Jan Rohweder is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Marketing Bear Co., Ltd., the company behind the new startup White Card Asia. Jan attained a degree in International Management and Engineering from the University of Applied Sciences Southern Westphalia in Germany. During that time he joined “SHBB” near Hamburg, one of the leading German tax consultancies.
When he did his exchange semester in Bangkok he realised quickly the potential of Southeast Asia. That is why he left Germany and joined the team of “Interact Education” as the Management Assistant in 2012. His entrepreneurial spirit and adventurous personality eventually lead him to leave the company in 2013 and to start his own unique project, “White Card Asia”.
What’s the story behind White Card Asia (WCA)?
White Card Asia’s idea was born to help make Bangkok less overwhelming for new expats and tourists. The team wanted to create a product which would lead our customers to the best places in Bangkok rather than those which pay the most commission to get promoted. Each WCA partner is the best in its respective category and our team favourite.
On top of that we wanted to create a mutually beneficial business model for both the partners (local businesses) and customers, with exclusive promotions to the customers and more exposure for the partners. This is now becoming a reality.
From the beginning it was clear that WCA would be a thoroughly social company. This is why the team developed guidelines and a very strict screening process to ensure that all WCA partners are safe.Safe means that the business is not involved in any illegal or potentially illegal activity (e.g. no drugs, no prostitution and no child labour). On top of that, 25% of all profits are donated to social organizations in Bangkok, and we are always looking to involve the business in more than one way.
What does White Card Asia exactly do?
White Card Asia operates in three ways. First, WCA is a deal platform similar to a privilege card that provides tourists, locals, and expats great deals of up to 50 percent off at Bangkok’s best restaurants, cafes, activities, bars, and spas. As long as the card is valid, the promotion can be used repeatedly by the holder.
Secondly, WCA is a guide that helps tourists and new expats explore the city for all it’s worth. This guide includes detailed information on each of our partners, how to get there, and secret tips about Bangkok. WCA is also social responsibility initiative. The White Card Asia team believes in using the resources and capabilities of its business to improve the well-being of people and the environment around them. The main focus is to raise awareness about human trafficking and child abuse in Bangkok and financially support organizations actively involved in anti-trafficking policies and such. Additionally, White Card Asia will not sign any business involved in any illegal activity, thus helping clean up Bangkok’s image.
Card holders also have the chance to join the “WCA Family” by registering their card’s serial number on our website. By registering they get two great benefits. First of all they get another card for free on their next order, and secondly they can join in an upcoming voting process to decide which organization should receive the monthly donation. The goal is to interact with the customer and constantly adapt the product to their needs.
How’s traction working out so far?
So far, the partner venues love White Card Asia. WCA is currently hiring new team members to grow its partner development and relationship division. The partner growth is at 20% per month, which is far over our initial estimations, given the fact that we sign long term agreements with each venue. You can expect to see the partner list grow significantly in the next few months.
The White Card Asia Tourist Edition has just launched in January 2014 and the Locals & Expats Edition is being released this month. So far the focus is online sales and sales through selected retailers around Bangkok. Both channels are growing steadily and nearly synchronously at an average rate of five percent per month. As the team signs more partners and better promotions, it is expected to see an increase in sales as well.
What is your revenue model?
WCA wants to be able to add great small businesses as well as chains as partners at any time. That is why there is a barrier free partner sign up system and a focus on product sales as the driver for revenue. With the motive to always benefit each party connected to our business, we offer our retailers a high margin and give them exclusive marketing material to ease their direct sales. The promotions WCA cards offer allow paying the card price easily within one or two uses.
Who are your customers?
Both products, the White Card Asia Tourist Edition and the White Card Asia Locals & Expats Edition, target very different target audiences. The Tourist Edition targets the adventurous tourists who want to have a positive social impact to the places they travel to. These travellers want to explore Bangkok beyond the typical tourist traps. The Locals & Expats Edition is, as the name indicates, targeting locals and expats. They are always looking for new places to go to and also understand that good places in Bangkok need to be supported. Both products target the same age range of 25 – 35 years.
What differentiates you from your competition?
Since WCA is a big mix of different products, we also have a mix of competitors. If you compare WCA to any deal platform, the biggest difference is that WCA deals are recurring. You can go as often as you want to the partners and claim the deal.
If you see WCA as a social organization, the huge benefit is that we are in fact not an organization. Meaning, we do not have to spend money to raise money, nor are we limited to what any specific cause.
Outsiders might see the WCA guide as a competitor to long established tourist guides. But we see it as more of an addition to the other guides. White Card Asia only provides a carefully selected amount of information to not to overwhelm the reader. The Thai addresses and the fact that we give discounts to our customers at our partners make the guide a very unique product.
What strategies are you using to market White Card Asia?
Currently, WCA is using different offline and online channels in a ratio of 30/70. Online we are using SEO, Social Media Marketing, Google AdWords and keyword based content generation. With different promotional offers, games and raffles that are engaging our customers on different social media profiles. We are also working with different writers to create content based articles in the blog section of the website. Offline, WCA is starting to work together with local magazines, viral flyer campaigns, attending local trade fairs and also placing J-Flags and Stickers at the partner venues. Right now the main goal is to raise brand awareness.
You’ve raised a round of financing. What advice can you share with entrepreneurs looking for funding?
Networking and a clear vision played a key role in the first round of financing. Finding investors who are not just interested in one part of the business but in all parts, including the socially responsibility part of our business, which we really see as the core of WCA. It took a lot of effort, but without the financing WCA would not be in such a comfortable situation as right now. However, we are always looking for new VCs or Business Angels to accelerate White Card Asia.
What challenges did you face when launching, and how did you overcome them?
The greatest challenge was and still is Human Resources. It is very hard to find qualified team members whose spirit and personality fit in the team. Currently, we are advertising different positions on our own website and on different online job portals. So far the biggest success has been based on personal relationships to potential candidates. A related challenge is the engagement of the employees. To engage employees more we supports every team members in their private dreams. For example, if one employee dream is to travel to Europe, we help develop a financial plan to generate enough savings to make it possible. Another example is a team member who is currently learning how to create websites for his photography hobby.
It took months to find the right suppliers for the products. Even though many entrepreneurs believe to start with a non-perfect product, it was the team’s passion to launch a product that has great appearance and does not lack of quality.
Finally, the socially responsible aspect of the company irritated many monetary orientated individuals. Today, we are proud that we stuck to it and stood up for our beliefs. Even though you might face headwind always stick to your vision.
What are the primary challenges of running a business in Thailand?
Without a doubt: Uncertainty. It is astonishing how many laws and situations changed since we started White Card Asia. Situations like the recent demonstrations are unforeseeable and cause a lot of revenue problems to small companies related to tourism. However, even this particular situation was used to expand to the Expats & Locals market ahead of schedule, but one must understand that not every startup in Thailand is able to do a step like this. Running a business in Thailand certainly involves more risk than in western countries. As a quid quo pro Thailand offers incredible opportunities and rewards which are worth taking the risks.
Another challenge is to access accurate statistics and the right information about different laws in Thailand. It is nearly impossible to find the right resources in English. You really need good advisors. You can’t rely on government websites.
What’s the best way to find and hire exceptionally smart and talented employees in Thailand?
As mentioned before, we found that personal relationship and networking are the best way to find the right people. Only invite those who you already know have the skills and a great work ethic to an interview. Another avenue has been through online job portals. Some success has come from this method, especially since WCA jobs become now more rewarding. Thailand actually has a lot of very talented people, so if you pay a fair salary you will find them.
How do you see the startup and investment ecosystem developing in Bangkok?
It is amazing to see a lot of different kinds of startups growing in Bangkok right now. Our impression is that the startup ecosystem is a step ahead of the investment ecosystem in Bangkok. International investors are still effacing themselves because of Thailand’s unstable nature. Hopefully some of this reservation will vanish with the ASEAN Economic Community and more success stories.
Bangkok offers an exceptional market to start a new business. In many ways, the rate of early adopters is much higher than in other countries. Companies have to face higher market entry barriers but if they succeed they have a greater chance of succeeding beyond Bangkok and Thailand.
What are your key milestones?
WCA signed its first partner in August 2013, and has seen the partner list grow steadily ever since. In January we opened the webstore and launched the Tourist. This was quickly followed by the first WCA retailer, which has now grown to several locations in Bangkok. Most recently we launched the Local & Expat Edition of the card on the website.
What’s next for you and White Card Asia?
By the end of 2014 we are planning to introduce an application for smartphones and tablets in addition to our conventional card based products. Based on the fact that WCA is currently focusing on increasing the partner list, you can also expect to see increase in the number of partners to more than 200 by Q4 2014.
Beyond that, the team is already working on many great ideas for different products that increase the professional marketing aspect of the business.
We offer a great creative working environment and are always looking for happy, fun people to join the team. We also have plans to expand into other regions of Thailand. We are currently testing the different markets and right now it looks like we will expand to two other locations in 2014. The big vision is of course to make White Card Asia and all its benefits available even outside of Thailand, but first one step at a time.