One of the first thing’s you’ll see on Thiken’s website, advertising their custom mobile and web design services, is a button that says “Challenge Us.”
It’s a window into what has fueled Kalith Kumasaru, Pasindu Withanage, and Pavithra Lamahewa on a journey from Sri Lanka to Fargo, to working through culture shock, to earning degrees at North Dakota State University, to starting their own software and mobile development company called Thiken.
“I’ve always wanted to start a business, because I’ve always liked a challenge,” said Kumasaru, CTO and co-founder of Thiken. “ The challenge is my motivation.”
Kumasaru and his team started Thiken, a custom mobile and web development company aimed at “thickening” startups, about a year ago here in Fargo. They now run an office both here and in their hometown of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.
In their one year of operation, Thiken has seen success both here in the United States and in Sri Lanka – from an augmented reality project for Mitsubishi, to a fundraising app for non-profits that they hope to release by the end of this month. They were also featured in a previous story on our site about how they are bringing startup culture to Sri Lanka, and covered in the Fargo Forum. This week, Kumasaru will share their story from the stage at 1 Million Cups.
For Kumasaru and his team, this is a dream come true. But it comes after years of strategizing, building a team, and relentlessly pursuing that dream.
The Startup Appeal
In Sri Lanka, Kumasaru read news articles and blogs, one after another, each proclaiming tales of the startup boom happening in the United States.
“When you open up blogs like Tech Crunch, all you see is people getting funded all the time,” he said. “We thought, here in North Dakota, in the U.S., you have a lot of opportunity.”
He met like-minded colleagues in Sri Lanka – Pasindu Withanage, and Pavithra Lamahewa. The plan, they decided, was to pursue computer science and try to get to America.
“We were always following a plan,” Kumasaru said. “We had that mindset even when we were back in Sri Lanka. We wanted to apply our knowledge collaboratively, and make a big noise.”
The plan began moving along nicely when all three got accepted to North Dakota State University, and were able to pay in-state tuition. Kumasaru and Withanage studied computer science while Lamahewa became an expert at web design. Withanage also landed a job working with cloud computing and become a cloud expert.
After graduating they landed jobs in the area and furthered their skills, while becoming acquainted with how businesses run in the United States, Kumasaru said. But through it all, the dream to start a company never died.
“During that time period, we tried so many things, so many different ideas,” Kumasaru said. “There were a lot of sleepless nights with a lot of sticky notes around your bed, brainstorming.”
Finally, in February of 2015, they decided to simultaneously quit their jobs and form Thiken, based on the expertise of the team, Kumasaru said. Withanage became the CEO, Kumasaru the CTO, and Lamahewa the COO and head of design. They were joined by Bryan Lim, a business development specialist, Jim Jurewicz as director of sales, and Chathura Nirmal to manage their office in Sri Lanka.
“We thought, right now is the time, otherwise we won’t get a chance again,” Kumasaru said. “When you have something in your hand, you grab it. It doesn’t make any sense to lose it.”
The Red Tape
When it came to the legality of starting a business in foreign country, both Kumasaru and Whitanage said it took a lot of painstaking work. They did a lot of online research beforehand, and eventually hired a lawyer – Mr. Ruslan Bocancea in Minneapolis – to guide them through the protocol.
“You’ve got to read each and every line,” Kumasaru said. “You’re risking a lot if you miss it.”
For New Americans wanting to start a business, they both highly recommend hiring a lawyer. However, although it does take work, starting a business in the U.S. is manageable, Withanage said.
“You don’t have to have a green card. Even from Sri Lanka, I can start an entity in the U.S.,” he said.
One of the easiest ways is to have a co-founder from the U.S., Withanage said. Otherwise, if you’re going to operate for a long time, there are three different visas that could work.
- F1 Student Visa: Having a student visa is helpful, although Withanage clarified that you can start a business while you are in F1 but you can’t actively operate that business as a student. If you have a degree in the same field as your business then you can work for that business while you are in your Optional Practice Training (OPT). If not you can only be a investor.
- A treaty visa: Treaty Trader (E-1) and Treaty Investor (E-2) visas, which are available for citizens of countries with which the United States maintains treaties of commerce and navigation. For a list of participating countries, select Treaty Countries. They were lucky Sri Lanka was on the list, Kumasaru said.
- The L1 visa, which allows someone like Whithanage to work as an executive only if he also works for a year’s time abroad as well. According to a work permit site, the L1 is “a non-immigrant visa which allows companies operating both in the US and abroad to transfer certain classes of employee from its foreign operations to the USA operations for up to seven years.”
Adjusting to Culture
The friendly culture in Fargo, Kumasaru said, was an advantage in their transition from a different country and starting a business. Even stereotypes people had of them worked in their benefit.
“We do tend to get the stereotype of being IT guys,” he said with a laugh. “People who just tend to think that we are smart. That’s a stereotype…but it worked in our advantage.”
They also found American culture to be very impatient compared to Sri Lankan culture; something they had to adapt to, but also were able use as an opportunity.
“You (Americans) need things, instantaneously. That’s what we figured out. That’s our opportunity – providing quick, quality service. It’s a must,” he said. “Sri Lankans are very patient people. And we are always very patient with our clients…the [Sri Lankan] personality…was an advantage.”
As Kumasaru looks to Welcome Week this week, and the influx of New Americans in the Fargo-Moorhead region, he encourages the spirit of entrepreneurship. His advice for New Americans looking to start a business here is to constantly be motivated towards your goal.
“Personal development is very important. You have to have a good mindset of what is to come. You have to expect the worst, and don’t ever give up,” he said.
“The feeling that you get in the end of it, that’s what drives me. It’s the feeling you get when you’re taking risks. Just to know that the product that you made is out there, and that people are using it. It’s such a gorgeous feeling to have.”
Come hear more of Thiken’s story and meet Kalith Kumasaru this week at 1 Million Cups! Join us from 9:15 am – 10:15 am at the Stage at Island Park.
Photos courtesy of Thiken and Pixabay.