Thailand may be an appealing top 2 travel destination for Chinese people, but now startups can consider expanding their business to this neighboring country as well. Chinese startups are eyeing Southeast Asia as the next market for their global expansion, and burgeoning Thailand is one of the markets to consider. To explore this booming market, TechNode has covered “Now In Vietnam” series, Indonesian market overview, and this time, we’ll look into Thai startup ecosystem.

Thailand market has seen remarkable growth over the past four years. In 2016, Thai startups raised funds of at least $86.02 million, including the three of the country’s biggest deals raised so far. It’s a global trend that we see more and more startups and fundings, and Thailand is no different. From 2012 to 2016, Thailand has gone from having less than 3 funded startups to over 75 funded.

Some of the rising Thai startups are:

  • Builk.com is a very niche company in the construction industry, helping construction businesses manage their projects. The founder is a graduate in civil engineering and worked in construction for 10 years. He saw the real pain point of the industry and established the company. They have expanded to Malaysia, Laos, Philippines, and Indonesia.
  • Ookbee is a digital entertainment platform that provides new opportunities for content creators in music, comics, ideas, and literature. Ookbee has pocketed $19 million from Tencent.
  • Wongnai is the no.1 restaurant review site just like Yelp.
  • Omise Payment is a payment management platform for businesses that raised $25 million on its ICO this year. Founded by Thai and Japanese co-founders, the startup raised $17.5 million in 2016 which is second highest funding amount last year.

There is also support for the startups from the Thai government driving this move. Under “Thailand 4.0” model, the Thai government is now planning to grant tax exemptions for startups similar to Singapore’s and adjusting ESOP (employee stock option plan) so that entrepreneurs can provide stock options to their employees. Currently, Thai startups are not able to provide stock options to new employees and Thai people prefer to work for big companies and other facilities that provide stock options. This regime is expected to attract more talents in startup sector.

TechNode interviewed Oranuch Lerdsuwankij, co-founder and CEO of TechSauce, Thailand’s leading startup media. She gave insights on how to enter Thailand market and a glimpse of the thriving Thailand startups. Here are six takeaways she gave us on the Thailand market.

Oranuch Lerdsuwankij, co-founder and CEO at TechSauce (Image Credit: connectingfounders)

Oranuch Lerdsuwankij, co-founder and CEO at TechSauce (Image Credit: Connecting founders)

1. Fintech sector is strong in Thailand: there are 14 startups backed last year

Fintech is one of the sectors we want to bring in new solutions. The key drivers are the banks and startups who disrupt the banking industry. There are four banks in Thailand, and they are now running accelerators, corporate VCs, and new subsidiary companies.

Those who make regulations are willing to listen from banks and startup community, and gather the feedback from them before starting or adjusting the policy. As an outcome, they started a fintech regulatory sandbox that enables fintech companies to experiment with innovative financial products or services in the production environment and approved standardized quick response (QR) code for electronic payment.

2. Alibaba and JD are investing heavily into fintech, e-commerce companies in Thailand creating strong competition among Thai startups

For big players from China, we’ll see more M&A and joint ventures in Thailand. Rather than competing with them, local Thai players will probably shift their focus to other niche sectors.

Alibaba’s financial affiliate Ant Financial is planning to acquire Ascend Money, subsidiary of CP group, the biggest company in Thailand that owns 711 and other telecom companies. Their partnership creates a big barrier to the newcomers. It’s good for Chinese tourists since they can use Alipay payment solution to pay for the merchandise in Thailand.

JD is in talks with Central Group to set up a $500 million e-commerce joint venture and expand to Thailand market. This is a great advantage for JD who has an online platform to strategically partner with the Central group who has both online and offline channels. Even before the partnership with JD, Central group already had one sharing knowledge platform that serves as a successful case study.

Chinese investment in Thailand creates more competition than collaboration. Southeast Asia’s e-commerce platform Lazada has received $2 billion from Alibaba and is controlled by them. If a Thai local player is strong enough, it’s  possible that they go through M&A or investment. But, it’s tough, so local companies should really focus on becoming the niche player.

3. Thailand is the top 2 destination for Chinese tourists, and Alipay and WeChat payment options are largely available

Alipay and WeChat payment options are largely available in Thailand. Central World, the largest shopping mall in Bangkok, big retail companies, and many merchants now provide support for Alipay. You can see many merchants in Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Pattaya also providing those payment options to Chinese tourists.

Tencent is also operating WeChat pay in Thailand. In Chiang Mai, the local merchants and SMEs now accept both Alipay and WeChat Pay to support Chinese tourists. They already acquired one of the largest Thai web portal Sanook Online, to operate music service JOOX, and other services on Sanook.com.

4. There are two types of Thai entrepreneurs

The first group has domain expertise, such as finance and construction. Some of the founders have studied abroad, worked with Google and Amazon, and come back to run their business. They are about 30 to 35 years old and have diverse experience in the industry. They are trying to use technology to solve a problem.

The second group is the new generation, who have just graduated from university and want to be young entrepreneurs and build their own companies. It is very important for the ecosystem to educate them in parallel.

Comparing the success cases, the first group can create more successful companies and promising startups, because a B2B focus is easier market than B2C.

Another factor is that big players have found they cannot do business alone. Five years ago, corporates stayed alone, but now there is more collaboration between startup and corporates. The first wave of these corporate VCs were telecom companies (2012-2015), the second wave was from banks (2016-2017), and the third wave is from manufacturing, energy, insurance and properties sectors (2017). So they set up accelerator programs, support startups, stay open for the partnership with startups.

5. Japanese companies and investors have had a big presence in Thailand, and now it’s Chinese players.

There are two generations of Japanese companies in Thailand. The first is from automotive industry such as Toyota, Honda. They set up the manufacturing company in province area 50 years ago, and they used Thailand as a hub for manufacturing.

In 2014 and 2015, the internet and infrastructure improved a lot, and we recorded high mobile phone penetration. We witnessed the second generation of Japanese companies setting up in Thailand. But we haven’t seen big movement from Japanese companies recently. Rakuten has stepped away from Thailand and the Southeast Asia market. They sold all their shares in Thailand’s largest e-commerce platform, so they do not have a presence here anymore. Last year, there were no big movements from Japanese internet-based companies, it’s because of the competition. However, Japanese VCs such as CyberAgent are still investing in Thailand.

In the last two years, we have seen big movement of Chinese companies like Alibaba, Tencent, making strategic movement in Thailand.

6. Tips for overseas startups when entering the Thailand market

Thailand’s mass market has high mobile penetration and internet penetration. Thai users are very tech-savvy, which makes it easier for SEA startups to target Thailand. Social media is big here, like Facebook and Line, so internet companies runs marketing campaigns on these platforms. That way, it’s not too hard for startups to reach out to these people.

The challenge is some services are not different from others if they cannot provide real value proposition, it’s easy to fail. For example, we have many dating apps. It’s not hard to acquire new users, but to gain loyalty customer, long-term customer, they need to differentiate themselves.

Overseas startups should understand the Thai culture. Thai customers are open to international services, but you should study Thai culture and behavior. Thai people are open to various cultures and have been influenced by Japanese, Korean, and Chinese culture. For example, we love Korean dramas, we are open to work with Japanese companies. We both celebrate Chinese new year, and Thai new year. In Thailand, English is not the main language, so content localization is very important.

For overseas startups wanting to start a company in Thailand, you have to get approval from Board of Investment. In terms of the government support and regulatory issues, it’s more flexible.

You should check the key players in the market, and think about who you should partner to accelerate the business and serve as a springboard for the company. For example, ofo has launched its bike rental service in Thailand. We see both ofo and Mobike launching in Thailand by partnering with institutes, universities and big enterprises.

So I advise them to find a country manager from Thailand who understands the behavior of Thai people. If you don’t want to test the market with so many partners, find a trustworthy local partner. If they don’t want to set up the company, you can allocate a representative as the partner, and their credibility is important. Once you want to work with them, you should find out the history about them, and get third opinion from local people in ecosystem.