Readers may recall that in our April 2017 tech issue, we explored how startups are becoming increasingly important players in the development of a local digital economy. The debate surrounding Thailand 4.0 aside, what we discovered during our research was that the country has a number of promising tech entrepreneurs; innovative and economically astute keyboard warriors focused on an exciting segment of the digital ecosystem: mobile applications.
In the vanguard of this movement are Krating Poonpol of Disrupt University and 500 TukTuks and the innovators behind some of Thailand’s most forward-looking tech startups, luminaries such as Rungsun Promprasith of QueQ, ML Kamolprudh Jumbala of Skootar, Apinara Srikarnchana of U Drink I Drive and Panupong Tejapaibul of Ticketmelon (Thailand Tatler’s 2017 Generation T-lister). In a time where our cellular devices are playing a pivotal role in simplifying daily tasks and literally millions of apps are now available in Apple’s App Store, we met with these innovators to discuss the opportunities and challenges of app building in Thailand.
In the first place, just how mature is Thailand’s digital ecosystem? Krating, widely known in the industry as the godfather of startups in Thailand, says that it has grown by almost 100-fold in less than five years. “In the first phase of digital adoption a few years ago, we would see a lot of copies or clones of whatever was coming out of the US. But where we’re at now, the second phase if you like, is when app developers start to become more innovative in solving real, local problems,” says the 39-year-old. “The third phase would ideally involve catering to local, regional and globally scalable needs. But we still have a long way to go.”
There are several key factors to bear in mind for building successful apps locally. “The biggest current drawback is that Thai app developers are too focused on solving small problems. It is important to try to find a big market with large, unmet needs, then find your own niche,” Krating says. He gives the example of education. “The actual market for education is five times the revenue of our three telecom operators combined. So far, 500 TukTuks has invested in 41 companies, but there is only one in the education category. In the US, for instance, many app startups are now successfully tackling education because it is a global common concern.”
Krating believes that local developers should think of their apps with a global mindset from day one. Picking universally catchy names and designing quality programmes are crucial. “Once it is available on App Store, you can sell to anyone in the world,” he explains. Take Rungsun’s queuing app QueQ—his biggest aspiration is not just to be able to change people’s queuing behavior in Thailand’s main cities, but to also expand to Japan and the United States. Ticketmelon, on the other hand, already has plans to expand abroad in the near future and is now branding itself beyond ticket distribution services as an event technology solutions provider.
Our interviewees all highlight one sizeable challenge in building app-driven startups in Thailand. “The government has been mainly giving small grants—but what we’re really lacking is tech talent at the grassroots level,” says Kamolprudh. Krating agrees. “Education is a long-term proposition. Indonesia’s government, together with Google, is in the process of creating 100,000 software developers. Thailand should at least produce 10,000 of our own to begin with.” Other countries are also importing qualified developers from Silicon Valley—but in Thailand, where there are a significant number of digital nomads, Krating says that there are still myriad complications concerning the issuing of visas and work permits. “The government should facilitate, remove barriers and solve the fundamental problems that the private sector cannot.”
There are also many financial constraints for aspiring app-based businesses. “In general, we’re not seeing enough support for a healthy and fast-growing environment for startups and young entrepreneurs,” says Apinara. “With U Drink I Drive, for instance, we really need to be treated as a transportation business. But since we’re registered as a tech startup, we’ve been taxed much more heavily.”
(Related: Tech Issue: Gaga for Gadgets)
According to a survey by UK-based freelance sourcing firm PeoplePerHour, Bangkok is the best city in Asia and the seventh-best in the world in which to launch a startup—although our entrepreneurs have their doubts. Uncompetitive regulation and tax structures are one of the reasons Thailand can be less attractive for foreign investors. Which is why Panupong says that he is already in the process of registering Ticketmelon in Singapore. “Funding from the government is not an issue for us. What we’re more concerned about is regulatory support,” he says. “Thailand is just not investor friendly for startups especially for raising million dollar rounds. However, in Singapore everyone knows how the law works. The legal mechanics are clear and easy to understand. Hence institutional investors are more inclined to put their money into Singaporean startups.”
With so many apps available for download, Krating points out that a big test for prospective developers is that consumers are getting fatigued with the excessive options. “If you cannot grab the attention of the consumer within six seconds, you’re gone— they’ll delete your app from their phone,” he says. “Also, users are not so well acquainted with App Store’s discoverability, and its algorithm changes all the time. Developers are able to carry out App Store optimisation, but it is not taught very well here. Again it is about tech education.”
For Rungsun, the fact that the mobile app development scene here is low key and so focused on Thai-centric solutions actually makes it very difficult for the digital ecosystem as a whole to grow. “Venture capitalists are always looking to invest in startups that have the potential to expand globally, so they tend to overlook Thailand,” he says. “Therefore, it is vital that the government steps up its game and properly supports local startups before big international players enter the market and potentially dominate existing industries and employment, which is what has happened in digital television and print media industries.”
Digital startups are seedbeds for innovation and creativity and much needed. With more and more cash-rich international venture capitalists eyeing Southeast Asia as the next digital frontier—speculation is that the next $100 billion startup will come from the region—Thailand must adapt quickly if it wants a seat on the digital gravy train. “If you think of Silicon Valley as a country it would be the 10th largest in terms of GDP,” says Krating. “And if you look at China’s Alibaba and Tencent, those two firms together generate the equivalent of Thailand’s GDP. Just imagine what we could do if we had successful tech companies like that here. The past 10 years may have been a lost decade for Thailand, but in the next 10 years, our nascent digital development companies can become engines of hope. And if we do it well, it will be a decade of change and inspiration. Otherwise, we will be called the lost generation, and we can’t let that happen.”
Learn more about the startups mentioned in this story:
ML Kamolprudh Jumbala met his two business partners, Suwatt Pathopakawan and Teepob Kitchawattana, at Disrupt University. “Skootar wasn’t actually our first idea,” he explains. “At the time, Suwatt and Teepob had their own businesses. But at the end of every month both had to deal with independent motorbike taxis to get important documents such as invoices and cheques delivered.” They thought they could solve the problem of connecting SME business owners with reliable motorbike messengers by means of technology.
Having grown more than 10-fold in 2016 alone and now counting more than 60,000 users on their system and close to 3,000 motorbike messengers, Bangkok-based Skootar is available both through website and mobile application. “We will work on any platform that helps connect people and makes door-to-door logistics reliable and cost-efficient,” says 33-year-old Kamolprudh. In the long run, he hopes that Skootar not only becomes the best platform for business-to-business logistics in Thailand via motorbike messengers, but that it also expands to other types of vehicles and services. “We are already looking at other cities in Thailand and eventually we’ll turn our attention to the Southeast Asian region.”
U Drink I Drive
“My passion has always been the safety of the people,” says Apinara Srikarnchana, eldest daughter of Asia Insurance’s Chula-payap. But she also knew that insurance was not the career for her. “I have always wanted to run my own business. The perk is that I am now delivering the insurance of the future. I wanted safety to be more tangible, I wanted people to feel the comfort of having safety at their fingertips—and I was able to achieve that through the U Drink I Drive app.”
The 28-year-old explains the statistics that eventually led her and partner Sirasom Borisutsuwan to develop the app in 2013. “At the time Thailand was ranked number two in the world per head of population for fatal traffic accidents. And a staggering 40 per cent of the deaths in those accidents were drunk-driving victims. The country was spending 232 million baht subsidising compensation for the families of victims,” she tells us. “Thais would also boast about getting away with driving while drunk. I felt that it was all very irresponsible and something should be done.”
How does the app work? Simple. If a user has had a few drinks and doesn’t want to get behind the wheel, U Drink I Drive will send a driver to their location to pick them up and drive them home in their own vehicle. In three and a half years almost 200,000 such trips have been arranged through the app. “But the main market is completely different from what we initially predicted. Most of our current users are aged 35 to 50—a lot of them are my parents’ friends,” laughs Apinara. The service has now extended beyond the party crowd and the confines of Bangkok, with 24-hour on-demand trips as far as Khao Yai, for hospital lifts and cars to pick up laundry or the children from school.
(Courtesy of U Drink I Drive, Thailand Tatler readers are given the privilege of 10 free rides valued at 1,500 baht each. Just use the code “TATLERVIP” during your next trip.)
Not a fresh face on the tech scene, 40-year-old Rungsun Promprasith ran a software house for 10 years prior to founding queuing app QueQ. The idea for it came to him while he was stuck in a long queue at the bank. “It was New Year’s Eve, the worst time to go to the bank,” he laughs. “I was there for hours and kept popping in and out, checking on my queue number. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be convenient if there was an app that kept me posted on the waiting status of the queue instead of me needing to be here physically?”
It took roughly a year of development before the QueQ prototype was launched in January 2013. Then it was another six months before his team acquired their first client, Shabushi from the Oishi restaurant group, and a further six developing the operational side of the application to meet the client’s needs. In addition to dining and entertainment, QueQ has broadened its service to banks and hopes to venture into hospitals soon. “To date we have a total number of 650,000 user downloads with a repeat user average of around five times per month, so each month we’ll have around 750,000 people online queuing. With at least 30,000 new downloads a month, we expect to achieve one million users within this year.”
“Every generation has an iconic organisation or brand of its own. My aspiration has always been to create one for my generation,” 24-year-old Panupong Tejapaibul muses. A fan of small venue music gigs since his high school years, he had first-hand experience of how difficult it could be to obtain pre-sale event tickets and realised most event ticketing platforms were only geared for big concerts. “There was this huge white space—the smaller events that happen on a very frequent basis simply didn’t have a professional channel to reach the public,” he explains.
To date Panupong has raised $700,000 in investment, the first investment being $200,000 while he was still at Chulalongkorn University. “Right now we are positioned as an event technology solutions provider, where we integrate not just digital ticketing but also event technology and in-depth database analytics,” he says. This year alone Ticketmelon has been acquiring 1,000 unique registrations per day. While the majority of the bookings go through its website, Panupong and his team will be focusing greater marketing effort on the mobile app during the third quarter of this year. “The percentage of app users is roughly 25 per cent, but we are aiming to boost that to at least 50 per cent by the end of the quarter,” he says. Ticketmelon will also be introducing a new feature where anybody can create an event via a dynamic platform. Plans are also afoot to expand services overseas.
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