THE INC. LIFE

Falling in Love with Cebu: How This American Expat Thrives in this Southern City

TechTalks.ph co-founder talks about building a successful start-up community in the Philippines and Southeast Asia

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BY Adelle Chua - 30 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Cebu-based American entrepreneur Dave Overton moved to Cebu City in the Philippines, 570 kilometers south of Manila, to help his wife set up a charity maternity clinic.

This was in 2003 and the plan was to start in Cebu and then move on to other countries. At that time, there was not much of a tech start-up scene. “Outsourcing hadn’t even really taken off.  The Cebu IT (information technology) Park only had the building of a telco and a row of restaurants. The rest was open grass fields.”

 That plan has since changed. Overton’s wife is now a doctor and the clinic has delivered over 4,000 babies. Overton has set up his software design and development firm and is active in the local start-up community.

“We fell in love with the place,” he says.

Adjustments, adjustments

In the 14 years that the Overtons have lived in Cebu, they have had to adjust to many things.  The culture is semi-Western and semi-Asian. Confrontation and being direct do not come naturally.  Saving face is important. And getting things done takes time.

What Overton misses from his country most, especially Silicon Valley, is the mindset that anything is possible. “I think we need to employ that mindset here.” 

He thinks it is possible, especially in Cebu.  “Cebuanos are tough people, and they stand up for what they want.”

Symph, in synch

Overton put up Symph in 2010, and the company has since grown to 40 team members working with both the national government and the private sector. It has helped put up the government’s open data platform and eFOI (freedom of information) platform. With the rest, it has offered digital strategization, tech consulting, web design, and software development.

There have been shifts. “Our mantra is evolve or die. We have focused our service to increase value to customers, learned better ways of getting things done in working with our clients and partners. We also stopped doing things we were not good at.”

Seven years, and Symph has survived on three key concepts: Love (“We want to do things we love and build things that people love”), Change (“We are here to make the world more awesome”), and Hack (“Not the negative kind of hack. We find solutions to problems -- even the big ones.)

Tech for change

Aside from establishing Symph, Overton also co-founded Techtalks.ph, a community for start-ups. “Technology is an enabler, and using it for change is a logical conclusion for me,” Overton says. “It is already changing so many things in our lives.”

Techtalks.ph had a lot of help from Manila-based entrepreneurs. “They mentored us to get things moving and we continued to work closely with them.”

Indeed, those from the start-up community have to push themselves to believe in new ideas. Over this period, Overton has realized that it takes unique and stubborn individuals to be successful start-up founders. “They typically succeed in spite of everything else.”

How so? “They measure their outcome. And, if things don’t work, they must be able to kill these and then move on. I acknowledge that this may be hard for founders,” he says.

It was not quite what Overton set out to do in the beginning, but now he has other things on his mind. “There are plenty of opportunities here,” he says. “I don’t want to build the Silicon Valley of Southeast Asia. I want to build a successful start-up community tapping into the unique DNA of Cebu, or the Philippines, or Southeast Asia. The market is different and unique.”