Sprinting in Sri Lanka with DFS Lab

samfloy~4 May 2017 /East Africa/East Africa Business

In a break from summaries of industries in East Africa this post is a quick update about an interesting week that I’ve just spent in Sri Lanka.

I was there with Hilda (founder of Pezesha, company I worked with earlier in the year) helping to represent them at a bootcamp for start ups from around the world, all organised by DFS Lab.

About DFS Lab

DFS Lab is an organisation funded by the Gates Foundation with the purpose of supporting innovations within the financial sectors of developing markets.

Based out of Seattle they are a smart bunch who all have experience working across the world at improving access to financial services, often through digital means.

The companies that they work with all share this remit, and can based from anywhere.

DFS stands for Digital Financial Services. Being the only Brit in the group, my suggestion that they might be making experimental sofas fell on flat ears…

Since starting in July 2016, this is their second bootcamp – the first being held last year in Tanzania.

About the Sprint Methodology

The purpose of week was to undertake a “Sprint”.

This is essentially a methodology for identifying and testing potential improvements to a business in a swift and structured manner.

Whilst the theory behind it is sound, and has led to innovations across many companies who have adopted it, it can be somewhat bewildering to actually put it into practice.

Thankfully, some guys wrote a book to help.

Our pre-reading for the week was to digest The Sprint Book, written by partners at Google Ventures who spent years going into startups and teaching them how to Sprint.

The book deconstructs everything that is necessary to complete the 5 day process in precise detail. You are told things like “40 minutes to brainstorm questions” and “10 minutes to put coloured stickers on post-it notes” which is evidence of how much experience the authors have in understanding how to make things happen.

The purpose of a 5 day Sprint is test out an idea in your business with real-life customers to see whether it’s something worth pursuing further.

What the week looked like

The DFS Lab bootcamp posse took up a large proportion of the hotel we were staying at on the Sri Lankan coast.

Along with Facilitators and Mentors there were fourteen entrepreneurs in attendance (seven startups from four countries) and there was rotation amongst the companies so that everyone got to understand what the companies were working on.

Attendees of the DFS Lab

Each day was set out for us in a structured manner, beginning at 9am and finishing around 6/7pm depending on who we would be meeting with in the evenings.

Roughly, this is what the week looked to achieve:

Monday – identify a problem

Tuesday – brainstorm solutions

Wednesday – sketch out a specific solution

Thursday – prototype that solution

Friday – interview customers for feedback

Fuelled by healthy snacks (the book said so) we spent our time working through the various sub-tasks, aided by Facilitators and Mentors, all in the direction of the overall goal for the day.

By Friday evening our interviews had been completed (a combination of in-person and over Skype) and on Saturday morning each company presented their findings about what was learnt from the week.

What was the point of all this?

Despite its balmy setting, this was a pretty intensive week of work. Focusing for extended periods of time, constantly moving forward on an idea, and meeting with Facilitators/ Mentors who might be interested in investment meant that everyone was fairly drained by the end of the day.

DFS Lab created this bootcamp (I believe) to establish an environment in which they could their accelerate their learning on whether a company would be suitable for their support.

Rather than sitting through pitch decks, and having hypothetical conversations with founders, they were able to be actively involved with companies working together to solve a problem.

Discussing feedback from the Sprint

Doing so gives a rich insight into how the company actually works, how the founders think and interact in a multitude of ways. Pretty smart, right?

Those companies eventually deemed suitable for the program would be given a $75,000 grant and be brought into the fold of the many layers of support that DFS Lab can bring.

So in short, it was a week-long interview.

Outside of work

Beyond the air-conditioned conference room that we spent seven hours a day in, there was time also to explore the local surroundings.

Personally I ended up in an in-depth conversation with a tea merchant about the many Ceylon varieties, took sunrise runs on the beach and squeezed in a rogue night out in Colombo where the local twenty-somethings were going mental for covers of 90s rock.

Mealtimes were buffet, and served as a good chance to chat to all of the other people at the bootcamp and hear about their interests beyond work.

The final day was spent on a roadtrip to Kandy, a city 3 hours in-land, where we visited a Buddhist temple with (allegedly) one of Buddha’s actual teeth as well as having a pleasant lake next to it, prime for a sunset selfie.


Wrapping this up, whilst I’m sure there are other organisations that exist to support startups in developing markets, from my interaction with the team and their organisation, I was thoroughly impressed with the guys at DFS Lab.

For anyone reading who might be interested in applying, then more information can be found here and I’d be happy to chat through any questions you might have.

Pezesha will now wait and see how we did in terms of next steps, though regardless, it was a very valuable week.