Photo Credit: Rajeev Kugan
Sajanthan Velu is by day, a Senior Marketing Manager at General Assembly Pizza (the world’s first pizza subscription service) and also the co-founder of Wooden Panda, a 360 digital marketing agency founded in 2015 based out of Toronto, Canada. His current "big swing" project is Playmi.ca, a platform that promises to help making it easier to discover up-and-coming artists from the Tamil community that may have difficulty breaking through current streaming platforms just because there is so much "noise" there music-wise.
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Tell us how the idea of Playmi.ca started. Why are you so passionate about this idea?
Playmi.ca was started because my business partner and I wanted to listen to local Tamil artists from Toronto, and we realized there was a gap in the market for platforms that made it easy to do so. The number of talented Tamil artists from Toronto is growing every day, but up until now, it was difficult to discover these amazing artists on digital streaming platforms unless they already had a big following. Music has no limits. Music allows artists to express their inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and our executive team at Playmi.ca is constantly working to mitigate the barriers to entry for independent artists. We want to help these artists break through the saturated market to make an impact and get the recognition they deserve.
Is this something you built yourself or do you have other co-founders?
The Playmi.ca branding, web design, and development were built internally by our team. Nitsinth and I co-founded the company and Sasi Naga & Rajeev Kugan were brought on as strategic partners. The four of us make up the core Playmi.ca leadership team. Everyone’s love for music, creativity, and passion for making a difference in our communities aligned like the stars. It only made sense to build our team with individuals that shared the same values and interests.
How do you go about recruiting other team members to join?
We follow a few strategic business principles that have paid dividends for us in past ventures. Primarily, we focus on growing our team of leaders and executives internally. But, whenever we need to branch out, we make it a point to use our capital and cash flow wisely. We bring in strategic partners who are the best in their disciplines, allowing us to keep our costs down without ever sacrificing the quality of our end products or services.
Is Playmi.ca something you focus on full-time? If not, what do you do to “pay the bills”?
I am an active partner at Playmi.ca. My day-to-day efforts consist of marketing, strategy, user experience, financial management, and executive producing just to name a few. You can see our most recently Executive produced tracks En Style’u Na by Ashvin Bala & Savelo Studioz and Biryani by All Mixed Up Music. Playmi.ca doesn’t pay the bills just yet, but our estimates predict we'll break-even by Q4 2021. By day, I am a Senior Marketing Manager at General Assembly Pizza (the world’s first pizza subscription service). I am also the co-founder of Wooden Panda, a 360 digital marketing agency founded in 2015 based out of Toronto, Canada.
Do you have a technical background? If not, how did you build the product?
I have my BCOM in Marketing Management and Finance, but I’ve always been fascinated by web design, web development, and the process of bringing brands to market. With the support of my business partners and team, I’ve picked up a variety of technical skills in UI/UX development. But, generally speaking, I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with the best software engineers and web developers. I’ve found it makes everyone’s tasks a bit easier if I use my expertise to build out the requirements, and let the professionals execute the actual implementation.
How have you gone about getting more content creators (musicians, podcasters, etc.) on the platform?
My Co-Founder is a veteran in the music space, so he leads our artist outreach efforts. The power of relationships and great networks definitely makes it a bit easier to reach out and onboard artists, but we still need to cover a lot of ground. Beyond that, we make it a point to ensure the platform is as artist-friendly as possible, so we don’t have to spend too much time selling artists on the benefits of joining.
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How long did it take for you to generate revenue? What is the revenue model?
Along with building out our mobile application, phase 2 of playmi.ca involves building a comprehensive analytics platform for advertisers, who will use relevant data and analytics to create advertising campaigns. The revenue model is comprised of revenue generated from these advertisers’ in-stream ads, sponsorships, and YouTube stream monetization for content produced by playmi.ca and its subsidiaries.
Are you a bootstrapped company? If so, are you looking to raise money? What would make you raise money?
We’re as bootstrapped as we can be. We want to be able to prove to our investors and future management team that we were able to build a brand, scale it, turn a profit, and keep expenses to a minimum, all with limited resources on hand. When we eventually go to the market to raise funds, we’ll have a finished product, with 1,000 subscribers, and 500 content creators (including artists, podcast creators, and producers). We have our F21 and F22 growth plans intact. We’ve attracted a lot of interest from VCs and potential partners over the past few months, but we’re really looking for the right people to help scale our business. Our growth strategy involves international penetration in identified markets. There is a huge rise of independent Tamil music listenership outside of Canada, and we want to capitalize on that. If you’re a VC and you’re reading this, I’d love to connect!
How has COVID-19 impacted your businesses? How have you adapted?
COVID-19 has actually helped us get to market. There’s only so much music you can listen to on the platforms you’re already familiar with—particularly when these platforms have a lack of unique ethnic content. My team and I are used to building brands digitally, so this wasn’t anything new for us. We love digital!
Where do you see Playmi.ca in the next 3-5 years? Where do you see yourself in that same time period?
In the next three to five years, we hope to be one of the top 20 digital streaming platforms in the world. In the same stretch, I hope to be sitting at the table with decision-makers in the mainstream music industry.
What do you like to do for fun outside of work?
Okay, now we’re talking! I love food and exploring new restos all over the GTA with my friends and family. Who doesn’t love some Kothu Roti, Pizza, Chicken Wings, Hakka, and Bubble Tea? There’s nothing like good food and good company, right? When I go on my food adventures, I like to find new neighbourhoods to explore, walk around, reflect, and ideate. I find it’s easier to be creative when I’m in new spaces. I also love cars, CNBC, reading, fashion, finance and real estate.
What’s one goal that, if you were to accomplish it over the next three months, would feel like a big win for you?
Generally speaking, I like to build my goals out in phases, because it helps me stick to plans and celebrate little wins every week So, over the next three months, if we can hit our Playmi targets for artist onboarding, exclusive content, executive productions, and strategic platform relationships, I feel like that will be a very big win for the entire team. I’ve found that a lot of professionals tend to look solely at the big prize and dismiss all of the small victories they’ve had along the way, and I’ve seen how this can cause burnout.
What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3-5 years that you’ve learned the most from?
Because I choose to view every experience as a learning opportunity, the word “failure” isn’t really in my vocabulary. When I need to meet my barometers for success, I simply re-focus and take stock of all the lessons and take-aways I can carry forward to my next venture. For example, last year, a small team and I ran a film festival called Quarantine Stories to help creatives who were struggling towards the beginning of the pandemic. While we didn’t attract hundreds of thousands of viewers for the finale event as we would have liked to, the experience wasn’t a bust whatsoever. We learned how to coordinate Livestream events, and now we’ve turned this into a lucrative service offering at our digital marketing agency, Wooden Panda.
How have your family and friends supported you through your journey?
My mom and dad are my biggest inspiration. They’ve always given me the freedom to try new things, and they never pressured me when it came to my education. Imagine explaining to your Tamil parents you were going to study Marketing in University. In 2008. In the middle of the global recession. My parents were fully supportive. My friends are both my biggest supporters and harshest critics. I love them because they challenge me and force me to continue to perform at a very high level every day. Fortunately, they all love Playmi.ca, which is a huge relief, because they wouldn’t hold back if they didn’t.
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
I want to be remembered as someone who embraced his passions, worked hard, loved life, and helped others do the same. If I live a life characterized by these four tenets, I can be content that I’m leaving behind a legacy I’m proud of.
Who is one person from the global Tamil community and one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?
I love A.R, Rahman. He’s always been ahead of his time, and his contributions to the global Tamil community through music can never be replaced. When I think about his legacy, the thing that sticks out to me is how giving he’s always been. Even when giving feedback to younger artists, he has this way of ensuring their feelings aren’t hurt, and that they leave the interaction inspired to try harder and be better. I aspire to give back and support communities in need through music, business, and education the way A.R. Rahman has his entire career.
My non-Tamil hero is Kevin O’Leary. As a high school student, I watched Dragon’s Den religiously, and, it’s still my favourite show, next to CNBC’s various YouTube series. What I love about O’Leary is that he gives credit where it’s due, but he doesn’t shy away from talking about the financial realities of life other people avoid. I am an advocate of financial literacy, and Kevin O’Leary has made it a point to educate both millennials and Gen Z about the importance of business and finance. He is a well-respected and internationally recognized Canadian with successful business ventures across the world, but he still cares about teaching young people like me the value of residual monthly income. Kevin taught me that, “if you don’t know your numbers, then you don’t know your business.”
What do you think you would tell 16-year Sajanthan looking back?
I’d tell him to travel the world, eat well, keep fit, network, find mentors locally and in London and Tokyo, save aggressively, buy real estate, start a business, always ask why, build a 10-year career plan that includes owning and operating a business. And, above all else, I’d tell him to spend more time with his parents and family.
What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?
My three favourite books are the “Visual MBA” by Jason Barron, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R.Covey, and “The Leader Who Had No Title” by Robin Sharma. I constantly apply business concepts from the former to my day job and business ventures. I instill daily habits from the second book in my day-to-day execution, and the latter reminds me daily that I don’t need a C-level title to make an impact at my organization. Reading Sharma’s book, I learned that I am my own personal brand and that there are so many things I can do to leave an impact on the lives of the people around me that C-level executives can’t. It’s the motivation I need to remind myself that I’m on the way to take someone’s seat and that I don’t need a certain title to get there.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
I’ve always been committed to my work and my team. Growing up, my mom and dad both worked three jobs, and I witnessed their struggle firsthand. I was determined to get us out of this cycle, so I worked, worked, and worked some more. Even when the pandemic hit and a lot of people were adjusting their priorities based on our new reality, I used that time to double down on my commitment to work. Only in the past few months have I realized how important it is to give my mind a break to think freely, and to allow my body adequate time to relax and rejuvenate. I’ve started taking more breaks more frequently and going for walks, with the aim of improving my life inside and outside of work. So far, so good. Mental health is a real thing, and it’s critical to keep your mind fit and your body strong.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
History has shown, time and time again, that education is the key ingredient to social and economic mobility. I’d work with experts across the world to pinpoint where the need was most dire and invest this money into education in these regions to ensure equal access to opportunities for a greater proportion of the world’s population.
How would you describe the impact that the Toronto Tamil community has had on you personally and on your business?
As a young Tamil kid, you learn very early on how tight-knit the Tamil community is. When your parents have gigantic parties, they’re not just filling acquaintances’ plates with too much food, they’re nourishing their network. The same is true within the Tamil business community. We have each others’ backs. We help each other out with connections, introductions, and opportunities, because we feel like a win for one of us is a win for the entire community.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
Attu erachi, katharikai paal curry with shrimp (yessir that’s a combo), tomato onion sambol with mayo, and of course, basmati rice. I’m getting hungry now just talking about this!
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
Kadhalan. AR Rahman, SPB, and Prabhu Deva. That’s a triple threat right there. You know the movie and the music are going to be banging if these three are behind the scenes.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
Growing up Tamil in Toronto is a beautiful experience. It means being surrounded by people who have overcome so much, but who never stop being grateful for what they have. It means being part of a community that has created so much—food, music, arts, culture, love—but that is never satisfied with the status quo. It means knowing I always have ten houses I can call home. It means pride, happiness, joy, beauty, and an endless number of other adjectives. Honestly, I feel bad for people who aren’t Tamil. I could keep going, but I’d probably never stop talking.
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