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El Dorado

Maheen Senanayake interviews Dulith Herath, founder of Kapruka


Pix by Thitirat Beutler - Thai photographer
experimenting in Sri Lanka

One version of the meaning of ‘El Dorado’ maintains that it is the term used by Europeans to describe a tribal chief of the Muisca native people of Colombia, South America, who, in an initiation rite, covered himself with gold dust and dived into Lake Guatavita. Imagined as a place, El Dorado went from a city to a kingdom and an empire of this legendary golden king.

In pursuit of the legend, Spanish conquistadors Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro departed from Quito (now capital of Ecuador) in 1541 in an expedition towards the Amazon Basin, as a result of which Orellana became the first known person to navigate the entire length of the Amazon River.

A second location for El Dorado was inferred from rumors, which inspired several unsuccessful expeditions in the late 1500s into Venezuela, Guiana, and northern Brazil in search of a city called Manõa on the shores of Lake Parime. The most famous of these expeditions were led by Sir Walter Raleigh.

Whatever happened to those expeditions of yesteryear, it’s as if one man, founder of Kapruka, has indeed found his El Dorado. This is his story.

What is your name?

My name is Dulith Herath. I was born to a fairly poor family at the General Hospital, Colombo. My parents didn’t have enough money to take me home from the hospital in a taxi. We were that poor. But my dad was an amazing person and was an entrepreneur himself. He was the first to go to university from Kurunegala. He rushes through what I think is a standard response.

(He appears to have well thought through this introduction)

He made it from scratch starting his own construction company etc. He worked 18 hours a day, just like me.

But more than that, I have seen the crazy workaholicism. You cannot look at it, aspire for it and get it. You have to have it in your DNA and guess what? I had it (he says, his eyes lighting up.

He is smiling, a thin wiry smile spreads across his face.

Can you tell me a little bit about how your family ended up in Colombo?

My father was in Kurunegala. His construction business brought us to Colombo. I was born in Colombo.

I’ve seen that gene jump a generation and I have seen it jump sideways – moving from grandfather to grandson and uncle to nephew or uncle to niece etc. Did you have an enterprising uncle?

It’s a mix of things. My grandfather from my mother’s side is Ariya Chandrasena. He is considered the Naushad of Sri Lanka. He was the first person to put voices into voiceless movies here. He was also a musician. If I remember, the Dasabaladari… was one of his creations. Sadly he passed away when I was eight or nine. He has always been breaking things, making things. I played with his valves and his electronics, picking up the nuts behind him. He was a pretty interesting man. I think there was a DNA mix there. When I think about where I may have got these genes from, I think of my father and my grandfather.

What do you remember about your grandmothers?

They were simply housewives. If you take my paternal grandfather, he was simply a hunter in the forest. It was that low. He had only one eye. He would on the spur of the moment take a gun, go into the forest, kill a rabbit and bring it for food. It was that…. low.

You don’t mind me printing that?

Please… that’s the truth.

Imagine he says, in three generations his grandson is e-commerce king of Sri Lanka. That is how they sometimes label me. Think about it, from a Veddah to luxury in three generations!

Where did you school?

I went to Royal right throughout. When I was small, I used to see the pool and I always used to tell my father that is the school I want to go to. And at that time he was not set up to send me to Royal. The magic is here – he met a minister at a petrol shed and befriended him at the petrol shed and got him to help him get me into Royal College.

(Finally someone is going on record – as to how difficult it is to get someone into Royal College!)

You developed an interest in computers. How did it all start?

From childhood I was very curious to understand how things worked. I remember this blue car. It had blue lights. It was my first memory of innovation. I took it apart to find out how the darn thing worked. I figured out how it worked – the magic was in this ball like thing. I stayed at it taking away layer by layer the enigma of that motor until I understood how it worked. Finally when I short circuited the entire PCB and directly powered the motor and it turned, I remember that being an almost nirvanic moment. I had figured it out.

(He caresses his right arm with his left hand and says "I get goose bumps after all these years just thinking about it.")

I even had made a robot that shot missiles.

(Projectiles? I invite a correction)

No, no. Real missiles. I had sky rockets and a filament that lit them up so the robot was actually shooting these out – real ordnance. You know, I was really crazy and my mother worried all the time whether I would burn the house down with my technology.

When did computers come to play in your life?

From electronics, I moved to a Commodore 64. I had seen these and they were mostly for gaming. But I wanted a PC. I needed to convince my parents to buy me a PC and even at that time they were not wealthy enough to throw Rs.15,000 on that. Then I convinced my uncle who was a software guy, that I really really needed this. So then he together with my parents got me an Acer XT 80286 computer,120K Ram and two floppy drives included. Unheard of today. I was doing GW Basic. I wrote a lot of code in 8086 assembly code.

(I understood the intoxicating nature of programming. A few lives ago I had done the same and the world had revolved around programmers- guitar music and your own lyrics)

I was the President of the Royal College Computer Society continuously for eight years. He says this with a lot of pride. Everybody would cut classes and go to movies etc. I would cut classes to go to the computer lab. I have register entries that say "Dulith Herath disappeared from the class." I never really cut school, I may not have been in class but I was definitely in the computer lab.

Then I founded a group called Whiz Kids when I was about 15-years old. What I did was get all the geeks like me together and formed a group. I made sure that if we were meeting they had to bring their ID etc. I made sure that IDs were issued, I made sure they wore them. This whole management thing I had. So I think I had the management skills with me even then.

There was one more magical thing in me. I will give you an example. I am very caring about people without any bullshit. For instance we had two servants who had nothing to do between cooking meals. They were virtually jobless between breakfast and lunch and then between lunch and dinner. They were bored and this used to bug me a lot.

By that time, I was assembling computers and making a bit of money. So with my money, I bought them a black and white television for the kitchen. This gave me immense pleasure. I know they are occupied and they were happy. To this day, while I am an entrepreneur, my leadership skills were really about caring about people first. That has given Kapruka a culture today.

We had hackathons..very menial stuff but we did them all the same.

What happened after school?

Well before that I must tell you one particular story. My room was like a NASA lab. (I watch him revel in his mind)

I had like eight computers. I would come home and directly go to work on my coding projects. The world outside did not matter. As a result I had pretty much ignored a lot of my studies. One day when I came home, my entire NASA lab was missing. My father then told me that he had boxed all my stuff and sent all of it to my uncle’s place. "You have only six or seven months for your Advanced Levels," he said. He asked me whether I was trying to become a "computer bass" – a computer mechanic!

I was shocked. So the only thing I could do was to try and figure out where I was in my studies and then take things on from there. I had four subjects and I was doing maths. I kind of did an evaluation of myself and decided I can only do three.

Did you drop chemistry? I asked laughing

Yes. He said joining me. I never understood why maths and physics had to be learnt with chemistry.

What happened there?

Well I ended up with Three As and an F.

What happened then?

Well my heart was in Artificial Intelligence and robotics and I found that the best place to do that is the University of Kentucky in the USA. I asked my mom to somehow send me there. They somehow managed to find the money for the air ticket.

So I did go there and I took 18 credits right off the butt. I did four jobs too after the first semester. I had to clean eggs in the restaurant in the morning; during the day I was the librarian, and at night I was the pizza delivery guy but I was also a grader so I had four jobs to sustain me. In about two years I managed to finish my program. I loved the technology but my problem was that I never really liked the US.

I had a gang of people here and I really missed that. What happened during these two years was that I was getting bored and I dearly missed my pet projects. The web was coming up at the time so I started What I wanted was digital map of Sri Lanka. This was in 1999 a long time ago. No Google maps. So I got a friend of mine to get the map books and got them scanned. Then I stitched them together digitally. I wrote a java applet to map that. Now if you go to that site and say Royal College, it will put a dot there.

And it was really fulfilling. During one of the school exhibitions, Microsoft displayed an interest in this and right after school they hired me.

What was Microsoft like?

Day one at Microsoft, I wanted to find a way out. I knew I was just a number. The ladders were everywhere, but you know, I wasn’t happy. That gave me a real opportunity though to start a pet project while at Microsoft.

Then I thought I will write another application. The machine outside was reaching a high note. Dulith and I can hardly hear each other. He says the sound is bothering him and walks out. Moments later the sound stops and he walks back into the room.

Tell me more on how you charted your way out of Microsoft.

I started a second pet project. Sinhala fonts were coming out as a TTFs( lets not worry about the technology). So if you sent an email or document in a Sinhala font, you had to send the font along with the document for email and installing a font was like rocket science. With Unicode, you don’t have to install fonts anymore. My aim was to develop a font independent email system. So I developed a java applet, which allowed you to send an email or document as an JPG file – an image. It was really a snap shot of the email. This way the recipient did not need the font as it was transmitted as a picture.

I did it and then filed for a patent in Sri Lanka. I have a nice tube – a patent in a tube. I was happy. But then I was wondering whether to register another domain. I couldn’t just keep doing that and I wanted a platform from which to do many things. I was inspired by Amazon then and that is when I thought of Kapruka. And if you must know, it is impossible to pronounce Kapruka any other way. So I registered That was a time when you could get any dot coms. I then put both Sithiyama and Sinhala email both onto Kapruka.

I had no money making ideas. But as I saw people using it I noticed the traffic build up. Then I thought ‘let’s try and make some money out of it’. I checked and analyzed the traffic and I saw that 90% of it was Sri Lankan expats. I thought, `what do Sri Lankan expats really miss?’ Next thing was Sri Lankan books and Sinhala music.

So I called one of my friends in Sri Lanka. By that time, all my partners in crime had left the country. I called someone called Sugath, one of my father’s friends, an ex-telecom engineer. I asked him whether he could ship stuff if I gave the order. He said OK. So we scanned stuff and listed on the site. Then I set up the payment gateway and started the site on Feb. 1, 2003. With my job at Microsoft, I was exposed to the technology.

When was your first sale?

On Feb. 5 I get my first sale. And it is my birthday – he says. On my birthday, I get my first order, and to this day we celebrate Kapruka’s birthday on my birthday. It was an order for six CDs.

I never thought a guy called Neil Dias will order six CDs. That was mind boggling. Many years later when I was in line for a Victor Ratnayake show in Chicago, this guy was in front of me. Somehow we started talking and he told me that he had ordered stuff from Kapruka. And that really was a freak accident. I don’t know where he is now though. I should look him up.

I immediately tell Sugath to ship the CDs to this address in New York. Two minutes later I call him again and tell him to ship it to me, because I want to see how it is packaged. Days later I receive the CDs in a box. I am stunned by the fact the packaging made it so far. The box is of very thin material. I am stunned. Sugath hadn’t really understood the distance or the logistics of shipping.

I repackaged it, bigger box and all and a nice invoice and then shipped it to the destination. Later on, I thought, `Hey! What about sending things the other way? What if I put flowers on the site and deliver them in Sri Lanka’ I asked Sugath whether he can go to a flower shop in Sri Lanka and deliver it to an address in Sri Lanka if I can get orders. He immediately said yes. And guess what, that really picked up. Then I added fruit baskets and slowly we were increasing the items.

Then Sugath finally said `Hey! Buddy I can’t do this from home anymore.’ He had a line demarcating the stuff in his sitting room so that the kids wouldn’t go there. It was time to move into different premises. Then we found a small space for four thousand rupees and I didn’t mind because I had money coming in from Microsoft. Then he says, `we have a place, I need a person.’ Then he finds our first employee – one of his previous students.

We need a three-wheeler. Then we need a bike and then the three wheel guy who used to do the flower delivery was pretty good at making flower arrangements himself. He said " If you give me the flowers, I will do the arrangement." I agree and today he has run the flower shop for Kapruka for more than a decade.

We continued to grow. Before I knew it we had 10 employees.

Who does the development for the Kapruka site?

I write every single code.

You mean you develop everything? (I ask him again)

Yes. I think I must be the only CEO in Sri Lanka running a billion rupee company who writes all his code. We make a billion a year and we are still not listed.

(He pulls his shirt with thub and forefinger and points to his shirt. This shirt, these shoes and everything that I am wearing was bought with Kapruka money.)

We have no bank loans (he says with great pride). We grew organically.

Tell me about your people.

I used to go to a café like this he says (with reference to Java lounge.) The coffee used to give me a few extra hours of work, so this is really a hobby!

What about Sugath, is he still with you?

Well I purchased his 15% of the company and I still meet him every year on our anniversary.

What is next?

I will tell you! I have a patented the Global import simulator. It’s running off our global shop on Galle Road. Basically people do not purchase things on line because of fears. Some of these fears include putting up one’s credit card details on the net. Then you are not sure whether you will have to pay various duties for it on arrival.

What the simulator does is it tells you exactly what you have to pay. You send us the link to the item and bingo, we give you a breakdown of how much its going to cost you and we deliver in 11 days. So there you are, no hanky panky, duties included we show you a breakdown. You go to the global shop and pay and we deliver. If we can’t, we give you your money back.

(Dulith goes on about the virtues of the simulator. But for me it opens new doors. I am learning from these people. The people who have beaten such odds to be successful)

I ask him another question .Who is the woman behind the man?

Well When I was 13 and she was 12, I picked up the phone called her and said "I love you" and hung up. She is now running the Java Lounge.

(What is her name? I forget to ask. I get carried away with the romance of the story and I forget to ask…how will I forgive myself? Oh yes.. it’s Anuradha Herath. Thank god for recorders.. I rummage the bit of tape (digital) that I have on my recorder)And his mom – It’s Thilangani Herath…of Feng Shui Fame. Perhaps I should consider this more seriously!!!)

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