Co-working is still a relatively new concept in Thailand. So when Ponthep “Vincent” Sethiwan came out with LAUNCHPAD, his family thought it was crazy. But thankfully, all’s well that ends well, and we want to know what exactly happened.
Young man with spiky hair, all dressed up in a black tee and simple denim jeans. That was my first impression of Vincent Sethiwan, the co-founder of LAUNCHPAD and Charged Concept. After shaking hands and exchanging name cards, he told me that he will catch me in a bit as he was rushing out for lunch. His helpful staff — Am and Fern — then guided me around the 800 sqm office, explaining every room and feature in great detail.
The first level had three different working areas: the daily, monthly and lounge area. Daily users have to lug their laptops over every day or whenever they come to LAUNCHPAD, while monthly users could keep their heavy monitors and computers over at their designated desks. Well, the lounge area is filled up with red and black bean bags, and white tables, making it rather perfect for people to just sit and talk while recuperating from perhaps a lack of ideas or just too much work. But if just sitting around is not your cup of tea, the co-working space also has a games room where anyone can go inside and play a round of both virtual or real table tennis. I was smiling from ear to ear when I saw the game controllers sitting neatly in a box near the table.
Then there was the second level. As we walked up the staircase, Am explained to me that it was still under construction, but he will show it to me anyway. About half the space was cleared. There were about 20 to 30 others typing amidst the soft chattering, and to their left, there was a small room for those who want themselves some peace and quiet. I would never survive in the quiet room, I remembered thinking to myself.
After sitting down at a desk for about 30 minutes, my guest arrived. I quickly asked Am and Fern if they could help look after my things while I go out for lunch, to which they replied enthusiastically, “of course!” There was a locker, but I would have to pay about THB 100 (US$3.38) to use it. Then at lunch, I bumped into Vincent at the restaurant, which was said to be rather famous for Thai food and chocolate cakes.
It was only about 4 P.M. when I finally got the chance to talk to Vincent, since the both of us had long meetings to attend to that very day. Now, it is only noteworthy that the space is situated in a tall tower, and mind you, not just any tower. It was one which has Vincent’s last name plastered on the entrance in shiny gold letters: Sethiwan Tower. The 26-year-old shared that his family are his internal investors, but it was not all fun and games pitching to them.
Working in coffee shops
See, the thing is, before LAUNCHPAD started last November, Vincent spent almost all his time working at home or in coffee shops, and that annoyed his family. When he went to the toilet at coffeeshops and came back to someone else sitting at where he sat, that was the last straw. He wanted an office space of about 50 sqm for his company of six but most people laughed at him and asked, “What are you trying to do with only 50 sqm?” Besides, in Bangkok, none of these 50 sqm offices cost less than THB15,000 (US$507) a month. So he thought about it and decided to ask his family if he could renovate the old Sethiwan Tower and turn it into a young, trendy co-working space for anyone.
He shared, “It took a long while to convince them. They asked, ‘Are you crazy going to do stuff like this?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I want this to happen so much in Thailand. If not, people will never get out of their cynical cycle and there won’t be startups.’” He also added, “when you fail, it’s not the monetary value; it’s the social value . [People will say things like], ‘Oh, you started this [and] you failed.’”
Not new to the startup scene
But the startup scene is not new to Vincent. Back when he was in Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg studying information systems and his masters in information systems management for four and a half years, he wanted to come up with a networking platform similar to Facebook which will target Thailand. The project, thought up of by a friend and himself, was outsourced and completed but they never got to launch it. He shared about his experience having to talk to a “hardcore programmer with a killing face” who was usually all smiles.
Though that did not work out, it did not stop Vincent from trying again. During his last year completing his masters, he decided to pitch his own project with a housemate from Singapore Management University. It was a smart closet management system dealing with RFID focused on helping clothing stores drive sales. They ended up winning US$6,000 cash reward and applied to Alpha Lab, an incubator, but did not get in.
After graduating, he wanted to stay on to work on these startup projects, but his parents thought otherwise. They had planned for him to come home and help out in the family business. So he negotiated. “I said, ‘If it doesn’t take off after six months, I’ll come back.’” That was a bad year to start anything – in 2009, there was the financial crisis, which ended up cutting many marketing budgets of both big and small companies.
When he was pitching his idea to a staff at American Eagle’s headquarters, what he got was “this is a really cool project but we need to test it out first.” He walked around 20 boutique stores and only one said they would give it a try. But by the time orders came in, it was too late. Vincent was already back in Thailand.
Third culture kid
Then he started working at various big companies in Bangkok, where he found Sam, his current Chief Technical Officer and c0-founder. But he also shared that in Thailand, he has had challenges in terms of being a “third culture kid.” Well, like most third culture kids, Vincent studied in international schools and abroad, only to come home finding other people looking at him thinking “he’s Thai but acts like a foreigner.”
He said, “I’m more fluent in English. I sounded like a fifth grader in Thai at first. [...] You have to learn how to talk to business people and network. [Most of them] don’t say what they think [so you have to] find their true intention.”He also shared that there must be a change in mindset in the education system where students are taught to believe in their ideas and go for it. However, it cannot be seen as a trend or novelty, because if these young adults do not know what they are getting into, they will always see getting funding as an end goal. He said, “In our incubator, we look for entrepreneurs who are hungry enough, we can really drive them.”
Besides LAUNCHPAD, he also runs Charged Concept, which focuses on external iOS and web projects, as well as creating in-house iOS applications, and M8VC’s accelerator program which expects to have three to five incubated startups in 2013.