BUSINESS-LIFE

This startup factory wants to build the next big Filipino business

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John Aguilar is no stranger to building things, which is why he’s set his eyes on setting up the first venture builder in the world that documents its journey from scratch. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — John Aguilar loves building things. He gestures around the newly-opened headquarters of his company Dragon’s Nest. Besides having swings that hang from the ceiling and bean bags littering the floor, a huge dragon sculpture stands guard by a door marked “10X” — almost like a charm to attract exponential growth.

“Building is what appeals to me and I feel it’s what creates impact,” he says. “It’s more like, ‘What can I build so that I can create both wealth and something that is going to be a new product, service, or business that is going to impact a lot of people?’”

Dragon’s Nest is Aguilar’s venture builder — or what some would call a startup factory. Venture builders differ from incubators and accelerators in that they build startups from scratch instead of supporting or funding existing ones. They are also unlike venture capital, which is a money game and involves a lot of analysis. As Dragon’s Nest CEO — or Chief Exponential Officer, as he likes to call it — Aguilar’s role is to set the tone for the vision of the company, but then hire brilliant, driven “entrepreneurs in residence” to run these ventures.

“This is like the ultimate building project,” he gushes.

Aguilar’s goal for Dragon’s Nest is to create exponential growth across ASEAN as they solve regional challenges. He gestures towards the logo of a dragon curled up in the shape of a nest hanging on the wall. He explains the company’s desire to be the nest that launches Asia’s next big dragons: businesses that will veer away from the traditional way that things have been done.

“The dragon is a symbol of power, especially here in Asia,” says John Aguilar. “We believe that the next dragons will not come from the traditional businesses; they will come from tech companies." Photo by JL JAVIER

John with his wife Monica, who is now his business partner at StreetPark and COO at Dragon’s Nest. Photo by JL JAVIER

“The dragon is a symbol of power, especially here in Asia,” says Aguilar. “We believe that the next dragons will not come from the traditional businesses; they will come from tech companies. Dragon’s Nest [has the] mindset of becoming the next Asian dragon. But at the same time, we are a nest. It’s a very nurturing environment for startups who will eventually be built here.”

If building five new companies in the span of a year isn’t enough, Aguilar plans to up the ante by simultaneously producing a reality show that will document Dragon’s Nest’s journey, titled “The Venture Builder.” If accomplished, this’ll be the first venture builder in the world to do so.

If the whole endeavor sounds daunting to many, Aguilar doesn’t seem to be fazed at all. After all, this man has accumulated quite the track record — from beginning in media to jumping into real estate and now attempting to shake things up in the startup scene. Back in 2003, Aguilar founded independent television company StreetPark Productions, Inc. after he realized that his ideas for television shows seemed too unorthodox for the networks he used to work for.

After a rough start producing shows which they sold to different networks, he discovered the world of real estate and realized he could create the country’s first real estate and construction T.V. show.

“I used to call myself a method producer — like a method actor — because I really get very deep into the industry,” he shares. “Like for real estate, I was so deep in it that I started building houses and then I also got a broker’s license… and then we opened up Realty Emporium which is our brokerage firm. So all of these businesses were spawned from the show... It takes a lot of commitment to produce shows the way that I do.”

Philippine Realty TV (PRTV), as it came to be known, became Aguilar’s longest-running show at 17 seasons. PRTV also moved from simply featuring real estate properties and developers, towards building their own houses. After receiving different construction materials from their former clients, Aguilar came up with the brilliant idea of using them to build houses from scratch and then taping the experience. This is how PRTV ended up teaching people how to build their own houses — which Aguilar then captured into the book “Project: First Home — everything you need to know to build your house from scratch.”

As opposed to incubators and accelerators that fund existing startups, Dragon's Nest aims to build startups from scratch. Photo by JL JAVIER

As Dragon’s Nest CEO, John Aguilar’s role is to set the tone for the vision of the company, but then hire brilliant, driven “entrepreneurs in residence” to run these ventures. Photo by JL JAVIER

It was also with PRTV where Aguilar met his wife Monica, who is now his business partner at StreetPark and COO at Dragon’s Nest. He credits her for professionalizing and putting structure into the company, given her corporate background.

Together, the couple are the executive producers for “The Final Pitch,” the country’s first reality show that aims to link up-and-coming entrepreneurs to established business leaders and investors. Think “The Apprentice” and “Shark Tank.” TFP is now on its fifth season and airs on CNN Philippines, with startup teams receiving investments from investor-judges, such as Mega Global Corporation, AirAsia, Ice Dream Inc. (license holder of Baskin Robbins), Tagcash, and Bank of the Philippine Islands.

TFP also plans to go regional: attracting startups from around the Southeast Asia, as well as getting one investor-judge from each country.

With TFP, it’s no wonder Aguilar entered method producing mode again as he dove deep into the ins and outs of the startup and venture building industry in 2018. He pored over all the resources he could find on the industry, and ended up immersing himself among the big tech companies in Silicon Valley, seeing what he can adapt to the Asian setting, and graduating from the Singularity University in Silicon Valley.

“[With] real estate, I tried to be a successful entrepreneur but it’s hard because you need a lot of capital... But with startups and technology, someone who is in his dorm room can eventually [create] Facebook or a couple of down-and-out kids can create Airbnb,” he explains. “It’s not without its struggles, but that’s the thing: if you are driven enough, creative enough, and you have a vision, I feel at this stage you can build exponential startups and exponential businesses.”

What Aguilar wants to do now with Dragon’s Nest is to create regional startups, and he’s hoping that by announcing it to the world, he’s able to calling like-minded people to join him in the quest (here, he references Field of Dreams’ “If you build it, they will come”).

Using his gift of gab, Aguilar hopes to partner up with conglomerates who want to be part of growing Asia’s next dragon startups but who also understand the importance of independence and agility to a startup. They have to be willing to provide the funding and resources, but also have a long leash to allow these startups to flourish.

Through the show “The Venture Builder,” Aguilar hopes to attract not only conglomerates but also driven people from all walks of life — successful and failed entrepreneurs, corporate superstars.

The "10x" on the door" appears almost like a charm to attract exponential growth. Photo by JL JAVIER

What Aguilar wants to do now with Dragon’s Nest is to create regional startups, and he’s hoping that by announcing it to the world, he’s able to calling like-minded people to join him in the quest. Photo by JL JAVIER

His ultimate test question for any aspiring Dragon’s Nest executive founder? “What is that one thing that in your life, no matter how old you are, that you tried to work towards and you were able to achieve?”

Aguilar believes that together with the five brilliant executive founders he’ll find through the search, Dragon’s Nest will not only get to know the industry, but also will maintain a certain sense of naivete in order to break the rules.

“We will revel in the fact that we are outsiders,” he promises. “It’s always good to be an outsider because you don’t have a preconceived notion about that industry... It’s hard enough to build one startup but to build five startups in parallel? But that’s the thing. I don’t know how hard it’s going to be. I have an idea, but I’m naive in that way and I’m also optimistic in that way.”

For Aguilar, there is a moral responsibility to his itch to build, as his end goal is to build companies that can scale so millions of people can benefit from their services. “If it’s just ‘I want to earn money,’ parang sayang eh. It’s my obligation, it’s my responsibility to make sure I use my gifts to the best of my ability and to impact as many people as I can.”

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“The Final Pitch” airs every Sunday, 8:30 p.m. on CNN Philippines, with replays on Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. and Mondays, 9:30 p.m.