Why This British Founder Left His Country to Build Start-ups in the Philippines

It’s the crazy energy of the people

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BY Adelle Chua - 15 Mar 2017

philippine startups

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Thirty-three-year-old Phil Smithson grew up in a small village called Kirkbride in the United Kingdom. He recalls going out the door of his home and staring into wide fields, with sheep and cows milling about. “There were about 480 people in our town,” he says.

He never once imagined that he would find himself halfway around the world, living in a crowded city like Manila and running businesses from there.

He came to the Philippines in 2009, during his junior year in university. He was an intern for a software engineering company. He was a shy twenty-something who found the people friendly, “going out of their way to make you feel you belong.”

He came back after graduation and worked in that same company and later on moved to digital advertising, SEO, analytics and web development. He amassed experience, immersed himself in the culture, and learned the language by conversing with his colleagues.

And then he felt he was no longer doing what he was supposed to do.


Building a business out of empathy

With friends, Smithson set up a company called On-Off for service design. “Everything we do involves looking at what the customer needs.”

For example, having online or mobile presence does not just involve setting up a website, having an app that can be downloaded, and having forms available for customers to fill out with their concerns. It’s what one does with the information, offline as well as online, that would engage the customers. They will not spend precious hours waiting for their turn, or be passed along from employee to employee when they raise their concerns.

“Empathizing is a big part of our process,” he says.

On-Off has 10 staff members. Another two employees are with Learn Tagalog Fast – another company set up for expatriates who want to learn conversational Tagalog, taught through practical settings: ordering at a restaurant, introducing oneself, or attending meetings. The idea was borne out of Smithson’s desire to learn the language. “I am, myself, the customer. I know what they need,” he says.

He speaks fluent Tagalog.

Recently, too, Smithson started a venture manufacturing office desks covered in white board – perfect for start-ups whose minds brim with ideas that need to be jotted down, fast.

Smithson has lived in Manila a total of eight years. He wants to stay because of the “crazy energy” of the people, his people, who are committed to their jobs, take things seriously and care about the same things as he does.


Missing home, staying put

So what does he miss most about his country? “The open spaces,” he says. “This is why I go trekking, to the mountains, to Sagada.” The expanse makes him feel as if he were home. He also misses his brother, sister, and parents, all of whom have visited him but say the Philippines is “too far, and too hot.”

Most of all, living in Asia has shattered whatever conceptions he may have developed in his secure upbringing in the UK. “For 20 years you live in this bubble and believe that people do things a certain way, like kids leaving home to be on their own as soon as they can,” he says.

“And then you go to another place and see, here nobody wants to leave their home and family ties are quite strong. There are ways of doing things and one is not necessarily better than another. It’s just different. And then you realize, how many other ways are there?”

“It really opens your mind,” he says.

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