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Geeks on a Beach: Tech startups, booze, and million-dollar deals

This is where the deals are made,” Smart Developer Network co-founder Paul Pajo said to me, as we stood by the shore outside the swanky Movenpick Hotel in Cebu. The setting was Geeks on a Beach, a technology and business conference organized by TechTalks.ph and supported by Smart, and the title of the conference says it all — Paul and I were surrounded by a few hundred of the smartest, weirdest, most awkward people I’ve ever met. And we were on a beach.

In the crowd were web gurus, app developers and tech-savvy entrepreneurs, but the vibe was more of La Boracay than it was of a night at a computer lab. People were dressed in shorts, tank tops, and sandals; a DJ played EDM surrounded by gorgeous ladies; on one end of the party, two Filipino founders of a successful website chatted it up with their foreign investors, while to the side, a venture capitalist with hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal lined up at the bar for his third or fourth cocktail.

This is where the deals are made. Paul excused himself from babysitting the clueless journalist (me), and moved through the party, introducing developers to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs to investors. The next app that will change the world could be hatching on this beach, Paul had told me, and the excitement in the air was palpable.

Conference proper

The conference proper began the morning before this party, on Aug. 21. It started with messages from “returnees” — Filipinos who left successful careers abroad, in places like Silicon Valley, to start movements in the Philippines. One such Filipino is Tina Amper, founder and president of TechTalks.ph, and a rock star in the local startup community. Another is Earl Valencia, who now heads Manila-based startup incubator IdeaSpace. Every year, Earl and a team of mentors take a crop of entrepreneurs and shepherd their tech-related businesses from idea to execution.

“Local startups are on the rise as a key sector pushing fast economic growth in the Philippines,” Earl said before presenting a talk entitled, “State of Startups from 2014 and Beyond: Where are we going?” In the talk, Earl presented a rosy picture of the current landscape in the Philippines. Investors, it seems, are flocking to the country to find the next big concept. Our edge over our neighbors, Earl said, is that we “do business like the Americans, party like the Latinos, and have the entrepreneurial spirit of Asians.”

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The day continued with talks about promoting Philippine startups, and using failure as a driver to success, a roundtable discussion with successful startup founders about how they raised funds for their business, and “Ask Me Anything” session with Dave McClure of 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley-based group with $10 million in funding dedicated to South East Asian ventures. Other notable speakers were Khailee Ng, also of 500 Startups, Dolphin Browser VP of international business and development Edith Yeung, Gwendolyn Regina Tan of the blog TechinAsia, and Department of Science and Technology-Information and Communications Office (DOST-ICTO) deputy executive director Mon Ibrahim, who highlighted the government’s efforts in promoting the tech community.

Day two

While the party-where-deals-are-made ended in the wee hours of the morning, with not a few geeks jumping into the hot tub of Movenpick’s beach-front bar Ibiza, people were up early the next morning for day two of Geeks on a Beach.

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa began the day with a talk entitled “The Future of Media Today.” Maria spoke about how Rappler is using Big Data analytics to map out influence circles in the Philippines, and she ended with a call to use technology to aid disaster relief efforts. After, a panel on female founders took the stage for a roundtable on how they were able to flourish in an industry that is perceived to be a man’s world. Janette Toral of DigitalFilipino.com, who is called “the mother of e-commerce law in the Philippines,” was part of this discussion.

In the afternoon, the attendees broke out into different tracks — there were different programs for special interests, business and corporate entrepreneurship, gaming and design and tech development. As people shuffled around the lobby of Movenpick, I was brought to a little room on the other side of the hotel to eavesdrop on a closed-door session: a “speed dating” meet between entrepreneurs and investors.

About 10 startup teams sat in different parts of the room while investors took turns meeting each one of them. The investors went around in a circle and sat down for five-minute pitches — essentially, the team giving a gist of what their business concept is and why they deserve an investment. One team spoke about a new way to get children to read books, another presented a device that would help hospitals take care of the elderly, and another showed off a prototype of a tool that lets marketers analyze Filipino moods on social media. There was hunger in the room, as every team believed that their idea would make a dent on the world. And the exciting thing is, every one of them could.

As Geeks on a Beach came to a close, Khailee Ng spoke highly of his prospects in the Philippines. “Filipinos speak better English than other countries in South East Asia, and Filipinos have strong connections to the US and other markets around the world!” he gushed. Khalee is on the lookout for the Filipino Mark Zuckerberg. He or she was probably on a beach in Cebu.

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For more information on Geeks on a Beach, visit http://www.geeksonabeach.com.

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