for remote working. We are facilitators for this new lifestyle.
On the other hand, Covid-19 has resulted in a monumental health logistics challenge to deliver vaccines and medication to most people in a short time, everywhere. We have the best health logistics management software in the world, that can be deployed in many countries. We’ve decided to offer this software at a concessionary price. We want to offer this benefit to as many countries as possible.
As a leader, when you look back, what will matter to you in terms of legacy?
What leaves me ecstatic is seeing products we developed in use. Also, seeing organizations benefiting from our innovations and the hard work we’ve put in, that’s the best feeling. Witnessing how the eLMIS solution has helped countries is also extremely satisfying. I would like to see myself as a person who empowered industries and communities with technology.
What is challenging about leadership and how do you deal with that?
First, you should identify your game plan. If you are focused on each month’s profitability, then you’re probably not investing enough for the future. Tech companies in particular cannot only focus on short-term profitability.
If your vision is to build a 10 million dollar, 100 million dollar, or a billion-dollar company, then you have to keep investing instead of obtaining profits, because your vision is bigger. It helps that ROI is higher for IT companies.
Is there something you wish you could change about your leadership story so far?
There are certain things I wish I had stuck with. For example, the outsourcing website launched but I gave up in 2001. Later on, such work outsourcing sites began to scale. I was way ahead of the times.
Back then I didn’t have a mentor or someone to talk to about this, hence I wasn’t confident about the venture. I was 25 years old then but now I feel I could have managed that better.
What do you think your industry’s future looks like?
In the next five years, ERP will be something that every company, even small to medium-sized ones widely use.
Technology like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and process automation will reach maturity in the next five years. This technology will also be accessible to small enterprises to do their day to day business as well. In the future, machines are going to watch your business, and they will guide your decision making. Enterprise resource planning software are not just bookkeeping systems, these are decision-making tools. That’s going to come in handy, and small businesses will become more efficient due to this.
How do you manage work life balance?
It relies on how supportive your family is with the commitment and engagement required to run a company. It demands time and that’s an opportunity cost. Don’t get me wrong. To prioritize your family time is important but unlike being employed, entrepreneurship or leading an organization demands far more of your time.
You should treat your team fairly and be sincere about their interests while following your mission as a leader