Kenneth Cobonpue Insists on 'Made in the Philippines'
It’s all too tempting to become complacent when success comes easy. Kenneth Cobonpue, an internationally renowned furniture designer based in Cebu, could’ve taken the path of least resistance, but he realized that to stay true to himself and his vision, he needed to pursue a different route. Ridiculed by competitors initially, his decision has since paid off handsomely, and his designs are appreciated by clients such as Queen Rania of Jordan and Queen Sophia of Spain, and former Hollywood first couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. They’ve also been featured in a number of major motion pictures and TV shows.
Here, Kenneth tells us about the business savvy needed to make a difference in the world of design, the question every entrepreneur should ask themselves before starting a business, and the role of Endeavor–a global non-profit which mentors and accelerates entrepreneurs–in his continued success.
On the importance of building a brand.
This business we started was a passion, because I’m a designer. I wasn’t thinking much of the business aspect, I just wanted to design. We grew very fast. In fact, I started abroad, and the business is more global than local, as 90% of our business is in exports. We’re based in Cebu, but we have two offices in Europe and one in the States.
The difference maker for me was to brand myself, which set our company apart from most of the furniture industry, which relied on original equipment manufacturing. The whole furniture industry in the Philippines was just plain manufacturers, their products would go under different names and brands.
I wanted to be recognized for my own designs. I felt it wasn’t fair that I gave out the designs I worked so hard for and somebody would then just take them and use them for their own purpose. In the beginning it was tough, because I was insisting to everybody that my designs carry my name, and that it says ‘Made in the Philippines.’ And they didn’t follow it, they ripped off the tags. It was really bad. There was no respect.
So when I did that 15 years ago, everybody was laughing at me, because I was doing something that was very different. Design is costly; branding is expensive. Everybody was making so much money just manufacturing for others, and now all that business has been taken over by China because there’s no design, no brand, and no reason to keep on paying higher prices. It’s expensive to manufacture here, labor costs are higher, utilities, materials, everything. So, now there are very few furniture companies left locally. Branding has paid off and Endeavor is making sure that I scale up.
On the one question to need to ask yourself first.
There are certain things I should’ve asked in the first place when I started my business. Questions like, why do I exist in the world? What is my mission? And the answer to those questions is really the key to your success. As an entrepreneur you grow your business really fast and you forget what your soul is, what it is all for. Know what your place is in the world, your strength, your market. Know what makes you different and feed off that strength.
Endeavor has allowed me to look at what’s my core business, my place in the world of design. I’ve done that, since I joined Endeavor a year ago, with all my employees to make sure that everybody understands our vision, values and purpose. I took up two years of business and I have a partner who takes care of the business aspect. But Endeavor has really helped us to grow; it’s allowed us to look at our business with new eyes. If we go along this path, we’re going to grow.