Unlike most ventures that start online with the intention of making profit, the EPFS Community on Facebook, everybody’s go-to to buy and sell things in Sri Lanka, or ask questions and get answers for that matter, was set up to urgently sell an apartment full of furniture and household appliances in a very short space of time – Hence the name “Expats Furniture Sales”.
Today, the forum is not only a platform that connects over 46,000 members from all over the world, but has also started a spin-off venture ‘Business Hubs’ that is keen on helping out up-and-coming businessmen and women by way of providing them an office space to work from, opportunities to find investors, mentoring and much more.
The Nation spoke to Michael Moonesinghe, the Founder of The EPFS Community and following are the excerpts of the interview:
Q: What is The EPFS Community? How did it all start?
The EPFS Community Facebook group started just under three years ago. It was completely unplanned and certainly unintentional and what led to it was as unexpected as the reach, popularity and assistance which the group provides to its members today.
Some foreigner friends of mine who had lived in Sri Lanka for some time, urgently needed to sell an apartment full of furniture and household appliances in a very short space of time. They had been let down at the last minute by a colleague who had previously agreed to purchase most of it from them. My friends had just three days (over a holiday weekend) to get rid of everything and were in quite a fix.
They couldn’t even leave the furniture in the ‘unfurnished’ apartment without forfeiting their large security deposit. They even desperately considered just leaving the furniture out on the street, but didn’t want the cops chasing them to the airport.
They asked me if I could take the biggest items of furniture off their hands, but I didn’t need having anything else, or really had any space for all their things. After a lot of pleading (and quite a lot of drinks!) my friends eventually convinced me to help them out of their dilemma.
We agreed that the proceeds would be donated to several small charities which we knew needed help, as their parting gift to Sri Lanka.
As I was pretty well networked in Sri Lanka, I set up a Facebook group, fully intending to close it down as soon as everything was sold. I called it ‘Ex-Pats Furniture’ and threw in the ‘Services’ ending as a bit of a joke, as even more of my foreigner friends started to use me as some kind of a second hand furniture man. Most things sold very quickly as most were good quality, lightly used and sold off at significant discounts. As word spread, many locals joined the group eager to bag some great bargains.
But what I did not expect was the overwhelming popularity of this new ‘service’. I started receiving calls and messages from people asking whether I could sell their items for them too –including several foreign embassies.
Then people started to ask me whether they could use this fast growing platform to sell their own items for sale as well. I agreed, but suggested that they might want to consider donating 10 per cent of whatever they made from their sales to charity. This proved very popular and the group quickly grew to 50 members and then to 100, then to 500 within just a few weeks.
The EPFS Community has quickly become the number one place to go to for advice on just about anything in Sri Lanka. It very quickly grew into much more than just a buy and sell Facebook group, of which there are quite a few. It has matured into a true online community filled with thousands of caring and sharing people, all happily helping each other out however and wherever they can as a true community should. What is very important to me and a lot of people in EPFS is that our Community remains free of any race, religious and political affiliations whatsoever.
Everyone is welcome in the EPFS Community, so long as they all play nicely with everyone else. We don’t always have to agree with everyone else’s opinion and in fact what a boring world it would be if we did. But my view is that we should show respect for another’s views and accept that the other person is as entitled to hold their opinion, as we are with our own.
There is now a team of 12 volunteers who police the group, quite closely, to ensure that ethos remain. This has resulted in many very ‘lively’ discussions taking place on the page, from the merits of a Vegan lifestyle, to abortion and many things in-between. People are allowed to voice their opinion, however, any aspects of racism or religious and political discord is not tolerated at all and many people have been banned from the group for such demeanours.
The Community also has a significant international following with members living all over the world who are either Sri Lankans living abroad or others with some sort of connection to Sri Lanka, plus many foreigners living and working in Sri Lanka.
However, the group was never set up to be a group solely for foreigners and never will be.
Q: How many members does The EPFS have at present?
EPFS began back in July 2014 and the group has grown to over 46,000 members with around 100 new members joining daily. There is a voluntary membership fee of only Rs.100 per month, just Rs.1200 per year. We do not enforce membership fees but we do truly hope that all members consider making a small contribution for being a member of this awesome and amazingly useful community.
Hundred per cent of all the donations go towards charity and there are no admin fees of any sort.
Our (administrative) team are all volunteers that take time off their busy schedules and lives to help monitor the group and make sure that everything moves along smoothly. Also, that the group remains true to its main objective; ‘to raise much needed funds for a wide range of 25 small and locally based charities and worthy causes.’
Q: What is the process or protocol to be followed if someone wants to sell on EPFS? We see in posts the disclaimer that a part of the money (10%) from sales will be going to charity. What is this ‘charity’ exactly?
If you are selling personal and second hand items, then we ask members to donate 10 per cent to the group’s charity fund, which is then distributed every month.
Small and home businesses can register as an approved advertiser by donating just Rs.2000 per month for a weekly advert to our large and very active group.
Larger businesses, we ask for a Rs.5000 monthly donation for up to eight adverts a month. Many of our regular advertisers tell us that they receive a large and growing amount of their new business enquiries as a direct result of their adverts to The EPFS Community, so it is great to see that our FB group is now also supporting small and local businesses too. We will be launching some exciting new opportunities for businesses to gain an even better advantage
The sale or rent of vehicles, properties, land and also job opportunities are all now frequently advertised on the page.
EPFS still offers a Managed Sales option, for members who do not have the time to deal with the hassles of selling, for just an additional 10 per cent charge.
Some of the local charities and worthy causes that EPFS supports can be found on our website www.epfscommunity.com/charity.
We now support a diverse range of small and locally based charities, from orphanages to elders’ homes, schools for differently-able children and a number of different animal welfare groups. Our team of Charity Liaison volunteers personally visit every charity to make sure that everything is above board and closely monitor them to ensure that the money which we give to them on behalf of the EPFS Community is being spent correctly.
We distribute roughly around Rs.500,000 each month and to date have collectively donated over Rs.12.8 million. All from a Facebook page!
Q: Tell us about Business Hubs Sri Lanka. From what we understand those are physical hubs, like an office space, that entrepreneurs can come and work from. Is that all what it is or in what other ways can entrepreneurs benefit from the ‘hubs’?
Yes I am building another supportive community, this time for small businesses; Business Hubs area fast growing network of Co-Working Centres here in Sri Lanka. The Hubs provide low cost and low commitment office space for entrepreneurs, start-up businesses and anyone else who is seeking quality office space at an affordable cost and on very flexible terms to allow their small businesses to grow or to shrink without any limitations.
Entrepreneurs, start-ups and small businesses are the engine room which drive economies. The SME sector is a key contributor to the actual growth of the country’s GDP. Economically, it’s a very exciting time for Sri Lanka and there is no better or more vibrant place to be than right in there supporting the game-changers of tomorrow.
My genuine and passionate view is that Sri Lankan entrepreneurs could develop not just great local companies, but world class businesses. Many just need some early stage support and mentoring and to start believing that they can be just as good as anyone else in the world, maybe even better.
What we offer is so much more than just a desk and a chair in a shared office facility.
Our ‘Hubbers’ as someone recently nick named our members, become part of a vibrant, thriving and mutually supportive business community. Experienced business people are available to offer support, advice and guidance on all aspects of setting up and running their business. Most of us have successfully done it for ourselves already, some multiple times.
Seed funding and Angel investment capital is also available for qualifying start-ups. Networking and ‘Lunch & Learn’ mentoring sessions are regularly organised on all aspects of setting up and running a small business; from sales and marketing to legal and financial aspects so that we give businesses every possible chance of success.
Our aim is to do everything in our powers to reduce this frighteningly high international statistic of eight out of 10 startups failing in their first to 18 months, so five or less, for businesses which are part of our Business Hubs Community.
Investor evenings will also be arranged to enable start-ups to make presentations directly to the local and International Angel investment community for seed and development capital. The Hubs’ mentors work closely with the entrepreneurs without any extra charges to give them every opportunity for success.
In addition to the co-working space, many of our Hubs also have a number of larger private office spaces, for teams and also for established businesses. These are also available on very flexible and low commitment terms and can be provided with or without furniture.
If anyone wants a tour of any of our Business Hubs, they just need to speak to one of our community managers who will be happy to give them a tour!
Q: When did the Hubs start? How has the response been so far? What is your team like at the moment?
Business Hubs is an initiative of Glover Daniels International, our Human Capital Consultancy. We opened our first location in Mount Lavinia in October 2016 and since then have quickly grown our network to four Hubs with a plan to bring the network to 10 Hubs by the end of this year. In addition to our Hub in Mount Lavinia, we now have two Hubs in Colpetty and one in Nugegoda. Some offer 24/7 access!
This is a relatively new concept to Sri Lanka. However, we are soon to be running at full capacity with most private office already booked and co-working spaces being snapped up fast. We are currently looking at a number of other locations and plan to open two or three more Hubs over the next few months. We are always interested in hearing from owners with suitable buildings. A revenue share model is also available to allow owners to earn more than their usual rental by partnering with us.
The team that runs Business Hubs all bring expertise to the table. They are entrepreneurs themselves who have run successful businesses. Some have senior sales and marketing experience, others operations and some finance to add value to the entrepreneurs’ businesses.
Q: So, what does the future hold for The EPFS Community and the Business Hubs?
In addition to expanding our Hubs further in Colombo and across the island, we are constantly looking for ways to improve upon what we do at Business Hubs. A web based App and intranet is currently being developed to enable more direct and fast communication across the Business Hubs Community.
With regard to The EPFS Community, we have plans for boosting the Charity Fund further by starting several new divisions which will partner with many local businesses in various sectors, property, food, travel and leisure.
We believe that there is so much more that can be done and we are constantly striving to get to greater heights. That’s our motto: “Work hard, have fun and make a difference.”