When Philip Adrian “Chino” Atilano of Mapun Island, the most remote town of Tawi-Tawi, came to study in Zamboanga City after more than 24 hours aboard a motorboat, he did not know how to send an e-mail. With thirst for knowledge, he learned about the Internet, went on to graduate with a degree in electronics engineering from Ateneo de Zamboanga University and co-founded a technology company using an innovative application to resolve the problem of long queues.
Chino says while attending high school in Mapun, he had no access to Internet. “When I went to Zamboanga, I did not know how to send an e-mail,” he says in an interview at a coffee shop in Makati City.
He was born in Mapun Island, a town in Sulu Sea which is closer to Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia than to Bongao, the capital of Tawi Tawi, dubbed the southernmost province in the Philippines.
Today, Chino, 27, is the co-founder and chief executive of Makati City-based TimeFree Innovations Inc., which has recently closed a deal with a multinational company to deploy the TimeFree virtual queuing solution in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a milestone for any Philippine startup company.
At Ateneo de Zamboanga, Chino met some of the best engineering students in Mindanao. With three other classmates, they worked on a thesis project that aimed to help people spend less time in queuing at stores, banks or government offices.
“It is also my personal objective. I want people to realize the importance of time. I lost my dad when I was 15. I lost my mom when I was 21. I thought instead of spending hours in line while waiting at the NSO [National Statistics Office], I should have spent more time with my parents. People should not take time for granted,” he says. “Life is too short to wait in line.”
Chino has been the chief executive of TimeFree since December 2012. He left Smart Communications Inc. as a transmission engineer in September 2013 to focus on growing TimeFree, a virtual queuing solutions company that enables users to remotely get a queue e-ticket using their smartphone and sends alerts regarding their position in the queue. This means customers no longer need to waste hours falling in line. The company now has presence in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Malaysia and plans to expand to the US soon.
“Our product basically is a virtual queuing solution that allows any user with a smartphone or even feature phone to get a queue ticket even without going to the establishment first,” says Chino.
TimeFree has evolved from a thesis project of Chino and three other classmates at Ateneo de Zamboanga. Other members of the theme are Sharief Kayer Alsree, who became chief operations officer of TimeFree; Ken Marvin Wee, chief technology officer; and Joselle Macrohon, chief financial officer.
TimeFree is supported by IdeaSpace Foundation Inc., technology incubator and accelerator formed by Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., Smart and other MVP Group of Companies to help startup companies by providing seed funding of as much as P500,000.
“We were ECE [Electronics and Communication Engineering] students in 2009. Our school project is a combination of hardware and software. It was our first prototype,” says Chino, referring to how the TimeFree queuing solution started.
They joined a competition organized by Smart under the Smart wireless engineering education or Sweep program. “We went to Davao City to join the Sweep competition and regional roadshow. Our purpose was to experience what it was like to join a competition. We never expected to win. We submitted our application two hours before the deadline. We were not serious about it,” says Chino.
During the presentation, Chino’s team introduced a queuing solution, with a coin slot. The solution was designed to notify the user if he or she was already next in line. “We were able to get to the finals, but we didn’t make it to the top three. But because of the feedback we got from those who attended the event, Smart thought that we had a viable idea. They also saw the problem of long lines at offices or banks,” he says.
With the support of Sweep, Chino’s team was given a chance to improve their prototype, which started as an SMS-based solution. While working on the prototype, Chino and other members of the team went on to work with various companies in Metro Manila.
“By 2010, Smart asked us if we wanted to proceed with improving our project. We said we wanted to take the board exam first. When we passed the exam, we said we wanted to focus on our career first. So I went to Smart, while some of my co-founders went to Maynilad and Bank of the Philippine Islands,” he says.
“We decided to shelve the project, but towards the end of 2012, IdeaSpace and Sweep talked and identified some Sweep startups that they felt had commercially viable projects. We were among the projects identified,” Chino says.
They received a seed funding of P500,000 from Sweep. “We accepted it. We took the opportunity. We also joined the IdeaSpace national competition and we were fortunate enough to win. We received additional funding. So from P500,000, our total funding reached P1 million,” he says.
No social life
Chino says while working full-time for Smart and improving the queuing solution, he had only three hours of sleep a night. “We were working in the morning. In the afternoon, we would go to the house of our co-founder to work on the project. We did that for nine months. Literally, we had three to four hours of sleep and even on Sundays, we were working. We had no social life. Our focus was to improve on the product until such time that it was commercially viable,” he says.
“Fortunately, Smart extended benefits to me and gave me a six-month sabbatical leave with pay. They said after the end of six months, and I wanted to proceed with the project, I could resign from the company. If not, I can always go back. I had a safety net and it really solved a lot of problems for me,” he says.
Backed with seed funding, they worked on improving the project and decided to let go of the hardware component based on the feedback from potential customers. “We were able to do the prototype. We started talking to a couple of people. One of the feedback was that assuming we were able to deploy the technology across the country, in over 200 sites for example, how could we repair a component if it malfunctioned. That was an eye opener for us, because this would mean large operational expenditures,” he says.
“Because of that, we decided to do everything based on software. There are no special hardware like TV monitor or computers,” he says. “In 2012, we decided to include mobile application, but at that time, smartphone and data connection were not yet prevalent. We felt that mobile app was too early for that. We focused on SMS. We were able to get a couple of early adaptors, but the problem was pricing, because there was variable cost involved. For customers, they could not predict the variable cost and expenses,” he says.
“That was a challenge, but with increasing use of data plans in 2013, we said now is the right time for mobile app. Now, our mobile app is what we are marketing. But we still have the legacy offering like texting a code,” he says.
“Hopefully, in the next year or two, the smartphone adoption will be higher. It will be more affordable for businesses,” he says.
PLDT and Smart also became TimeFree’s first clients. “We were able to have revenues in our first year,” he says. “We did not event touch the P1-million seed funding. The flow of funds was steady, allowing us to focus on product development. We pooled our funding and revenue and that was enough to sustain us for one year and a half,” he says.
“In 2014, we made a conscious effort to improve the product based on the feedback that we got from customers and also the product roadmap. We were able to come up with mobile product last year. We fully developed the system. Anything that the client needs, we can give them, either in the cloud or on premise,” he says.
TimeFree is now setting its sight on the US market. “We were talking to a couple of angel investors in the US. We plan to launch our pilot there by the end of the quarter of the year. We are doing the leg work,” he says.
“Our expansion project is not just about expanding to other countries, but more on increasing the number of users. We were able to launch in Hong Kong and Malaysia, but admittedly, the usage rate was not that high yet. So we want to improve on that. One of the metrics that we want to track is the number of sites using our core system and the number of downloads per country,” he says.
“Now we have a better business model that allowed us to partner with e-PLDT and Microsoft. We were able to offer competitive rates that would allow us to capture a bigger share of the market,” Chino says. “We were able to bring our price points down by more than 160 percent. So now, we are able to offer it at affordable price to enterprise customers.”
“For now, we have Smart and PLDT as customers. We were working on a deal with Sun Cellular and Maynilad. There were some legworks that needed to be done. And we were working on a couple of more deals. Definitely in the next three to six months, we were looking forward to seeing our mobile app out there. People would be using it.”
TimeFree filed an application for Philippine patent in November 2013 and at the World Intellectual Property Organization. “We have been seeing some companies that have similar idea to ours and I am not sure if they are aware that we have an application for patent. Definitely, we are keeping tabs on these companies that are trying to do same as us. Hopefully, we can try to dissuade them from pursuing their solutions, to avoid litigations.
Chino says TimeFree mobile app aims to empower the people, so that they can enjoy life more with family and friends and not waste time falling in line. “We are looking at more utilities, banks, government offices and hospital clinics,” he says.
Chino says they received informal offers to take over TimeFree, which now has a current market valuation of at least $1 million. “It is too early to sell. We feel that we still have a lot of potential. We have not yet hit our goals. We are willing to wait it out for at least three years, before we seriously consider it,” he says.
Chino says he does not know what lies ahead, but “we are ready to face the challenges.”