Seven Business Lessons to learn from Yohani

Yohani Diloka de Silva created history with multiple achievements. No Sri Lankan has a YouTube video clip, music or otherwise, that has crossed even 20 million likes. (By the time of writing Yohani’s “Menike Mage Hithe” has reached 183 million plus likes) No Sri Lankan has ever grabbed the attention of the Indian subcontinent as she did.

No Sri Lankan has ever made a cultural footprint so huge on the other side of the Palk Strait. We were not unfamiliar Indians building their soft power through Bollywood stars here. Yohani showed us the opposite too is not impossible.

This is not an article about Yohani. Many things have already been written about her. Little I could add, except for my high personal regard for ‘Prasanna Aiya’, her farther, during the school days, as my hero. Yohani has inherited many qualities from her father, but a business page is not the place to talk all that. All I want to elaborate on few important lessons we can learn from this outstanding girl.

 

LESSON #1: Take social media seriously; exploit them to their true potential
Yohani commenced her music career in social media as a YouTuber. She soon gained recognition for her rap cover of ‘Deviyange Bare’ and released many covers of her singing and rapping which have earned her the title “Rap Princess” of Sri Lanka. Her first few interviews are too for social media.

Either she was not interested or the so called mainstream media does not want to touch an amateur. I like to think it was the former. Still she knew, if taken seriously, there is no place like social media to plant your seeds and reap harvest.

YouTubing is a game many Sri Lankan entertainment professionals play. YouTube has more than one billion monthly active users who collectively watch more than one billion hours of videos each day. Content to YouTube are being uploaded at a rate of more than 500 hours of run time per minute. These include music videos, video clips, news, short films, feature films, documentaries, audio recordings, movie trailers, teasers, live streams, vlogs, and more. Most content is generated by individuals but sometimes with collaborations with company sponsors.
Since around 2015, established media corporations such as Disney, Viacom CBS, and Warner Media have created and expanded their corporate YouTube channels to advertise to a larger audience. The bottom line: YouTubing is as professional as using any other “main stream media”.

At local level, according to ‘Digital Outlook Sri Lanka 2021’, an annual marketing insight report published by Asia Pacific Institute of Digital Marketing, Sri Lanka’s total number of Internet users with any device is a little more than 10 million or 47 percent of the population with 6.4 million active social media users. The same report says YouTube reports the second highest percentages of media consumption in Sri Lanka, surpassing Television. YouTube is also the second most popular social media platform, with over 80 percent of Internet users accessing it.

Sri Lankan businesses do acknowledge the existence of social media. It would be criminal to say they don’t. Many even use it for promotion too. Still there is a big difference between merely using social media for business tasks, including marketing, and exploiting their full potential. Ask any Digital Marketer and she will tell. It would be a crime not to use them when there is such a large potential available.

 

LESSON #2: To excel in any field, business skills will come handy
Not long back, I used to teach business subjects for Fashion Design and Interior Architecture students. It wasn’t an easy task to convince them the relevance of non-design subjects. Design students, like students in every other stream treat their core modules more important than supporting subjects. I used to tell them it should be the other way around. There is always a limit they could move ahead purely with their design knowledge and talents. Breaking that barrier needs business skills.

A fashion designer can stretch her talents to design perhaps advances creations; but she does not work in a vacuum. How would she find customers if she does not possess any marketing skills? How would she survive and grow without finance skills?
Yohani enters the entertainment field after completing her bachelor’s degree in Logistics Management and Professional Accounting from the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University and her masters in in accounting from CQUniversity Australia. In her YouTube interviews she highlights how business skills she cultivated though these helped her in building the music career. Without that business skills she might still be attempting hard to make her name in the market, like hundreds of other amateur entertainers do.

This reminds me Rich Dad Poor Dad, the 1997 book written by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter. It advocates the importance of financial literacy (financial education), financial independence and building wealth through investing in assets, real estate investing, starting and owning businesses, as well as increasing one’s financial intelligence (financial IQ). The key message: With no financial literacy, one typically meets a dead-end.

This lesson is not just for entertainment and design students. I have seen how even Computer Science students neglect non-IT subjects. Industry, on the other hand, demands students with both hard and soft skills (including marketing, communication and negotiation skills). They know it is this balance that creates professional computer professionals. Students, it is time you should take note.

LESSON #3: Sri Lankan business entities must start their global entry by first catching Indian market
India is the world’s sixth-largest economy by nominal GDP at US$ 3 trillion and the third-largest by purchasing power parity (PPP). Since the start of the 21st century, annual average GDP growth has been 6 percent to 7 percent and from 2013 to 2018, India was the world’s fastest growing major economy, surpassing China.

This growth is so phenomenal that in 2011, no Indian state or union territory was ahead Sri Lanka in per capita GDP, but now, ten years later, Goa (at US$ 7,032), Sikkim (at US$ 6,545), Delhi (at US$ 5,254) and Chandigrah (at US$ 4,823) are ahead of us with four Southern states Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Karnataka and Kerala will be surpassing us soon. COVID-19 has slowed down this rapid transformation but still it’s a huge international market.
Why is this important to us? Unlike other global markets, this is at our door step. We are too close both geographically and culturally. Ideally India should be the market Sri Lankan businesses should step into the moment they gain capacity. If that does not happen, say political reasons, we should change our politics. Otherwise we would be the ultimate losers.

What we have today? Indian banks in Sri Lanka; but Sri Lankan banks hardly in Indian metros except one or two sporadically. Indian restaurants are here, but if one likes Sri Lankan food in Delhi, they will be delivered by local restaurants. You buy Indian products here even at regional level, but Sri Lankan products hardly reach Indian market.

The trade imbalance is too visible. We have 19 percent of our imports from India at US$ 3 billion. On the other hand, our exports to India are only at US$ 0.6 billion, only one fifth of the imports. Should we continue to maintain this imbalance?

Yohani has demonstrated us how to enter Indian market. Yohani’s popularity wasn’t a conspiracy as a retired Mathematics professor cum failed diplomat has visualized. YouTube algorithms simply cannot be manipulated by Indian intelligent forces no matter how powerful they are.

Indians genuinely loved Yohani and her music. Why? She has overcome the cultural barrier that separates the two societies. Indians (and subsequently others) didn’t see her performance as Sri Lankan. It was culturally appealing for an Indian and global audience. This is the lesson here. We must try to overcome our local cultural constrains in designing products for the
international market.

LESSON #4: One should no longer treat TikTok as the uncultured and uncivilized cousin of YouTube
Only a casual surf will reveal how seriously Yohani has taken TikTok. Impressive are her “Menika Mage Hithe” brief dances with other girls. One has reached 13.3 million likes, another 6 million. Her TikTok Channel ‘Yohani Music’ has 2 million plus followers and 11.7 million likes.

TikTok is still building its audience in Sri Lanka. It is the seventh most popular social media channel, according to ‘Digital Outlook Sri Lanka 2021’, after Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest. The same report finds TikTok audience is about 5 percent of the total Internet users. (Internationally TikTok is
big enough.

Since its launch in 2016, TikTok and its Chinese version Douyin have rapidly gained popularity in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the United States, Turkey and Russia. As of October 2020, TikTok has surpassed over 2 billion mobile downloads worldwide. YouTube roughly has a user base with the same number)
Why somebody with Yohani’s popularity select TikTok when YouTube provides her the ideal market? I guess, with her business knowledge she understands they are two markets. YouTube has a more serious Gen X and Gen Y audience; TikTok are for the Gen Zers. These are different markets, may be with some overlap, comprising of audiences with dissimilar tastes.

YouTube audience love relatively longer experiences, those who are at TikTok prefer shorter clips. A music professional who caters to both these markets knows the importance of making presence in both. Perhaps, after attracting more global market Yohani might consider even other social media channels such as Vimeo, Twitch and Veoh that are not too popular in Sri Lanka.

 

LESSON #5: We are culturally too close to India to surf on its entertainment wave in a big way
My Analog Electronics Professor, while studying in Karnataka, South India, invariably used Radio Ceylon as an example in his communication class. Probably he was too fond of the channel. Entire South India and parts of North India too once tuned their Radio sets at 8 p.m. every Wednesday to listen to Bianca Geetmala – a weekly countdown show of top filmi songs from Hindi cinema. It, the first radio countdown show of Indian film songs, and has been quoted as being the most popular radio program in India during its run was broadcast on Radio Ceylon from 1952 to 1988.

Why Radio Ceylon?  Hindi film songs were banned over All India Radio indicating its thinking on culture in extremely puritanical terms. B. V. Keskar, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the cabinet of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was of the opinion that Hindi cinema songs will “pollute” the “pure Indian culture”. Radio Ceylon, with its strategic thinking of the times, used the opportunity to make half of India capture the waves originating from this tiny island.

About 6-7 decades later Yohani recreated history by making Indian to run a 2.48 minutes long music video in their smart phone. The difference: This time it was for our own music. That followed a debut tour to Delhi, did the theme song for Shiddat, a 2021 Indian Hindi language romance drama film directed by Kunal Deshmukh and was featured in Bigg Boss season 15 where she performed her famous song “Manike Mage Hithe” with Salman Khan.
Entertainment industry in India is massive, valued at over US$ 250 billion, nearly three times Sri Lanka GDP. The market is projected to increase at a CAGR of 17 percent between 2020 and 2023. Advertising revenue in India is projected to reach US$ 13 billion in 2023, with subscription revenue at US$ 13.5. Indian cinema, the third largest in the world collectively produces over 1,800 films in a year in different languages. Don’t we have our own share of that? Yohani directs us to think.

 

LESSON #6: One no more needs political patronage or parental backing to be a celebrity
We live in a land where sons and daughters of politicians get into politics and those of singers get into music. You rarely find one with no “connections” in either field. Now the game rules are changing – at least in entertainment. To be a celebrity, what matters is only your talent.

Yohani proved it herself. She was the daughter of somebody who won the respect of the nation. Still, instead of using that to her advantage she waited till she gained enough momentum to let the fact out. (To be fair, it was not she who first revealed the fact).

Yohani is not alone here. A whole new generation of girls and boys are demonstrating their talents on the web. Achinthya Amarakoon, for instance, is a creative artist who can be called Yohani’s counterpart in comics. She did ‘Sakkayi Muniyayi’ where sons of a god and a demon are ‘fixing’ the mortal world issues and now does ‘This Fluppy Love’ – a boys’ love story that has gained top ratings in the romance genre in Webtoon (Find it via: https://tinyurl.com/233s6k4c). She leads the second wave of Sri Lankan comics, following their demise in late ‘90s after having the heydays from ‘70s. With style, Achinthya does that. It is not just a comic story she publishes.
Her patrons (www.patreon.com) can engage with her for an additional fee like US$ 5 -10 for high resolution versions of the comics and other related art. It is a fully pledged business model that brings her an additional income to support her. Perhaps she earns more than any Sri Lankan comics artist ever did. This is the brace new generation. They can stand on their feet. They do not need any crutches.

 

LESSON #7: Follow your own dreams; put dents in the universe
We are here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here? Asks Steve Jobs, and adds, your time is limited; don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Follow your dreams, stay hungry; stay foolish.
I purposely keep this for the last. This is the most important lesson the young generation can learn from Yohani. She has earned her qualifications from two reputed institutions in two areas with a high demand from the industry. She could have settled herself as a finance professional.

That would have been the entry for a well-developed professional career. Still she has consciously chosen a career in music. Why?  It was her passion; it was where she can put her own dent in the universe.

To put dents in the universe, one will not find a better era. Digital transformation has first thinned, then completely eliminated the geographical, political, socio-economical and cultural barriers. One addresses a global audience. One no more requires to make one’s mark at local level as a prerequisites to enter international spheres. One will be measured by one’s own talents, not on the assessments of others. Local YouTube interviewer questioned Yohani’s ability to sing. Today she would be laughing at them.

(Chanuka Wattegama chanuka@hotmail.com is an academic and a policy researcher. The ideas expressed here are personal)

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