Pandemic unleashes flurry of new Filipino entrepreneurs

By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

AUDREY CRUZ was one of the many Filipinos who sold pans of sushi bake at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

She and her team have since transitioned to Mexican food with OnlyPans, and the small pandemic-born business now boasts of two brick-and-mortar stores near the Philippine capital.

The business has also caught the attention of mainstream media and now has a large following on social media — about 28,000 followers on Instagram.

“I only had P3,000 with me as a thrifty corporate worker,” she told BusinessWorld in an e-mail, referring to her seed money. “That was my last money before pay day. I gave in, bought the items, created a sushi bake pan and sent it to friends. The next day, they were asking me to sell it.”

Everything started online and the business thrived as a cloud kitchen, Ms. Cruz said. She opened her first store in La Union province in northern Philippines and transferred earlier this year to Poblacion, a lively area in the financial district of Makati that’s home to backpacker lodgings and avant-garde art galleries.

Ms. Cruz was one of many who jumped on trends during the early years of the pandemic, when people were trapped in their homes amid state-imposed lockdowns.

Back then, many people honed their skills and some managed to parlay these into microenterprises.

For all the economic damage caused by the global pandemic, there has been an unexpected bright spot — a surge in entrepreneurship.

Micro, small and medium enterprises rose by 13% to 1.076 million from a year earlier, accounting for 99.5% of Philippine businesses, according to the Trade department.

Almost half of the 1.08 million Philippine businesses registered in 2020 and 2021, creating jobs for 2.2 million Filipinos, data from the local statistics agency showed.

The extraordinary conditions of a global pandemic lent differing results for micro and small entrepreneurs.

Economic researcher Miro Capili picked up on a pandemic food trend — burnt Basque cheesecakes under home-based Done Well Bakery.

“Our peak was 50 cakes a week — not bad for a 60-inch family oven and a basic KitchenAid,” she said in an e-mail. “Our best season was the week of Father’s Day and the run-up to the holidays.

Unfortunately, the business closed at the end of 2020.

“I had kept my full-time job the whole time I ran the business,” she said. “I was operating out of our condo in Rockwell, so it was a few square feet of space for the whole operation. It was difficult to scale and make operations efficient. So when work got busy, I ran out of time to take orders, and the bakery died a natural death.”

Chrisxavior Bautista Aguila, behind the leatherware brand SATO, picked up crafting during the early months of the pandemic. Not satisfied with his own wallet, he taught himself how to make one.

Mr. Aguila now has about 4,300 followers on his online store on Instagram, and has since expanded his product line from small leather goods to bags.

“I’ve thought of pursuing my dream and starting SATO long before the pandemic happened. I already have a timeline,” he told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.

The entrepreneurs all spoke of the difficulties they faced in opening a business during the crisis.

“It was a very, very tough journey,” Ms. Cruz said. “We had to close down our La Union branch many times because there were no customers when there was a lockdown.”

She thought of giving up the business, but she persisted because of the support of her business partners.

“They invested in me because they knew I could do it, in those times. I felt my team really believed in me. That was the thing that brought me here now,” she added.

The pause provided by the pandemic opened up opportunities for entrepreneurs. But even with time as capital, conditions were far from ideal, Ms. Capili said.

Global supply chain issues and lockdowns affected her home-based business.

“I had to recalibrate and test my recipe every time my preferred cream cheese brand was unavailable,” she said.

But she looks back with fondness. “Baking gave me a way to rechannel the existential dread brought on by the pandemic, and it was a pure form of joy to make people happy with your own recipe. Those two conditions were enough.”

Mr. Aguila was a little more optimistic. “I saw the pandemic in a different light — with eyes wide open — as the great beginning. The pandemic was and is the perfect opportunity to build a long-lasting relationship with your clients.”

“I call it building loyalty. I connect with them on a personal level and remind them that I am not a robot or a big corporation who is only after their money.”

Ms. Cruz looks back on the lessons she learned from starting a business during a crisis. “Always be very flexible. It was a traumatic moment when the coronavirus made the world stop, so you always have to be ready.”

“Study the digital world and how it works because that’s the direction of the mass market too,” she added.

Ms. Capili doesn’t expect to open a new business anytime soon, busy as she is with her full-time job. “But who knows, maybe once I have more time?”

“I’ve always wanted to sell sourdough or cold brew. Or maybe open a restoration business for luxury bags. But I’d have to be sure I’ll have enough time and energy before committing,” she said.

Still, she learned a lot from the experience. “I learned how important it is to know your brand from the start and to build it with a solid marketing strategy,” she said.

An entrepreneur should also have a vision and know what they want to get out of the business, she said.

She also learned the importance of keeping strong relationships with reliable suppliers and being flexible and resourceful to overcome supply chain problems.

“Most importantly, I learned that it’s fine to acknowledge when something good has to end — at least for the time being. Circumstances change and that’s okay. It’s all about honoring your priorities.”

Since Ms. Cruz has transitioned from online sales to running a physical store, she had to make changes in how she runs the business.

“Before, we relied on online and digital sales. Now, we can interact real time with our customers. It’s more experiential especially since we’re an open kitchen.”

Logistics and sourcing problems continue, and entrepreneurs also have to contend now with rising prices, Ms. Cruz said.

“Most of the things we need fluctuate in price. The saddest thing is, it doesn’t go down, it continues to increase.”

Mr. Aguila is sticking to tried and tested pandemic strategies.

“When the pandemic started, we were all stuck at home and everyone just kept browsing the web relentlessly,” he said. “There’s a high chance that most people have seen a few of your posts already and have purchased some of your products.”

There’s also no reason not to raise one’s game especially now when everything is slowly getting back on track.

“Social media is the new word of mouth — it’s nonnegotiable. It’s already served on a silver platter and you just need to eat it.”