Echelon Thailand

From left to right: Lalitha Wemel, Regional Manager (Startup Programs), Techstars; Maneerut (Nok) Anulomsombut, Sea Thailand

Singapore-based internet giant Sea, formerly known as Garena, is a great example of a company that knows how to expand its core products to serve beyond one vertical to target a wider market.

When it was founded in 2009, Sea was focussed on reaching the gaming community. Today, Sea has cast its net over a heterogeneous consumer segment through a range of products, including AirPay, which provides e-commerce payments solutions; and Shopee, which is a b2c2c marketplace app.

And over the years, Sea has laid roots in seven regional markets, including Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.

Now, while all these markets present high growth opportunities for Sea’s business, one of them in particular — Thailand — is of particular interest to Sea.

In a freewheeling fireside chat with TechStars’ Regional Manager Lalitha Wemel, Maneerut (Nok) Anulomsombut, CEO of Garena Thailand (Sea’s Thailand chapter has not rebranded yet), spoke candidly on the company’s goals and why the Thai market is especially attractive to Garena Thailand.

Beyond gaming

Nok explained that in the beginning, some of Sea’s now core products were first designed as peripherals for its gaming services. AirPay was developed as an e-payment service to allow gamers to buy game credits online. This obsolesced the pre-paid scratch cards that gamers had to buy at retail stores.

Then, Sea started to look beyond the gaming vertical and examined how its service can democratise e-commerce payment. This led to Sea building 90,000 counters across Thailand to allow consumers to top up their AirPay e-wallet using physical cash.

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“We enable rural areas to turn their physical cash  to e-money to buy things online — to make people’s life better.”

Sea’s expertise in localising content has also helped it to capitalise on the growing e-commerce trend in the fragmented Southeast Asia market.

Not long ago, there were not many mobile apps in the region that focussed on e-commerce, said Nok. Sea looked at this gap and built c2cb2c marketplace platform Shopee.

Shopee has a goal to make e-commerce transactions safer through its ‘Shopee Guarantee’ feature. Its system ensures buyers get their goods before any payment is released to the seller.

Shopee’s b2c feature is also helping SMEs in Thailand expand their business online without the need to build a new platform from scratch. Nok said it also helps businesses with the logistics of shipping.

All in all, Sea is on track to establishing Shopee is a strong contender in Southeast Asia’s increasingly competitive e-commerce space. Nok said Shopee is neck to neck with Lazada on the regional level.

That might be a rather bold proclamation, but considering Shopee users sold over US$1.8 billion worth of goods in its first year, the statement certainly holds water.


E-sports is a huge phenomenon in countries like China and Korea (gamers are practically celebrities). It is revered and treated like any other professional sports.

But in Southeast Asia, the e-sports gaming scene is still pretty nascent. But Garena Thailand is working hard to cultivate the country into a gaming hub. It is working to train local e-sports players to compete at the regional and international level.

Last month, Garena Thailand held a big gaming event called the Garena Star League (GSL). The event marked one of the largest gaming events held in Southeast Asia.

Nok said the event logged over 180,000 participants and four million online visitors. She added that the Singapore government sent representatives to observe and study the event, to prepare for an entertainment conference it plans to hold next year.

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Universities in Thailand have also contacted Garena Thailand to develop e-sports curriculum. At the Sripatum University (SPU), the collaboration has already bore fruits. A new e-sports course was formed; students can become professional e-sports players upon graduation.

The Thai culture

We can talk about localisation and aggressive marketing strategies but if at the end there is no reciprocal response from consumers, all is for naught.

In that respect, the Thai culture has been fundamental in allowing Garena Thailand to establish a firm foothold in the market.

First, there is gender equality in the workplace. Nok said that both women and men hold many high ranking positions in the business world — more so than its regional neighbours.

There is a very practical advantage for advocating gender equality in the workplace because it means that people are judged based on pure merit and their skill sets.

Secondly, Nok said that Thais are very open-minded and they are very receptive to new products.

And since they are often first adopters, Sea usually test trials its products in Thailand before rolling them out to the rest of the region.