From Steve Jobs to Soaps and to Startups

Imagine leaving a company that gave financial security and a rising career then suddenly deciding to pursue the unpredictable world of startups - in the middle of a global pandemic no less. 

It started with the iPhone

This was my reality almost three years ago.

My family was pretty much okay financially, until I was a born. So I was raised in a modest family with my father, a man approaching his senior years as a single parent. Because of that I didn't grow the desire for luxury items because I never grew up with it. There was a time when my school asked for donations for a charity cause. Upon submitting the printed reply slip, the response was “No due to financial difficulties.” My father never showed me his financial struggles, but it instilled in me a goal to establish financial stability and protect my loved ones from such hardships. This experience, in part, shaped me to be both frugal and risk-averse.

I never bought new books for school so I asked for hand-me-down books from upperclassmen. In high school, I only bought two pairs of casual shoes that cost Php 250 each from the SM Department store. When studying at coffee shops became a thing, I asked for a cup of hot water to look like I ordered overpriced coffee and deserved a seat, table, and a cold room.

Only when I saw my nephew holding the first iPhone that I started to take a look at Steve Jobs. I perceived Steve Jobs as an embodiment of an alluring blend of success: a storyteller launching products people loved while enjoying significant financial stability. The expensive iPhone seemed to be a testament to this success. From then on, I looked up to both my Dad and Steve Jobs and aspired to emulate their paths. This dream led me towards taking up the Management Engineering program in Ateneo, as recommended by a close friend, who believed it was the best path to follow in Steve Jobs' footsteps.

I fell in love with formulas

Thankfully, I secured a financial-aid scholarship in Ateneo and I was able to take up BS in Management Engineering (ME). However, I realized that there were only a few models for the path I wanted - which was to work in tech. Many graduates from this program gravitated towards management consulting, banking, or FMCG, steadily climbing the corporate ladder.

Our alumni are proudly introduced as accomplished senior executives across different industries, from ABS-CBN to Accenture, Globe Telecom, Deutsche Regis Partners, Inc., P&G, and Lazada. Each of them surely struggled to navigate their unique path, but from an outsider's perspective, it seemed like they simply followed a formula: excel in the initial college years, get promoted, pursue an MBA abroad, and return home for an accelerated executive career trajectory.

The ME program was loaded with some crazy maths paired with business subjects. Here are some random concepts I can recall that would give me war flashbacks and should make you feel confused: Discs and Washers, Markov Chains, Cash Flow Statements, Linear Programming, Game Theory, ANOVA, and Optimization. 

I didn’t get to exactly use any of these in my work, yet, I took away one of the greatest abilities I have from the program - systems thinking. It’s the ability to step back and consider the often invisible moving parts of any situation. This invaluable skill has helped me become a fast-learner, allowing me to jump into different areas of interest and become a generalist, a unifier connecting dots and making something new or valuable from it. And the program was undoubtedly helpful in my career, as it led me to secure an internship with P&G and subsequently a full-time job offer, a year before I even graduated.

The formula provided a comforting sense of control over my career, and it felt like I was already a step in the right direction. Math taught me to have an exacting mindset.

If x + 1 = 2, then x must be 1.

Every problem had a calculated solution, every goal a path ripe for optimization. I naively believed that if I could discern a pattern from the paths of those who preceded me, I just needed to map out the shortest course.

Applying the formula for myself

I always thought that I literally CAN’T AFFORD to take any risks in life. So even if I dreamed of one day delivering the Apple Keynote, I worked backwards and identified the steps to achieve my goal while securely providing for our family’s financial needs.

I imagined working for decades at Apple, which means that I need an entry point into the US tech industry and, ideally, an MBA from Stanford - my dream school being close to to Silicon Valley. But first, I needed to gather experience and secure funding for my journey. I bet my hopes for success by honing my Sales skills at P&G, viewing it as the best training ground for negotiating and communicating effectively with customers. This path seemed so straightforward that I could confidently explain it to anyone who ask me about my life's ambitions.

And so I did. My initial two years at P&G were a whirlwind immersion into the world of business and sales. I was assigned to the company's largest customer and undertook projects that allowed ample room for innovation, trial and error, and learning. The first six months were perhaps the most memorable, shared sentiment among many P&G sales managers. I was assigned in a sketchy part of Caloocan, tasked with selling soap, shampoo, and diapers to local sari-sari store owners.

My workdays began at 5 a.m., finishing around 8-9 p.m. After ensuring that the truck worked, we'd head off to Caloocan and start my daily routine, spanning 30-35 stores until I hit the day's sales quota. Back at the base, we'd count our inventory, return our payment collections, and prep the truck for the next day. It was really sketchy — my selling partner shared that he'd nearly been stabbed when returning collected money to the truck. Yet, I would never trade this experience for anything else. The intense amount of pressure, the targets, and the need for resilience strengthened me and honed my selling skills and pambobola. Picture this: Talking to 180 sari-sari stores per week for 12 weeks, that’s 2,160 conversations where I would get screamed at, ridiculed, teased, appreciated, thanked, welcomed and ignored. What an emotional rollercoaster.

Months later, I found myself in the same room with the billionaire owner of a top supermarket chain in the Philippines. The conversations became increasingly complicated, the stakes are much higher, and we’re talking about million-dollar deals hoping to gain sales growth for both sides. Fortunately, my performance did not go unnoticed. Both years, my manager generously rewarded my efforts with the highest possible raises and began preparing me for promotion as soon as possible.

And then I stopped following the formula

The pandemic allowed me to carve out time for deep introspection about my life's goals. A combination of daily journaling and MBA applications pushed me to seriously examine my purpose and what I truly desired from the MBA program. While my aspiration to become Apple's next CEO was quite ambitious, it wasn't the legacy I really wanted for my life. To give you an idea how I got to this thought, I started to picture what people would say about me on my funeral.

I was sure, though, of my natural interest in the tech/startup world, but without a background in software engineering, I believed I needed an MBA as my stepping stone into the industry. And yes, I operated under the assumption that tech career opportunities were scarce in the Philippines.

Then, my true lifelong ambition became clear.

At that time, the notion of building a tech career in the Philippines seemed almost unattainable for several reasons - reasons I may delve into in future articles. However, I ultimately decided to focus on not just constructing a career for myself but imagined a future where aspiring tech professionals, like my children, wouldn't have to think about leaving the Philippines in pursuit of their dreams. What if we could establish our own "Silicon Valley" right here?

Through a sequence of events, I found myself resigning from my position at P&G, dropping all my MBA applications and my plans to work abroad, and started on a journey as a Salesperson at PayMongo, a local fintech startup backed by Y Combinator and a selection of prominent Silicon Valley investors. Now, my work was aligned with my grand vision, and I believed that helping PayMongo succeed was my best route towards this goal.

Surprise, there’s no formula

As a newbie to this sector, I was careful not to present myself with a messianic complex, acting like a know-it-all and instructing everyone how things should be done. Instead, I devoted countless hours to learning the intricacies of startups - from absorbing insights from online talks, building relationships with teammates within PayMongo and other startups, to connecting with dozens of startup founders. For months, I enrolled myself into a coding bootcamp in order to hone my ability to communicate with software engineers. I dedicated my services to a small angel investing fund for nearly a year without expecting any compensation. On top of my day job, I took on part-time roles with other startups, again, free of charge. The so-called "dirty work" was something I truly embraced and enjoyed, whether handling company registration documents, providing customer support, managing PPC ad campaigns, analyzing data on Google Sheets, or setting up process automation between teams.

Now, I've come to understand that PayMongo is just the first of many Philippine startups with which I will have the privilege to work with. I have assisted some in securing investment from angel investors and venture capital funds, helped others acquire their first set of customers, and for some, I've recruited top-tier talent. As I encounter more allies and uncover fellow dreamers, my energy and passion for pursuing my mission continue to flourish.

Instead, it’s a bunch of puzzle pieces

Reflecting on my journey, the experience of graduating from the ME program and serving in Sales at P&G gave me a unique perspective that remains rare in the tech industry. I continually challenged myself to not be limited by the confines of my role, striving to understand the broader impacts on other teams and the business as a whole. In addition, I developed the growing desire to transform complex topics into simple stories that anyone can understand. So when I tried to explain my work to my Dad, I forced him to watch the KDrama, "Start-Up" and told him that my dream was to be like "Good Boy" but for the Philippines.

Along the way, I discovered countless career opportunities in the tech industry for professionals who might not have a "technical" or software engineering background. I began in a sales role but gradually expanded my skillset to include strategies for customer acquisition, which was just as valuable as learning to code in a startup context.

It's encouraging to witness a growing number of talented individuals realizing their potential contributions to the startup ecosystem. Just last Christmas, I had a conversation with two younger alumni friends from Ateneo. They said that there's a growing interest among their peers in participating in the startup world, either by working at a startup, launching one, or facilitating funding through venture capital firms – an interesting shift compared to previous batches. Currently employed at different venture capital firms investing in the Philippines, they thanked me for "leading the way", sharing that my leap into the startup world encouraged them to pursue the same.

After PayMongo, I had the opportunity to collaborate with various startups across a diverse range of industries: gaming, web3, e-commerce, edtech, and logistics. At the same time, I continued to work with numerous investors, looking for promising startups for investment. I've also ventured into creating an NFT project based on the Wordle game and start an international exporting business for Islander Slippers. At present, I'm working on a project for people who already know how to create a website but struggle with grasping the concept of NFTs, to utilize the potential of NFTs easily. These are exciting times, I can't wait to share these stories in the future.

It's 1AM and I started writing this blog during my stay here in Canada in the cold weather, wearing socks and a sweater. I had just attended the wedding of my nephew, who owned the first iPhone that started it all. This blog is not to show that I've arrived or figured it all out, but because I desperately need people to join in my journey. Whatever I've accomplished in the past three years is only a small puzzle piece in the bigger picture. We've only just begun. Now that you're here, I ask you to follow along -- work with me, dream with me, pray for me, or cheer for me. Because one day, when your kid decides to build the next Facebook, Google or Amazon, you'd be thankful that he can do it from your home's garage.