At Echelon 2013 in Singapore, Australian online venture builder Pollenizer and Philippines-based startup incubator Kickstart Ventures have announced a strategic partnership that will bring Pollenizer’s lean startup methodologies into new companies being built and seeded jointly with Kickstart Ventures. With this joint venture, Pollenizer will provide training and capacity building to Philippine startup teams, as well as a path to market toward an Australian and global audience. Meanwhile, Kickstart will also facilitate Pollenized startups with a path to market into the Philippine ecosystem.
e27 met with Pollenizer co-founder and CEO Phil Morle and Kickstart Ventures president Minette Navarrete to get their perspective on this partnership, which they consider a synergy between the two ecosystems. With them were Christian Besler and Dan Siazon of Kickstart, as well as Isaac Souweine of Pollenizer. According to Phil, it’s about broadening the perspective of Philippine entrepreneurs, in that they should launch as global companies from day one. For Minette, the synergy is all about focusing on the right markets, rather than focusing too much on local efforts that might be challenging to scale.
A few takeaways:
- Both Kickstart and Pollenizer believe in collaboration rather than competition.
- Think of the next billion dollar idea, says Phil Morle.
- Think beyond your own geography or limited market, says Minette Navarrete.
- Create a “tribe” of like-minded people that help out each other.
- Both Pollenizer and Kickstart provide tools and capacity building that help entrepreneurs make the right decisions.
- Startups share the same problem: you can’t see yourself from the outside.
- “We build bridges and relationships.”
Read on for the full interview.
Phil, tell us something about Pollenizer, what you do and how you do it. What’s great about lean startup methodologies?
Phil: Pollenizer has been in the business of startups for more than five years. I’ve made more than 20 companies over that time. We invest money, time and effort into all that process. Over the years, we’ve found ways to reduce the risks, because we work with a lot of risks in a company’s lifetime. We do that a lot, so we’ve found how to reduce that as much as we can. We found that the lean process is an excellent way of doing that. That’s actually what led us to working with Minette and the Kickstart team. And that has led to a very close relationship with the ecosystem, especially the Kickstart ecosystem.
Minette: When Phil says Pollenizer creates companies and invests a lot of time and effort, that’s a great alignment of vision. Kickstart also does the same thing in the Philippine context. Obviously, we come with a different set of assets. Pollenizer has a lot of expertise in technical and lean aspects, which is very appropriate for the Philippine market. What Kickstart comes with is a corporate backer that has had a legacy of partnerships and successful entrepreneurship in the Philippines. The Ayala group has been around 180 years in the Philippines. Singtel, our major shareholder, has been around for quite some time, and we have a lot of assets that are infrastructure-driven.
It led us to find Pollenizer, which had some sessions in Singapore. We were looking for people who can complement the capabilities we are bringing into the Philippine ecosystem.
Pollenizer has worked with Kickstart before. Can you tell us what these activities entailed?
Minette: We’ve been around for just one year. Over that time, we invested in 10 companies. What Pollenizer has done is help us train these founders. We had someone come and look at the Philippines, and they say we have had an amazing growth over that period. A lot of that is a contribution that Pollenizer brings — they have expertise and run workshops. Phil and Isaac run capability building workshops with startup teams, sessions with the Ayala and with Globe teams. They bring a different perspective.
Phil: One of the things that would immediately strike you is the standard of entrepreneurship in the Philippines, which has Pollenizer excited. What we have actually done is provide some tools that strengthen Filipinos in-built entrepreneurship even further. This needs a strong instinctive approach, which is evident in the country. People in the Philippines think about building value, building a business, which can be important in starutps. The tools we have developed help sharpen that — these are immediately powerful among the Kickstart team.
Tell us more about this partnership. What will it entail? What does it mean for Kickstart, the Philippine startup ecosystem, Pollenizer, and perhaps Australian startups, as well?
Phil: This all began three years ago, when Singtel invested in one of our companies. Through that, we spent time in Southeast Asia. We were horrified that there were so much amazing stuff going on in the local community, and we had this sense of opportunity to come together and gel as one big group, which makes it more exciting and powerful. We spent last year with Isaac’s leadership here in Singapore trying to find ways to build those bridges more proactively. Over the last year, we’ve been mentoring the teams at Kickstart, looking for opportunities for them to come to Australia and some of the markets we’re working with. We’re also looking for ways for these entrepreneurs to come to the Philippines, but it’s been fairly informal.
We wanted to take it to the next level, and simply start building companies together, which, from the first moment of inception are focused on a global opportunity emanating out of the Philippines. It’s not so much as growing into the rest of the world — which will become important — but the first thought is about having a global perspective. So from the first day, teams from the Philippines will be working with people from around the region, looking for opportunities to expand, looking for lessons to be learned, and finding new edges they can get to get them an advantage.
Minette: One of the things you begin to realize in the technology entrepreneurship space is that, inherently, they can be global in scale. Startup founders tend to begin from their own perspective. It’s important that a mentor or investor understand what that context is. At the same time, part of our responsibility is to broaden their horizons. I think as mentors and incubators, we do two things. First, we break down barriers. We take away a lot of the risk by investing funds. We guide them, and share the stuff we’ve done — things that have worked and failed. The other thing is to build bridges. These could be that we open doors to corporate entities. It could be that we build relationships across different regions and countries.
We’re excited about the concept that this partnership with Pollenizer builds a bridge for the startup community to break through outside of the Philippines.
How does this work operationally?
Phil: There will be brand new companies completely collaborative between Kickstart and Pollenizer. We will be establishing some teams together as curators of the funds — which seems to be important. We will invite entrepreneurs to participate in turning those things into a reality. We are co-investing in businesses on the very first day using our process and our tools, and engaging in those businesses, as well as growing them through our network. I think the deeper benefit comes from the rest of the Kickstart companies, as well. We’re already talking about bringing some of them to Australia, and bringing our companies into the Philippines.
The thing with doing this is just start. That has always been the Pollenizer way, and Kickstart’s way, as well. You just start doing something, and that’s what the spirit of this relationship is. And things happen. Show up, and amazing things happen.
Minette: The transactional thing is yes: there will be funding, tools, and time provided by both companies. But the important thing really is that to build an ecosystem, you have to give first before you take. I think what we love about working with Pollenizer is the same “can do, will do, will do now” attitude. We’ve signed a contract, sure. It outlines responsibilities and expectations. But what’s more important is we do what needs to be done. If that’s not covered by the contract, we’ll find a way to get it done.
What are the challenges you see for startups in the Philippines, based on your observations from differences among countries in the region?
Phil: Startups in the Philippines have the same problems that startups in other countries have: you can’t see yourself from the outside. The extraordinary thing about coming into the Philippines is that it’s an incredible market: a super-connected mobile market, and a nice mix of developing and developed markets together, which is exciting. In a way, it’s more exciting than the Australia ecosystem, which is significantly smaller and less diverse. We want to help the companies really learn from their own market and make something that works locally, but have an awareness what we call the “top right” in Pollenizer, where the company should have an ambition.
For instance, in a room full of entrepreneurs in Israel, if you ask who is growing a billion dollar business, you see a lot of hands. But in the Philippines and even Singapore, perhaps this is not the perspective yet. We want to change this perspective. The next billion dollar business in the world could be based in Manila, and not San Francisco. Having that sense of horizon is something we want to bring in. We also want to bring a much broader surface area of a tangible network and connectivity. One of the things we tell investors is what can mean life or death to a startup can be a single connection or node in the network that can help them survive or take the next step to success. This is how Kickstart works, as well, so we are, in effect, doubling our surface area, which means doubling the chances for each company.
Minette: And like in any network, it’s a multiplicative or exponential thing. We’re excited about the fact that synergies are strong, because we are different from each other, although the objectives are the same. The values are shared, and this helps bring a gift — when you look at each individual, the capabilities are different. It helps to broaden the founder’s perspective to understand that there’s not just the one way to do something. It’s not going to be prescriptive where we tell founders to do this and that. It’s about providing them with tools, the outlook, the perspective, the opportunities and the ability to do things for themselves, that perhaps they might not realize exist. It’s about sharing capabilities and helping them build themselves a billion dollar business and a billion dollar perspective.
Are you also partnering with other groups in the region aside from Kickstart?
Phil: The Philippines is our obsession at the moment. We certainly think that the market in Southeast Asia is a distributed market, with different countries doing slightly different things. This relationship is a lean startup relationship, so we approach this like a minimum viable product: release a version, try to make it as successful as we can, and find a model that works with other countries.
For now the focus on MVP and to make it work.
What’s in it for the current Kickstart portfolio or for new founders who want to get started?
Phil: It’s a new opportunity to start a genuinely internationally-based company on the first day, and to meet amazing mentors. The gift I’m going to give to the rest of Pollenizer is this strong relationship with the Philippines. I think the rest of our portfolio is going to learn from that greatly, and I think the opportunity for the Kickstart teams, the Launch Garage teams, and the Pollenizer teams is a new context that makes it something more real and not all talk anymore. It’s action now — this is the beginning of what the ecosystem is going to turn into. And that’s going to open up opportunities for people.
As an example, five years ago, if you wanted to build a global company and establish it in other markets, your only choice was to raise a lot of money, go to the country, find a lot of people there and setup a local office. It makes it not possible to start things for many people. With strong relationships and bridges being built, it’s possible to quickly find joint ventures in other countries, and do what friends do for each other, because they already know each other. Get that thing going — that’s how startups work. And because you don’t know which startups are going to work out and which ones are going to die, you can spin off these ideas into different regions, and perhaps get different results. In a sense, it’s a distributed global model happening very quickly.
In the M&A world, for instance, it is important for startups to have that big a surface area in their network. For example, a company in Sydney, Manila and Jakarta might be doing the same things. Taking their businesses internationally will open up a whole bunch of opportunities.
Can you say that the partnership has been going on and you’re formalizing it just now?
Minette: It has multiple dimensions and layers. On one hand, there are the workshops and relationships. While the workshops are over, Pollenizer has continued to support Kickstart and Launch Garage portfolio companies. We’re now looking at another of engaging, such as by seeding new teams together. Everything runs in parallel. The nature of innovation is such that you don’t have everything in neat boxes. As long as the intentions are aligned, we can start a number of good companies in the Philippines and maybe Australia, and do cross-pollination across the region.
Do you have standard terms for startups in your portfolio?
Phil: We’re working out details, but we’re aligned on the need for the entrepreneur to be in control and empowered to make their own business decisions. The entrepreneurs have to feel like there is a big prize to be won if they work harder and stay committed. We will believe in them and make sure it happens.
What can you say about the regional ecosystem?
Phil: I can say that Echelon is the visual crystallization of everything that’s happening. We were here last year, and it was a fraction of the size now. You can feel it all starting to happen then. But now, there are high-quality relationships: important people meeting important people, startups being helped the right way, the right connections being made. You can see the regional ecosystem in play now. What you realize is that all the conversations happening through the year are now becoming actualized.
What can we do better?
Phil: What I do see is that sometimes people succumb to the competitive and proprietary instinct. Our partnership with Kickstart is an example of going against that. At the heart of a really successful ecosystem is the collaborative world in which people help each other. And this is something that you feel very much if you go to Silicon Valley. When people keep things private or competitive, it doesn’t really help. When people help each other and get together to help, that’s when the tide comes in and all the boats rise, so to speak.
We had an interesting thing between Australia and Los Angeles, because we share the same Silicon Beach, as a mantle for the ecosystem. LA completely took that off us by doing something really simple by saying that as an ecosystem, we will always use this hashtag, #siliconbeach on everything that we do. This created a tribe of people who are all trying to help each other. That was a very powerful, yet simple, thing — making sure all the events happen and everyone has a voice to just stand up and say “I’m doing something, and you might have help I need,” or “Please come to my event.” This is happening well in the Philippines.
These are simple, yet vital, things that help us.
As for a cultural aspect, are Asians less collaborative?
Minette: I think the business ethos is more traditional in Asia, which is why it’s counter-intuitive to be open and collaborative. A classic example: Pollenizer and Kickstart could go on our own ways and make individual investments separately from each other, and in that sense compete for the same pool of talent. But why would we do that when there’s just so much more we can do together.
Another thing, from a media standpoint, getting the facts out there and creating a shared perspective around what is and what isn’t working — because the startup and technopreneur trends are in fact in Asia early-stage ones, there is a lot of smoke-and-mirrors, hype and heat. It’s important for people to understand what is really happening and what’s not. There’s a lot of hustle both from startup founders and also from incubators and investors. To get the baseline data out there is important so that people can make truly informed judgements. Sometimes it’s about creating a behavior that is based on objective facts, and calling out behavior that is unacceptable in the ecosystem.
Media has a big role in helping to create a culture and to shape behaviors. And I think I would look to the likes of e27 in terms of getting out the facts and helping talk about and shape the behaviors and shaping perspectives.
What’s in it for you five to ten years from now?
Phil: I think there will be a few billion plus dollar companies in this region. Hopefully one of them would come out of Pollenizer and Kickstart. It’s happening now. In Australia today, there are probably about 20 companies with US$100 million plus capitalization that did not exist 10 years ago. They’ve grown incredible lengths because of globalization and online trends, such as low customer acquisition cost and ease of distribution. This is a window of opportunity for startups, which will be closed in three years.
Minette: We’re looking for proofs of concept from the Philippines. If you look at the Philippines, the people in this space who have launched and had exits, they have had a Philippine perspective, and the value is relatively constrained. When a startup grows only for the Philippine market, it’s a good valuation, but not a spectacular one if it’s not a global player. This is why from the beginning, it should be designed to go beyond borders and to break that barrier.
Dan: Be a good test of demand from an overseas market. That would drive up the value.
Minette: It’s not just the geography that matters, but it’s the market. To create something that addresses the larger market — whether it’s local, global, emerging or developed, consider a market outside of a subsection of the Philippine population, that will have a big value not only for us but for the Philippines as a country.