Nov 12, 2016
Interview with Earl Valencia: Ideaspace podcast
By Asha Gutierrez
Techshake Radio: November 12, 2016
Earl Valencia is a Co-founder of Ideaspace, one of the first incubators/acceleraters in the Philippines, as well as Geeks on a Beach, an annual get together of the startup community set in the most beautiful locations in the Philippines. In our podcast with Earl, we talk about how these companies started and look back on the experiences he went through to get to that point. We also talk briefly about how the title "C.E.O" is usually taken lightly, whereas it should be something that is earned.
Paolo: Alright! So we’re joined by Earl Valencia, former president of IdeaSpace, and now program manager of corporate analytics at Bridgewater Associations and start-up ecosystem Rockstart. So how are you doing Earl?
Earl: Let’s not make it a formal conversation. (laughter) Yeah, I think I’m doing quite well. I mean I left the Philippines after starting IdeaSpace like last Novemeber so this is kind of my 10 month return on seeing how things are. What I meant is that they are literally my reflections on building something. IdeaSpace and the start-up ecosystem for 3-4 years. Now, I am in a totally different place.
Earl: but I realized that there are actually some parts that I needed to learn. I couldn’t learn here in the Philippines. I’m glad that I can kind of strangle both worlds now and come to go without literally any agenda because you’re hanging-out so you’re so relaxed.
Paolo: Let’s backtrack a bit though. Why do you start going out? Like why Geeks on a Beach? Why did you think that it was actually likely to work.
Earl: Yeah it was quite actually a really funny story right and I can’t just take credit.
Earl: because it was Tina who really liked—the one who took it forward, and meaning Jim Ison who unfortunately passed away (we will do a tribute tomorrow), Paul who is the heads of the development work, and Mitchie who is a developer. We were just like having lunch in Greenbelt one of these times and we found out that the Geeks on the plane skipped the Philippines. They prefer to go to Myanmar than the Philippines.
Earl: So out of spite and basically like you know, we were like kind of a pseudo-depressed state, we were like why is that we’re ignored.
Earl: So we said, “Hey, why don’t we create something so people will come here?” and then Jim said, “Why don’t we make like a burning man style conference?”
Earl: and then I was thinking and said, “You know I had a friend who’s from San Francisco who literally skipped Manila and went straight to Boracay and spent 1 whole week in Boracay then came right back to San Francisco!”
Earl: Because I messaged him like, “Why aren’t you here in Manila, and you’re in the Philippines, let’s go hang out in Manila!” He was like, “Why am I going to Manila?”
So the insight happened when we were like, “Yeah! You know, why can’t we just have gigs. People will want to know Philippines because of the beaches. At the time, I thought Boracay was the number 1 Island in the world, I think until now, it is. So I said, “People will probably come here if it’s on the beach!”
Earl: So that was like a funny launch right! Fastforward it a couple of months and Tina messaged me and said, “Earl, you know that conversation we had? Are we serious about this? I was like, “Yeah! That would be really cool, to see what happens!” If we do it, can you sponsor it? I was like the head of the Innovation Smart and head of IdeaSpace.
Earl: So I said, “If you’re going to do it, be the first sponsors.” I was like the head of investors in that conference. Lo and behold, like I think the first time, there were already three hundred people who came.
Paolo: Wow. Three hundred.
Earl: We didn’t expect who would go, and half or close to half are not from the Philippines!
Paolo: Whoa! Wow.
Earl: Even the Filipinos were sceptical because it was not a cheap conference.
Earl: It was quite and expensive one so if people are used to free things, then no, you can’t do it for free because we’re doing it in a world class resort in Boracay. You know, a lot of people came, a lot from the outside and then it just kind of grew and grew and grew. It was really supposed to be like an invitation to the Philippines to the world.
Earl: Because why would someone go to Manila to hang out?
Earl: Right. To test the waters and to see strive like here you get to have a good conversation at a minimal and you just enjoy yourself by the shore of the beaches. It’s awesome right?
Paolo: It’s awesome! Yeah.
Earl: Alright. So that’s why we started this Geeks on the Beach and like every single concept it happens amongst friends on a table either with alcohol or without.
Earl: That’s kind of what happened.
Paolo: Thanks for the small history class but let’s talk about Earl Valencia, maybe we can start from your humble beginnings. Maybe not so humble? (laughter)
Earl: Sure! (laughter)
Paolo: So yeah! Where did you start? (laughter)
Earl: Yeah. This is quite cool because this is the first time someone ask for my pre-Ideaspace story.
Earl: So I was born in L.A. but I grew up in Manila
most of like.
Earl: I was like born there and then after 6 months, my parents went back here. I was raised first 4-5 years in Davao.
Earl: So, my parents had a large family in Davao, our main family for the businesses like a real estate company but the money maker is premium estate company a.k.a. a memorial park.
Earl: So apparently, you can sell almost double or triple the land area of square meter. My grandfather had a brilliant idea, we had a bunch of real estate stuff like family business stuff. Buildings and such. I guess at that point, I need to say that my grandfather was an entrepreneur, he started as a janitor in UP.
Earl: and he ended up becoming like the department head or cabinet member in the Macapagal area for DOT.
Paolo: Wow! That’s great.
Earl: Unfortunately, when I was born, he died. Which was sad because I was not able to get any mentoring from him but I was through his life stories. At around 6 years old, I moved to Manila and I had a pretty posh lifestyle. I had a hardworking family, I didn’t even know the implications then. Turns out, my parents bought a nice piece of land—what is now known as Ayala Alabang. At the time, it was just a mango plantation.
Earl: My parents grew in a house in BF which was like close to Alabang. The Alabang was on sale so they bought a land there and it just so happened that we were able to find a good place to go. I grew up in Alabang and right across my house is the school De La Salle Zobel so I am a Lasallian starting grade 1.
Earl: For the listeners here who live in the Philippines, my prep is in Assumption at San Lorenzo
Paolo: Oh! (laughter)
Earl: I guess that is a funny tidbit about myself. So I am an Assumptionista too! (laughter)
Earl: I have a prep diploma in Assumption. Now,
that’s kind of cool. And in grade 1 up until highschool I was in LaSalle. Then
I went to UP for about two years.
Earl: Yes. I did Engineering. I was always torn because I was always good with math and science but I know that I wanted to do business someday.
Earl: So I had that kind of thing. I used to ask my friend, “What’s the hardest course to get into UP if I’m good in math and science?” and it was electronics communications at that time. They only get the 98th percent tile in the UPCAT. You have to be the top 1 or 2 percent in math and science to get into that course.
Earl: I sucked in English and everything. When I got the UPCAT results, the best in Math and Science. I think I was 99 in Math and 98 in Science. Something like that.
Paolo: That’s great!
Earl: but I didn’t do well on the rest. Well. So. Whatever. (laughter) Then in about two years after, I went to the US already. I finished my undergrad in US and went to Cornell for gradschool.
Earl: I went to go to business school in Stanford but before I was in Aerospace industry so I was an Aerospace Engineer technically.
Paolo: What does an Aesospace Engineer do?
Earl: It’s known in the States, Aersopace Industry. They are known to make stuff that you see in Mission Impossible. Like unmanned vehicles.
Paolo: Oh! That’s cool!
Earl: or you know, Missile defense stuff, Radar systems, Navy ships, and so I was a part of this team. My first job out of college was modern simulations of like missile defense.
Earl: Satellites, missiles, and all these stuff.
Paolo: It’s kinda pretty cool actually.
Earl: It was kind of fun! It was like playing games everyday but it’s real.
Earl: and then I worked in a navy ship.
Earl: The communications of the navy ship with the new destroyer. Then I worked in a factory that built unmanned area vehicles.
Earl: and then my last job was like a—well it’s like a classified group.
Paolo: Oh! So it’s classified.
Earl: A classified group. Then I got admitted into Stanford Business School. I didn’t really want to go. I applied to more than one school and I got in which was unbelievable. I was told that if you went to Stanford, you can be the best Engineer but you’re still not the best in everything. So I got classmates who were investing since they were eleven or twelve.
Earl: I got a classmate who was a number 1 student in Mexico City and he had a business, like a number of buildings and anything at age 21.
Earl: I had classmates who were like unbelievable. So your humility in this school becomes very very high. Right, because I thought then I was like ‘the guy’ right? (laughter)
Paolo: Yeah! (laughter)
Earl: I thought I was a pretty cool Engineer at twenty-four years old. Right? That’s wrong. In Stanford, the best lesson was humility it’s not even those business school lessons. The humility to say, “I don’t know.” I needed to ask people for help. Right. Smart people for help. In between first and second year, I did a stint in Cisco Incubation team and other one in Metrocapital funding here in the Philippines. Which is actually the first time I actually worked in the Philippines and I realized then that, “Wow! There is some potential here.” Then I ended going back to Cisco and the headquarters because I ran the Global Innovation prices in Cisco, like a hundred countries, hundred country price basically.
Earl: Right. Then I got like an introduction to Manny Pangilinan who is known as the MVP in the Philippines. We just had a funny conversation on what I want to do in my life and why I am here. I basically said that at one point of my life, I have to create a start-up incubator, a start-up fund in the Philippines because nobody’s addressing that stage. He literally looked at me and asked, “When are you going to come back home?” So I said, “I’m not coming back home until I’m sixty.” So he asked, “Why wait until you’re sixty until you achieve what you want to do? If I promised that I fund you, will you come back?”
Earl: and I thought that he was joking, when he did that. Apparently, he wasn’t. Before I flew to the States there was a standing offer from Smart, to be head of Innovation in Smart, and tell to tell them when I am going back.
Earl: and then it took me 6 months to decide. Talked it out with my wife—she was 2 months pregnant when I came back. I have like a one-year-old baby at the time.
Earl: My wife is like, “Are you kidding me? What the hell. You just came home for some wedding of your bestfriend and all of a sudden, you’re telling me that we’re going back to the Philippines?”
Earl: “What??!” Yeah, so she freaked out while I took 6 months to convince her to go back.
Paolo: 6 months. (laughter)
Earl: Yeah, in the whole, we came back here. We just talked about this big vision in which is about on how to create a Science Techonology Innovation based economy. Me and my co-founder, I knew we can do it with maybe like 5 million dollars. My co-founder Martin was more aggressive and he is like let’s ask for more.
Earl: So I’ll talk about the win of the pitch with
Earl: Like any other start-up entrepreneur, we’re in pitch with him for the financial model.
Earl: then in the end, he was like, “How much do you need?” I was supposed to say, “Five Million dollars” but before I could say that, my partner said, “We need a Billion Philippine Pesos” I was like, “I didn’t say that” MVP laughed and said, “You seem to be good guys, your hearts are in the right place, and so I’ll give you half of what you asked.”
Earl: and that’s the funding of IdeaSpace right. We got like a seats funding for about—at the time, it was 12 million dollars.
Earl: Right now, it’s like half, half a Billion. Yeah, then fast forward it to today, IdeaSpace has like forty-eight companies. We do a lot of events a year. We get about five or six hundred teams applying in the chair for incubator, we do like an event every week. So we get around a hundred thousand people—maybe now hundreds of thousands people to attend our events per year.
Paolo: Yeah. It’s awesome.
Earl: Yeah! That’s it. 9 months ago, I got this opportunity to work in a hedge fund in New York and MVP actually told me to leave when I asked him what I should do. He told me, “You should go back there and learn, then come back again.”
Earl: That’s where I learned cycles so it was also some kind of a—like if you read around and learn about entreprenuership you need to know when is it time to learn again. Right. Because you cannot be a teacher all the time.
Earl: Right? So you got to be a student then a teacher. A student then a teacher. That’s a long-winded answer made into a shortened version.
Paolo: Yeah. Long-winded but interesting. I’m surprised that no one ever asked you about your actual history you know. (laughter)
Earl: Yeah yeah! (laughter) It’s kind of like people always ask me about ready of the present, or a minimum about the founding of a company or whatever. No one has asked me before about what’s the start of it all.
Paolo: So actually, I was reading through one of your articles and then I read about you saying something. About how you need to actually earn the title of being a CEO.
Earl: My recent post.
Paolo: Yeah. The very recent one actually. Which kinda was interesting. Can you talk more about that. I think it is also very important for the listeners to hear.
Earl: Yeah, so there’s kind of a weird start of fad now in which everyone calls me chief or whatever.
Earl: I was also in that hype by the way. So I got hyped as well. I was here in the Philippines twenty-eight and twenty-nine and you know, since I got this cool IdeaSpace job. Which is just technical of the first pacific which is of major of 45 million dollar kind of evaluation. I told MVP, “Since we’re doing like start-up innovations and starting to encourage everyone to do innovation in the first pacific, why don’t you give me the Chief Innovation Officer title?”
Earl: He didn’t need to increase my salary. I just wanted to sound cool.
Paolo: Yes. Sounds cool! (laughter)
Earl: Or as another minimum, call me CEO of IdeaSpace. He just looked up to me and said, “You know, you got to earn to gain a CEO name level.”
Earl: and I was like, “Wow. That’s weird.” He was like, “Earn it, don’t get it.” That was basically his message and I never reflected at it and at that time I was kind of pissed off. He can’t give titles and that’s the least he can do…
Earl: but then no before you give responsibility. Not just like in a corporate setting but even to the world right? Earn it! Earn the right to be called a certain title. So it was fine, I was the president whatever and it was quite nice actually.
Earl: and there is just these many other areas about being CEO. Right the difficulties of being CEO. You got a board to do and think about your employees even when they’re founders. You are in charge.
Earl: Everything ends with you. The loss ends with
Earl: Right. You got to make decisions everyday. You
got to make all these things. You got to think about what your future is. To
take care of the present. That’s actually what a CEO is. It’s not a title, it’s
actually an obligation. That’s what I learned in the couple of years. You make
the tough calls and that’s something too that I learned. I make tons of tough
calls that either my team didn’t agreed with.
Earl: My team didn’t agree with and that feels just like conviction. I believed that this is our mission, this is our vision, and this is where we should go based on who we are and what we stand for. I may be wrong, but I’m going to make this call. People would be pissed off. Right? But sometimes you have to do it.
Earl: That’s what a CEO does. Unfortunately that was kind of reflective. The founders were I think one guy asked me, “What’s your learning?”
Earl: Right. I just kind of gravitated in this one answer. It just these types of questions that are asked. Like what does it mean to be a founder of IdeaSpace talking to us as founders of our own companies?
Earl: I realized shoot, you can call yourself a founder but a founder doesn’t mean it’s just a cool title. It’s actually a big obligation to be a founder.
Earl: Again, if you’re a chief technology office right? You got to be the best person in technology, not just in your company but in your field. If you don’t know the answer, figure out the answers. I said that to my blog but I realized that people think that because they’re CEO or chief that they have the answers and you do not—you just need to know how to find them. That’s how you create founders and CEO level guys. That’s kind of like the summary of the thoughts that I have had. Because I had time to reflect. Nine to ten months after and learning some of the stuff that I wish I knew and learn the stuff that I should not do again.
Paolo: That’s a good thing! I’m a CEO but the CEO actually sounds cool. (laughter)
Earl: Yeah! It could be cool. It does sound cool.
Paolo: I’m so sorry. (laughter) Anyway, you mentioned something about making difficult situations and like making decisions that are not so popular in the company. Can you give us an example of such?
Earl: Yeah! I wrote about it in public so it’s fine. Even in as far as IdeaSpace, I remember this conference called Slingshot. It’s like partner of the department trade and it was in APEC level of the conference. I don’t know if you guys went to the first Slingshot but literally like the government, eight weeks before the date came to me and say, “Hey. We only have this date, that we can do the Slingshot.”
Earl: “We need your help.” So I just said yes, because I believed in it. Nobody seem to say yes. The other private sectors seems to say no. So even my team was asking, “Nobody is touching this then what are we doing?!” I even told them that I was going to create resources to make this real.
Earl: Right. I remember vividly, in one of our internal meetings. The majority of my team was like, “What are we doing? What is the benefit to IdeaSpace?”
Earl: and I said, “Guys, I don’t know but I know that this is the right thing to do for the country.” Obviously, a lot of people were like, “What?!” It wasn’t a good answer, because a corporation should always benefit from the other corporation but I said like, “We have to hire.” I know that it’s not that, we won’t or might not be able to get a single recognition but I know that this is going to be good for the country. That’s why I said, “Why are in IdeaSpace? It’s because we were built to make a culture of science and technology.” Lo and behold, we had a dedicated team, the DTI guys were like taking up in IdeaSpace for eight weeks. Once a week, they are hanging out in our office. I called all my friends and I was lucky that my classmate from Stanford created start-up Chile.
Earl: and one of my professors, Richard Dasher, I gave a talk in Stanford like a couple of months ago. He knew who I was, at least again and he said yes to my invitation.
Earl: Because Slingshot was created, the department of trade said, “Wow! This is real!” The APEC guys said, “This is cool.” The department of Science and technology said, “Wow. You know we should support innovators and scientists.”
Earl: Because now, you know, it was a huge big funded government event.
Earl: The first one of this kind in the country in which the governement actually spent for like innovation event at a large scale.
Paolo: It’s crazy. Yeah.
Earl: Right? But
it took conviction, because the guys said, “We don’t have speakers for the
Earl: Because we’re gonna have it in eight weeks!
Paolo: Oh my god, that’s crazy! (laughter)
Earl: and I was
like, “I’m going to help you figure it out.”
Earl: Because I’m
doing it for my country. Nobody touched it. Even people inside my organization
thought it was a bad idea. I thought and said, “We have to do it.” These are
the types of weird unpopular decisions that you have to make but you just need
to have conviction. I even mentioned in one of my posts were it says, “Always
go back to the mission.”
Earl: “… of your organization” There’s no point on building an organization if you’re not funded and grounded with a mission.
Earl: or else you’re going to fight all the time.
Earl: It’s like, “Okay guys, this is why we exist.” I am going to make a tough decision because of the why. Not because of the what not why we are doing it. That should trump any decision. So those are the types of things that I was kind of reflecting on and it was really difficult. It was like a tensed for a moment in my own personal evolution because I was a putting in my own personal reputation on the line.
Earl: I called
people right, my own personal network to please come to Philippines for it. It
was good because the government people took care of it, we had like a VIP
treatment from all of these guys…
Earl: They really
funded a good event but I had to tell Nicoche, “Please comment for me.” Then
literally he told me, “Earl, I flew thirty-six hours not for the Philippines
but for you.”
Paolo: Cue, dramatic music… (laughter)
Earl: No! No! but
it is true!
Earl: This is also one thing start-up founders should do. I should post it. People keep on asking, “Earl, how do you know so many people? For some reason, people like hanging out with you.” I am not bragging or anything, people are just telling me that and I said, “I just form friendships, I don’t form networks.” I just want to hang-out with you guys. You always have to think like this—don’t make friends just so you can get something out of them out of him or her.
Earl: Maybe in the
future, you can ask a favor, but you got to earn that favor.
Earl: Right. So
you know, Nico and I had cool classes together in Stanford and we really went
through a lot of tough times. We kept in touch throughout this time! So when I
had to say, “Please do it.” Some guy, some high stature guy in his country,
flew thirty-six hours to come here as a personal favor. That is the power of
real networking. Right, not so random as going out. I mean, you hang out with
somebody, because you want to hang out with the person, not their position.
Earl: Right. So that’s another thing the previous question was like, “How to be a real CEO?” You should think that way. Right. Because real CEOs have friends. They can ask questions too. That they trust and they trust them. That’s another thing.
Paolo: That’s really awesome. We really enjoyed Thinkshot by the way when we went. We really enjoyed it.
Earl: Oh that’s
Paolo: Like we really enjoyed it.
Earl: I was blown
away, even with it, because we pulled it off! We pulled it off man!
Paolo: Just eight weeks!
Earl: Eight weeks.
Paolo: That really worked. Didn’t it?
Paolo: Eight weeks man. That’s crazy!
Paolo: But I actually want to end on that note because it is a really strong note. I think like the music is like the oscars and like singing us out. (laughter)
Paolo: Like how can people like follow you? Where can they follow you if they will actually like create more blogs?
Earl: Yeah! I am
just doing the random blogs. It’s like I think about reflections. I’m doing
some stuff now, Innovations Philippines with press.com.
Earl: So there’s a
talk in press.com
Earl: Obviously, in my Linkedin, I repost that also in my Linkedin account.
Earl: My Twitter
is like Earl Valencia. My Facebook too is like that. So just everybody is
looking at it. I just want to like know how people are. I’m just generally
nice. I just like to know more about people so I am happy when people find some
value in it.
Earl: Yeah, even
for the new one that I talked about, a lot of people just came up to me and
even today they would say, “I need that post, I needed to hear that.” Because a
lot of people are struggling right on being a founder and nobody’s—everybody is
talking just about the sexy part of it.
Earl: It is hard
and difficult. Like you know, maybe you don’t cry but inside you’re crying.
Maybe some of your team members are crying and shouting at each other and
stuff. Then it gets very difficult. So, I am just trying to be a part of it.
Then maybe at some point, 3-4 years from now I think I can start another
funding, a start-up.
Earl: At least, I
can go back and say, “What will I do if I go back and what will I not repeat
Earl: Right. That’s really why.
Paolo: Awesome. Okay. So we learned a lot, I learned a lot from reading your blog, we learned a lot just from listening to you and just from the interview. I just really want to give you a big thank you. Maybe you have any final shoutouts?
Earl: No. I won’t have any shoutouts! (laughter) but I mean I guess I can say thanks to my wife all the time. Because she always like, you know. I told her when we got engaged, “Don’t say yes unless you want to live a crazy life.” Right. Because I will do some crazy things in my life.
Earl: and I hope you say yes to that… and she said yes and until now, she’s always consistently supporting my crazy ideas.
Earl: I think we are buffed when someone asks, “What’s the most important lesson we can give to people? I said, “The most important thing in your life is who you end up with.”
Earl: So as much as I am finding to become a bit cheesy,
Paolo: It really is. (laughter)
Earl: As much as founders do more—make sure that you are a transparent with the person you are going to be with because it can turn to disaster and that will just affect you. I mean that’s a good thing.
Paolo: Awesome. There’s a lot of advice and love advice.
Earl: I know!
Paolo: That’s crazy. (laughter)
Earl: I know! We’re in the beach with love music here so what can I do right? (laughter)
Paolo: Thank you so much!
Earl: Thank you so much too!
Paolo: Thank you for joining us! I think that’s a wrap.
Earl: Thank you.
Paolo: Thank you so much Earl.
Earl: Of course.