How Would Martial Law Happen in 2016?


The biggest irony today is that the freedom young Marcos supporters enjoy to voice an unpopular opinion (that the dictatorship was a golden age) is the same freedom that was taken away from their parents in the 1970s.

More time has passed between today and the start of Martial Law than the time between Martial Law and the end of World War II. So it’s no surprise that we have but the faintest idea of the Marcos dictatorship compared to that generation’s memories of the atrocities of war.

So re-watching Batas Militar made me wonder, if I were alive in the 1970s, what would happen to me? Obviously an incredibly difficult scenario to imagine, but this one’s easier: if Martial Law were proclaimed today, what would happen to me and the world around me?

First, Rappler would be taken over. Marcos would strip Maria Ressa and her colleagues of their board seats and hand them over to cronies. A military rep will commandeer the passwords to their servers and software. Chay Hofileña, Maritess Vitug, Natashya Guttierez, Leloy Claudio, Patricia Evangelista and other brilliant / courageous writers who fearlessly speak truth to power would be taken in the middle of the night from their homes. The women would be raped at knifepoint. The men would be found weeks later, their testicles cut off, their guts full of water.

Second, Ernest Cu and Manny Pangilinan would be forcibly asked to turn over control of Globe and PLDT’s vital internet infrastructure to the government. Facebook would be blocked, China-style. YouTube will be swamped with content takedown requests from Malacañang.

Carlo Katigbak and Felipe Gozon would be made to report to the Palace (no, not the pool club) every week. All broadcast shows from ABS-CBN and GMA must require approval from the Presidential Communications Office. Guys like Arnel Cassanova, upright public servants who aren’t afraid to go after vested interests, will be out of a job, or worse, find themselves detained in Camp Crame. SWS and Pulse Asia surveys will be doctored. Leading opposition candidates Jojo Binay and Grace Poe would be behind bars. Brian Llamanzares, for showing off his shoes, would attract the ire of some Generals and will be found lifeless in a Tarlac ditch, his feet cut off.

Third, Marcos would use a rising China and the West Philippine Sea dispute as leverage to bargain for more military aid (fair game to skimming in the form of unaudited intelligence funds) from an American government keen to implement a Pacific Pivot. But he’ll also play two sides of the same coin. As Marcos covets US aid with his right hand, the left hand would be reaching out to excess Chinese liquidity and divert it to local investments through his cronies, naturally.

This generation’s version of the coco levy scam – a scheme so brazenly and intelligently designed for wealth transfer would involve using our strong foreign currency reserves to acquire overseas assets whose control would be given to the same cronies, with Marcos getting a healthy cut.

Taxes on overseas remittances will triple overnight. A Presidential Decree – which Marcos produced copious amounts that would put an Instagram Wife’s selfies to shame – will be required for new BPO licenses.

My startup would be shut down, disingenuously accused for trying to “endanger” a business of a Blue Lady. Kalibrr, Pawnhero, Lenddo, OLX, and more would be shut down for threatening established conglomerates. Bantay.ph will be censored and Henry would disappear. In the guise of protecting sari sari store owners, Lazada’s warehouses all over the country would be seized. Last night’s talk from Sequoia Capital wouldn’t happen as all interest from foreign VCs would evaporate. Expats like Christian Besler would be deported for being too opinionated in public affairs. The CBCP doesn’t like Carlos Celdran’s protest-as-art? Well they might find him with his top hat stuffed into his mouth in a Cavite swamp.

If I were still in college, debate friends from Ateneo, UP, UST, and DLSU – incredibly brilliant legal minds such as William Panlilio, Joan de Venecia, and Arlene Maneja – would slip in one debate and attract the ire of the presidential daughter and disappear Archimedes Trajano-style. Those who survive the purge would flee abroad.

So, yeah:

1. I would definitely not have survived Martial Law. And I think a lot of my friends wouldn’t either.

2. There are tens of thousands of independent minded, intelligent, and talented Filipinos who are either dead or have fled overseas. All our woes of not having enough good public servants, entrepreneurs, PhDs, etc could be traced back to those years.

3. The very fact young people are free to argue that Noynoy Aquino is a bad president without fear of Kris Aquino sending out her bodyguards in retaliation should make those same young people very very thankful – no matter how much the EDSA generation fucked up in the decades after.

So to my parents’ generation, thank you for giving me the chance to write this without fear. To guys like Primitivo Mijares, where ever you and your pen are, there are still a lot of the key players alive, rich, and well that we are waiting for you to fetch.

Netflix, Philippines, Startups, Uncategorized

It’s Likely that the Philippines Will Block Netflix Too


Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that Indonesia’s biggest telco has blocked access to Netflix.

State-owned Telkom concluded that Netflix didn’t have a permit to operate in Indonesia. Netflix also apparently contains violent and sexual content objectionable to Indonesian censors. Hey I’d feel violated too watching Francis Underwood do this to Zoe Barnes. Please don’t think of our very own Francis (Escudero) and Heart. Oh wait, now you just did.

Anyway, the big question is could the same thing happen to the Philippines?

Quite possibly… and in my opinion, very likely. There’s a weird set of interests that are at stake here. ABS-CBN and GMA would obviously want a strategic hedge, no matter how nascent the streaming market is. Bayan Muna and their leftist pals will decry the further encroachment by American capitalists (and do their loudest shouting, ironically, on Facebook). The BIR will want its cut. Congress will grandstand. The telcos will face a dilemma.

How could access to Netflix be blocked in the Philippines?

Here’s how I speculate this might play out.

One, in a rare display of haste, urgency, and cross-agency collaboration, the NTC, SEC, BIR, and MTRCB will band together to invoke Article XVI of the 1987 Constitution, which says:

The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens.”

They will argue that because Netflix broadcasts movies and TV shows, it must be considered mass media.  The framers of the Constitution clearly did not imagine the impact of the internet, which the Philippines connected to just 7 years after 1987.

Blockers will also use a strange SEC opinion that argues that any activity that in effect “disseminates information to the general public through the internet” may be considered mass media. This leads to a possible bizarre interpretation of the Constitution that because your Facebook feed disseminates information, this is considered mass media and Facebook should thus be 100% Filipino owned.

Two, Netflix will argue that it is breaking no laws because it neither owns nor manages any local company engaged in mass media. It can say it’s not mass media because it doesn’t need broadcast frequencies to operate. One needs to pay a subscription, unlike free-to-air TV.

It is also possible to argue that the framers of the Constitution intended to protect public opinion and news media from foreign interests and foreign propaganda, and since Netflix is not a news organization dipping its hands in local politics, it should not be considered mass media. I’m no constitutionalist, so I’ll leave it to guys like Oscar Tan to dissect the legalities. Suffice to say that there are enough gray areas to give the blockers legal ammunition.

Three, the BIR will want its cut. It could try to impose the 12% VAT or a 15% final withholding tax. As far as I know, neither Google nor Facebook pays either when they receive programmatic ad revenue. I don’t see anything on my ads receipts that indicate that they do so.

Netflix will do its best to comply until they fully realize the extent of red tape they have to go through to comply with local tax laws. They’ll realize that the BIR is on the losing end of enforcement anyway and will go on business as usual.

Four, some honorable gentlemen in Congress – possibly the same guys that want to give Pia Wurtzbach a tax exemption because they don’t have anything better to do than fantasize that they get a chance of dating her by passing this law – will file a resolution blocking Netflix, similar to what these guys tried with Fox International.

Five, the TV and cable networks will join the fray, in a bizarre alignment of interests with leftists like Bayan Muna. They will naturally argue that Netflix is a long term threat to the domestic entertainment industry and to thousands of jobs. They’ll be on a wait-and-see mode, perhaps licensing some parts of their library but not too much to prop Netflix up. A young guy who gets it like Carlo Katigbak might be willing to play a smarter accommodation strategy. An older guy like Felipe Gozon might want to block them altogether. Or he might not care or be digital savvy enough to realize how big a thing streaming is in the first place.

Six, the telcos will be caught in a dilemma. Admittedly, it’ll be a more complicated tradeoff for the telcos. Each has its own streaming platform. But the lure of higher data revenues would be too enticing.

I’m wishing all this actually happens. No real damage will come out of it in the long term anyway. It’ll bring about the much needed public anger and discourse to push Congress to finally revise our absurd foreign ownership restriction limits. Maybe it’ll open the public realm to candidates like Bam Aquino who actually understand digital. Maybe it’ll push the next president to appoint our first cabinet-level CTO.

Streaming video is here to stay. A growing Filipino middle class with more choices will opt to pay that Php 370 a month. It’s tough to bet against a change of this magnitude. And we’re not even talking about the entry of that other streaming behemoth – Amazon.

So yes, let’s get the ball rolling. Filipino dinosaurs, let’s seek to block Netflix.

Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship, Founders, Philippines, Startups, Uncategorized

How the Next Philippine President Can Win the Entrepreneur Vote

Mar is probably the most business-friendly of the bunch, though he is no entrepreneur. Jojo will find it hard to claim to be an entrepreneur because it runs counter to the narrative that he didn't get rich off Makati. I don't believe Grace had any business experience at all. Photo credit: Rappler.com

Mar is probably the most business-friendly of the bunch, though he is no entrepreneur. Jojo will find it hard to claim to be an entrepreneur because it runs counter to the narrative that he didn’t get rich off Makati. I don’t believe Grace had any business experience at all. Photo credit: Rappler.com

When Johannes Guttenberg invented a printing press based on movable type, it set off a chain reaction of events with profound consequences across the world. For the first time in human history, books could be printed in large quantities, versus being copied by hand. It was bound to unlock the sum of human knowledge to the masses of people still reeling from the Black Death and living under a system of feudalism and serfdom.

This was in 1445.

By the 1460s, the printing press could be found in France and Italy. In 1476, William Caxton established one in London. It was soon in Spain. Books were printed. People started reading. Writing blossomed. Thoughts were reproduced.  The media was born. Ruling a country would never be the same.

The Guttenberg Press

The Guttenberg Press

It was a different story in the Ottoman Empire. In 1485, Bayezid II ordered a decree forbidding Muslims from printing stuff.

“What the fuck is this machine?” he must have muttered to his aides. “No way will I have these pieces of paper circulating all over the empire.”

Unlike Emperor Palpatine who so graciously embraced technology of planetary scale to annihilate his enemies (albeit failing to solve the fly-by-the-trench problem), Bayezid II viewed the new technology with fear and distrust.

The geopolitics of it all was understandable. There were revolts all over the empire. A few years later, Bayezid would tussle with Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castille for kicking Muslims out of Spain as part of the Inquisition. Any tech out of Europe was to be seen with suspicion and distrust.

It was only in 1727 that the printing press was allowed in the Ottoman Empire. Ibrahim Müteferrika was granted a royal decree allowing him to have a press.  Still, its use had a lot of restrictions.  Müteferrika needed the approval of a panel of Muslim and legal experts before publishing anything.

I'd look pissed too if I had to ask for CBCP permission for this blog.

I’d look pissed too if I had to ask for CBCP permission for this blog.

It’s like asking the local parish priest, Fr. Joey, for his approval before posting a Facebook status update. You had to enter the confession box, phone in hand, supplicating to Fr. Joey. He may say no. He may say yes. He may ask for a hug. Maybe a little more than a hug. It sounds ridiculous but that was in effect what Müteferrika faced.

The effects were damning. Müteferrika only got to print 17 books. And by 1800, only 2% of the Ottman Empire were literate, versus 60% of adult males in England.

The rest, of course, was history. Great Britain would lead the Industrial Revolution and Europe would soon follow. After a long period of decline, the Ottoman Empire fell after the First World War.


In the book Why Nations Fail (from where the example above was lifted), the printing press was a critical juncture in history. The printing press was technological innovation that, along with other technologies, would form the backbone of literacy, knowledge, and education that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution.

The way that nations respond to technological innovations are shaped by their political and economic institutions. England, France, and a young colony in the Americas embraced technology. Others, like the Ottoman Empire, blocked it.

We’re at that critical juncture today. Today, the Philippine Republic is the Ottoman Empire. The printing press is the Internet. The Industrial Revolution is the legion of empowering technologies that the Internet enables, from e-commerce and social media, to artificial intelligence and data science. And it’s the way our political and economic institutions are structured that hinders their adoption.


Entrepreneurs, engineers, and students at Action Stack’s Data Means Business workshop. The deluge of data is giving rise to new technologies that can form the backbone of a new industry in the Philippines.

Perhaps that’s the legacy of the Aquino administration: remarkable progress in our macroeconomic growth (GDP, credit ratings, fiscal & monetary policy), but without significant institutional reforms of a critical scale to ensure that technological innovation happens across the economy.


We’ve been at this critical juncture before. Twice actually. The first was when the Americans took over and we had the chance for a Great Reset in our political economy (that didn’t happen as I’ll explain later). The technologies of that time were electricity, the automobile, aviation, industrial machinery, and more.

The second was more recent, during the EDSA Revolution, when we had the chance to do a wholesale revamp on how we as a country pursued free enterprise. It was only in the early 2000’s that the BPO industry picked up steam. What we should takeaway from the BPOs is not that it is on track to bring the economy $25 billion in annual revenues, but the fact that it could’ve happen sooner in the early 1990s. In tech, the 10-year head start matters. Look at India. While we were getting our act together in the 90s, India was already rapidly surpassing us in information technology, building upon their strengths built since the 1970s. Today, the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, and soon SoftBank trace their origins to India.

The pace of technological change will only accelerate, and it’s not just about playing catch up in a linear rate of growth anymore. That’s why you have initiatives like the DOST’s 256k Internet plan being the laughing stock of the local tech community. When we have neighbors like Singapore planning for 2030 (led by a Prime Minister that knows how to code), it’s not fun that we’re planning for the world of 1998.


Sure, we allow free enterprise on paper. Article 12 of our Constitution demands it.  Our media celebrates it. Our leaders extol it. But underneath the surface, there exists a wide gap between rhetoric and reality.

There are several facts to support this, and i won’t rehash them in detail for they are widely known:

1. Our Internet speeds are the slowest in the region.

2. Our ease of doing business is horribly messed up. We rank 165th in the world in starting a company. It’s easier to start a business in Afghanistan and Mongolia than in the Philippines. This World Bank Report is actually remarkably optimistic. For instance, it says it takes 3 days to register a corporation with the SEC. Anybody who’s gone through that process will attest that this is impossible.

3. Even if you’re successful in registering a business, getting electricity, acquiring property, getting a construction permit, accessing credit, paying taxes, getting import / export permits, and paying taxes are all messed up.

4. The complexity of complying with the law means you are bound to fail, and that creates opportunities for corruption. Every now and then, you’re victimized by petty low level corruption, from the local fire department requiring you to buy a fire extinguisher from a preferred supplier, to the immense syndicate at the BIR.

5. Our infrastructure remains substandard. We rank 8th out of 10 ASEAN economies in infrastructure.  Laos and Cambodia did better in that list.

7. You’re faced with cultural dogma that celebrates being rich, but looks down on getting rich – because of our a) disdain for failure, and b.) distaste for young people who display ambition and intelligence.


Why are the stuff above happening?

One big reason is that our political institutions aren’t set up to unleash the power of free enterprise, and by extension technological innovation. Why?

To answer this question, we have to briefly detour back to the end of the Filipino-American War.

In 1902, the United States slowly began to devolve power to their little brown brothers. But there was a catch. Only members of recognized families – the principalia – could be nominated to stand election in the Philippine Assembly, the lower legislative house established by the US Congress’ Philippine Organic Act of 1902.

And so the Assembly was filled with rich landowners, former encomenderos, already established businessmen. What happens when you give the powerful more power? Well, that’s like asking what would Hydra do if given the ability to combine Zola’s algorithm with precision-guided laser beams from three satellite-linked helicarriers.

That too was perfectly understandable. If you’re an old man with 300 hectares of farm land, very low productivity, four kids to feed (maybe three more from that nice young mistress from the other barrio. She reminded you of that Maria Clara character from that Rizal novel in the 1890s.), peasants who joined the Katipunan a decade ago, and constant fear that remaining guerrillas like Macario Sakay could commandeer your land, you wouldn’t want some other young guy in the other barrio discovering a new way to plant palay and sell more grains than you. You would rent-seek as much as you can to get more cash flow while keeping your expenses and investments (i.e.: new technology) down.

Landed lovers of Maria Clara. Photo credit: PCIJ

Landed lovers of Maria Clara. Photo credit: PCIJ

And so that state of affairs – our extractive economic institutions, preferential Filipino ownership in theory but oligarchic control in practice,  the persistence of political dynasties, the collusion of big business and politics, and our distaste for foreign competition and investment – enshrined itself into the affairs of the State.

Today, these dynamics result in some really weird stuff going on at the grassroots level:

1. Close to 80% of GDP growth being captured by the top 40 families.

2. Science, technology, and entrepreneurship getting almost zero mentions in the President’s State of the Nation Address, despite the rhetoric of jobs and inclusive growth.

3. The US Secretary of Commerce showing more personal interest in technology startups any high official from the Philippines, with the remarkable exception of Senator Bam Aquino.

4.  A Startup Conference where a glaring majority of speakers are not from startups.

The bottom-line is that we have created two worlds of free enterprise.

In the first one, it’s easy to do business because you’re part a big conglomerate. Want to set up a new division because the Investment Committee just approved Php 500 million for a new venture? Sure, just get the legal department to handle the papers. It’ll be back in less than 30 days. We do have a directly line to the SEC, BIR, DTI, SSS, Pag-Ibig, and Makati City Hall.

In the second world, starting a business is a struggle. You’ve worked ten years and have managed to cough up meager savings. Now that you’re ready to set up a business, you have to endure months registering it. That’s not counting the hours you have to stand in line at the SEC, BIR, DTI, the local Municipality, the Barangay Hall, and other agencies to get your permit. That’s not counting the days traveling back and forth in Manila traffic. And even when you get all your documents, that’s not counting the cumulative time it takes to get an internet connection, a construction permit, financing, or other special permits. This doesn’t even count the time spent in your actual business.

The goal of the next president is merge these two worlds, and bring the second one closer to the first.


There are over 1 million business enterprises in the Philippines. That is at least a million people who are business owners. 99% live in the second world. They’re influential. They have employees. They have customers, suppliers, partners.

They might seem invisible because they’re not the most vocal on social media. Instead of ranting about the productivity drag of traffic and the huge number of government-mandated holidays, they just buckle down and get to work.

This is a large base and there are two ways the presidentiables can win the Entrepreneur Vote.

The first one is to do it the old way. Write some fancy sounding slogans. Hire a “PR expert” to craft the right messaging. Make a jingle. Get celebrity entrepreneur to sing it. Make a music video of the jingle. Air on TV. Post some catchy updates on Facebook. Blame the current administration.

The second is a new way. Simply, it means candidates putting themselves in the shoes of the entrepreneur. And not in a superficial way like visiting Aling Nena’s sari-sari store or manning a Jollibee counter for an hour.

This idea will sound completely ridiculous to the political establishment and their campaign handlers.  It’s brazen and has never been been done. And that’s the point.

This is how it’ll work.

1. Each presidentiable will have 38 days to register a corporation. Why 38? Because that’s the World Bank measure of how long it takes. They have to get as far into the process as they can within that amount of time.

There will be milestones – in the form of 3 public events, live streamed to the public.

2. The first day will be a publicly-held event. During this day, we’ll even make it easy for them. I’ll give each candidate all the forms they need, and Php 5,000.00 each as initial paid-in capital. They have to fill up all the forms themselves in that event – no accountants, no lawyers.  Broadcast this live in front of the people. SEC Articles of Incorporation. By-Laws. BIR Forms. DTI. SSS. Pag-Ibig. City Permit. Barangay Clearance.

3. Some of these steps can be done electronically. We’ll leave it up to them to figure out which ones by finding it online. We’ll give them laptops. And a few thousand pesos for a portable broadband connection. They can choose which provider they want.

If they want, they can pick a Negosyo Center of their choice to begin the registration process.

4. At the end of that day, we’ll have a panel check who filled up the forms correctly.

You get the drift: the idea is to make each presidentiable feel what every Filipino entrepreneur has to go through. It doesn’t have to be exactly this process below – I leave to that to the media or academics who can probably design a better simulation. But since we’re at it, humor me for a few more minutes.

5. Once they finish the forms, the candidates will have to visit the various government agencies for the next 38 days. They’ll have to file the forms themselves. Go to the SEC and BIR and line up like everyone else. No aides. No assistants.

6. They’ll have to collect the output – such as the SEC Certificate and BIR Form 2303 – themselves. They’ll have to go back to each time on their own.

Their progress will be tracked online in a dedicated website.

7. Once they get the necessary permits, that’s not where it’ll end.

I’ll give each candidate a free TackThis! or Shopify account. In a second public event, they’ll have to use these services to set up an online store from scratch.  They can choose whatever they want to sell online. At the end of the day, we check who was able to sell the most.

Why selling online? Because it’s a great way to truly understand young entrepreneurs who are likely to use the Internet to enable their ventures. Selling online brings all of these skills together – from knowing your target customer, selecting & managing inventory, understanding the cloud, social media, and digital payments.

8. On the third public event,  all the presidentiables will be invited to a public forum to discuss their experience in front of small business owners.  This won’t be a debate format. Instead, we ask each candidate to answer the following:

  • Describe your experience in registering a company.
  • Diagnosis the process of starting the company. What were the bottlenecks? What worked? What didn’t?
  • Recommend the changes and how you would implement them.

The “how” part is going to be crucial one. It’s easy to write into a campaign speech that we need better internet and easier ways of doing business. It’ll be the hard implementation-related questions that will be worth pondering.

For instance, it’s tough to get the SEC to adopt electronic registration because its employees’ cooperative is dependent on selling paper forms. How do you make it easy for businesses while at the same time combatting organizational inertia?

Another is slow internet. Sure, it’s easy to say that we should hold telcos accountable. But how? Do we reclassify internet services as a public utility? Do we liberalize the auctioning of spectrum? Do we staff the NTC leadership with engineers instead of lawyers? How do we make it easier for telcos to build a physical network, with the current plethora of national and local permits?

This isn’t a perfect exercise, of course (you can imagine most trying to game the system, by asking for expedited processing from some agencies, for instance).

This is 100 times better than simply asking the presidentiables how to encourage entrepreneurship and getting the standard answers in response. That’s also the purpose the public forums serves – you can kinda guess who gamed the system based on the level specificity and empathy of their answers.

And neither is all this limited to national candidates when arguably local politics matter way more in welfare of local vendors and sari-sari store owners. The accomplishments of Leni Robredo and Rodrigo Duterte are proof.

When the dust settles, we’ll have a treasure trove of data and insight about each candidate. We’ll know who can win the Entrepreneur Vote.


In the late 1920s, Stalin led the drastic reformation of the Soviet economy. The whole economy was to be planned by the state. Factories and farms were given targets. Prices were controlled. Agriculture was nationalized by the state. That meant no free enterprise. Part of the plan meant killing kulaks: independent, relatively affluent farmers who owned property and businesses and threatened Stalin’s regime. They even had a word for this: dekulakization. Over 6 million were killed or sent to labor camps.

100 years later, young Joseph Stalin could be mistaken for an entrepreneur from Brooklyn

100 years later, young Joseph Stalin could be mistaken for an entrepreneur from Brooklyn

Thankfully, nobody’s getting murdered for opening an eatery in Quezon City. But it’s still death by a thousand cuts. If we want inclusive growth, then it’s high time we elect leaders who appreciate and have gone through the struggles of free enterprise.

E-Commerce, Entrepreneurship, Philippines, Retail, Uncategorized

A Blueprint for SM’s Digital Future


In 2014, TSC announced that SM will slowly grow its e-commerce business. Photo: Rappler.com


In 1846, Austria’s Vienna General Hospital had a maternity ward that was notorious for killing mothers and newborns. The deaths were caused by puerperal fever. You see, Vienna General was also a teaching hospital where doctors trained by cutting up cadavers. After handling corpses, doctors would head straight to the maternity ward to deliver babies.

One of the doctors, Ignaz Semmelweis, wondered if puerperal fever was transmitted from the corpses to mothers during delivery.

This was an era when doctors let blood stains on their gowns build up over time like a badge of honor. Like that old boyfriend of yours, hygiene wasn’t really a thing. When Semmelweis convinced some doctors to wash their hands, the death rate dropped enormously from thirty five to two percent.

The medical community vigorously rejected Semmelweis’ hand washing idea, despite the clear evidence that hand washing saves lives.

Semmelweis’ observations challenged two millennia of dogma that ruled medicine since the time of Hippocrates. The first is humorism, the belief that the body is composed of four fluids – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood – and that good health meant the balance of the four. The second is miasma theory, the belief that diseases are caused by inhaling “bad air”.

The idea that diseases could be transferred from cadavers to humans contradicted these strongly held beliefs. One doctor reacted that the idea of something being transmitted from doctor to patient could not possibly be true because doctors are gentlemen and a “gentleman’s hands are clean.”

Semmelweis was confined to an asylum where was has placed in a straightjacket and beaten continuously. He died after two weeks. With no one to supervise Vienna General, the doctors stopped washing their hands and the death rate went back to previous levels. It wasn’t until the time of Louis Pasteur did we discover germs and their role in diseases.

As we’ll see later, it’s dogma that prevents retailers from embracing their digital future.


SM fascinates me. I think it holds the key to the digital economy in the Philippines. No other local company can bring our e-commerce future to fruition in the same way SM can.

Let me explain why.


Imagine you’re a 25-year old Filipino. You’ve been working for four years now since you graduated from college. You work in Net Plaza in the Fort. The business process outsourcing firm that employs you just handed your first promotion. That’s a big increase in pay, and in your credit limit on your BDO credit card. You seriously consider a car loan for that new Vios model. You eat out more. You buy more groceries. You upgrade your wardrobe. You watch movies on Imax more often. You’ll reluctantly make the weekend trip to City of Dreams because your girlfriend sees Leo’s face all over town. There’s that concert too at SM Arena.

As the years go by, your savings grow and you finally have enough to make a down payment on that condo. And when you do, you’ll need to buy furniture, of course. You marry said girl and next thing you know, the kids spending your cash at Toy Kingdom. When vacation time hits, you take a trip down to Cebu, and stay in Radisson. During Christmas, the visting pinsans from abroad want to buy some handicrafts at Kultura. You’re in your late thirties now, and you decide to start a business. You hear Chinabank is offering loans for working capital, and that Citymall is offering new store space for tenants.

In every single transaction above, SM made money.  SM’s business spans many industries: retail, property (mall operations, residential, commercial and hospitality), banking, gaming, and even mining.

SM business units 031615_0

An overview of SM’s business. Source: http://www.sminvestments.com

If you peek at the official government stats on household expenditure, you’ll see that SM makes money on every single line item of consumer spending with the exception of communications.

Wait, actually they do – indirectly – when you pay your Globe / Smart bill in an SM payments center.

That is absolutely phenomenal.

SM is the ultimate platform business in the Philippines. SM owns the Filipino consumer. Every single Filipino alive today and born from this day forward will contribute to SM’s bottom line at some point in their lives. Let me give you a few seconds to digest that.


How would SM start? The intuitive bet is that they’ll start at e-commerce. They’ve announced this. Online banking and online real estate listings seem more like channels than business models from SM’s point of view. E-commerce is where they can leverage an unfair advantage nobody else has.

To understand why, let’s first take a detour to Seattle, USA, then to China.

If you look at the history of e-commerce in every major market, there was always a unique set of circumstances that catalyzed the industry’s hyper growth in the early years.

In the United States, e-commerce was subsidized by cheap capital. The capital markets gave Amazon an outsized valuation that allowed it to aggressively grow its customer base and its physical distribution infrastructure without much regard for profitability. That’s something that can only happen in the US.

In China, the popular opinion is that e-commerce growth was driven by internet penetration, the growing middle class, and nascent demand from secondary cities. However, a prominent VC once told me that the oversupply of cheap, counterfeit goods available abundantly on Taobao was the underrated driver of e-commerce – a historical anomaly that is unique to China.

In the Philippines, it’ll be SM that drives e-commerce growth. Not Lazada or Zalora. Not Ayala Land or Robinsons. Not even Globe or Smart.

The popular view is that the two biggest barriers to broad e-commerce adoption are logistics and payments.

Well, SM already has both.

As the experience of Macy’s has shown, it turns out that a network of stores make great warehouses and fulfillment centers. Nobody talks about click and collect in-store because it’s boring, but in France, there are already 3000 e-commerce pick-up points. Two thirds of Europeans do it.

Nobody else has the network of fulfillment centers SM has – a network of fully-stocked, accessible warehouses for e-commerce. These warehouses are called SM Malls, and they are 50-strong all over the country. Add a cloud-based inventory optimization layer, and we can rock and roll.

SM needs to overhaul its inventory management if it wants to do omnichannel e-commerce.

SM needs to overhaul its inventory management if it wants to do omnichannel e-commerce.

No other retailer has a BDO, a leading issuer of credit cards, debit cards, and online banking accounts that can subsidize the initial purchases of first-time e-commerce buyers. As far as I know, it’s only BDO that has automated online installments. Not even BPI or Citibank has this.

Nobody else has the power to arm twist the country’s biggest tenants to participate by allocating inventory to an online B2B2C marketplace, lest they suffer unfavorable lease terms.

Lazada and Zalora don’t have the ability to drive down customer acquisition costs the way SM can, by simply adding a “thesmstore.com.ph” to every single mall signage, shopping bag, elevator door, parking entrance, and store receipt.

Robinson’s has a far smaller retail footprint. Ayala’s new business teams are focused on health care, education, and infrastructure. San Miguel is focused on the big PPPs. Smart / Voyager’s local e-commerce operation will never have the omnichannel scale SM has. LBC is still figuring out its IT infrastructure, after its cancelled IPO.

SM can do all this to catalyze e-commerce growth – that is, if SM wants to. And that’s gonna depend on how big SM thinks e-commerce can be.


So how big can e-commerce be for SM and what will it cost?

Let’s look at current benchmarks. The grapevine says Lazada Philippines is doing a run rate of Php 2 billion a year. That’s too small for Tessie, in my humble opinion. She sells more than Php 3 billion in movie tickets each year.

So let’s say Tessie will only start looking at this seriously when she believes SM can do Php 4 billion in annual e-commerce sales. 40% of SM’s P197 billion retail revenues is non-food, so P4 billion is 5%. That’s reasonable given that global non-food retailers see 8% to 20% of sales in e-commerce.

What will it take to achieve this?

A reasonable assumption is that an average order in non-food e-commerce is worth P1,000. A Php 4 billion business implies 4 million orders each year. Let’s assume that the average customer orders 2x a year, so that’s 2 million customers. There are 34 million internet users in the Philippines, and 4 million with credit cards. Lazada has also shown that the market is willing to buy via COD – 60-70% of orders in fact. So 2 million online customers isn’t smoking pot.

If we assume customer acquisition cost ranges from P300 to P800 per customer, then that’s marketing spend of P600 million to P1.6 billion a year. If we assume that the fully loaded annual labor cost per head is P700,000 and an FTE of 500 people doing e-commerce, then that’s labor cost of P350 million.

The biggest barrier is rebuilding SM’s inventory management system to allow for real-time omni-channel retail. Some of the use cases are:

  • Order online but pick up in-store
  • Order online and get fulfillment from the nearest SM Store
  • Dynamically show products popular and available within a specified area
  • Allow third party merchants to use this platform as a marketplace.

This is a gargantuan task (it took Macy’s three years and counting…) so let’s say it’ll cost P400-P500 million pesos for an IT initiative of this scale (guesses on my end).

The total e-commerce investment (marketing, labor, IT), will thus be P1.35 to P2.45 billion. The combined 2015 capex budget of SM Investments (retail, banking) and SM Prime (property) is P82.8 billion. To dominate local e-commerce, SM just has to spend 3% of capex. A large scale e-commerce program is totally feasible.


The problem is that SM’s corporate planning people will measure ROI wrongly. The assumption is that e-commerce is just another store format. They’ll do something like this: open a Microsoft excel file, estimate future sales from its online store (which, according to Similarweb, has shockingly less traffic than our niche online boutique AVA), tally up the costs, peg a discount rate, and get a net present value, IRR, and payback period.

But e-commerce isn’t a channel. It’s a business model. Treating it like a channel for ROI analysis neglects:

  • The impact of omnichannel (higher sales per square foot, higher inventory turnover, more optimized inventory, higher customer loyalty),
  • New revenue streams such as search and display ads on an SM-powered marketplace for tenants, and
  • The second-order effects of an e-commerce platform (higher payments volume on BDO, higher property prices on SM condos in areas covered by same-day delivery, the intangible value of creating a strategic deterrent against market entry by Alibaba, Rakuten, or Amazon).

Smart retailers like Walmart and Macy’s have learned to measure ROI not on online sales, but on total sales.


This brings us back to Semmelweis and hand washing. In my humble opinion, the reason why it’s hard to make this intellectual leap for any local retailer is that the market is simply dominated by unsubstantiated dogma.

Take this misinformed Cushman & Wakefield report for instance that proclaims that Filipinos “still prefer the traditional bricks and mortar stores“.

Filipinos also love their mobile phones and social media. Online and offline aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re just different use cases. At AVA, 40% of our purchases are made outside of mall hours. To say that consumers “prefer” offline is missing the point – both are part of today’s shopping experience that customers expect. In a few years, there will be no such thing as “e-commerce”. It’ll just be “commerce”.

Another blind spot is the belief that e-commerce is just a website with a checkout page. And because it’s a website, it can be outsourced to a web development agency. Of course, that entirely misses the point because e-commerce requires an organization steep in product management, software engineering, digital marketing, data analytics, operations, customer service, and logistics – a very different skill set from a typical retailer’s.

As an illustration, if you search for “SM Store”, you well get these results.


Any normal user will click on the first link.When you land on the homepage of thesmstore.com, you’ll think you can shop on this site. The nav tabs show “Men”, “Women”, “Kids” and so forth. But when you click on a category, all you’ll see are display ads for existing promos. If you want to actually shop online, you’ll have to do the extra work of either a.) finding the “Shop” button on the upper right (which as any UI person will attest, is less prominent than the upper left side), or b.) go back to search results and click on the second link.

Sorry to be blunt but if the person who designed this UI worked at Rocket Internet, Voyager, or Metrodeal, he’d be fired instantly.


But that’s a minor point.

The more dangerous, deeply held dogma has something to do with how SM (and all local retailers) view their businesses.

In 1979, at the Royal Perth Hospital in Western Australia, pathologist Robin Warren peered into his microscope and saw bacteria in a person’s stomach.

Since the beginning of bacteriology, the dogma was that bacteria could not survive in the human stomach. It was too acidic and thus sterile.

After much research, Warren and a colleague, Barry Marshall, discovered the bacterium H.pylori,  debunking decades of dogma. H.pylori was found to cause ulcers. In 2004, Warren and Marshall won the Nobel Prize.

What’s strange is this: Warren wasn’t the first pathologist to see H.pylori in the stomach. Before Warren, samples had to be taken from stomach cadavers where information was already lost.  In the 1970s, the invention of the flexible endoscope allowed doctors to extract live tissue from the stomach. Tens of thousands of stomach biopsies were being made yet no doctor or scientist identified H.pylori.  They had seen it, but it remained invisible. When everyone reviewed their previous biopsies, they clearly saw H.pylori right there staring them straight at the face. One scientist said, “Failing to discover H. pylori was my biggest mistake“.

In the book “How to Fly a Horse“:

“When Robin Warren accepted his Nobel Prize, he quoted Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. H.pylori hid in plain sight for more than century because of a problem called “inattentional blindness”. Douglas Addams defined this as “Something that we can’t see or don’t see or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. The brain just edits it out; it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. It relies on preople’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”

The scientists saw what they wanted to see – because of the “obvious facts”.


The obvious fact that is causing inattentional blindness is how you look at SM’s business. SM is in retail, property, and banking, right? That’s an obvious fact. In every investor relations material, SM sees its business this way. Everyone sees SM this way.

But consider this future possibility.  Let’s start with your BDO credit card. It knew you bought a pair of shoes on Zalora and will thus retarget you with a better offer on the SM Store e-commerce site. When you check-out, you can either have it delivered to your Net Plaza office (geo-tagged, of course – because SM owns Net Plaza – no need to fill out the delivery form), or pick it up at Aura. If you choose the latter, it gives you 50% off a cinema ticket, or a P500 grocery voucher. Oh, by the way, when you order your groceries from the SMCart app (modeled after Instacart, naturally), you get free same day delivery if you live in an SMDC condo. But you still live with your parents, so you search for available units at SMDC’s online marketplace, which also features a mortgage comparison tool powered by BDO. When you do buy your SM condo, it includes a tool to track your power and water consumption. All of this saving and spending can be tracked on your BDO online account, which by the way you can also access on your phone. The app is so smart that it can recommend which items you can save on – and lead you directly where in an SM store you can get the savings.

That’s when you realize that SM is neither in the retail, banking, or property business. It’s in the customer knowledge business.

SM is a big data company masquerading as a conglomerate. And if it can incorporate a software and digital layer on its physical infrastructure, it will be a race ahead of the pack.

The product isn’t a pair of shoes, or a shopping mall, or a credit card. It’s a stack of digital information that can connect separate businesses to generate an unprecedented amount of knowledge about its customers, and power a company that is more responsive to their needs and wants. And imagine if SM’s eco-system of suppliers can tap into this knowledge and customer access via open APIs and marketplaces.

Robin Warren knew that the dogma pre-dated the technology of his time (flexible endoscopes), and this created an opportunity to question the current state of affairs.

For SM, the dogma is the belief that it is merely in the retail business. Its flexible endoscope is the emerging boom in e-commerce, data science, and cloud computing, as well as our new understanding of network effects, winner-take-all dynamics, and platform businesses. This is the underlying philosophy that will guide SM’s digital future.


I of course realize that all of this are easier said than done and there will be a lot of work ahead for local retailers. The historical predisposition of Filipino companies is to aggressively protect its turf and resist big bets. When the company decided to completely overhaul SM Makati, cannibalize itself, and banish its retail operations to the upper floors in favor of Uniqlo, H&M, and Crate & Barrel, it showed that it can evolve with the times.


The stories on Semmelweis and Warren came from Kevin Ashton’s book, “How to Fly a Horse“. I enjoyed reading it.


Why is Cebu Pacific Such a Horrible Airline?


We’ve all heard our fair share of Cebu Pacific horror stories. I’ve experienced my own too, from a faulty website to delayed flights. But they weren’t anything that I haven’t encountered at Delta, PAL, or even Singapore Airlines.

That was until the Great Cebu Pacific Christmapocalypse of 2014. While I’m still compiling a lengthy account of that experience (complete with photos + videos of stranded children, crying women, and censorship attempts by security), I couldn’t help but take a deeper look into the company and uncover some interesting facts why it’s such a shitty airline.

I’m no expert in the airline business, but I’d like to believe I know a thing or two about how companies work. In this case, I’m looking at Cebu Pacific with the following context in mind:

  • The airline industry is a tough business. In the US, the average airfare each way is $178 and the airlines would only make 37 cents per passenger trip on average.
  • Cebu Pac is a growing business. 2014 revenues are up 25% year-to-date.
  • The industry is becoming more competitive, with a resurgent PAL, a dominant low-cost competitor in Air Asia, and the desire of foreign airlines to enter the Philippine market.
  • Filipinos are demanding better service, yet are also more docile consumers on average.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I only spent two hours going through publicly available information in its annual report, quarterly disclosures, and analyst presentations, and I already uncovered lots of reasons why it’s a horribly run airline. I just wrote this today, and this is by no means a definitive analysis.

Place Cebu Pacific under the close, investigative scrutiny of a Patricia Evangelista, Natashya Gutierrez, or Bianca Consunji, and I bet we’ll uncover way more.

Four things stick out:

1. The Board of Directors is stacked with family members and insiders.

No surprise here. This is the Philippines, after all.

For comparison, let’s look at Air Asia’s board of directors, followed by their ages:

  • Datuk Kamarudin bin Meranun (52), Non-Independent Executive Chairman
  • Tan Sri Dr. Tony Fernandes (50), Non-Independent Executive Director and Group Chief Executive Officer
  • Aireen Omar (40), Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer
  • Abdul Aziz bin Abu Bakar (61), Non-Independent Non-Executive Director
  • Fam Lee Ee (53), Independent Non-Executive Director
  • Robert A Milton (53), Independent Non-Executive Director
  • Amit Bhatia, Independent Non-Executive Director
  • Uthaya Kumar A/L K Vivekananda (60), Independent Non-Executive Director

Here’s Cebu Pacific’s Board of Directors:

  • Ricardo J. Romulo (80 yrs old), Chairman
  • John L. Gokongwei, Jr (87)., Director
  • James L. Go (74), Director
  • Lance Y. Gokongwei (47), Director
  • Robina Gokongwei-Pe (52), Director
  • Frederick D. Go (45), Director
  • Jose Buenaventura (79), Director
  • Antonio L. Go (73), Independent Director
  • Wee Khoon Oh (55), Independent Director

Why is this important? Because the board is the highest governing body of a corporation. If customer service is so bad, then either the Board a.) refuses to do something about it (prioritizing fleet expansion instead, for instance), or b.) is incapable of doing so.

Let’s look at the Board one by one.

Ricardo Romulo is the senior partner of law firm Romulo Mabanta. No airline experience.

Gokongwei patriarch John is unlikely to be closely involved in the airline’s operations given his age.

James Go is John’s brother. No airline experience.

John’s son Lance, is CEO of Cebu Pacific. No extensive airline experience before Cebu Pacific. More troubling, Lance also serves as CEO of Robinson’s Land. Oh wait, he is also CEO of Universal Robina.

I’m sure Lance is brilliant. But I am doubly sure airlines, real estate, and food & beverage are incredibly tough businesses on their own. How can he be CEO of all three? The inescapable conclusion is that Lance is Cebu Pacific CEO in name only.

Robina is Lance’s sister. No airline experience.

Frederick Go runs Robinson’s Land as COO. No airline experience. Which begs the question: if we measure Frederick’s and Lance’s performance, do they spend more time in the airline business or in the real estate business?

Jose Buenaventura is a lawyer (and a partner at Romulo Mabanta). No airline experience.

Antonio L. Go is a banker. No airline experience.

The only board director with significant airline experience is Wee Khoon Oh, who used to be with SIA Engineering Co. SIAEC also happens to be the aircraft maintenance contractor of Cebu Pacific. Even so, Wee Khoon’s experience is in aircraft engineering, not customer service or flight operations.

In short, this is a board stacked with lawyers, family members, and insiders. It’s a board designed to preserve control and mitigate risk, rather than to strive for operational excellence and competitiveness.

It’s also a board filled with old people. The average age of the Cebu Pacific Board is 65 (and that is helped by Lance and Frederick. 5 out of 9 Directors – a majority! – are above 73 years old).

The average age of the Air Asia board is 53.

There is a very real possibility that the Cebu Pacific Directors themselves are not aware of the on-the-ground reality because they are unlikely to browse through Facebook, Twitter,  or this blog.

I am sure they are outstanding professionals in their fields. But their skill set does not belong in today’s airline business.

I can end this blog post on this point. But let’s go on.

2. Senior management is no longer the right team for the job.

The role of the Board of Director’s is to be the overall governing body of a corporation by setting strategy, selecting senior management, and deciding on things like acquisitions, capital raising, and management remuneration. Operations is the responsibility of the senior management team, which reports to the board.

If the main issues are a.) delayed and cancelled flights; and b.) poor customer experience (in terms of ground staff operations, check-ins, gate crews, refunds and rebookings), then we should be looking for managers who are in charge of operations and customer service.

We’ve established Lance is CEO in name only. Who’s really in charge at Cebu Pacific?

That would be Garry Kingshott, Chief Executive Adviser. We all know the “Adviser” title is a smokescreen in Philippine business given that public utilities cannot have foreigner CEOs. But with Lance’s multiple roles, it’s reasonable to believe that Garry is calling the shots.

Judging by his LinkedIn profile, Garry is a sales & marketing guy. Cebu Pacific’s focus on growing ancillary revenue (revenue from baggage fees, rebooking fees, etc – which by the way is worth P6 billion) is likely his strategy, given his past experience at Jet Lit India.  He seems to be more preoccupied with international expansion rather than getting down and dirty with local flight operations.

Who runs ground operations? Let’s look at the Cebu Pacific Annual Report.

Capt. Jim Sydiongco? Nah, he’s responsible for flight operations, pilot training, and safety. With a growing fleet and a pilot shortage, his main focus (rightly so) is for the planes to stay in the air. (Remember the Davao crash landing last year?). Rosita Menchaca? Nope. She runs in-flight services.

The most likely candidate is Michael Shau, Vice President of Ground Operations. But this year, he was moved to run the TigerAir division. And even if he is in charge of customer experience, Michael was also running cargo & fuel, catering, facilities, and procurement! He looks stretched.

In fact, looking at Cebu Pacific’s organizational chart, it’s impossible to see who’s in charge of ground operations and customer experience. There’s Benito Cosep, who runs integrated operations control (including flight dispatch and fleet control), and Rosario Santos who runs quality assurance, but they seem too far down the organizational chart to have significant power to influence outcomes.

Contrast this to Air Asia’s senior management featured in their annual report. They have a tough looking guy named Patrick Fennel heading the operations control centre. There’s a head of guest services – Francis Loh, who’s the single accountable person for customer service. Then there’s Terri Chin, group head of quality and assurance. All three seem like they have considerable power.

In Air Asia, there is one person in charge of finance in senior management: Andrew Littledale, the CFO.

In Cebu Pacific’s senior management, there are three: Jaime Cabangis (CFO), Jeanette Yu (VP Treasury), and Robin Cui (Comptroller).

Strategic priorities are allocated with resources, people, and power. Guess where Cebu Pacific’s priorities lie?

The lack of accountability culture at Cebu Pacific is in full force at the front lines. Ground staff were completely afraid to offer explanations for fear that might say the wrong thing.

“CEB personnel did not explain the long lines, saying they were not authorized by their management to give statements to the press,” says an Inquirer report. I saw this myself. When I asked one supervisor at  counter C27 to explain to the 150+ cancelled passengers what our next steps are, he resisted, saying that it wasn’t his job to process cancellations. After 2 minutes arguing, he agreed to send one of his lackeys to speak on his behalf.

3. Investments in human capital have severely lagged passenger growth.

A frequent complaint heard last December 24 and 25 was that Cebu Pacific was severely undermanned. There were not enough people at the check-in counter. My boarding gate didn’t have an agent for two whole hours. And when I finally was given a hotel room, the guy who coordinated the transfer and hotel booking told me there were only three of them that night who handled thousands of irate rebooked customers.

Contrary to what they want you to believe in the press, this wasn’t just a one-time incident over a busy holiday. It’s a structural problem.

The proof, again, is in the annual report. But you need to dig deep into the notes section.

Cebu Pacific’s Revenue Passenger Kilometer (RPK) grew 12.1% in 2013. RPK is the number of paying passengers on an airline multiplied by the distance traveled. If an airline were a factory, RPK is the measure of an airline’s production output.

Yet, despite the growth, note 21 in the annual report indicates that staff cost only grew 2% in 2013 (P339.7 million in 2013 vs P332.9 million in 2012). Output grew 6x faster than the growth in staffing. No wonder the ground crew felt swamped.

Now, under note 20, the accounts “Flying Operations” and “Aircraft and Traffic Servicing” both contain sub-accounts called “Others”. In the note, “Others” is said to pertain to “staff expenses incurred by the Group such as basic pay, employee training cost, and allowance“. It doesn’t exactly say if staffing cost is the ONLY item under that account. There could be others.

But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that that it’s all staffing costs. Note 20 + note 21 then implies that total people costs amounted to P921.9 million.  This is equivalent to 2.2% of Cebu Pacific’s 2013 revenues of P 41 billion.

But if you look at Air Asia, which did RM 5.11 billion in revenue in 2013, staff costs were RM 610.9 million, or 12% of revenues! Now, even the higher wage levels in Malaysia vs the Philippines wouldn’t be able to entirely account why Air Asia spends 6x more on people than Cebu Pacific.

The whole “we didn’t anticipate the Christmas surge” reason doesn’t fly. This is an airline that obviously tracks RPK, and thus would have month-on-month information on passenger volume.

4. Finally, there are the rumors that Cebu Pacific is being window-dressed for a sale. Nope, not the “piso-fare” kind of sale, but a divestiture of the company to a strategic buyer. After all, the Gokongweis might be starting to realize that it is hard pressed to compete in an open skies environment across Southeast Asia, and would thus be willing to consolidate rather than compete. The group showed its willingness to do something similar in the Sun Cellular sale to PLDT.

Basically, a push for a sale encourages Cebu Pacific to prop up its bottom-line to maximize its market capitalization (and a larger return to the group if a sale occurs). And because profits tanked in 2013 (net income declined 86% from P3.6 billion in 2012 to P512 million in 2013), there is a strong reason for the company to scrimp on expenses in 2014.

In summary, it’s really hard to say what’s going on. All of the above is based on publicly available data. If you know something, get in touch.

My theory: Cebu Pacific is run by a Board that is designed to retain control of the Company rather than to embrace outsiders with the expertise and experience to run a growing low cost airline in a challenging competitive environment. This may have been an adequate Board 10 years ago, but not today. Its senior management is poorly structured, and there is no accountability for key passenger requirements, namely for excellent customer service. It’s underinvesting in human capital. While it’s also pursuing international expansion, management is also considering a sale of the company, and is thus incentivized to prop up the bottom line at the expense of making the investments that lead to operational excellence.

Stay tuned for my next post on how Cebu Pacific stole Christmas Eve.


My 1st Lesson in Valuation: How I Exchanged 5 Pesos for a 20 Peso Bill.

When I was five, my mom would give me spare change every now and then. I guess she wanted me to learn about numbers and money. It started with 50 centavo coins. Then 1 peso coins. Then 2 peso coins.

One day, she gave me a 5 peso bill. Remember those? They were green and had Emilio Aguinaldo on them.

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I was a proud kindergarten student. I actually own 5 pesos! I was ecstatic.

Until my seat mate in school showed me her 20 peso bill.

banknote 20 philippine peso obverse

WTF. Though I was five, I understood the relative value of her piece of paper compared to mine.

Yet, she gave my 5 peso bill a second look.

My 5 peso bill was crisp. It still had that new glow. It was smooth, tucked neatly in my kiddie wallet. In contrast, her 20 peso bill was crumpled. It looked like a few hundred hands had passed through it.

My piece of paper was green. As we were talking, it became clear that she adored green more than orange. She didn’t want the five pesos. She wanted the green, shining, shimmering, splendid piece of paper that was labelled five pesos and had Emilio Aguinaldo’s face on it.

So I did what any sensible five year old would when faced with that opportunity.

Gusto, palitan nalang tayo?” (Would you like to exchange?)

She agreed.

So she got her clean, crisp, green five peso bill. I got my fifteen pesos profit. In five minutes. That translated to an annual return of 31,536,000 %.

Will put on ridiculous fashion for cash.

Me at 5. Will put on ridiculous fashion for cash.

That was probably the best deal I’ll ever do in my lifetime.

That was also my first lesson in dealmaking: that value, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. She believed that the five peso bill was more valuable to her.

(Maybe she had other twenty peso bills and that this twenty pesos was worth less than a new green one to add to her collection. Who knows.).


Today, startups and investors make a similar trade. An investor provides cash in exchange for a percentage of a company that both believe will be worth way more in the future.

Even though an investor is giving you the 20 peso bill in exchange for shares that may not be worth much today (but may be worth A LOT in the future), he must also see the green, shining, shimmering, splendid piece of paper with Emilio Aguinaldo’s face.

Because the odds of the startup succeeding (on a *holy shit* scale) are so mathematically improbable that he must see beyond the numbers and make a decision not based on calculation, but on belief.

That belief is based on you: the entrepreneur. You’re the shiny five peso bill. And in the earliest stages of a startup, that belief comes from a strong sense of self worth.

Last year, I met a team of five talented software engineers from a prominent university. They were working on a startup.  They seemed pretty solid, articulate and thoughtful. One had a master’s degree. All had work experience. It was one of the rare concentrations of engineering talent in the local startup scene; I’d hire them if had a chance.

When asked how much they valued themselves, they said something around the range of a million pesos.

We don’t feel we have what it takes to ask for a higher amount. People might think we’re arrogant.

It’s that experience and talking to countless other startup founders that made me realize that the biggest barrier facing Filipino entrepreneurs is self-worth.

And some unscrupulous investors know this. That’s why we hear stories of so-called “angels” asking for 50-70% of a venture at the seed stage.

So, on self-worth: yes, your investor is giving you cash. But you, the entrepreneur, are  also offering something that is arguably of greater value: the time, energy, blood, sweat, tears and anguish founders face.

In the Philippines, there seems to be a stigma on putting a monetary value on oneself. Blame it perhaps on the communitarian culture. Or that story of Jesus kicking out entrepreneurs from a temple. I don’t know. That’s a topic for a separate post.

It’s ironic that the very people who can propel this country forward (founders)  undervalue themselves; yet those who hold it back overvalue themselves (politicians). I digress.


My new prized possession, the 20 peso bill, was kept in a small plastic box inside a drawer in my room. A few weeks later, my mom found it. She was of course surprised.

She’d never given me twenty pesos. She tought I stole it. I explained the “deal”, but it was so hard for her to believe. I remember crying. And so I moved on to selling “more socially acceptable” merchandise. Like ice candy. Or comic books.


If you’d like to learn more about valuation, my education pet project Action Stack is hosting a workshop on How to Value Your Startup on Monday, November 17, 1pm at A_Space Makati.

AVA, Entrepreneurship, Philippines, Startups

How Filipino Women Shop Online: An Inside Look into Consumer Adoption

The e-commerce market in the Philippines is worth $1.1 billion. Yet, nobody really knows how Filipinos shop online. Sure, there are a number of surveys on online habits, but these tend to be flawed because they are based on claimed usage vs actual behavior.

Any serious e-commerce entrepreneur needs to know this stuff.  In my previous life at Procter & Gamble, where I worked on Safeguard, Olay & Whisper (yes, feminine care products. That’s a different story for a different post), this level of in-depth consumer knowledge was par for the course.

We had tons of data sources. AC Nielsen retail panels. TNS household panels. Trade data. Proprietary surveys. Internal databases of concept test results vs in-market results. Media buying data. Market mix models that use multivariate regression. Big corporate machinery stuff.

But when I started AVA, an online retail platform for fashion & design brands, our team didn’t have this luxury.

Now, you do.

For the past few years, we’ve gathered tons of data on the online habits of Filipino consumers. This is based on actual buying behavior. It can’t get any more empirical than this.

So whether you’re a young entrepreneur creating an online brand, or an established retailer getting into e-commerce for the first time, you won’t have to start blind like we did.

Tweetie de Leon and AVA partnered to launch a Kickstarter campaign to save the dying inabel fabric.

Tweetie de Leon and AVA partnered to launch a Kickstarter campaign to save the dying inabel fabric.

Our Methodology

This post primarily uses two sources. First, we analyzed our actual transaction data. Second, we conduct user surveys from time to time.

There are instances where we use multiple sources, of course. For instance, we combined our transaction data with our digital advertising spend to come up with our customer acquisition costs.

No data set will be completely representative, of course. So before you use our data to draw a few conclusions, a few caveats are in order:

  • Positioning. AVA is positioned as a premium brand. Not necessarily luxury, but not mass market either.For instance, AVA will never carry brands like Bench or Penshoppe. Some people in the industry call this segment ‘masstige’ or ‘aspirational’. Our price points reflect this positioning, and therefore this is not representative of all Filipino consumers.
  • Merchandising. We focus on brands that target women. In fact, 95% of our customers are female. Therefore we can’t make the same conclusions for male shoppers.
  • Geography. We have admittedly focused our marketing efforts on Metro Manila. Therefore these observations won’t necessarily hold true for the entire Philippines.

So what are the top things we’ve learned?

40% of purchases happen outside the mall hours of 10am to 9pm. 

I like starting with this data point because it rebuts the general perception that Filipinos love their malls. This is one of those things that people say again and again that everyone has accepted it as conventional truth. Yet, I’ve never seen a cohesive body of data to support it. That close to half of purchases happen outside mall hours means that consumers see the value of shopping online.


Paypal and credit cards account for almost 80% of orders. 14% of orders are COD. This is of course a result of our target market. I’ve heard that in some sites, COD is up to 70% of orders. Credit cards are preferable in the long run because despite the bank charge, a site no longer has to worry about the logistical challenges of handling, collecting and reconciling cash orders.


Almost 80% of orders come from in Metro Manila. That’s not the interesting point for obvious reasons. What’s interesting is the long tail: though Cebu and Davao account for 4% of orders, there are other provinces that each have a share, such as Batangas, Cavite, Rizal, and Iloilo. This is happening even though we haven’t deliberately advertised to the provinces.


The implication here is that brands might consider targeted campaigns to tap the long tail of consumers in secondary cities.

Bags (16% of orders), accessories (15%) and apparel (9%) are the top selling categories, accounting for 40% of orders. Eco-friendly is an internal, catchall term we use for products that have a sustainability or health angle, and consist mostly of accessories as well (like environmentally friendly yoga mats and home accessories).


On average, customers buy 1.96 items per order. To measure this, we simply divided the total # of individual items sold by the total # of customers for that month. Here, we took the past 6 months to have a broad view of buying behavior.


This is a pretty interesting point because it means that customers aren’t buying just one-off items. Online shopping is starting to mirror offline shopping habits in the sense that people are shopping multiple items in one basket. And this is just a discretionary product – fashion. I can imagine this will be higher for sites that sell groceries.

Customers spend on average P3,900 per order. As an average, this masks the range of purchases. For instance, the highest single order on the site was worth P129,000.00 (a luxury bag) and the highest spending customer has spent P306,000.00 over a one year period.


Yup, you saw that right. P300k on a website. From one customer. Awesomeness.

The averages also mask the importance of segments. For instance, the top quartile of our customers in terms of transaction value spend  P7,300 per order (almost 2x the average) and account for 70% of sales value.

We also did a survey of customers (n=321 respondents).

With that, we found out that the among the most important shopping habits are: looking online to find brands consumers can’t find in the malls and to search for the best prices.


Among the other stuff people buy online include discount vouchers (60% bought in the past 6 months), airline tickets (58%), bags and accessories (53%), clothes (48%), and shoes (42%).


We also asked people who haven’t purchased why they haven’t. The top two barriers were price (60% of non-buyers. Probably not our market because we are not a mass market site), and sizing (40%).


The fascinating point here is that only 1 out of 4 actually want to see and feel the items before they buy it. When most people express their skepticism for online shopping, this is one of the biggest concerns. But in reality, the vast majority don’t have this problem. And the 25% who want to see and feel are probably not our target market anyway. The biggest challenge of marketers is to find which customers to covet and which ones to ignore.

Ok, enough with surveys. Ok let’s go back to actual buying behavior.

Weekends don’t really count. The number of orders are above average during Thursdays and Fridays and below average during Saturdays and Sundays. This echoes what others have noticed about web traffic going down on weekends. Which kinda makes sense: people go out to the malls, meet friends, exercise, etc. In our case, the average age of the AVA shopper is 34, so she is likely a young mom and would thus have a busy weekend with the family.


This chart is expressed as an index. How it works: we took the % of actual daily orders that occur on Mondays, Tuesdays, and so on, and divided this by the expected daily orders (in this case, 1/7 or 14%), and rebased that to 100. Therefore an index of 140 means that the actual orders on that day is 40% higher than the expected average.

The implication for e-commerce sites here is that it is probably not a good idea to spend on advertising during weekends when consumer predisposition to shop is low.

The interesting part which requires further investigation is why orders over-index on Thursdays and Fridays. One explanation is that online shopping fulfills a different need – it could be more of a stress reliever after a busy week.

Paydays do not significantly impact sales. One common belief is that consumers tend to shop more during paydays because they feel like they have a little bit more in their wallets.

To test whether this applies to online retail as well, we took 5 distinct payday periods from May to July. Each payday period is three days long because we assume that any ‘payday effect’ could be felt for three days. Then, we hypothesized that any payday effect would result in a 200 over-index vs the daily average # of orders (or twice vs the average).


We found no such over-index. In fact, with the exception of June 15-17, our data set showed no significant surge in payday shopping to warrant a conclusion that paydays affect sales.

There could be several reasons for this. One, people could be spending their money first on restaurants or bars with their friends/family. Or they could be shopping offline first before going online.

This of course has real business implications. Some sites run payday promotions when in fact, it could be an unnecessary cost (in terms of margin erosion) as consumers are not predisposed to spend significantly more during paydays.

The average cost to acquire each customer is around P550. This is a pretty straightforward calculation: divide total marketing spend by the number of NEW customers per month (not total customers as this will skew CAC and make it look artificially lower). I believe we can get this lower (to the P200-P300 levels), but because we target a very specific, premium audience, the costs would be higher. Theoretically, that should be okay as long as we attract customers whose gross profitability exceeds P550.


Based on our average transaction size (close to P4k) and margins, the average payback is 0.58x. That means each customer we’ve acquired online is already profitable on the 1st purchase. Anything after that is gravy. Which means this model is dependent on the # of repeat buyers.

This has a huge implication for brands. For the first time ever, Filipino fashion brands can target a well-defined segment online (via social or search ads), experiment with the right merchandising mix, and profitably acquire online shoppers that can make e-commerce a sustainable channel that is ROI-positive (vs print ads which you can’t track). No need to spend excessively on branches in the malls to compete with H&M; just be fast and smart in reaching customers online. This is one reason why Globe COO Peter Bithos announced that he will start exiting print and outdoor advertising and focus on digital ads.

Anyway, back to the data. So what’s repeat like?

60% are repeat buyers. We think one reason for this is our focused approach on a particular segment. Another is our rewards program. 85% of our transactions result in consumers getting rewards points.


What about loyalty over time? For this analysis, we worked with Ben Rollert, former data scientist at Kickstart Ventures to identify the most profitable channels and devices.

What we did here is to map out the profitability of consumers who were acquired via our email newsletter vs Facebook vs Google, with their device usage (desktops vs tablets vs mobiles). What we found is that Google search on tablets produced the most profitable customers.


The implication here is that brands may opt to be more aggressive with their online advertising spend depending on how these numbers look like for their specific online stores. Recall that our customer acquisition cost is P550. And if Google search ads deliver us customers who are worth P1400 in gross profit, that means we can opt to spend (at least in the 1st 15 weeks) an additional P850 in that channel (P1400 minus P550) and still have profitable customers in a year’s time. Again, these numbers will look very different for your brand.

So there you have it! I hope the data above can help you formulate your own e-commerce strategy. This was just a super short overview fit for public consumption. If you’d like more data and help on building your online retail strategy and crafting digital marketing campaigns, feel free to drop me a note.


The State of the Nation’s Entrepreneurs

noynoy-aquino (2)

“We’re gonna kill taxis,”  says Geoffrey, my Uber driver for the night. “This service is great. This isn’t even my car. It’s my neighbor’s. Today, I did twenty trips. Uber is a huge company. I read it’s worth billions already. It’s bigger than PLDT,” he added.


When Dado Banatao talks about Filipino startups, you can see the passion in his eyes. Why else would a self-made Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor spend a weekend coaching young entrepreneurs when he can just sit back and retire? “I’d like to see more Filipino startups succeed. Hopefully in my lifetime.

You can sense the frustration in his voice too – the sense that despite how much energy he devotes to the cause, the government is not giving its fair share of the deal. You can’t have a relationship when only one person is in love.


“We’ll put the Philippines on the startup map. We’re a tiny dot. But it’ll happen in time,”  Earl Valencia said enthusiastically over coffee more than two years ago. I remembered that conversation because this week, that dream proved prescient. Earl, in his role as Ideaspace president, along with various participating organizations, led the way to host Geeks on a Plane – a tour for founders and investors to visit emerging technology hubs – for the first time in Manila.

What do Uber, Dado, and Geeks on a Plane have to do with the state of entrepreneurship in the country? A few things, actually. And we’ll get to that in a bit.



Job Growth without Entrepreneurs?

In the meantime, ponder this: how many times has President Aquino mentioned the word “entrepreneurship” in his State of the Nation speeches?


SONA Chart


  • While the word “jobs” has been mentioned an average of 11.5 times in the last four SONAs, there is ZERO mention of “entrepreneurs” or “entrepreneurship”.
  • There is no mention of “science” either.
  • “Technology” has only been mentioned twice in the last SONA, and three times in 2012.
  • Granted that the SONA is in Filipino, and there is no direct translation for ‘entrepreneurship’, but that’s a flimsy defense. Besides, the President routinely uses Taglish in his speeches.

The absence of a spotlight on science, technology, and entrepreneurs fails reason. Sure, there are other big problems in infrastructure, defense, corruption, education, and healthcare. But we can’t have a serious discussion on jobs and inclusive growth if we’re not talking about founders, startups, and the overall entrepreneurial eco-system. And though my world is technology startups, this post is meant to cover entrepreneurs in all industries.

A read through of previous SONAs shows a plethora of achievements led by this administration. Congratulations. But touting our investment-grade credit rating is not entrepreneurship. Encouraging private-public partnerships is not entrepreneurship. Boasting that our stock exchange has hit record highs is not entrepreneurship. Pleasing big business is not entrepreneurship. And that’s tragic, because 97% of the companies in this country are micro, small, and medium enterprises. And they likely generate the lion share’s of job creation.

Not convinced that this administration doesn’t have a clue? Here’s another question.

Who is the highest ranking government official to directly engage local startup founders? And I’m not talking about a one-way speech in a huge auditorium. I’m talking about a real, two-way conversation in a safe environment where questions are tough and the answers are equally honest and candid. Sincere engagement.

The answer is United States Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, who recently moderated a panel discussion among local tech and social entrepreneurs in Kickstart Ventures’ Area 55. Her goal: learn about the problems the next generation of entrepreneurs (not the top 40 already established families) and see if there are long term opportunities to collaborate with US counterparts.

Penny Pritzer, Kickstart Ventures, Oliver Segovia, Mark Ruiz

US Commerce Secretary wanted to learn about entrepreneurship in the Philippines. Thanks to Mark Ruiz for the photo.

As far as I know, no cabinet secretary of the Philippine government has engaged Filipino entrepreneurs in a frank and intimate setting like this (correct me if I’m wrong!). None have come in with the simple goals of just listening and genuinely demonstrating that this whole high-growth-tech-startups-thing is new to them and that they don’t know all the answers, but are sincerely willing to learn.

There are tons of other examples. Makati, with all its potential to be an innovation hub, still has to develop its own New York-style digital strategy, despite being the richest city in the Philippines’ with Php 12 billion in annual revenues.


That, in a nutshell, is the state of affairs that our entrepreneurs have to deal with. If  founders could say one thing to the government, it would probably be this:

You don’t have a fucking idea what you’re doing.” 

And yes, we can say that. Because we entrepreneurs don’t have a fucking idea what we’re doing either.

We weren’t born in a culture that celebrates risk-taking, ambition and self-reliance.  We didn’t study in schools where solving real world problems is more valuable than a well-written research paper. And with the world changing as fast as it is, we don’t know where the party will be in 10 years, let alone 5.

But you know what? That’s completely okay. We like it that way. We’re humbled by the uncertainty and ambiguity of the modern world.  We like it that we don’t know everything. Because the insatiable desire to work on tough problems, the fear of the unknown, and the persistent optimism to dream a better future are what keeps us going and prevents us from turning into rent-seeking little shits. 

In a way, we don’t have a choice. Because for the vast majority of market vendors, fishball hawkers, carinderia owners, and sari-sari store proprietors, entrepreneurship is a matter of survival, not making the coolest app. You can squabble all you want on the constitutionality of the DAP or file impeachment complaints against each other. Tomorrow, we’ll still have customers to serve, employees to support, and greedy municipal officials to fend off.

And that’s the point: the nation’s entrepreneurs are increasingly ambivalent to the role of the state. We are getting things done, with or without its help. Because in this part of the world, we see the state as a hindrance, not as an enabler. I hope it were otherwise.


That’s where Uber – and its equally good cousin Grabtaxi – comes in. Real people on the ground like Geoffrey are starting to see the value of transportation apps like these. You don’t have to be a Bay Area-born techie to recognize its potential to improve the lives of both drivers and riders. It took foreign companies to create a bright spot in local transportation.

Dado – through a partnership of PhilDev Foundation and USAid – is spearheading entrepreneurship education in the country because our public educational system is simply too slow to react and is mired with overpriced classrooms and error-riden history books.

Geeks on a Beach gave us a platform to sell the country – not the GDP / investment grade story – but the real life stories of people on the ground who are tackling big problems with real products. In time, we hope some Geeks will invest. Even better, we hope some of them can found companies that tackle local problems.

The week of July 21st is a testament to entrepreneurs getting things done even without the strong support of the government. All throughout the city, this tiny, fledging startup eco-system was flexing its toddler muscles. Founders, investors, interested-but-not-sure entrepreneurs were gathering in a multitude of events – meeting, chatting, challenging each other, exchanging ideas.

Here’s a quick recap of what went down last week:

  • Geeks on a Planewith an Ideaspace-hosted talk on startup eco-systems and investor speed dating as the main draw.
  • Move-the-Fridge, hosted by Future Now and Kickstart, was a more informal mixer
  • Startup Grind, which featured Dave and Khailee from 500Startups.
  • AngelHack, which had a ton of engineering-focused kids. A truly energizing group to meet.
  • The ASES conference in Ateneo. Initiated completely by students, and with a special focus on social enterprise.
  • PhilDev’s IDEA Workshop in AIM. Very well attended and featured hands-on workshops.
  •  The National Science & Technology Week in SMX. (A rare bright spot! Organized by the DOST).
  • Coming up this week – Startup Weekend Davao.
  • And in August – make sure to stop by Geeks on a Beach, where I’ll also be speaking about local startups.

Eric Su showing some action to Dave McClure of 500Startups. Thanks to Kickstart’s Pia Bernal for the photo

photo 2

AngelHack. Spot the angel in the crowd. PS anyone knows her name?


Geeks on a Plane Tech Summit in AIM. Thanks to @mathony for the photo.

Not everyone in government is clueless, of course. There are bright spots such as Senator Bam Aquino’s efforts to promote small businesses and youth entrepreneurship. So far, the progress we’ve seen is the law establishing ‘Go Negosyo’ business centers all over the country. We have to yet to see if Sen. Aquino can push for more controversial reforms, such as a Singapore-style co-investment scheme for high growth technology startups, pushing our science & technology spending to more than 0.1% of GDP, and a Chile-style Startup Visa.

So what can you, our beloved government, do now? With only two years left until the next election, we have realistic expectations.

Our only request is simple: stay out of the way. No doctor’s-style shaming from the BIR. No additional taxes imposed on small business. No other burdensome regulatory process to add. Just don’t make things worse.

That, ultimately, is the state of the nation’s entrepreneurs.

We are here.

We are many.

We are not going away.

You make our lives difficult. But that won’t stop us.

You’re all thinking of elections 2016.

We’re thinking of the world in 2046.

We’re willing to talk. And open to listening. We have tons of ideas to share. Once you do get your act straight and recognize our role in inclusive growth, we hope you come to the table (or bar if it’s #raidthefridge) with an open mind and a sincere desire to understand this brave new world.

And to those with a desire to become entrepreneurs, you’re not alone. We’re here to help. Attend an event. Meet people. Work on a prototype on the side. Test it. Get meaningful feedback. You don’t have to leave your jobs (at least not yet!), but grow mastery in your chosen field. And when the time is right, jump in. And then pay it forward to younger entrepreneurs.

Maraming salamat po.


Can Kickstarter Do What the Philippine Government Could Not?

This is the third of a three-part series on how to grow our design exports. Part 1 talked about the inadequacies of the prevalent strategies to grow our $1.5 billion in creative exports. Part 2 about how technology can play a role in the competitiveness of our local fashion industry, which will be overwhelmed by intense competition from foreign brands. This part talks about a simple experiment we’re doing at AVA to help break into the US market. A similar version of this post appeared on the Pollenizer blog

“They Just Don’t Get It”

The Aquino administration wants to grow our manufacturing sector. After all, no emerging market made the leap from third world to first without having a solid export-oriented manufacturing base. Unsurprisingly, our exports are paltry compared to our Southeast Asia neighbors.

But our creative exports – products in the fashion, jewelry, home accessories, and furniture categories – are growing double digit each year, after a slump during the global financial crisis. This is driven by a renewed interest from foreign buyers in unique merchandise from this part of the world – a far cry from the cheap knockoffs you see in China.

The problem: our export promotion strategy is still heavily reliant on the trade show model to market our creative exports. For décades, Philippine design products have relied on trade shows like Manila FAME to attract international buyers. For manufacturers lucky enough who have built a following among international buyers over the decades, getting traction is expected. But unfortunately for most mid-sized companies, local trade show traffic still pales in comparison to those in Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris and Last Vegas. Can you see a critical mass of foreign buyers when you go to FAME? The trade show is a 20th century solution in a 21st century world.

Several months back, we offered the organizers of Manila FAME a free workshop on how manufacturers can leverage e-commerce to grow their business. We were also gonna give a free guidebook on the basic platforms (like Etsy and Shopify) to equip them with the right tools. At no cost at all to the government. A junior executive said she’d get back to us. We never heard from her again.

I guess technology isn’t on the priority list of our export-promotion agencies. It’s hard when the very people who claim to want to help local exports “just don’t get it”. I don’t mean to put anyone down here. But that’s the truth. And I suspect it’s an assessment shared by many of our local exporters. If any DTI official gets to read this, please do know that our doors are always open and we will be more than happy to contribute to the local industry.

Doing it Ourselves

So what to do? We decided to reach potential customers in the US via a direct-to-consumer platform that leverages crowd funding, e-commerce and a lean supply chain. Enter Kickstarter.


Kickstarter allows people all over the world to contribute to creative projects. To be eligible to claim the fund, a project must meet its stated funding goal.

In exchange, people who pledge get rewards – often in the form of products that they’ve supported. The method is commonly known as “crowdfunding”, which essentially works by pooling small contributions of thousands of people within an online platform. Kickstarter is the world’s biggest crowdfunding platform, having funded more than $1 billion to date.

The Opportunity

The fashion e-commerce in the United States will be a $88 billion market by 2016. Countries in Southeast Asia stand to benefit a lot. The Philippines alone exports over $1.5 billion of apparel, accessories, and furniture to the U.S. Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia export even more. And these exports create local jobs, that in turn, increase local demand for goods and services. Yet, these export industries have remained relatively offline.

Of course, our resources were constrained: we had a small team and we still had the local business to operate. What we have, though, is merchandise. These weren’t just your typical fast-fashion products found in a Zara or H&M. These were unique, handcrafted, artisan-inspired products found nowhere else in the world. These were products with stories. And most of all, they weren’t on Amazon.

So what’s a good “minimum viable product” for an international launch? Whatever we chose, it had to follow 3 criteria: it had to be cheap, gave us distribution, and got us maximum learning for minimal effort.

We had a variety of options, from Etsy and Ebay to Fab and Shopify. We decided to go with launching a campaign on Kickstarter.

Next, we’ve always wanted to work with traditional textiles that not only had a unique product story, but more importantly provided a steady income to the many rural communities in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the local market doesn’t value these textiles, with most consigned to museums or left as ornamental displays in gift shops. Filipino heritage products wasn’t “cool” to the emerging middle class in the same way Prada was cool.

Nonetheless, we made a bet that this would be a story that resonated to the maker movement on Kickstarter. So we set out to work with Al Valenciano, who runs a community of artisan weavers in Ilocos, in the Northern Philippines, and celebrity designer Tweetie de Leon-Gonzalez, whom we’ve had the pleasure of working with last year. We chose the traditional textile called inabel, known for its color, vibrance and versatility. Inabel has been around for centuries.

The Collection: Tradition Meets Modernity

Inabel has a magical quality. In sharp contrast to factory-produced goods, the inabel fabric is handwoven on ancient looms by Filipino women. It takes 2 weeks just to set up a pattern on a loom and a loom can produce only about 2 meters of fabric a day. The process is intricate and time-consuming, the result, breathtakingly beautiful.

Inabel is intimately connected to the people who create them. The tradition of weaving is passed down from one generation to another along with the stories that emerge from the fabric’s patterns. The fabric itself is an expression of the culture, identity and history of the ancient Filipinos, often depicting the harvest cycle and symbols of prosperity. The fabric is present in all the key moments of a person’s life, often presented as a gift during birth, a marriage, and death.

Today, there are less than 10 inabel master weavers alive. Within a generation, the inabel tradition may vanish – unless we do something about it. To keep the craft alive, we needed a more sustainable path-to-market for this amazing fabric. 

Philippine design has a compelling story. How do we share it?

Philippine design has a compelling story. How do we share it?

Tweetie designed a wonderful collection of modern products such as iPad cases, weekender bags and accessory kits fashioned out of inabel. We traveled to Ilocos, shot a video, and told our story. As far as we know, it’s the first time a traditional Filipino textile has been featured on Kickstarter.

  • Artisan design. Tweetie loves to describe these products as “anti-fast fashion”. We wanted to create modern products that are infused with our identity as a people. We chose travel as a theme because the modernity of travel, combined with the heritage of inabel make for a fascinating contrast.
  • Form and function. We’ve given tremendous thought to the details, from selecting the right cotton blends to choosing the inabel pattern to use. We’ve optimized for multiple uses. For instance, the dopp kit can also double as a shoe bag, while the iPad case has a retractable leather strap to instantly turn it into a clutch bag.
  • Timeless craftsmanship. It takes 2 weeks just to set up a pattern on a loom and a loom can produce only about 2 meters of fabric a day. The process is intricate and time-consuming, the result, breathtakingly beautiful.
  • No excessive retail markups. Because we’re bypassing layers of middlemen and going direct-to-consumer via e-commerce, you can get these products at a price way below the usual retail price in a New York department store.

The result: products that fit the present, while reminding us of the past.

This is as live a customer development story as it can get. AVA’s Kickstarter campaign has raised close to 90% of our funding goal with over 10 days to go. With your help, we can make it.

If you have a minute or two, we welcome you to be part of the campaign to bring Filipino products to a global stage. When you pledge, you’re sure to get an inabel product of your choice (my personal favorite is the iPad case). And as always, please share with friends abroad to help keep the tradition of inabel alive for generations to come.


The End of Philippine Fashion. And What We Can Do To Save It.

This is the 2nd part of a 3-part series on our creative industries. Part 1 talked about the inadequacies of the prevalent strategies to grow our $1.5 billion in creative exports. This part talks about how technology can play a role in the competitiveness of our local designers, brands and retailers. It’s related to a broader conversation on the Philippine innovation economy.

"It was H&M, mum." Photo credits: independent.co.uk

“It was H&M, mum.” Photo credits: independent.co.uk

Local brands whisper “H&M is coming” in the same way as the Starks of Winterfell do: they know it will be unstoppable, it will last long, and many will perish.

And then, there’s the Japanese. We all know about Fast Retailing’s very public intention to create the biggest fashion company on the planet by 2020. Japan is our biggest trading partner, so you can count on the Philippines to be a major part of this strategy.

Finally, there’s the broader conversation on ASEAN 2015. The big step in creating a single market in Southeast Asia will inevitably lead to several new brands from around the region entering the local market. And our local champions are seriously outgunned. I couldn’t find data for fashion, but take banking: BDO is the biggest local bank, but is only #19 in Southeast Asia.

Does the increased competition mean the end of Philippine fashion? What will happen to designers, manufacturers, and retailers when the market is flooded with cheap products and more recognized brands? We’re seeing it happen in real time in Brazil. The competition won’t just come from offline players. Even China’s Alibaba is investing in department stores.

The three segments of the market will be affected in different ways:

Independent designers & small businesses will be hit the worst. Brands who rely on bazaars and consigning in department stores will find it harder to compete. The best designers will have a stable clientele for couture, but will find it difficult to scale with ready-to-wear. The rest will be more inclined to work with the bigger houses than start their own label. Contract manufacturers who rely on wholesale orders will see customers move to Vietnam and Indonesia, who are both employing even more aggressive textile export strategies. Cambodia is fast catching up. Just look at the ever dwindling traffic of foreign buyers in Manila FAME each year and the number of closures in the 2nd floor of Greenbelt 5.

The Sub-Billion Players (those with more P100 million in sales, but less than P1 billion) will find it harder to grow. Brands like Folded & Hung and Gingersnaps will slug it out over retail space. Mall operators will prefer leasing to anchor brands, or allocate the prime space to their own franchises (like SM’s Forever 21 and Uniqlo). Because the sub-billion brands don’t have the scale of the bigger players, they will have a harder time competing on price. They will source cheaper merchandise in China, further deteriorating product quality, which will turn off even more consumers. It’ll be a vicious spiral. There will be some consolidation in this space.

The Billion Peso Club (P1 billion+ in sales) will handle the onslaught, but they know the era of easy growth (by simply opening new stores and slapping celebrities on billboards) is over. For them, the smart bet is to pursue an international presence as fast as possible by bringing their brands abroad or by positioning themselves as local partners for foreign brands. Golden ABC (the parent company of Penshoppe) is implementing an Inditex-like strategy: open overseas stores and build a portfolio of brands. Bench is bringing in foreign brands (Aldo, Pedro, etc) while extending its iconic brand to new categories (skin care, salons, etc). This strategy, of course, makes sense given the small size of the local market and resources controlled by these companies.

Online retail will empower all these players. My humble thesis is that e-commerce holds the key to exporting Philippine design. An online strategy can help our local brands 1) remain competitive locally and 2) pursue breakout opportunities internationally

Vania Romoff launched an online-only collection on AVA.PH

Vania Romoff launched an online-only collection on AVA.PH

How do we think about this new normal for Philippine fashion?

1. Think Stories, not Stores. The primary unit of analysis in retail used to be the physical store. Today, it’s the customer story. How do we create a seamless brand experience for consumers regardless of the touchpoint – whether it’s in the mall, on laptops, or on mobile phones?  For example, Warby Parker started as an online eyewear brand. Last year, it opened its first set of brick-and-mortar showrooms where customers can try out different frames and order on an iPad.

With the ability of the internet to distribute content all over the world, local brands can tap an international market. At AVA, we’ve gotten a few customers from the United States, Germany, Belgium, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. And we haven’t even done any marketing in those countries.

Unfortunately, there’s so much misguided thinking in the Philippines. At a recent public forum, the head of one of the biggest malls in the country said that “online is the biggest threat to our business“. This is alarmist and exaggerated drivel. It’s misguided because it creates a false distinction between online and offline. Alarmist because the shopping mall will obviously not go away (US e-commerce is still less than 10% of total retail, but a large majority use online to guide purchase decisions).

It ignores how new retail technology can be integrated in the store. It’s no longer “online vs offline”, but a choice on how to communicate the brand story in both worlds.  For instance, brands like Marc Jacobs (who is using social media as a form of in-store currency) and American Eagle (who is piloting iBeacon technology) are showing innovative new ways of embedding retail tech in their traditional offerings.

It’s not just about opening an “online store”, but integrating tech into sensible parts of the retail value chain. Walmart’s latest experiment? Using ad tech to cut waste in its media budget.

Tweetie de Leon and AVA partnered to launch a Kickstarter campaign to save the dying inabel fabric.

Tweetie de Leon and AVA partnered to launch a Kickstarter campaign to save the dying inabel fabric.

2. Build Omni-Channel Capability. Omni-channel retail is an infrastructure decision. And thus requires completely new thinking on organization design, marketing, logistics and inventory management. Another fashion brand was hesitant to launch its own online store because management didn’t want to “divert part of the marketing budget from print and outdoor“. And that’s the problem: an e-commerce strategy isn’t a marketing mix decision, but a business unit-level decision that requires its own set of resources.

When I met the chairman of another retailer, his first question was, “can going online be profitable in the first year?”.  (Dear Mr Chairman: Please do not ask Jeff Bezos this question). Yes, if you’re thinking of “going online” as simply putting up a website. It would obviously not be if you view it as an infrastructure decision.

The good news is that the technology is getting cheaper. I can build a shopping app that costs way less than a billboard on EDSA or a print campaign in Preview. Getting educated about e-commerce is free (it’s called Google). The payments and delivery network have been built and getting better each year. And with companies like Rocket Internet and Naspers operating in the country, talent is more widely available.

Brands without a clear e-commerce strategy aren’t being cautious, they’re being lazy.

3. Leverage on Platforms. Think of a platform as a business that empowers other businesses. The iPhone, for instance, is a platform. Apple provides the centralized eco-system, while independent app developers around the world provide the content. Global marketplaces like Etsy and retailers like AHAlife have allowed independent producers from around the world to access consumers far beyond their home country. Etsy for instance did $1.35 billion of gross sales last year. On Amazon, up to 1/3 of products are sold by third party merchants who host their products on Amazon’s distribution centers. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter allow designers to generate pre-orders even before their products hit the market.

With these platforms, Filipino producers can immediately access a global market on day one. The bazaar in Rockwell only gives you a spike during Christmas? No problem. A presence in Etsy helps expand your footprint. What to customize the look of your store, but don’t have the budget? There’s Shopify for that.

4. Slow Down Fast Fashion. Fashion’s deep, dark secret is that sweatshop labor all over the world subsidizes the thirst for fast fashion in the developed world. Sites like Maiyet, Uncommon Goods, and Everlane are all signals of consumers’ desire for a different way of thinking about fashion. The tragedy in Bangladesh helped cast a wider spotlight on this sorry state of affairs. People are now looking beyond the rack and seeing how their purchases are collectively affecting a global supply chain. Brands are looking for authenticity to break through the cynicism. This is good news for our creative industries. We can’t compete with China on price, but we can certainly compete on design and an authentic brand story that explores our rich cultural heritage, our traditional textiles and materials, and our local craftsmanship.

In my next post, I’ll share what we’re doing at AVA to help create a bridge between our local products and the global market.