Raymond Racaza is well-acquainted with pioneering technology. Long before he became the chief operating officer of mobile tech firm Xurpas, and eventually founder and chief executive officer of celebrity games developer Xeleb, Racaza had a hand in shaping the industry himself.
In the 90s, Racaza launched the country's first mobile Internet site and developed an interactive SMS chat service. Later, he parlayed those programming skills as one of the lead developers working on iAyala's R&D (research and development) for mobile Internet, where he built the first WAP (wireless access point) site in the Philippines. But these innovations were still considered novelties at a time when networks were often clogged, and unwieldy mobile phones could double as paperweights.
"I was doing stuff that was very far out, but I knew that we were limited by the technology of our time," Racaza said. Still, his familiarity with advanced tech helped cement his faith in greater leaps to come—enough to throw himself into entrepreneurship via Xurpas, which he co-founded with Nix Nolledo and Andy Garcia.
Back then, Filipinos were just starting their love affair with the Internet on personal computers, but Racaza already foresaw the inevitable transition to mobile. After all, who would not want unlimited access to information and games at the palm of their hands, he reasoned. Mobile connectivity was practical and convenient—and nowadays, a necessity. "We knew that trend would happen. Phones could only get stronger, smarter; network speeds could only get faster. There was no way to go but up."
But there were days when Racaza had little more than the money in his wallet: All his savings had been poured into the business, client turnaround was slow, and, when they did get a payday, his employees' salary always came first. "During those difficult times, we were unfazed. We weren't bitter or unhappy. There was never a feeling of despair, because we firmly believed in what we were doing," he recalled.
The turning point came when Racaza and his partners left the comfort of a steady job at Ayala to start Xurpas in 2001. "It was a big decision to be an entrepreneur," he admitted. It is worth noting that Xurpas was a startup years before the word itself even made its way to everyday business jargon; it also predates the thriving local startup scene in which aspiring entrepreneurs can now turn to incubators, mentors, and venture capitalists for a helping hand.
Surviving through innovation
But when the company had its IPO (initial public offering) in December 2014, it made headlines for having done it without any external investors or debt. "Usually, with tech, it's the norm to find investors, but back then, people would always say, 'There's no reason for you guys to succeed!'" recalled Racaza.
And yet, he looks back on their bootstrapping days with fondness. "We were a bunch of nerds happy to do what we were doing. Those times when we couldn't afford stuff were actually a great thing, simply because we had to innovate….Without the money to buy tech or license content, we just built it ourselves."
No task was too big or too small for the Xurpas team: Content creation was made in-house; so was the development of their SMS applications, down to client pitching and the mundane paperwork. "We were never ashamed to say where we came from, because that defines who we are. Everything is relative: You don't realize the value of money until you go through hard times."
Understanding the market
Xurpas may have flourished without the support system a fledgling entrepreneur may enjoy today, but Racaza insists that success really boils down to which player has the best understanding of their target market.
He relied on that insight into consumer behavior for launching his tech outfit Xeleb, the country's first celebrity-branded casual games company, inspired by the growing mobile games trend led by the likes of “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.” It has since developed games based on Filipino celebrities like Anne Curtis, Erwann Heussaff, Kim Atienza and Isabelle Daza, who also happen to be shareholders in the company.
In October 2016, a year since its inception, the company announced it will start opening itself to the public with an IPO that can raise by as much as Php736.6 million. The move stemmed from its regional expansion plans and projects on product development.
"At the end of the day, a startup today and a startup 14 years ago are [both] armed with ideas," he said. "Ideas are the currency of our business. But make no mistake; there is no monopoly to great ideas. It's who goes to market who will win the war."
Updated on October 2016
Victoria is a freelance writer who covers business, tech, and lifestyle. She is also the former features editor of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine. Follow her on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/vikkiverka.