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How This Cafe Owner Made Sure She Had Something Unique To Offer spoke to Ros Juan, owner of Commune, about staying innovative and using social media to improve her business.
PHOTO: Twitter/Rosario Juan

Manila is a city crawling with coffee shops. It's a place where you're never too far away from a decent cup; where cafés are the default place for meetings, catch-ups, and the in-between; and where chain brands and indie roasters stand side by side. Some thrive and find success; others perish and eventually disappear, joining other businesses that tried but never quite caught one.

Commune, a coffee shop in cool and hip Poblacion, Makati, is evidently the former. Established in April 2013 by Rosario "Ros" Juan, it made Filipinos comfortable with the idea of sharing a communal table with strangers. spoke to Ros during #WomenWill, our International Women's Day (IWD) tie-up with Google, about working with millennials, staying innovative, and utilizing social media to improve her business.

How do you stay authentic?

Staying authentic is really about having your own voice. For the business, we have our vision, we know the identity of the business, and it's really just keeping to that. If you Google something, someone's probably already done it—but it's you knowing the fiber of your brand that you're able to apply the personal touch to whatever you're doing. And that makes it your own.

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How do you keep your ideas fresh?

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I travel a lot. When I travel, I get a lot of inspiration. It's trying to apply all these other things that have been tried and tested in other places, but putting them in a local context, into something that our Filipino culture will be able to appreciate.

For Filipinos, when we're doing business, there are a lot of things we like to keep to ourselves—parang that's our secret sauce, we can't tell people how it's being done. So we don't teach them. But now, the trend is transparency and showing people how you do things. You show people how to make coffee, how you make your coffee. That would have been trade secrets before; now, we're just openly sharing it out in the world. And that's something that was not widely accepted here before, [though] it's being done in other places. And when we applied it, the consumers really appreciated it—about how open we are to sharing these experiences with them. It's really a matter of experimenting, but before you do anything, it's going back to the brand: Is this us? Is this something we would do?

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How did you apply the things you picked up abroad to the local setting?

If you have been to Commune, we have a huge communal table. When we opened in 2013, communal tables were not a thing. Filipinos…we're cliquish. So even when we go to networking events, parang, "Punta lang ako kung may kasama ako. If my friend flakes, I'm not going." But with the communal table, you sort of force people to sit next to strangers. And it's funny, you still see it 'pag Pinoy 'yung nakaupo, katabi niya 'yung bag niya. Pero 'pag foreigners, they don't care kung may kaharap silang ibang tao. But it's something we're introducing that people are starting to get used to. And we've seen people randomly strike up conversations with people sitting near them, and then before you know it, they have a project together, they're doing an event together with us. That's one thing that [was] sort of challenging when it was happening, but it slowly became accepted.

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Was that ultimately your vision for Commune?

Yes. We wanted it to be a place where people who've met online would meet offline, and it's really so people could gather. So it's really for communities to get together, for people to come together and collaborate on projects, events, workshops, and things like that.

How has the internet and social media benefited your business?

We do social media predominantly for our promotions. So it's really Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and our website for us. Even reserving; I mean, of course, we still get a lot of calls, but we have reservation forms online. If you want to inquire about an event, we have forms online as well. I wanted to see and sort of prove that social media is really a good tool to promote a business. And that's how we've done it.

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In June 2015, we changed locations. We shut down our Salcedo [Village] shop. We were away for about three months before we opened in Poblacion in September of 2015. And it was through social media that we kept everyone involved; we kept them up to speed with what was happening with the company. We were nowhere to be seen. We were not really selling our products; we did a pop-up here and there. But that's how we stayed connected with our consumers, and so that when we opened, they knew were to find us.

Is there such a thing as too much social media and too much online presence?

Too much social media use, yes, there is such a thing. For businesses, there's such a thing as over-posting or over-selling in your posts, so people get inundated. So they'll get annoyed; it has happened.

And for personal use, definitely—the need to unplug and to connect with people in person is precisely what we're promoting in Commune. You use the online to expand your network. But to make meaningful connections, to be able to collaborate in amazing ways with people, you're gonna have to meet offline and come together, and just have these discussions face to face.

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Has there been any challenges you faced as a woman in your industry?

In both digital and coffee, both are still male-dominated. But in terms of hindering me from doing what I want to do, it's not like people came up and stopped me from doing what I could do. Maybe it was just really a matter of telling them, "Here I am. This is what I do, so I’m gonna do it," so when people see the results—proof's in the pudding, right? So I may be privileged in that sense.

And I suppose these days, we're just a bit more open to things. There may be day-to-day instances [like], "Mga babae kasi eh." But there are times you shrug it off, and there are times that you really have to [say], "Sandali, let's put you in your place. That was uncalled for."

What's your advice to women who have experienced discrimination in the workplace?

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I think you just really have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes, even having a voice is a challenge, but I think that's something you're gonna have to gather the courage to do. At the very beginning, speak up. Let them know you see the injustice that's happening and [that] you're against it. Set it straight that you're there to debunk whatever it is they're saying. And show them—follow through.

Choose your battles. There are conversations that you might just have to excuse yourself out of, because it's not gonna go anywhere and it's a waste of your time. But there are really times when you're gonna have to stay and fight. And call on to your other sisters! There's always power in numbers.

What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage of working with millennials?

I’m turning 35, so I'm at the cusp. Technically, millennial pa daw ako, but I was there for more traditional stuff. And then technology started coming in and the new way of doing things, open offices and all that. But I think the value of working with millennials is 'yung likot ng utak. There's so much creativity; they're less afraid to try out new ideas. They're more excited by stimuli in the environment, trends, and what they read, and they're eager to try them. So there's a lot of creativity that comes to the forefront when you work with the millennial.

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But one thing I will stress, whether you're a millennial or much older, is work ethic. Something that I want to stress to millennials, because this is something they could brush up on, but [what] I would look for in anyone, regardless of gender and age, is really a good work ethic and professionalism. My office's environment is very open, parang peers ko everyone I work with; but there's also a certain level of respect that has to be maintained, especially with your clients, with your customers. May level of familiarity but also respect and professionalism.

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