Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship, Founders, Philippines, Startups, Uncategorized

The Honest Guide to Startup Fundraising in the Philippines , Part 1 of 2

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you. And you say to yourself, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’  Now you can either accept that or you can get to work. That’s all it is.

You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem. Then you solve the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” – The Martian

**************

“Just close it down,” said my Dad, in no uncertain terms.

In the first quarter of 2015, my startup was dead in the water. We only had 3 months left of cash in the bank.

My father knew how to cut his losses. A serial entrepreneur, he’s tried many businesses over the years. And he wasn’t afraid to pull the plug when things weren’t going as planned.

Some context is in order. In the 2nd half of 2012, I raised a seed round of a few hundred thousand dollars. The objective was to grow a Gilt-style flash sales site. At that point, the startup was doing seven-digit revenues with profitable unit economics. It took about 6 months – fundraising in the Philippines is like our internet speed, slow AF – but it was easy to do. Valuation math is a breeze when you can divide percentages in your head.

But I made the mistake of listening to early advice to be lean, raise less now, and go for a bigger round in a year or two. I knew empirically that e-commerce – especially in infrastructure-void Philippines – needed immense scale. And scale required capital upfront.

That’s the first lesson of fundraising: never listen to advice that asks you to raise less than what you need. You know your business best, and investors have an incentive to doll out this advice – to cut your valuation, conserve their checkbook, etc.

Armed with our little funds, we adapted to the ruthless Darwinism of the free market: focusing on Metro Manila, building a brand, targeting the premium segment of the market that wasn’t price-sensitive (credit cards were 80% of our transactions, a rare outcome in this country), and hired 20 people. As a result, we grew gross revenue 6x in 2013.

Then the world changed. The flash sales model soon fizzled out as inventory ran dry. Though we had enough funds to cover overhead and customer acquisition, running lean meant we didn’t have enough to invest in inventory, R&D, logistics, and warehousing.

Merchandise revenue, which I forecasted to double in 2014, contracted by 10%. Normally, this wouldn’t be a disaster. But in e-commerce, growth is everything.

By the time 2015 hit, we had to move out of our office because we couldn’t afford the rent. I slashed my salary by 60% to make sure our employees made 100% of theirs. The COO I hired to help professionalize the business turned out to be a poor fit. Our CTO, who’s been with us from the start, had left. Morale sank.

I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to abandon the sinking ship. I had lots of other startup ideas. There’s been standing job invitations from a telco and a private equity firm, not to mention the constant inbound recruiting emails from Rocket Internet and Uber. I said no to all of them.

And as impossible as this situation sounds, it’s actually nothing out of the ordinary. 80% of startups fail within 3 years.

It was one of our customers that helped us out of the slump. It turns out that Kim Jones, before she became the huge brand ambassador she is today, was a customer. She loved our products, and one conversation led to another. In the middle of 2015, we launched her private label collection.

Remember that story about Airbnb’s founders selling cereal to make ends meet? Well, we did something similar too. It turns out our team was one of the few in town who actually had experience in building an end-to-end e-commerce platform from scratch. IT dev shops only knew the tech. Ad agencies only knew the marketing. We did everything. Our business experience allowed us to charge a premium. So a small side project for a brand turned into a multi-million deal that essentially saved the company. We were the cereal.

The rest of 2015 turned out to be a tumultuous year. There was acquisition talk with a prospective buyer, but we couldn’t agree on the price. A huge foreign e-commerce company offered a term sheet to lead a series-A, but freaked out when they faced massive foreign ownership restrictions in mass media and retail. The founder wanted to take his private jet and fly here to Manila, but was advised by his security team not to. Besides, that pretty young starlet he was dating kept him busy. Then, our original investor invested in the competition instead. Another local angel wanted to invest, but I no longer wanted to take capital if it was in small amounts.

All this was a distraction: each had no meaningful contribution to the goal of building a business.

As we entered 2016, there was only one move left to make: make the venture cash-flow positive. It was time to take our destiny into our own hands.

We launched another site, cut non-performing staff, and built an enterprise business doing digital strategy, e-commerce, and content, with local and international partners. By the end of 2016, our business turned cash flow positive after 2 consecutive years of steady growth. By 2017, we had more cash in the bank than when we started.

Meanwhile, it was a bloodbath in the local e-commerce market, as several local sites collapsed, among them well-funded international players. Only the biggest, most-capitalized foreign players, or well-run local sites remained.

There was immense joy in finding a win in a no-win situation. You will never have an experience as meaningful and gratifying as facing the brink of the abyss and coming out alive, middle finger raised to the air.

And when word quietly got around that we were one of the few profitable ventures in town, we started getting inbound emails from random investors, including some who had rejected us before. Some clients offered to invest. I politely declined all of them.

This story is relevant because in a recent survey, 94% of PH startups see themselves raising funding in the next three years. Most will fail.

They’ll all go through the same journey we did, more or less. The excitement of a small group of friends wanting to conquer the world. The euphoria of winning a pitching competition and attracting media attention. Launching product. Getting your first few customers. And the brutal counterpunch of reality. Just another day in startup land.

The startup scene in the Philippines is like masturbation – lots of fantasizing, ego-stroking, and wish fulfillment, but not much real action going on.

Founders will read Techcrunch and Tech-in-Asia, join pitching competitions, attend conferences, and regale at the stories and startup advice of this month’s speaker – who by the way is either a government buffoon or is someone who has never built a business with his/her own capital before.

All this only increases the gap between wishful thinking and reality.

The stark reality is that if one looks at a map of Southeast Asia, you’ll see that the Philippines sits apart. It has the smallest venture capital market (in # of deals and value). It’s overlooked by the much bigger regional funds in favor of Singapore and Indonesia. There are very few really good angels, and a lot of predatory ones.

There’s been a number of initiatives over the years to change that, but none have really worked, thanks to the combination of a protectionist Constitution, our underdeveloped capital markets, and the complex regulatory environment (all topics worthy of exploration in a separate article). Just look at our foreign investment metrics as proof. Even Vietnam is eating our lunch.

Thus, scarcity drives the local startup game. And that’s the big point of this post if you’ve made it this far: because the game is stacked against founders, to raise startup funding in the Philippines, you have to make investors believe you don’t need the funding.

And the most empirical way to demonstrate this is to build a cash-flow positive venture. That’s all there is to it. Don’t repeat our mistake in delaying cash-flow positive status to after your 2nd or 3rd funding round.

Because of the smaller early stage funding market relative to Singapore or Indonesia, I would argue that new local Filipino founders should:

1. Have a bias for picking ideas that can be funded by customers, rather than investors

2. Draw a solid plan to get to cash-flow positive ideally in the first year. Maybe two years – max.

3. Have a low enough cost base that can be funded by 1-2 clients if you’re B2B, or 100 customers if you’re B2C. Forget about it if you’re advertising-dependent (Facebook & Google have won).

4. If you do need to raise funding, treat it as a last resort, and give yourself a hard deadline, say, 6 months.

5. Start with regional investors rather than local ones.

6. Incorporate in Singapore, Hong Kong, or Delaware. Create a local operating subsidiary only if necessary.

This certainly narrows the space for the kind of startups the Philippines can build. But it’s not impossible. An enterprise-focused SaaS product with a strong consulting arm can certainly be cash flow positive within a year. Or a direct-to-consumer online store with only 100 monthly customers but PHP 5,000 ATV and low overhead can certainly be profitable.

“That all sounds good, Oliver,” you might say, “but aren’t startups all about growth? What about those ideas that need massive growth and scale to be profitable?

Sure, I’m not discounting the possibility of success for such models. But the Philippines is not the place to start capital-intensive startups. You’ll need to be based in Singapore or Jakarta to access the capital needed to fund hyper growth, and simply have the Philippines as another portfolio country.

Which brings us now to an honest discussion about access to capital.

If you’re just starting out or if you’re cash-flow negative, you then need to figure out where you are in the local Startup Game.

The Game is defined by this 2×2 matrix. This matrix applies if you:

1. Want to do or are currently doing a startup

2. Have a reasonable amount of self-awareness

3. Have objective metrics on the viability of your product

Note that this matrix describes your starting point, not your end-state. It helps define your initial moves, not your destiny.

On the X-axis is your product. Does it have product-market fit, based on objective metrics – users, revenue, margins, retention, net promoter scores, etc?

Now, the Y-axis will likely sound controversial, but it’s the honest truth. On the Y-axis is a famous name: your family name, your school’s, or a previous company affiliation.

It doesn’t mean that raising is an impossibility, but your product will just have to be way better compared to someone in say, Singapore. When I was raising our first round, I got a lot of advice to mention my school or the fact that we won the Asia Pacific leg of the Harvard New Venture Competition – never mind that neither was a factor in our odds of success! But people are herd animals, and you would be wise to take advantage of this gap in human psychology.

The PH Startup Game (1)

If you have a great product and a famous name, go ahead and raise. Do one round and get to cash-flow positive.

If you have a great product, without a famous name, I’d argue not to waste your time fundraising. Instead, you need to get cash-flow positive ASAP. Keep a good SEO strategy for your startup’s name and a healthy LinkedIn presence, and wait for the inbound investor requests to trickle in. You get investors to pitch you rather than the other way around.

If you don’t have a great product, but have a famous name, your next moves will depend on the nature of your famous name. If it’s your school or company, then you might be better off working for Rocket Internet or Uber for 1-2 years to learn the ropes. These guys love brand name degrees. Pick the role wisely. If you want to be an entrepreneur one day, working as a Product Manager at Grab is superior to a sales job at Google.

If it’s a famous family name that you have but not a great product, you can likely syndicate together 1-2 years worth of runway. Manila is full mediocre businesses from children of tycoons and suckers posing as investors.

If you neither have have a great product nor a famous name, you have three options:

1. Learn how to build a great product on your own

2. Get a famous name by joining an awesome founder

3. Or my recommended option – do both of the above. This is best accomplished by working directly under a startup founder or the local GM of a global tech company. For example, the direct reports of guys like Ron Hose, Ravi Agarwal, Jerome Uy, Paul Rivera, Nix Nolledo, Laurence Cua, Ken Lingan, or John Rubio will likely have great careers ahead.

That’s essentially the game. You need to recognize where you are to determine the right moves to make.

If you decide to take the fundraising route, stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, where I’ll talk about some of the tools you’ll need.

 

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This Valentine’s, Skip the Roses. Pay Your Damn Child Support Instead.

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Daddy, you owe Mommy.

Dear ladies: chances are, you’re gonna get pregnant tonight. Actually, the data shows that your chances of getting pregnant remain disproportionately high compared to your Singaporean or Malaysian friends.

That’s because 1 out of 3 pregnancies in the the Philippines is unplanned. 1 out 10 teenage  girls between 15 and 19 is already a mother. In fact, we have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Asia. And that figure is growing, in spite of teenage pregnancy rates going down around the world. There’s even a list of local celebrity moms.

You can probably count at least more than five women among your circle of friends who are single moms. I have so much respect for them. In my experience, they tend to be the hardest-working and most resilient people I know.

Though unplanned pregnancies are public health (lack of contraceptives keeps HIV rates high) and social justice (unwanted pregnancies hurt the poor the most) concerns, there’s something I don’t think the public data captures adequately: the cultural predisposition of Filipino men to avoid paying child support.

How many men involved in unplanned pregnancies actually pay for child support? I don’t know. But based on anecdotal evidence, I’m guessing not much. There’s even a House Bill seeking to criminalize this.

Maybe these men can’t afford it. There are more women college graduates than men, after all. Maybe they just want to break ties completely. Maybe it’s baggage that blocks out prospects of being with another woman. Maybe they don’t feel as responsible, since it’s a sunk cost: you’ve partaken in the short-term upside, but don’t bear the cost of the long term downside. Or siguro macho ka lang.

I got into an argument with a buddy of mine over this sometime back. “It’s not entirely the guy’s fault, you know,” was his consensus response.

And in my head, I’m like, “What a fucking cop out.” We all know which party usually initiates the sexual advance.

And we all know the classic Pinoy Bro trick: using unprotected sex to hold a woman emotionally hostage by demanding proof of her devoted, unconditional love.

“If you really love me, you’ll make me happy.”

Fuck that. So for all the ladies out there, I propose the following: do what whatever fits your lifestyle and values. It’s not my place to tell you how to live your life or treat your partners. But as downside protection, I suggest:

  1. If you are unmarried and he insists on unprotected sex, ask him to set up an escrow account in your name.
  2. Ask him to deposit 10% of his pre-tax income for every act. Naturally, verify his pay slip.
  3. Write an options contract requiring him to pay, in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, 50% of his income on the first trimester, 50% on the second, and so on, with 20% of his income going to ongoing support until your child’s 21st year.
  4. Ask some ex-Oplan Tokhang thugs to help enforce this contract. A better use of their time and killing drug addicts. I promise.
  5. And most of all, do not ever contemplate marriage just because you have a child together.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

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Jollibee Broke the Internet by Breaking Millions of Hearts. Here’s an Inside Look into the Playbook.

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Seriously, Pure Evil.

I fucking hate that bride. “Thank you,” she whispers at the end.

I’m gonna take your tears, turn them into a crystal dagger, shove it into your friend-zoned heart, and turn the fragments into nails to hammer into your coffin. Oh, and yes, Father, I do,” was probably what was going on inside her head.

On the evening of Thursday, February 9, Jollibee posted two short films on Facebook, 4 hours apart. Both are killing it and breaking hearts everywhere.

I don’t eat at Jollibee. I don’t even like Jollibee. The Yum Burger tastes like I mixed ketchup, mayonnaise, and two spoons of sugar. Yeah I know, that’s blasphemous for a Filipino to say.

But today, Jollibee is winning with a series of short films about, well, love. The first one is about a boy who meets a girl at a Jollibee counter. The other is about a geek competing for a girl’s affection. And as folksy as those plot lines might sound, the ending won’t disappoint. Neither would I spoil them. Do check them out yourself, if you haven’t already.

As of 3:10pm on Friday, February 10, “Crush” has racked up 6.2 million views, while “Vow” has garnered a whopping 8.2 million views both in less than 24 hours. And it’s all organic. That’s insane.

The past few years have seen Filipino brands jumping on the content marketing bandwagon. The typical approach is to take a piece of film meant for TV advertising, and slap it on to Facebook. Spend several million to amplify its reach, then voila! Nestea did this and likely paid Facebook a ton of cash to get Liza Soberano plastered all over Pinoy feeds. I never thought I’d say this, but one can actually get tired of seeing Liza’s face everyday.

Jollibee’s rewriting the playbook with a native approach: story-driven, genre-defying, meme-friendly, and self-replicating.

It takes a new kind of intuition into the Facebook platform to dream all this up, and arguably a skill set traditional ad account managers will find quite alien.

Here are 5 clues into how that playbook works:

1. The story is not a slave to the product. Instead of the focus on the endorser, it’s all about the story, the progression, and the dramatic ending. You’ve probably don’t even recognize the actors in either films. You won’t have the same effect with Anne or Liza starring in these films; the audience gets too transfixed by the celebrity, instead of immersing into the story.

The products are slaves to the story, not the other way around. In fact, the products push the story forward for the audience: in “Crush”, the vintage cup places the setting in the 70s. In “Vow”, the store scene establishes that the characters love the same meal. And because brands aren’t constrained by the 30-second TV limit on Facebook, they can tell more substantial stories.

2. Disobey the genre. “Vow” breaks the standard Pinoy love story trope by going for the unexpected, heart-crunching ending (and sets up a possible sequel). In doing so, it turns the protagonist’s love interest into the film’s villain, sparking the fires of protest of friend-zoned boys everywhere.

3. Use a story’s iconography to replicate itself online. The plot device of the Post-It + the Yum-Burger not only serves the story, but makes it meme-friendly on Facebook. Now you’re starting to see people posting random notes on Yum Burgers. This is a genius move in making the story replicable and sticky.

4. Understand how Facebook amplifies video, past and present. Because of Facebook’s desire to keep you on your feed, it automatically streams you related videos, making this a potent discovery tool. As a result, another similar Jollibee film, “Almusal”, is getting new viewers, even if it was posted last year.

But that was also the key: Jollibee has been experimenting with videos for a long time. Winning with content takes time and investment to discover what works. This is not a traditional three-month campaign. It takes patience and commitment from brands to stumble upon the winning formula.

5. Put your traditional media channel on notice. I think the biggest loser here isn’t actually McDonald’s. It’s likely ABS-CBN and GMA. Jollibee has now uncovered strategic leverage to gain bargaining power over the media duopoly to lower their rate cards. And that’s fucking great. Digital provides all brands such an insanely flexible format to tell new stories, reach a bigger audience at a speed and scale never seen before.

In the few minutes I took to write this post, both films have added more than 300,000 views. You’ll never see that speed to scale on TV, and certainly not have the real-time data. If I were a CPG brand, I would just continuously run experiments on different treatments on social, uncover a hit, and use that data to ask my traditional media to hand over lower rates, with the underhanded threat of moving all my ad spend to digital. When Globe shifted its outdoor and print spending to digital, it’s already demonstrated it can grow its business without relying on legacy media.

What else do you think drives this success? What can brands do better?

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Who Should Withdraw, Mar or Grace? The Data Says Mar Should.

As of May 7, Rodrigo Duterte is about to win the presidency.

When Duterte first announced his candidacy,  I seriously considered him because of his policy of making it fast and easy to register businesses in Davao. As a startup founder scarred by red tape, bribe attempts from the SEC and Makati City Hall, and the despotic tax system, I was genuinely intrigued.

But based on all the evidence I’ve come across, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mar Roxas is a better fit for the job.

My emotions and grievances want me to support Duterte. But reason dictates that my vote goes to Mar.

I’ve weighed any potential benefits with the greater risks that a Duterte presidency can bring. The cussing and womanizing I can personally live with. But the extra-judicial killings, his treasonous and idiotic approach to China, and this lack of understanding of the economic & technological forces that can sink the BPO industry and our OFW remittances – all these are existential threats to the very idea of a “Philippines”.

Nations fail all the time. And we almost always underestimate how fragile our way of life is. This is the 30th year of our little democracy project in these islands. Duterte could push us to the precipice.

Winning in the Home Stretch

SWS and Pulse Asia show that he is number one, with a 30-33% lead. And contrary to what people say about the 2010 vice-president race, the surveys have always gotten the presidential race right. They may have been mistaken on the 3rd ranked candidates in the past, but that hardly matters right?

Rodrigo Duterte’s Facebook engagement numbers are off the roof. Even Google thinks he’s won already.

Can he be stopped? Unlikely. Given that both Mar and Grace have split 40-45% of the vote, and the last minute momentum that make the undecided vote gravitate to the frontrunner.

So it’s with the same rationality that made me conclude that Mar is right for the job that makes me realize that the best chance for stopping a Duterte presidency is for Mar to withdraw and back Grace. Not the other way around.

I’m writing this because at this point, Mar and Grace are probably trapped in an echo chamber of supporters, where the voice of reason and the triple threats of the confirmation bias, the availability bias, and loss aversion are amplified by group think and the fatalism of Filipino culture. We will win. Good will prevail. We will fight, are all shades of the same fatalism.

So I’m going to write this as objectively as possible. And if you feel queasy confronting data & evidence, I’m sorry but this is what the numbers bear out.

Pulse Asia’s Vote Diffusion Question

What most people don’t realize is that Pulse Asia asks a second choice question and then breaks down this preference within specific voting groups. So for instance, we can see among Duterte supporters, what % prefers Grace, Mar, etc as a second choice.

Pulse Asia calls this 1st to 2nd choice diffusion and it is useful in understanding where votes go if either Grace or Mar withdraws. I averaged out the diffusion percentages of three Pulse Asia surveys, March 8-12, April 19-24, and April 26-29.

* The way this question was asked is: “If your chosen candidate does not pursue his/her candidacy for whatever reason, whom among the remaining people would you for as President if the elections were held today?” The question also doesn’t prevent respondents from naming their 1st choice as their 2nd choice too – “Si Duterte talaga eh, wala nang iba”, is an answer that approximates this.

Across all voting groups, Grace is the dominant 2nd choice. For example:

  • 38% of Duterte supporters have Grace as a 2nd choice (an important consideration – and I’ll get back to this later).
  • 45% of Binay supporters have Grace as a 2nd choice, and
  • 41% of Mar supporters pick Grace as a 2nd choice.

Elections PostIf you zero in to Grace vs Mar, you’ll clearly see that more Mar voters will be attracted to Grace, rather than the other way around. 41% of Roxas voters pick Grace as 2nd choice. Only 24% of Grace voters pick Mar as 2nd choice.

Elections Post-1

Who are the other picks of Grace voters? Binay (27%) and Duterte (19%). This gives credence to the argument that Duterte’s base will get even stronger if Grace was the one who pulled out.

Now if you assume 54.4 million registered voters, a 75% voter turnout (like the previous election), you get a base of 40.8 million votes up for grabs. (Hey, that could’ve been a PR campaign of GrabTaxi, yes? GRABVOTE = click on this app and a vote buyer will appear where you are to bid for your vote. Wait sorry, my ADHD kicked-in. Back to the math).

If you then average out the previous 3 Pulse Asia Surveys, Duterte ends up with 30% of the votes, equivalent to more than 12 million votes. This ignores any last minute momentum effects that could push his lead to more than 35%.

Elections Post-2

If Mar pulls out, asks his base to consolidate support for Grace, where could it go? Based on his diffusion numbers, Grace could gain more than 3 million votes.

Elections Post-3

This could be higher (if Mar is convincing enough and people rally to Grace) or lower (if the limited time prevents him from getting the message across).

The effect of this brings Grace ~9 million votes to within striking distance of Duterte’s 12 million. Duterte of course will gain some votes from Mar, approximate 1 million+ based on the diffusion numbers.

Elections Post-4

What will turn the tide?

Enter the most powerful group of people in this election: the roughly 2 million Undecided voters.

What  the press also seemed to miss is that the Pulse Asia survey also had a question buried deep that allowed us to get clues on where the 5% of Undecideds could go.

After someone says that in the 1st choice question that they are “undecided”, they are also asked the 2nd choice question. In that question, around 20% gave an answer. And among this 20%, the split are: 43% Grace, 19% Binay, 16% Duterte, 11% Roxas.

43% of ~2 million people gives Grace another 800,000+ votes, enough to turn the tide into a narrow Grace victory. In addition, the opposition rallying around Grace would matter to the close to 40% of Duterte supporters (4 million+ people) who picked Grace as their 2nd choice. Even if just 10% of these people switch last minute (400,000) gives Grace a clear 1.2 million vote lead (800k + 400k) over Duterte.

Elections Post-5

A lot of things need to happen in so short a time for this scenario to come true.

But if Mar, Grace, Jojo, and Miriam truly believe Duterte is a threat to our democracy, they have the power to make this happen – if they just need to remove their ego out of the equation and listen to the evidence.

They should try because the alternative – a Leni VP victory leading to an LP-initiated impeachment against Duterte – does more damage to our institutions than this last-minute rally.

On a personal note, I think the conversations between Mar and Grace would be completely different if they had  top-notch data science teams instead of PR motherfuckers surrounding them. It’s the data guys who would keep them honest, by not only keeping close track of the surveys, but complimenting this with other big data sources from the internet and social media. If someone from the LP for instance, was doing sentiment analysis, they wouldn’t have to wait till the last minute to sense the grassroots grievance of FIlipinos. And maybe the predominately male LP inner circle would’ve seen that Leni would’ve been the more viable presidential candidate. I have a friend who said late last year that Leni should’ve been fielded as President instead. I doubted it at the time. But how prescient he was. Leni’s the direct anti-thesis of Digong.

Whoever thought democracy could die because people couldn’t understand the data.

PS – this was a quick analysis done in 2 hours – I apologize for any errors. 

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The COMELEC Data Breach is the Philippine National Disaster We Should Be Talking About

In the 2002 film Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) is a serial killer who murders his victims as they sleep in their homes, at the behest of an alternate personality whom he calls the Great Red Dragon.

Dolarhyde proceeds to engage in necrophilic acts with the mothers’ corpses, while embedding shards of broken mirror glass into their eyes to watch himself.

FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) deduces that Dolarhyde has very personal information about this victims – who they are, where they live, how many children they have, the layout of their homes, where to enter, and when best to attack. Dolarhyde knows this because he is a home video technician: he works for a lab that converts home video into VHS tapes. The hours of footage give him an intimate look into this victims’ lives.

He just had analog information. Imagine the damage if he had all the digital information about his victims.

Today, countless of Francis Dolarhydes have access to your private information, thanks to the Commission on Elections. And if you’re not outraged because you can’t visualize what 338 gigabytes of data are, maybe you can visualize what it can do:

Imagine someone opening a bank account under your name, using a fake driver’s license and passport. For years, your fake account is used to launder money, without your knowledge. Imagine your residential address easily accessed in one database. Imagine your email being targeted by phising scams. Or being the target of scams and extortion. Imagine a rogue politician using millions of voter data to keep track of his constituents in his municipality, creating detailed voter records and using this for political gain. All of this data is now out in the open.

And the worst part? We don’t even know how exactly it happened or what steps are being done to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The COMELEC even downplayed it. Incredibly, COMELEC wasn’t event transparent enough to disclose what exactly what kind of data was leaked. Only Rappler did an in-depth report on what was actually in the  data that was released.

The rest of local media has largely ignored this; it never made it to the headlines in the same way Kidapawan or the campaign trail did. It only received follow-up articles after Trend Micro, an IT security firm, released a blog post admonishing the government’s responses. None of the presidential candidates think this is a serious concern.

As a result, not only are we not seriously talking about it, most people don’t even know the breach happened. And there could be more breaches we don’t know about – according to security firm Mandiant, data breaches remains undiscovered for more than 6 months.

Make no mistake about it: the COMELEC breach is a disaster of national proportions: it’ll open the floodgates to more attacks and leave our institutions and economy vulnerable for years to come.

Gizmodo is now calling this one of the biggest government data breaches in history.

Blog - Data Breaches

Sources:  data compiled from Rappler.com, MIT Technology Review

The hackers posted the database online on March 27, more than two weeks ago. The fact that it is taking our collective brains so long to appreciate the gravity of this situation is a tragedy. It’s like a different parts of Philippine society got into a car pissed drunk, the driver falls asleep on/behind/in the wheel, and we are blissfully laughing (or arguing over which candidate performed best in the last debate) all the way to the car crash.

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Dancing our way to the elections…

Why does this matter?

It matters because we have a $25 billion business process outsourcing industry that employs more than a million Filipinos. This industry survives on the trust of tens of thousands of corporate clients that their data would be handled securely.

It matters because the tension in the West Philippine Sea is leading to the most destabilizing geopolitical conflict of our generation. In this conflict, it’s been documented that one of our adversary’s potent weapons is cyber warfare and espionage. Can China bring the country to its knees by remotely shutting key telecommunications infrastructure, the internet, the electrical grid, and the water supply? Theoretically, it can. In this context, we should be grateful to Filipino hackers for pointing our vulnerabilities.

This conversation matters because the amount of data the government will capture about us will only grow exponentially in the next several years. By 2020, humanity will be producing 40 zettabytes of data. If that’s hard to imagine, picture this: if 1 gigabyte is equivalent to a cup of Starbucks coffee, 1 zettabyte is equivalent to enough Starbucks cups to fill the entire Great Wall of China.

And lastly, it matters because although the COMELEC’s automated election system is run as a separate network, the perception of legitimacy will be the most crucial outcome of a tight race like this (yes, Duterte Bros, it is still anyone’s bet).  Didn’t a great rebel once say that “Revolution, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is just a little push…

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Oh wait, I think he meant “madness”, not revolution. Just the same.

Why doesn’t COMELEC “get” the problem?

One clue is that none of the COMELEC commissioners has anything that remotely resembles a background in computer science, engineering, or data science. In an age of automated elections and biometric voter data, isn’t this very very strange?

Blog - Data Breaches-1

Now, since our commissioners are esteemed legal luminaries, you might expect that they would have at least set in place the right institutional and legal framework to enable the COMELEC to protect its data. On this front, it seems there is more damning evidence.

For example, here’s the text of Republic Act 10367 – the law that requires mandatory biometric voter registration. Scroll down to Section 9 on database security and you’ll see this broadly articulated sentence: “The database generated by biometric registration shall be secured by the Commission and shall not be used, under any circumstance, for any purpose other than for electoral exercises.”

Now that sounds cool and sensible enough. After all, it’s not the job of the legislator to get into the practical, implemention-related details. That would fall under the jurisdiction of the COMELEC when it issues the Implementing Rules and Regulation for Republic Act 10367. It’s in the Implementing Rules and Regulations you would expect the COMELEC to at least spell out how it would provide for database security, who would be responsible, the milestones and steps involved, and the costs. Basis management stuff, right?

Here’s a copy of the IRR. Scroll to the relevant section on database security and you’ll notice the glaring fact that the IRR simply copied the text of the Republic Act. In short, there was neither a plan nor a framework from the COMELEC to secure it’s biometrics database (which according to Rappler, was part of the breach).

Another clue is the hard question on institutional checks and balances. As a separate constitutionally mandated commission, the COMELEC’s tech isn’t subject to the oversight of the DOST nor is its website part of the government’s web hosting service. As a result, nobody in its leadership team or its IT department are asking the right questions or providing a check and balance. This is admittedly a tough question to crack – how do you ensure the commission’s independence while ensuring that it’s tech adheres to global best practices? This is another case of technology development outpacing the ability of our laws to keep up.

Why has the media under-reported this story?

There are many obvious reasons for this. In an election cycle where journalists are spread out across the campaign trail and many more equally important stories coming up (Kidapawan, the RCBC-Bangladesh hearings, Poe’s disqualification, which candidate is which celebrity endorsing, etc), it’s easy for journalists and editors to fall into the trap of writing about stories where it is easy to get and verify primary sources (a campaign rally, a Senate hearing, a Supreme Court ruling, etc).

To understand the COMELEC data breach, journalists not only have to comb through the leaked data (which is exactly what Michael Bueza and Wayne Manuel did at Rappler), they have to get a crash course on database architecture, data warehousing, encryption, and network security.

Bring all of these together under an environment where news outlets prioritize speed, clicks, and eyeballs, and you’ll see the underreporting as a another case of market failure. And in every market failure, there’s an opportunity.

If you are a smart journalist, you’ll realize that the world is changing far faster than what seems to be apparent in your daily beats. You’ll realize that fundamentally, we are an island nation and an island people cut off from the world. And there are so many things out there that we don’t even know we don’t know.

You’ll realize that – due to no fault of your own – our educational system and current employers left us woefully unprepared for what is to come. And as a result, you’ll be taking steps to learn new stuff, from platform thinking to network effects.

You’ll be studying R, Python, and D3 on the side because this gives you a skill set that your peers (and editors!) won’t be able to match and makes you incredibly more valuable in the long run.

In Red Dragon, Will Graham had to break the rules to catch Francis Dolarhyde. He had to seek Hannibal Lecter’s counsel. He dug deep into the tragic pathology of his adversary. He had to stretch himself, learn completely  new things, and find his own Great Red Dragon.

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Uncategorized

Debate Notes and a Better Way to Test Presidential Candidates

Notes debates

Source: Screenshot from TV5 livestream

In Harvard Business School, majority of exams allow notes. That’s not because the faculty wants to make it easy for students. They want to make it harder.

In a typical Harvard case exam, students are asked to respond to broad, open-ended questions like “Should Uber launch a self-driving car?” or “How should Apple respond to federal requests for access to encrypted software?“. Not only do students have to write a convincing case, they have to do so with limited time and word count. It’s also hard because there are no right or wrong answers.

If you haven’t mastered the material, trained your mind how to think analytically, or break down issues in a structured manner, your notes won’t help you at all. If anything, they’ll make it harder to make a compelling argument.

In an increasing number of Harvard classes, the exams are  also practical: build an actual website that generates revenue. Or an app or a service that has actual users. Your notes would obviously mean very little for these.

(Personally, I would’ve advised Mar to just allow Jojo Binay to freely brandish his folders on stage. In the college debating world, we had this tactic of luring an opponent to spend a long time defending a position. And then in our speech, concede and agree to everything they just said – because it was irrelevant and the debate is something else entirely. Roxas could’ve pulled that trick. Think about it. “Sige po, Luchi – hayaan natin siyang gumamit ng codigo. Kaming tatlo, di namin kailangan.” Binay would’ve also looked like a bigger fool navigating throughout the paper work in a tiny desk, when everyone else spoke without notes.)

And that’s the biggest problem of debates so far: they tell us very little about the presidential candidates. I know they’re a necessary component in the showmanship of every democracy, but they barely scratch the surface. A major policy issue like climate change or drugs gets 2 minutes each. Half of the time is spent mud-slinging. They’re not real constructive conversations.

I think there’s a better way to assess: make each presidential candidate build an MVP.

No, no, not Manny V. Pangilinan. In startup parlance, an MVP is a “minimum viable product” – an early, rough prototype good enough to test a solution to a problem. In tech, it could be a bare bones website or mobile app. In retail, it could be product samples. The point is to have just a minimum number of features to a.) define a hypothesis, b.) build an experiment to test that hypothesis, c.) and gather data to validate or invalidate our hypothesis.

Here’s how it’ll work: we’ll ask each candidate to build an MVP for one, single issue they care about. They get to pick their own team of 5 people: engineers, developers, graphic artist, copywriters, etc. They’ll start on a Friday morning. They’ll each be filmed constantly – no cuts or edits – during the day from 9am to 6pm. On Sunday evening, they’ll be asked to demo their MVP in front of a live audience and streamed on YouTube. A panel of experts will ask tough questions.

Here are some ideas:

  • Jojo Binay likes to showcase the healthcare benefits Makati residents receive. His goal is to build an MVP for a site similar to Obamacare’s Healthcare.gov.   The site’s mission: provide universal health coverage for every Filipino.  At the end, he has to demo his work to a panel of doctors, HMO providers, technologists, and employers.
  • Grace Poe can build an MVP for a platform that centralizes all government and private sector services for overseas Filipinos, a constituency she leans on when critics question her patriotism.
  • Mar Roxas wants sustained economic growth. So he work on an MVP for an online platform that helps train senior high school students in data science, analytics, and computer science – three fields that are the next step in the value chain for our BPO industry, which obviously cannot rely on voice services to accelerate growth.
  • Rody Duterte likes local government, so he can build an app that enables participatory democracy, enabling citizens to take photos, report, and up-vote pressing local barangay and municipality level problems – think unfinished road repairs and empty clinics.

If it sounds like Startup Weekend, well it is. And more than any presidential debate or campaign rally, an exercise like this helps us understand:

  • How they think through tough problems. In the OFW example, is the problem to be tackled upstream opportunities for people who want to work abroad, or for existing OFWs? Grace’s answer will lead to entirely different MVPs. If she chooses the former, why? Why not the latter?
  • How each candidate prioritizes issues. In the healthcare example, do you start with building an interface for providers? Or for customer registration and validation? Why this sequence?
  • How they collaborate with a small team to reach an imperfect solution? What’s their management style? Do they ask a lot of questions? Or do they rely on personal domain expertise? Will they pick people who are smarter than they are? Or do they need to be the alpha in the room?
  • How do they deal with uncertainty? Do they go with their gut, rely on others, or leave the building to find data?
  • How they respond to feedback? How do they deal with tough questions?

In an earlier post, I wrote something on how the presidentiables can court the Entrepreneur Vote:

Make the candidates put 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. 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. 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.

You get the drift: the idea is to make each presidentiable feel what every Filipino entrepreneur has to go through. 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.

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They can use all the notes they want in any of the above exercises. It’s not a debate, it’s real work. When the dust settles, we’ll have a treasure trove of data about each candidate. We get to have a glimpse into how a leader actually gets shit done.

The President is not just the head of state or the leader of the country. He or she is employee # 1. The President works for me. I’m the boss here. And so are you. I pay his salary every month. And so do you.

When we hire employees, we don’t just ask job candidates to tell us who they are and what their back story is. We get a sense of how they can actually get things done. A President is no different.

*******

As most of you know, I don’t proofread my articles – I write as I go along. All errors are mine. 

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How Would Martial Law Happen in 2016?

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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.

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Netflix, Philippines, Startups, Uncategorized

It’s Likely that the Philippines Will Block Netflix Too

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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.

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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.

ActionStack.org


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.

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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.

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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.

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E-Commerce, Entrepreneurship, Philippines, Retail, Uncategorized

A Blueprint for SM’s Digital Future

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Slide2

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.

Slide1**********

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”.

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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.

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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.

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

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