By Sandhya Ramachandran
Cristian Munoz always loved taking risks. From the time he sold oranges and pineapples at his doorstep to the time he co-founded a company, entrepreneurship came quite naturally to this young Costa Rican.
It all began when Cristian moved to study in China in 2007. Inspired by the country’s successful growth and wealth of opportunities, he decided to take a plunge into entrepreneurship. He joined hands with his childhood partner-in-crime David Barrantes to co-found GC Ventures, a Hong Kong based firm, to consult worldwide and do business in and with China. Playing with his strengths of cross-border trade, he co-founded MSM Luxury Estates-China Division, and then served as a liaison and expansion partner for Elevate Lifestyle. After ten years in China, a year and a half ago, Cristian moved to Manila to lead the expansion of Tribe Theory in the Philippines.
While the Philippines has been emerging as a new startup magnet, it’s still at its nascent best. So, why the move, we inquire. “I know Manila is seen as a city that people go to check out bars or beach destinations in the Philippines. But, in terms of its location in Southeast Asia, it’s a really good hub that hasn’t been exploited. And on a personal level, I was in China for 10 years. That was a good milestone! I wanted to jump into a new emerging market countries in Asia and close to China. The Philippines was a good choice and a new adventure,” Cristian explains.
In recent times, the Philippines has seen a rise in the number of incubators and accelerators. But it is dominated by local players with only a small berth for non-natives to enter and build their business. Cristian agrees that it has not been easy — “The startup scene is separate for foreigners and locals. The legislation for a foreign entrepreneur is different and more restrictive. This is changing, opening up, and hopefully we’ll get to a point where there’ll be a similar process (to that of the locals). In the Philippines, it’s harder and takes longer to get into the circle of connections that makes entrepreneurs flourish. But, overall, I think very exciting things are going on (here) and the landscape is slowly changing for local and foreign entrepreneurs.”
Companies like Xurpas (mobile enterprise solutions), iRemit (money transfer) and Level Up! (online gaming) are putting the Philippines on the world startup map. What makes the place tick? Cristian believes that it is the young economy. But he is quick to add that “there are a lot of challenges. A lot of monopolies in many basic industries need to be disrupted. The younger generation will be the ones that will make that change happen. So, the talent and startup scene in the Philippines is very attractive for foreign and local companies.”
What works in Philippines’ favour is that the entrepreneurs themselves are open-minded and don’t discriminate between local and foreign. “They collaborate a lot. Even though they’re competitors, they are working together because it means more assets and a more entrepreneurial city.”
So, what is the Government’s take on all this? Are they supportive? “They are starting to (be supportive). There are some public and private initiatives to educate, develop some incubators and mentorship programs. Organizations like the Asian Development Bank are creating the curriculum on entrepreneurship and newer technology such as blockchain with the Government. But, I feel like the government needs to do more. It’s an advance, but if you’re comparing to (other) countries, they’re quite behind. So, they are slowly walking into a direction that makes it easier. Hopefully, they start generating more jobs and generating more interest, wealth and initiatives,” Cristian opines.
According to Cristian, the biggest roadblock is the legislation around setting up a company in the Philippines and how inflexible and long-winded the process can be. The Philippines Government is about to approve the proposed landmark Philippine Innovation Act and Innovative Startup Act to bring in a law to promote innovation in the Philippines. This will further improve ease of doing business in the country for people like Cristian. The law will also provide MSMEs and start-ups with a platform to flourish and create more jobs.
In a world saturated with multiple products chasing the same idea and dream, the Philippines does sound like a refreshing, unique and attractive market to build a startup ecosystem. A young developing economy is definitely an exciting ground. And many early adopters like Cristian are exploring and levelling the field for other entrepreneurs to follow. But is there a flip-side to being in the Philippines, we ask on a closing note. “The traffic,” he concedes.