A host of tech meet-ups every month, a mushrooming of venture capitalists and more startups than you can shake a 4G device at—Bangkok is getting very, very geek-friendly. Here, we ask the scene’s movers and shakers what the industry’s future holds.
Dr. Adrian Vanzyl
Co-Founder & CEO of Ardent Capital
Ardent Capital (ardentcap.com) bills itself as “a leading digital venture builder, incubator and investor in Southeast Asia.” It has its offices here in Bangkok, from where it nurtures more than half a dozen tech companies, most of them involved in online commerce—“selling real stuff,” as Dr. Adrian Vanzyl, Ardent’s CEO, puts it. The company is all about bringing together experienced entrepreneurs with local talent to help successfully launch their startups. Dr. Vanzyl co-founded the company with three Americans and two Brits. Here, he explains the challenges and rewards of building tech startups in Thailand.
There seems to be a kind of tech boom in Bangkok of late. What’s driving it?
There definitely is. We have 70 open positions right now. It’s been driven by the rise of consumer spending in the middle class. Then there’s internet penetration, which has improved, and in the last 18 months, smartphones have overtaken regular mobile phones. 3G has been important, too, as well as people getting comfortable with using credit cards online.
There’s always been talk of Bangkok being made into an IT hub. And people used to just laugh.
It is a great place. Bangkok is a much more interesting city to launch a digital e-commerce business than, say, Singapore. For example, we’ve got a new startup, Petloft.com, selling products for pets. Well if you launch this company in Singapore, you’ve proven you can start a company in a city with great internet penetration, highly-trained programmers, where everyone speaks English and where the postal system works. Anyone can do that. So if a competing brand from the USA shows up, they won’t buy your company, they’ll just start their own. Now if you start this company in Thailand, you’ll show you can work in another language, that you can set up your own distribution network—we have warehouses, motorcycle delivery guys—and work with local staff. If that foreign company shows up, do you think they’ll buy your company or start their own? They’ll much rather buy yours. And then, if you’ve been successful here, it means you can go on and do it all over again in Vietnam and Indonesia when the time is right.
But aren’t our programmers, well, not very good?
The big challenge is definitely finding talent. But the raw intellect is there. All you need to do is train them up. That’s why we try to mentor people, to participate in events, to go to talks. We want to act as role models and boot strap an eco-system. Once you’ve trained people, they can go and train people, too. Also, Thailand is a great place to do business in the region. There’s a lot less red tape to register a company than anywhere else, you don’t have to pay anyone off, foreign ownership is allowed, you can get an office easily, the traffic is not as bad as some other places...
Still, there must be challenges?
Well, English language is a huge problem. You need to be able to articulate your vision in English. And then it’s difficult to create a culture of risk taking. Most startups fail, after all. But there is a strong work ethic with the staff here, and a greater gender parity. Our staff is 50/50 men and women. You just wouldn’t see that in a typical tech startup in the US.
Dr. Jay Jootar
Chairman of The VC Group
Venture capitalists fund new businesses, most often those focusing on innovation and new technology. The VC Group is one such company, keen on investing in embedded devices, cloud infrastructures, and software as a service. We speak to Chairman Dr. Jay Jootar on the growth of venture capital firms in the city, Thai IT talent and how Thailand is becoming the new Silicon Valley.
Is there talent in the Thai IT crowd?
We definitely have many capable world-class tech talents. I’ve found many brilliant new graduates as well as experienced engineers that work for world-class companies. What we need are more tech entrepreneurs who turn technology into business. But it takes time and patience to groom someone to become a tech entrepreneur—you need to master many diverse skills besides technological know-how.
Can we compete against neighboring countries like Singapore?
I don’t see Singapore as a competitor at all. On the other hand, there is a natural symbiotic relationship between Thailand and Singapore. Thailand is a good place to live and work, having so many things to enjoy: food, beach, people and nightlife. Meanwhile, Singapore is a good place to do business because of its excellent legal and business infrastructure. I see many people having operations in both countries to take advantage of the best of both worlds.
What type of company is most worth investing in?
Investment is like wine. People have different tastes. For me, I am passionate about solutions that help businesses function better. Therefore, I focus on embedded devices that will replace PCs in the future, as well as cloud infrastructure and enterprise software. Other people might have a passion for e-commerce, or education solutions, or payment systems. There are profits to be made in every field. The starting point for anyone interested in tech startups, be it investor or entrepreneur, should be the passion, what you try to build for the world. Making money is a constraint to be met, a means to an end, not the end in itself.
What lies ahead for venture capital in Thailand?
I believe the pioneers in Thailand venture capital are likely to be corporate, not financial institutions. We see that each of the big three telcos [True, AIS and Dtac] has its own startup investment initiatives. I also learn of companies in other industries like book publishing, construction materials, petroleum and chemicals who also invest in tech startups, albeit in a more low-profile fashion. In a way, this is no different from Silicon Valley, which was kicked off by the investment of a camera company in a semiconductor company, the predecessor of Intel Corporation, one of the Valley’s enduring success cases. I believe we will see similar stories here in Thailand as well.
Co-founder of Hubba
The ideal “coworking space” is a well-designed office where, for a fee, anyone can get a desk, a meeting room, and work alongside other creative, technology-driven people. We spoke to Amarit Charoenphan, co-founder of Hubba Coworking Space, an elegant compound with a garden where he is kickstarting the trend in Bangkok.
Are coworking spaces the new office?
Coworking spaces will not only be the new office. It’s the new way of life for Gen Y onwards. With talent, internet and Wi-Fi, we can work anywhere in the world, make a decent amount of money and enjoy the company of like-minded people. People have seen images of the Google and Facebook offices online and are no longer willing to be treated as robots living in tiny cubicles with smelly AC, waiting in lines for the elevator, traffic in the parking lot and on the expressway and crappy office furniture. We want to go to work inspired, motivated and happy. A democratic, vibrant coworking space culture will unleash the latent creative energies of Thais and usher a new movement where people can work, be location-independent and be happy. It will change how companies treat and retain employees, encouraging more of a talent economy. People will be more motivated to do their work and more ideas will come flooding. Lastly, it will usher an entrepreneurial revolution in Thailand, where more people will be brave enough to be a freelancer or launch a start-up.
Is it good business?
It is profitable but it takes time. It takes a bit of investment setting up and slowly members will come in, try the space out and, if it clicks with them, stay for a while. Globally, most spaces break even within six months to two years.
How efficient is it?
Work gets done, big time! The co-motivation effect of seeing awesome people wholly focused at work drives you to work very hard. People here are actually very hard working, they only hangout when there’s an event or when taking a break. This is because the best, most motivated and hard-working people are here. They may have traveled quite a bit and have paid money to work here. Nobody would be here if it didn’t help them be more productive, profitable, and ultimately more successful than working at home or in some coffee shop.
Does Bangkok need more coworking spaces?
We don’t need just coworking spaces, we need a movement towards a more collaborative economy and an entrepreneurial revolution. Coworking spaces are essentially just the container, the focal point, where communities are formed and nurtured, where events, workshops and courses are held to help people build networks, teams and upskill themselves alongside a massive pool of awesome people who may become cofounders, partners, investors, clients, and mentors. In Singapore, there are now 20+ coworking spaces. In London alone, there are more than 80 spaces. Bangkok is equally as big and people are equally as entrepreneurial and hungry.
What can we expect from Hubba this year?
We’re planning to build five spaces in total through partnerships. We are relentlessly pursuing our mission to be Thailand’s start-up ecosystem builder: to build the biggest coworking space network in Thailand, the biggest start-up education institution in Thailand and help create the next regional or global Thai startup.
19 Soi Ekkamai 4, 02-714-3388. Passes are B265 for one day, B4,650 for 30 days, B36,500 for a year. Open daily 9am-10pm.
Co-founder of Launchpad
One of the city’s newest coworking spaces, Launchpad, offers more than just the chance to work out of home. According to co-founder, Vincent Sethiwan, it’s all about connections, too. Here, he discusses how the right community can change the way you work and even relieve stress.
Are coworking spaces catching on with Thais?
Yes, we get an equal mix of Thais and international members. I think this is because of how we portray ourselves to be an international space; a well-mixed community that is passionate about what they are working on.
What do people like about Launchpad?
They like the ambience and the community. Our space is very open and you can work in any way you want. This freedom allows people to be more creative and focused on what they are working on.
Is it a profitable business?
Not yet. However the space offers my team a really nice place to work alongside a really great crowd of people with similar mindsets who are all willing to help each other out. This is something that money cannot buy.
Does it actually boost productivity?
Yes, it does work very well indeed. Work gets done, more ideas get validated, there are more job referrals and, most importantly, it’s more fun. It is efficient as well as effective in building connections with people.
Who is suited to this kind of space?
It’s up to you whether you like it or not. For me, I really like it because it is a perfect blend between privacy and open communication. And as a startup, it really helps take away a lot of the stress and build confidence.
1/F, Sethiwan Tower, Sathorn Rd., 02-266-6222. B220 per day, B6,000 per month.
Co-owner of www.catmint.in.th
Started off as a hobby between nine friends, Catmint, a women-focused lifestyle website has been steadily gaining popularity for its edgy content and spot-on reviews. Here, we talk to co-founder Chayapa Boonmana on running an online platform and how content engagement can take you to the top.
Can content generate revenue?
We don’t sell any products so we make money from banner ads. The trick is to explore topics that other websites haven’t really gone into depth about, or find ways to make a typical article fun by using aids like videos. We’ve done an article about finding a hotel in Hong Kong on a B1,000 budget—if you search, you’ll find that we’re the number one result for that on Google. Such article ideas, along with our big blog following, brings lots of traffic to our site, which is why lots of brands choose to advertise with us. Brands now want websites with original content.
How do you stand out?
The originality of our content as well as our style—we don’t use big words and we’re not too dry. We also give our readers videos and tutorials with a touch of humor.
What’s your editorial line?
We ask ourselves whether it’s something we would be interested in using or buying; it has to be relatable to us. All of us here specialize in different areas: beauty, real estate, fashion, etc. We post about 2-3 new stories every day and, because we don’t sell products, this content is everything.
What’s trending right now?
For now it’s a diet trend from the US called the Dukan Diet. I can say that we’re the only Thai website to have covered this diet in depth.
How could our blogging scene improve?
Abroad, lots of people support bloggers and websites that do fashion and lifestyle tips. Here in Thailand, though, people are more focused on the actual products.
Managing Director of Symbols of Style (SOS)
Launched in 2012, Symbols of Style (SOS, www.symbolsofstyle.com) has become a familiar name for Thailand’s savvy shoppers, fusing meticulous fashion insights with an online shop that continues to introduce bold labels to urbanites. Here we speak to Natcharee Srirojchanapong, managing director of SOS, about people’s trust in online retail, how service is key and why brand selection can’t be compromised.
How do you choose which brands to sell on SOS?
First, it comes down to the style and design of the product; it has to be bold, chic and edgy. Second is the quality and third is the brand’s ability to produce the product in big enough quantities that they won’t run out.
What do people like most about your website?
People love our fashion shoots and fashion stories. As for products, IT gadgets and imported fashion products priced from B1,000-4,000 are quite a hit. We’re also launching a home décor section, too, with products like lamps, work tables and other things that aren’t too hard to ship here. It should be interesting.
Are people still scared of shopping online in Thailand?
Some are OK, while others still have many doubts. I think the important thing is that we need to educate people. The launch of more online shopping platforms will increase trust, but many people are still shaky when it comes to using their credit card without having the items in their hand. At SOS, we offer credit card payment as well as bank transfer, counter service and cash-on-delivery.
What’s the most vital thing behind the success of SOS?
Service is key since people can’t see our products in person. We don’t know exactly what they’re looking for; some people have bought the wrong product and try to return it after already using it. Some clients understand but some don’t. Dealing with local brands is also very important to us. We sell lots of local brands but the problem is some don’t have the production power of international brands, so their products run out. Some brands don’t inform us when this happens, which creates a problem with our listings.
What can we expect from SOS next?
We’re launching an application for the Android as well as new sections on the website like dining, décor and travel packages. We’re also doing a pop-up store at K-Village until the end of June with free prizes and gift vouchers.
Meet the Geeks
IT and startup gettogethers in the city.
What: Monthly internet and mobile networking training group focusing on technology, startups, web and mobile business opportunities.
Sign up: www.meetup.com/WebMobThailand
What: With six events so far (the last one on May 25th), this is another meetup to watch, if and when they schedule the next one.
Sign up: momobkk.com
What: A monthly meeting aimed at helping members launch, invest in and connect to different tech communities with a focus on tech startups and recruitment support.
Sign up: www.meetup.com/Bangkok-TechMeetups
Bangkok Technology Entrepreneurs OpenCoffee Meetup
What: Another networking group of entrepreneurs, investors and developers in startups that get together monthly to share ideas and connect.
Sign up: www.meetup.com/bkk-startup
Next meeting Jul 23, 9am at True Café Digital Gateway (Siam Square, Rama 1 Rd., BTS Siam).
What: Held at least four times a year, the event is intended to give young designers and entrepreneurs a platform to present their ideas in marketing, IT and design in the format of 20 slides of 20 seconds each.
Sign up: firstname.lastname@example.org
Next meeting Aug 21, 6:30pm at LaunchPad (Sethiwan Tower, Pan Rd., 02-266-6222. BTS Surasak).