Working in the hectic world of entertainment, WooHah founder Arosh Fernando wears a smile on his face even when the movements behind the scenes – his part of the stage – can be frantic and chaotic. Oozing with positivity, his perspective about work, business, and life, in general, is to make the best out of the worst he got.
A week before the interview, Arosh had a surreal moment. His company was doing the Australian concert of American music groups Boyz II Men and TLC. There he was standing with thousands of people in the audience watching Boyz II Men, one of his favourite bands in the 90s. “I used to look up to them when they were on TV, on the Grammy’s. I’d go, ‘wow, these guys are crazy!’ And there we were working with them to put up their event," an awestricken Arosh exclaimed.
Memories of the past 16 years, when he first started WooHah, suddenly flashed before him. He realised that half of his life he has devoted to running this business. Arosh started earning at a young age. When he was 16 years old, he quit his Subway job making sandwiches for other people to follow his passion. With only $3,000 on his savings, he decided to pour his efforts on his hobby of being a DJ and supplying his schoolmates for their birthday parties. “Most people would want to buy their first car or things like that at that age. But I decided to invest it in what I do now, which is audio-visual equipment,” he stated.
It was all born out of his great love for music. But there was a hitch. He couldn’t sing, and his piano teacher said his fingers were too fat to play the instrument. While he never inherited any musical talent from his elders, Arosh acquired his business acumen from his dad’s side.
The vaguest story that came to his mind for the first time he exhibited his entrepreneurial spirit was when he was five or six years old. His aunt gifted him with a holographic ruler that changes pictures. “I took it to school, and all the kids wanted to see it. But I wasn't getting any work done. So, I decided to charge them. I think it was like 50 cents to have a look at my magic ruler, as I branded it,” Arosh laughed as he retold the scene.
Those were the years when he was growing up in Sri Lanka, where he was born. He lived there until he was about nine years old when a tragic thing happened – his father passed away in a car accident. Arosh recalled, “My early life was hard with my dad passing away. Life was not easy. But it was taking the positive.” Consequently, a year after that incident, they moved to Australia to live the so-called “migrant’s dream”.
His high school years were fun as he worked on weekends and earned money out of his DJ stints. Moving on to university, he studied entrepreneurship, but halfway through the course, he decided to change track and trudge the path towards fulfilling his business pursuits. Working in nightclubs introduced him to the touring world and led him to people who were on tour with global music artists, with the likes of Beyoncé, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and Britney Spears. The long hours, such as logging in 18 hours of work a day, were not an issue for Arosh because he was passionate about what he was doing. But he comprehended the realities of that line of work. “It felt like I was doing what I love. But I also knew I couldn't work doing that all my life. So, I started investing in equipment and growing that way,” he expressed.
It was in his bedroom and then in his garage where WooHah Entertainment Group originally took shape. The early years were difficult, especially that the line of business he chose was capital-intensive. He needed a lot of money to finance the equipment used for event scenes. The giant TV screens at the back of the concert or the lights that brighten the stage were very expensive as they could go into millions of dollars. “We had to purchase (the equipment), and then rent it out. So, that initial capital is always needed. That was the hardest thing. And then, being a young entrepreneur, my single mom wasn't entrepreneurial at all, I had no one to ask. It was just making mistakes and trying to minimise those mistakes financially to ensure we grow (the business) and deliver what we could.”
Granting that he was able to raise the capital for his business, cash flow was still a constant struggle. While the business grew, he had to deal with matters like office rent or staff wages. The industry he’s in was also unpredictable. Some events were one-off, while those that occur annually were not willing to commit to a three-year contract and the like. There were busy periods, but there were also lean months. Another factor that Arosh cited is that events and entertainment are considered discretional spending. “It's not a must-have. People don't go to a concert when money is tight. It's not like food or clothing. Some of our clients don't sell tickets. That affects us from a financial perspective because they cut their budget,” Arosh elucidated.
It’s a bigger challenge for small and medium-size businesses like his because of the changing landscape in their industry. “We're finding that the industry is becoming a global movement because an American company can buy out an Australian company, a UK company and an Asian company and conglomerate together and make this one super company. These guys got investor funding coming in. They're worth a billion dollars as a conglomerate around the world. And we're fighting for every job.”
With all these hurdles he had to surmount, imagine his elation the first time he saw a million dollars in sales. Arosh is even more excited that they’re now in a phase where the business is growing faster than ever. Moreover, he is not afraid to take risks and march head on even when the going gets tough. His positivity enables him to relish on his entrepreneurial journey even when there are bumps along the way.
Such enthusiasm is essential because running a business takes a lot of work. That is one reality that Arosh has to face. As Arosh describes it, “It is like having three full-time jobs because you're not only doing the job, which is a product or a service, but you’re also managing the staff, then managing the business. I always say the time dedication is one thing. The buck stops at you as a business owner. So, you have to make the right decisions and guide your people along the way.”
The responsibilities of a business owner are a weight that he has to carry in his entrepreneurial voyage. Notwithstanding his positive outlook, Arosh feels down at certain times, especially that he knows he is the one accountable for the business and the people within it. “As much as I am positive, I always point back to me. I don't have any educational background in entrepreneurship or even management. So, I’m self-taught. The biggest heartache for me is I sometimes don't know what exactly I’m doing. It's hard to know if you're doing it right or wrong. And you don't want to burn cash along the way,” explains Arosh.
He has EO Melbourne and his peers in it to thank for when it comes to guiding him on his business journey. The experience-sharing aspect, particularly in his forum, is what he finds most effective and useful in his learning process. Add to that the networking and learning events that he gets from being part of it. Hence, he credits EO for the amazing mental growth he has experienced over the last two years. Before joining, he used to have his blinkers on, which limited his outlook to only his business and nothing else. Now, that he shares his journey with other entrepreneurs outside his industry, he has learned to look at life and enjoy it and, at the same time, look at his business and grow it properly. He finds that it’s not just about making money, but it is also finding the balance and sharing the joy with others – his staff, his family and those around him.
Leading a team is integrated into his role as a business owner. As a hard worker who goes above and beyond his clients’ expectations, Arosh sets the standards for their corporate culture. “I call myself the train driver and they're the staff that work to keep the train going. The customers are the passengers. But without the staff behind the train, it doesn't matter how fast the train is moving, no passenger is going to get on, right? So, there has to be staff on the train. I make the direction to go this way or that way or straight. And the rest of the team knows what's happening. They know if there's a bump coming along or if it's going to be dark or not. That's how I run the business,” Arosh expounds.
Getting the staff involved in the business and making them feel part of the team is his way of leading his people. Arosh acknowledges the fact that in their industry, his guys often spend more time at work than in their homes. Thus, his business becomes their work family. They go through challenges together and celebrate wins together. He makes sure that they go on holidays when they can and take a break when they have put in so much work.
Arosh himself puts a premium on family. Whereas he regards his work as his passion and hobby, the mere topic of family widens the smile on his face. Listening to him chatter about his wife and baby boy, they evidently bring sunshine to his life. “I have a little prince who's eight months old now. Obviously, I dedicate a lot of time to my family and love spending time with him. He and my wife, they're both very important parts of my life and what I do. They encourage me and push me forward when things are not so easy,” a beaming Arosh cheerfully said.
Through positive lenses, Arosh looks at the future with bright hopes, knowing he can still achieve more. That is why, whenever he gives a talk to high school students, he tells them to follow their passion and give their 150% to achieve their dreams. His email signature “Dream Out Loud” sums it all up. Even in the low times when things go negative, Arosh still keeps pushing on because he loves what he does.
At 32, he continues to dream big dreams, not just for himself, his family or his business, but also for his communities and those who helped shape him. Having been born in Sri Lanka, he hopes to establish a business there someday. He’s bent on expansion, not just geographically, but in other markets as well. With so many businesses in the same field, he is thinking outside the box on how to evolve, be on the cutting edge of technology and move above everybody else. This music lover-business owner is innovating himself. Arosh clarifies, “The word innovation doesn't have to be around technology. But in everything you do, innovate yourself. For me, EO has been an innovation in my learning side of things.” Part of that innovation is that he will soon be joining the EO Melbourne board, embracing responsibilities outside the boundaries of his business.
His life was not a bed of roses. There were thorns in the side that he has to deal with constantly. “A lot of people see the highs and don't see the lows because they are behind closed doors. The tears come out when you're by yourself or when no one's there,” he revealed. But his passion – music, business, learning and family – tips the scales and puts him on the positive end of the spectrum, grateful for the blessings in his life. With determination and optimism, he imparts these encouraging words, “If you're passionate about what you want to do in life, you just got to do it and follow it. Some people say ‘someday’, I will say ‘today’. Just do it.”