Power of perseverance

Power of perseverance

SawasdeeShop founder Aswin Phlaphongphanich takes setbacks in stride and keeps looking for new ways to innovate.

Power of perseverance

Aswin Phlaphongphanich was always the quietest kid in the class. The patka on his head set him apart from others, he rarely spoke and was frequently picked on. The classmate who sat next to him for the yearbook picture didn't even know his name.


Founder and CEO, SawasdeeShop Group

- Aug 31, 1978

- Bachelor’s degree in Management Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts, 1999
- Master’s degree in e-commerce and marketing, Bentley College, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2001

- 1999-present: Founder and CEO, SawasdeeShop
- 2001-11: Founder and investor, JSG Co Ltd, a BoI-approved software services company
- 2011-present: Founder and CEO, Dee Telecom HK

Born in Thailand into a Sikh family from India, the 40-year-old entrepreneur describes himself as a "minority on minority on minority" and looks back on his childhood as a time of introversion and unhappiness.

"I was the only odd one out, the only different kid in school. If you asked my classmates or teachers, they might not know me," he says.

The founder and CEO of SawasdeeShop Group, a provider of telecom-related services, says his introversion is now a thing of the distant past, partially thanks to the circumstances that induced him to become an entrepreneur.

"People may face racism in their childhood but as they grow older they have two choices: they can go totally in or come totally out," Mr Aswin tells Asia Focus.

When he established his first business at age 21, the role and responsibility as a leader helped expedite the transformation, making him more outspoken and confident.

"I had to hire and lead people who were in their late 30s or 40s. They were coming from such smart and intellectual backgrounds, so I had no choice but to change," he recalls.

"If I didn't portray the leadership role, I could never gain respect from them and I wouldn't be able to grow and lead the team."

Confident leadership, he says, is especially crucial for startup businesses because the founders only have a finite period to prove themselves.

Mr Aswin repeated that belief to himself over and over, and eventually started to use his identity and uniqueness to his advantage, seeing it as something of value, rather than embarrassment.

"It's up to you whether you want to use it in your favour or not. If I'm unique and shouting out that I'm a brand and use it to make my identity, people will remember. It's your decision to capitalise on it or become an introvert," he says.


Mr Aswin has faced many setbacks and disappointments since the beginning of his business journey, but he never gets discouraged. He never gives himself the choice to give up. The same perseverance also drove his grandfather, who came to Thailand over a century ago to start a textile business.

"My grandfather was only 14 when he came to Thailand, or Siam at that time. He imported textiles from different parts of the world and walked around, village by village and house by house to sell, literally knocking door to door," he says.

As the business grew, it opened up the opportunity for Mr Aswin's father to receive a better education and experience life abroad. Receiving a full scholarship from the Thai government to study in Germany, his father later started a business with German counterparts in Thailand and became very successful.

However, the Asian financial crisis hit the family particularly hard, bringing the business close to insolvency. Mr Aswin, returning home in 1999 as a fresh graduate from the United States, felt compelled to do what he could to help out.

"I came back in that post-crisis period when banking and businesses were collapsing. I had no other options but to start something of my own, differentiate myself and do something completely different," he recalls.

Mr Aswin chose to turn crisis into an opportunity to pursue a business he was passionate about, in the field of technology, without having the pressure of succession as his father was preoccupied with his own predicament.

"If it wasn't so, I might have just joined the family business and taken it forward like a lot of other successors.

"But my forte is not in traditional industries. My mind is more on the technology side. Technology is where the exponential growth is, but the chance of being disrupted and revolutionised is also very high."

When he began his business career at 21, the dot-com boom was peaking in the United States, and Mr Aswin looked for something that would work in Thailand.

"In 2000, I saw that the next big thing would be digital marketing. I knew that it would be the hot thing to sell or to have," he says.

Armed with a unique educational background in both engineering and e-commerce and marketing degree, Mr Aswin decided to build an e-commerce platform.

However, being directly related to the owner of a bankrupted family, it was almost impossible for him to obtain loans to set up his business.

After a bumpy start, Mr Aswin finally launched SawasdeeShop as one of the first e-commerce platforms in the country in 2000. But it's one thing to be an early mover and another thing to be too early, he discovered.

"Thai people only owned personal computers at the time and they still didn't want to use credit cards. This was 19 years ago. In the US, [e-commerce] had already started booming. It was too early for the Thai market," he says.

Mr Aswin had no choice but to shift his focus to something more relevant. That led him to apply his engineering training and instincts to telecommunications.

At the time, traditional carrier services in the United States were offering calling cards that made international calls much cheaper, so he thought about ways to expand on this idea.

Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) emerged as the solution for SawasdeeShop and became a longstanding core business.

"My first VoIP service allowed people from overseas to call Thailand much more cheaply. We were disrupting the operators and the norms by providing this new service," he says.


Realising how quickly and easily technology-related services can become outdated or obsolete, Mr Aswin has constantly been adding new products and value propositions to match or exceed customers' expectations.

Currently offering five product lines, SawasdeeShop Group has matured and grown sustainably. It has VoIP and cloud telecom service licences from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) and a money transfer service licence from the Bank of Thailand.

Some of its earlier services include DeeCall, which offers high-speed internet telephony or VoIP service, and DeeCard, an international calling card service with a global network spanning Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

In 2011, Mr Aswin established Hong-Kong based DeeTelecom to offer reliable and high-quality wholesale long-distance and worldwide VoIP routes.

Last year, he launched Cloudee, a cloud telephony service, targeting startups, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) needing affordable and efficient call centre systems with real-time analytics on a pay-per-use business model.

"We are one of the first providers that provide a call centre and a PBX 'in a box'," ays Mr Aswin. "Those systems are very expensive so we created the platform in the cloud to make it affordable for smaller companies. Similar to Dropbox or Google Drive where you can store data, we are providing communication in the cloud."

In October last year, Mr Aswin added CloudDee 3.0, which supports chatbot technology, aiming to capitalise on digital marketing and the move to omni-channel communication.

A more recent addition to SawasdeeShop Group is DeeMoney, which marks the company's first entry into financial services. DeeMoney is a low-cost and instant money-transfer service that focuses on inbound remittances worldwide to Thailand and outbound remittances from Thailand.

The idea for DeeMoney had been bouncing around in Mr Aswin's head for years, starting back when calling cards were still booming.

"The idea started in 2009," he says. "I thought that if we could manage the logistics of telecoms, we could also do the logistics of money. It's the same customers who are living abroad and want to call home cheaper who will want to send money home cheaper."

Mr Aswin inquired about a licence with the Bank of Thailand, but at the time no such regulatory regime existed. And given that his calling card business was still booming, he set the idea aside. But as the customer base for calling cards started to fell, he knew he had to find a new approach.

"We got disrupted when Skype, WhatsApp, Line and Viber came along. We thought we had innovated very well, but then we got disrupted. Our chats were falling and we were losing customers as they were using free products," he says.

Luckily for SawasdeeShop, disruption of any kind is short-lived as it tries to stay ahead of the curve. Mr Aswin pays tribute to his highly talented and experienced team that is constantly innovating and launched new products and services.

"I'm happy to have smarter people around me. You learn through osmosis, you learn through them. Jack Ma was perfect in saying 'hire the person who is smarter than you'," he says, referring to the Alibaba founder.

"If I don't hire people smarter than me, he says, it means I have an ego problem and I am not going to learn. There is no way you would know everything. It's not possible."

Mr Aswin says the willingness to bring in younger people or those with different industry or ethnic backgrounds is one of the main traits that differentiate a lot of leaders today.

"I don't know anything about banks and I tell my guys, I don't know what you guys are doing, but I hire them to teach me what they are doing and we try to do it better."

The most important thing for any business, he affirms, is to understand what the consumer wants. "Even if we may not have expertise in the industry, we still try to do it in a way that consumers will like."

In addition, Mr Aswin emphasises having a multicultural workplace, as it promotes diversity of thoughts and ideas.

"It doesn't matter where you come from. It's about accepting you the way you are and if you can add to the team's value," he says, added that his companies employ a wide range of nationalities from Cambodian to Russian to Indian and Thai.

"If I don't hire a Cambodian, I would never know how a Khmer thinks. If I think from a Thai-Indian perspective of what they think, it's generally wrong and mismatched."


As a serial entrepreneur since a very young age, the most important lesson Mr Aswin has learned is to never give up or lose hope.

"There's only a one in 10 chance for a company to succeed. You may have a great idea and then something happens," he says.

"Having passion is good, but perseverance in the sense of having no intention of quitting is the key. You have make it work. If disruption happens, you have find another way to make it work. It doesn't matter what you sell or what you do. You just have to keep going. That's my model."

And being an entrepreneur, he says, you have to learn to fail well.

"If you take failure well, you can pick up the stick, start again and succeed again. But if you take failure in a negative way and you start punishing yourself for what you did wrong, then you won't be able to get up."

Looking at the remittance service, for instance, he is certain someone will disrupt it someday, so the question becomes how to differentiate the business and stay relevant.

In addition, timing is critical when it comes to business. "You can have a really good business idea but if the timing is not right and the customer is not ready, then you will be mismatched," he says, referring to his early e-commerce platform.

What has really inspired him throughout the past two decades, he adds, are those who are able to enter businesses in fields they are not familiar with and show the world they can do it better.

"Tony Fernandes didn't know anything about airlines when he started (AirAsia), neither did Richard Branson (at Virgin) but they did it better than whoever was doing it before."

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