Within the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem, Kanishka Weeramunda is a familiar larger than life figure. Known famously as the founder of PayMedia, an award-winning fintech startup, he’s also the Co-Founder of other successful ventures such as DirectPay, SquareHub, and ThingerBits. A firm believer in the power of entrepreneurship to build a better nation, he’s also been a driver of several initiatives to develop the ecosystem. Recognising his efforts as an entrepreneur and commitment towards strengthening the Sri Lankan tech startup ecosystem, Kanishka Weeramunda was awarded the CSSL Founder of the Year 2020.
Of course, none of the achievements listed above happened overnight. The life of an entrepreneur is a long and arduous journey filled with challenges. Speaking to Arteculate, Kanishka walked us through the trials of his entrepreneurial life and shared the lessons he learned along the way.
The trials of an entrepreneur
For every successful startup that exists, countless others failed. Long before founding PayMedia, Kanishka had launched three other startups in different industries. However, none of them survived. Looking back, he attributes these failures to three reasons – a lack of experience, not having the right connections, and no capital. Yet, despite these failures, Kanishka was unfazed as his entrepreneurial journey was only beginning.
After his initial setbacks, Kanishka decided to take a corporate job. Working his way up the ladder, he became the Group Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Laugfs Holdings. At the time, he was one of the youngest CIOs in Sri Lanka. But Kanishka was an entrepreneur at heart, and in 2014, he tendered his resignation. Thus, PayMedia was born.
While embarking on his fourth startup venture, Kanishka remembered the hard-learned lessons from his past. “I was passionate about starting my own business. But I was mindful not to repeat the same mistakes. Thanks to my time in the corporate world, I had gained the necessary experience and built up a network of connections. I also made sure to save up some money that I could use as capital. This time, I wasn’t blindly jumping in,” said Kanishka.
Overcoming the odds and reshaping an industry
Even then, the odds were certainly stacked against him. Today, we’re seeing digital payments growing in popularity and chipping away at the dominance of cash. But rewind to 2014, and Sri Lanka was an economy where cash ruled supreme. So when Kanishka stepped into the banking and financial sector, the strict regulations offered little room for anyone to develop Fintech solutions of any kind. Yet, that’s precisely what he set out to do.
Sharing what went through his mind at the time, Kanishka said, “Nobody wanted to enter the banking industry because of strict regulation. Whereas, I saw that I had the opportunity to be the first entrant into a market that had virtually no competition. Eventually, there’d be followers. But by then, I’d have established my presence.” Armed with this optimism, PayMedia ventured into the banking and financial sector, determined to help it seize the opportunities of the Fintech revolution.
PayMedia began by offering Cash Deposit Machines to banks and rapidly expanded its portfolio of products to encompass a range of banking solutions. Then, recognising the growing popularity of digital payments, the company spun off a subsidiary called DirectPay, which has its own vast array of products ranging from LankaQR, JustPay, IPGs to POS terminals to dedicated payment apps enabling businesses to accept cashless payments. While developing these products, the company collaborated with private and public stakeholders to help shape the regulatory landscape to facilitate fintech solutions in Sri Lanka.
Today, Kanishka looks back with pride as the optimistic move he made has paid off. PayMedia has grown into a successful startup with local clients such as Sampath Bank, Amana Bank, Ceylico Life Insurance, Cargill’s Bank, Central Finance and National Savings Bank and international financial institutions such as Maldives Islamic Bank. At the same time, DirectPay too has been breaking records as the fastest-growing fintech startup.
Giving back and helping the startup ecosystem grow
As he celebrated his success, Kanishka wanted to help aspiring entrepreneurs and strengthen the local startup ecosystem. Speaking to Arteculate, he stated, “My vision is for Sri Lanka to be a technologically advanced nation. But, for this to happen, we need at least 1,000 profit-making startups. That requires a minimum of 10,000 startups in operation and, in turn, at least 30,000 ideas that can become startups.”
From this desire, SquareHub, a startup incubator, was born. It’s since become one of the leading incubators in the country, working with the UNDP, UN Women, and local universities on several initiatives to promote entrepreneurship across the island. “The idea behind SquareHub is to share our learnings with budding entrepreneurs. We will show them 1000 things that don’t work, so they can save effort to figure out the one approach that will lead them to success,” shares Kanishka describing the philosophy of the incubator.
At the same time, Kanishka also serves as a visiting lecturer at several Private and State universities. In his capacity as a lecturer, he teaches students about entrepreneurship and innovation. Well aware that one can’t teach such concepts from textbooks, Kaniska adopts a practical approach in his teaching. He went on to explain, “Entrepreneurship is about coming up with an idea, pitching an idea, and building a viable business out of it. So I encourage my students to go out into the world, develop viable ideas, and find potential customers. Of course, they may not become entrepreneurs tomorrow morning. But they will have the necessary know-how to build a startup if they choose to do so.”
Beyond these efforts, Kanishka has also served in various capacities to assist several initiatives to help strengthen the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem. Among these roles is being the Co-Founder of Disrupt Asia, which has grown into the premier startup conference and showcase in Sri Lanka. He also played a pivotal role in developing Startup SL, the online directory of Sri Lankan startups. While also representing Sri Lanka at international startup forums, Kanishka also serves as community leader of Techstars Startup Weekend in Sri Lanka.
What’s next for the award-winning entrepreneur?
or his success as an entrepreneur and commitment towards strengthening the local startup ecosystem, Kanishka has been recognised with several awards. The list of accolades includes Most Valuable ICT Entrepreneur of the Year at NBQSA 2015, Best CEO of the year and Best Future Leader of the year at CMI Management Excellence 2017, and ICT Entrepreneur of the Year at NBQSA 2018, to name a few. The latest accolade in recognition of his efforts is the Founder of the Year 2020 award by CSSL.
Looking towards the future, Kanishka states that PayMedia and DirectPay will continue towards their mission of assisting the banking and finance industry in seizing the opportunities presented by fintech. However, his eyes are set on the next big prize, which is lending. Having already conquered more formidable challenges to build a successful startup, the CSSL Founder of the Year is confident of beating this new frontier.