[Executive Edge] Making WiFi social in PH

As a writer, getting WiFi at coffeeshops and cafes is often a huge pain point for me. The Internet may be too slow, or sometimes the signal is non-existent at all. In worse scenarios, the venue may have fast Internet, but they charge you an arm and a leg to avail of it.


Serial entrepreneur Francis Simisim seems to have found a solution for this problem. His company, Social Light, has developed a unique WiFi gateway known as Zion WIFI. In fact, it’s such a commonsensical solution that I have no doubt many people will be left wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”


It works like this: You’re a patron. You go to a coffeeshop. You open up your laptop, wanting to check your email. You open up your browser and a screen prompts you to either like the establishment’s Facebook page or follow them on Twitter. Once you do, you will be allowed to surf the net all you want, completely free of charge.


This gives the patron Internet, yes, but – in true entrepreneurial fashion – it also solves a small, but consequential problem for the business. Rather than just give away Internet for free, which often results in a tangible loss – as in the classic case of a student who takes up space at a coffeeshop, just sipping one cup of coffee and surfing Facebook for hours – the business gets a measurable return: a social media boost.


A history of social


Simisim knows social. Along with events host and DJ Vince Golangco, Simisim founded WhenInManila.com, one of the most successful blog sites in the Philippines, which rose to popularity in part due to the strength of its social media channels and the shareability of its articles.

Simisim mastered social media through experience. He said, “I used to run BlueWater Day Spa and I encountered challenges in promoting the brand online such as getting product features, getting more fans and followers, increasing brand awareness. Even though it had fans and followers, they were not the target customers who would eventually avail spa services.”

Simisim continued, “In the end, no matter how much effort was done, it did not translate to significant sales. And that’s when I realized that other businesses experience the same struggle in online marketing.”

Zion WIFI thus represents an attempt to fill in this vital need. Simisim said, “We wanted to close the gap between online and offline marketing by tapping on the WiFi and giving businesses quality ‘customer’ likes / follows which ultimately increase their presence in the community.”

When making this pitch about Zion WIFI to restaurants and other venues, Simisim always makes sure to contextualize the product with what is most affecting social media today. And at the moment, that’s the Facebook ranking algorithm known as Edgerank.

Simisim said, “You might see pages with thousands, if not millions, of fans but with engagement so low, it does not reach too far, so why is that so? Because of Facebook’s new algorithm, which is Edgerank. Edgerank is the formula that governs what shows up in a person’s newsfeed and how high does it get.”

“Who would be best to relate and interact to your posts?” Simisim posed, just as he might to a store owner. “Wouldn’t it be your real customers? With Zion WIFI, you get real customer fans as they like your page for them to use your WiFi. We can also redirect fans to your page after logging in and make most of them interact, especially in your fanpage reviews (Tripadvisor, MunchPunch, Zomato, etc), contests (highly recommended), and relevant posts which allows them to interact right away.”

When pitching to decision-makers, Simisim also makes it a point to differentiate Zion WIFI with Facebook advertising, which is how many companies choose to acquire their fans. Simisim said, “At the moment, businesses gain likes through advertising on Facebook, but targeting someone does not easily convert to sales or interaction (as they won’t necessarily be able to relate).”

In contrast, Simisim noted, “When using our system, these customers have already gone there and tried their product / service, which leads to a high percentage of repeat purchase and interaction.”

Interestingly enough, Zion WIFI can also go so far as to improve the actual ambiance of a venue through what websites the gateway allows users to browse. Simisim explained, “We filter contents such as porn, virus, and malware websites which can help make an establishment’s WiFi safe and family friendly. Most businesses today have open WiFi, which means anyone can browse anything in public.”

Simisim concluded, “This is bad especially for family friendly places and with kids having their own WiFi enabled device, so with us actively and automatically blocking bad websites, these helps businesses ensure that their customers use it appropriately while in their venue.”

The right team

To build a successful startup like Zion WIFI, it goes without saying that you need a strong team. Simisim founded Zion WIFI with another Simisim – his wife, Annabelle. Having a business partner that is also your wife comes with its own unique set of challenges (and, of course rewards!).

Simisim confided, “Running a business with your wife and still stay happily married is never simple but the potential of working alongside your life partner has its great advantages, especially if you know how to separate business from home. Since Annabelle and I have complementary skills and diverse backgrounds, we are able to separate responsibilities quite well.”

Explaining the keys to their successful partnership, Simisim said, “And if ever our tasks do overlap and we have different views, we always discuss and come up with a unified conclusion. Trust and communication are also important at work as they are in marriage. We trust each other’s capabilities and whatever decisions we make, we know that it is for the best of the business.”

As far as technical talent, Simisim initially sought local developers, but quickly found they could not accomplish what he wanted done. He thus turned to Europe, where he found “network experts who were highly experienced on creating custom-made firmware.”

Far from being a hindrance, the time difference between Europe and the Philippines actually turned out to be a competitive advantage for Simisim and his team. He said, “We benefit from the strategic location (outside Asia Hours), as it makes Zion WIFI system development and improvement a round-the-clock activity.”

And this is not just lip service – it’s true. When Simisim and his team wanted to add Instagram and Google+ functionality to Zion WIFI, he was able to get it done much faster than he would have if he had chosen to work with local developers.

Going forward, Simisim and his team have more plans to add new features and functionalities to the Zion WIFI system. But at the end of the day, Simisim likes to other entrepreneurs and business owners that it’s about “the value you add to your customers.” With Zion WIFI, companies can take something as overlooked as WiFi and use it to “promote to and understand their customers better.” – Rappler.com


Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

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