Bayan AT Sarili: The New Breed of Ilonggo Entrepreneurs

By joseph batcagan

Iloilo is changing. Some changes—like how Ilonggos view street art or the way we work—is becoming increasingly accepted. On the other hand, other changes like the increasing urbanization of Iloilo or the neglect of the local business district is making some people question whether all that progress we have achieved in the last five years is all worth it.

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to it: the very least we could do is to adapt to the changes happening around us, all while remaining true to our core as Ilonggos. As a popular punk rock saying goes, “Don’t sell out. Buy in.”

Bisan how small the step is, bisan gamay-gamay lang na siya, mahambal ka be nga one millimeter lang ina, it doesn’t matter as long nga nag-move forward ka.

This last adage proves to be particularly relevant in terms of local entrepreneurship; rather than relying on old models of industry, a new generation of Ilonggos have chosen to strike it out on their own by establishing businesses that absolutely no one have thought of before here.  And the model they have chosen to emulate? Well, it may be known by many names, but for purposes of uniformity, we’ll just refer to it in its most commonly used term: a ‘startup’.

So, could any of these startups be the new faces of Ilonggo entrepreneurship today? Well, we may not know yet, but at least they’ve got a few good stories to tell. Here are a few of them below.

Gusto mo Mag-business?

Ilonggos, unconsciously or not, have been using the word ‘startup’ to refer to a business beginning from the ground up. The most popular iteration of the term these days, though, is heavily associated with San Francisco’s ‘Silicon Valley’. There’s also a show of the same name popular with niche pockets of the Pinoy internet, though it’s less concerned with documenting the realities of startup culture as much as it does about making clever punchlines revolving around the physics of the male genitalia. So, it should come as no surprise that the show proved to be hugely influential for some young people who have managed to catch a few episodes of it online.

For Agustin Bustamante—a training and development officer at an IT-focused BPO by day and  one of the chief developers for My Happy Fireflies during his days-off and weekends—he cited the “So-Lo-Mo” sequence from ‘Silicon Valley’ as a huge inspiration for how they have chosen to develop their app, though the whole scene was obviously played for laughs.

Ilonggo Startup - My Happy Fireflies
My Happy Fireflies:,(from left to right) Brennan Terre, Donn Alben Villanueva, Agustin Bustamante, Ena Fleurence Cahilig, Marienne Terre

My Happy Fireflies, according to its Facebook page, is a “child development milestone tool” that’s inspired by the nascent “gamified” learning trends slowly being implemented in developed countries. As Ena Fleurence Cahilig, one of the developers for MHF, explains it, “Ang iya goal is to help develop children in a whole aspect—meaning, overall well-being niya: physically, mentally, emotions, and to improve ang relationship sang parents kag sang child. And then -increase ang awareness sang bata to other children and sa iya environment. Amo guid na ang iya mission.”

[Our goal is to help develop children in a whole aspect—meaning, their overall well-being physically, mentally, emotions, and to improve the relationship of the parents to their child. We also want to increase the awareness of the child to other children and to the environment. That is our mission.]

She further adds, “Kag ang isa pa dira ka reason kay na-notice namon nga ang problem, damo-damo websites nga  ‘guides for parents for one-to-three years old’ nga bata. As in damo-damo guid ya and ang mga parents nagalibog man sila kung diin nila kuhaon (ang impormasyon).”

[One reason we also started it is we noticed this problem of parents having to browse through websites searching for ‘guides for parents for one-to-three years old’. They get confused on where they can get reliable information.]

Ilonggo Startup - Yen de Felipe, Mavericks
Yen de Felipe of Mavericks Web Marketing and Solutions
Photo by Mikeel Araña

Of course, not every startup in the city establishes itself just because they have a magnified sense of social altruism; some of them just wanted to be their own bosses. Yen Gonzales de Felipe, for instance, caught the startup bug when she started out as a content writer for an overseas publishing company in 2007. She later started Mavericks Web Marketing and Solutions in 2013 as a digital marketing agency, though they’re now trying to move into developing mobile apps of their own.

“I always wanted to have my own business bala, even while I was working in Manila,” de Felipe says. “I went into freelancing and I discovered that there was so much potential. You can scale it from an ordinary freelancer project to (one) that calls for maximum creativity. I discovered that it’s very scalable, so I started outsourcing when I was a freelancer. And I really want to commit myself to it. That’s why I established my own company (and) I had it registered.”

Alpha Gamboa, on the other hand, is an Ilonggo who migrated to the US in 2002 and, later on, found himself working and living in San Francisco in 2010. It was during his time there he started Aeus Tech, a mobile development company that gained a good amount of national press a year ago when their mobile games got promoted by the city government; they have since shifted to developing apps for smartwatches. As Gamboa puts it, establishing a company in Iloilo City—even when he couldn’t personally oversee the business here—is a no-brainer.

“Iloilo is where my home is, and this is where I grew up.  (This place) has very tremendous value to me, and I always wanted to bring something over there,” he says. Of course, he knew the risk behind his decision to establish Aeus here. “We did prefer starting over at Manila, but we preferred to go low-key in Iloilo since, I don’t know, it just feels like home. It’s my own contribution to, you know, ‘paying it forward’, building something that’s different,” he muses.

“Different”. This was a word I frequently encountered when I did the interviews with the people involved in these startups. Being “different” means you’re passionate about your idea and willing to push for it. “Different” means going against the prevailing mentality of the culture around you to come up with something that can not only improve a problem, but can also change people’s lives for the better.

Ilonggo Startup - Alpha Gamboa, Aeus Tech
Alpha Gamboa of Aeus Tech

If those are the only qualifiers needed to build a startup, then it can be easy to see why the lives of famous tech moguls like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are easily romanticized. But as any good artist will tell you, ideas don’t mean crap if you’re not willing to make sacrifices for it. And for a culture that prioritizes family and interpersonal relationships above everything else, you could only imagine how this notion can get problematic.

The Price of Innovation

When My Happy Fireflies was formally launched on September 21, Bustamante had experienced one of the most tragic things that any person of his age would probably dread looking forward to: “Because of sang vision nga nakita ko (para sa My Happy Fireflies), guin-drive ko man guihapon nga ubrahon. In fact, wala sila (ang team) kabalo gani sang time nga napatay ang nanay ko,” he recalls.

[Because of the vision I saw for My Happy Fireflies, I was really driven to do everything to realize it. In fact, the team did not know during that time that my mother died.]

It can be said that the concept of family taking precedence over everything is one of the common Filipino traditions being challenged today. With work bleeding into the home these days, it’s getting to be a necessary tradeoff. Of course, not everyone is willing to put work ahead out of their own volition like what Bustamante did. However, he maintains that his wife and children understand why his startup should sometimes takes precedence over them; in fact, he says the idea for MFH germinated precisely because he himself is a parent now.

While at home, kung kaisa man they would also tell (me), ‘Mommy, mas important pa na siya kaysa sa akon?’, like when I am doing something.

Amo ina ang guinatudlo ko sa next generation parehos sa (team namon). Kay ako, tigulang na ako katama. In fact, sa amon tanan, ako ang may grabe guid nga problem sa time. Pero guinapakita ko sa ila nga kung makaya ko, makaya nyo ini. It’s just a matter of prioritization,” Bustamante stresses.

[That’s what I’m teaching to the next generation like with our team. Because me, I’m really old. In fact, out of all of us here, I’m the one with the biggest problem in managing time. But I’m showing them that if I can do it, then they can do it. It’s just a matter of prioritization.]

For de Felipe, she had managed to balance that work/family tradeoff in a more subtle manner: she just involved her family on the venture. She recalled how hard it was for her to do so when she started Mavericks: “I’m always a work in progress. For me, I always find ways on how can I juggle on these different roles that I play. From being an entrepreneur to being a mom to being wife, to being an—Ano pa guid [What else]?—driver? Whatever,” she says with a laugh. “I mess up a lot on those ‘trivial’ duties. But I realized that as you go along, the work has to stop somewhere, then you have to spend that time on your other obligations.”

“That’s why one of the things that I like about being an entrepreneur is the flexibility of the schedule, so I don’t get to miss any of their milestones bala like (from) school or when they grow up. So I make sure nga if there’s an opportunity nga madala ko sila [that I could include them] into the business, they can (learn how to) manage themselves,” de Felipe further explains. “While at home, kung kaisa man [sometimes] they would also tell (me), ‘Mommy, mas important pa na siya kaysa sa akon [Mommy, is this more important than me]?’, like when I am doing something. Hambal ko [I say], ‘Uhhhmmm… no.’ [laughs]. They are the most important; amo guid na dapat ang tono. Kabudlay siya, but you really just have to educate your kids.”

[That should be the tone. It’s hard, but you really just have to educate your kids.]

Gamboa may have also been used to moving into a new city to start a career, but he still considers family as an important driver to the success of his startup. He narrates, “I remember one of our designers, he wanted to go to Qatar to get a job there, and he’ll be away from family and friends. So, every day I thank him that he stuck around here in Iloilo because he’s closer to family and his wife. And that, to me, is valuable. Because I have learned here in San Francisco that, no matter how much money you earn, it’s still pretty empty without nobody to go back to.”

Human connection, just like suffering, is universal. Who says there’s no zen in startups?

Anyone Can Do It

There’s a connection to be made between Iloilo’s economic boom and the rise of the startup mindset in an ever-growing number of Ilonggos; after all, if the recent APEC included a talk dedicated to the growth of small-and-medium businesses, that means some higher-ups are paying attention, right?

Well, that probably depends on how “familiar” your idea may be to some parties. Even with the rise of BPOs that should have fostered a more technologically adaptive Ilonggo culture, many of the interviewees said that people are still comfortable turning to what they already know—precisely the kind of behavior that the inherent risk-taking nature of startup culture is ideologically averse to.

Bustamante recalled how My Happy Fireflies almost didn’t start because their first “partner”, a government agency, dropped them; thankfully, they have managed to get back to snuff by partnering up with an experienced child psychologist. They have also managed to luck out when they obtained a modest sponsorship program from a “startup bootcamp” held by Microsoft in the city earlier this year. Thanks to a connection from one of the developers in the team, they’re now gearing to pitch their app directly to a niche that probably needs it the most: a public elementary school in Baluarte.

Of course, they’re also aware that they might not even make a single cent from it, but they’re absolutely cool with that. “Daw ka-cliché nga daw ka-fantasy, pero gusto namon nga amo ina ang maging change sa world. Indi siya nga for money, money, money lang guid, pero ang effect ang mas guinalagas namon,” Cahilig argues.What if, later, ang mga bata (ang app) na ang ginagamit? What if ma-lessen ang mga problems kay na-fulfill nila ang mga courses? So amo ina ang amon guina-reach.”

[It’s probably a cliché and a fantasy, but we want to change the world. It’s not all just for money, money, money, but we’re more interested in the effect. What if, later, the kids can use the app? What if their problems lessen if they fulfil the courses?  So that’s the goal we’re trying to reach.]

De Felipe, on the other hand, admits they only attained “true” startup status only recently, and that’s because they mainly focused on gaining a steady stream of clients from abroad rather than chasing after the local market first. When asked about the likelihood of a positive trickle-down effect of the APEC talks to homegrown businesses like hers, she said, “I’m a generally positive person, and I would always give it the benefit of the doubt. For me, I’m still hopeful. That’s why at Mavericks, we are catering to local businesses even if very small man bala ang margins dira [our margins are very small there].

Although the BPO industry has been very beneficial in providing economic stability to many Ilonggos who would have been otherwise unemployed, some experts are already cautioning against relying too much on a “service economy” model. Jeffrey Teruel, a Guam native whose father hailed from Mandurriao and the main organizer for Startup Weekend Iloilo, bolstered that thought: “The Philippines has found a niche in that, and that is something the country has been building on. But I don’t think the country can rely on that because sometimes, these overseas companies might shift their service (to other countries).” Almost like clockwork, this news came out a few weeks after his interview with Project Iloilo.

Ilonggo Startup - Jeffrey Teruel, Startup Weekend
Jeffrey Teruel during the Startup Weekend Iloilo Pre-event
Photo by Martin Espino

Teruel might be commenting on the issue as the proverbial outsider-looking-in, but Gamboa—for all the years he spent living in the US—is still keenly aware of how sluggish Iloilo’s economic development was as far back as he can remember. “Growing up, everything has felt backwards. Like, ‘Why is it always like this?’ I was a very whiny kid,” he recalls. “(The) Philippines is grounded in so much tradition that it’s hard to break away (from it) and staying in touch with the ‘real world’, with how the rest of the developed world operates.”

At the end of the day, no matter how developed Iloilo now looks to the outside world, all these positive changes can only prove to be cosmetic in nature if the structural problems still remain. “Here in Iloilo, it’s building up. You see the Megaworld, you see all these developments happening,” Teruel says.  However, he cautions that these are not enough to create a truly self-sustaining industry: “(It’s) cultural; it’s probably not gonna work. Because let’s face it: this whole connection issue , the whole access to the Internet—let alone here—it is still very challenging. This is another industry that has to be looked into. Nothing against the current telcos, but there are opportunities there. Let’s face it: there are gonna be customers, there will always be opportunities. You have to think about that.”

Of course, just because “startup” is closely aligned with tech doesn’t mean that there’s no room for a novel concept to be implemented at a grassroots level. Teruel is keenly aware of that perception, and it’s one he’s trying to adapt to by planning to build a service that seeks to connect home repair contractors with local clients: “All of us developers are thinking apps, but I think we have to think beyond apps right now. Let’s say the fisheries industry can be something that will be looked into. And medical care, that’s another one.”

On the other hand, Gamboa says there’s indeed a lot of interest from some San Franciscan companies on penetrating the local market. “Everybody in Silicon Valley here is figuring out how to monetize, you know, Filipinos,” he chuckles. “Everybody was like, ‘Every Filipino is playing our game so hard, but they don’t spend money.’ [laughs]. And they hired these six-figure business intelligence people… and I told them, ‘Just go visit the country and see what’s it like there. You’ll see people entering internet cafes and paying actual money to just (browse) or spend time to play, and then walk out [laughs].’ They’re like, ‘Huh? That’s not in the data!’

All these startup talk seems like it can be done by anyone, doesn’t it?

Well, you could, but it won’t be that easy.

“You have to have a high threshold of pain.”

De Felipe has been organizing seminars and meetups dedicated to empowering aspiring entrepreneurs, so she’s become one of the poster persons for the local startup scene lately. Despite her zeal for what she does, she’s still hesitant on encouraging her fellow Ilonggos to just drop what they’re doing and build their own startups. “We can’t really go out and make people to start startups because when I started my immersion on (national startup conference) ‘Geeks on a Beach’, I realized that it’s not very glamorous. It’s really, really like, super-hard work,” she laughs. “It’s gonna be difficult ang funding mo, unless you are funded by your family or something. So okay lang ina i-pursue. Pero  it always starts with, ‘Do you have an idea?'”

Many large companies were indeed founded on the basis of The Idea, but that can only do so much to sustain a business in the long run. “We all have ideas, and our minds run wild. We all want to find a good team that we wanna work with. And it usually has to be a brand-new idea that has not been tested out, and you start working out on it,” Teruel says. He then goes into detail about the stuff that often gets left out from the initial big-picture meeting, at least from his experience as a developer: “You then need to look for a developer, a marketer, a graphic artist—just those little details (that go into) building an app. I mean, it’s not just coding, there’s the design (to worry about), too. And also getting input and seeing if the idea is worth it.”

Paraphrasing Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk’s quote, Gamboa also cautions, “You have to have a high threshold of pain. You will go through a lot of obstacles and normal people won’t be able to handle this.”

(The) Philippines is grounded in so much tradition that it’s hard to break away (from it) and staying in touch with the ‘real world’, with how the rest of the developed world operates.

Bustamante, on their end, credits the longevity of My Happy Fireflies to the fact that they simply stuck to their guns: “Importante guid ang vision, kay indi ka ka-move forward kung indi mo bal-an kung sa diin ka makadto. Ang second is ang execution. Bisan  how small the step is, bisan gamay-gamay lang na siya, mahambal ka be nga one millimeter lang ina, it doesn’t matter as long nga nag-move forward ka. Importante nga naga-move ka forward kag guinatakos mo na siya.

[The vision is important, because you can’t move forward if you don’t know where to go. Secondly, it’s the execution. No matter how small the step is, even if it’s just minuscule and you’re only moving one millimeter at a time, it doesn’t matter as long as you move forward. It is important that you move forward and you measure your progress.]

Teruel is hoping that this week’s inaugural Startup Weekend Iloilo should help propel the rest of the city to realizing “the benefit of homegrown entrepreneurs”, as he puts it. No one can accuse him of not being optimistic, but he realizes, ” (Startup Weekend ) is a first-time concept here. It’s relatively unproven.”

So, to a regular Ilonggo reading this, why would they go to all that trouble of creating their own thing when they’re not even sure how they can bankroll it? Well, Teruel has this to say: “If people want to use it, then why not?”

It certainly sounds like sensible advice.

Startup Weekend Iloilo takes place in University of the Philippines – Visayas from November 13-15, 2015. For more event details, please visit their Facebook page here.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.