3AxisLabs another welcome entrant to Jaffna’s IT ecosystem

Author Jekhan Aruliah

Jekhan Aruliah

By Jekhan Aruliah

The Yarl Geek Challenge (YGC), run by the Yarl IT Hub, has been a launch pad for hundreds of IT careers, and for a number of successful companies. What YGC showcases is not the products brought by the teams, YGC showcases the people the teams are made up of. Often the YGC’s products hardly survive the end of the competition. But the people have linked up to do greater things. In the case of 3AxisLabs both product and people were launched together into entrepreneurial enterprises.

Bootstrapping Bus Seats

Let’s start the story with Busseat.lk, an online booking system for coaches plying the roads around Sri Lanka. Busseat.lk was conceived and presented at the Yarl Geek Challenge Series 3 (YGC3) in 2014. Having won YGC3 four of the five man team left, three to join top IT companies with one heading off to do a PhD. Only Prasanth Subendran stayed, the leader of the team. He wasn’t dreaming of rising into a CTO position with a famous company. Prasanth successfully applied to a top tier IT company in Colombo just to prove to himself he could. He didn’t accept the offer and stuck with busseat.lk.

Jestan Nirojan, co-founder of 3AxisLabs, had been a mentor at the YGC3 supporting and advising the YGC competitors. Though not mentoring Prasanth’s team, he watched them carefully. At YGC3 Nirojan was impressed by Prasanth focussing more on the business problem than the technical challenge. By chance sometime later Nirojan bumped into Prasanth in the Colombo suburb Wellawatta, and agreed to join him on his quest.

Left to Right the 3AxisLabs founders: Prasanth; Nirojan; Saahithyan

At the end of each day Nirojan would leave his office at Hsenid, one of Colombo’s leading tech companies, to moonlight for their dream. He would join Prasanth Monday to Thursday from 7pm to midnight, Friday 7pm to 3am, Saturday and Sunday more or less full time. No time to cook or iron, the crumpled duo snatched meals from Wellawatta kades. They would break the technological routine by chasing up bus operators striving to bring them onto the busseat.lk service and with an occasional trip to the cinema. Development started in May 2015, the service was launched less than 5 months later in August.

Prasanth wryly commented that while his Moratuwa University peers were putting on smart shirts and trousers heading for posh airconditioned offices, he was sweating going door to door meeting bus mudalalis. Getting bus operators to use the system was almost impossible. Bus mudalalis don’t generally fit the profile for high tech early adopters. The owners of more than 20 bus companies who were based in Sri Lanka were approached without success. Then they made contact with the diaspora owner of a luxury coach service running in Sri Lanka who lived in Norway. To start he gave them 4 seats on each coach to sell. As the other operators saw Busseat.
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lk in operation they started to sign up too. These coach operators became the prime drivers for ongoing development of the system. Their feedback focussed on making it easy for them to maintain their timetables and routes, and process bookings from the public and from agents.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Following the MVP strategy the first launch of busseat.lk was imperfect but far better than the alternatives. For the traveller it was better than ringing around the coach hotlines, or walking along Jaffna’s dusty hot roads to their ticket booths hoping they would have seats on the days they needed them. I myself have rung hotlines, walked down Hospital Road, and used busseat.lk for my Jaffna-Colombo trips. Busseat.lk was not only more comfortable and convenient, it solved my chronic incompetence speaking Tamil by circumventing incomprehensible human interactions.

Launched as a Minimum Viable Product (not perfect, just good enough to provide the service and continue evolving from live lessons learned), busseat.lk’s first incarnation focussed on the passenger experience. Easy and quick to use for the passenger ordering the tickets at the frontend, at the backend there was a lot of behind the scenes manual processing going on where the bookings were actually made and confirmations emailed back.

Over the years the passenger experience on busseat.lk evolved to become very similar to checking in on an airplane. Now you can see all the seats in the bus and choose your own. Ladies can choose to only have another lady sitting next to them. Those who love to watch the country whizzing by can choose window seats. Families can ensure they are seated together, or perhaps apart!

Having launched busseat.lk in 2015 Prasanth and Nirojan seriously looked into starting a software company. But at the time they weren’t able to get enough projects to make it sustainable. So in 2017 Nirojan moved back to Jaffna while Prasanth stayed focused on Busseat.lk in Colombo. Nirojan joined Arogya Life Systems as Chief Technology Officer. Arogya is another tech company born out of Yarl Geek Challenge. Arogya is successfully developing and selling hospital management systems across Sri Lanka to leading hospitals including Durdans, Hemas,  and more.

3AxisLabs launched in 2021

The COVID lockdowns starting early 2021 dealt busseat.lk a near fatal blow. With the extended bans on travel, busseat.lk had negligible business. From 2019 Prasanth and Nirojan had returned to planning setting up their own tech company, 3Axis Labs. Nirojan brought his friend Saahithyan Vigneswaran who was working at Arogya’s sister company Arima. From 2019 until 2021 they crystallised their strategy. 3AxisLabs took off in April 2021 with its three founders: Prasanth, Nirojan and Saahithyan . One year later, in April 2022, they had 9 more staff.

3AxisLabs team, not including 2 on leave and 1 working from home

Prasanth commented that it is very difficult to be alone when starting a company. It’s good to have partners with complementary skills. Each taking the lead according to their own strengths, all having confidence in the others to hand responsibilities over. Prasanth heads product development, sales, project management, customer and investor relations. Saahithyan as Technical Lead takes care of mobile apps, front and back ends, and system architecture. Nirojan as Chief Technology Officer drives technology strategy.

International Clientele. Exotically named tech

3Axis Labs have developed software for clients in Australia, Singapore, Denmark and the UK. Customers have come via Diaspora and through social media such as LinkedIn. A client in the UK had a product developed in India in 2017. The Indian developers had disappeared presumed moved on to other things. So 3Axis Labs took on a poorly documented system, studied and upgraded it. They have developed new products, integrated existing systems onto new platforms. And they have provided programmers to work as part of a Singaporean client’s development team.

I asked Prasanth what technologies they can develop in. He came up with a long list of improbably named tech: Clojure; Quarkus; Flutter; MongoDB; Neo4j; Hadoop; Kubernetes; JanusGraph and many more. In my coding days software languages had more basic names like BASIC. Techies are so much more imaginative now.

Between them the founders can do anything that needs to be done. If a job isn’t done to high standard by one of the staff, then one of the founders can mentor the team member or if necessary just do it themselves. Whether it is a new software company, bakery, or candlestick factory the founders of small startups need to be able to ensure the quality by stepping in themselves when needed.

If not now, when?

3Axis Labs gets the bulk of its projects from the Diaspora. This is one of the most effective ways the Diaspora can support the renaissance of the North. Not just with cash, but with business and with networks that bring business.

Prasanth, Nirojan and Saahithyan are building their young company with great enthusiasm and ambition. Jaffna is not yet the ‘go to’ place for software and IT. Jaffna needs to build a track record not only to attract customers, but just as critically to lure back experienced staff. Companies like Arogya, 3Axis Labs and a few others, and organisations like Yarl IT Hub and the Yarl Geek Challenge are trying to kickstart the virtuous circle. In the current Sri Lankan economic crisis we see in stark focus that organisations like these deserve support for all our benefit.

Many who could invest or setup companies or bring business to the North have said to me they are only waiting for “the right time”. Waiting for the Perfect Moment has left many waiting forever, and allowed good opportunities to wither away. “Perfection is the enemy of Progress” said Winston Churchill. “A flawed diamond is better than a pebble” said Confucius.

Prasanth Subendran can be contacted at prasanth@3axislabs.com

( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two years of age. Brought up in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences. Jekhan then spent over two decades in the IT industry, for half of which he was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at jekhanaruliah@gmail.com — )

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