Most startups fail. Some fail due to problems with the business model. Some because the founding team falls apart. Others fail due to circumstances beyond their control, such as economic downturns. Colomboard failed because it was neglected by us.
We started work on Colomboard in 2012 as the onboarding project for the first group of people to join Vesess after several years of no hiring: Lahiru and Dimuth as engineers, Lakruwani as designer, and Viduranga and Charith as interns. I myself was rejoining the company after a few years of living under a rock (quite literally—a long story for another time), and the Colomboard teaser page was my first design work after my hiatus.
Drawing inspiration from Pinterest and Etsy, Colomboard was intended as a platform for Sri Lankans to share their creations and experiences. A wide variety of creative people—artists, photographers, fashion designers, jewellers, stationers, architects, interior designers—participated on the site. The most popular original products were then featured on the Colomboard online store for purchase.
The Business Model
Even a cursory glance at our blog archive will show that we have an itch to make online payments easier for Sri Lankan small businesses. Colomboard was our first attempt at helping Sri Lankan entrepreneurs by providing them with an integrated merchant solution, with hassle-free payment processing and logistics.
Once products were selected to be featured in our store, we handled the selling, shipping and customer service for the designers. We only took 8.5% of the sales price. For example, if products worth Rs.10,000 were sold in a given month, we kept Rs.850.00 and sent the rest to the designers. There were no monthly or yearly fees, no minimum charges or deposits. The 8.5% included our platform fees as well as the online transaction costs.
In other words, we wanted to make Colomboard easily accessible to everyone. People who couldn’t afford or didn’t know how to set up their own e-commerce sites were able to sign up with Colomboard for free, start selling online immediately, and pay a very small and reasonable fee for each sale. The only criteria were that the products had to be original and well-designed. In a business environment where the middlemen were making all the money, Colomboard empowered the creators.
As with all our web-based ventures, Colomboard was built with Ruby on Rails, and the online store was built with Spree Commerce. This was Lahiru’s trial by fire. He had just joined the company, and he was assigned the project to hone his programming and project management skills.
Online payment processing was obviously a key element of the project. Sri Lankan payment gateways suck, so we didn’t want to use them. Instead, we went with one of the best services in the world: Stripe.
For logistics, we partnered with Citypak. The pricing was kept transparent, and we provided sellers with the option to pass the shipping cost to the buyer, add it to the item price, or pay it themselves.
And of course, all this had to come together in an elegant website that complimented the beautiful content that was being shared. Colomboard sported a responsive design that worked well on both mobile and desktop.
Colomboard was a great opportunity for us to see the creative talent and the entrepreneurial spirit of Sri Lankans. Here are some of my personal favourites from the store:
These guys have a collection of jewellery and accessories from around the world, but their best work is done in-house, drawing inspiration from traditional Sri Lankan motifs.
Pathum Egodawatte, co-founder of Scribble, is a personal friend. I first saw Scribble’s work when some of its beautiful books were piled up at his home. The Scribble studio, then known as La-ulu and now as Mooniak, is now focusing on typographic design.
Anuja’s Books and Greeting Cards
Anuja works for one of the leading telecom companies in Sri Lanka. A web designer during the day, she moonlights as an illustrator and handcrafter. Her handmade notebooks were an instant hit at Colomboard.
Sathya Wimalasooriya has a way with cloth. Her tote bags are beautiful, practical and lovingly crafted to exacting standards.
The Seeds of Failure
By the time Colomboard went live, e-commerce had begun gaining popularity in Sri Lanka. Anything.lk was going strong, Ikman.lk had just begun, and MyStore.lk and Takas.lk were yet to come into the market. There was plenty of opportunity for Colomboard to carve its own niche as a site for original products from local designers.
But Colomboard was doomed to fail from the beginning.
While its development was underway, we had also begun working on a yet-to-be-named new version of our online invoicing service, CurdBee. This had always been our biggest priority, with 30,000 customers from 130 countries depending on us to get paid on time. Less than a month after launching the Colomboard store, we launched CurdBee 2.0: Hiveage.
This didn’t go well for Colomboard.
Vesess is a small team, and we had to have all hands on deck with the CurdBee-to-Hiveage transition. We ran both CurdBee and Hiveage in parallel for a whole year to minimise the inconveniences our customers had to face when migrating from one service to the other. Our team had to maintain, monitor and provide customer support for two SaaS products instead of one.
Much work had to be done to transfer the goodwill we had earned for CurdBee on to our new brand, Hiveage. Suffice to say that it was a crazy year for us. And while Hiveage was getting all the love, Colomboard was barely limping along.
Despite some initial traction and a fantastic group of designers selling their stuff on the store, we never got to develop Colomboard to its full potential. We needed to improve the service, raise awareness and build a strong brand. In retrospect, we should have dropped the whole Pinterest-y angle of image sharing and promoted the Etsy-like store, been more aggressive with our marketing, and been more active on social media.
This would have required a dedicated team working full time—as it should be for any venture that hopes to achieve success. Unfortunately we couldn’t manage to spare enough people or time for Colomboard. Hiveage’s gain was Colomboard’s loss.
The way we see it, Colomboard was a “good” project, both in terms of business potential and social impact. It empowered a group of very talented young entrepreneurs by providing them with a fair and accessible platform to build their businesses, and generated revenue for Vesess as well.
Perhaps there isn’t a large enough market in Sri Lanka for a store like Colomboard to be viable. Perhaps our business model was flawed. Perhaps it would’ve been a financial failure regardless of how much effort we put into it. Not having invested enough resources into Colomboard, we have denied ourselves that business intelligence.
And next week, Colomboard will shut its doors.
Thank you, you wonderful designers. So long, you beautiful website.