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Thai startup’s Big Brother Surawat Promyotin: “I see tremendous creativity and passion in Thai startups!”

It’s great that Thailand startups’ Big Brother Surawat Promyotin (Sam) is sharing with EcomEye about his thoughts on Thailand startup’s DNA, Customer Development, Product/Market Fit, BangkokVC angel group and so on…

Three keywords to describe you?

Active Listening – Feynman Technique – Cross-Pollination

Active Listening for me is listening with intent to understand before seeking to be understood – essentially Habit #5 from the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” This is a critical success factor for customer development, usability testing, sales, training, and leadership.

The Feynman Technique is often described as “The Best Way to Learn Anything.” It comes from Nobel winning physicist Richard Feynman, and consists of the following basic principles:

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Toddler
  3. Identify Gaps and Go Back to the Source Material
  4. Review and Simplify

And by Cross-Pollination I mean “Influence or inspiration between or among diverse elements.” For me, this is a key driver of innovation, and is achieved through a healthy level of curiosity and passion across very different, seemingly incompatible subjects.

You studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science @Berkeley, and you’re also a guitarist in a music band (actually an improvisational musician across multiple instruments: guitar, drums, bass, keys, vocals) So entrepreneurship, growing a startup is more about art or science from your view?

It’s very much both. This art/science analogy is true at multiple levels, but I can touch on at least one of those levels here.

The Lean Startup process is an interplay between qualitative and quantitative validation.

The earlier stages (Problem Validation and Problem/Solution Fit) are very qualitative in nature. Active listening and empathy are key success factors. This process is often more art than science. The subsequent stage (Product/Market Fit) requires the addition of more quantitative skillsets. Key success factors include identification and optimization of key metrics through rapid and iterative hypothesis testing, which involve more science than the previous stage. Both the “art” and “science” mindsets, however, are critical long beyond Product/Market Fit. A good business should constantly improve itself through continuous customer development, usability testing, and quantitative experiments.

You have worked across many continents and countries, so what are the key factors to work with different people from different cultures? What should be prepared before a business meeting in another country?

I did most of my business travel back when I managed some global product lines for a NASDAQ100 electronics company in Silicon Valley. Its size and resources allowed me to work with our local sales and engineering teams all around the world. The key factors were (1) the quality of our local sales organization, and (2) working very closely with them through regular communication. They not only ensured that I met with the right decision makers, but also briefed me on the appropriate communication styles of their customers. I still have a fond memory of one salesperson’s guidance to me before a customer meeting in Finland, “Make sure you completely pause for a few seconds between each slide. Don’t worry if everyone is completely silent. Just give them a moment, then continue. This is normal here.”

With years of experience in Silicon Valley, what do you think about the difference of working style there and working style in Thailand? Did you have reverse culture shock at the first time coming back to work in Thailand? And if yes how did you deal with it?

Here’s a sample of some principles engrained into us by our CEO, Jack Gifford, back in Silicon Valley:

  1. Don’t accept the status quo. Do not accept a situation just because it has always been that way; find a way to improve it and go beyond the results of the past.
  2. Question everything and everybody. Don’t accept a solution or procedure just because you were told that is the way it is or the way it has to be done. Question your supervisor, because he [or she] and I can be wrong, because we do not always know the facts as you do. We need you to keep us straight.

This mindset and culture is still quite rare in our region. There is a lot of power distance between organizational levels, and leadership tends to be more directive rather than supportive or situational. At the same time, many employees are used to the old way and not yet accustomed to having more accountability and autonomy.

There are two ways to deal with this: (1) find and work with people who have this mindset, and (2) exercise extra empathy and patience to constructively work with those who don’t.

You mentioned about Sillicon Valley DNA, any description for it? And how about Thai startups’ DNA? What are the strengths of Thai startups? and what they should improve?

Startup Essentials curriculum for DVA

I see tremendous creativity and passion in Thai startups. Thailand is also very entrepreneurial – ranked #2 among the “Top 15 Most Entrepreneurial Countries in the World.” They also have the advantage of being in a perfect place to incubate ideas for mobile-first, emerging markets. In other words, there are a lot of countries where you can’t just copy-and-paste an idea from the US. Thailand is one of those places. If you can make something work here, there’s a good chance that you can adapt it to several other emerging, mobile-first markets.

As for opportunities for improvement, I think a critical one is the understanding of Product/Market Fit. In particular, a lot of startups pre-maturely chase growth, which can send them down an unsustainable path that burns out their runway.

Root cause for this problem is that most startups simply don’t know the following:

  1. What is Product/Market Fit?
  2. Why should you prioritize it before Growth?
  3. How do you measure it?
  4. How do you drive it through Qualitative and Quantitative methods?

World leading accelerators (e.g. 500Startups and Y Combinator) teach this. Unfortunately, this understanding is badly missing in our ecosystem. A lot of this information is out there online, but many startups are either distracted by other issues, or impeded by language barriers (since much of this content is delivered in English). Thai startups urgently need to learn more about Customer Development, Usability Testing, Cohort Retention Analysis, Unit Economics, and (proper) Growth Experiments.

You shared about meeting customers, but “The last thing you should do is selling”. And it’s more about customer development rather than selling. Can you share more about customer development?
Sam: The last thing you should do is selling!
Sam: The last thing you should do is selling!

In simple terms, Customer Development is about talking to your customers – starting from even before you build your product. When done properly, the goal of these conversations is to validate the problem you plan to solve. Why? Because the #1 factor for startup failure is that you build a product that people don’t need (see this article from CB Insights). To confirm the problem, however, you need to thoroughly understand your target customer, their job-to-be-done, their current solution, and the pain points (preferably quantified) in their current user journey. You don’t learn these things by pitching your solution. You learn them by asking about their current solution and drilling down into the journey. Ideally, you actually observe their journey.

What are the working procedure of Bangkok VC? What should an entrepreneur do to approach Bangkok VC and get connected with relevant angels?

The current process at Bangkok Venture Club is that we invite selected applicants to present to our Screening Committee. We then bring the strongest teams to present at our General Meeting and share the deal flow across our member base, which includes angel investors, VCs, CVCs, PEs, accelerator programs, and senior corporate executives across almost every vertical. Members are concentrated in our region, but currently extend as far as Australia, Europe, and Silicon Valley. We do not charge a fee and do not take equity.

Being a judge in most Thailand accelerators, incubators and have met tons of startups. What are your sharing for wanna be founders to prepare before starting their new ventures?

Make sure you understand the difference between a startup and an SME, which one you aspire to build, and why.

The meaning of startup here is what is more accurately called a Tech Startup or Innovation Driven Enterprise (IDE). One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but their paths and outcomes can differ immensely.

For the startup path, it’s also worthwhile to learn a little about how VCs work. Put yourself into their shoes and understand their business model. Doing this will help you better visualize the risk (and reward) involved with doing a startup. Once you understand these perspectives, you should have another look at your goals and risk appetite – and then decide what you want to do.

Please note, however, that understanding VC investment does not mean that you should necessarily raise VC funds. In fact, many good VCs advise that you should not raise money unless truly necessary. Understanding the fundamentals of how they invest, however, will help you better understand the difference between a startup and an SME.

Anything else you wanna share?

Yes. I’d like to remind teams that investors are people, and they care a lot about the team. One measure of a team is their coach-ability.

Being coachable does not mean that you have to agree with what other people say – but it does mean that you actively listen and have a growth mindset.

The startup pitch Q&A is one very good indication of your coach-ability. Many teams don’t realize it, but this is where many of them destroy their own credibility.

What’s your focus in 2018?

My #1 focus is STYLHUNT. We’ve been quiet because we pivoted a while ago from our original model. Our previous product had strong initial engagement and retention, but we found an opportunity to do something with far greater market size, scalability, value proposition, defensibility, cohort repurchase, and unit economics. Combined with our team’s deep customer development, this strategy has delivered very measurable Product/Market Fit along with a growth rate of 48% month-over-month.



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