Exclusive interview with PengYi Labs founder and CEO Rob Moya, originally from Costa Rica, who shares how his love for Asia developed, why he chose Singapore as the new headquarters for his software design and development company, and his conviction that Latin Americas should dare to venture into the unknown. This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.
Rob, first of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your company, PengYi Labs?
First of all, I love to travel. For a while now, I have been lucky enough to work remotely for different companies in different countries, so I said to myself, well, it might be a good idea to take this opportunity to travel. I started with Central America, then I went to the UK and finally to Taiwan. I was in Taiwan without a return flight, and when I finished my stay there, I looked for tickets to go back to Costa Rica and they were so expensive that it was preferable to stay in Asia, so I decided to go to Japan instead. Eventually, of course, I had to return to Costa Rica, but I loved my experience in Asia so much that I wanted to visit again and stay for a longer period of time. Fortunately I had a cousin who was living in the Chinese city of Hangzhou at the time and he told me that I could get a visa to study Mandarin there.
I founded PengYi Labs three years ago when I was living in Hangzhou. We are a software development and design company, i.e. we make prototypes and web or mobile applications for our clients. Also at that time, I started studying a Master of Business Administration (MBA), and I wanted to present my start-up as a final project. By that time I was already working with some students majoring in design, who were in fact the first hires I made in the company.
Since then, we have only gone from strength to strength. The great advantage of the software world is that it really can be used for almost anything. There is always a need for people who have an idea and want to realise it, but do not know how or where to start, and that is where we come in. Also, technology is such a trend these days that anyone who has a small business, be it a bakery or a clothing shop, is looking for ways to make their business much more efficient and profitable with the help of technology.
Today, we have clients from all over the world, such as America, Australia, Europe and Asia. We are an international team of 17 people, divided between my country of Costa Rica, Mexico, Armenia, Argentina, Singapore and China. Our first location was initially in Hong Kong, but we are in the process of moving to Singapore.
Why did you choose Singapore as the location for PengYi Labs?
As I mentioned, I set up the company in Costa Rica, which is a fine location. However, Costa Rica is quite an expensive country and it is also a little difficult to move money here, so I started looking for other options.
I was in love with Asia after spending so much time there, visiting countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and more, and I really wanted to go back. I especially loved the different payment and service apps China has, such as Wechat, Alipay and Taobao.
It turned out that it is quite complicated to move to China, so I evaluated other options in the region, until I found out that Singapore is a very interesting and open country for entrepreneurs. It has many cultures, and Mandarin and English are spoken there. As a result, I hired a company to help us establish ourselves there.
Another factor behind our decision to move to Singapore is that we have clients in Asia, and I have noticed that even if they are used to working online, they still appreciate knowing that someone is close to them in their region.
Where did the name “PengYi” come from?
We hired a consultancy in China who suggested it to us. In Mandarin, it refers to a type of bird that is related to creativity. We chose the colour blue for our logo because many technology companies in China use this colour. Colour is very important in Chinese culture.
Your interest in Asia is pretty uncommon in Latin America in general. Do you think it is important to know a little about Asia, whether it is China or other countries?
Yes, it is very important. I think Latin America is at a point where we need to dare to take risks. I could very well have taken the decision to move my company from Costa Rica to the United States, as most Latin American companies do. It is very common for a technology company to go to the state of Delaware in the US. But I feel that it is already reaching a level of saturation and, moreover, in terms of economic and commercial considerations like taxes and benefits, the United States is not as attractive a destination as many Asian countries.
However, most people are not aware of this. For example, hardly anyone knows that when you set up a company in Hong Kong, you do not have to pay tax for the first year. That information does not reach this part of the world, firstly because there are not that many people who know about it, and secondly because most of that information is in Mandarin or another Asian language, which are not languages that people normally learn here.
For me, this century is all about Asia. I think people here still see the US and China as equal powers. However, a while ago I saw a graph of the economic growth of various countries, and the US and China’s economies were tied, with one crucial difference: China’s economic growth reflects an upward trend while the US’ economic growth reflects a downward trend.
So what does all this mean? Firstly, we need to educate our entire team regarding the Chinese market, such as which applications can be used there and trends such as live-streaming, which do not exist yet or is still uncommon in our region.
It is also important because now people in Latin America are already starting to talk about new technologies, but without seeing them being used in real life. For example, when it comes to payment apps using QR codes, the idea and even some prototypes have already arrived here, but then you go to a shop or a restaurant and your app is not accepted as a payment method. On the contrary, these apps in China are already basic elements of everyday life. Of course, it has a lot to do with the infrastructure in each country. However, another important reason why these types of apps are not yet viable in our region is that people do not yet know that it is an option.
What was your experience of learning Mandarin like? Is learning Mandarin crucial for doing business with China?
Although I had a lot of motivation to learn it, it was difficult, definitely more difficult than English. I could say that it is the same as studying any degree: you have to put in serious work with consistent effort.
Having said that, for people to understand and relate to each other, knowing the other’s language is important in order to communicate clearly with each other, and then to do business together. I am currently still learning Mandarin. After all, the best way to learn the culture is to learn the language.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a very big disconnect between Asia and Latin America. The first issue is that Latin American people are not exposed to a lot of Asian influence in their daily lives. All the advertisements are in Spanish or English, the movies and series are in English, and there are not many places that have Chinese influence.
Searching for them is also difficult. Much of the material you might be interested in finding out about over there is in Mandarin. Even if you Google something, you might not see the results you want, because they do not even use Google in China!
As a result, some time ago I started looking for a solution. I collaborated with a Mandarin-language school in Costa Rica with several teachers who are native Chinese speakers. We are investing in their school platform to teach Mandarin, focusing not only on teaching cultural Mandarin such as food and history, but also business Mandarin. This will greatly help students who plan to work in China in the future.
It is clear that it is not so easy for Latin American companies to do business in Asia or specifically in China. Any advice you can give?
I would say it is almost impossible if you try to do it alone. You need someone there to help you. That is my fundamental piece of advice. Fortunately, there are people in Asia who are willing to help you do business with Latinos. For instance, we already have a presence there, so if someone wants to start a project in Asia, we can definitely support them.
It is also important to know the Chinese market, because it is quite different from what we are used to. At PengYi, I share with the people we hire about the kind of programming used there, the kind of social networks, etc. – everything necessary for their optimal development.
Another consideration that is important to remember is the cultural barrier. One should always be willing and open to handle cultural differences in any international project.
Changing the subject, you are also an investor with 500 Start-ups LATAM. How do you see the start-up ecosystem in the region?
It is becoming very popular for Asian investors to invest on this side of the world. There are already several large Asian platforms that have started to grow here, such as Didi, the ‘Chinese Uber’, and Shopee, a Singaporean ecommerce platform. In addition, more and more local unicorns are starting to appear, although there are still not that many. That’s why I think it is a good time to invest and do what others are not yet doing.
As an investor, I personally am always looking for the place where the smallest amount of money could make the biggest impact. Many tools and technologies that have emerged in other countries are still not available here, so it is not even about developing something completely new, but rather leveraging and adapting already-known technologies and services from other regions to a Latin American context. I can see countless opportunities here.
Any final comments?
Here in Costa Rica, many have remarked on the similarity in size between our country and Singapore, and that in the 1950s they were very similar countries. Both have ports and significant sea access. But today Costa Rica is no Singapore, if not the opposite. What happened?
Singapore has invested in infrastructure for many different industries, while Costa Rica has focused more on nature and conservation. However, Singapore has also invested in these aspects and is currently still in a better position than our country. We have to understand the reasons behind this difference and take inspiration from it.