Ideas are not enough to build a sustainable business

Cover art Samantha Gonzales

Words by

Digital Reporter

You have a great startup idea. You’ve built a company on it. You’ve launched your big app that could change the lives of millions of Filipinos. Now all you have to do is sit back and wait for your company to turn into a unicorn.

At least that’s what Robert Suyom of Snipe thought when he launched his company three years ago. Formerly posted on GooglePlay, the Snipe Shopping App let users earn discount coupons from partnered stores every time they shopped. It targeted entry-level and low wage employees who would benefit from being able to save money.

“Sounds like a brilliant idea, right? That’s what we thought too,” the CEO told students at the Spark Series x De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. The team, he recounted, hustled to get the word out to everyone, networked, talked to potential clients and customers, and they even went as far as to come up with a forecast for their finances. Suyom thought that he’d be swimming in cash in a year or two.

But instead, he was met with unsatisfied customers and one-star reviews on the app’s page. “Worst app ever,” a one-star rating on GooglePlay read. Moreover, no one redeemed a coupon using the app a year since it launched.

“Ideas were not enough,” Suyom said. “Not enough to build a sustainable business and not enough to build a unicorn.” Snipe went through a revamp, which is still based on the idea of giving employees more bang for their buck, but through other means.

Since then, Snipe has been remodelled into an employee rewards platform. Companies using Snipe can reward hard-working employees with digital medals which the employee can then use to get exclusive discounts from partnered stores, online or offline. The hustle still continues for the Snipe team to get more companies and merchants to use their platform, but Suyom admitted that they have been getting better feedback compared to their initial idea.

Companies that have been receptive to Snipe include Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Tata Consultancy Service, and Sykes.

“Luckily for us we encountered a lot of people and organizations that helped us along the way,” said Suyom. Snipe is one of the official incubatees under IdeaSpace, which comes with a seed fund of around half a million pesos to launch your idea. “A lot of local incubation programs in the Philippines have their own ecosystem of startups. A lot of these startups have excellent ideas and products who are just waiting to scale up.”

Snipe also found support from the Department of Trade and Industry through QBO, one of the many initiatives by the government to create a good environment for startups.

Still, all this help is worthless if you, as a startup founder or a future business leader, do not have the right mindset.

“Value over valuation. When we talk about unicorns it’s easy to get caught up with how much a company’s worth,” Suyom advised. He admitted that when he started Snipe he and his team were more interested in making the business look good by generating buzz, looking for investors and making themselves visible. “We learned that we should look at value, customer value. Because while we can fool them with valuation, there is no way that we can fool customers about the value that we offer.”

“A customer or user will only receive or embrace your product if it fits their life… if it actually means something to them.”

And to get to where they are in their three year startup rollercoaster, Snipe had to constantly experiment and validate their product. “No matter how impressed you are by that idea of yours, it has a lot of room for development,” said Suyom. “In order for you to know if your idea can be turned into a sustainable business or something that could scale up, do something unscalable first. Do something manually.”

Take Airbnb for example. While it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know about this affordable way to book a room for a few nights at someone else’s property, Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia used to go door-to-door in New York to take photos of the rented out properties, write the online profiles, and chat to their clients about what they want to see on their platform.

Because great businesses aren’t just about the great product. “Along product is a thing called process, the secret sauce of businesses,” Suyom said. “It’s the experiments and validations that businesses do to develop product and operations further.”

“And then there’s purpose,” Suyom stressed. “A business should never forget why it’s there, who it’s serving, and how it’s enriching the lives of the people they serve.”

“Without understanding of that human need,” Suyom said, “we don’t see any of our products succeeding at all.”