Lifting the system administration workload
Amezmo lifted the system administration workload from me and helped the team focus on what is important: user interviews and feedback, quick code releases and code building
Based, in Makati City, Philippines, Karen Matala is the CTO of 1Export – a tech enabled exporting company. We spoke with Karen to hear about her experience with deploying Laravel applications on Amezmo and to learn more about 1Export.
How did you come up with the idea for 1Export?
Hi Ryan, thank you for having me! 1Export as we position it, is an export e-commerce. The main co-founder is Mel Nava, who is coming from a decade of Exporting experience and is one of the co-authors of the Exporting Guidebook of the Philippines 2018 came up with this idea: Level the playing field of the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and of the MSME (Micro, Small, and Medium enterprises).
During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, did 1Export face any new challenges?
At the peak of the COVID-19 here in the Philippines, which was around March 2020, the shipping ports closed because porters got sick and there is a mandatory closure if there are more than 3 employees contracting the virus. Main roads where our trucking and logistics would pass were also closed because of the community quarantines. Suppliers are scared, sick and we even had a supplier casualty because of the virus. Suppliers not being able to fulfill meant buyers getting disappointed. We had 2 months runway given if we do not get any buyer, and the future is as clear as a mud, especially our government leadership was unstable at the time.
Aside from that, the remote culture of the company itself is not ready for everyone. The product engineering team adapted well but the other teams needed a lot more hand holding. Without the other teams being able to adapt to technology, we would not be able to collaborate across-teams and build an actual product. We had onboarding meetings just how to use Google Meet, how to use Trello boards, make and keep digital notes. It was a complete acceleration of Technology adaptation and as the processes became clearer, cracks and loopholes were vividly seen and as we revamped our processes so as the team members we had to let go, replace, and hire anew.
How long did it take you to build 1Export?
I came in September 2019 in the same month we launched the Supplier Dashboard on Amezmo. It was pioneered by the first lead developer, Ressa Magbanua. I was a part-timer February 2019, where she started as full-time. Doing the math for the first product, that would be 7 months. We learned that launching a tech platform without actual user feedback is not an actual product itself. We launched and had ZERO active users. We did get a few registrations but having them continuously use it, upload products, was such a big slope to pass. In retrospect, this delay in user testing and releasing is rooted from lack of product leadership. Thus, moving into the next months we studied about Product leadership, read books about it, attended online webinars, and took some consultations from my product friends. We really cannot afford to hire an experienced product role at the time, but we cared so much for our customers and we know we can build things but the user empathy aspect is lacking. Thus, we had to learn it ourselves. That is why I called our Engineering team, Product Engineering Team. This is to set the mindset that we are not only engineers but also product people, it is not enough that we can prove we can build things, it is utmost important that we bring value to every feature we build. We are set on a mission to deliver 10x efficiencies, valuable and long-term benefits that are aligned to the vision of the business.
There are 2 approaches on creating product ideas: the first would be top-to-bottom, the second would be the bottom-to-top. We did the bottom-to-up. Come January 2020, we held product planning meetings where team leads and key people from different teams would discuss their needs and the product team’s idea: An online B2B catalog This online catalog would showcase our supplier’s uploaded products and have a lead form tailored to what the Sales Team does daily leads. The hypothesis is this would yield 10x market reach. At the time, the reach of 1Export was 3 markets. But on the internet, we reached 41 markets organically because of SEO. We released in February 2020, had 3 buyer inquiries a month later. The inquiry comprises 20-foot container loads championing our MSME + FMCG products. Potential GMV is $25,000.00 per container. Doing the math, that would be 1 month turnaround time for the B2B Catalog.
In parallel to this feat, at the back of all of this, we are only 2 engineers at the time. A junior and a senior backend engineer. We had to build and champion this engineering culture of relentless code pairing, studying a different technology to make our codebase loosely coupled and launch quickly. We had to do our backend to be of a SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) paradigm. We had to learn VueJS, day-in-day-out. Thus, I opened an internal survey to whoever wants to learn coding, we can hold learning sessions. At first, 5 from the company opted in but no one was able to sustain it. But 5 months later, coming from that cohort, one eventually emerged into a developer. Our former creative designer is now able to push, pull requests to our code base as a junior software engineer. Her feat is another great story to share but in a nutshell, this is a great leap to her personally, the team, and the company itself. We also launched 1Export Lunch and Learns to accelerate this Engineering culture I have had from my previous tech leads and friends. I believe that a person can manifest what she wants if she is within the correct learning environment and so we build that through active listening from the best of the people who have influenced not only me but the companies they champion.
Come March 2020, Mel was in the United States doing a pitch at SoGal, emerging as champion, we set to another product called Caravan. It is timely because it was the time that everybody knows, COVID-19 hit the world. Caravan roots from our bread-and-butter business, the B2B. On the B2B side: One container is One Buyer. On Caravan it is: One container, many Buyers. The profiles of these buyers are those that are on the e-commerce space that are importing Philippine products. We launched the product in April 2020 and did our aggressive tests in August 2020. As of this writing, this MVP yielded us a $16K USD in revenue. I would have to be honest that the Technology part was not the only wall we had to surpass but also the operations side. It's easy to build a button on the tech or client side of code but the processes behind it, the people who will operate behind it is an entire feat we are still championing, and we are getting there. Doing the math, the technology part would be 2 months in building. But the iterations are continuously running because we hold weekly feedback loops cross-teams.
How did Amezmo help you with your PHP hosting and deployment needs?
As one of my colleagues in AWS would say, it is easy to be soaked up or be "in the zone" on servers and all these cool stuff in different cloud vendors but is it really the one that we need now? Especially at the current stage of the company?
Amezmo lifted the system administration workload from me and helped the team focus on what is important: user interviews and feedback, quick code releases and code building. Instead of us managing and maintaining our servers, that headspace is augmented to Amezmo.
CI/CD is part of our engineering process. Whenever a developer pulls a request, she can deploy it on the staging server which Amezmo offers out of the box. We can also run our tests through bash webhooks before or after the building. These are bash scripts, meaning we have full control and customization of the server itself. On automated deployments, when the PR has already been approved and merged to master, it is automatically deployed. If there are any errors, we also get notified on the dashboard and via email. These are helpful to us because we can confidently run our tests and rely on the up-time reliability to Amezmo.
In terms of security, Amezmo offers staging IP whitelisting and Auth Headers to protect in development projects. The MySQL databases are salted and are SHA256 encrypted, backed up on a scheduled basis. But in our pipeline, we are going to pentest(Penetration testing) soon.
What advice would give to an aspiring developer that wants to be a CTO one day?
The Engineering skills in the Philippines is great but not all are fortunate to join a startup. Most of them rely 100% on employment salary to provide for their families and if they commit a mistake, they could be out on the street the next day. The startup investing climate in the Philippines is not as aggressive as it is compared to the United States, but the founding entrepreneurs are as credible. What I am trying to say is, if you are able and fortunate enough to commit, believe in the vision of a startup and it does resonate with you, I say go for it. The "CTO" title could be intimidating but I say to myself that I may not be the best out there, but I am the best they currently have, and I will make it count. Every count starts from zero, but you choose the increments. I would suggest incrementing small but there is no speed limit. Choose to increment it with the help of others. Choose to increment it by having a growth mindset. Cliché as it may sound, make the journey as great as the result. Your role as CTO is to shape the technology landscape of the company, ensure that it is there to help and enable them not to fail them.
In the Philippines, it is hard to find Technical co-founders because developers or IT people are salaried 3x-5x on an Enterprise Company versus a non-funded-Startup (Just wanted to shout out also that we are still Bootstrapped). Again, if you are fortunate enough, try staking some of your time and talent to help great startups listed on Ideaspace and QBO. There is a lot of growth beyond monetary value.
What are your plans for the future? What’s next for 1Export?
At 1Export, we have managed to surpass the pandemic, a global crisis no one was prepared for, yet we did not just wade it out but focused on how we can help our customers at the time they needed us. What we have accomplished in a span of months could have taken us years in execution. Taking into consideration that 1Export started out as an exporting consulting firm in 2016, Tech enabled starting 4th Quarter of 2019, being bullish to becoming an export e-commerce, along with the great driven team behind it, early adopters, F&F (Friends and Family) investors, the future is big for 1Export.
We are seeing ourselves integrating to big e-commerce players, to name one of them: creating a Shopify App that can enable any Shopify store owner to smoke test our Export ready listings. We are studying the drop shipping model as well to drive more trade to South-East Asia. Having to spark that trend would theoretically yield a China-like trade. Frequent trade means more shipments running, more containers can be set on sail that yields optimized costs because of consolidation. It is a cost-saving method that is spread down to the customers.