Before starting aCommerce/Ardentcap the Thai American serial entrepreneur exited three startups with total valuation more than $US 100M. The most recent was Ensogo (leading group-buying sites in Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines) aqquired by LivingSocial. Others are AdMax and Newmedia Edge all are regional startups in Southeast Asia operating across Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. He is probably the most successful Thai tech entrepreneur till date in term of total exited valuation and definitely of the exit number. But he doesn’t satify and continue to move forward restlessly.
Having observed the entrepreneur at heart since he was running Ensogo and first met him before the time I relocated to Bangkok few years ago. So now I wanna make a deep interview to see what is his secret recipe of building big things in the region.
You founded and exited several regional startups in group-buying, ad-network, digital marketing agency field. Now you are running a VC and a full-solution eCommerce startup so you’re working on both sides of the table. Which role is your favorite and why?
One of the biggest challenges to the tech ecosystem in Southeast Asia isn’t a lack of funding, but primarily a lack of builders and entrepreneurs
I’m very passionate about building things – companies, teams, products – that have a big impact and that’s why I’m heavily focused on aCommerce. I’m still involved in Ardent Capital as part of the investment committee but it’s pretty much Adrian Vanzyl (CEO) and the Ardent team who are running the day-to-day operations. Adrian has done an amazing job by investing in and incubating disruptive startups such as HappyFresh (on-demand food deliveries), Bizzy (B2B marketplace), Moxy (women-focused ecommerce), and SaleStockIndonesia (fast-fashion ecommerce) Also, in the early stages of Ardent Capital, I came to realize that one of the biggest challenges to the tech ecosystem in Southeast Asia isn’t a lack of funding, but primarily a lack of builders and entrepreneurs. When we observed the need for an ecommerce enabler in Southeast Asia, we didn’t search for companies to invest in; instead, we decided to build it ourselves with the backing of Ardent Capital.
As a seasoned serial entrepreneur and a VC veteran, what is your fund-raising strategy for aCommerce? What is the key point for a regional startup to raise funds?
By focusing on the product and team, fund-raising should come naturally.
The most important thing is to have a good product/service and team. We validated product-market fit early and doubled-down on scaling our business – improving the product, getting clients, and generating revenues. We also have a very strong management team with ex-Lazada, ex-Zalora, and ex-Amazon leaders. By focusing on the product and team, fund-raising should come naturally. The market problem we were solving resonated with many investors which led to our previous funding rounds.
What are the key points each startup should master to successfully go regional in Southeast Asia?
Southeast Asia is not a single homogenous market like China or US. In order to succeed in SEA, you need to solve for uniquely local problems such as language, currency, payment methods, logistics/delivery, data, and consumer behavior.
To do this effectively, you need to have strong in-country operations i.e. local leadership, local teams, local product.
You cannot conquer SEA with a regional, blanket approach from Singapore or Hong Kong. Therefore, we have invested heavily into fulfillment centers, technology, and talent in the main growth markets – Thailand, Indonesia, and Philippines. Our products and services help address the biggest challenges for global brands entering SEA – local logistics, local payments (i.e. cash-on-delivery), and local channel management.
What’s your way to set up a new business/branch in one local country in Southeast Asia?
Once we enter a new market, we invest heavily in local leadership teams who have the vision and power to build the company suited for the market.
We’re a strong believer in moving fast and getting shit done. In order to do this, local countries need to have the independence to move quickly without being bogged down by regional red tape. Once we enter a new market, we invest heavily in local leadership teams who have the vision and power to build the company suited for the market. Having said that, we do have a very talented but nimble regional team that supports all of our markets on strategic matters and regional tech platform.
Pros and cons of the Thai startups and how could they go regional? Which country has the most potential for regional dominent startups?
I think Thai startups are in a unique position for growth across the region. Bangkok has become the epicenter of startup activity in the region and the country has great infrastructure in terms of legal, talent, connectivity, co-working spaces, etc. Also, the lessons learned in Thailand are typically scalable across SEA (exl. Singapore). All this is why we see companies like Lazada and HotelQuickly picking Bangkok as their regional headquarters.
Having said that, it’s easy to get too comfortable in Thailand with Thai startups not able to expand beyond the borders. Language barriers are an issue but the most pressing one is the lack of regional vision. Again, SEA is not a homogenous market and for startups to succeed regionally they need to take a step back and think bigger and internationally. This applies to both Thai startups looking to scale across SEA but also for example Indonesian startups that want to enter Thailand. 60m users isn’t bad but 600m users is equal to half of China’s size!
Which countries to enter in Southeast Asia? We’d like to follow what my colleague Adrian Vanzyl calls the “Goldilocks Principle for SEA”. We typically start in Thailand because it’s difficult but not too difficult and the lessons learned scale to the rest of the region. We don’t start in Singapore because the market is too small and the experience isn’t replicable in other SEA countries. After Thailand we tackle Indonesia and then Philippines. Then we pursue markets that are really hard such as Vietnam. This is the pattern we’ve followed for aCommerce as well as our previous businesses. aCommerce first launched in Thailand in July 2013 and we entered Indonesia and Philipines in November 2013 and April 2014. We’re especially bullish on Indonesia because of the massive size of the market – our Indonesia business is about to surpass Thailand as our biggest revenue generator.
What are your favorite hobbies outside of work and how do you spend time with family? Does your wife complain because you’re too busy? And your motto to handle family things?
My family is my hobby so it tends to all work out. I have a wonderful wife and a twin daughter and son which I spend my time with when I’m not working on aCommerce or Ardent. I also read a lot and listen to audiobooks whenever I can to learn about new things and keep an open mind. Also, I am a sports fan (basketball, football).
I’ve been observing your business for several years since Ensogo and noticed that you keep doing new ventures, while most of other successful entrepreneurs in Asia would just open a new fund and stop doing startups. So what is your main motive to move forward now as a rare serial entrepreneur in Asia? Is that a part of your half American blood?
The main reason is im a builder and still hv that entrepreneur itch. i tried the VC thing but actually didnt enjoy it as much as building a big business and solving a really big problem. As an entrepreneur you see many problems/opportunities everywhere and i felt that the market really needed a solution like ours for the EC ecosystem to grow. also i thought that if we built acom, other startups including ardent’s future portfolio of investments could potentially benefit from it so was a win, win.
Today the market is about to explode and will create dozens of opportunities with triple the value of past ventures (i.e. best time to build companies).
Also before starting acom I remember thinking….”we spent the last decade doing the gruelling and hard work of educating the market, being pioneers in the online media, ads, and ecom industry. building these companies were tough, without platforms like mobile and social. web 1.0 in SEA was fragmented, young, low investment interest and difficult to find talent. Today the market is about to explode and will create dozens of opportunities with triple the value of past ventures (i.e. best time to build companies). another big challenge today is there are not enough entrepreneurs solving big problems in the market. so after spending a lot of time looking to invest in a company like acom, we came up empty, so we decided to build one.
What is the exit strategy for aCommerce and what would be the result that makes you most happy? Will you grow it to sell again like your previous startups or build it to last?
I think when you’re #1 and driving the market, it makes sense to go big and aim for an IPO. However, if we faced problems and were outspent and out-executed by competitors and dropped to #2/#3, then that would be a good time to consider M&A.
The goal is definitely to build a lasting service and brand that will continue to help power ecommerce in SEA. Our previous company, Ensogo, has gone on to raise over $30 million, so we definitely focus on building lasting businesses.