Archive for May, 2014

pile of world currencies

This week I gave a presentation at Webmob led by the organizer Bart who is also the organizer of Bangkok Entrepreneurs and founder of Venuehub Thailand.

I gave a presentation based on my experience fundraising in Southeast Asia. If you are looking to raise funds for your company in Asia – check out Horizon.VC

The presentation above details how to structure a company in Thailand with a foreign headquarters and raise capital in Southeast Asia. This presentation shows the use of a BOI company (Board of Investment approved company in Thailand) with a HQ in Singapore or Hong Kong. Also discussed are options for venture capital in the region.

If you are looking to raise funds in Thailand, it may help if you have a BOI Company. This presentation explains the proper use of a BOI company. Also see this infographic for more information on BOI Companies in Thailand – and the use of a BOI company with an Offshore company.

Other articles that may be relevant:

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monks-hill-ventures-logo

monks-hill-ventures-logoSingapore based Monk’s Hill Ventures announced their launch with news of a $80 million fund to focus on investing in early stage startups in Southeast Asia. The venture capital firm is brand new, but composed of highly experienced partners Peng T. Ong, Kuo-Yi Lim and Stefan Jung, along with Thomas Clayton as a special advisor. Peng T. Ong is best known for founding Match.com, and he was also the founder and CEO of Interwoven. Kuo-Yi Lim was the CEO of Infocomm Investments, a $200 million Singapore based startup fund. Stefan Jung is known for founding the e-commerce companies Zalora and Lazada. Thomas Clayton also brings experience starting up a number of tech companies in Silicon Valley.

Monk’s Hill was recently announced as one of six VC firms to receive matching funds from Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF). Under the program, each of the six firms is eligible to receive S$10 million in matching funds from the NRF to be used for funding early stage local tech companies.

In their press release, partner Peng T. Ong explained how Monk’s Hill Venture’s entrepreneurial experience will help fill a gap in the current startup ecosystem.

There are clearly two big gaps in the market. One is the much talked-about Series A funding gap. However, the more significant one that we see is the lack of seasoned entrepreneurs, with deep operating experience, as investors—people who can roll up their sleeves and really help entrepreneurs. This is what separates the best VCs from the rest.

The Monk’s Hill partners intend to use their significant experience to help entrepreneurs build companies that can scale globally. With their extensive networks in Asia and North America, they also plan to assist new startups to get additional funding, attract customers, and acquire the best talent. Partner Kuo-Yi Lim elaborated on this idea further:

We also want to set the bar for how venture is done in Asia, by bringing the best practices we have personally experienced through working with top VCs ourselves—a straightforward and transparent process which treats entrepreneurs as partners.

Monk’s Hill Ventures will place their focus in two primary areas. The first is on early stage, Series A, and Series B technology based startups with a geographical focus on Southeast Asia. Their second area of focus will be growth rounds of funding for mainly Silicon Valley based companies that are looking to expand their operations into Asia. They are starting off with two offices—one in Singapore, and another in Jakarta, Indonesia. With a population of 240 million, Indonesia is a market that has incredible potential for growth in the coming years. Special advisor Tom Clayton commented on the excitement and potential of the region with these words:

In just the past three years, there has been a rapid emergence of new entrepreneurs and great startups across Southeast Asia with vibrant ecosystems forming, from Singapore and Jakarta to Bangkok and Manila.

YogaTrail founders Sven, Alex & Alex
YogaTrail founders Sven, Alex & Alex

YogaTrail founders Sven, Alex J & Alex K

YogaTrail was founded in 2012 by a husband-wife team who just happen to both be named Alex. They are joined by German partner Sven Ernst, Managing Director of Buzzwoo!, which has operations in Thailand under the BOI company setup. They’ve seen steady growth in their user base since launching last year, and will turn a profit beginning this month. Last week, I had the pleasure to meet with all three of the company founders and got to ask them about what it’s like running a startup business in Chiang Mai, along with their future plans for YogaTrail.

Tell us a little bit about YogaTrail, how it works, and what it does differently or better than other competing platforms.

Alex K: It’s a yoga directory—kind of like how TripAdvisor is a directory for hotels—where we have yoga teachers, studios, and yoga retreats and teacher training centers. It’s different from other platforms like Yelp or TripAdvisor because it’s all about yoga and just yoga. We also have reviews like these other websites, but we ask certain questions from people who leave reviews that are unique to yoga and are important for people who do yoga. The diversity of yoga is huge. We have certain questions in our reviews like “Is this more spiritual or exercise oriented?” So we paint the personality of the teachers or the studios, and for now that’s what distinguishes us.

Sven: Also we have more features that distinguish us—like you can promote and publish events, which is something that you can’t do with these other platforms. Besides the whole review process, there are other facets, like you are specifically able to search for yoga styles, beginner, advanced… On Yelp you can only search for “yoga in Chiang Mai” for example, and that’s about it. But with our platform if you want to go deeper and make your search more specific, that’s possible.

Alex K: For yoga teachers in particular, typically a teacher will work at several yoga studios. And they’re generally not allowed to tell the students in their class that they can also be found at another studio. And so on our website, a yoga teacher can associate themself with different studios, and you can see on a map that the teacher can be found here, here, and over there. So that’s very useful for people who generally like to take their classes from a particular teacher or perhaps two or three teachers.

Alex J: So maybe to summarize, we’ve thought about the whole experience from the point of view of the person who wants to find yoga things—not restaurants and hotels and whatever else you can find on Yelp, but only yoga. So the whole platform is designed to be useful just for that subset of people who are looking for yoga.

How long has YogaTrail been live, and what kind of growth and active user numbers have you seen?

Sven: Basically we launched in March of last year, and it was invite-only until August. We currently have 25,000 users of the platform with 60,000 profiles. Profiles include studio listings, teacher listings, events, teacher trainings, retreats, and member profiles. And we currently grow by about 20 percent per month—that’s the growth of the member rate. And we’ve started pulling in money since about four months ago. Our business model is based on freemium, so you can create a listing for free, but you can pay to upgrade your profile and get certain premium features. We are right at breaking even…so almost self-sustainable.

Alex K: This month is the month.

Sven: Basically, we’ve doubled our monthly revenue for the past four months. Of course it will be hard to maintain that level of growth. But it’s going well, I think.

Why did you decide to create YogaTrail, and why did your chose Chiang Mai to base yourself in?

Alex J: We decided to create YogaTrail because of personal experience trying to find yoga and find something specific…

Alex K: Because we spent a year traveling…

Alex J: And even when we weren’t traveling, when you’re in one place and you want to find information without spending half an hour on Google every time—so we thought, OK this needs to be done. An authority site on yoga needs to happen, because there are a lot of yogis, there are a lot of yoga providers, and there are a lot of people every year who are more interested in starting yoga. So that’s how we chose the project.

And there was nothing really like that before?

Alex J: Very dysfunctional.

Alex K: There’s a lot trying this kind of thing, but they…suck. Most of them restrict themselves to one geographic region. Our biggest competitor I guess is yogafinder.com, they’ve been around a long time. But if you look at that site, you get a little paragraph to describe yourself as a yoga provider, that’s it.

And the Chiang Mai part…Alex and I were expecting to stay here a week. That was two and a half years ago. On the third day we went to look for an apartment, and we haven’t left. The city is great on so many levels.

What are the pros and cons of starting up a business in Thailand?

Alex K: The pros is it’s very cheap, there are a lot of startup type people—people who want to be digital nomads. But the cons are that they’re small in number compared to the people trying to do startups in Silicon Valley or the East Coast.

Sven: I’ve been here for ten years, so I can compare how it was five or six years ago. And there’s more of an ecosystem now, but it’s still very much small scale, it’s still fragmented.

Alex J: But at the same time, we get lifestyle perks being here that we couldn’t get anywhere else, that allow us to work and spend a lot of time working on our project. You don’t have to do your laundry or go shopping—all these small things that make life extremely easy. You can work, not spend much money, and still have an extremely enjoyable lifestyle.

Alex K: We wouldn’t have been able to do YogaTrail if we weren’t here. We had some savings and bootstrapped for two years. That would’ve lasted two months where we were coming from in Boston. And like Alex said, when you wake up you can work—we don’t cook, we don’t clean, all these things that you often have to do in the West…you have to drive to work for an hour. We don’t even get any mail where we are.

Alex J: Everyday life is just a lot easier.

Alex K: But part of the con is part of the ecosystem is not here. The investors are not here. There are some in Bangkok, and Southeast Asia is becoming an interesting place, but it’s been mostly in Singapore and Hong Kong.

You recently applied to take part in the Y-Combinator accelerator program, and you made the initial cut to give a pitch in person, but were not selected in the end. Can you tell us a little bit about what that process was like?

Alex K: It was 25 hours on airplanes and in airports for me to fly out there. And their interviews are ten minutes long. They ask the questions, and you hope to get across the key points you want them to get, and then later that day they decide if you’re in or out.

In my opinion, I don’t fit the profile of the Stanford graduate American kid who has a big idea and a network of people in Silicon Valley. For whatever reason, they said ‘no’. And the feedback we received as part of their decision wasn’t terribly satisfactory. But it was a great experience because they paid up to $1500 for the flight. And I was able to meet Dave McClure of 500 Startups the following day.

Sven: We actually thought we had a pretty good chance because many of the companies who go and pitch there don’t have a product at all. Sometimes they don’t even have an idea. They go there, and they have an idea, but then they say ‘Your idea sucks—we like you guys, but you need a new idea.’ So they’ll spend the first few weeks just getting an idea. Or for a usual case, many just have a semi-working prototype. But in our case, we have a working product, we have some traction. For them the founders are important. It’s important to see that the people can work together. And we’ve proven that we can work together for two years now.

Alex J: But at the same time, only one of us was there. We couldn’t afford to fly all of us out there. So Sven and I were on Skype, but the connection wasn’t good, and we weren’t able to interact very much. So if it’s a matter of going there in person for them to get an impression of your team—then maybe we blew it because only one of us was there.

One of the main reasons that Y-Combinator gave for rejecting your proposal was that they thought you wouldn’t be able to beat out Yelp in search results. So how do you go about building your user base without much help from Google or from SEO?

Alex K: We wouldn’t mind help from Google, and we are working on SEO strategies. But the majority of our user growth is from invites. Users are being invited by other users on the site. That’s a really good strategy for us and we want to improve that.

Alex J: There are other ways besides SEO to get people to the site, and there’s one viral loop that has been working very well to get people in.

Alex K: For yoga instructors, we list the ones with reviews higher. So there is a natural incentive to get your students signed up to the site to review you. As a yoga instructor, you’re also incentivised to associate with your yoga studios on the site because you show up more, you show up at more places on the map.

Alex J: Our site is more about the yoga teachers, not just the studios. And if your a teacher you can’t create your own listing on Yelp. You have to have a physical address. So they’re still under-served. They would have to build their own website to have people find them. The idea behind the product is very different. Yes, Yelp has reviews and YogaTrail has reviews, but they’re different concepts.

What about social media?

Alex J: As the site was being built, Alex and I tried to build as big a social media presence as we could to build brand awareness. So we have over 100,000 people on Facebook, 30,000 on Pinterest, and 30,000 on Twitter. At the beginning social media was a bigger driver of traffic. But now the reach on Facebook is ridiculously small.

Sven: You can post cute pictures of cats doing yoga, but what does that do? How does it help your business?

Alex J: We have to think about more creative ways to funnel people from social media to the site.

If you could get investor funding, how would you use it to improve your business?

Alex K: We have a lot of development that we would like to get done. We have one feature in particular, which is a schedules feature. It allows yoga teachers and studios to list their classes. It completes everything that a teacher needs to have an online presence. And we’d love to accelerate by outsourcing development and at least hiring one more full-time developer.

(As of the time of writing, YogaTrail is currently looking for a hot shot Drupal Developer to come join them in Chiang Mai. If interested, contact here.)

Sven: I think marketing in general too. Besides hiring developers, it wouldn’t hurt to have a marketing person, maybe based in the States, because it’s not as easy for us to reach providers from here.

Alex J: There are a lot of maintenance tasks—admin duties, newsletters, that end up taking an enormous amount of time.

What future plans do you have for the company?

Alex K: We want to grow like crazy. We want to be the place that—if you’re a yoga provider—you have to be on. Just like if you’re a hotel you have to be on TripAdvisor, it’s a no-brainer. We want to be the place where people find their yoga. We’re thinking about booking engines and a market place.

Sven: So you could book your yoga retreat or buy a class pass.

Alex, you have a background in nuclear physics. How much of a transition was it to move to Southeast Asia and start up a company out here?

Alex K: Actually that’s an interesting question because it wasn’t that big of a transition. I went from being a scientist in academia to a scientist who did a startup and raised money for a private fusion effort, to then doing another startup in the yoga space. I was definitely turned on to the idea of starting your own company and doing your own thing before YogaTrail. Once you start that, you can’t go back to working at a crappy job, sitting at a desk and doing what you’re told.

Since the two of you both have the same first name, does that ever cause confusion?

Alex K: No. Presumably if I talk about ‘Alex’ people don’t think I’m schizophrenic and talking about myself.

And you still have different last names, right?

Alex K: Yes. I was thinking we should start telling people that instead of making our last names the same when we got married we made our first names the same.

What advice can you give to other couples who might be thinking about going into business together?

Alex and Alex (laughing): Don’t do it!

Alex J: It’s not always easy, because we have very different ways of working. He’s a scientist and I was an editor before. So the whole way of communicating is extremely different. For me it’s more about being friendly, and for him it’s more about just doing the thing.

Alex K: Before we did YogaTrail, we were married five years and never had an argument, ever. But since we’re working together, we’re both the boss or co-founders. And we’ve had arguments at least once a week. And because you’re married you don’t have a certain wall between you that other co-workers have. So in my case, there are times when I’ll allow myself to say something that I’d never say to someone I only know professionally. It’s tricky to have a professional relationship and be married at the same time.

Have you had any memorable interactions with people in the yoga community?

Alex K: We’re lucky to be in the yoga space because they’re all very nice in general.

Alex J: It’s the cliche that people who do yoga are more mindful, but they actually are.

Alex K: There’s lots and lots of memorable interaction because the diversity of people who do yoga is crazy. You get esoteric types who want to go and find themselves in an Ashram in India. And you get lawyer/executive types who do yoga just for some fitness during their lunch hour. And everything in-between.

 

Eat with a local family in Bangkok

Withlocals website header

Withlocals is a new marketplace for travelers to connect with local people in Asian countries to get a more genuine and unique travel experience. They currently have listings in 7 countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Users can chose to book with local residents in three areas: Eat Withlocals, Tours Withlocals, and Activities Withlocals. Eat Withlocals features a large number of “home restaurants” where visitors can taste authentic local cuisine in a regular family home setting. The list of Tours and Activities includes everything from watching the sunrise from on top of a volcano to classes on making silver jewelry. Withlocals is backed by the Greenhouse Group business accelerator and is based in the Netherlands. I recently had a chance to ask co-founder Marijn Maas a few questions about the company:

How did you first get the idea for Withlocals and decide to go ahead with turning it into a business?

Two ideas came together. My brother Willem Maas, co-founder, could be called a true travel guru. He has traveled to many places all over the world and has especially fallen in love with South East Asia. His many authentic travel experiences inspired him to create the concept of Withlocals. On the other hand, the idea for Eat Withlocals came up in Sri Lanka during my honeymoon trip. After my wife and I had dinner day after day in high-end restaurants, we by coincidence experienced a home dinner with local Sri Lankan people. It was so amazing, listening to each other’s stories, experiencing their way of living while eating the best food of our entire trip. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if all travelers could have an experience like this? We love the sharing economy and wanted to give travelers and locals in Asia the opportunity to connect with one another.

What’s unique about Withlocals that hasn’t been done by anyone else up until now?

  1. Withlocals is the first to introduce the Home dining category across Asia.
  2. Withlocals is the only “one stop” local experience website, offering a total local experience for travelers from Home-dining to tours to activities with locals.
  3. We strongly believe the success of an online marketplace is all about having traffic. Many people who have had beautiful ideas in the home restaurant and tour category didn’t make it because of the lack of traffic, thus demand. Being part of a group of 170 online geeks, online marketing is our specialty.

What kind of support does Withlocals enjoy by inclusion in the Greenhouse Group of companies?

Being part of a group of 170 online geeks, working for customers like Vodafone, Microsoft and Mars, online marketing is our group’s specialty. So we get a lot of support in that area to further roll out our platform. Furthermore, Greenhouse Group supports us on various other areas, such as growth strategy, Finance and Legal challenges. Next to the ‘official’ support, we get an amazing amount of support from individuals throughout the whole group, willing to help us out with our beautiful concept.

What kind of response has the platform gotten so far from locals and travelers who have used it?

Withlocals has been received very well and we already have quite a lot of traction. Within 1 month after announcing our idea, over 10,000 potential hosts across Asia applied to be part. Our website has over 150K visitors a month, and we have about 68K fans on Facebook. Regarding the numbers of bookings we are even ahead of schedule and the most important part was the validation of our service.

Since our launch in December such beautiful things are happening. Travelers meet local people and create memorable stories together. We even have a 100% customer satisfaction and amazing reviews. Our customers love it! Most of the guests are travelers visiting the local hosts. But for Eat Withlocals we also see an internal market. So a citizen of a certain city chooses instead of eating in a traditional restaurant again to have dinner with a family in the same city. We didn’t expect that to happen so often. But we think it is great—it’s a new way of dining out and meeting new people! So Thai people, come and register as a host or join Withlocals as a guest 🙂

Eat with a local family in Bangkok

What recruiting methods are you using to get local cooks, tour guides, and artisans on board?

We use several different recruiting methods. We received a huge amount of media attention, from which a natural flow of new sign-ups comes in. From a paid campaigning perspective, we run several targeted campaigns to approach potential local hosts. Next to that, we have a local ambassador network throughout Asia, consisting of Withlocals representatives who also recruit local hosts for us.

Where there any challenges (legal, technical, or practical) to getting set up working with locals in so many different countries?

The biggest challenge is time—keeping up with the pace the market is developing at, and new competitors appearing in the same or similar business.

In the short term, we have to validate and fine-tune our business model. In the medium term, we are aiming to create 10,000 new locally hosted home dining spots through Asia. The first challenge we see is, as being a marketplace, to keep demand and supply in balance. So not having lots of supply and no demand, or the other way around. The other challenge we see is to keep up the quality and authenticity of the experiences offered on our marketplace during our expansion phase. Our ambassador network and elaborate review system play an important role in this.

Were there any setbacks that you didn’t expect, or anything you would have done differently with the launch phase?

We believe in the principles of “the lean start up”. So we will learn along the way. And during our development stage many changes are already made based on input of hosts and our “fans”. For example, we didn’t expect so many enthusiastic Asian hosts to register on our website in our Alpha stage. Now we are on a run rate of 10,000 potential Asian hosts applying. Our processes, resources, and systems were not calculated for these kind of numbers, so we had to adjust them really fast.

What plans for expansion, if any, do you currently have? And what are the future expectations you have in place?

Our first goal is to open 10,000 new locally hosted home dining spots throughout the Asian region. Right now we’re active in 7 Asian countries and are about to expand to 5 more later this year. On a longer time period, we’re aiming to expand outside Southeast Asia and open-up in more continents and countries.

Dzung_Nguyen

Dzung_NguyenDzung Nguyen is the head of Vietnam and Thailand operations at CyberAgent Ventures, which is a subsidiary of CyberAgent Group, which has its headquarters in Japan. He is in charge of venture capital investment in these two Southeast Asian countries, giving support to Vietnamese portfolio companies and seeking opportunities to invest in Thailand startups in the online and mobile business sectors. I had a chance recently to ask him a few questions about his investment strategy and what types of companies in Thailand and Southeast Asia CyberAgent is looking to invest in.

Can you tell us a little bit about CyberAgent Ventures?

In Japan, we have an early stage fund called CA Startups Internet Fund, and we also have another fund for growth stage. And we have a startup fund in Southeast Asia. And in North America and South Korea we still invest with the money coming from the mother company. Besides that, in China we’re in partnership with JAIC (Japan Asian Investment Co.), I think they list on the stock market in Tokyo. We have a fund for each area, and when we are looking for good companies, we don’t just look at the local market. For example, in  Southeast Asia right now the three big markets are Indonesia, the Vietnam, and Thailand. Of course sometimes we make investments in Malaysian or Singapore companies too. We don’t care where the company is coming from—we care if the company has potential or not, and whether they meet our investment policy or not. That’s our biggest concern.

So typically, what is your investment policy in terms of size? Are you doing seed rounds? And what type of companies are you looking for?

In terms of the Southeast Asia fund, the fund that I’m in charge of, directed to investment in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand—that’s an early stage fund, so we make investments between $100,000 and $1 million per deal.

That can be a Series A round in Southeast Asia. Sometimes we see seed rounds of $500,000.

Sometimes we’re looking in a potential sector, but no company meets the requirements for a Series A so we may invest in the entrepreneur.

So the person and team involved may be just as important as the actual traction and the product market fit?

Of course we care about the potential of the sector, the market size, the demand of users—if it’s big or not. And of course the team—if they have traction or not. Right now if the business has users and a user base we can consider it like a Series A, or with more growth maybe we an consider it a Series B. So we combine the founding team, the market itself, the competitive advantage, the business model, and the return for investment.

Is there anything else that makes a deal particularly investable? Maybe you can think of a deal that there was something you were looking for and you found it with a particular company?

For example, the company called PriceZa in Thailand. We made investment in the company first of all because they had good traction. They have a really good user base and the business itself is growing, so the traction itself can tell you a lot. And the second thing is that the business model itself is already a proven business model. We already studied a similar business model in Japan and other countries, and of course after we research about the market in Thailand we can build a similar business. So the business model itself is proven—it helps us to understand that this market is really big—and more than that, the team itself is a really good team. They have a really balanced team. They have three founding members with a CTO, MD, and CEO they can balance their roles in the company.  And more than that, they have a competitive advantage because they are the pioneers in the sector.

I have a quote where you said, “We’re looking for any Internet and mobile sector startups in Thailand that have big potential and a big user base. On the other hand, we prefer to invest in B2C or C2C type business models.” Why is it you prefer the B2C or C2C business models?

In Southeast Asia, especially for a country like Vietnam, a lot of startups mention the advantage of a connection with the government or a relationship with the authorities. so some things depend on those in control, or you depend on people’s help. it may make the business go up and down because when you go out to make a sale, you need a relationship with someone, and if there’s no relationship then you cannot make it happen. it means you don’t meet the client’s or the user’s demands. So that’s the first one.

The second one is—for the “B”, it’s usually only limited by your number of users. For example, you could have a million users. So for the B2C you can bring benefits to the users, and then you can use the users’ power to deal with the clients, to get the money to you. Or you can get money directly from the user. So we prefer a B2C model.

So to summarize, it makes a much, much bigger market because you kind of have an unlimited ceiling with the B2C type applications, which is something that CyberAgent is particularly interested in. What I find interesting is that you also invested in aCommerce, which is as much B2B as you can get.

That’s why in our portfolio companies, most of them are B2C not B2B, but we still have some B2B companies. For example, in Vietnam, we have an online advertising agency business. We invested in a company serving big clients. But we focus on a B2C model rather than B2B. And in terms of aCommerce, the team is really good, they have a solid team, and the market itself is really big. And from B, they can serve more users because for aCommerce, they are doing easy solutions. They built the website by themselves, and they can reach more users and brands for retailers. So it’s not like you go and serve only the B, you serve the C too. So that’s why it’s a little compromise between B and C.

What’s something that an entrepreneur can learn from this deal? Is there a point you can take away, such as the team really presented well, or they had a past history of success? What’s something that’s particularly memorable for you?

You mean what kind of entrepreneur we prefer most? Because we prefer B2C, the service you are doing and bringing to the user—how does it solve the problem of the user? How is user demand? And what solution do you want to bring to the user’s problem? is the market really big or not? And how is the founding team? What competitive advantage is there? For example, if the market is really big, maybe you’re not the only one who cares about that, and you’re not the only one who can explore that market. Another, bigger player can come into the market. So at that time, what’s your competition? And then the team has the strategy and plan that they show to us. Is it reasonable or not?

So what would you give as advice for entrepreneurs that are dealing with competition? How do you recommend that entrepreneurs deal with a new competitor that has come in to the marketplace? Do they try to avoid them and do something a little bit different, or do they try to go after them and try to win the winner-take-all battle? What would be your advice?

It depends on if the entrepreneur has a really good team and if the current idea doesn’t work, then we can advice them to change a little bit based on their advantage and experience. for example, Foody is the Yelp of Vietnam, and we launched it more than one and a half years ago. We made like a seed round investment because we founded the company together with the founders. And after that, we supported the company and made investments together with the follow-on investors. They came to us with the original idea that they wanted to do a Yelp type of business, but at that time they combined a lot of things, such as Google maps, results, and reviews, and restaurant booking—so they combined a lot of services together in one product. Our advice was to just focus on one product, and we discussed and brainstormed about the business idea and how we could monetize it in the near future. Then one year later, they came back and we spent more time to brainstorm with them, and finally six months after that they came back and we made the investment.

So it depends on the case. In some cases, we think it’s really hard for them, especially for students without any experience. When they came to us, we’re willing to listen to their business idea, but if they don’t have any traction it’s really hard to proceed for the investment. But some of them don’t have any traction for the current product, but they have experience that they can bring to the business idea, and we can discuss and talk with them, and brainstorm together.

It sounds like you’re a very hands-on investor and you like to provide some support, more than just financial.

Yes, that’s true. We are hands-on investors. If we cannot support the company, we will not make the investment in the company. So we assume before we make the investment, can we make the company grow or not? So that’s why we focus on early-stage like seeds, Series A, or Series B. We don’t focus on the later investment rounds.

Do you have the company that you didn’t invest in, but looking back, maybe you wish you had made an investment in?

We have some companies in Vietnam that we skipped, and we think if we’d have made the investment we’d get a return. But the return is not our only concern. It’s also how to bring the benefit to the user, to the customer. So from the side of society, if the team is not one that we think we can trust in, maybe we skip the investment, even if the business is growing.

So the personality and the trust that you’re putting in the person you’re investing in is very important.

Right, because the moral hazard is the biggest thing for any CEO or entrepreneur—if you don’t feel comfortable with that investment, it’s really hard for you to go along with the founder. Because you are there to support the entrepreneur for growth and you want to help him grow faster to increase the company valuation, but if you don’t trust in him or he doesn’t trust in you, how can you go into a partnership together?

Sometimes people’s thinking can be changed, but from the first impression, if we feel uncomfortable with the founder, maybe we need more time to understand him or her.

What are you reading? What book is on your bookshelf?

Right now I’m reading a biography of the Samsung chairman, Lee Kun Hee.  And I’m reading the book Start-up Nation, about Israel.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to entrepreneurs?

When you want to start something, you should understand user demand. What is the problem users are facing. Raising the money to start a business—of course the final measure of your success should be gaining money, but if you just think about money maybe it’s hard to persuade investors. So if you start something based on your own demand, and if the demand is really big, then I think it’s not difficult to raise the money or to get people to help if you have your own solution to solve that problem.

And you should have a longer vision for your startup. A startup is not for one or two years. Even venture capitalists need a longer vision, like five years, ten years, or even twenty years when you start something.

Give us a business idea for Southeast Asia. What company would you like to see started, or what demand do you think there would be in one of these countries that no one has started yet?

Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia are all single markets. We look at Southeast Asia as a bigger market, but each market is really different. So when we look at Southeast Asia, we always think about the single local market, and we consider the advantage for this market. Any online business can leverage the Internet and mobile, and serve millions of users. Some of the businesses that are successful in countries like China, Japan, and America we can refer to as examples for study and then think about the demand of the users in each country, and see which has the most potential.

So it’s really hard to answer in specifics, but ecommerce is one area. In general it’s hard to compete with Lazada, but a lot of marketplaces exist now. So vertical ecommerce is what we should be looking for. If you look at online travel agencies for hotel booking like Booking.com and Agoda, it’s hard to compete. But if you have an aggregator like TripAdvisor that serves the local market, and have more due diligence, then you could see which is a good one to invest in.

Are you looking for a company that can solve a local or a worldwide problem?

I don’t think a company can solve a problem globally right from the beginning, even a company like Facebook or Google had to start small. Facebook started with a small community and then expanded outside after they thought they could go further. So we prefer a startup that focuses in one specific market, and then after they dominate in the market they can go further. Especially if you can’t succeed in your own country, how can you go out into the other markets that you don’t understand?

So you might advise entrepreneurs to focus on the first user base. How are you going to get the early adopters? How are you going to get the first users before you think about scaling? You have to have significant traction before you look to other markets.

Yes, that’s correct.

Can entrepreneurs get in touch with you?

Yes, we are very open to talking with entrepreneurs, so just come to us and we are willing to talk.

 

 

 

 

 

chiang_mai_city_doi_suthep_mountain

chiang_mai_city_doi_suthep_mountain

Chiang Mai, Thailand recently made the list of 25 Cities You Should Visit in Your Lifetime. Thailand’s second largest city has been a regular stop on tourist and backpacker itineraries for a while now, and it has also become a prime retirement destination for Americans, Brits, and Japanese alike. The city offers a little bit of something for everyone, whether it be outdoor activities, traditional culture, shopping, food, or nightlife. All of these factors and more make Chiang Mai not only a great place to spend a few weeks, months, or years—but Chiang Mai can also be the ideal location to base your startup business. Here are the top seven reasons why:

1. Low Cost of Living

There have been many bloggers who have written or debated on the possibility of living in Chiang Mai on a budget of $500 a month. This is more than the average starting salary of a Thai office worker, so it’s certainly within the realm of possibility, although it requires you to drastically change your habits and live like a local. Without giving up much in the way of comforts, however, it’s very easy to live within a budget of $1000 per month. A one room studio apartment could cost you between $100-350 per month, while a lunch of fried noodles or curry with rice is just $1-2.

Having a lower cost of living means you can stretch your money out and create a longer runway for your startup business. If you’re running your company from a physical office, you’ll pay much less for rent and utilities than you would back in your home country. Local office staff can be acquired much cheaper too. Many Thai university graduates would be happy to handle basic office duties for $400 a month.

Thailand as a whole have lower costs of living than most western countries, but Chiang Mai, in particular is a much cheaper place to live than other popular areas of Thailand such as Bangkok and Phuket.

2. Modern Infrastructure

Thailand is in a class above many other low-cost destinations that would fall under the category of developing countries. In India too, you would have very cheap rent, food, and personnel costs—however, you’d also be faced with near-daily power cuts that could cripple your business. Thailand, on the other hand, is a very comfortable place to live with readily available high speed internet and WiFi nearly everywhere you go. You’re never more than a stone’s throw away from a 7-Eleven convenience store or coffee shop with free WiFi, especially in Chiang Mai.

3. Entrepreneurial Environment

The is a great startup ecosystem fermenting in Chiang Mai. Many aspiring entrepreneurs and digital nomads have made their homes here. There are plenty of opportunities to network with other like-minded individuals who have also chosen Chiang Mai as the place to launch their businesses from.

4. Access to Local University Graduates

Chiang Mai is a university town. Everywhere you go you’ll notice young adults wearing their university uniforms, which consist of a white blouse and dark skirt for ladies and a white shirt and dark slacks for the guys. It may seem a little odd at first that university students would wear uniforms at all (Thailand is one of only a few countries in the world that does so), but the pursuit of education is very highly respected here. Aside from Chiang Mai University, this city also has a local branch of Rajabhat University, Maejo University, Payap University, and many others.

All of this means that there is a ready supply of young educated local men and women who could potentially work for you. Whether you need designers, developers, or an accountant, you’ll have no trouble finding someone locally who could fill the position.

5. Access to Affordable Skilled Western Employees

Sometimes though, even highly skilled Thai workers don’t have the same qualities that you might find in a worker with a western education. Luckily for you, Chiang Mai is such a pleasant place to live that the city attracts a talent pool of skilled foreigners who will work for much lower rates than they would in Silicon Valley or New York City. Whether you need SEO experts, copy writers, JavaScript developers, or C++ programers, you’ll probably find some great ones hanging around Chaing Mai.

6. Tax-Free Incentives From the Thailand BOI

The Thailand Board of Investments (BOI) has a program in place where they help promote companies in Thailand engaged in certain industries through a number of special incentives, including up to eight years of tax free initial operation for a startup. The process of becoming a Thai BOI promoted company is a little bit complicated, but it can be well worth your time to investigate as a possibility. In addition to tax benefits, you may be able to secure majority foreign ownership rights to a company registered in Thailand (foreigners are usually restricted to 49% ownership in a regular Thai company).

7. High Quality of Life

And finally, Chiang Mai is simply a great place to live. If you’re coming from a country with harsh winters you’ll appreciate the mild cool season in Northern Thailand and the summer-like temperatures that last for the other nine months of the year. Chiang Mai is surrounded by green mountains and despite a lack of public parks it’s a very green city with lots of trees and tropical flowering plants all over the place.

There is an abundance of fresh fruit available year-round, many varieties of which will be completely new to you and your taste buds. Thai food in general is quite delicious as well, but if you do have a hankering for other cuisines they are easily found.

chiang_mai_flower_festival_floatChiang Mai is a city rich in cultural experiences and offers residents many ways to enrich their life during free time by learning such things as meditation, yoga, Muay Thai kickboxing, traditional Thai massage, and Thai cooking just to name a few. The calendar is dotted with many colorful festivals such as Songkran, Loy Krathong, Chinese New Year, and the Flower Festival.

Many regional tourist destinations are just a short discount plane ride away. It’s quite easy to take short trips to places like Angkor Wat, Singapore, Bali, and Phuket. If you start missing the snow in winter there are even daily direct flights from Chiang Mai to Seoul on Korean Air.

Chiang Mai hits the sweet spot when it comes to the size of the city. It’s big enough to have lots of activities, shopping, cinemas, restaurants, etc—yet it’s small enough to easily drive around town on a scooter. And if you happen to be a coffee drinker, you’re bound to fall in love with more than a few of the city’s many coffee shops.

Last but not least, Thai people—and the Lanna people of Northern Thailand in particular—are known for their friendliness and beautiful smiles. If you could choose between starting a business somewhere where people are uptight and grumpy or someplace where the population is easy going and cheerful, who wouldn’t want to choose the happier city?

 

 

 

National Research Fund Singapore

National Research Fund SingaporeThe National Research Foundation (NRF) of the Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore has announced six venture capital funds to take part in the second round of its Early Stage Venture Fund (ESVF) program. The NRF will contribute S$10 million to each of the 6 funds on a matching basis for a total of S$120 million to go towards capitalization of Singapore-based tech startups.

The six funds chosen are: Golden Gate Ventures, Jungle Ventures, Monk’s Hill Ventures, SBI Ven Capital, and Walden International.

Under the program, the NRF makes matching 1:1 investments up to S$10 in each of the venture funds to be used to fund early-stage local high tech startups in Singapore. The NRF then takes a corresponding equity stake in each of the funded companies.

The scheme received 32 proposals last November from the initial call for proposals. These were whittled down to a shortlist of 18 candidates. The NRF then selected an eight member panel composed of representatives from both the public and private sectors to chose the final six venture capital funds. The range of investment for the chosen six venture funds is to include clean technologies, medical technologies, communication technologies, and industrial applications.

According to the NRF’s press release, the chairman of the selection panel, Mr Steve Leonard, Executive Deputy Chaiman of Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), had this to say:

With a growing pipeline of exciting new tech startups in Singapore, founders will require funding, experienced mentorship and strong networks to build companies that can compete in worldwide markets. We want to help build an investor community based in Singapore but with connections around the world. The six venture capital funds and fund managers selected have an excellent reputation of helping build the companies that they fund, and their successes will further strengthen our tech startup ecosystem.

Additional comments were provided by Prof. Low Teck Seng, CEO of NRF, who said:

We recognize that it is very competitive for high-tech startups to secure follow-on financing as they have to fight with the best in the region to get VCs’ attention. Through this investment, the government is addressing the gap in Series A funding, which is critical in sustaining the rapid growth of startups beyond the seed stage. With their expertise and savvy investments, VCs will help commercialize promising technologies into innovative products.

The National Research Foundation is a department of the Prime Minister’s Office that was set up in 2006. Their directive is to set up policies for research, innovation, and enterprise. It is also charged with establishing funding channels for research and development in Singapore. It’s goal is to transform Singapore into a hub of research and technology, and to attract the brightest minds from the region and beyond.

In 2008, the Early Stage Venture Fund was implemented by the NRF in order to provide funding to venture capital funds on a 1:1 matching basis to be used to for early-stage investment in local high-tech companies. The first round of funding took place in 2008, and at that time the NRF provided a total of S$50 million to five venture funds. Those first five funds were: Bioveda Capital, Extream Ventures, New Asia Investments, Raffles Venture Partners, and Walden International. Of the original five venture funds, Walden International is the only one to be part of this second round of funding.

The original five venture funds to receive NRF matching funds has to date invested in 24 startups. Among these early stage companies, some of the notable success stories are:  HungryGoWhere restaurant review portal, Brandtology online business intelligence services, and YFind Technologies, which has developed an indoor positioning system.

 

 

 

Sawasdee CyberAgent Ventures
The collective attitude of entrepreneurs and businesses in Thailand is positive and welcoming, as the Venture Capitalists establish a new office in Bangkok and bring much needed experience, expertise and capital to the Kingdom of Thailand. There are currently many promising startups coming about, and it is exciting to see investors starting to recognize the size and potential in both Thailand and in the Region.
CyberAgent Ventures is not a newcomer to the startup scene in Southeast Asia, having already invested in 23 companies in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia to date.

Some of their portfolio companies in Thailand include Priceza Co. Ltd., and aCommerce Co. Ltd. (run by notable investor and entrepreneur Adrian Vanzyl, who is also the head of Ardent Capital), who recently raised a bridge round through CyberAgent Ventures.

From CyberAgent Ventures press release:

“Given the popularity of the Internet and the abundance of entrepreneurs in Thailand, we consider Thailand as a very attractive market, and will enhance our investment and incubation activities by establishing the new office in Thailand.

CyberAgent_Ventures_logoAfter establishing the Bangkok Office, CyberAgent Ventures, Inc. now has offices in 4 cities in SEA including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), Jakarta (Indonesia) and Bangkok (Thailand). We will fully utilize our experience accumulated in our investments in global to expand our business in Thailand.”

This is an interesting movement in the Venture Capital scene in Thailand, which has few investors, but many promising companies. Other VCs that have invested in Thai startups include Galaxy Ventures and Golden Gate Ventures, located in Singapore.

Golden Gate was one of 6 VC firms selected for the “series A” placement of venture capital with 1:1 matching from NRF (The National Research Foundation of Singapore, under the prime ministers office). These funds will be able to start making investments in late July.

Overall, there is a shortage of venture capital in Thailand, and very few angels or VCs actually writing checks. CyberAgent Ventures has been one of the more active investors in the region, and it is great to see them set up an office in the country. Hopefully this is a sign that they are looking to make more placements within Siam in the coming years.

For more information please head to: http://www.cyberagentventures.com/en

We welcome CyberAgent Ventures to Thailand, and wish them luck as they continue their strategic investment in the region.