Dis­rupt­ing Thai­land

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Front Page - Writ­ten by: Geir Windsvoll & Gor­don Can­delin


The Bangkok startup scene has gone through an ex­plo­sive change in the last five years, cul­mi­nat­ing in the ‘ Startup Thai­land 2016’ event ear­lier this year with over 30,000 Thai, re­gional and in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors. In­dus­try heavy­weights from all over the world came to Bangkok to speak about that unique com­bi­na­tion of in­no­va­tion and en­trepreneur­ship that makes a startup. ‘ Startup Thai­land’ was one of the big­gest, if not the big­gest, Asian startup events to date, which hints at the po­ten­tial for Bangkok as an ex­cit­ing fo­cal point for star­tups in the re­gion.

Thou­sands of peo­ple, from stu­dents to se­nior cit­i­zens, spent the week­end try­ing to un­der­stand the startup phe­nom­e­non: What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a startup and an SME? How can I tell if my busi­ness idea is any good? Where do I even start? It was in­spir­ing to see the cu­rios­ity and cre­ativ­ity bub­bling up at the dozens of talks, work­shops and demon­stra­tions that made up the event. One of the most en­cour­ag­ing as­pects was the re­al­iza­tion that there are a large num­ber of peo­ple with busi­ness dreams who are ready to do some­thing about it.

‘ Startup Thai­land’ is one of sev­eral new ini­tia­tives sup­ported by the Thai Gov­ern­ment, in ad­di­tion to a USD 570 mil­lion startup fund cre­ated to stim­u­late the econ­omy and make sure the coun­try stays abreast of the global race for in­no­va­tion that con­tin­ues to gain mo­men­tum.

Over the years there has been a dra­matic change in the types of peo­ple that come to these events. No longer are they the early adopters or the techob­sessed – star­tups have turned main­stream and peo­ple of all back­grounds are em­brac­ing the dy­namic pro­cesses that Sil­i­con Val­ley has made a key part of do­ing busi­ness to­day.

This new breed of busi­ness owner is ea­ger to take part in the startup revo­lu­tion, and if other hubs of in­no­va­tion are any indication, they could very well have an enor­mous im­pact on the future Thai econ­omy as well as help shape the di­rec­tion of the coun­try and re­gion it­self. Sil­i­con Val­ley is the cap­i­tal of in­no­va­tion, con­tin­u­ously rolling out thou­sands of busi­nesses that are ac­tively look­ing for prob­lems to solve, and in some cases they are pro­foundly chang­ing our ex­pec­ta­tions and our lives. We do trans­porta­tion dif­fer­ently to­day than just a cou­ple of years ago. We order food dif­fer­ently, we travel dif­fer­ently, and soon we’ll use bank­ing and a myr­iad of other com­mon ser­vices very, very dif­fer­ently.

Star­tups are ex­perts at dis­rupt­ing tra­di­tional in­dus­tries; with the right minds, fund­ing, ecosys­tem, and frame­works, star­tups in Thai­land could just as eas­ily change the lives of peo­ple of San Fran­cisco as Uber, Airbnb and Agoda have changed the lives of peo­ple in Bangkok and in hun­dreds of other cities around the world. To make this hap­pen, how­ever, we need to ex­pand our col­lec­tive mind­set on what we are able to do, and more im­por­tantly, how we do it, re­fin­ing these frame­works and ad­just­ing them to fit the cul­ture and mar­kets we op­er­ate in.


The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween a startup and a tra­di­tional SME is its rate of growth. A tra­di­tional com­pany is usu­ally not able to ex­pand with the same speed as a startup, of­ten due to lim­its in scal­a­bil­ity – some­times spend­ing decades grow­ing into a global mar­ket – whereas we’ve seen star­tups achiev­ing global dom­i­na­tion in a mat­ter of months. That is be­cause tra­di­tional busi­ness not only lack the ven­ture cap­i­tal used to fuel such rapid growth, but the in­no­va­tion cul­ture and ecosys­tem nec­es­sary to sus­tain it.

The con­cept of the startup is per­haps a big­ger in­no­va­tion than the tech­nol­ogy which en­ables it.

As im­por­tant as in­fra­struc­ture and lo­gis­tics is mind­set – a startup moves fast: it is con­stantly be­ing re­shaped and re­fined, some­times on a daily ba­sis. Star­tups of­ten need to ex­e­cute very quickly to even sur­vive, with short run­ways and a com­pet­i­tive and con­stantly chang­ing mar­ket. Mov­ing at this speed, a startup can get mar­ket val­i­da­tion and new skill learn­ing on top of a po­ten­tial hyper mar­ket share growth. This re­quires an out­look that is not only open to am­bi­gu­ity and change, but ac­tively em­braces it. Work­ing like a startup means be­ing open to dif­fer­ent opin­ions and ideas, and be­ing ready to act on them.

As im­por­tant as in­fra­struc­ture and lo­gis­tics is mind­set – a startup moves fast: it is con­stantly be­ing re­shaped and re­fined, some­times on a daily ba­sis [...] This re­quires an out­look that is not only open to am­bi­gu­ity and change, but ac­tively em­braces it.


In ad­di­tion to a home- grown de­sire to build busi­ness at the speed of star­tups, in­ter­na­tional in­vestors are also show­ing in­ter­est and ven­tur­ing more fre­quently into South­east Asia, firmly es­tab­lish­ing them­selves through in­vest­ments and re- in­vest­ments in the startup com­mu­nity and re­lated ven­tures. We are not wait­ing for the change to hap­pen any­more – it is al­ready here – and in­no­va­tion is at its core.

Three or four years ago it would have been im­pos­si­ble to buy a new TV, sneak­ers or shop for gro­ceries on your mo­bile while stuck in Bangkok traf­fic or while rid­ing the BTS – the sort of things that have been ac­ces­si­ble in the West for more than a decade.

Pay­ment sys­tems and lo­gis­tic com­pa­nies are cur­rently try­ing to solve some of Thai­land’s big­gest is­sues when it comes to en­abling this kind of in­no­va­tion by mak­ing dis­tri­bu­tion and cash flow a seam­less part of the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence. Soon you’ll be able to say a few words to your phone and within the hour some­one will be stand­ing out­side your door with the prod­ucts you or­dered.

Star­tups are con­stantly solv­ing these types of prob­lems, and Bangkok and Thai­land have more than a few to solve. Will Grab or Uber ac­tu­ally end up fix­ing our traf­fic jams? Can your neigh­bor­hood mom & pop shop start tak­ing or­ders on Line? Who will be Thai­land’s Jack Ma or Elon Musk?

One thing we are work­ing on at our own lo­cal star­tups is how to make it pos­si­ble for some­one with­out re­sources or the net­work to solve prob­lems, in­no­vate and grow their busi­ness with­out tak­ing on too much risk. Only by em­brac­ing fail­ure and build­ing an ecosys­tem that gives risk tak­ers an­other chance will Thai­land be able to fol­low the global trend.


You may be ask­ing your­self how this re­lates to your cur­rent busi­ness. One sim- ple way to look at this is to ask your­self if you want your com­pany to be a Ko­dak or an Uber. Ko­dak, once a rock- solid global brand, failed to fol­low the dig­i­tal econ­omy, and even­tu­ally lost its way com­pletely by fo­cus­ing too much on quar­terly re­ports rather than rec­og­niz­ing the speed of the new com­pe­ti­tion and adopt­ing it. Uber, Face­book, YouTube and a host of other well- known global suc­cess sto­ries have man­aged to change global trans­porta­tion, so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and me­dia con­sump­tion in a heart­beat.

While in­no­va­tion lies at the heart of star­tups, it is not ex­clu­sive to them, and there are more and more sto­ries of tra­di­tional com­pa­nies in­cor­po­rat­ing in­no­va­tion into their strate­gic plans.

One way to de­scribe in­no­va­tion is “an or­ga­ni­za­tion’s process for in­tro­duc­ing new ideas, work­flows, method­olo­gies, ser­vices or prod­ucts.” In­no­va­tion also doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean tech­nol­ogy, but it does mean con­nect­ing mean­ing­fully to the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence in order to op­ti­mize and im­prove ex­ist­ing prod­ucts and ser­vices in a very fo­cused way. In­no­va­tion is as much about at­ti­tude as it is about process, and re­quires an open­ness that can some­times be chal­leng­ing, but which has the po­ten­tial to reap real re­wards.

One of the keys to truly em­brac­ing in­no­va­tion and pos­si­bly one of the most dif­fi­cult to adopt in the Asian con­text is em­brac­ing fail­ure. Ob­vi­ously, busi­nesses need to suc­ceed in the long run, but in the con­text of star­tups, fail­ure is an op­por­tu­nity to learn, adapt and it­er­ate in a very short pe­riod of time, quickly in­cor­po­rat­ing lessons into a more re­fined prod­uct that has been val­i­dated by real users.

The “fail­ure” of a pro­to­type prod­uct or ser­vice that has been de­vel­oped over the course of a week or two can yield tremen­dous in­sights and re­sult in a mean­ing­fully tested ex­pe­ri­ence with good prospects.

This type of rapid pro­to­typ­ing is so suc­cess­ful that more and more com­pa­nies are adopt­ing what is com­monly known as a ‘ de­sign sprint’ as part of their strate­gic plan­ning. Many of the tools and method­olo­gies used in this process come from a range of dis­ci­plines, such as Hu­man Com­puter In­ter­ac­tion, User Ex­pe­ri­ence De­sign, Hu­man Cen­tered De­sign, or De­sign Think­ing. What they all have in com­mon is a fo­cus on real peo­ple – your users. Your de­sign sprint will ideally in­clude a few of these as part of the process, be­cause it is easy to for­get that not every­one thinks the same way we do. Hav­ing a first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence of how your cus­tomers en­gage with your prod­uct or ser­vice is in­valu­able and can of­ten pro­vide a wealth of in­for­ma­tion and in­sight.

The key to run­ning a de­sign sprint is mak­ing it fo­cused and fast – a sprint can run for just one week. That may not seem like a lot of time, but with the right peo­ple in the room – your users, key de­ci­sion mak­ers and sub­ject mat­ter ex­perts – it is more than enough time to bring in­no­va­tion to your busi­ness and un­der­stand that “fail­ure,” if man­aged in a struc­tured way, is worth em­brac­ing.

Just a few years ago it would have been im­pos­si­ble to build a busi­ness with mil­lions of users within a few months on a Search En­gine Mar­ket­ing bud­get. It would have been im­pos­si­ble to do what Tesla did as well, sell­ing 400,000 cars be­fore even launch­ing its very first model. Never have in­no­va­tion and busi­nesses changed faster. And never will it ever be this slow. In roughly 10 years, 40% of the For­tune 500 com­pa­nies will be gone, un­less they change their ways of ex­e­cu­tion and re­search and de­vel­op­ment. It is no longer a ques­tion of whether you need to change or not. It’s in­no­vate or die.

For Thai­land to truly in­no­vate on a global level, we need to in­cor­po­rate the struc­tures, strate­gies and method­olo­gies of star­tups, and em­brace the idea of fail­ure as a recipe for suc­cess rather than dis­as­ter. You just need to fail fast enough.

Geir Windsvoll is Co- founder & Man­ag­ing Part­ner at San­tora Nakama Startup Stu­dio & Gor­don Can­delin is Founder & Ex­pe­ri­ence Di­rec­tor at The Strate­gic De­sign Lab. They can be con­tacted at geir@ san­toranakama. com and gor­don@ thesdl. com.

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