How can tech companies in Southeast Asia compete with those from China? The latter, after all, boasts of the most unicorns in Asia Pacific – 164 in all by a recent report. Tech companies in China have a relatively easier time reaching the billion dollar valuation because of the country’s massive population, with its rapidly growing middle class and improving digital ecosystem. Chinese founders, in short, can build a massive tech company entirely within their own borders.

Founders in Southeast Asia face a tougher situation. Because the 10 member-states of ASEAN have much smaller populations, any founder that wants to scale their tech startup must almost always expand overseas, bringing with it the attendant challenges of localisation and managing country operations from an overseas headquarters. You tend to see founders from Southeast Asia pursue a leapfrogging strategy early on in their venture’s history, opening up market after market in the region in the hope of reaching scale for the overall business.

But what if founders in Southeast Asia didn’t have to pursue this strategy? The Philippines, in particular, presents a unique case study, as the country has 100 million people living across the archipelago, but another 10 million people living abroad as overseas foreign workers (OFWs). These OFWs tend to work in economies with higher value currencies than the Philippines, enabling them to send money to loved ones back home in the form of remittances, usually sent via Western Union or other wire-transfer services.

Though this Filipino diaspora presents unique opportunities for digital entrepreneurs, no tech company has seriously tried to tap into this market. The first is arguably livestreaming and content mobile app Kumu, which I am a proud early user of. Kumu unites Filipinos in the Philippines and around the world through both content and commerce (thus circumventing the need to physically expand to other countries in the region, as founders in Southeast Asia are typically forced to do).

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Kumu’s content is highly specific to the Filipino experience. Current livestreamers include Malaya Macaraeg, who delivers Bisaya-focused news on behalf of BaiTV; model, singer-songwriter, and Filipino entertainment industry insider Mica Javier, and DJ Skratchmark and club owner Angelo Mendez – better known as 2 Blocks from Burgos – who guide viewers into Manila’s nightlife and culture. The flagship livestream of Kumu is Quiz Mo Ko, a trivia gameshow where users can compete for a cash prize. In addition to these notable livestreams, Kumu has communities where a global Filipino audience can discussed shared interests, such as the country’s startup scene, Filipino food, or even our mythology.

The most interesting aspect of Kumu — at least for other entrepreneurs — is in how the company will monetise. Earlier this month, the company announced that they will soon launch a tipping and gifting feature, enabling users to tip any livestreamer whose content they particularly like, much in the same way that fans do for their favorite gamers on Twitch. Kumu will take a small cut every time a person uses real money to top-up coins they can tip and gift with in-app, which is significant in the aggregate — the tipping economy is indeed a lot larger than many people realise.

As CEO Roland Ros noted, the tipping economy is set to overtake box office revenues in China. It’s thus only natural for him to hope the same bullish trend may occur for global Filipinos. Filipinos are way more diffuse than other cultures, as our people at home are spread over 7,000 plus islands, and our OFWs are distributed across almost every nation on earth. Filipinos would thus seem to have a stronger impetus to connect with one another through a livestreaming app like Kumu. This is the hypothesis that Ros — and co-founders Rexy Dorado, Andrew Pineda, and Clare Ros — are staking the company’s young future on, and other founders in Southeast Asia should take notice.

Rather than default into immediately thinking they need to expand to our neighbors in Southeast Asia, they should also consider how they might better tap their communities abroad, catalysing growth through culture rather than geography. This is what I myself am trying to achieve through TripZeeker, an online bazaar of travel experiences. Though the platform offers tours around the world, we feature Southeast Asia and East Asia as a focus. Rather than rely on opening up offices in these markets to facilitate growth, we’ve instead concentrated our efforts in promoting the adventure-seeking culture across the globe.

Founders in the earlier stages of their venture’s journey can apply this thinking even further: What kind of product could they build that is less reliant on country-by-country-style scaling and more dependent on cultural lines that transcend national borders?

There are surely plenty of opportunities to be unearthed in this examination that we have yet to find because we are so focused on successfully importing business models from one market to the next. There is promise, in short, in a much richer confluence between culture and technology, which in the argots of the latter, could yield even a rise in “culture-tech.”


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Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash