So You Wanna Negosyo?: Stories from Ilonggo Entrepreneurs on the Front Lines
Iloilo City is in an entrepreneurial mood these days. You only have to look at the endless (well, at least for now) weekend market fairs before you realize that almost everyone you know is into, or at least entertains the idea, of running a negosyo. It’s the new “weekend warrior” thing: young, mostly middle-class, and seemingly upwardly-mobile Ilonggos burnt out on spending their weekends clubbing and going to out-of-town trips have decided to spend their energies into something more productive. And what if it gives them only a few extra pesos out of manning rickety outdoor stalls during the weekend? Well, that’s just gravy; the idea of the “hustle” is all that matters for moment.
Indeed, you know the idea has really taken root when you have agencies like the regional National Economic and Development Authority considering the whole “weekend fair” thing as viable. But then again, as with most local agencies, there’s an unmistakable scent of traditionalism pervading the whole venture. For all this talk of “producing” and “manufacturing”, the bent is still zeroed in on pushing conservative ventures like food and clothing. It’s noble to advocate for the production of hablon, sure, but it would be very hard to make consumers take the whole thing seriously if products like these are still considered “niche”… even if it’s ironically indigenous to Iloilo, to begin with.
“Although damo kita talent, wala kita bala motivation to start.”
If you ask me, the real future of local business lies in the stuff that can’t be see, held, or tasted (err… maybe not so on that last one. Because Iloilo.). But it is felt. And thing is, these industries have existed under our noses without many of us realizing it.
On the eve of another Startup Weekend in Iloilo City—and because we’re nothing but not current, you can read about why the first one matters here—Project Iloilo is featuring two different sets of Ilonggo entrepreneurs that operate on different planes and business models, but have the capacity to change how most of us think about “doing business”. And who knows, they might even inspire you to go into business yourself!
“Fisheries is not sexy. It’s malansa [It smells]!”
Jover Nuevaespaña didn’t mean it as a joke, but I had to chortle loudly—in a tech-themed social event, of all places—when he said it. His statement just encapsulated every stereotype regurgitated by most Pinoy pop media outlets about people working in fishing, agriculture, or even farming: that it’s a nowhere career where parents in the rural areas sell their carabaos and bancas just so their kids can go to city universities which will serve as gateways to fancier, white-collar jobs upon graduation.
In Nuevaespaña’s case—and with him being a Miag-ao native, at that–“white-collar” meant getting a maritime degree. He certainly didn’t need to be told that his decision to study Fisheries–and eventually co-found Banyera with Kurt Lopez, Ray John Agregado, Karl Balingit, Edwin Salinas, and Jeffrey Teruel (who was one of the organizers for last year’s Startup Weekend Iloilo)—didn’t sit well with his loved ones.
You might be familiar with Uber or Grab? Well, that’s what Banyera’s whole concept is: “it’s Uber for fish,” as Nuevaespaña puts it.
“Let’s say the fish in the farm is fifty pesos, and when you buy it in the market, it’s 150 (pesos). Where’s the hundred pesos? It’s in the middleman. And what did the middleman do? Just talk! And of course, do some logistics and transfer the product from here to there. But who did the hard work? It’s the fish farmers! Three months of roaming around every day in a five-hectare pond, and then you just earn three thousand pesos per month. That’s their life! How can they alleviate from poverty?”
Nuevaespaña likes to demonstrate this example of simple economics and simple injustice every time he sells Banyera’s gimmick to someone—coincidentally, I’ve heard this line twice before I even planned the interview with the team—but he never gets tired of being that indignant whenever he delivers his spiel. Yes, there’s something familiarly Filipino about the act complaining… except, well, they actually created a solution for the problem vexing them. And wonder of wonders, it’s one that even looks workable
Banyera’s “workability” was tested to its bleeding point earlier this year when Nuevaespaña, upon the recommendation of a couple of his friends, entered an acceleration competition organized by IdeaSpace Foundation, PLDT’s incubation program which aims to fund ten promising startups yearly. It was very much on the sheer novelty of Nuevaespaña’s ideas that got him in the first place; he only scrambled for a team after the foundation announced they would let him push through the second pitching stage.
If you’re one of the IdeaSpace judges, how could you not look at Nuevaespaña’s pitch? Out of all the startups his team had to compete against—teams which boasted products and services ranging from tools for automated stock market analytics and business accounting to travel guide finders—theirs is an app that lets the consumer search for freshly farmed fish. It’s an amazingly practical solution to a problem many of us not struggling with food don’t even realize exists.
Banyera’s moxie was fortunately rewarded, along with nine other winning teams from this year’s competition, with ₱500,000.00 funding—all equity-free, according to IdeaSpace—and additional support in the form of mentorship and sponsored short courses in business and entrepreneurship. All in all, these round up to about ₱1M for each lucky team.
Banyera’s got a hot idea: it trawls a largely unexplored niche, and looks to serve both, rather than alienate either one of, the fisher-producer and consumer demographics. Nuevaespaña even quips, “Alangan naman na sabihin na, ‘Wow, may magandang startup doon sa Pilipinas’ [It’s ill-fitting to say, “Wow, there’s a cool startup in the Philippines’], and it’s fashion!”
On the other hand, a rural fishpond isn’t also the best spot to pick up a Wi-Fi connection. Nuevaespaña, of course, is aware of those challenges: “Fisheries is one of the oldest profession and, compared to other niches who have already adapted to technology, (the) fisheries industry is very behind. We need to work hard to marshal people on the ground. That is why the money should be spent to (enrich) communities and to make them onboard to get them onto the system.”
It’s no wonder they’ve become poster boys not just for this year’s Startup Weekend, but for the entire Iloilo startup and tech scene; the fact that their service is about food—that one tireless and reliable driver of local tourism—only gives credence to how “Ilonggo” their whole idea is. No matter where these founders end up in a year’s time, no one can deny they’re not building anything promising.
If there’s only one thing Althea Tan found refreshing in running a business that isn’t based in the Philippines, it’s probably this: “I didn’t have to call (anyone) ‘sir’,” she said.
“Unlike here (in the Philippines) where you actually have to go through a lot of…,” Tan hesitates at the word, but then punctuates it more forcefully, “… formalities. Kag dapat damo guid sila [And they should have plenty of] doorkeepers like secretaries. I don’t know, (people) who would make you call them mga kapila pa ka beses [for multiple times]. It’s frustrating.”
Tan detests the pomp and ceremony usually affiliated with local businesses; she’d rather spend the day acquiring clients than hobnobbing with the local “society” folk of Iloilo. It may not be evident from the lone entry afforded to Bluagile in this Daily Guardian article, but Tan’s company is big—not just “Iloilo big”, but big in the sense that it runs campaigns worldwide.
“The manual way of doing advertising is, ikaw bi blogger or website owner and there’s an advertiser, you advertise and you usually go to the blogger or the website owners to inquire about their ad placements like, ‘How much is it? Do we have contracts?’ Blah blah blah,” Tan explains. “What Bluagile does is if there’s an advertiser that wants to advertise to, say, one thousand sites or one thousand blogs or one thousand mobile apps; you don’t have to go to all these apps or app owners or bloggers or website owners. Can you imagine it in your mind talking to one thousand people so that you can display on their site? I mean, it’s not efficient, it’s costly, it’s time-consuming,” Tan says.
Bluagile’s business model is based on “Real-Time Bidding (RTB)”, and a quick search should reveal that it’s hella more complicated than how Tan explains it. If anything, credit should go to her for doing a good job of explaining the model in common terms which, in hindsight, should’ve made perfect sense: she came to San Francisco, USA in 2009 with nothing more than street smarts and an overwhelming belief in the power of self to work her way through a hypercompetitive Silicon Valley. She’s essentially saying, “If I can make it, so can you.”
Her statements read like defiant how-tos in making it on your own: “I never wanted to work for anyone else.” “I never had a brick-and-mortar business.” This one I found more surprising, and an indication that she still treasures her small-town upbringing despite earning the privilege of staying wherever the heck she wants: “Mandurriao guihapon. I love that place.”
Also earned is the lack of patience for dealing with BS: other than serving as a mentor for the myriads of young people who will be participating at Startup Weekend Iloilo 2016, and it’s only during rare events like these where one would only see her “socializing” with anyone, she doesn’t look forward to dealing with what she calls “feeders”—i.e. people who just talk for the sake of talking. This, she argues, is why the tech mixers they organize monthly are different from any other gathering in the city.
“Kung mga meet-meet ka lang, mga istorya-istorya, wala siya purpose [If it’s just people meeting and talking, there’s no purpose]. So in the end, you just waste time and energy,” Tan says. “Wala ka sg [You have no] point of action nga (for them) to start something after.”
We’re essentially shy, is what Tan is saying. “Ang mindset sg mga Ilonggo nga kung may makita nga mga tech event, mahambal sila, ‘Ay, ma-OP [out of place] ko dira.’ Or basi ‘Mga sila-sila naman dira.’ That’s a typical Ilonggo mentality. Our challenge is how can we prove that wala sg may ma-OP?’
[The Ilonggo mindset is that if they see a tech event, they say, ‘I’ll be out of place.’ Or even ‘They’re exclusive.’ That’s a typical Ilonggo mentality. Our challenge is how can we prove that no one will be left out?]
Her answer’s simple enough, though: “So, sa amon lang [for us], we need to hold as many events as possible; not just one month.”
Tan’s pretty adamant that Iloilo can support a startup community on its own. “You’re familiar with Bali? Chiang Mai? What do these places have in common? They’re laidback,” she says. “What’s unique about Iloilo is, I think, is kadamo sang schools, so we have the local talent from here coming from the universities. We are an up-and-coming city, and our local government is doing a great job of turning Iloilo into a major city—(a) livable city.”
That sounds like an endorsement for Iloilo City, right? Well, about that… “Kag may theory ako nga, although damo kita talent, wala kita bala [I’ve got a theory that, although we have talent, we don’t have the] motivation to start.”
That’s always been the story here, isn’t it? That we’re always too late to capitalize onto something? Many minutes before making the last statement, Tan even quipped, “Late bloomer na ang tanan.”
“You will meet people who will show you the way to (end of) the road versus somebody nga the same man ang iya road, pero wala guid siya iya nag-start; wala guid siya naghalin sa Iloilo.”
The keyword is obviously in the word “startup” itself; that is, to start something. “A lot of people procrastinate. Can you imagine? There are one hundred people who all of have ideas, and ang madaog lang kung sin-o ang mauna [the one who wins is who gets to be first]?” Tan postulates. “So, what I can advise is to start your idea, and you don’t have to know everything from A-to-Z, you don’t have to know your business or what you need to do, and you don’t even have to know the entire picture. Just start because the nature of tech and startups, ga-evolve siya.”
And holy hell, she even had the analogy all figured out: “I would liken it to driving a car in the middle of the night when it’s pitch-dark and you just have your headlights on,” Tan begins. “If you are travelling from, say, Iloilo to Boracay, you still drive, right? You start the journey, you still have your headlights. But if you keep going, you’ll get there. Basi maliso ka sa iban nga road, balik ka lang, eh [If you get lost in another road, you just turn back]! Or bandits, I don’t know [laughs]! Or maaberiya ka [your car breaks down]. There will be problems along the way, challenges. But you will find solutions. You will meet people who will show you the way to (end of) the road versus somebody nga the same man ang iya road, pero wala guid siya iya nag-start; wala guid siya naghalin sa Iloilo [who’s on the same road, but didn’t’ start; that person didn’t get off from Iloilo].
“That’s what I did,” Tan concluded. “And I’m pretty sure Banyera, although they don’t have the technology yet. But you know, people are starting to look up to them, they got admitted to IdeaSpace. That’s all because of merely starting it.”
Now I feel like an underachiever. Maybe three days of creating business ideas to life with a few strangers isn’t a bad way of spending one’s weekend.
Photos by Martin Espino.