Fahim Farook is a thickly bearded man who works surrounded by iMacs, iPads, computers and assorted routing equipment. Fluent in three human languages and 12 computer ones, he has now devoted his energy to creating software for Apple computing devices.
“I have about 2,000 followers on Twitter and I follow an iPhone developer list. I might see 20 queries in a day. Of those I might get one to three bites.” he said.
For Farook, a bite is a client – someone who could be in Bahrain, America or anywhere with Internet. On the coastal island of Sri Lanka, connected to the global Internet by submarine cable, Fahim Farook is a modern day fisherman. He makes a living and supports his family with work he finds almost entirely offshore. There are others like him.
Navin Weeraratne is a passionate 31 year old Harvard Business School drop-out who now lives a few hundred meters from the beach. Ask him what his passion is and he replies “Making money. That’s the only way I’m going to live forever.”
Weeraratne believes in a technological progression which leads to immortality. “We’re the first generation that’s going to have access to life extension technology like stem cell, etc. It’s perfectly fine to make less money and be comfortable, but you don’t know how much it will cost [to live forever]. Make as much money as you can ‘cause you might be a bit short.”
Instead of Twitter, Weeraratne fishes for his business through ads on major search engines like Google and Bing. When people search for keywords like ‘miniature painting services’ or ‘space marine painting’, ads for his business (www.paintedfigs.com) comes up. It is a company that paints, essentially, toy soldiers for adults that like to play war games. He makes a living (perhaps eternal) and provides jobs for eight other people. All sales are online.
Monalee Suranimala is an outwardly non-geeky IT consultant who works between two houses, three laptops, one phone and multiple time zones. Specializing in business management software, she consults for a global fashion company.
“I’m not seeing this as a job, it’s a very exceptional situation,” she said.
Suranimala quit a company in England to be with her family and the client offered her the same work as an independent consultant. “For them they’re paying half of that they did before,” she said. “I just have to go show my face now and then.”
That half is still enough for her to maintain a comfortable household and help support her family. She has landed a whale of a client, but her income depends almost entirely on them.
“I worry about job security all the time,” she said. “My contract is one months notice.”
What these three characters have in common is essentially a fishing metaphor. Every day they get up, leave their tropical island to make a living and come back with whatever they can catch. Where they differ from local fishermen is that their market is global, potentially infinite and much more lucrative. It also smells better.
Farook began with small fish, direct consumers. When the Apple App Store was launched, Farook coded applications like an educational game for children and a pill reminder for the elderly.
The App Store is a centralized place where millions of iPhone and iPad users can buy software. Unlike the world of rampant Windows piracy, this system worked because it was easier than stealing and because it was cheap ($0.99 for many apps). Thousands of developers rushed in and the small fish began harder and harder to land. Farook moved upstream, landing clients.
Instead of earning about $50 a month from his own apps, Farook began earning $60 an hour coding apps for other people. His biggest catch was $9,000, but that was still competitive against his competitors who charge up to $100,000.
Weeraratne also began with direct consumers, but he was able to differentiate himself from competitors since he offered a labor intensive product at a lower cost.
“The further you are from your market the greater the advantage you may have,” he said.
Weeraratne’s company hand paints ‘minis’ or miniature figurines. People order minis from them or ship their minis over to be painted with custom colors. When they receive their finished minis, the toy soldiers are deployed over tabletop battlefields where grown-ups play war games. Weeraratne himself is a passionate gamer and, to his knowledge, is the only Game Master in the country.
His broad advantage is cost, as the cost of labor is cheap in Sri Lanka. What Weeraratne really attributes his success to, however, is spelling.
“English is massively important,” he said. “This is why I dominate my field. I can spell and I answer the question.”
Suranimala can more than spell, she can navigate the business and technical language that governs the workings of an international fashion company.
“The work is supposed to be 50% business, 50% technical,” she said. “I don’t do coding but I do algorithms and basically tell the coders what to do.”
An algorithm is an effective way to solve a problem in a finite number of steps. In this case the problems Suranimala solves involve a global supply chain with factories worldwide mixed supplying shops in most major urban centers. Much of this is managed through business software called SAP, which Suranimala specializes in.
She spends much of the day on email, chat and Skype (internet telephony) managing business communications. She spends much of the rest of her time managing technical issues directly within the SAP system through the company’s Virtual Private Network (VPN). What she sells, effectively, is her time and expertise, around 40 hours worth every week.
All of these characters launch their metaphorical boats from the island of Sri Lanka, off the southern coast of India, recently emerged from years of war but blessed with many English speaking, IT literate people, functional Internet infrastructure and a low cost of living.
They have also emerged at a time when outsourcing is booming around the world, with major companies like Walmart purchasing products from China and companies like Goldman Sachs outsourcing financial and IT knowledge work to India. Where these Sri Lankan differ, however, is they do not work for companies that work for companies. They work, essentially, for themselves.
“Subcontracting is huge,” said Farook. “I hate working on projects like that because you don’t get what the client wants. You get what the client told the agency who told a third party.”
Instead, Farook, Weeraratne and Suranimala work for clients or consumers directly. In this way, they are getting around traditional business structures that would either force them to leave their home or earn less money by staying. Through a few glowing screens (and all have more than one computer), they are able to leverage their skills.
“This is the only way to get out of your economy,” said Weeraratne. “People ask me, ‘why are you staying in Sri Lanka?’ Because there’s money to be made. Every now and then I run into people and say you could do your business online. They freak out, they’ve never thought about that. They think about the people they’ve met today and don’t think about the billion people out there.”
This new wave of small business people are able to leverage the two, meeting who they want to meet at home and making money abroad. When asked if she missed office camaraderie, Suranimala shrugged it off.
“I’m not much of an office person. I’d turn up, do the work and leave,” she said. “When I want a coffee break I go hang out with my dad or my fiance. Here I get to hang out with people I actually want to hang out with.”