Robertson graduated top of his class with a Bachelor Degree in Computer Science from Ateneo de Manila University in 1991. After college, he worked for 2years at Citibank Philippines as a Systems Analyst. He went on to pursue a MBA degree at Babson Graduate School of Business in the USA. His intention was to balance his tech training with a business angle. After school, Robertson returned to Manila to start a small Internet Service Provider. The Internet craze was just starting in thePhilippines and a lot of players were jumping into the bandwagon. It was during this time, that Robertson struggled for a couple of years, until they were acquired by the biggest local private ISP. Robertson joined the bigger ISP initially as head of technology and eventually resigned in 2012 to work full-time on Dragonpay, his own startup.
The Asian Entrepreneur interviews Robertson today about Dragonpay and how it is like to spear head a largely unheard of service in Asia.
What exactly is Dragonpay?
Dragonpay is a payment solution provider. We have 3 main services right now. Firstly, alternative payment collection. We allow people with no creditcards to buy from online websites, and complete the payment either through alternative channels like online banking, mobile payments, orphysically at brick-and-mortar payment counters. Secondly, recurring payments, we allow merchants to bill their customers ona recurring basis using either traditional credit cards, or through automatic bank debit across multiple banks. Thirdly, mass payout, we allow merchants with regular requirements to send money to a lot of people to go through our system.
They only send usthe total amount, and we take care of the mass distribution of thepayout to the intended recipients. The bulk of our business right now is with our pilot product, alternative payments collection. Recurring Payments and Mass Payoutswere just recently launched. So when people talk about Dragonpay, they are usually referring to our alternative payments service.
How did you come up with the idea for Dragonpay?
The ISP business was brisk in the Philippines until the late 90’s.During that time, the telcos started encroaching into the business andso independent ISP’s had to start looking for additional value-added services to complement their revenues. E-Commerce was one of thefields we concentrated in back in 2006. We created a payment gatewayand started with the obvious payment channels like credit cards andPayPal.
Things started to pickup by 2010 as flash deal sites started appearing patterned after the Groupon model. I soon realized though that the Philippine market is not just quite ready for this yet because the credit card penetration in the countryis very low. Even today, the estimate is only about 5% of the population having credit cards. For E-Commerce to take off, there has to be alternative means to accept cash and other forms ofnon-traditional payments.
How did you start it all up?
I put up a skunk works project with the blessing of the company I was working for at that time. I incorporated a small company on the sideand built relationships with financial institutions and prospective merchants. This company was Dragonpay Corporation. The original intention of Dragonpay was to allow people to pay using their online banking account. But after testing it out for a few months, I quickly realized it was still very limited as the Philippines’ banking market is only about 20% of the population and most people do not have access to Internet banking.
The next logical conclusion was to expand the service to include over-the-counter payments, and that’s when things really picked up. As volume grew, my side project started to take up more and more of mytime. So finally by 2Q 2012, I decided to resign from my full-timejob to pursue Dragonpay exclusively. To date, about 75% of Dragonpay’s volume is over-the-counter while online banking constitutes about 25%. This reflects ratio reflects the conditions in developing countries like the Philippines where cash is still the main way people conduct commerce.
Was it hard to make the shift into becoming an entrepreneur?
Leaving a full-time office job and going entrepreneurial again hasbeen great! The flexible but much longer, work hours and the freedom that comes with telecommuting has been fantastic. Dragonpay basically thrived for its first 2.5 years of existence by pure word-of-mouth. A lot of people heard about us mainly through theflash deal sites. We did not begin spending on marketing until very recently.
Did you face any major hurdles initially working on Dragonpay?
Given Dragonpay’s main line of business, which is collecting payments, the major hurdle to overcome is trust. You have to convince the merchants to trust you with the payment collection and that you won’t run away with their money. You also have to convince the buyers to trust you with their payments as a 3rd party collector. For item #1, I think we were in the right place at the right time. The merchants understood that they have to include alternative payments in their payment option to tap a bigger market. Being mostlystartups themselves, I think they understood the risks and took a gamble on us with their business.
There were exceptions too, AirAsia, Southeast Asia’s largest low-cost carrier, also signed up with us even though we were still a nobody. At that time, AirAsia was just flying between a regional airport and Malaysia. They soon added more international routes and eventually acquired amajority stake with a local airline, ZestAir, and we grew along withthem. So with these big players trusting us with their business, we established our legitimacy.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
There are several interesting potential projects and partnerships thatwe are working on. I really cannot disclose it for confidentiality reasons. But I would say that the long term plan is really to just keep growing our physical reach; and adding more merchants. If venture capital money comes in to help us move faster, it is somethingI will consider. But if not, we are prepared to grow steadily in our controlled pace.
Do you find any major differences between working on startups in Asia compared to the West?
Unlike the West, I think Asians are generally more conservative. Its our upbringing. We are not really encouraged to take risks as much. One is expected to graduate college; work for some large multinational company; have a big steady income; raise a family. But the recent generation is beginning to come out of their comfort shells. Being a startup is starting to become an acceptable and maybe even more exciting option for young graduates. VC’s and investors are also starting to funnel their resources to Asia. So these are exciting times for Asian startups.
Are there any values you emphasize in your work at Dragonpay?
We deal with money, honesty and integrity is of prime importance. If you lose that, the whole business model crumbles down. I expect the same from my employees. They have to conduct their work with honesty and full integrity.
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I have to credit my graduate studies alma mater for that, Babson Graduate School of Business, which has ranked consistently as the #1 MBA program focused on Entrepreneurship by US publications. I got bitten by the entrepreneur bug during my 2 year stay there and have not looked back since.
Any words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there?
Failure is not the end of the world. Find out what went wrong, fix it; do it all over again. While I don’t really believe in luck, I believe one should always be prepared so when opportunity knocks, you are there to answer. One has to keep learning and picking up new skills especially in the tech industry. Sometimes, it may not be immediately evident, but the chain of events that one goes through in their career will lead to the right combination of opportunities. So you have to be prepared.
What is your definition of success?
Connect with Robertson Chiang and Dragonpay today: