In today’s spotlight interview, Rockbird Media talked with RJ Ledesma, the current Co-founder of Mercato Centrale, the largest and most famous food market and food business incubator in the Philippines. Also a co-founder of a business consultancy firm in the country, EnterPH, an entrepreneur mentor Go Negosyo, an Honorary Vice Consul of Monaco to the Philippines. RJ is also an author and editor where he has published six best-selling non-fiction books and won multiple awards. Furthermore, he’s also an actor and a host on Philippine’s top TV networks. RJ has attained a double degree in Applied Economics and Business Management, holds a Masters Degree of Science in Business Administration /Computational Finance at De La Salle University and holds a Masters Degree in Real Estate Development from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In this conversation, RJ discussed the retail and ecommerce industry in the Philippines, his biggest challenge as a businessman and the burning passion that he has for entrepreneurship.
RJ shared one thing he wants people to know about the retail and ecommerce industry in the Philippines. Relating it with one of the big lessons he has learned, he shared that just because people think it’s a good idea to get into ecommerce, it doesn’t mean that the idea is easily translatable to digital and ecommerce. “You’ve got to realize that each industry is different. Like what I do is food, right? It’s an outdoor food market. At first, I thought it would be easily translatable into developing into a digital ecommerce platform, but it’s not that easy.” It’s not something people would easily think that it will be done in a snap of a finger once they get into it. At the same time, Ledesma thinks that it’s significant as well. For RJ who has an entrepreneurial mindset, he revealed that many businessmen do beta testing. It means that they course-correct along the way. “Our fear of getting into something new can’t stop us from getting into it. In fact, our job as entrepreneurs is to solve irritations or to problem solve.It’s to figure out ways to create the solutions, say you get to ecommerce and you figure it out, you get into it, and you course-correct along the way.” The Mercato Centrale Co-founder advised to not make the fear of starting ecommerce get you. However, people must do beta-testing, “don’t put the eggs into one basket”, RJ added. Aspiring business owners must try using enough resources where they are able to manage the risk so they can test how the business will work for them. RJ also disclosed three items every entrepreneur should have for the business to achieve some level of growth and to work together for the products and services to be able to hit the market: First one is the digital marketing which is very important. Second is to develop the digital payment system and lastly, advance the logistic system.
We all believe that the lockdown restrictions have surely affected every strand of business – as RJ highlighted, transportation and hospitality industries were disrupted more by technology in how they operated, especially the F&B industry. Mercato Centrale is not Mercato Centrale without the people merrily binge-eating from its various food stands. It’s a memorable place for the citizens especially when it comes to the nightlife in Manila. As a founder, RJ revealed that the entrepreneurial mindset is an essential trait every business owner should have. “Because the job of the entrepreneur is not to determine whether a situation is good or bad. The mindset of an entrepreneur should be to look for opportunities in good times, especially during bad times.” With all the disruptions brought about by the restrictions, the first one RJ and his team realized is if they want to resume their business, they need several challenges to solve on doing online businesses. Series of small beta testing will be needed along the way. The team would try morning markets, survival markets where they sell the most essential goods and markets inside apartment buildings and condominiums because of the constraints. Eventually, RJ’s team learned so much from them that they were able to work together with their old partners to open one of the first IATF mandated Mercato Centrale in an alfresco area. Witnessing the growth of the business earlier on, they were able to open several new Mercato Centrales because the alfresco setting has been the new trend today.
As a result, they opened Mercato United Kitchen. “We realized during the pandemic, the people liked the selection Mercato had to offer. We tried to offer that online, that was our first attempt at ecommerce. The costs were too high for the consumer with regard to delivery because they were all located from different areas. So we had to co-locate these different vendors into one location where people could order from us online, all these different vendors for one delivery price.” Another thing RJ realized with his team is that if they could aggregate their customers on a physical level, they must also aggregate their small food vendors on a digital level, still providing the same sort of Mercato experience. With the right technology, the team managed to bring together customers and vendors online. “So those are the different ways to think about. I’m not saying they have all the same levels of success but what you realize is that if you don’t do it in the first place nor allow yourself to fail, you’re not going to learn from it – from how all these different models work because customer dynamics, market dynamics are constantly changing while being present to see the whole process to see what can you course-correct along the way. Because in business, there’s no true failure, in business there’s only constant learning about new ways to do it.”
RJ added that the key is also to do business in other ways. Importantly, as an entrepreneur, failure is sort of built into one’s business model. However not in a sense of failure personally and professionally. “It’s a failure because that’s the only way for you to learn. Sometimes your first business model is not your ultimate business model. So you have to keep learning and iterate things from there”.
Ledesma also owns a podcast called The RJ Ledesma Podcast where he talks with top business personalities about entrepreneurship, their tips and secrets and the challenges they encounter in this new normal era. Listening to one of his talks, he mentioned that he is passionate about helping and creating more entrepreneurs in the Philippines. Why does the speaker have such devotion in the business world? “I think it’s always the idea – if you’re passionate about doing business, you have to find your reason, that’s what Simon Sinek says. I realized, one of my biggest whys is trying to help other people. That’s why I feel in all my different businesses, it’s always with that bias to help everyone.” As he manages Mercato Centrale, whose purpose is to help small food businesses to start them off and grow, RJ has other businesses that aim to assist budding entrepreneurs from different walks of life such as Easy Franchise an online one-stop shop for franchising. The aim is to help OFWs put up businesses here in the Philippines and manage it for them. “So we’re not only giving OFWs a chance to grow businesses when they come home, we also give a chance to do job generation in our own little way.” As for RJ, it is always about giving back to the community. Confidently believing that it is a good thing to do and it’s good business as well.
The entrepreneur also related the passion with his faith. “It’s a good thing as any Christian would want to do as well, if that’s how you feel about doing business. And that is how I feel about it. It’s something I learned from my dad who is also an entrepreneur. He has the same way about doing business, he feels that in any business that you do, you should always give back to other people.” It’s not just a part of good business practice but for RJ, as a Catholic-Christian, he has always been taught that in whatever he does, he gives back. There is a prayer he learned in school, the Lasallian prayer that is important to him, “I will continue, oh, my God to do all my actions for the love of You”. RJ tries to apply it in everything he does and it includes his business activities where the people around benefit from it. It must be for the greater good.
Ending the discussion, RJ has a message for the retail and ecommerce leaders in the country. “First of all, bravo to all of you. We see that the digital commerce business is booming right now and we see how many people benefit from it especially how this pandemic has actually accelerated ecommerce here in the Philippines. What I ask to all the leaders here right now is that ‘Arising tides lift all boats’, meaning that as ecommerce improves, everybody will improve as well but we need your help. 99.5 percent of the businesses here in the Philippines are MSMEs and like I said, each business is customizing different way, right? We need your help. Let’s pay it forward. If your business has been successful, let’s also help the other businesses which are trying to get on the ecommerce bandwagon. Let’s help them go online, let’s help educate them, let’s handhold them so they can grow their business here together. We really help a lot of Filipinos. I work together with GoNegosyo. You’ve seen my own RJ ledesma podcast and what we’ve been doing is always for the goal of helping other entrepreneurs survive and thrive in the country. So let’s work together. Let’s build a strong, digital ecommerce Pilipinas.”
In this much awaited event, catch RJ Ledesma moderate the Panel Discussion on “Winning the customer attention – building a competitive and strong D2C strategy” this 28th July at the City of Dreams, Manila.