If you examine the company descriptions of our local startups, you’re very likely to encounter a curious phenomenon. Quite often, they will position themselves with descriptors like these: “first in the Philippines” or “proudly made in the Philippines” or “the only X in the Philippines”.
In other words, startups will boast about how they are created locally as an appeal to their stakeholders.
When I first conceived of taxi-hailing platform MiCab in 2012, I’ll admit I was also tempted to default to this kind of branding. Since I was born and raised in Cebu, and I developed MiCab with Kenneth Baylosis at Startup Weekend Cebu, I wanted to point out that our company was “Cebu-born” in all our collaterals, from our website to our pitch decks.
My thinking was that if people in Cebu, our initial launch city, knew that MiCab was made by Cebuanos, they would be more likely to become regular users of our service rather than foreign competitors. Just as American mom-and-pop shops might appeal to neighbors to support them with the mantra of “buy local”, I effectively wanted my fellow Cebuanos, and later all Filipinos, to “ride local”.
I was mistaken. I made it as far as putting the Cebu-based branding on a pitch deck, before realizing how misguided the approach was.
My title slide — I remember it so clearly even now — superimposed the MiCab logo over a backdrop of a map of the Philippines. The visuals left no room for interpretation — If you are a proud Filipino, you’ll support MiCab — and much of the wording throughout the presentation expressed the same idea in so many words.
I actually presented this pitch deck to a potential investor who had flown in to Cebu, and who I would hasten to add, was not Filipino. After I made my presentation, he asked me if I knew where my television was made. Thrown off by the seemingly random question, I told him I had no idea. Then he asked me whether I knew where my air conditioner was made, or my fridge, or even my work table.
His rapid-fire questioning left me no room to answer, and that in a way was its own answer: I did not know where any of those items came from because I bought them and continued to use them on the basis of their functionality and functionality alone.
Whether my work table came from Tarlac or Timbuktu was immaterial, so long as it met certain requirements in quality and craftsmanship.
Though he did not drive home the message any further that day — he quickly proceeded into other questions — the idea has stuck with me since then: No one cares where your startup is from. You should distinguish your company not through the geography of your founders, but through the greatness of your products.
It’s this message that I’ve tried to internalize as I’ve built MiCab over the past five years. Other than indicating the areas in the Philippines we serve (now Cebu, Iloilo, Manila and soon Davao), we lay no claim to our roots in Cebu in particular or even the Philippines in general.
I’ve instead tried to distinguish MiCab, along with the support of our now twenty-strong team, through our product alone. As an example, while we are ostensibly a taxi-hailing platform, the customer experience of MiCab does not end when a cab is booked, but extends to the moment a cab driver picks you up from your origin point and concludes only when he drops you off safely at your destination.
To this end, we’ve gone to great lengths to put cab drivers on the MiCab platform through a rigorous training regimen that teaches them how to do everything from opening doors for passengers all the way to giving exact change, unprompted.
Emphasis on details like these is how we strive to win the hearts and minds of our users. The fact that we are from Cebu is only window dressing to the greater goal of getting them comfortably, conveniently, and safely to where they need to go.
I share my experiences shifting the product marketing of MiCab as an appeal to my fellow founders in the Philippines. It’s easy, as I once did, to default your startup’s brand positioning to simply a matter of place — for it does not take much effort to be made in Philippines, the first company of your kind in the Philippines, or the only company of your kind the Philippines.
What matters much more are the corollaries to these usual platitudes: That even if you are made in the Philippines, you can excel enough to expand to other markets. That even if you are the first company of your kind here, you can compete when other international players move into town. That even if you are the only company of your kind now, you are still innovating for your users while the monopoly lasts.
In other words, categorizing ourselves as Filipino or Philippine-made is an artificial limitation on the fact that each and every one of us should be ready to compete on the world stage.
The author is the co-founder of taxi-hailing app MiCab