What is Foodsource PH?
According to its website, Foodsource is “a platform that brings together the best local products and help them grow from Local to Global.” Foodsource PH was founded by Marlon Tong in 2015, driven to a motivation to give local foodstuff brands the exposure they needed and deserved.
“As an entrepreneur, you set your own direction.”
A Technical Background
Before going into business, Marlon Tong started off as a software developer by trade, making the technology industry his home field. Tong admits that food is more of a passion and hobby. “I mean, you can see it from my build.” Tong jokes.
As a software developer for eight years, starting straight out of college, he used it as an avenue to gain experience, and knowledge on how to navigate the corporate world. However, Tong describes the experience of being an employee by stating “If you’re an employee, you have to fit in a bit more. You have to follow your manager, the company’s direction, and there’s a lot of things that sometimes might not make sense to you, but it’s the direction of the company. But as an entrepreneur, you set your own direction.”
Tong jokingly states that being an entrepreneur is a good fit for the “pasaway” crowd. “Our minds are a bit different. We have a bit more vision, and are more critical about a lot of things, so we want to do our own way.” Tong cites these inherent feelings as a contributing factor in him leaving and starting a business of his own.
A Nutty Idea
By his own admission, Marlon Tong says that the story of how he started with Foodsource is not an advisable one. “I was trying to establish another business at the same time, because I was also doing my own products. I wanted to quit my job because I got burned out, but that’s really not advisable. Establish your business first.”
Tong says that originally, Foodsource was meant to be a sales and promotion avenue for the other business he was planning. “If you have a new product that you want to launch in the market, where do you sell it when you’re starting as an SME?” On the other business, Tong says that he created his own brand of organic peanut butter called TheBasics. “Although I’ve put it on hold during the pandemic.” Tong says. “But I plan on reviving it soon.”
On the challenge of running what was technically two businesses at one time, he was lucky enough to at least have both of them be a “complement” to one another. “TheBasics is manufacturing, and we were using Foodsource as a marketing and sales arm for it. If you’re starting out, you try to be more efficient, so we had both in the same location.” With this, it was much easier for Tong to manage both businesses simultaneously, using this concept of Forward Integration.
“Even if you’re not doing too well, [working on your passion] is still something you enjoy, so that gives you a good push.”
Working on Your Passions
Expounding on his earlier declaration of food being his passion, Tong describes working on something he’s passionate about as enjoyable. “Even if you’re not doing too well, it’s still something you enjoy, so that gives you a good push.” Tong speaks of the pitfall of wanting to get into something only for the money. “But what if the money’s not there? Then you won’t have any motivation for it.” Tong recommends that especially when it comes to starting a business, it has to be something you’re passionate about for the extra drive. “Worst case scenario, we just get to enjoy this food.” Tong jokes. But Tong stresses that passion alone does not necessarily make the process “easier”. It’s only adds motivation, but the work still has to be done.
“E-commerce was very hard to push to a wide audience. It only got bigger due to the need to not go out.”
Expectations vs. Reality
Tong describes the initial feeling of optimism, due to the fact that he had experience in e-commerce, handling accounts of US-based online retailer sites Amazon and eBay. When peeking at the sales numbers, Tong said to himself “Wow, e-commerce has great potential.”
Upon starting Foodsource PH, Tong says that the sales levels he witnessed from Amazon and eBay was the ultimate goal that they wanted to accomplish. “But our journey wasn’t very smooth. When we started years ago, e-commerce was very different from what it is now.” Tong argues that Filipinos are mostly risk-averse, and believes that it was so even before the pandemic. “E-commerce was very hard to push to a wide audience. It only got bigger due to the need to not go out. People usually wanted something physical.” Tong describes this as just one of the challenges of promoting Foodsource PH back then.
Hitting the Ground Running
Tong recalls that in the years before the pandemic, they were very aggressive in joining food expos, and marketing online with social media. Tong describes in detail one of the main reasons for starting Foodsource PH was to help give attention to local SME brands the attention they deserve. Foodsource used the platform of the Department of Trade and Industry’s expos featuring these SMEs from all over the country. “We wanted to use that platform, because I always ask these brands ‘Where can I find you after this? Are you available in Metro Manila? Online?’ That’s one thing that we wanted to offer to the industry.”
“Some would be better at making products, while others are better at marketing. They don’t always go hand-in-hand.”
Tough to Swallow Challenges in the Philippine Food Industry
Tong sighs, saying that there are a lot of problems and challenges in the food industry up to now. “To summarize, one thing that’s lacking is marketing. As I said, the Filipino consumer is very risk-averse, and one thing that a customer would often ask us when we were at bazaars and were curious about a product we didn’t have on us at the time was ‘How can we buy that and know if it’s good if we can’t taste it first?’” But to that, Tong posits “But if you think about it, isn’t that how you buy groceries?”
Tong cites brand recognition as the main reason why people buy products regularly, but SME brands do not have that luxury. “That’s what makes it challenging for these guys.”
Tong also boils it down to the individual skillsets of different SMEs. “Some would be better at making products, while others are better at marketing. They don’t always go hand-in-hand.” Tong admits that his favorite products being sold in Foodsource PH aren’t even their bestsellers. “They so good at making products, but their marketing is lacking. On the other hand, others are skilled at selling products, but the product itself isn’t as good as others. The perfect brand should be the balance of both.”
“The biggest challenge that we have is that a lot of the good products that we have are having a hard time getting recognition locally.”
Can We Step Up in the Big Leagues?
“I believe so.” Tong says with confidence. “We already have strong global brands like Jollibee and Potato corner, so I know Filipinos have very strong potential. But it’s also about continuity.” Tong then mentions other good Filipino products with potential, such as locally made chocolate brands Malagos and Auro. Tong also mentions dried mangoes that have become increasingly common in groceries abroad.
“We have a lot. The biggest challenge that we have is that a lot of the good products that we have are having a hard time getting recognition locally.” Tong states the primary reason for Foodsource PH’s advocacies on focusing on local products. “Let’s say that if a brand becomes big, they’re from people who have more access.” Tong describes that a lack of access and capital makes it hard to jump to export to places where the products may be appreciated more. “We need to be able to help these brands grow their capital through sales.” Tong describes that their advocacy at Foodsource is to help promote support among Filipino consumers. “Slow but sure growth. Because not many can risk millions to get to an ideal market abroad.”
How Was Foodsource Affected by the Pandemic?
“We’re very much affected.” Tong says with a chortle. Describing large downsizes, he says that the logistical problems in the pandemic were too great. Tong states that prior to the pandemic, 90% of Foodsource PH’s sales came from distribution to supermarkets. “That 90% is gone. It’s very challenging, because even with that setup, you still need a lot of manpower. And this pandemic is the worst time to do that.” Tong also mentions the decision made to cease distributing operations, as well as other complications. “What we were distributing were actually more of pasalubong products. So sales were also down due to lack of travel.”
There’s Always a Silver Lining
Giving credit to other businesses that survived the pandemic, Tong believes that that in and of itself is a huge accomplishment. “Prior to the pandemic, we think ‘I want something major as an accomplishment.’ Let’s just give credit that we survived it, and we’ll look forward to new success this year.” In the year 2022, Tong believes that we are still in the recovery stage, and
has faith that new major successes and accomplishments will be in store later in the year.
“How we are now vs. how we were before is very different.”
Time to Get Flexible
Although Tong himself admits that he wasn’t very good when it came to flexibility, he acknowledges that it’s incredibly important. “There’s a lot of cost-cutting, adjusting, niche-finding, and finding the proper avenues. It’s a lot.” Tong reiterates that this is a reason why simply surviving the pandemic is a big accomplishment. “How we are now vs. how we were before is very different. Even with my other business, TheBasics. Had I not closed it back then, it would’ve really went under during the pandemic. At least now I have a chance to revive it.” Tong likens flexibility to finding whatever means to survive.
“To some extent, it’s really about achieving a positive mindset. If you can’t achieve it on your own, you have to surround yourself with people wou will help you to.”
There’s Always Hope
When asked on what advice he could give to business owners who have run out of hope due to the events of the pandemic, Tong says “To some extent, it’s really about achieving a positive mindset. If you can’t achieve it on your own, you have to surround yourself with people who will help you to.” Tong also mentions having the self-awareness to know when to give up and start over. “That’s pretty much it. We just have to be flexible in every way possible.” Tong agrees that there’s no shame in giving up and accepting the reality of a failed business, and that failure is a part of being an entrepreneur, and that what matters is learning from said failures.
“Failure is not a bad thing. It is something to be learned from.”
Some Sage Advice
Following up on those points, when asked for advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, Tong adds “The best mindset to have when you start with a business is that failure is not a bad thing. It is something to be learned from.” Tong warns that starting a business is very high-risk compared to being an employee. “All we need to do is learn from failure. It’s okay to make mistakes, so long as you know how to learn and recover from them. Move on, and adjust.” Tong says that no one ever gets it right the first time. “Even with us at Foodsource PH, we adjusted a lot.” With e-commerce still in its infancy at the time (having started at the same time as Shopee in 2015), Tong states that they had to adjust by going into physical distribution to supermarkets. Ironically, come the pandemic, they had to do a complete 180 and stop with distribution, adjust by going back into e-commerce. “Had our mindset been to just stick with the business hoping it would just succeed, we would’ve failed 7 to 8 years ago.”
Foodsource can be found in foodsource.ph, as well as on their social media “Foodsource PH” on both Facebook and Instagram. TheBasics can also be found on Facebook and Instagram