'Geeks On A Beach 4': A shot in the arm for PH startup community
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Tagbilaran was bright and sunny compared to stormy Metro Manila where our plane had taken off on Thursday, August 25. A brisk 30-minute drive away from Tagbilaran Airport is the Bellevue Pavilion where Geeks On A Beach (GOAB), an annual meeting of the minds from the tech and startup scene, was happening.
The brainchild of the buccaneering Tina Amper of Techtalks.ph, in cooperation with the Department of Information and Communication Technology (DICT), the two-day conference brought together ambitious startups, established players offering mentorship, "angel" investors looking to jumpstart things for companies with bright ideas, and venture capitalists looking to place their bets on the next big thing.
GOAB was, among other things, a venue to find just the right connection that your fledgling app might need or conversely, the loam on which seasoned mentors and investors might nurture what could eventually be a great, fruit-bearing tree.
Inside the Pavilion, a small partition featuring booths from exhibitors such as Cignal TV, Smart, Internet.org by Facebook, and several other app developers greeted participants as they entered. From there, they are funneled into the main hall where the day's talks, debates, and panels were held. Topics ranged from how the Philippines might emulate tech hotspots around the globe to how a startup can crawl out of the valley of death.
Tong Hsien Hui, investment director of Singapore-based Infocomm Investments, identified several ways to help startups survive. First: Focus on the customer. The executive believes that knowing your customer is a lot more important for the long-term growth of your company.
Looking for, and getting, funding is a short-term solution, he said, advising against hastily seeking out venture capital. It's too easy for a startup to "spray and pray," hoping someone might be interested enough to write them a check.
He warned: "Venture capitalists don't do that." If you're at an early stage, they won't want you – and that just means you haven't put out enough work yet to prove that you're worth the cold, hard cash they're throwing your way. At which point, refocus your attention on the business, on the product, Hui said.
New Yorker Frank Denbow, founder of online custom shirt service Startup Threads, mirrored Hui's sentiment. "Fundraise or build your company. Choose one. You can't do both at the same time," Denbow advised during a "Self-funding vs Fundraising" debate.
The debate included Mario Berta of FlySpaces (roughly the Airbnb for offices), Eddie Thai of the early-stage venture fund 500 Startups, and Joe Ziegler of Rockstarz Asia, a firm with offices in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore, that provided mentoring and funding for business-to-business (B2B) startups. Rockstarz Asia hasn't established a physical base in the Philippines just yet though.
Transforming the PH startup ecosystem
So where can local startups find some semblance of aid? The Startup Business Bill filed by Senator Bam Aquino could be just what the doctor ordered. Speaking at a welcome dinner held Thursday evening, August 25, Aquino emphasized "pushing a bill that's really relevant for the sector."
"We want to ensure that [that bill] when passed into law is a law that is relevant; is a law that truly helps and supports the digital startups and innovative startups; and is a law that you can truly benefit from. And the only way that we can ensure that this law is not a waste of time and effort is to really get from you – what do you really want to see in this law? What support do you really need in this law?" the senator said.
In earlier versions the bill, the primary focus was on taxes – specifcally, exempting startups from taxes in their first two years of operation. But Aquino stressed that the proposed measure has evolved. Since it was filed during the 16th Congress, Aquino said they had been able to gather more information – from different local startup groups and from the more developed startup communities in other countries – to put in the ingredients to "unlock the ecosystem that we can possibly have here in the Philippines."
"We want this bill to come from the sector itself," the senator added.
Aquino doesn't appear to be alone in the effort to lift young companies by their arms. That night, he also credited Camarines Sur Representative LRay Villafuerte as the primary lobbyist for the bill in the House of Representatives.
Bohol Governor Edgar Chatto, speaking at the Governor's Mansion in Tagbilaran on Thursday afternoon, identified a focus on tech as the third prong in his developmental plan for the province: "Earlier it was tourism, agriculture. Later, we said technology has to come – IT."
The centerpiece of this push is the "Digital Bohol" campaign, a "dream" where "technology is readily available" the moment one lands in Bohol whether through plane or boat. Laying out the information communication technology infrastructure is currently underway, according to the governor. Further putting the region under the spotlight is the upcoming Open Collaboration of East Asian Nations (OCEAN) 16, a pro-tech, for-industrialization conference being hosted by Bohol from November 24 to 26.
From the private sector, we have the likes of Rene Meily, CEO of QBO (pronounced "kubo") Innovation Hub, a local startup studio in Makati City. The company seeks to "transform the Philippine startup ecosystem" by mimicking successful ones in the US (Silicon Valley), Singapore (Block 71), and Malaysia (maGIC); by acknowledging the current local ecosystem's need for mentors and senior advisers; and by intervening in the "seed" phase of startups, providing support to these young companies during their just-past-infancy stage.
During his talk at GOAB, Meily also promised regular mentoring events at the QBO office for entrepreneurial minds. "We need the success stories to show that the ecosystem works," he added.
Meily may not need to look too far.
GOAB, just for the fact that it brought together players from the different sectors of the tech industry for the fourth year running, is itself a success story – a source of optimism and courage for young, local companies that could use an extra nudge.
With the proposed startup bill on the horizon, one wonders what the fifth iteration might bring. – Rappler.com
(UPDATE: The dates for OCEAN 16 have been changed to November 24 to 26 from October 21 and 22 as originally announced. You may go to ocean16.asia for more details.)