From Discount Card to SaaS Platform: CH17’s Remarkable Journey

  • December 6, 2023

Jumar Preena, founder and Chief Executive of CH17, recounts the extraordinary journey of his innovative loyalty programme platform, its impact and its unique approach to helping brands connect with consumers.

Can you share the story behind the inception of CH17 in 2013, from being a small start-up to where it is today, providing innovative loyalty solutions?

CH17 has evolved from a basic discount card scheme to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, emphasizing rewards, loyalty, and privileges across various sectors. 

My earlier career was in broadcast media, where the apparel industry approached me to develop a campaign to enhance the image of Sri Lanka’s apparel sector. To achieve this, I organized various activities like road shows, CSR programmes, and talent showcases to spotlight the accomplishments of apparel sector workers and integrate them into society. These efforts improved the sector’s image, but I realized we needed to create tangible benefits. 

I proposed a programme that united consumer goods and service merchants to provide discounts to apparel sector employees. Despite the challenge of serving a vast workforce, I gained the support of 25 factories and 450,000 employees, leading to my first entrepreneurial venture, the “Ransalu” programme. Ransalu offered workers and their families discounts that were previously exclusive to top corporate credit cardholders. While the concept was successful, it didn’t generate immediate revenue. However, I remained dedicated to its success because it benefitted more than a million people indirectly, the employees and their families.

Another pivotal moment was when I partnered with a bank in 2015 to introduce the first co-branded bank card. Soon after, private companies approached me to create similar programmes for their employees, expanding my market reach. I collaborated with technology experts to develop a digital platform that extended our services into the insurance sector, and we introduced Asia’s first insurance card directly tied to lifestyle benefits

My aim is to expand into the Micro SME segment by offering a free multi-functional digital platform for entrepreneurs to run on an e-commerce platform. I hope to reach a million micro and SME entrepreneurs through collaborations with various state agencies supervising this sector, financial institutions, insurance companies and telecommunications service providers. Empowering the nation’s entrepreneurs is my next big goal.

You describe CH17 as a medium between brands and communities. Can you explain how this approach works and the unique value it brings to businesses aiming to boost customer loyalty and brand success?

We don’t possess any physical assets or capital. Our core mission is connecting brands with communities, and this approach has been quite successful. My programme benefits both customers and retailers alike. Retailers naturally want customers to visit their showrooms, while customers seek discounts, a delicate balance we manage meticulously by devising a system that shares costs and earnings with merchant partners. For instance, besides cash discounts, CH17 also provides flash offers, sometimes as generous as a 40% discount, to please the retailer. While I’m not the one spending on these discounts, I still contribute to share the costs. Furthermore, we offer cashback as an additional benefit.

If, for any reason, a merchant fails to apply the agreed-upon discount despite the customer presenting their card, we’ve got it covered. Whether it’s due to a technological glitch or a new employee’s lack of knowledge, customers can forward the discounted component of their bill to us. We take care of everything, ensuring that customers are not left feeling frustrated or cheated.

What sets CH17 apart from traditional loyalty programmes, and how does the company envision its role in connecting brands with communities evolving in the future? 

Traditionally, retail businesses have relied on point-based loyalty programmes where customers must redeem points within a specified timeframe. However, more often than not, they go unused, and people tend to forget about them. I believe in offering tangible and immediate benefits, and here’s how my approach differs: I provide cash benefits, which are clear and straightforward. On top of that, if a particular retailer has their own points system, that’s fine too, and customers can accumulate points with them if they wish.

The traditional points scheme lures customers to return to the same business to redeem their points. It limits their choices and can be somewhat restrictive. In contrast, I prioritize the consumer’s freedom to choose. I want them to have the flexibility to go to any of my partner businesses and enjoy discounts without being tied down by accumulating points.

What’s unique about my platform is its adaptability. It can cater to various industries. For instance, even the construction industry has approached us, seeking a solution. The key here is flexibility and adaptability. Loyalty isn’t limited to a specific industry; it’s a universal concept, and CH17 is bespoke, multifunctional and scalable by design.

What are your goals, plans and vision for CH17? 

CH17 operates as a sole proprietorship with private equity liability, meaning it’s just me managing everything. However, I recognize the need to plan for succession because I can’t simply hand it over to my two adult children because they live abroad and sadly this is not their forte. Ideally, I’d like to partner with someone who shares my vision and possesses entrepreneurial skills. This way, the concept can continue to thrive and benefit both the retail industry and consumers.