Oct 07, 2016
Interview with Oliver Segovia: AVA podcast
By Asha Gutierrez
Techshake Radio: October 7, 2016
AVA is the Philippines' only curated online store of premium, well-loved brands and design objects.
In this podcast we talk with its founder, Oliver Segovia, on how he started AVA with no fashion experience, whatsoever. He didn't treat that lack of knowledge as an impediment, but more of a challenge to overcome and an opportunity to learn. It's this no excuse attitude, which he finds important for entrepreneurs to have.
This was a short podcast, but a must-listen for those who are struggling to get their startups started.
Paolo: So we’re joined today by Oliver Segovie of AVA.ph.
Paolo: It’s an e-commerce website, maybe you can tell us more about it.
Oliver: Sure! So, AVA is an online fashion brand, and what we do is design, distribute, and market women’s apparels and accessories online.
Oliver: and at the same time, we have a B2B business on the side which helps enterprise clients accelerate their digital e-commerce transformation.
Paolo: Oh, so it’s all about e-commerce?
Paolo: But for what clients have you been doing this with?
Oliver: So we’ve been doing it mostly with free-tailers and local companies. Unfortunately, they’re confidential.
Paolo: Okay! Alright (laughter)
Oliver: but the main theme around/across all of them: these are companies looking to take their excess staying operations in businesses into the digital world.
Oliver: To whomever, it means e-commerce, or contact marketing, or productizing their products into more digital audiences or even as far as helping their organization with training, development, and professional education.
Oliver: to adapt to the digital world.
Paolo: so we’re talking more about like traditional
Paolo: Not necessarily fashion right?
Oliver: Not necessarily fashion.
Paolo: Oh nice!
Paolo: So for those companies out there who actually want to digitize their business, maybe they can go to you..
Paolo: but how did you?
Oliver: Legit! Legit!
Oliver: Legit digitizing.
Paolo: What do you mean by that?
Oliver: Like we don’t do any of the—you know, those kind of websites…
Paolo: Oh! (laughter) Okay!
Oliver: Okay. (laughter) haha sorry, just to be clear.
Paolo: Okay, okay. I think that’s already clear. (laughter) but thank you!
Oliver: Why are you so excited? (laughter)
Paolo: No, no, I actually.
Oliver: You look so excited right now. (laughter)
Paolo: I actually had a business idea and it just had it in my reaction. (laughter) I had a business idea that I want to put forward but I guess it got shot down.
Oliver: I can see that!
Paolo: Because it’s illegal.
Oliver: Okay, let’s not talk about that! (laughter)
Paolo: Okay, let’s not.
Oliver: Enough with that administration. (laughter)
Paolo: On record, I want to avoid that conversation. (laughter) So, let’s go back, let’s talk about how you got in the e-commerce industry, how you started in tech industry. Was this something you wanted to do while you were studying in college or highschool?
Oliver: Not at all, not at all. I was away from the Philippines for seven years, I was living in Singapore and studied in Boston.
Oliver: and when I came back home in 2011, there was
a big shift in the local industry. When I left seven years prior, there were
only three or four million internet users. When I came back, there were already
around 30 million internet users.
Oliver: and there wasn’t much activity going in e-commerce, at that time, there were just the deal sites, there were around a hundred plus of them. Lozada, Zalora, were already starting to slowly enter the market and I realized that if you look at the different verticals from electronics, meds, food, fashion. There weren’t sites that were specific to a consummer’s segment in the market.
Oliver: and we felt that fashion would be an interesting segment to be in for a number of reasons and so we decided to just start a Beta of the site. It was literally me, and three other people, plus one intern in our house. In our first year, we hit seven digits in revenues already. At that time, we realized, “Okay, there could be some legs here! After 12 months maybe we can start fund raising, and so we did and became one of the first investments of Kickstart Ventures.
Oliver: In mid 2012.
Paolo: Nice! So, how did you start it? Are you a developer yourself? No, you’re not right?
Paolo: So, how did you form that team together to create an MVP? What it your co-founder who developed it for you or did you just bring an intern?
Oliver: So luckily, my brother runs an IT company.
Paolo: Oh! Okay.
Oliver: So he is a developer part-time himself and has a team as well.
Oliver: So they helped me out.
Paolo: Sounds awesome actually! So how was your experience building up toward that seven digit revenue? Was it rocky at first? Do you have any stories that you can share when building that actual product?
Oliver: Well, it was not just rocky, it was like a
Paolo: Okay! (laughter)
Oliver: Going back and forth, right. There will be days or weeks when we would not have any sales, at all. Then there would be like days when we would make 1-2 months worth of sales all of a sudden. So, it was so unpredictable I would say? It was unpredictable on two levels: The first one was e-commerce was so nascent at that time.
Oliver: Nobody was doing really anything. It was a big question mark whether Filipinos would trust a website with their credit cards. For those who don’t have credit cards, it was a big question on whether one would buy in the first place.
Oliver: Then couple that with the second uncertainty
which is predicting fashion trends.
Oliver: and it’s a big problem most retailers face. No way to find out what’s really selling. So the way we try to solve that problem was we took a flash sales model and just tried to launch new stuff every week and see what sticks. From there, we had, a lot of failures. We tried random stuff from even selling, like, tour packages, to baby items, to home accessories, and you name it we’ve tried to sell it—except the illegal ones.
Paolo: Okay! (laughter)
Oliver: Uhm, and so luckily you know, after a lot of false starts and misses, we were able to get this.
Paolo: Nice! How do you—you were the one starting in the e-commerce industry here. It’s all about timing maybe.
Oliver: It’s partly timing, yeah! It’s still an open
question mark on how far the industry can go?
Oliver: One big thing can of course I’ve observed is, if you look at the e-commerce industry here, is it’s dominated by foreign companies, foreign founders.
Oliver: There are very little little, purely local e-commerce industry that have been founded and managed by Filipinos. So, we are pretty proud to be a part of that small group of Filipinos who started e-commerce here.
Paolo: Yeah. How has it grown since then? Like how far back was it when you started AVA?
Oliver: We’ve grown in many ways already. So first is, we’ve launched additional websites already. For example, we’ve launched aside the luxury consignment for pre-loved bags called, Re-loved.com.ph. Sometimes around 2015, the end of the 2015, we started getting inquiries from local companies that expressed a desire to get help.
Paolo: Exactly. Yeah!
Oliver: For, transforming their digital operations and so we started to get into this business. We started doing that in early 2016 and now we’ve probably served a total of, 1,400 companies already.
Paolo: So how did you, based on the model that you’re building, basically it’s around e-commerce, how did you figure out that these are the type of things that you need to get in in the future?
Oliver: I would love to say that liberated strategy? (laughter)
Paolo: You could say that! (laughter)
Oliver: We can say that fancy stuff, that by step we’re going to do this, but what we realized is that a lot of the things that we were doing was just listening to the market and seeing where people were voting with their wallets.
Oliver: and for consummers, it might be for a particular product category in this fashion segment, and for the enterprise market it might be for a specific need for this kind of business model or application or campaign for their business. We just try to serve them as best as we can. Our mission as a company is to build the brands of tomorrow through the intersection of design and technology! For us, it applies to both our own brands and the brands of our client as well.
Paolo: Could you say that you’ve achieved the
success you’d want with AVA or is their an end goal in sight?
Oliver: It’s a blackhole question for most entrepreneurs. (laughter) because every entrepreneur you’ll ask will say that it is never enough?
Paolo: Okay! (laughter)
Oliver: There’s always something better that you can
Paolo: Greed! (laughter)
Oliver: Ah, it’s not necessarily greed for money!
Right? It’s more like the world is changing so fast, every single year, you’ll
feel like “Wow, I’ve arrived!” Then suddenly, the world changes again and you
feel inadequate. You got to change along the way and just keep on growing!
Growing! We keep learning every single year.
Paolo: There’s a question I’d like to ask. I ask this to a lot of the people I talk to… How do you define an entrerpreneur? Would you like consider yourself an entrepreneur?
Oliver: Yes, definitely.
Paolo: but what is your definition of an
Oliver: I think the definition will vary for different people. The classic Harvard business definition which we’ve been ingrained in is that entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity regardless of resources currently controlled and for me, that’s a personally inspiring definiton because of the second part of it. Because here in the Philippines we grow with the mindset that you have to have a stable job and save up money and put in some of your own capital, and be an expert and know about the specific field, everything before you’ve become an entrepreneur. And I’m happy to say that based on my experience, I think the reality is a little more interesting because you can be an entrepreneur even if you don’t have any savings, regardless of resources currently controlled right?
Oliver: I could start an e-commerce company without knowing a single kind of code.
Oliver: Without being a fashion person, like I don’t know how to make a pattern or sew and pick fabric. Of course, I’ve picked that up along the way but at the start, I didn’t know anything about it. That’s why we rectuit and find the right people to help along the way. I guess that’s pretty true to a lot of entrepreneurs. Especially because by definition, if it’s new, nobody knows anything about what you’re doing. I’m pretty sure there’s no book out there teaching people how to build a spaceship to go to Mars. All of that you’ve got to learn. I guess it’s exciting to me because it’s something that I can be creative with. You can try and test different things and be in charge of your own path.
Oliver: Having said that, there are also people who believe that entrepreneurship is a way for them to pursue their passion. I think that’s a good definition as well. For example you’re tired of your corporate job and you want to pursue a business that’s more in line with what you love to do personally. I think that’s some pretty cool way to define entrepreneurship too.
Oliver: Some people define entrepreneurship as a vocation too—not necessarily with a commerical benefit. I want to start a non-profit or go teach students in the rural Philippines. I think that’s a particularly true too and that’s okay for a person who wants to do that, you have to be entrepreneural too because there are a lot of contraints right?
Oliver: If you go for a non-profit world. The
challenges are typically system wide. Right? So education in the Philippines,
that’s not a problem one company can solve. It requires close collaboration
with the public government, private sectors, and local leaders as well. I guess
what holds all of those definiton of entrepreneurship together is that: One,
it’s forward looking, always like a bigger vision, beyond profit that you got
to be going for. Number two it requires you to work with others. You can’t just
be doing it on your own.
Oliver: and number three it requires you to reserve
some sort of stakeholder. Well, if it’s a customer, or you’re a student, or
you’re an employee. It’s always in pursuit of serving a particular part of the
Paolo: Awesome. I think they also like what you said in terms of being an entrepreneur. You need to be hungry to learn basically. You need to be able to learn and see that it’s okay. Like I need to learn several things and there’s no excuses for me to actually do something about it right now.
Paolo: I think that’s one good decoy, and if a lot of founders are listening right now, aspiring founders are listening then I think, you should just start it. (laughter) There’s no excuse! If you don’t know how to code just go over it definitely. You also do other things outside of AVA, you also do speaking engagements and do classes?
Oliver: Yeah! So, I put together a social venture on the side called Actionstack.org.
Oliver: that teaches, workshops on skills necessary for the innovation economy. It can be as simple as web development, growth factoring, or data science. All of that stuff. At the same time, I also write for the Harvard business review on the side
Paolo: So, those are your interests? Basically, like what is your main thing? Is your main thing AVA and the other things you just do on the side, do you also see it the same way?
Oliver: Those are things in which—even though I want to spend more time on them, there’s only 24 hours in one day.
Paolo: Yes, that’s why I was asking.
Oliver: I mean, those are just things to do on the side to keep life interesting. (laughter) So it’s not monotonous.
Paolo: How do you juggle those things around? You did say, there’s only 24 hours in a day. How do you manage your time to acccommodate all of these things?
Oliver: What I learned is that what all variable optimizes is not time but energy.
Oliver: and interests. So, for me, the beauty in being an entrepreneur is that I have a relatively higher degree of control on my time. So that if I want to spend, let’s say a morning writing on 400-500 words, for a new idea I was thinking of. Then I can definitely do that and plan my schedule around it.
Oliver: So, if on the weekends, I have a bit more energy to do some stuff then I’ll definitely do it. In fact, we’re organizing this, October 15, a workshop on resilience for entrepreneurs and founders. And the big question for that workshop is that: Is resilence a teachable skill and that can be learned by people? So, we’re going to host from Colombia, in Harvard business school, a trained psychologist who was in charge of summer incubation program for students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and she’s Filipino and her name is Dana Valencia and she’ll be facilitating that workshop to teach founders and maybe even managers on what are some of the cognitive techniques on how they can be more resilient.
Oliver: and be able to face adversity in girth.
Paolo: That is something very important. I mean, like managing time and also being able to work more. Because basically if you put up your own start-up, you work more than for a job, you spend more time even in the weekends you’re working. Another question I also want to ask you. Also I think what people want to know. Like how much time do you spend on your work week relaxing and what do you do? (laughter) People want to know how founders do it—if you just work the whole week or when do have time to actually relax?
Oliver: So my big dirty little secret (laughter)
Paolo: What is it? Is it like watching TV series or movies?
Oliver: It’s taking micro naps.
Paolo: Micro naps?
Oliver: Throughout the day… (laughter)
Paolo: Oh, that’s your secret…
Oliver: Yes, like if I’m travelling in an Uber ride, I’ll take 15 minutes to doze off and I’ll take a micro nap maybe one in the late morning. Around 11 or so, right before lunch then another in the late afternoon or around 5 or 6 or so. That keeps me going.
Paolo: Okay! So that power stays.
Oliver: Yes, stays throughout the day. Of course I have a stable exercise regime as well and so I try to do cardio and metabolic activity 2-3 times a week. That would be best already but typically I only average 1-2.
Paolo: It’s basically being responsible with your time. Actually planning everything out.
Oliver: Yeah! Is this some health podcast? (laughter) Are we going to start talking about like.
Paolo: haha like what type of exercises do you do in the morning? (laughter)
Oliver: Maybe we can say that for a whole other podcast.
Paolo: A video! (laughter)
Oliver: That will be so bad. No viewers! (laughter)
Paolo: So, Oliver, if people want to actually reach out to you for men’s health tips, where can they reach you? (laughter)
Oliver: Oh, definitely not me for fitness! (laughter)
Paolo: Anyway, AVA, AVA.ph is being actually where we can see you. Is there somewhere else, like a blog?
Oliver: Yeah. I write at OliveSegovia.com and I also post a bit on Medium. I have some articles on HPR.org as well. At the same time, I published a book 4 years ago about leadership and careers called “Passion and Purpose.” You can find that by searching in Amazon.
Paolo: One last thing, one piece of advice that you think is important, as far as founders should know if they’re starting a start-up?
Oliver: For people who have already decided that they want to become entrepreneurs?
Paolo: Yes. Or at that point, transitioning, going for it, taking a plunge.
Oliver: Do it smartly, by first testing where it is enough to sustain you on a full time basis. Have some level of milestones on what that specifically means. Does it mean an X number of users a month? Does it mean a revenue base of X million? One really smart thing, one friend from Google did is that, he was working full time at Google and he always wanted to build a tax start-up on the side which is a marketplace for coaches and the way he did it was, he was building the basic prototypes while he was still working full time at Google. Then he decided to jump onboard and go full time on the start-up when he nailed a long term customer which then paid really good money to help build the product.
Oliver: and at that point, automatically, the start-up become sustainable for him. So, he doesn’t have to worry about doing the rat race on both building a product and raising money at the same time because that is infinitely difficult to do.
Oliver: and probably some optimizing product if you do both at the same time. Alright guys! So start smart!
Paolo: Thank you so much Oliver.
Oliver: What’s the name again?
Paolo: Start smart!
Oliver: The name?
Paolo: The name of the next podcast is men being smart with Oliver (laughter)