“When I invest on friends’ startups, I usually ask one question: “Are you going to be managing this thing one hundred percent and giving up your day job?” If the answer is yes, then I look into the investment. If the answer is no, then I don’t invest. This is because if they give up their day job, then they have more at stake than I do. But if they will hire a manager, it is easier for them to lose money because they didn’t put their whole effort into it.”
-Jones Castro, PhilDev Executive Vice Chairman
Jones Castro is the Executive Vice-Chairman of PhilDev. Jones is also an Independent Director of BDO. He has 39 years of banking expertise, with 32 years of international banking experience. He served as Area Head for South and Southeast Asia of Wells Fargo Bank, San Francisco from 2009 to 2011. From 2006 to 2009, he was Regional Head for Latin America and the Caribbean, of Wachovia Bank in Miami and managed 25 countries, 3 overseas offices, 30 team members and US$1.8 billion in loans.
Being one of the most hands-on trustees of PhilDev, heavily involved in the management and operations, we sat down with Jones for a brief chat about his experience working with an organization like PhilDev and his views on the tech and innovation landscape in the Philippines.
How does your work experience contribute to the goals of PhilDev?
A bit of a background, I am not an entrepreneur, I’m not an engineer. I’m a misfit as far as PhilDev is concerned. But my experience is more on managerial and financial.
My contribution to PhilDev internally is the management of PhilDev and focusing on the financial side. On the external side, I help contribute to startups by helping them with the financial planning or the business planning.
One thing which I think is missing on the part of the entrepreneurs, when they do the business plan and financial planning, the revenues are still so optimistic, and the revenues are understated. There’s little contingency planning. So the question is what if the revenues are delayed but your expenses continue? That, for me, is contingency planning and that is where I can contribute internally and externally.
What do you love most about working for an organization like PhilDev?
In other organizations I’ve worked with, there is an established infrastructure. There’s an established support system, particularly as far as administration is concerned. That’s not exactly the case with PhilDev, and you adjust as you go along because you may not have the expertise, but you need to know where the expertise is, or you need to deduce what you need to do.
PhilDev in a sense is a startup, not a startup from the point of view of coming up with a product, vetting the market, or commercializing the products. But in a sense, it is a startup: you have a concept, you need to vet the concept [so] that people find value in your concept, and then market that concept and get funding for that concept. So, in a sense it is a startup although it is not really for profit.
What I find interesting there is you can’t be complacent; you can’t sit down because you have the cash. You have to be more judicious, more discriminatory as to how to spend your meager funds. And that is a challenge because if you know you have the money, perhaps you are not as creative or as desperate—which is exactly what an entrepreneur is, you have to be creative.
How do you think the education system in the Philippines can further improve?
It’s multi-faceted and involves the academe, government, and the private sector.
The purpose of the academe is to develop the youth into a complete individual. Our focus in the Philippines is to develop individuals who are “specialists” as opposed to generalists. For me, someone who goes into undergrad has an opportunity to learn without the major liabilities or responsibilities that a person who graduates or with a family would have. It’s a time to explore, a time to make mistakes because it’s the least negative impact, the least cost. It’s a time to grow because it has the most opportunity to learn. The question is should a person who goes to undergrad have a specialization? Yes, they have their majors. But they should also be exposed to as many facets of life as possible.
So,what can the government do? As for the government, I think our educational agencies here in the Philippines are very restrictive. For example, 80-90% of the courses under Engineering are focused on Engineering. Based on that concept, we should be, as Engineers, superior among graduates of Engineering from anywhere around the world. But we’re not. We’re good but we’re not so far ahead. In the US, 2/3 of the courses in Engineering are for their engineering majors while 1/3 is for general education, requiring them to be exposed in other areas. I think that restrictive view in the Philippines needs to be changed.
The private sector and the academe should talk to each other more. The academe should look at the trend and change their courses in order to produce students that the industry will need. In some cases, there is distrust between the two. With that distrust, there is no discussion. It’s like a bridge. The academe starts at one end and the industry on the other. They meet but not 100% and I think that’s the improvement needed from both sides.
What advice can you give younger students and fresh graduates?
Different individuals have different characters. I am more on the conservative side and would classify myself as a pessimist-realist. I am more on the negative side and there are others who are more on the optimistic side. If I were to do it over again, probably right after graduating from college, I would be more on the optimistic and adventurous side.
In the US, in highschool, you’re still at home but when you’re in college you’re out of the house. College, to me, is the more exciting time of someone’s life because you don’t have any liabilities. All you have to do is learn and pass. When you graduate, you now have newfound income that you never had before but you still don’t have liabilities. You end up spending and enjoying, but you’re still learning. The learning curve is almost perpendicular as you go on your first and second job. Then, you start having a family and start settling. The learning curve is still there but you have less disposable income.
I would advise some of the graduates to explore, be adventurous, fail. But learn from it [failure]. Don’t just fail for the sake of failing. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to take risks but take calculated risks. If you knew the probability of the outcomes of your decisions, then you can make a calculated decision. If you don’t succeed, figure out what you could have done better.
The other thing, and this is difficult, ask yourself where you want to be five years from now and which skill sets would you have/need/developed by then? It’s basically a gap analysis. If you know what the gap is then you would know how to get there in five years. When I was young, I used to do this exercise every three years. Not everything is under your control though, and this could impact your five years but if you knew what you wanted to do then that’s within your control. It gives you the options and focus.
What do you think about innovations in the Philippines?
I think they are limited. It’s like choosing a restaurant. You go into a restaurant and you only have two pages on the menu, then I take you to an equally good restaurant with five pages in the menu. And I take you to a third restaurant with the same cost, same, quality, same taste but has 20 pages. You will lean more from the restaurant with the 20-page menu. Some people take a look at the global trends [in innovation] and they do that and improve on it. If you’re exposed to only two or three, whatever you might think as an improvement, someone has already done.
If you think about it, how many of the ones innovated in the Philippines have been educated and trained here? How many have been educated and trained abroad and came back because they have been exposed to other things? I’m not saying it’s one over the other, but the more we are exposed, the better the innovation we can produce. We need a larger S&T base that is equal to what is happening outside the Philippines. Then I think our innovation will be better.
The other part is equipment. It takes us forever to import equipment. By the time they already import the equipment, it’s already passé. It’s a combination of the rules, regulations, and the bureaucracy in order to get access to that equipment. In terms of infrastructure, compared to other countries like Korea, they’re bandwidth for their internet is far ahead than ours here. If a Korean wants to get information, they can get it in an hour whereas it will take us 12 hours. This means that if we both have 12 hours in a day, he already has 11 hours of research ahead of us. So, our innovative capacity is impacted.
Where do you see the trend of tech in the Philippines going in the next few years?
I think the advantage that we have over some countries is that we can catch up. If you take a new innovation, you can leapfrog. Those that are into massive database systems they can leapfrog and catch up. We need to proper support from the government, with the same focus as the entrepreneurs. We need the proper support and partnership with the private industries. If we have a conducive and attractive private sector, companies will come here and invest.
Neighboring countries allow 100% ownership but in the Philippines the maximum is only 40%. So why should they come here and not go to Thailand instead where they can own 100%? This is meant to protect our people because we do not want them [foreign entities] to take and siphon our people. But they are the ones providing jobs to the people, infrastructure and the exposure to new technologies and innovation. Ideas we can create, but if we don’t have the ideas, infrastructure or the expertise, our creativity remain latent. If we make it easy for them to come in, including their equipment, then they hire people and people learn from that technology and would improve on that. The government should make it conducive.
Where do you see the Philippines in 15-20 years? How does PhilDev’s mission feed into this?
When we say eradicating poverty, that’s an absolute mission. But I don’t think we, or any country, will ever eradicate poverty. That is a relative number. Let’s say 30,000 is the poverty line, 20 years ago maybe it was 10,000. Maybe 20 years ago, that 10,000 would have bought more. The values are relative. But that changes because of inflation and the whole population. There will always be a poverty line. So, no country will be able to achieve that.
When we talk about eradicating poverty or reducing poverty such that there’s a bigger base of people above it versus people below it, then I think that makes a difference. But that means then that the gap then between the poverty line to the top has to be less or you really bring people above the poverty line. I think the challenge for us is to make sure that gap doesn’t increase, to make sure that the more people are above that poverty line.
If people work for large corporations as employees compared to people given the opportunity to have their own startups, then we have a better chance of reducing or eradicating poverty in the relative sense. But having said that, they have to be trained, they have to be given the opportunity to access capital, and we also have to change the culture of being trained to work for a company.
I think it will make a difference looking at it from the point of view of education as the foundation. Along with easy access to equipment, access to research and better techniques, we become more innovative. Lastly, we need to learn to commercialize that. Which means making access to capital easier. In the US, startups really use up their credit cards. Here we have entrepreneurs who have rich parents, but if you do not have that, you have very limited access to capital. How many students who want to go into startups have a high credit limit? Limited.
What does success for PhilDev look like for you?
Measuring success is a very difficult metric to come up with. Depending on perspective, it could be about getting an IPO, or increasing the S&T base. I consider the establishment of Technopreneurship 101 course as tremendous success because all Engineering students will be exposed to it and then they can decide to learn more, following the tech track.
For the education pillar, beyond the Technopreneurship 101, beyond the tech track, and beyond the TechHub, if at that point the academe is able to work with each other, the private sector and the government such that students will learn without being afraid and having the access to capital support, then that to me is a living, breathing, success.
The innovation pillar to me is the trickiest of the three. You will need the facility and mentorship. If you can come up with an innovative solution that will address the problem of 105 million Filipinos then that in itself is success. And if you have 105 million Filipinos, you probably have a million to a billion who are on the same boat, from Africa and the rest of Asia. That becomes your second market. If we get to the level that the innovation that we have impacts our society or Asia, then I think we are successful with the innovation.
The entrepreneurship pillar on the other hand, for me, is more educational. Venture capitalists would say that there are not a lot of good ideas in the Philippines but then our startups would say there is not enough capital. I think they are both right and both wrong. From the entrepreneurs’ side, maybe we haven’t studied the market or competition enough or haven’t thought of the concept well, or maybe we don’t present the idea well. From the investors’ side, some of them don’t know what they are looking for. They have money but they don’t like the way it was presented because there is too much risk. So, the key is to tap into angel investors or individual investors. These are friends and family who are willing to invest on your business.
When I invest on friends’ startups, I usually ask one question: “Are you going to be managing this thing one hundred percent and giving up your day job?” If the answer is yes, then I look into the investment. If the answer is no, then I don’t invest. This is because if they give up their day job, then they have more at stake than I do. But if they will hire a manager, it is easier for them to lose money because they didn’t put their whole effort into it.
We can raise the standards by educating both the investors and the entrepreneurs. You can’t teach ideas to people but you can teach them how to make good presentations and create contingencies, for the investors to better understand what they are looking at.