'Learning from Unicorns'
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'Learning from Unicorns'

How Thai startups can reach the $1bn mark

Bangkok Post editor Umesh Pandey (right), conference speakers and guests greet each other and the audience as the 'Thailand’s Startups: Learning from Unicorns' forum began Wednesday. (Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)
Bangkok Post editor Umesh Pandey (right), conference speakers and guests greet each other and the audience as the 'Thailand’s Startups: Learning from Unicorns' forum began Wednesday. (Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)

Implementation of personalised marketing with customer insights, delivering customer-driven innovation products and staying abreast of changes and the latest trends in consumer behaviour are critical factors influencing the success of local startups to join the league of so-called unicorns.

Such was the consensus of numerous movers and shakers at a forum hosted by the Bangkok Post called "Thailand's Startups: Learning from Unicorns".

A unicorn is a startup company valued at more than US$1 billion (34.7 billion baht).

Punnamas Vichitkulwongsa, chief executive of Ascend Group, an online retail arm of CP Group, said Ascend has set its sights on becoming a leading financial services provider in Southeast Asia by 2020.

"We aim to expand our presence in six countries in the region to serve 100 million under-served customers," he said.

To become a regional player, Mr Punnamas said Ascend has needed scalability while also understanding the legal frameworks of the countries it enters.

He said the company has about 29 million e-wallet users throughout Southeast Asia, with a combined transaction value of $2.5 billion.

Up to 25 million of its users are in Thailand.

"We seek to increase the number of our e-wallet users to 100 million by 2020," Mr Punnamas said.

Natavudh Pungcharoenpong, the founder of Ookbee, Southeast Asia's largest digital e-book platform, said the company recently received Series C funding worth $19 million from Chinese internet giant Tencent.

Mr Natavudh said Ookbee, founded five years ago, is using an acquisition strategy to quickly expand into new markets, rather than just finding potential partners in the region.

"Learning the cultures of the countries we want to expand into and understanding their respective markets are key factors to consider when expanding abroad, especially in Southeast Asia, which has a combined population of 600 million," he said.

Furthermore, learning to develop content and applications for mobile users will provide greater opportunities for startups that want to ride on the booming mobile data demand wave.

Mr Natavudh said implementing personalised marketing with customer insights through the use of data analytics tools can also enable companies to better understand consumer behaviour.

He said startup investment in Thailand is expected to grow by 30-50% in 2017, up from an estimated 4 billion baht in 2016.

Meanwhile, Takarn Ananthothai, co-founder of Globish, an English teaching website, said understanding consumer behaviour and getting consumer insights are key factors for local startups to expand their businesses.

Globish has 2,000 customers, both students and companies.

Yaw Yeo, the head of new markets at Twilio, an enterprise communication platform, said it's necessary to understand customers' pain points and address their problems.

Steve Melhuish, co-founder and vice-chairman of online property portal PropertyGuru Group, said that in the future, trust, personalisation, immersive experiences, innovative financing, agents and personal digital assistants to help find property will become key features in the online property market.

"There are always new competitors, while consumer expectations are endless," Mr Melhuish said.

PropertyGuru Group is the owner of the leading property web portal DDproperty.com.

Mr Melhuish said the group has been successful because it managed to spot opportunities, find new markets, apply innovations and garner consumer insights.

"My partner and I started a property portal a decade ago after we found difficulties in getting property-related information," he said.

He said the property market in Southeast Asia is huge at about $150 billion, with further potential to grow.

Agoda co-founder Robert Rosenstein for his part said new startups need to stay abreast of consumers' changing behaviour and always innovate to achieve success.

"Focusing more on consumer's fluctuating behaviour in the globalisation era is the key to making every business successful, especially Thai startups, who want to grow sustainably," he said.

Hotel booking site Agoda has also focused on online advertising and marketing to grow its presence in the global market. It is further making its site more competitive in terms of pricing and convenience to appeal to consumers.

In order to survive during times of business change, Mr Rosenstein said startups should always seek to reinvent their products and services.

"If you don't stay enthusiastic and keep up with market trends and people's changing behaviour, you are going to die soon," he said.

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