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Mika Reyes: Kumu Employee #8, Philippines Diaspora & Product Career

· Podcast Episodes,Female Founders,Women in Tech,Philippines,Kumu

If we're thinking about the Philippines from a tech perspective, I think a lot of interesthas been drawn for investors or founders because one it's, as you mentioned, almost everyone,probably everyone can speak English. So very relatable in that sense, a market that is rife for withoutlanguage barriers. Second is also very, very, very social media savvy. I think there's a big, a huge statabout how many users there are in the Philippines in particular for Facebook or Instagram or all these social media platforms and how many people are using it daily. So lots of usage coming from the Philippines and also possibly partly why Kumu is seeing such success because effectively is the social media app for the Philippine diaspora. -Mika Reyes

Mika Reyes is currenty building something new in the creator economy, as part of the South Park Commons Founder Fellowship.

💼 She was Previously PM @ LinkedIn Jobs, Kumu & Ripcord through the KPCB Product Fellowship. She also started the Filip[in]os @ LinkedIn group & was a Women in Product executive member.

🎓  She graduated B.A. Economics, Psychology, Data Analysis from Wesleyan University, Phi Beta Kappa & a summa cum laude equivalent and is a proud Philippine Science High School scholar.

🇵🇭  She's most passionate about broadening access through tech in emerging markets like her home, the Philippines & in the rest of S.E. Asia. On the side, She works on a virtual startup incubator for emerging markets, & launched a fun social card game.

This episode is produced by Kyle Ong.

Jeremy Au (00:00): 

Hey Mika. Good to have you in the show. 

Mika Reyes (00:02):Hey, really excited to be here. 

Jeremy Au (00:04): 

I'm really excited to share your story as a product leader and as a future founder. And also from my perspective your relationship with the Philippines as someone who grew up there, worked on Kumu who was headed towards being Philippines first unicorn, hopefully fingers crossed. But also someone who's also making decision to currently be part of the diaspora, right? Working and having studied in the States as well. So we'd love to really open up the box here and chat more about it. So for you Mika, for those who don't know you yet how would you introduce yourself? 

Mika Reyes (00:46): 

Yeah. Well start with I'm Mika. I was born and raised in the Philippines and really came out to the U.S. by way of college. So I studied at Wesleyan University and had a great time although the transition moving from the Philippines over to the U.S. was pretty difficult. I then was able to go back to the Philippines for this internship and actually my foray into tech and my decision to work in the tech space started when I worked for this healthcare tech startup called on MedGrocer. And it was there that I saw that tech, even in emerging markets like the Philippines, had the potential to impact millions with just the click of a button. So I said, "Okay, tech it is." 

And the natural next question was okay, where do I fit in in this tech world? Where was able to take some computer science classes, but didn't necessarily want to be the software engineer. I could do sales and marketing, but didn't necessarily want to be in that space, so I really started off by becoming a product designer and worked in a robotics ed tech startup as the next internship in Silicon Valley. And then increasingly heard about this product manager role from everyone I was working with. And at the time was still, and even now, was a nebulous and ambiguous job, but the more that I learned about it the more that I felt it fit into my personality. Wanting to dip my toes in all the different aspects of building a product it touched on my desire for impact and also fit into my goals to when I start my own thing. 

So after college was lucky to be part of Kleiner Perkins Fellowship Program where I was paired as a product manager with one of their portfolio companies report, which was a robotic digitization startup. A fancy way of saying we scanned a lot of paper and put it into our software product. And then after that had a stint Kumu, which at the time they were, I want to say less than 10 person startup, really still trying to figure out what exactly Kumu was. And was or they still credit me to helping them find product-market fit within the live streaming space and focus there. So really built a relationship with the founders and really excited for their trajectory. 

The team moved over to the Philippines and I decided I wanted to stay in the U.S. for a longer time, and then was able to find a job at LinkedIn as a product manager in the small business hiring team. So I was at LinkedIn for two years and great learning experience, but knew that my heart still lay in the startup world and knew that I wanted to start my own thing. So decided to do that in the better half of this year, quit my job at LinkedIn and found another fellowship program, I'm a fellowship power user here, found another fellowship program that gave us funding and advisors and a really awesome coming of other folks to validate ideas with. And also found my co-founder who I was friends with from Kleiner Perkins, and here I am exploring the creator economy space and building tools for creators. 

Jeremy Au (04:14):Amazing. So let's go back in time, right? So what was it like growing up in the Philippines? 

Mika Reyes (04:21): 

Yeah. Oh, I honestly had a great experience growing up in the Philippines. So double clicking into that, I first studied in this private all-girls school for elementary school and then went to this very rigorous science high school for four years. And interestingly figured out that although I had a great time, it was a very challenging school, lots of homework, lots of late nights. After four years of immersing myself in the sciences decided like I don't really want to be a scientist and more wanted to pursue ideas to apply the sciences technology and match out with the business world and actually make it practical. So that was my educational journey. 

But loved growing up in the Philippines. And this is also the difference that I saw was that is very collectivist society, very familial. So I grew up with 25 cousins, 25 first cousins, and we always had Sunday dinners and that was always such a great time. And I'm still really close to my first cousins and we're all in different parts of the world but still come together every so often. And that colored a lot of my childhood being around family, being surrounded by family and also colors a lot of where in the future I want to be going back to Southeast Asia, going back to the Philippines because that's where home is, that's where my family is. So yeah, colored by family a lot. 

Jeremy Au (06:01):Wow. That's amazing. Must have been a ton of fun having Sunday dinner with 25 first cousins. 

Mika Reyes (06:08): Super fun. 

Jeremy Au (06:10): 

Yeah, I can imagine. So I think the interesting part, obviously for everybody that's thinking about this is what is the Philippines, right? So this is an interesting space where I think for a ton of Americans it's an emerging market. So that's how they think about it. They think about it as a place where there's a lot of great tech diaspora coming there, everyone's fluent in English. So they're looking very much as either source of inputs or a place for outputs, right? 

Mika Reyes (06:42): Yep. 

Jeremy Au (06:42): 

In that set. And then for a lot of Southeast Asians it's a place where it's very Americanized place out of all the Southeast Asian countries, right? And for everybody else it's just like, yeah, what's going on? So what's your point of view of what is the Philippines? Yeah. 

Mika Reyes (07:03): 

Tough question. If we're thinking about the Philippines from a tech perspective, I think a lot of interest has been drawn for investors or founders because one it's, as you mentioned, almost everyone, probably everyone can speak English. So very relatable in that sense, a market that is rife for without language barriers. Second is also very, very, very social media savvy. I think there's a big, a huge stat about how many users there are in the Philippines in particular for Facebook or Instagram or all these social media platforms and how many people are using it daily. So lots of usage coming from the Philippines and also possibly partly why Kumu is seeing such success because effectively is the social media app for the Philippine diaspora. So I think those might be the two major things. 

And then also if we were to put in a third one related to that first English language, a lot of call centers or BPOs or customer support teams are coming from the Philippines because they speak such good English, have very hospitable personalities coming from familial roots, and relatively cheap labor, right? So I think that's how it's colored within the tech sphere. That said I think there's also the flip side of it where it's still a pretty nascent market in terms of building for building tech or tech infrastructure inclusive of capital, inclusive of really, really smart people. But then once you try to find engineering managers, for example, there's not a lot of training for managerial support or executives. 

Yeah. So around the talent is smart, but then need more training. I think it's growing but definitely needs a lot more support and attempting to do some of that through Cognity Labs, for example. Where we have Philippines startups and other Southeast Asian startups and pairing them with resources in the U.S. so that they can get the mentorship or the advice or the conversations going to help spur their ideas in those markets. 

Jeremy Au (09:39): 

So those are all true, right? Which is that I think the Philippines is a huge contributor of technology to the world, right? I mean like you said, in the past through the call centers and a lot of the... And I think the first wave of outsourcing remotely especially in the technology world for call centers, moderations, things like that. And also I think from a diaspora perspective it's been huge, right? 

Mika Reyes (10:07): Right. 

Jeremy Au (10:07): 

In terms of them contributing to lots of technology all across the States actually. Because of that, I think language fluency and also because that cultural similarity actually I think the Filipino diaspora finds it pretty easy to be contributing actively in the States. So I'm just curious from your perspective a little bit here which is, what was it like for you moving to the States? Because you are part of that wave of people who have left the Philippines for a time or permanently to the State. So what was that like? What was driving that decision for you to educate? Was it your family? Was it you? Tell us more about that. 

Mika Reyes (10:53): 

Yeah. Great question. It's definitely a mix of feeling that I needed to take this opportunity, and then some of it was also me want wanting to explore. So maybe the story behind that is when I was applying to colleges, I applied to a couple in the U.S. Kind of ill-informed I was just spraying and praying wherever I could go, but also applied to schools in the Philippines. And I actually got into some schools in the U.S. but absolutely could not afford it without a scholarship, and so definitely needed a scholarship to get in and was waiting on that. 

Simultaneously the school calendar at the time at least for the Philippines was earlier and I'd already enrolled in a particular school in the Philippines. And was super excited and really wanted to pursue that path because it was already ingrained in my head that it was going to be a fun experience for me. Then I clearly remember one day in the summer I wake up and I have this letter from Wesleyan. And at that point I was like, "Yeah, Wesleyan already put me in a wait list for the scholarship program called Freeman Asian Scholarship." And I was like, "Wait list. What are the chances?" 

Got this letter and turns out I got off the wait list and was the candidate for the Freeman Asian Scholarship for the Philippines. So that was full ride on tuition to go to the U.S, so absolutely affordable at this point. And my reaction was that I cried, not even tears of joy I cried because I was really sad to be leaving home and I was already super excited to go to this other school and I had to turn that down to go to some foreign land, some foreign school that I did not research about. And I felt compelled to take that opportunity. At that moment I knew that I was going to be choosing Wesleyan whether I liked it or not. So that was the story there. 

It ended up being one of the best decisions of my life. Love Wesleyan and four years there was amazing and opened up opportunities for me beyond college. But the first year was really hard. It was such a big contrast from the Philippines, right? So I was adjusting to a completely new culture, I was adjusting from high school to college, I was adjusting to a completely new school. And by the way Wesleyan is very liberal compared to the Philippines which is still pretty conservative, not politically but in terms of thought, right? So it was a lot to adjust to. And I'd say I was fully adjusted only after a year studying at Wesleyan. 

One of the biggest things that was difficult as well was, I think, I alluded to the Philippines and Asia being a very collectivist society. I was around family a lot, I grew up having those more collectivist culture and ideals and in the U.S. individualistic society chasing the American Dream and all that jazz. So it was a big contrast and it manifested in small ways, manifested in really deep and big ways as well that was something to get over. 

And I think what helped me was my communities speaking of collectivism, so joined, very into dance, so hip hop dance troops. There was a Philippine group as well, so was very invested in that and was around other Filipinos which was really nice. And a bunch of other communities, so helped start like the tech entrepreneurship community, et cetera. So gravitated towards all these communities that helped me adjust to a different life at Wesleyan made it much more worth it. 

Jeremy Au (15:04):Yeah. That's amazing. And I can imagine that full ride scholarship really being in an inflection point for 

you, right? 

Mika Reyes (15:10): Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Jeremy Au (15:10): 

Because I think you deciding to stay in the Philippines because you had no other option in that sense, versus not having the option but also have that be full ride scholarship basically meant that your life being very different, right? And so that makes total sense. I mean, I think I too did the same thing. I had an opportunity to do an undergrad degree in the States at UC Berkeley and I took the opportunity to go it. And I think my life would've been very different if I had stayed at local university. Maybe not for the worst, maybe not for the better, but it's all I know is that it was probably very different, right? 

Mika Reyes (15:49): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (15:50):In terms of the attitudes, the colors, the communities I built along the way. There you are for your four years and then you're hitting graduation and you make a decision, right? 

Mika Reyes (16:01): Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Jeremy Au (16:02):Where you and I differ a little bit, because you make a decision to stay in the States. 

Mika Reyes (16:07): Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Jeremy Au (16:08): 

And for me I made a decision to go back to Singapore. Obviously very different contexts, very different directions, different countries but what was in your mind? Because I think there's a common problem for a lot of folks, which is there's a ton of Filipino students out there who are thinking to themselves, should I go back to the Philippines after graduating? Or should I stay in the States? So what was your top process then? 

Mika Reyes (16:36): 

Yeah. Super great question. Asking all the hard stuff. I think for me the decision of going back to the Philippines or Southeast Asia in general was always a question of not if but when. And so even today I still have those aspirations of going back home effectively, but all a matter of figuring out when that's going to be. But going back in time when I was in college and my four years there, if you ask any of my classmates they're like, "Yeah. Mika loves the Philippines, she's going to go back right after we graduate." So at that moment when I was deciding should I be staying in the U.S? 

And even like specifically go to Silicon Valley, get into the whole world of tech versus go back home, it was a pretty tough decision still and had a lot of reflection. And decided that, at the time, decided I would write out my OPT, which at that time I thought it was just going to be one year. So I was like, "Yeah. I'll take this one year opportunity to immerse myself in all things tech in Silicon Valley. I'll be even better within the tech field when I do go back after that one year. So let me take this opportunity because it's really hard to visa shit or visa things." Very hard. So decided to ride that OPT wave. 

And then interestingly after that year I then had to make another decision because apparently my major changed such that I was eligible for the STEM OPT. So I was like, "Okay. Well what do I do?" Same decision making process was like, "You know, I'm going to write it out again just for two more years and then go back home. I will be even better prepared for it." And then you probably kind of understand, I've been in the U.S. now for seven years, close to eight. So just kept that habit of after this, after that, et cetera. So again, always a matter of when not if and still really deciding for myself when that might be. 

And I have no great answer for it. Honestly I think always the decision is like, hey, I love my family." Always still constantly visit, still love the Philippines, still believe that I can help grow the tech wave through my experiences being in Silicon Valley and give back to the Philippians and pour my experiences there. But also the Philippines in terms of tech is still catching up and is sometimes said to be 10 years behind. Though they have the likes of Kumu or these other startups that are propagating which is very, very exciting for that world. But yeah, ultimately tech in Silicon Valley is still tech in Silicon Valley. And sometimes hard to figure out when to move out of that into a different type of opportunity to make an impact. 

Jeremy Au (20:09):Yeah. Wow. I think where I really agree with you is that I had some similar trade offs on my side, right? 

Mika Reyes (20:09): Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Jeremy Au (20:14):Because when I was at UC Berkeley I was graduating. And my calculus was similar because I knew that it was a matter of when I would go back to Singapore at some point because family's there. 

Mika Reyes (20:26): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (20:27): 

And where the trade off was a little bit different was because at the time technology was not really seen as a space for business folks. I was at UC Berkeley and Google was just starting the high business folks to run accountant management for them. So it was just starting to percolate everybody's heads. But at that point in time I had internet startups in Berlin and Beijing. But still the job that I ended up taking was in management consulting at Bain, right? 

Mika Reyes (20:27): Right. 

Jeremy Au (20:56): 

And basically taking a job in Bain in Southeast Asia would be the equivalent of taking a job at Bain in the States, right? And I remember the partner was pitching me and saying, "Hey Jeremy, you should come back to Southeast Asia because this is 2012 so do you really want to be working on cost cutting projects in the States? Or do you want to be in a region where shampoo is growing by itself?" 

Mika Reyes (21:22): Like crazy. 

Jeremy Au (21:24): 

Like crazy. And so there's so much. Like all the projects in Southeast Asia are going to be above a growth, whereas all the projects in America are going to be like rightsizing, et cetera. And I thought that was a very compelling argument back then. But I think what I'm trying to say here is less about myself and less about your journey, but it was just getting where I think from a management consulting level it was flat or maybe even more attractive to be working in Southeast Asia at that time at the frontier market. 

Versus I think what's true today about technology is that technology, I think, America's really seen in the Bay Area, not the whole of the United States, I would say the Silicon Valley is seen as 10X better than all of the technology hubs across the world, right? London, Singapore, even New York to some extent. I think Silicon Valley and Bay Area is still considered like... And so I think there's a very clear gradient of excellence that you were thinking of. And so obviously you're writing the OPT which is one every, every foreign student is doing in the States. And what's interesting is how did you get into Kumu and what happened there? Yeah. 

Mika Reyes (22:36): 

Yeah. Okay. So Kumu happened after my first job at Ripcord. So actually Kumu one of the founders is Rexy Dorado, who I had worked with in the past. He had started this thing called Kaya Co which was a fellowship program, again I'm a fellowship power user, but a fellowship program for mostly Filipino Americans or Filipinos based in the U.S. in my case to go back to the Philippines for a summer and intern for a non-profit there. So that was actually my first internship after freshman year. I had worked with Rexy's organization and we also had sessions every week with each other. 

So built a relationship with him there, stayed friends throughout, visited him in Brown when he was still a student. And then I saw that it just announced something vague, right? Like Rexy posted about it, it was a very colorful picture as part of it and it was something to do with tech in the Philippines. And I was very intrigued. So I read a little bit more about, I think they had a deck or some one pager, and again still very vague, still trying to figure it out but wanted to send feelers out there. And then I reached out and was like, "Hey, I've no idea what you're building but I think it's something I'm interested in. And I'm here to learn, but also want to contribute to this movement." 

Really just the vision to I think at the time was like, "We're going to build a super app for the Philippines." I was like, "That's awesome. I want to join it." And then had an interview and then was in. So at the time we were again maybe like, I want to say eight, I was one of the first product folks joining. We had an engineering team in China. It was remote before the world was remote. And then Rexy was in D.C, Roland was in L.A, we were all over the place, and then we had a couple people in the Philippines bits too, all over the place doing things remote and figuring out what to do. 

And it was a really fun time because we were such a small team, we communicated every day because at the time it was we started with messaging. It was a messaging app so we just called each other on Kumu and had strategy calls, figured out what the engineering team in China was going to be building, launch features every single day which was really fun so really fast. And through that connection I was able to be in the early team at Kumu. 

Jeremy Au (22:36):What was it like being employee number eight at Kumu? 

Mika Reyes (25:25):Yeah. Okay. Blanket statement, super fun. I think that such an early stage with such energetic founders. 

If you meet Roland, for example, he's the hype man and just really good at bringing people together, really good at encouraging the people around him. Rexy is so intellectual, maybe a bit quieter than Roland but still very thoughtful of a human being. And then a lot of other people in that team were just such fun humans to work with. So overall a really fun time, overall even if we were trying to figure things out and had many existential crises of like what Kumu exactly was going to be, it never felt stressful. 

It never felt like something that kept us up at night because there was this whole energy and trust that something was going to be panning out so long as we kept iterating and listening to our users and trying to pull different pieces of data and hired interesting and fun people and great people to work with. So yeah, overall really exciting and fun time. 

Jeremy Au (26:47):So on your background you've shared about some of the experiments that you ran, right? So you ran Quiz Mo Ko, you talked of- 

Mika Reyes (26:55): Wow. Throwback. 

Jeremy Au (26:58): 

... The Kumu Beta Launch, the explore page, some of the product-market fit pivot. So let's start off first with, what was it like building out Quiz Mo Ko? People say the HQ Trivia approach, right? So what was that like? 

Mika Reyes (27:13): 

Yeah. Wow. Okay. I have to jog my memory for all of these two. It's been a while. But yeah, Quiz Mo Ko was interesting because it was basically a growth hack where we decided to go down this route of live streaming. So this is where we had some inkling of product-market fit as we were going focusing on the live streaming space. And Quiz Mo Ko was inspired by HQ Trivia, which at that time was super popping, we knew that it was probably going to go away and die. And similarly Quiz Mo Ko was more of a temporary thing to ride that trend so that we could get more users onto the platform. 

And similar to HQ Trivia is that it was rife with a lot of technical difficulties, so especially with folks in the Philippines like worst internet ever or not as great. So we also had to work with our live streaming partner, which was Agora, live streaming partner to make sure that the infrastructure for all of that was set and good and worked with the PH bandwidth, although with lots of ups and downs. But, yeah. Ultimately it achieved the goal and this is also as I was tapering off of Kumu. 

But I remember it did achieve the goal of getting the hype and the growth and the word of mouth from other Filipinos who were like, "Well, I can't participate in HQ Trivia because it's in the U.S. but I can participate in this Philippine version. So let me download this app and try it out and see where it goes." So yeah, that's the particular story for Quiz Mo Ko. 

Jeremy Au (29:07): 

Awesome. And you shared in the past about how it increased daily active users by almost 200%. So really amazing work there. And then I think what was interesting is that during that time there were two shifts, right? One was the product-market fit shift and then the second was the geographic shift in terms of the teaming. So let's talk a little bit more about the product-market fit switch. Tell us more about that user testing and surveys and what was the problem that was causing the desire to switch or explore, experiment product-market fit. And then how did you actually do it. Yeah. 

Mika Reyes (29:44): 

So I mentioned that the pitch for Kumu was, we're going to be the super app of the Philippines. And the hypothesis then was, well, all super apps have messaging components so let's start by building and focusing on the messaging part. So a lot of focus in messaging, we had live streams that were part of this other page, and then we had basically other... We had a feed that showed different live streams, an Instagram-like feed so to say. So there's a lot of the things going on for it because super app, right? But also a lot of emphasis on the messaging part. 

So we had a lot of experiments iterating on that part making it the best messaging app ever so that Filipinos kind of latched onto that and then eventually use the other features. Which was not the right way to think about it because we don't need another messaging app. Everyone is already in this, the Philippines Viber is a very big one, interestingly. They're not going to be solving any problems with just messaging. And so we were racking our brains about thinking about, okay well, if it's not messaging what should it be? 

And interestingly at that time before I joined it was also a bit fluff, not fluff but visionary, right? They were very visionary founders and very strategic founders but less in the ground talking to users, which is where the product hat comes in. Where I had very big believer in user research and was a product designer in my past life. So I was like, "Yo, we need to talk to users. Set up all these user interviews with people who were already pretty power users of Kumu." They also didn't really know what it was, but latched onto the vision. So we talked to them and also put in more data events within the app, very simple ones to just see how people were using it. 

And through the combination of data but really through a lot of the user research we found out that so many people love the live streaming thing and the messaging app was complimenting live streams. You can talk about a live stream, you can talk about the video through the messaging portion of it. But the live stream was like, "Wow. I can talk to people in one go. And they're all other Filipinos around the world too. That's amazing." And a lot of people also saw the future of, well, could I sell stuff? And so we investigated more of those use cases and different ways that people were using the app and doubled down that. So I'd say that was the impetus was super app but messaging is not working. Where do we go? And then the live streaming took off because we are in the roots of actually talking to users and figured it out through that. 

Jeremy Au (33:06): 

So what was the signal there? Because you did these user tests and you're saying you make that jump to say like, "Oh, live streaming is the feature." But what was that? You zoom in one level and like how did you get from a hundred user tests and surveys to saying live stream and supply size is what we need to focus on? How did the team reach that conclusion? 

Mika Reyes (33:28): 

Wow. I also really have to jog my memory. But I'd say it is actually honestly through those conversations where lots of user tests but the immediate theme was always this live streaming, live streaming, live streaming app. And granted at that time we didn't know what part of the live stream we wanted to continue investing on we just knew that live stream was the way to go. And to build features that helped make that experience better instead of the messaging part. So really honestly through those, the user research, as we focused our resources towards building for the live stream use case. Then we saw more people going through that. 

And again the Quiz Mo Ko thing was really helpful as a growth hack because then people were actually using the live streaming feature and watching, and so we're able to come into Kumu to then see themselves as the live streamers. So maybe context at the time too was we only allowed a few people to broadcast or be able to do a live stream. So while you could watch not everyone could live stream, they had to ask us if they wanted to do it. So simultaneously with the Quiz Mo Ko launch we also expanded it such that everybody could start a live stream. And that's also probably how it boomed. 

Jeremy Au (34:53):Wow. Super interesting here. So what you're basically saying is, while you've been in a super app you're actually basically testing multiple products and market. 

Mika Reyes (35:01): Yeah. Way too much. 

Jeremy Au (35:02): 

One was messaging, one was Trivia, one was live streaming. And basically what you're saying is customer feedback was like, "Oh, I enjoy consuming live stream." And other folks were like, "Oh, I would love to live streams." So that was just the user feedback ended up slowly converging on that and then eventually decided to meet that strategic shift. 

Mika Reyes (35:21): 

Yeah. I think it's a good point too is like, it was such a frank and senior product that we didn't... It's such an existential crisis if we were working simultaneously in all these different features, and so when big pivot was the focus and the focus was really important. 

Jeremy Au (35:39): 

Yeah. I think the focus really was key, right? Because I think a lot of people are trying to get product- market fit and then you see a signal somewhere but you're like, "Oh, that wasn't our original plan." And then there's this weird moment where half of you, not just half the team, but half of you each person is like, "Let's keep going with our plan." And that other half is like, "Whoa, what is the market telling us is really interesting." Okay. So there's the live streaming side. And then at some point the teams basically says, "Let's all go back to Southeast Asia." Right? 

Mika Reyes (36:11): Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Jeremy Au (36:14):And that was a big decision point for everybody, right? So tell us more about that. 

Mika Reyes (36:18): 

So majority of Kumu's market is not surprisingly in the Philippines. And of course naturally the team wanted to be in the Philippines, be amongst their users, create those relationships, partnerships, marketing, et cetera on the ground which made total sense. And I had to make a decision for myself of whether I wanted to join the Kumu team, which at that time was at the end of my first year of OPT. So made the decision even tougher because then I also had a really awesome team and company to join if I did go back, but also was still compelled by whatever opportunity or whatever waves I could ride with two more years of OPT staying in the U.S. 

Ultimately they all decided to go back. So the founders found places in the Philippines and they started hiring people on the ground. And I decided to stay again for the same reasons of so much opportunity and want to still learn a couple of things that I don't think I learned enough of while in Silicon Valley. While I have this opportunity to ride the two years, which clearly has extended, and wanted to still try my hand at that. So, yeah. Tough decision but I'm glad that I'm still really good friends with the founding team and I still I have a WhatsApp chat, a group chat with them whenever there're funding announcements or new hires. I'm like, "Congratulations. Awesome." And still supporting from afar. 

Jeremy Au (38:02): 

Yeah. I mean, it's awesome to see you continue being supportive as advisor to the product team. Do you regret for just like not going back with them? Because obviously you made the best decision at that time, which was at a time there's no Filipino unicorn or a fast growing company- 

Jeremy Au (38:23):... Would still become one. And obviously Kumu was a very young team. How many people were there by the time you... When they moved back? It was like 20. 

Mika Reyes (38:33):Oh, it seems tough. I think so, less than 20. But there are definitely hiring a couple of teams right now. 

Jeremy Au (38:40): 

Hire. Right, Yeah. So maybe like double in size from you're employee eight and then it was now like 16, 15 or 16 employees. So obviously you couldn't have known that Kumu would continue growing like the way it did. And you also couldn't have known that it would be viable and so on and so forth. Do you ever regret not hitting home on this ship that's announced be a rocket ship? 

Mika Reyes (39:04): 

Again asking all the hard questions. No. I think even at the time even without the proof points of where they're at right now, I firmly believed in the team and had good faith that they were going to be in the rising trajectory. So I was acknowledging that I was going to leave that really huge opportunity behind if I decided not to go back. So I would have asked myself the question, because they keep asking me to come back which is I love them. That's great. And I'll always have that existential crisis for myself. But ultimately I know personally that I grew a lot in the past two years I've being on LinkedIn, for example. 

I found a super great opportunity to start my own company which is ultimately the dream. And the goal to then even if whatever I create fails and Kumu rises, which is awesome, I would love that for them. One, I'm invested in them so I'm going to ride that wave in some way. But also two, I'm in it for the learning experience. And I know that again if, for example and knocking on wood, my whatever ideas I'm pursuing don't pan out, that's what I asked for and that's what I wanted. So I'm in the space where I need to be and want to be. And that gives me comfort. 

Jeremy Au (40:45): 

Yeah. I asked that question because it's a common problem, right? 

Mika Reyes (40:45): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (40:49):Because every early employee is making a decision to be like, "Is this the rocket ship or is this not the rocket ship?" That's one, right? 

Mika Reyes (40:56): Yep. 

Jeremy Au (40:56): 

And then the second overlay that you had which is a very common Filipino diaspora question which is, do I stay in the U.S. or do I go back to the Philippines, right? So that's a very interesting confluence of those two decisions. And that being said, I think it's totally fair because you've approached decision and you've made good use of the time apart from them. And you're still, of course, involved with them both as an investor and advisor. So it's not as if you're missing out entirely. So maybe to some extent you're getting the best of one world and a bit of the other world, right? 

Mika Reyes (41:34): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (41:34): So- 

Mika Reyes (41:35):I like to think of it that way. Yep. 

Jeremy Au (41:38): 

... That's what you think to yourself. Like, "Oh. I could be part of over 150 people company now." It's like you're like, "Oh." So that's the crux of the problem for so many people across the world. I met so many Filipinos in Singapore, in Indonesia, and the States who are all building amazing technology careers in big tech or as early employees or as even founders actually. And so I think there's something magical about the way, I guess, the Philippines is building technology talent in terms of the education, language, cultural affinity, everything we talked about earlier. 

At the same point of time, at least from my sense, I feel like I get feedback from them that they're not bullish on the Philippines, of building off the Philippines. And so very much conversation I have is very much they're like, "Oh, I want to build out New York, I want to build out of the Bay Area, I want to build out a Singapore." So I'm just curious about what you feel, what's going on here. 

Mika Reyes (42:48):Yeah. And in clarifying by build out of, is it like being based or audience being in the Philippines? 

Jeremy Au (42:57): 

I mean it's both. I mean, you look at Indonesians I think it's another similar dynamic. And Vietnamese where they're building out lots of great talents, obviously not as much as what the market would love to have, and so many of them are excited to return to Indonesia, right? 

Mika Reyes (43:13): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (43:15): 

And I've seen so many Indonesian American friends, sorry, Indonesia friends who were studying and working alongside me in the States and they are all excited to return to Indonesia or thinking hard about it. And I think the Vietnamese have even, a little bit earlier than that, have already been going back to Vietnam to start building as well. But that doesn't seem to happen for the Philippines. So I'm just curious what you think about that. 

Mika Reyes (43:41): 

Yeah. I do think some movement is shifting in that way with Kumu being an example another being PayMongo. I think partly one it is, and this is an interesting kind of perspective that I got is, sometimes it's hard to take a risk on a market that hasn't yet seen a billion dollar company. Which is a whole interesting chicken and egg situation. And similar to finding a market, even not geographically, when exploring different ideas and figuring out what market has the rifest best opportunity you want to put yourself amongst other billion dollar companies. Because then if you are around a hundred billion dollar companies and in the right market for that, then maybe you'll at least land in a one billion dollar company. 

Which for what it's worth the Philippines has not found that yet, so fingers crossed that it does become Kumu. So I think it is an interesting chicken and egg risky situation in that way is one. I think another is also certain ideas are probably better than others when it comes to these really early tech spaces in terms of starting a company for that audience. So I think Kumu found a good niche because social media, I mentioned a lot of Filipinos are social media savvy and English speakers. So penetrating that market specifically social media in the Philippines is a very integrative one. 

And a lot of stars aligned for them too. Literally stars from this big media conglomerate which got shut down by the government fluked to Kumu, so that was a really good why now and opportunistic time for them. Another interesting space is FinTech in the Philippian specifically is for small businesses where PayMongo is playing at. And I'm sure many more other companies that need to find the specific niches and markets within and already pretty specific market in the Philippines some ideas are just going to be better than others. 

I think last thing, more like being based in the Philippines and raising capital from there or starting a company based there it does take extra effort in that again, internet is not the best. But also the government sometimes not that friendly or still needs a lot of education or a lot of openness to even trust startups based in the Philippines. Like Uber was once there and now it's gone. For that reason hiring can also be better and the talent can also be better within that realm. So I think it's getting there, it's developing but we'll take time and hopefully very soon. 

Jeremy Au (47:20): 

Yeah. Those are all great points. I mean it's a frank acknowledgement that I think the Philippines as a, for example, entrepreneurial ecosystem like I said is one order of magnitude lower than that of say Singapore or Boston or New York. And then those are also one order of magnitude lower than Silicon Valley in terms of entrepreneurial support, fundraising, for example. And then of course I think the corollary to that as well is just like, we have not yet seen the exit and then the exit doesn't generate the flywheel of entrepreneurial ecosystems. So it's like you said, chicken and egg there. And then so nobody wants to come back, and so then again the entrepreneurial ecosystem doesn't kickstart. 

So it takes actually a lot of intentional systems work by not just individuals but also companies, philanthropists, and government I think to really get that flywheel going. And so there you are and you're processing a lot of thoughts, right? And I think I met quite a few folks have reached out to me and asking me about Southeast Asia because they see this podcast and they're like, "Okay." 

Mika Reyes (48:30): Nice. 

Jeremy Au (48:30): 

"There's someone who is like a thought leader and someone who's a good span on the cross organization." I think the question they keep asking me is like they hear all these challenges that you just talked about, but they also see the opportunity that we talked about earlier, right? 

Mika Reyes (48:43): Right. 

Jeremy Au (48:43): 

The language, the pool, the technology, literacy, so and so forth. And they keep asking this question which is like, "When is the right time? If I join now is it too early? If I come back next year is it going to be too late?" So I think it's very much like a timing question. Is like, "When is the right time for me to come back?" How would you think about it? I'm just curious. 

Mika Reyes (49:11): 

Oh, great question. This is probably not super helpful, but for sure within the next 10 years, which in VC horizons it's like 10 years is a pretty short time but maybe at an individual level pretty long time. Maybe even if I were to squeeze that time even more even in the next five years building a network in Southeast Asia even right now, which is beautiful because you're doing that with this podcast, I think it is important to start investing and figuring out how to find those roots in Southeast Asia. Because I do expect that the tech scene in particular is going to be moving. We're already seeing hints of that with people flocking back in different waves for different reasons. And I think it was, I forgot the specific stat, but are you familiar with Iterative? 

Jeremy Au (50:15):Yeah. Iterative, Hsu Ken Ooi was a former guest. So shout out to check out- 

Mika Reyes (50:22): Nice. 

... Jeremyau.com to find this episode. And talk about how he found Iterative and his Silicon Valley experience. And similar to you and me, how he'd made a position to come back to Southeast Asia. So anyway, keep going. 

Mika Reyes (50:34): 

Yeah. I think what they're doing is awesome. And already, again, starting their roots and investing in Southeast Asia specific markets and startups, which is really smart because by the 10 years then they would have built that expertise. But also I think they had this specific article or stat about why they're investing in the Southeast Asian market and why about now as a VC is the best time to be doing it. Because something along the lines of the growth rate of the number of people who are on the internet is growing much more rapidly and reminiscent of early days of the internet. 

Which I found really interesting and telling of the trajectory of where tech and startups are going to be in the next few years. So I do think within the next 10 years starting to do some of the work now to invest in communities, to invest in even startups in the market to start thinking about what could be right for Southeast Asia it's going to be an opportune time now even. 

Jeremy Au (51:50):Yeah. So you heard it here first from Mika is within the next five to 10 years, come home. Yeah. No, it's 

tough to tell, right? 

Mika Reyes (52:07): Yeah. Taking a bet. 

Jeremy Au (52:11):So taking a bet. I think the crux for me the way I think about is there's always that top position it's like, 

do you want to be a small fish in a big pond, or do you want it to be a big fish in a small pond, right? 

Mika Reyes (52:20): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (52:21): 

And I think Malcolm Gladwell had a nice dynamic and he talks about some of the asymmetry of it in his writings. But I think what I appreciated him saying was like, "Sometimes excellence comes because you take turns in each pool." Right? Sometimes you're a small fish in a big pond that learn as much as you can and understand what excellence is and get smart and build a lot and learn from the best and so on and so forth. And then you come home and you become a big fish in a small pond because now you can build ownership, be intentional, be super deliberate about what you're building and being able to make that splash, and of course help grow that pool, right? 

And also I think he said was like, "People flourish in different environments." So some people flourish by being a big fish in small pond, some people flourish by preferring to be a small fish in a big pond. So I thought that was something that, at least some of it we were talking like was in the back of my head. So Mika, oh, coming up on QuickTime here. So the last question here is you shared obviously and started hinting at some of the tough times that you had, decisions you had to make. Could you share with us a time when you were facing adversity or a challenge and you had to choose to be brave. 

Mika Reyes (53:44): 

I'll maybe hand out two things. One I already alluded to earlier on, which was it was such a big and difficult transition to make the decision to move from the Philippines which I spent 18 or so years of my life in and had firm and strong roots in and really loved. And uproot myself, leave family at 18-years-old and move to the U.S. in a completely foreign land and culture and adjusted many different things. So I'd say that was one tough and brave decision with absolutely no regrets. Another is probably the most recent decision of quitting my job at LinkedIn and starting this company. I'm super happy to have been able to do it with the comforts of SPC, which even without SPC and that funding I would've done it anyway. But lucky to still have the advisorship and the funding. 

I was lucky to also have found my co-founder and meet my... She was a friend from four years back. But we are at the same stage in life and figured out that we were compatible as founders, so lucky to have had that before quitting my job. I'd say it was many months, many even years in the making to gain the confidence for myself or even decide if it was something that I really, really, really wanted to do. But decided to make that jump and have been having a lot of fun with it actually. Again, my heart lies in the startup world and having a lot of autonomy at least for now. And doing a lot of these fun experiments and trying things out, still rife with a lot of risk and challenges along the way but enjoying it and made the brave decision to quit a very comfortable life to pursue what's long been a dream for me. 

Jeremy Au (56:07): 

I am so excited for you. I'm sure that no matter what happens in the next phase there's obviously going to be a good and bad, highs and lows, but I'm pretty sure you're going to be pretty awesome. And I can't wait for you to come back to Southeast Asia eventually as well, so I'll say that, and host you for dinner sometime, right? 

Mika Reyes (56:26): Cool. That'll be fun. 

Jeremy Au (56:28): 

That'll be fun, right? So Mika, I did want to summarize at least the three big themes that I have heard from you, and I really want to thank you so much for sharing. I think the first part I really thank you so much for sharing it's just like sharing what is the Philippines and who are the people and what the dynamics of the technology and the market and the diaspora. And I think that's such a key thing because so many people still don't know what Philippines are, right? The Americans don't fully understand, the Southeast Asians don't fully understand. And I think a lot of the diaspora are also still wondering, remembering what the Philippines is. 

And I think it's refreshing to hear your take on it. It's not the only take obviously, but as your take as a technology, as a product leader, and as a founder to have that point of view. So I think that's really interesting. The second thing that I think is really interesting in terms of team is that you have that set of experiences obviously as Kumu's employee number eight, as a product leader. And seeing not just obviously some of the early growth hacks from building the HQ Trivia clone, which is a fun story and how you improve your daily active users to hopefully get a poke to something else. But also how your super app approach eventually led to that pivot towards live streaming, not just to the power and importance of user research but also because of the need to focus the whole team. 

And I think that's such a interesting story that I'm sure we're going to have more product stories in the future to debate and discuss. And I think it's such a critical moment because I think so many founding stories are like, oh, we figured it out from day one because the journalists have no time to write about the founding story, right? And so it's just I was like everybody still thinks Kumu was this launch of live streaming app because it is what it done today. But I think that high resolution at an early stage is so key because I think most founders walk in thinking they're going to walk in with the perfect idea, but it turns out that pivot and listen to the customers. And I think that's a good reminder from your perspective. 

And the third thing that was really interesting was really for the Filipino and actually not just the Filipino but also the Southeast Asian diaspora, right? They're listening in from or reading from the U.S. or from Europe or the UK or whatever and they're thinking about when's the right time and how to come home, right? And obviously I don't think you gave any specific answers because you haven't done that track yet. But I think you do provide not only the affinity, but also some of the top processes about that. 

And in doing so you're also lighting the road ahead for other folks who are in Southeast Asia who are thinking, okay, if I leave to do my undergrad or my master's or get work experience outside Southeast Asia, what's my path back? And I think your honest take on it is helpful to both the current diaspora but also future diaspora in the making. So those are my three summary of what I took away from my notes here from you Mika. And thank you so much for coming on the show. 

Mika Reyes (59:49):Yeah. Thanks for summarizing. And thanks for having me. 

 

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