Most early-stage startups face a common chicken and egg struggle in their early stages; you need customers and word of mouth to sell your product or service and often to get customers you need to build a certain degree of credibility, which takes a significant amount of time and effort. The John Keells X programme has been helping startups overcome this struggle by offering them access to the broader networks of John Keells Holdings PLC (JKH) and its partners for over five years.
With 70+ companies in 7 industry sectors, John Keells Holdings is the largest listed conglomerate in the Colombo Stock Exchange. As such, by gaining access to its network through the JKX programme, startups can secure their first customers, test and refine their product, collect valuable feedback, obtain industry know-how, domain and functional expertise, credibility being backed by Sri Lanka’s largest conglomerate, and many more benefits to help them scale.
Speaking to Arteculate, Assistant Vice President at John Keells Group and Head of John Keells X, Wishanth Wijesinha, shared how the programme has learned from its experiences. Over the years, JKX has refined its model by focusing on a few core areas. Thereby flexibly ensuring a fruitful collaboration between startups, the conglomerate and JKX Partners.
A testbed for startups to refine their offerings
Speaking to Arteculate, Wishanth went on to say, “At JKX, we offer startups a live corporate environment where they can freely experiment with new ideas. Furthermore, we facilitate connections between the startup and any of the companies in the wider JKH Group and our partner networks. Thereby allowing them to secure their first customer, get feedback to refine their product development roadmap and create a stepping stone to secure more clients.”
Illustrating how its corporate testbed helps startups, Wishanth shared the example of two winning startups from the programme’s 2017/18 cohort – Helios P2P and iLoan.
How JKX helps startups secure clients and enhance their products
Helios P2P is a fintech company with a unique peer-to-peer lending platform that uses blockchain technology to connect borrowers and lenders. Its core products are for borrowers that are permanent employees at organisations. Through the JKX programme, Helios was able to gain access to onboard customers from some of the companies within the John Keells Group. By working alongside the HR departments of these enterprises, Helios gained valuable feedback to refine its product offerings and applied those learnings to secure more organisations as clients..
Describing their experience with the JKX programme, Co-Founder of Helios P2P, Nuzhi Meyen said, “The continuous support that JKX gave us through the years proved invaluable in launching and expanding Helios P2P. The seed funding provided by JKX helped us to launch our startup and achieve various milestones and accolades throughout the last 2 to 3 years. We were also fortunate enough to receive follow-on seed funding through the programme.”
iLoan is a fintech platform making credit accessible to retailers in the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industry. Through the JKX programme, the company gained access to the Elephant House distributor network and its retailers who were onboarded as its ‘first customers’. From the learnings it gained here, iLoan expanded its platform to the networks of other FMCG enterprises.
“There is immense credibility that a business can get when a conglomerate like JKH is backing your business and helping you along the way and we are truly satisfied, happy and grateful for the opportunities presented to our company by the accelerator programme,” said Co-Founder of iLoan, Lakshan De Silva.
Business mentorship from industry leaders
Beyond helping them secure clients, JKX also allows startups to gain high-level strategic guidance from the John Keells Group leadership. This takes the form of business mentorship, where founders are connected with industry leaders. Elaborating on this, Wishanth explained, “By connecting the founders with industry leaders, we offer them mentors that’ll guide them to build upon their existing success and transform into a stable, long-lasting company.”
One startup that has grown with this guidance is SenzAgro. The agri-tech startup was one of the winners of the JKX 2017 cohort. The programme connected its founders with the President of Retail at John Keells Group, Charitha Subasinghe, who also joined the advisory board of the startup. Charitha’s expertise has helped SenzAgro expand its local and international footprint. Further, his assistance has offered SenzAgro direct access to the farmer network of Keells. Today, the startup is working to create digital experiences revolving around farmer management. This direct access to farmers means SenzAgro can readily deploy its technology and get feedback in a live environment.
Another startup with a similar story is Blue Lotus 360, which was one of the winners of the JKX 2019 cohort. It is mentored by Group CIO & Executive Vice President, John Keells Group, Ramesh Shanmuganathan. With his unique insights and deep knowledge in the ERP space, the startup gained valuable learnings on how it could refine its product and build a sustainable business. Further, Blue Lotus 360 also obtained new connections that allowed it to secure new clients, such as Providore.shop, a leading eCommerce retailer.
The vast scale of the JKH Group with 70 companies across seven industries allows incomparable access and exposure to the selected startups. Even if there are startups outside of these verticals, Wishanth states, “The fundamentals of running a business are universal. So, the strategic guidance offered by the leadership of the JKH Group can help any startup identify opportunities to scale up rapidly. There is a vast amount of expertise and knowledge to be accessed”
Corporate services and other resources to guarantee success
In providing access to industry leaders the JKX programme helps startups navigate long-term challenges. Its support also extends to assisting founders in resolving short-term and medium-term challenges. To that end, startups in the programme can also access broader resources across the JKX networks.
“Let’s assume a startup in the programme is looking to get advice on an important or complicated agreement to be signed. JKX can give them access to the legal team of the JKH Group. Similarly, if they require guidance on preparing audited accounts, we can put them in touch with the group’s finance department. The legal and finance teams of John Keells Holdings are always ready to help our startups. These are just two examples of how our corporate services can help. By making these resources available, we help startups overcome their day to day challenges. Thereby allowing them to focus more energy on their long term goals,” elaborated Wishanth.
A vast network of partners built to help startups succeed
Now in its fifth iteration, the John Keells X programme has evolved with three new tracks – Accelerate, Innovate, and Elevate. These three distinct tracks reflect the learnings of the programme over the years, to better help startups of all profiles succeed. Furthermore, the programme has forged partnerships with several industry bodies such as ICTA and SLASSCOM alongside startup programmes backed by globally-renowned enterprises like Microsoft for Startups. In due course, the programme will be announcing even more partners. As such, the John Keells X programme has built an unparalleled network of opportunities for its startups. Collectively, the benefits it offers eliminate many barriers at once and open the road for entrepreneurs to accelerate their growth plans rapidly.