A start-up to help start-ups – this was the flashbulb moment Michael Moonesinghe experienced when he attended the Disrupt Asia Conference a few months ago in Colombo. Sitting in the audience at the Hilton Hotel as Sri Lanka’s first ever start-up conference organised by the ICT Agency (Information and Communication Technology) got underway in July, [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Michael learns to rock at Entrepreneur Hubs Sri Lanka


Michael Moonesinghe outside his office.

A start-up to help start-ups – this was the flashbulb moment Michael Moonesinghe experienced when he attended the Disrupt Asia Conference a few months ago in Colombo.

Sitting in the audience at the Hilton Hotel as Sri Lanka’s first ever start-up conference organised by the ICT Agency (Information and Communication Technology) got underway in July, Michael heard a plaintive cry echo from many of the speakers, all lamenting the lack of basic infrastructure to make their dreams come true.

“A lot of the people were saying one of the problems in moving forward as a country is access to low-cost office accommodation that is also available with low commitment. The combination of the two presents a major obstacle because these options are still high costs for start-ups,” reveals Michael.

The chief executive officer of Glover Daniels International, a human resource consultancy business which focuses on recruitment, training and research for clients globally, was quick to see the opportunity – even though he wasn’t exactly reinventing the wheel – of providing new businesses with a readymade roof over their heads.

He drew deeply on his own experience. The barefoot CEO – the British-born Sri Lankan is quite happy to even meet clients at his office without shoes and usually wears socks and sandals when he goes outdoors – had to spend heavily in setting up his main business at Deal Place, Kollupitiya. So he knew what it meant to provide cheap office space for a new kid on the block.

“This office is an example. We are in our seventh year in Sri Lanka but when I started (in 2009) I had to sign a three-year lease and cough up a year’s rent in advance as well as security deposit. This is prohibitive for most start-ups,” Michael tells me as we sit in his boardroom.

Conducive environment

Rewind back to July. At the start-up conference he asked the organisers, ICTA, what the government was doing about creating an affordable and conducive environment for new entrepreneurs.

“The room was full with nearly a 100 start-ups and I thought somebody should do something about this. The ICTA said the government is going to do something and it will be in the budget for the next financial year or maybe the year after. I said ‘you are going to miss the boat’. The rest of the world is in recession and Sri Lanka is not. Now is the time when everyone else is struggling to get going.”

Michael continued: “They (ICTA) said we will do something about it. I said ‘I will do something about it while you guys are thinking about it’. So I put my money where my big mouth is and so far have invested 20 million rupees in starting co-worker centres.”

Entrepreneur Hubs Sri Lanka has three centres, so far. In Nugegoda which has a capacity of 120 seats, Kollupitiya, 62 seats, and a mini-hub of 28 seats in Mount Lavinia. Drawing on his English heritage, the hubs have the striking British underground metro sign, and private offices come complete with the names of stations like Waterloo, Wimbledon, Kensington, Knightsbridge. The latter, an idea of marketing manager Jeremy Muller, gives tenants a posh address on their name cards.

If you choose not to have a private office at a nominal cost, then for Rs. 15,000 a month, individual hubbers can book their own seat and have full use of all the facilities including an air-conditioned office, free Wifi, unlimited tea and coffee, and not worry about paying utility bills. Computers are available at a fee of Rs. 5,000 per month. Or else you can use a ‘hot desk’ for four hours (at Rs. 1,000).

Better than a coffee shop

“It is cheaper than two hours at a coffee shop. But the value of working in such an environment as opposed to a coffee shop is not just the desk and the chair. There is the bonus of being part of a community with business experience like people with marketing backgrounds, financial or social media, so you can interact which you can’t do working from a coffee shop of working from home. I have done both. And working from a coffee shop is very lonely,” Michael points out.

“I have learned over the years that the best people to ask business advice from are not accountants, lawyers, or bank managers but business people who have gone through it. These people have tried and failed and they can point out the pitfalls.”

Michael has tried and failed. His first job was as a police constable pounding the streets of Leicestershire. It wasn’t his cup of tea. He then got into real estate, also ditched, before becoming a headhunter.

British Bobby

“Yes, I was a British Bobby. It is the kind of job where you either stay for 30 years or do your six, like I did, and get out,” he recounts. “My real estate business ended because of the property crash in the UK, and from there I became a headhunter, which I have been doing for 27 years.”

His parents emigrated in 1957 from Ceylon. His mum was a Burgher from Dehiwela, Marlene De Niese and his dad Srinaga Moonesinghe hailed from Panadura. Three years after moving to greener pastures, Michael was born.

Growing up listening to stories about this wonderful island from his parents, Michael came for a visit to Sri Lanka in 1993 when the war was full-blown. Despite the troubles, he was quick to see the potential of this island and promised a cousin that he would be back, a pledge he kept returning for good in 2010, a year after the civil strife ended.

“We (Glover Daniels) were one of the first foreign companies to enter Sri Lanka and open up under the BOI (Board of Investment) scheme creating 35 full-time jobs for Internet researchers. We outsource work all over the world. But then I thought we need to do something about businesses here as there was so much of opportunity. I absolutely believe that a world-class business, whether it is PickMe or something else, will start in Sri Lanka.”

This driving passion to support Sri Lankan start-ups has its genesis in his struggle to make it good. He knows how hard it is for young entrepreneurs and small businesses to find their feet and believes a helping hand will push them in the right direction.

It is more than just providing a desk and a chair. The bonus is being able to sit down and talk to the people around you and get their advice – inspired by these words he saw in the window of a Singapore co-worker centre: ‘If you want to find your next business contact, turn around and say Hello’.

 More Centres

The first centre, in Nugegoda, only opened its doors on November 1 but Michael already has big plans. He has targeted other centres in Colombo (Borella and Marine Drive) before moving out to other cities like Kandy, Galle and Jaffna followed by smaller towns like Kurunegala, Negombo, Panadura and Gampaha.

There are also plans to set up an online platform so all these hubs will be connected leading to dialogue between say entrepreneurs in Jaffna and Galle thus paving the way for doing business. Another draw will be easy access to funding for these start-ups with the hubs being a focal point where investors can meet entrepreneurs.

“Globally eight out of 10 start-ups fail in the first year to 18 months and  is not because it is a bad idea but because it is under-funded, often lacks marketing advice, don’t know how to sell their product or simply because they lack financial discipline. We can help them,” Michael says.

To boost support, Michael also has plans to use his popular website Ex Pats Furniture Service (EPFS) – which he started to help some British school teachers sell their furniture – and which has now grown into a Facebook group of over 35,000 people into a platform for the start-up community.

“There is a tremendous opportunity right now in Sri Lanka. It is like a last gold rush. The people living here (read government) don’t realise it. I hope I can help in some way,” he added.

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