‘The Godfather’ of Thai startups talks about the exponential growth in the country and how it will be too late if foreign investors come after 2 yrs
It was my second meeting with Krating Poonpol, a prominent personality in the Thai startup community. We have corresponded many times over Skype or the phone, but nothing beats meeting him just to chat about the startup ecosystem in the Southeast Asian country over ice-blended smoothies.
Krating wears many hats, and he is well-known for all of them. He is the CEO and Founder at Disrupt University, a programme that helps budding Thai entrepreneurs learn various key methodologies such as Lean Startup and Design Thinking; the Strategic Advisor to the Chief Marketing Officer at Thai telco dtac; the Interim Director at incubator programme dtac Accelerate; Co-Director of Founder Institute’s Bangkok programme; and an advisor to multiple startups.
But at the end of the day, he is respected for being a paternal figure to startups. In fact, some even call him ‘The Godfather’.
His mentee, Wicharn Manawanitjarern, CEO and Co-founder, Taamkru, who won Echelon Thailand Satellite 2014, disagreed. He said, “I would cut the ‘father’ part. He is the God of Thai startups. He is the real deal, (and) probably the only guy in Thailand who really knows what is going on in the (venture capitalist) world.”
Talking to the ‘God’
“I have never seen anything like this,” says Krating, enthusiastically talking about the evolving startup ecosystem. Echelon 2014 showcased so many high quality startups in comparison with 2012, he says, “In just two years, it has grown so rapidly.”
Even though the 36-year-old has no children yet, he worries like a father. Heaving a sigh, he says, “Investments have started to pour in now, but … I see some valuations of startups to be too high. It has started to become a bubble.”
The trick here is for the founder to know just how much money is needed. “Raise enough money, but don’t raise too much at too high a valuation,” he explains, “It’s not rocket science — everyone knows that, but for Thai startups, we are so new, young and immature.” When a startup takes up investments with a sky-high valuation, there is a pressure for them to raise the next round.
In the region, Thailand has received its fair share of attention. However, there is still a gap in terms of capabilities, says Krating, who spent seven years in Silicon Valley. Certain Thai teams, for example, are strong in technical areas, but terribly weak in business aspects, and vice versa. He adds, “People (who can help) are just out there, so you have to reach out and talk to them. Competition is everywhere.”
Speaking of competition, should Thai startups aim to go regional or global, instead of focusing locally? He says, “If you think locally, it is too small. Your valuation won’t be justified, and you’ll be happy with your team who can compete locally. You have to start with an A-star team.”
No better time than now
Last year, there was an influx of foreign investors in Thailand. Investment money hailing from various parts of Asia and beyond were seen flowing into promising Thai startups such as Priceza, Hipflat, Noonswoon and Wongnai. Krating advises investors who are currently setting their sights on the nation to make their move fast. He says, “This is the best time for you to come and invest. Otherwise, in the next two years, it will be too late.”
His reason is that Thai startups learn and iterate quickly, which gives them an added advantage. In just two years, they have managed to place themselves on the radar of regional and global players. He states:
“Compared to 2012, (we have seen) exponential growth. We get stuck with protest and unrest but now, things are getting better.”
A shrewd investor
Not surprisingly, he also invests in startups. “Just a few, I cannot tell you how many (startups I have invested in),” he says, but later caves, “But it’s less than five.”
“I invest in early-stage startups and I think, for me, it’s a reputation thing. The team has to be A-star. When I do the Disrupt programme, I have intensive experience with startups. I see them first-hand, whether they are committed and good at pitching,” shares Krating, when asked about the sort of ventures he usually puts money in.
Character is everything
If a startup founder shows that he or she is not fully dedicated to the idea, or shows attitude problems, Krating finds it hard to be convinced. “The team is everything, the idea is second. … They must also have fluid intelligence. They must learn fast,” he says.
“It is very important to admit failure,” he adds. “Some teams are very capable but it is very difficult for me to work with them because they don’t take advice,” he further says.
Thankfully, for Krating, he doesn’t really come across startup founders with major character or personality flaws. After all, all the startups enrolled under Disrupt University, Founder Institute or the incubator are thoroughly screened to see if they would be competent entrepreneurs.
The right attitude and mentality makes the difference between a great success story or a resounding failure, concludes Krating.