J.K. Methma Jayawardhana runs a business in which she might never meet her customer, even though her products are customised, intricate and deeply personal. The young entrepreneur is a graduate of the University of Moratuwa and founder of the brand Loha.
“The main intention of ‘Loha’ is to reach passionate jewellery wearers through bespoke jewellery designing,” says the 25-year-old. “Listening to their rough ideas, favourite inspirations, stories and finally summarizing what they really expect is the beginning of a bespoke designing process.” Methma accomplishes all this over social media, in particular over the platform Instagram. And in doing so, she has become part of a niche group of Sri Lankan entrepreneurs engaging in a bold experiment.
“Currently there are approximately 6 million Facebook users and 1 million Instagram users in Sri Lanka. However, the proportion of those who engage in e-commerce is significantly small,” says Kithmina Hewage, a Research Officer at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). He adds that Instagram is popular among small businesses because it’s an easy tool to access a large audience without the necessity to invest in large sunk costs such as renting or buying physical space and other costs such as paying for shelf space and advertising.
To someone like Methma, who has watched fashion brands build a following on the site, it’s also about aesthetics. She appreciates that the layout is simple and beautiful, and sees the potential in offerings like Instagram stories, which disappear after 24 hours, but can bring with them higher viewership and greater engagement.
“I realized that, Instagram has this ability to build bridges between the brand and the targeted audience,” says Methma, adding that currently most of her clients actually contact her on Instagram. This flexibility allows her to keep her day job even as she continues to build Loha.
Jonathan Edward finds the same to be true. The young entrepreneur, who will turn 25 in a few weeks, is a trained architect who discovered that people loved the granola he made at home. “Basically a personal endeavour to eat healthier resulted in a small business opportunity almost overnight,” he says, adding that he teamed up with his mother Sharmika to launch 3×3 Granola. They have done well enough to be able to hire three women from their neighbourhood. Jonathan is convinced human contact is essential, and so makes all his deliveries himself, along with his childhood driver Manjula.
“Using Social Media allowed me the convenience of switching between my professional and entrepreneurial lives without batting an eyelid,” he says. Though his business does have a Facebook page, Jonathan feels like his generation is migrating away from the platform and toward options like Instagram.
However, the platform is not without its challenges. The very thing that Jonathan enjoys about Instagram is also what can leave him exhausted. Updating his page with pictures, menus and recipes means that followers can quickly grasp the ethos of his business, but it also places a demand on him to constantly keep updating with fresh content. He also says that the platform’s largely inscrutable algorithms can put businesses at a disadvantage. When 3×3 Granola first launched, they could count on at least 95 percent of their followers seeing a post, now they’re lucky if that number is 50 percent. Instagram wants businesses to pay for advertising, and if that isn’t an option it can be hard to make an impression.
This was a real concern for Inoshi P when she decided to launch Fork_ed, a catering business. “A normal restaurant or shop can open with a big bang and really make some noise (especially in a small city like Colombo). Starting online, there wasn’t much we could do to create a real buzz,” she says. “Secondly, dealing with food we are always going to be challenged with not having a physical location, where people can actually go and enjoy not only the meal but the ambience and atmosphere.”
However, she believes more and more businesses will start relying on online platforms. “It’s the way of the future.” It’s something Inoshi and the others would love to see government policymakers recognize. “Whether an entire business is based online or if it’s just advertising and marketing, there’s definitely scope for institutions to help with training and education for new e-commerce ventures and for ongoing ones (us included),” she says.
Kithmina agrees, adding that the policymakers would also be wise to consider consumers. “Whilst allowing for organic growth, one area that the state should pay more attention is to reform its Consumer Affairs legislation so it adequately covers e-commerce related fraud and malpractice,” he says, adding, “Similarly, law enforcement authorities should be better equipped to deal with issues that may come up through social media related e-commerce. Both consumers and businesses should be adequately confident of using these platforms.”
Sri Lanka could see long-term benefits and leverage the great potential of this sector by addressing some of these issues. Kithmina, who has recently begun researching on the subject, says one critical step will be moving beyond cities, where such businesses are currently clustered. “There’s a vast untapped market beyond these urban hubs. Access to and trust in these platforms amongst the public is critical if e-commerce is to grow in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the logistical capacity of vendors needs to also grow so they can cater to a wider clientele.”
It could also help for the government to be aware of the impact moves like a social media block can have on these small businesses. Days after the Easter Sunday blasts, Methma had to get back to work to meet orders due in April. She found the ban made it very difficult to collect the information she needed to manufacture the pieces nor could she share progress reports. Deliveries were also delayed as courier companies scaled back due to the loss of business related to the block. For Inoshi, the impact was even more profound: “Everything basically comes to a halt,” she told the Sunday Times. “We lose visibility and it obstructs private communications with our clients. It puts us in a state of limbo.”
However, as normalcy returns, so does business. Methma has begun experimenting with 3D moulds and says the future of her little business feels bright. Having done a lot of work with silver, she now wants to start playing around with new materials to create signature pieces for Loha. She hopes to start up her own site where she can network and share lessons learned with other aspiring designers.
Inoshi says going forward one of her big challenges is always going to be keeping the business from taking over her entire life. “It’s easy to get swept up by the demands of an online business since you are more or less operational 24/7,” she says.“Being strict with myself and finding the right balance is something I’m still learning to do but I think it’s a big takeaway for anyone.” Meanwhile, she plans to enjoy the creative outlet her business offers and hopes customers will continue to love their products.
Jonathan is also back on his delivery rounds. Like Inoshi, he can sometimes find himself scrambling to keep up. “Working full time during the week as a Junior Architect and working through the weekend to fulfil orders is not an easy task but it is most definitely rewarding,” he says. However, for Jonathan keeping people at the heart of his business gives him the energy to keep going.
It starts with his team: “Treating every single person in your production chain with dignity and respect goes a long way. As does the occasional outing to your local McDonald’s.” He believes this is what has helped him and his mother build a team dedicated to improving their product. As for his customers, Jonathan says they can be unexpectedly kind and supportive, even when there is a small issue with delivery or taking an order. He’s grateful because it gives him the space he needs to breathe. “I’ve learned that being human is completely okay. I am not perfect and neither is my business.”
Find out more by searching for loha.lk, 3x3granola and fork_ed on Instagram.
First published in Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 2 June, 2019. By Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Inoshi, Methma and Jonathan.