A FEW years ago, there were those who thought engineer Danesh Pannirselvam was crazy when he voiced his plans to market “unheard of” communications technology such as VoIP (Voice-over Internet Protocol – the transmission of telephone calls over a data network like one of the many networks that make up the Internet). Now VoIP has become common practice and, consequently, Danesh is vindicated.
One person who listened to him at that time was A.Sritharan, a business management graduate who had worked in the telecommunications industry. Recognising the potential in Danesh's ideas, the two got together in 1999 and Asia Telecoms (AT) was born.
AT is a licensed application service provider (ASP), which currently focuses on small and medium scale industries (SMIs). Those using AT’s services would be able to make international calls at a discounted rate, says Sritharan, 38, who is the company’s chief operating officer. Other services offered are VoIP as well as customised pre-paid calling cards.
“We launched a pre-paid calling card in Bahasa Indonesia for Indonesian workers in Malaysia,” says Danesh, AT’s chief executive officer.
“We realised that many Indonesians here did not understand the English and Bahasa Malaysia instructions on calling cards. And that’s when we realised the huge market potential – considering Indonesian workers in Malaysia number in the thousands.”
The company’s business plan of targeting mainly up and coming small and medium sized businesses has helped add to their client base. “We’re trying to help them reduce their overhead costs by offering discounted calls. Who’s going to say no to that,” says Danesh, 28.
When Sritharan and Danesh launched the business, they had to begin from scratch – literally.
“Banks and financial institutions were cautious when it came to funding AT because the nature of the business is relatively new in this country,” said Danesh. Ironically, many of AT’s current clients are financial institutions.
“Our start-up capitol was zero and we had to tie up contracts for equipment with vendors. A couple of relatives came forward but only to help keep our heads above water. Basically our capitol was begged, borrowed and stolen from relatives and friends,” laughs Danesh. “But we’ve since paid them back, of course.”
For the first year, Sritharan and Danesh had no employees and they had to do all the legwork themselves.
“Sure we were the CEO and the COO but we were also the office boys, the administration staff as well as the customer service people,” recalls Sritharan. “It was tough and it was a gamble that we took.”
Things have changed since then. AT currently has branches in Ipoh and Penang, and a staff of 30.
The duo employed unusual and rather daring strategies when it came to the business, considering money was scarce in the beginning. For example, from the start, their headquarters was located in the ultra-modern – and expensive – Petronas Twin Towers.
“People who knew us thought we were out of our minds. Why did we need an office in the most expensive part of the city?” Sritharan relates. The main reason for the location, he says, was that AT needed to be “seen” and “heard”.
The strategy paid off when it turned out that a good number of the Tower occupants eventually became AT clients.
“Besides, if we want to be the best we have to be among the best. Maxis is right next to us and Celcom is just down the road,” says Sritharan.
Explaining AT’s marketing strategy, Sritharan says that usually other industry players advertised aggressively to reach out to as many people as possible early in the game.
“But at AT, we would like to keep a low profile initially while capturing the market and advertise only when we have already established ourselves.”
Sritharan, who is from Ipoh, met Danesh when they were working on a project together. The partnership has worked out well with Sritharan overseeing the overall operations of the office and Danesh focusing on the technical aspects.
“We work together very well. I’m more of a day person and I come in as early as seven in the morning while Danesh prefers working into the night,” he says.
In fact, neither one has had a steady salary since the day they started the company.
“We only have allowances depending on how well the business is doing. Every extra sen is deposited back into the business,” says Sritharan.
But they have no doubt that their business, which saw a profit of RM80,000 in 2002, will do even better this year. “I have no qualms that the impending war will affect the business because people will still need to make calls even if it is just to check if their friends or relatives are okay,” says Sritharan.
Sritharan’s ultimate aim is to retire in five years’ time, when he hopes the business will have really taken off. Danesh, though, has no such goal.
“I have the passion for this business and I intend to go on indefinitely,” he says.
A sound business strategy – the duo plan to go beyond Malaysian borders eventually – plus a shared confidence have enabled them to progress thus far.
Danesh says: “Our company is growing by leaps and bounds and we have faith that we will succeed.”
“Besides,” adds Sritharan, “Telecommunications will never die.”
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