Co-founder Thikshan Arulampalam reminiscences the journey of Bundlhub and the app’s Sri Lankan homecoming
By Hiyal Biayagamage
In the early 1990s, Thikshan Arulampalam was working in the Sri Lankan capital market. Being a person who always wanted to disrupt the norm, Thikshan was getting frustrated with the boredom of becoming another elite executive with a hefty remuneration package. He had two personal milestones to achieve, though – two big dreams if you span them out in layman’s term. One was to visit the great city of New York and second was to set up a hybrid Sri Lankan food restaurant there. The latter actually was an interesting concept where he dreamt of preparing a hybrid dish of smashed potatoes and ‘Ala Bedum’.
Thikshan is still a man with many dreams. While sipping a chocolate latte at a small Colombo coffee shop where we ended up to have a chat, he was quick to point out how the existing business model of the shop needs to be much more innovative and disruptive - if they want to succeed long-term that is. Disruption is his daily mantra and he wants to assist the local startup ecosystem that looks disoriented at this point of time with no proper agenda.
Even though he couldn’t end up with a hybrid food joint in a busy New York street, he has successfully moved there and accumulated a wealth of experience over the last 20 years, working with some of the world’s top entrepreneurs. Today, he is about change how people swap and donate goods that they find no use of or uninteresting by using a simple idea. It is ‘Bundlhub’.
“In 1996, I settled down in a very small town called Centralia in Washington. I started my studies there and the dream to visit New York was very much on. Later, I was transferred to Portland State University to continue my studies. Among my batch mates, I was the most senior student – age wise as well experience wise since I had already accumulated more than 10 years’ worth of work experience at that time. In 2006, I moved down to New York, which was a dream coming true for me,” Thikshan started the conversation.
When Millennium Information Technologies (MIT) was present in the United States, Thikshan was hired to manage their operations. He worked there for 10 years (from 2003 to 2010) and when MIT closed down their US operations, Thikshan parted ways with the company and searched for new avenues to pursue an interesting and a challenging career. That s when he met Rangana Samarasinghe, the co-founder of Bundlhub and founder and chief executive officer of Insharp Technologies. Insharp Technologies was one of the first Sri Lankan companies to develop an application for the Google Glass and the creators of getBeen, an app to connect with your friends all over the world, find places and share the details with them.
“At that time, Insharp Technologies was a very small place in Kottawa with Rangana steering the whole operation. He is a human generator of brilliant ideas and works with a bunch of like-minded tech enthusiasts. Through one of our mutual friends, we got to know each other and had a casual chat over Viber. Rangana was looking for someone who could market his products locally as well globally. I was free at that time and next day, I packed my bags and came to Sri Lanka.”
Jotting the initial plan
Thikshan was introduced to the Insharp team by Rangana and they discussed what is in store for them in the global market with their existing product portfolio. Thikshan remembers how Rangana brought the idea of using a mobile app to do product swapping.
“We were doing a brainstorming session on several new ideas which Rangana had already started the initial development work. That is when he brought up the idea of creating an app to swap iPhones with Android smartphones. However, I pointed out that limiting the app to just swap phones is not feasible. iPhones were high-end products at the early 2010 and the truth was many Sri Lankans could not afford it. The idea was still brilliant though, and we discussed how we could bring an elemental change to Rangana’s concept. We decided to have a go at it and see where we would end,” Thikshan revealed.
Taking the risk upon their shoulders, Thikshan and Rangana started working on the initial version of Bundlhub. While leading Insharp’s marketing efforts, Thikshan put all his international experiences and tech marketing exposure to the table regularly so that Rangana could use them to build the application gradually, using his masterful development skills.
While all these happening, Thikshan travelled back to New York to market Insharp products and look for a potential investor to realistically kick start Bundlhub. That is when he had the chance to pitch the idea to a set of people at a New York pitching event.
“I had the chance to be at StrtupBoost (at that time, it was AlleyBoost) founded by Jason Malki. StrtupBoost is one of the biggest events in the Greater New York City Area, which connects entrepreneurs to the solutions they need: financial, development, real estate and it is a 25,000 strong community of the best and brightest minds. I actually went to pitch my hybrid restaurant concept. After pitching it, the compeer announced that there is a free slot if anyone is interested to pitch another idea. I was quick enough to grab the chance, went and explained the idea of Bundlhub.”
The two CEOs and the investor who were present at the event did not encourage Thikshan’s idea to setup a hybrid restaurant for the simplest reason that he was not a professional chef throughout his career. However, they showed interest in Bundlhub and asked Thikshan to be in touch with them. On his way back home, he saw something that put the icing on the cake for Bundlhub.
“What I saw on my way back sparked an idea in my head like a flash. I saw a bunch of people throwing away some used furniture into a sideway. The question popped in my head: why don’t we have a platform where people could swap stuff which they no longer need with somebody else? Is this not an opportunity that we can tap into?” Thikshan said.
This incident boosted his interest to figure out a way to market Bundlhub and read more about startups and entrepreneurship. He found two books about startups in the library of New York University College where he was completing his higher studies – Lean startup by Eric Ries and Zero to One by peter Thiel. While extracting immaculate knowledge out of these books, Thikshan talked to people around him about the feasibility of a product like Bundlhub.
“I questioned where the stuff they no longer use usually end up. Many of my batch mates said that they would sell them to a dorm mate or else throw them away. I asked whether it is easy to use solutions like Craigslist or GoodWill. A majority I spoke with believed that GoodWill is old school and Craigslist is becoming shady.”
Being a bootstrap company and with no positive investor backing, it was a tough going for Thikshan in the city he loves so much. He invested a good portion of his fortune to market Bundlhub but at the end of six months, all his money burnt to the ground without and solid luck. For Bundlhub, time to market was too slow to reap enough benefits.
The story behind the name
“I came back to Sri Lanka and discussed the options with Rangana. We decided to market what we had at that moment and support Bundlhub as we move forward. We started our marketing efforts again with a focused plan and had several opportunities to represent ourselves in regional startup events,” said Thikshan.
While on their way back from a Singapore event, they had an opportunity to meet Datuk Noor Azrin bin Mohd Noor, a billionaire in Malaysia and the Group Chief Executive Officer of Sedania. Halfway down the discussion, the idea about Bundlhub resurfaced again out of nowhere.
“He liked the idea very much,” said Thikshan. “But, he wasn’t happy with our initial name for the application. That is when he suggested ‘Bundle’ as the name. Datuk suggested it because Malaysians have a unique way to bundle things they do not use anymore. With that name in our mind, we came to Sri Lanka and tried to register it. The URL for Bundle was not available and that is how our product ended as Bundlhub.”
What is Bundlhub?
‘Collect what you really want. Swap with your friends and other decent people with nice things’ – that is how the official website introduces Bundlhub for the first timers. It is the new way creating value by giving out items that you no longer need to somebody else. The app is free to download and takes the pain out of you for finding the perfect for your unwanted items.
“Say you have a backpack hat you no longer find useful. Take a photo and upload it to Bundlhub with a short description. When you successfully upload the picture, the app asks you three questions – do you want people to bid for it? Do you want to swap it for something else? Will you give it free? Choose a preferred option and your item will be displayed for other Bundlers in the community. You can decide whether the item should be deliver or available for the buyer for pickup.”
With Bundlhub, there is no cash but points. For every item you upload, you will receive points (100 points). Bundlhub’s bidding process use a hybrid of a Dutch auction system. In the Bundlhub way, your item stays at the price you specified for three days. Then, from the fourth day, the item will reduce its bid price by 10% each day for the next seven days. The item will expire in total of 10 days if no one puts a bid on the item. Because of their different mechanisms, Thikshan believes Bundlhub will get desired attention of Sri Lankan millennials.
“Through Bundlhub, we are creating awareness for our environment as well. We believe when using the app, people will be conscious about throwing away things that you do not want anymore. Bundlhub is the true smart way of getting the better out of unused stuff rather than dumping them in your backyard. Imagine a situation of a severe flood – if you have Bundlhub in your smartphone, you can utilise it in a way where the app could become a source for collecting relief for people who have lost everything,” Thikshan stressed.
The global outlook
App makers are constantly trying to empty closets and garages of discarded items while keeping old stuff out of landfills on a regular basis. This means that competition for Bundlhub keeps getting severe every day.
At the same time Bundlhubentered the market, Yerdle was born out of San Francisco. Like Bundlhub, Yerdleallows users to upload pictures of things they no longer need. Other users in the community can then purchase these items by exchanging credits. Every new user gets 250 Yerdle credits and you earn more when you share your own stuff). Since its launch, Yerdle has hit more than 60,000 members, shared over 35,000 items, and seen over 2 million Yerdle credits exchanged. The company raised $ 5 million in 2015 and even devised new business models with retailing giants like Patagonia.
LetGo is another similar platform that has raised a substantial $ 175 million in last January. The New York-based startup did not have a direct revenue model when it started but thanks to its aggressive marketing efforts, LetGo managed to raise $ 100 million in its first round of seeding in May 2016. They merged with Wallapop in May with the clear intention of creating a solid Craigslist experience on mobile. In a statement last month, LetGo Co-founder mentioned that the company has successfully surpassed the 45 million downloads milestone. LetGo’s direct competitor OfferUp has 29 million downloads under their belt with a total valuation of $ 1.2 billion.
Do not throw it, Bundlhub it!
“We are quite aware that there is a competition. However, we look to play a different game for now. It is still a learning process for us in the game of startups and entrepreneurship. In this game, you have to take serious risks and do personal sacrifices. Being in USA and get to work with like-minded entrepreneurs is a key advantage for us.”
“Like many startups in Sri Lanka, we don’t work with the typical emotional crux of ‘we want money’ and ‘we want international investors to be successful’. If you are an entrepreneur, you will somehow find a way to market your product. There is a tectonic shift coming, which is evident in the society. Through Bundlhub, we are looking at swapping products which you no longer need in a cool way as well as protecting the environment in a hipster way. Making a difference in the world is our first priority. If we do a great job, finding the perfect financial backer would be a cake walk,” opined Thikshan.
At an accelerator programme in Helsinki, a Finnish entrepreneur convinced Thikshan and Rangana to take Bundlhub to Sri Lanka. Until then, he had no plans of marketing it locally. He is now on the quest of popularising Bundlhub in Sri Lanka and hopeful that it will do well.
“I hope we will be a household name among Sri Lankans soon and say to our fellow Sri Lankans ‘don’t throw it – Bundlhub it!’,” Thikshan said optimistically.