It is 8,646 miles from Fargo, North Dakota, to the island of Sri Lanka. The expanse of the Atlantic Ocean spans between us, as well as the entire continent of Africa. And yet, a local startup called Thiken is actively bridging this distance through sharing startup culture.
The appeal of startup culture
Pasindu Withanage is from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. He came to Fargo in 2010 to study at North Dakota State University – partly because he’d always wanted to come to America, partly to graduate early, and partly because at the time there were a lot of other Sri Lankans studying here.
“I was worried about the cold, but I came anyway,” Withanage said. “And I’ve found it’s a really great place.”
A crucial part of why he likes Fargo, he said, is the startup culture. During his time as a student he was involved with NDSU’s Innovation Challenge, a competition that guides students through the process of turning an innovative idea into a funded startup. His team didn’t end up winning, but the process got him plugged into the startup culture – and he began to notice qualities they had not experienced before.
“In Sri Lanka, most of the companies go with the corporate culture,” he said. “It’s 8 AM to 5 PM jobs, and you work for the sake of working.”
What he saw in Fargo, he said, was a culture of collaboration, and a culture that promoted doing work that you love, rather than work for money.
“People here like to help each other a lot,” he said. “I got stuck in the snow one year, and four people stopped to help me. It was great! And it’s the same with startups – if you go to 1 Million Cups and Startup Weekend, there are bunch of people who like to help you. People who like to mentor you, advise you.”
He and his friends Kalith Kumasaru and Pavithra Lamahewa, also from Sri Lanka, saw the value in the startup environment and wanted to bring it to their home country. With the creation of their Web and mobile application development company Thiken, they found the perfect opportunity.
What is Thiken?
The idea to create Thiken – which they took from the word “thicken” – came after nearly two years of Withanage and his team working on a variety of projects, from mobile apps to video games. Last August they decided to band together to form a team that can work one-on-one with clients to assist in mobile and Web strategies.
In February, they quit their day jobs to pursue Thiken full-time. So far they have worked with three clients. In their free time, Withanage said, they design their own projects – one of which is an app, which he can’t talk about now (but perhaps in a few weeks, he said).
Withanage, who has background as a developer, serves as the CEO and Cloud Expert. He runs a team of six developers and designers in Fargo – three from Sri Lanka, two from the United States, and one originally from Malaysia.
Thiken has also established offices in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where five developers and one content manager work on the engineering side of the business. Thiken’s goal is to have one member from the Fargo team in Sri Lanka at all times, using their experience with startup culture here to continuously grow the culture there. Currently, Thiken CTO Kalith Kumasaru is there running the Sri Lanka office.
“[Kalith] has a really good idea for how startups work here [in Fargo],” Withanage said. “He wants to build a place in Sri Lanka that is similar to this, in the sense of the startup culture. We don’t really care whether you come at 8-5. What we care about is doing things right.”
Building a culture
One of the main ways they have implemented the startup culture in Sri Lanka is within the physical work space, Withanage said. Instead of cubicles, they have a large table where everyone can sit around and exchange ideas. Everything is covered in greenery, plants, and flowers. The team is not opposed to taking a break for some cricket, either.
“That doesn’t usually happen in most places in Sri Lanka,” Withanage said. “We want to bring that experience to Sri Lankan people.”
Their interview process is also very different from the standard process in Sri Lanka, which usually entails an overview of your skill-set and a written test. At Thiken, they have added something Sri Lankan companies don’t have: a culture test.
“We ask fun questions and see how they respond,” Withanage said. “And we always try to find people that have a passion to work. If you don’t have people who have passion for what they do, they tend to go out of that culture. They just work for the money.”
Many Sri Lankans are resistant to this type of culture, Withanage said. In Sri Lanka, he said, the top universities are bent on training students to think in a corporate manner.
“They are used to studying and working in a mechanical way,” he said. “Not all the people get the culture. But some people adapt.”
For Withanage and his team, the value of the startup culture is evident. They have seen how it has positively shaped the Fargo community, and they know it can do the same in Sri Lanka.
“It takes a while to build a culture,” Withanage said. “But it’s a culture of people that like what they do. It’s a really good thing to groom that kind of culture. It’ll help society.”
Photos courtesy of Pasindu Withanage.