APEC SME Summit 2015: Lessons from Xurpas, Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Even with limited resources, an online startup can be a viable business given the right people and a creative approach to solving problems.

This was the message of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and Xurpas president Nix Nolledo to delegates attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) on Tuesday, November 17.

The two leaders discussed how they used technology to try out new ideas that eventually became the cornerstone of their companies' brands.

In his talk, Nolledo shared about his beginnings with the massively successful online message board PinoyExchange.com in 1999. (Editor's note: Nolledo is a member of the Rappler Board.)

While he did not have a background in technology or even website coding, Nolledo knew that the challenge for PinoyExchange.com was to figure out how to attract an online community, build a following, and do all of these with limited resources.

His solution: to tap into the local enthusiasm for college athletics. PinoyExchange.com became the popular online message board for Filipinos to post their comments and discussions on the UAAP games – a move that led to the message board's exponential growth.

In a Q&A portion, the Xurpas CEO said that having limited resources actually worked in their favor, forcing them to think up a creative solution to the problem without spending too much.

"There are a lot of startups that are good at fundraising but not at iterating their business model. We had the benefit of spending a lot of time thinking about how to craft an experience to get the broadest audience and market penetration," he said.

After noticing trends in the boom of mobile phone use and anticipating the rise of mobile businesses and content, Nolledo and his partners formed Xurpas, a company that specializes in the creation of digital products and services for mobile phone end-users.

Xurpas debuted on the Philippine Stock Exchange in December 2014.

TAPPING SOCIAL MEDIA. Rappler CEO Maria Ressa says social media and technology combine for social good in Rappler. Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

TAPPING SOCIAL MEDIA. Rappler CEO Maria Ressa says social media and technology combine for social good in Rappler.

Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

Online clamor, offline changes

How do you create social change through journalism – but with limited resources?

The power of an online community and the reach of social media are behind the growth of news website Rappler, Ressa said.

Rappler started off with limited resources, a handful of veteran journalists who "wanted to try new things," and 20-something "digital natives" who knew how to recognize and harness the power of social media.

For Ressa, social media was a "gamechanger" that had the power to affect offline, real world behavior.

She cited how terrorism has recognized this potential – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), for instance, is one of the most prolific social media users, having learned how to successfully use the technology to convince teenagers and schoolgirls to go to Syria to join their fight.

"I think, and we've seen it, that we can go on social media and change reality," Ressa said.

She also cited how online clamor worked for the good, as in the case of Mary Jane Veloso, the Filipina sentenced to death in Indonesia.

Veloso was arrested in 2010 for carrying heroin, but she said,  she was duped into carrying drugs by an international drug syndicate. 

Ressa recalled how a Rappler staff member approached her just days before Veloso's scheduled execution, and helped launch the successful #SaveMaryJane campaign that later became #MaryJaneLives. 

Ressa admitted that she was not sure that the campaign would work – but at the eleventh hour, Veloso was spared from the firing squad.

Recalling this, Ressa said: "When you connect to people on social media, it can show us how we can move society to act."

Barriers for MSMEs

All of these changes happened over the last few years, and both Ressa and Nolledo believe that the fast pace of improvements in technology holds promise for more social change.

"We can use technology to solve age-old problems," Ressa said. "Your mobile phone can end political, social, and financial exclusion."

In the Philippines, start-ups are starting to tap into technology to get their businesses off the ground, but offline barriers remain. 

During the Q&A session, Nolledo and Ressa were asked what the administration of President Benigno Aquino III can do to support SMEs.

In a speech opening Tuesday's summit, Aquino flaunted his administration's efforts to promote micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which he said comprised over 99% of all business enterprises in the Philippines and accounted for 63.7% of total employment.

Aquino cited the Magna Carta for MSMEs, Shared Service Facilities, the participation of the private sector, and the Access of Small Enterprises to Sound Lending Opportunities or ASENSO. 

For Nolledo, access to capital remains the big gamechanger, with many MSMEs facing limited access to bank credit and having difficulty getting bank loans.

This has been a persistent problem across Asia and the Pacific. According to an Asian Development Bank report, lending to SMEs declined in 2008 and 2014 due to global financial crisis. 

For Ressa, fixing systems and making laws SME-friendly is also key to success. 

"We need to get rid of barriers that stop us from doing business, our antiquated laws and lack of systems. Imagine what more we can do," she said. – Rappler.com