By Pola Esguerra del Monte, Multimedia Editor
AS FAR AS the internet is concerned, everyone who enters its realm is “at least 18 years old.” That includes the 13-year-old self of Iran-born Forbes under 30 lister Shahab Shabibi, back when he was lurking at 3 a.m. on Yahoo! Messenger (“My parents didn’t mind; I had high grades.”) to chat with a programmer he was building a company with.
Today, at 22 and finally legal, Shabibi is still a builder of things. After the success of rapsong.ir — that company he started in his teens which became Iran’s first underground music portal — as well as a Tarafdari, Iran’s leading sports social media network with more than five million visitors every month, he moved to the Philippines in 2010 and realized he could use his knack for innovation for a deeper social purpose.
“When I came to the Philippines, it was a very eye-opening moment for me,” he told SparkUp. “When I began studying, that was the time that I started getting a better understanding of what is really happening here,” he said. “And then I remember, I had this moment where I realized that what I’ve been doing in Iran is not so amazing. To make another entertainment website, to make another sports website, is not something that truly changes people’s lives. I found myself looking at more fundamental problems that I haven’t seen before.”
That idea came to him while he was working at Rocket Internet in 2014, where he was tasked to setup carpooling platform Tripda. “People started e-mailing me ‘Wow, this is amazing!,’ ‘I’m saving two hours a day!,’ ‘I don’t need to commute anymore!’ I realized that I had never heard this from any of my users back in my previous platforms,” he said. “That’s when I thought to myself that technology can really change people’s lives. And that’s the time I decided that I want to be here and I want to build a company here.”
That company turned out to be Machine Ventures, of which he is the CEO and co-founder together with Harvard-educated health tech guy Farouk Meralli. “Back in our home countries, these problems didn’t exist and that there was a big calling for us that we should do something here,” he said. “We set up Machine Ventures with the idea of solving real world problems using technology as means to make it very big and scalable. We started looking at what is happening in the Philippines and identified a few key issues: lack of infrastructure, poverty, and lack of mainstream quality education.”
The first product the company hatched is HeyKuya, an SMS-based personal assistant service, that gave job opportunities to men, through food delivery and travel booking, among others, to over 15,000 users. In only five months, HeyKuya was acquired by a similar Indonesian personal assistant service called YesBoss.
The acquisition served as a validation, but it also taught Shabibi new lessons.
“As much as we wanted to be about impact, about solving problems, there is this unavoidable discussion about the financial side of things,” he said. “That really helped us to understand that, we don’t want to just build solutions, we want to build sustainable solutions, we want to build solutions that economically make sense in the way every stakeholder would be willing to continue what they are doing because it is also financially reasonable.”
He reflected: “Another realization that I had afterwards is that it is really sad that you cannot control your company after you sell it.”
With Machine Ventures, however, with him at the helm, the journey was just as tough—perhaps even tougher.
“The Philippines is probably one of the hardest countries to setup a company in,” he observed. “Generally, entrepreneurship is very tough but I would say in the Philippines it is much more magnified in terms of all the other inefficiencies that are out there, like supplier deliveries most likely won’t happen on schedule. Likewise, you definitely can’t pay suppliers easily because you go to the bank and all these processes are very lengthy and very tedious.”
But this reality only toughens him up. Machine Ventures is now composed of 24 people who “the resilience and the ability to not take ‘no’ for an answer.” He says: “We believe in that idea of learning entrepreneurship by doing, and learning by mastery, not just taking a course and passing an exam but literally going through the journey with someone who has done it before, and as you do that more and more, you learn.”
Right now, what keeps him busy is the launch of another new venture, MyKuya, a service similar to HeyKuya, whose mission is to create one million job opportunities over the next three years.
“We are building it as a platform where people can get things done, but on the other hand, it also opens a lot of people to job opportunities, the ability work whenever they want, to be their own boss, to have self-respect and self-dignity in what they do in day-to-day basis,” he said.
With all these plans, does he consider himself a social entrepreneur? “I mean, that’s a buzzword right? If I say ‘yes, I’m a social entrepreneur,’ it would probably get more clicks,” he laughs. “But I would say that as an entrepreneur, I have the responsibility and I’m on a mission to solve problems, and the biggest problems are often social problems,” he said. “And the same way that I’ve tried to solve smaller problems in my own little way before, now we are focused on solving bigger problems, and they happen to be social.”