This week we got to catch up with one of our fearless leaders Nick Shrewing on his return from an amazing and eye opening trip to Thailand, where he had the opportunity to dive into the start up and co-working scene and meet some of the incredible people who were bringing that community to life. Nick was one of five New Zealand ambassadors chosen to represent on a trip organised and facilitated by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. The group explored the business scene and startup communities in Thailand before heading to Singapore to attend the Echelon Asia Summit 2015 (more on this next time). I sat down with Nick to pick his brain about everything from Thai culture and hospitality to adventurous expats and doing business in South East Asia.
Casey: How did the reality of Thailand size up to the picture you had in your mind?
Nick: To be honest, I went into this trip really open minded – although probably with low expectations of what was happening in Thailand in the business sense. I knew a lot of people who have travelled there to do the tourist thing, but not one person who had made a conscious decision to do business in Thailand. I had this notion that it would be pretty underdeveloped in that area.
What I found was quite the opposite. The Thai people are such an incredibly hard-working and adaptable people and are extremely adept in the digital arena.
C: How did their attitudes towards career and work differ from us here in New Zealand?
N: I found Thai people to be extremely generous, hospitable, proud, and full of enthusiasm for what can be achieved. In some ways I saw many cultural similarities with New Zealand. One thing I noticed straight away was the fierce independence that they had with regards to earning their living. I asked a few people about the kinds of support offered to small business and those in the start up scene by the Thai Government, and while there were a few things here and there, the attitude was clearly ‘It’s my responsibility, not the Governments – It is up to me to succeed’. That independence and refusal to rely on government support set them apart for me.
C: Why do you think that is?
N: I think a lot of it is cultural and begins with the family unit. Here in the West we have pushed the idea of independence to the point of selfishness. As soon as most of us are old enough we severe ourselves from our primary support systems and seek to do it all alone. The reality of that often means one parent incomes, daycare (and daycare subsidies), disability and sickness pensions, maternity and parental leave…we look to the government to provide these things whereas in Thailand, families fulfil these needs. The entire family is working towards a legacy for the children, the grandchildren. The grandparents look after the children so the parents can work towards their future. If someone falls sick, or on hard times in any form, the family is there to provide that support and safety net that we now often must look to our government to take care of.
C: Tell us about what you noticed in terms of the way that they use technology compared to New Zealand.
N: For starters, Thailand has virtually 100% mobile penetration. There are over 100 million cellphones in circulation amongst a nation of 67 million, and a huge proportion of people carry two smart phones. It interested me to learn that because of the way the Thai infrastructure has been focused, everyone exists on data as it is so crazy cheap! They make data calls, send data messages…in fact, there is an app called Line that we downloaded as soon as we arrived, that is the centre point for communication for anyone doing business there – whether creatives, entrepreneurs, freelancers or startups. There are around 47 million Thais on Line. Its basically the WeChat of Thailand, and I would highly recommend jumping on there to anyone arriving in Thailand with the purpose of making business connections.
Some things are still really manual – Thailand is still very much a cash society, you need to carry cash everywhere. Paradoxically however, they have absolutely leapfrogged in terms of the functionality of their mobile phones. You can walk up to an ATM in Thailand, open your phone banking app, request money out, and hold your hand out to the machine to receive it. Alternatively, you can make instant deposits into your own or someone else’s account using the same process. Enter amount to deposit, account number etc into your phone, then drop the physical cash into the ATM. It will show up instantly no matter the bank, no overnight wait!
C: Ok…give us the rundown on the startup/innovation scene there. What surprised you, what do people need to know, whats the community like?
N: What surprised me? Most if not all small businesses there base their entire marketing strategy on stickers! (the digital kind). Apps like Line are used to upload company stickers to, and these are like little digital business cards that users open to find out more. They are huge there!
The start up scene was definitely the biggest curiosity for the New Zealand ambassadors, and we met some really incredible people doing amazing things in the space.
We toured the first coworking space in Thailand called Hubba and met the Co-founder Aim Charoenphan. The global village that made up the space was insane. Residents of Hubba are mostly what you might call Digital Nomads. Thai coworking spaces are made up largely of foreign residents, although they are now seeing more and more Thai residents getting amongst.
We also caught up with Jakob Lykkegaard; one half of an awesome duo from the Netherlands who founded Playlab, a leading game developer and publisher who have a space in Bangkok – Pocket Playlab. Their office was amazing, right in the middle of the city and it really felt like home, coming from Bizdojo. They even had chefs who produced food daily for all the staff!
The biggest eye opener for me was talking with Adrian Vanzyl, an expat Australian who is CEO of Ardent Capital, an early stage venture capital fund focused purely on ecommerce opportunities in emerging markets across South East Asia. Adrian is an awesome dude and his enthusiasm and excitement for the energy within the Thai economy was palpable. A few points that he made clear;
- Singapore is not South East Asia; it is not the staging ground for breaking into the South East Asian market either.
- Every market across Asia is different and such, each needs a different and unique strategy.
- If you want to break into an area, you will need to commit to basing yourself there. You need to develop an in depth understanding of the culture, the people and the community around you. You can’t just throw an app onto the market from afar and hope that people run with it. A successful app needs to have the right personality, understanding of the language used, and lots and lots of stickers!
Adrian is the perfect guy to talk to if you are looking to break into the Thai market, and he is open to chatting to anyone who needs advice.
C: Where do you see the biggest opportunities for partnerships between NZ and Thailand?
N: The Thai small business community is in the process of adapting from a largely manufacturer based background into a new generation of skilled workers. There is a lot of scope for New Zealanders to shape the evolution of Agile and Design led thinking over there, helping the move from tactile/physical creation to creativity in the digital and design sense. The Thai people are hungry to learn, so a focus on service and teaching in this arena could do well there. We saw this too when we visited a Maker space in Bangkok. The space was really cool and extremely well organised; and functioned not only as a place for people to create, but as a kind of re-education centre – actively encouraging and facilitating the transition from working with hands to learning to use power tools, large format printers etc. Just generally changing the face of trade and creative skills.
Nick Shrewing is a co-founder of The Bizdojo and secret ninja panda.
Casey McLellan is the Community and Events Coordinator based out of GridAKL.