Kumu CEO and founder Roland Ros advocates for technological innovation and social change through Philippine-focused technology

Dspite being raised and educated overseas, Roland Ros understands the Filipino psyche. Rather than take advantage of a lucrative career outside the Philippines, the former student activist is building a community for Filipinos from the ground up. He is the founder of Kumu, the country’s fastest-growing social entertainment network.

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A live-streaming app “proudly made by Pinoys”, Kumu was partly envisioned by the founder’s dedication to social change. After becoming frustrated with the seeming stagnancy of student protests, Ros discovered the concept of social entrepreneurship. “I was fascinated by the ability to track measurable results through data ... how concepts like microfinance and education empowered mothers to increase their savings and lift millions of people out of poverty using a sustainable business model,” he says. “Learning about this community- centred approach to social impact, together with the growth of Facebook, would form an important backbone for my interest in tech and social media.”

Ros directed his altruism and patriotism into creating Kumu. The platform, which has done well in partnerships with local TV shows such as Pinoy Big Brother and Eat Bulaga, has millions of registered users worldwide, champions Filipino voices and makes a point of maintaining a positive atmosphere for all users. “We have core values built on positivity, safety and acceptance,” say Ros. “We’re not trying to be a platform for everyone—we’re trying to be a platform for people who value safety, positivity and an inclusive community that accepts your imperfect self.”

Kumu allows for this by its very nature of being a live streaming app, rather than focusing on posting. It’s less filtered and less curated than most social media platforms, meaning it’s also more carefree. “We’ve created a platform that rewards creators for being themselves,” explains Ros. “There’s no societal pressure to use filters and pretend your life is perfect [like] on other platforms. You don’t edit to be the best version of yourself; you go live and be accepted as you are.” The app also lacks the familiar beauty filters so often seen on Instagram and Tiktok which have been shown to be detrimental to mental health.

This sense of community has not only resonated with locals in the Philippines, it has also aligned itself with values that relate to the diaspora. In fact, the idea of Kumu came about as an attempt to connect with Filipinos abroad. “The birth of Kumu came from a desire to engage the Filipino diaspora for the betterment of the motherland,” explains Ros. “For us, the only way to really cope with these geographical complexities were to connect everyone through a social platform that prioritised this living and breathing spirit that means to be Filipino.”

The social entertainment platform has plenty of space for every kind of niche imaginable. Ros reveals that two particularly successful ones include the fanbases for female volleyball players and even OPM hiphop. But growth doesn’t end there. “We need to ask ourselves, how many other communities can we build on live video entertainment?,” Ros ponders. “We’re excited about Philippine pop music, anime and comics, and other adjacent fanbases we can build.”

One of Ros’s biggest advantages is that he understands the difficulties of social media both from the perspective of a user, and that of an investor. In a previous Gen T interview, he spoke about the “harsh psychological challenges that occur when trying to get a company off the ground”. “There are times when you just want to walk away from everything,” Ros says. “You’re looking at a bank account that’s shrinking every month. Your bank account goes negative trying to make payroll and keep the company alive. I joke that being an entrepreneur requires an emotionally secure relationship with failure. If you could find the lessons in those failures, grow from them, and continue to build value, you’re on the right track.”

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It took almost two decades for Kumu to come to fruition; Ros previously described it as “a 17-year journey of failing, standing back up again and never giving up”. But now that it has more than gained momentum, he is in a place where he can enforce boundaries in his personal life. He gets at least five hours of sleep a day and wakes up every morning ready to pray, meditate and practise yoga. “I prioritise my peace. So clearly, communicating emotional, spiritual and physical boundaries are super important,” he says.

Unlike most sectors, social media boomed during the pandemic, and Ros intends to continue riding that wave. His eyes are fixed keenly on only one thing: growth. “For both myself and Kumu, much maturity needs to happen. The things we did to get from zero to one won’t get us from one to 100. We need to level our leadership and prepare for a hundred times growth over the next several years.”

And it’s not only the company’s growth he’s focused on; he wants to be a part of the country’s development. “I’ve been tracking the progress of 4G LTE and 5G across the country. Billions of dollars are being spent on internet infrastructure, and I would love to be a part of that,” he says. Though he shares no concrete plans, Ros teases that he would love to work alongside other entrepreneurs, business leaders and government agencies to equip our cities with better connectivity and more user power.

NFTs, the metaverse and the blockchain are also, of course, on Ros’s mind. “Web3 is the future of not just the Philippines but of the world,” he says. “This community-driven decentralisation gives more power to the users and the use of their data. We have a team dedicated to doing deeper thinking about Kumu’s role in that space, and we are very excited to show some results by the end of this year and early 2023.” However, Ros also acknowledges that growth is never as simple one wishes it could be. Plenty have to align for the kind of maturity Ros aspires for Kumu and his investors. “We need to have the right people in the right seats: people who have grown companies with thousands of employees compared to our recent growth from 50 before the pandemic to over 500 now. It takes a different kind of leader to do that.” 

And it’s not just in his career that Ros finds himself transforming—but his personal life as well. “I’m going through a similar type of season,” Ros admits. “I’m tightening up my inner circle, being a lot more selective on how I use my time, and surrounding myself with folks who can help take Kumu to the next level. This is truly a transformational season of growth both for Kumu, our team, and myself.”

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Despite the lofty goals and continued innovation, Ros wants to keep his business philosophy simple. “I know I sound like a broken record, but we [must highlight our] unchanging core values around safety, positivity and acceptance,” he says. As the leader of a company that’s soon-to-be a unicorn (or “soonicorn” as Ros terms it), Ros’s decisions are still made based on those three simple core values and his altruistic vision. He is also hugely grateful for the support Kumu has received from investors. “To build a business that is worth over US$1 billion after only four years is remarkable, but what’s important is to recognise the amount of shareholder value we created for everyone who believed in us when Kumu was just a dream.” Investors include Filipino magnates in the Gokongwei, Ayala and Sy clans, and international investment firms such as Gobi, Openspace, SIG and General Atlantic.

Kumu’s success is not a surprise; after all, it has filled a gap in the market. “Like our colonial history, global social media platforms like Facebook and Tiktok come from a distinctly Western and Chinese context, respectively,” Ros points out. “What was missing in the realm of social media [was something for a] global people like the Filipino—a platform built by and for Filipinos.” To Ros then, Kumu’s possible unicorn status is not as important as the original mission of the social media platform: to bring Filipinos together.

And though Ros refuses to label Kumu as anything other than a “social entertainment platform”, it is also clear that he believes in its power to make a difference. “Focusing on solving big problems that have a beneficial impact on millions of people should be why a company should achieve [unicorn status],” Ros says. “To get there, we need to roll up our sleeves, stay focused, continue to innovate and never give up on our mission to solve problems that plague our homeland.”

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  • PhotographyFrancisco “Paco” Guerrero
  • StylingSteven Coralde and Maica Salud Tady
  • Make-UpRia Aquino
  • LocationLucas Studios
  • ProductionIsabel Martel Francisco
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