How I Started Afisol Software Without a Computer.

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The reason I decided to share my story is to let you know that anyone can achieve their dreams if you willing to learn and work for it. And for all the hustlers around the world, you are not alone.

I will write the Part 2 later on and share with you all.

Part 1 – The Hustle

I’m from a village in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka. My father is a retired marine engineer and my mother a retired teacher, so we have no family business but lived a comfortable life. Our neighbors in the village used to bring broken electronic items to my father for him to fix. It was only in 1996 that I met my first computer and fell in love with programming.

I studied Biology for my Advance Level at school and I didn’t like it. I realized that I hated having to memorize things. Instead I loved to think and program. Following ALs, I moved to Colombo to prepare to go overseas.  But while I was preparing, I had the chance to teach programming and help out with some projects. That’s when I discovered that I was good at programming-word spread about my skills and I was given programming projects by those I helped.  It was the start of a new career path but my parents gave me an ultimatum: that they would support me only if I studied medicine. I respectfully chose my passion- programming. I decided to stay in Sri Lanka and strike out on my own.  Without an IT degree I felt that I couldn’t show my qualifications so I applied for a weekend course at a private university (SLIIT).  My mother gave me the first semester fee and 4$ (500 Rs)  weekly for my expenses. It was not enough, so I started programming and went to lectures when I could during the weekends.

When I first arrived in Colombo I didn’t have a computer and the old computer we had at home went with my elder brother to university for his studies.  Because I didn’t have a computer, I had to go to friends’ places to write programs. At times, I didn’t have money to eat. I could only eat some bread and didn’t have money for even a tea. It was a tough time. And I had to save money for the second semester fees because now I had to pay my own way and didn’t want to ask my mother for money. I worked in a few places and wrote some programs for clients in Colombo and Kurunegala. There were times I became ill from traveling everyday on top of this erratic lifestyle.

I managed to eventually save some money for a few computer parts like a motherboard and CD Drive. Using the old parts, I built a computer and bought a secondhand monitor. I was staying at my relative’s place at that time and they only had two rooms. They were still building their house and so there were times I had to sleep on the floor. Once, they were finishing the floor so I had to sleep on the dinner table.
It was around that time that I realized I was too shy to approach new clients and I didn’t have money to hire anyone to help me. One of my friends at the time sold mobile SIM cards door to door. I joined him in his sales and learned to overcome my fear, but I had to do it in secret as I was selling SIM cards on the streets near my university!

Luckily, my newfound networking skills helped me land solid projects from major companies in Sri Lanka. Life was starting to get better and now I could have proper meals. But I still had to find more money to pay for university fees. Using my makeshift computer I started writing programs at home. I wrote a program to analyze the quality of a food item over a period of time to improve the quality of the product (Tasting analysis system) and another program for clients of stockbrokers to communicate with the Stock Exchange through mobile text messages (Video link).  I didn’t even have a laptop to test it on stockbroker premises. So a friend who worked with me gave one of his old laptops. It was the first software connecting users of the stock market through text message service it uses FIX protocol to communicate with the stock exchange and I manage to learn the protocol and finish the program within 2 months.

During my final semester at University, my aunt needed the room I was staying in to study for an exam so I had to move out. I hated moving around but it had to be done. I moved to Mount Lavinia and wrote a program for the landlord in exchange for waiving my rent.

In 2009 I finished the degree. After I finished the degree, I had enough money to pay for a lease to buy a car that helped me travel to meet clients.  Soon after graduation I started programming for a major company in Sri Lanka as a freelancer, the highlight of which they sent me to the Maldives for a project.  Then I moved to “Maharagama” and stayed at a rented house with a friend. After a year, my friend got married and I had to move out of the house. By this time I understood that in order to serve my clients properly, I had to set up a company and a proper office. I had built a good client base at the time but the problem was I didn’t have money to pay rent for an office and a house. I bought a small office space in Maharagama about 10km from Colombo. Because I was on the second floor and the roof would heat up sometimes, I fell asleep a lot. I didn’t have money to buy a good table for the office, so I bought a rough wood table which cost Rs.750 (5$). I could not hire anyone because I knew no one else would want to work in that heat. I applied for a credit card but the first bank rejected me for not having a fixed income, but luckily HSBC gave me a credit card for my degree certificate. (That was the first time I used my degree certificate.)

I could not keep a proper bed or a mattress at the office as it was improper and I remember one weekend, someone knocked on the door while I was sleeping and I could not open the door. He then gave me a call and asked for an internship. But I couldn’t ask him to come as I didn’t even have an Air conditioner. So I used the credit card, bought an AC, and asked him to come to work. Then, very slowly, I started hiring. The problem was that I had to save money and was still sleeping in the office on a mat.. I had to drive all day for marketing but each day after I came back to the office, I had to wait for employees to leave, then I had to clean and mop the office in order to sleep on my mat on the floor. Each day before work, I  cleaned everything, fold the mattress and hide it again because I didn’t want anyone to know that I was sleeping in the office, as it would make my staff insecure. It was a problem whenever I became ill. I couldn’t go anywhere or sleep or take leave; I had to work through my illness and continue the same routine.

I had only one goal: to make the company stable. I decided I would not stop until I reach my goal somehow. I couldn’t stop because I had a responsibility to serve my clients: software is different from a consumer good or service in that we have to continue the service once it is online. I also had a responsibility to my team, even paying  their salaries on time despite having to personally skip meals. I used to save money by skipping breakfast and lunch; and use that money to buy pizza for the office staff to keep them happy.

After a while, the company started to grow. I continued to keep the trust of my clients. Now that I had a team, I could focus on other issues like battling frequent power cuts and office locations. I thought about moving the company to Colombo so it would be easier to hire people and save time lost on power failures. Then I saved money and moved the office to a house near Colombo 05. I kept one room to sleep in and used the living area as office space. It was my first proper bedroom and first bed after a long time.  I worked every day. As the company continued to grow, I saw the need for a proper office and so we moved to Colombo 05. Now, we are running the business from Thimbirigasyaye, Colombo 05, serving major companies in Sri Lanka and providing software for Maldives, Australia, New Zealand, United States and the United Kingdom.

I believe that, if you have a will, there is a way. You don’t need money to start a business, to embark on a successful career or even for a private university education. If you really want it, you can always find a way. But it is important to stay focused until you reach your target and learn from mistakes and failures along the way.

Chandana Marasinghe
Director
Afisol software solutions.

 

 

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