The State of the Ecosystem – Amarit Charoenphan
A while ago we published an interview with CEO and CO-Founder of HUBBA Coworking Space and StartupWeekend organizer Amarit “Aim” Charoenphan. The interview was one year old, before HUBBA even officially had opened its doors. Since then HUBBA has lived up to its name and has become the crazy Startup HUB it set out to be.
Aim is pretty busy, participating in the dtac accelerator program himself, hosting the Geeks on a Plane last weekend, and now going international by helping the StartupWeekend folks in Indonesia host their event. Nevertheless, Aim took the time to update us on the current situation at HUBBA and their future expansion plans. We didn’t miss to ask about the current state of the ecosystem as well. Let’s face it, who should know better than the guy who has been in the epicenter from the very beginning?
Do you consider HUBBA as a social project, community development, or like pure business?
It’s a blend of multiple values. We decided that if we are going to build it, it has to make financial sense. It has to be profitable, which spaces should be anyway. A lot of people in the ecosystem spend so much time building the community and not focusing on the business side, which eventually makes them goes out of business. According to global statistics, we believe that coworking is a profitable business model, though it may not be the fastest to scale. Aside from the capital investment, HUBBA needs to invest a lot in relationship building and interactions, which is the key towards creating a successful co-working community.
Building partnerships in our community such as with PunSpace (coworking space in Chiang Mai) and PAH Space (new coworking space in Bangkok for creatives and designers) is something we strive to do. HUBBA hosts businesses such as tech companies, creative agencies, freelancers and other independent professionals, which makes for a dynamic community within our space. It is always fun and inspiring to meet new people that come to HUBBA, who are trying very hard to succeed while having fun at the same time.
When do you plan to return your investment?
The global average is around six month to two years, depending on how aggressive you are, how ripe the market is, how receptive to coworking. We are designed to fit into the average. We are patient folks, and we are also doing other things – which are much more lucrative.
With which product are you generating most revenue, since you do all the events and other things as well?
Actually, membership is the core product. In fact, this space is only the prototype with roughly 300sqm. We could have rented a bigger space but that would have been more risky. We are looking into more spaces though. The membership income and space rental remain our core priority as it represent an ensemble of the space’s services worth and value of the community it has created. The other incomes are add-ons.
And what is the average profile of the people coming here?
Most people are 25-35 years old, half in tech, half are in creative/ design and a small portion in other small businesses like writers, translators and consultants. Many are working on startups. They usually come here for a day to a month, try to get some work done. Some are ‘digital nomads’ from across Asia and Europe who are working and traveling while wanting to meet locals and make new friends. They do everything from programming, designing, translating to other development activities.
Then you have teams of four to five people, sometimes they are in an accelerator program, freshly graduated or have been working for four or five years. The older guys usually come in at the weekends. The third set has an actual office already, but likes HUBBA’s creative vibe and is looking for a second office.
Our job is to build a community around HUBBA and connect them to the right people and businesses, while – more importantly – having fun doing so.
Do you provide services like registered offices?
That’s more like service office. That is at a different price point. We might do that with a second space. But to be honest, people can just open their office at home. Secondly, there are other providers doing that very well at low cost. We just refer to them. Our focus is to provide services that are community-centric geared towards startups and the modern workforce. Some of the services like secretarial services or concierge are not what our community asks for. We operate at an entirely different segment of business that is not purely about space per se. Our job is to build a community around HUBBA and connect them to the right people and businesses, while – more importantly – having fun doing so.
We do workshops like Jelly Week, skill sharing and so on. Our members want to pitch, learn and network. They can do meetups here, have grand openings of their startups and so on. We like to think of ourselves as in the center of the ‘tech-creative-startup’ movement and we can see who is doing a good job and who is not and we can make the best match. Our main value is that we can bring likeminded individuals together, and people seem to like what we are doing.
Do you have success cases, where teams moved on to rent a full office, grew.
There is for example Ace. We helped him to find a team, hire his first staff, got him a couple of contacts, and gave him some advices. Now he has rented a second room. He was an independent digital media specialist, doing jobs here and there, and he is becoming very successful now. He is in his 40ths and he is able to turn from a freelancer to an entrepreneur. And we got Infinite Closet, who just beta launched. The team converged at Startup Weekend last November and their success has inspired HUBBA.
How big is the HUBBA Team now?
We are ten now. The core teams are the four active partners – myself, my brother and Co-CEO Charle Charoenphan , Chalermyuth Boonma (Note), Ming Mahakittikun. Then we have a space manager, a digital marketing specialist, and a partner representative in Singapore. We also just added a creative director to the team, who takes care of the website, artworks and HUBBA’s corporate brand.
When we spoke last year there was not much going on in terms of Startups in Bangkok. Not even one year later we have several incubators (AIS, DTAC, True), six co-working spaces, two large E27 events and find ourselves at meetups and events every day. What is your perception of the ecosystem right now?
Right now there are only a few passionate people working in this ecosystem that are leading the charge. There is Krating Poonpol who is doing and awesome job with Disrupt University. He is teaching people best practices from Silicon Valley. You have courses from AIS and DTAC and then there is of course the Startup Weekend organized by HUBBA.
I expect much more growth this year. Investment funds from the telecommunication’s accelerator programs and some private VCs have helped to generate a lot of interest and excitement and they are important catalyst to the ecosystem development. More space, more serious news coverage by the likes of Thumbs Up and E27.co, more events, more corporate interests and in general greater excitement over the tech, creative scene, new co-working culture in Thailand, particularly in Bangkok. I’m sure that global tech blogs, VC firms and startup events will be attracted to what is happening here and making a visit soon.
Lastly it is about getting the ecosystem builders to work together as much as possible before the gloves come off and everybody is starting to compete, which is inevitable and a healthy sign that the ecosystem is growing in the right direction.
The issue is the lack of great, investable ideas, platforms for these ideas to manifest, to develop and to showcase to the right investors.
What do you think about this fear that there won’t be progress? Right now you see the same people over and over again. What if international VCs come in and there is a lack of ideas or progress in general?
There is no lack of ideas. The issue is the lack of great, investable ideas, platforms for these ideas to manifest, to develop and to showcase to the right investors. It’s a learning process about how to keep spurring not just ideas but real business opportunities. The people that are presenting the ideas have just not gone through the process of “how to ideate”. How to find ideas based on problems. Currently it’s more based on “I want to own that business to show off.” That is a typical and natural progression of the development of entrepreneurship culture.
The next challenge is how do you reengineer the minds of people that have been brought up this way? How do you change a mindset to collaboration with people having similar ideas, instead of immediately thinking of them as competition? How do you grow an idea or a startup into a stable business with growth potential? How can you get more people to want to startup and invest at the same time?
And to come back to the point that the same group of people will go to the same events. Yes, because they are right now the first mover and most excited individuals who one day will play a great role in the ecosystem. The question then is: Who is getting new people in?
Yes, that is the question. Who is?
It goes back to who finds the ambition to build the ecosystem. It’s a lot of work. Guys like Krating Poonpol of Disrupt University and Patai Padungtin of Builk.com, Tiwa York of Sanook Ecommerce and Moo Natavudh of Ookbee.com have the passion to see that through. They want to see young people make it through. They don’t like the situation Thailand is in, and are actively doing something to change the situation.
External help will come from bigger institutions but as of this moment, the startup ecosystem is a grassroots movement driven by entrepreneurs looking to help other entrepreneurs. Having gotten down and dirty myself, I started to realize that you can actually build the startup ecosystem you want by yourself, true to the spirit of entrepreneurship. I went to Echelon in 2012 and I didn’t know many people there. We were just nobody, with no idea how to code or design. We just talked to the organizers and convinced them to check out the startup scene Bangkok. What I want to say is; you can build something from nothing and every startup entrepreneur who seriously wants to see at thriving startup ecosystem here should embrace this same spirit.
The scene needs a catalyst and usually the catalysts are startup heroes
What would you say are currently the greatest issues we face in the local ecosystem?
I previously said the language. I think that’s not the major issue right now. There will always be someone who leads the team and can speak English. People know they need to speak it. I recall Patai who said in Chiang Mai that the scene needs a catalyst and usually the catalysts are startup heroes. People who made money, big mergers, big acquisitions, IPO. People who show that it is possible.
To set all the distractions aside and focus on your startup is very difficult there must be something in it for you. Financial success is one of the lures but it is not enough to get you to work 100 hours a week for the next 18 months. You need to have passion. If we would have a few very successful cases, and people can see that from nothing someone can build a 100 million bath company, that would certainly get people in.
We also need an active angel investor/ seed funding network. People that want to invest in technology. We already have great events and pitching platforms, we need more people spreading the word and learning how to invest in technology companies.
Do you think we need more “western” experience to build the ecosystem?
Because our startup ecosystem is still very young, we need to reach out and connect with global ecosystems and startup communities so that we learn and grow from the collective intelligence that already exists in the world. We have to find a way for the expat bubble and the Thai bubble to intersect. Right now it’s intersecting in meetups, but that is not enough. Do I know that I want to work with you on, just from your card? Sure, you have some very prolific networker but that is not the majority.
Many Thais won’t even show up, and if they do they are talking in a corner of the room. Few entrepreneurs will talk right to everybody. Sometimes you need an organic space where you can overcome cultural barriers. And that is one of the benefits of HUBBA Coworking Space. If you work with someone in the same room every day you might ask him some questions because you can see what he is doing all the time. You could call that accelerated serendipity. That’s the draw-in to come here, if you can work with some background noise and people walking around.
Getting back to the question; yes foreigners have their role to play. We hope to see more and we hope for them to share their expertise. We also hope for them to learn more about how Thai people do business and build on the positive synergies that will result in kickass, global startups.
I envision Thailand as a startup and creative entrepreneurship nation.
If you compare Bangkok’s community to other communities, how far are we behind the rest?
I think we are about two years behind Indonesia and roughly five years behind Singapore. We have our challenges, legal and governmental. We have opportunities like a bigger, ripe market and less competition. Despite all the challenges here, there is some beauty in this country. You can have a great life at a reasonable price. Thailand happens to be in a very good spot – not too developed, not underdeveloped.
I envision Thailand as a startup and creative entrepreneurship nation. How we measure that is for us to decide but we want to be really urge people to come and join those who already build the ecosystem. When you think of startups in Latin and South-America you think of Chile, or now Brazil. I want people to think about Thailand like that, when they think about South-East Asia.
What’s your most favourite Startup in Thailand?
Patai, Builk. He has built a Startup based on insights and experience that is genuinely set up to solve a pain point. It’s a confluence of perfect timing, perfect vision, awesome idea, big market and a pain point. I really like passion driven businesses, we need more of these successful startups to help inspire and catapult aspiring Thai entrepreneurs to become one themselves.