Our latest interview brings you an insightful conversation with Matas Danielevicius, the Co-founder of Whatnot Startup Studio and an expert in Thailand startup ecosystem. From the vibrant streets of Bangkok to the serene landscapes of the North, Matas has been an integral part of Thailand’s dynamic startup journey for the past nine years.
Here is the summary:
- Who is Matas and why is his insight valuable?
- Why is Thailand Startup ecosystem great to start a startup or expand to?
- How is the access to tech talent?
- What’s the most important thing (hidden rule) that founders should know?
- What’s the biggest challenge that founders are facing in Thailand?
- Who are the people & organizations founders should know in Thailand?
- What Matas is looking for?
Below is the full transcript of the interview
Today, our focus is on the Thailand startup ecosystem together with Matas, co-founder of What not startup studio. I’m Jelte Wingender, CEO and co-founder of Founders Lair and I will be the host of today’s session.
Welcome to our startup ecosystem expert interview Thailand edition. The purpose of this interview is to enable our international audience to learn in an engaging and down-to-earth format about different startup ecosystems around the world.
Hello. Good morning. Happy to be here.
Who is Matas and why is his insight valuable?
Morning. All right. Let’s start with the first question. Matas, please introduce yourself and what you do in the Thailand startup ecosystem.
Sure. Sounds good. I’ll try to cover it up. So my name is Matas. I have been living in Thailand for the last nine years already.
And I was working in the Thailand startup ecosystem ever since I moved to Thailand. At first, I moved here with some friends who were developing apps. So I was just supervising a group of developers. But eventually, I started different types of activities like startup, incubation, and acceleration.
I moved to Bangkok from the North of Thailand on the mountains and I started to work with local corporates in several different industries, and eventually, we formed startup studios. Now we’re building startups, we’re incubating startups, we’re consulting about startups. So anything about startups, we try to cater.
And where are you originally from?
I’m from Lithuania.
Okay, interesting. What brought you to Thailand?
Well, I like to tell this story. It’s kind of an accident. And when you live there, you realize that many aspects of here end up by accident. So I was studying in the UK. graduated. I got bored a little bit of the UK and I had some friends who just came to Thailand and they said, “oh, join us, we’re developing apps”.
Actually, till then, I had no idea about technology or app because I was studying acting. So I was in the theater world. I was doing my stage productions. And I came to Thailand. started to work with startups and our plan was to actually go to Sri Lanka. But we started to work, we got some contracts, we got some customers, and we couldn’t fly out, and we couldn’t fly out, and then like, you know, so I just stayed in Thailand.
Why is the Thailand startup ecosystem great?
Sometimes these accidents are meant to be, right? That you end up in a place that you actually like. So tell us why is Thailand a great place to start the startup?
Well, I think there are a few factors that Thailand makes a great space to be in the first place and not necessarily talking about startups.
I think if we would compare the performance of high startups with other Southeast Asian countries, perhaps Thailand doesn’t look that good to do a startup.
Because there are not many real unicorns that come out of Thailand compared to Indonesia, Singapore or Malaysia. Well, however, I think that Thailand has probably one of the best infrastructures to stay, to live in.
So you have very good communication, and you can reach any Southeast Asian or Asian country very fast. There are a lot of airports around the country, very diverse nature and landscape. So, you could enjoy the mountains, you can enjoy beaches in a couple of hours time. So, it’s a good place to be, and a good infrastructure.
And surprisingly for me, when I moved to Thailand, is that you have great facilities like science parks, co-working spaces all over Thailand. It’s not only in Bangkok. So, if you go to the south of Thailand, somewhere closer to the borders, you can find great spaces, very affordable to set up your team, to start working, have a very reasonable price of living, a comfortable environment, beautiful place. So, for me, it’s just the place itself.
I think that also Thai people are very curious about innovation. So, it’s a good place to test products. People are open to giving some feedback, trying out the technologies and new products. They’re very pro-trends. So, if there’s a trend, if a trend catching up, everyone is really jumping on that trend, and then you can really use it for your benefit.
Sorry, just a short break. I’m checking my notes. Yeah, so investment landscape, yeah? What is it in this? The investment, so investment – I can talk about – So how easy – Okay. To get investment money if you start. Is it mature, is it not mature? The question is meant – Okay, And
Another aspect is that actually around eight, nine years ago, the Thai government released a lot of government funds that help early-stage startups, you know, so there are many, many agencies who issue startup development grants. Some of them, you know, are easier to get, and some are more complicated. There’s always space for improvement, but there’s a lot of happening. in Bangkok, in Chiang Mai, in terms of startup networking activities and government support. So this is very interesting, especially if you’re in a very, very early stage, ideation stage.
However, the investment landscape is mostly focused on CVC. So the majority of the active funds are corporate venture capital, and there’s a catch. There’s always a catch, you know? So this is maybe I’ll shift the conversation toward some of the things that you should be aware of.
There are also several angel investment networks. They’re pretty active. And if we would think that Thailand is almost 70 million people country, the startup ecosystem is not that big. So it’s quite easy to know the right people, to get in touch with angel investors’ networks, and get opportunities and chances to pitch. It’s pretty convenient, especially in Bangkok.
What about growth startups? Is the capital there or do startups have to exit then and go to other hubs in the region?
Right, so that’s probably mostly. Well, there is venture capital and this is probably
If we’re looking total overview of Thailand startup ecosystem. The big problem is actually early-stage funding from venture capital funds. There is some government grants, but they’re not sufficient enough. They’re not fast enough to issue the funds. The majority of CVC and VC are focusing at least series A or further. So this creates this type of ecosystem where we don’t see those unicorns because no one is nurturing the early-stage startups. The ecosystem is not at a really professional level.
How is the access to tech talent?
So one follow-up question, a lot of creative talents are available in Thailand. How about tech talent? If you want to build a marketplace you need developers, how’s the access to technology talent and engineers?
Well, yeah, I think that depends on what type of technology you want to build. But there is an issue with that in Thailand. So there’s a lot of outsourcing happening to Vietnam and India. There is some local talent, but they’re in very high demand. So again, a majority of that talent goes to work for the corporate environments rather than focusing on the startups as corporates have. much better wallet basically to support the talent. So a lot of them are working for the corporates.
There are several software studios, and software houses that are developing various projects in here. And they’re also competing with each other on how to get that talent. So it’s a big race in here. However, the government is also issuing now smart visas that help foreign talent to enter easier into the country and work here. So that kind of creates an opportunity for talent who would like to live in Thailand and have local work. I think it’s a good time to look into this. It’s much easier to get into the country, especially a high-end talent. Someone with higher education and specializing in deep tech type of solutions. There’s a huge demand, a lot of opportunity, a lot of work and it’s a great place to be.
What’s the most important thing (hidden rule) that founders should know?
That’s a very interesting insight. I think this is also something common in the region and other countries in Southeast Asia where it’s quite common. Let us dive a little bit into the next question. What’s the most important thing or hidden rule that founders should know if they want to start their startup in Thailand or expand to Thailand?
I think that you know There are many things to be aware of, but probably one of the key things I would like to suggest is that “Do not underestimate the cultural differences. Really study before you get into Thailand or any other Southeast Asian country”. You really need to study the culture, you need to understand how things work here. For many foreign entrepreneurs, it becomes a huge shock. It’s difficult to adjust and adapt to the working style, language barriers, and all the different cultural aspects.
It’s really important to understand what’s happening within the industry that you want to innovate in. Understand there’s not enough talent in here and how to manage local teams. Another thing is how to manage mixed teams. This is a common problem with growing startups when you start to have half of the team as a foreign team and half of the team as a Thai team. You need to really get ready for that. You need to prepare. It’s doable, it’s manageable, and I’m not blaming anyone. It’s just that it happens. Difficulties and you need to learn how to manage these mixed teams.
Could you give us an example of the cultural differences here in Thailand?
Well, this is a sensitive topic, you know, to say. I think that working style is different, and commitments are different. If we would look into the corporate landscape, for example, loyalties. So people stay one or two years in the corporate environment and they leave with the knowledge and the skillset, and the network of the corporate. So similar in the startups.
There are many people who want to try, join the team, but when the real work starts to, maybe I’ll need to come back on this one. I’m trying to find the right example. Take your time. Maybe keep it in a shorter sentence. I think where you want to go is that probably the working style is different in terms of commitment. So startup is hard work, hustling, commitment, and that the ties are a bit more laid back, shifting quickly their focus if they see something better. We just need to, so if you don’t want to answer this question, that we take it into the video. No, no, I got my point now. I know what to say. So it’s okay. Okay.
So I think that in general, I would like to start with the Thai educational system, which is a big difference from the Western Educational system. And we tend to see that there is a different understanding of soft skill development, especially critical thinking. So when we are working in a startup environment, it’s a very fast pace. You have to make quick decisions and you need to think for yourself. Often you need to wear multiple hats, and that tends to become a problem.
It’s not that talent is not capable. There are a lot of smart and educated people, but they’re being taught all the time that you need to listen to what the elders say. And this is also a cultural thing that you always need to listen to your teacher. You always need to listen to someone who is older than you. And that lack of critical decision-making it sums up and then the team starts to suffer. So you need to govern, you need to educate about that, about the importance of soft skills, and help to develop that in your team.
Sounds a little bit like the hierarchy of South Korea or Japan in this regard that they are always listening more to more senior people. So the older you are, the more respect you have to show. But in a startup world, this is often not necessarily the best way, right?
What’s the biggest challenge that founders are facing in Thailand?
You mentioned already some of the struggles in terms of cultural management, and how to manage Thai teams in this regard. But what are other challenges that you see for founders that are facing in the Thailand startup ecosystem? So what are the struggles there?
Okay, so there are quite a few, I must say. It’s not easy to be an entrepreneur here. It’s not impossible. I see successful teams that are based here and are developing products for other markets. But to get into the Thai startup ecosystem, into the Thai market directly, and build products here is a bit complicated. It really depends on the industry. So let’s say food and beverage, agri -tech, traveling, and maybe medical industries are a bit more open and flexible to innovate. But for example, FinTech is very difficult. It’s very controlled, you know, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy and there are a lot of regulations. There are a lot of regulations that stop very interesting products to be developed here.
And that is part of the challenge in Thailand that, frankly speaking, majority of industries have monopolies inside, you know, and these big corporates, they’re controlling the full supply chain and who to the market. So to really get into this, it’s very complicated. And mostly they are the ones who are holding the capital as well. So most likely they would become your investors as well, that eventually would just cannibalize you or acquire you in the terms that they’re convenient with. So this is the challenge here. You really need to know what industry you’re getting into and do your research about what is available and where it’s better not to step into because it becomes too slow, too controlled.
Also knowing your consumer. For example, I’ve been working in AgriTech for the last four years, where I’ve been building an AgriTech startup called Gaorai. And let’s say the majority of Thai farmers, the average age is 55 to 60 years old. So your technology or your innovation really needs to suit the lifestyle and the environment you’re getting into. And in every province, you have different governance that you need to deal with, that you need to understand.
So there’s a lot of old-school business development. You need to go and meet people face to face, not necessarily everything is accessible online. You need to shake hands, you need to sometimes have a drink with those people to really get into the communities. But once you gain their loyalty and trust, there is a big opportunity there. So it’s kind of a mix of modern technology and very old school type of just showing up, showing respect, spending time together type of relationship.
Who are the people & organizations founders should know in Thailand?
Building startups is a tough journey. It usually requires a lot of stakeholders to get a successful startup off the ground. Who are the people that you would say startup founders should know in Thailand?
Sure. As I mentioned at the beginning, you know, the Thailand startup ecosystem is not that big, not that grand. And, you know, since my journey started like nine years ago, I’ve been seeing these names all the time, and they’re very supportive and helpful for the whole ecosystem. You know, and one of these people is Mr.Amarit Charoenphan. He is a founder of HUBBA, one of the first Thailand startup ecosystems, and I believe he invested himself in more than 30 Thai and international startups here. So he’s an easy person to recommend because everyone knows him, he knows everyone. So it’s a good start, you know if you manage to reach out to him, I would recommend it.
Another person is Nicha Suebwonglee. She is currently working in AWS as a venture capital business development manager. But overall, she’s a great mentor. You can meet her judging in many startup competitions and networking events. She has incredible knowledge of the Thailand startup ecosystem investment landscape, and not only Thailand but also Southeast Asia. A really, really knowledgeable person. I recommend reaching out to her.
Another person and friend of mine, Opal Piyaporn, is the founder and CEO of Senna Labs, which is a software development house. But she’s very active in a networking community. So if you want some introductions, if you want to know who is who in Bangkok, she’s a good person to reach out to as well.
There are several different communities as well. There is one active networking event called Asia Pillars. They’re not only focusing on startups, but general business relationships and also cultural relationships. So they organize different types of events to invite people from different walks of life to communicate and chat.
A couple more things to mention I would recommend KX Knowledge Xchange, which is an innovation center here in Bangkok, where we run incubators and accelerators. We help businesses to enter Thailand, through legal support, funding, incubation, and acceleration, and it’s part of King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT).
Another one more commercial startup ecosystem is True Digital Park, which belongs to CP Corporation, but they do organize a lot of industry events, and a lot of office space and support is available there as well.
Perhaps then also I would recommend reaching out to my business partner, Justas Rinkevicius, who’s from Whatnot Startup Studio. We help to build startups as well.
What Matas is looking for?
So you help startups. This session is also about how we can actually help ecosystem experts all around the world. So the last question is how can the global community help you, what are you currently looking for, and how can we make some useful connections or support in your journey?
Right, so I think from, you know, currently we’re really studying what is the next step for what startups to do because for the last several years we’ve been focusing on providing services like startup as a service. So we work with corporates and we build startups for them. Along the way, we also built our own startups. And having this knowledge and experience currently we are looking and reaching out to businesses and startups outside of Thailand.
We’re talking to ecosystems in Japan, Singapore, and Korea. Would also like to hear from European startup ecosystems and US businesses who would like to utilize Thailand as a platform to build products, to build new businesses, and new startups here but not necessarily focus only on the Thailand startup ecosystem. So we want to cater to and support companies who want to build products, concepts, and services and utilize Thai infrastructure to do that. Another thing is if you want to enter the Thai market, also we can help and support that.
That’s amazing. So if you’re out there and you’re actually looking at the Thai market, reach out to Matas. He’s the person to go to if you want to know more and get connected to the right resources.
And also to thank you so much Matas for the session. This was very insightful. And yeah, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. Happy to share my insights and I’m looking forward to collaborations.
Thank you so much, Pili. You guys are doing wonderful work. Thank you so much.
Matas Danielevicius is the Co-founder of Whatnot Startup Studio.
With a wealth of experience spanning nine years, Matas is more than just a co-founder of Whatnot Startup Studio; he’s a driving force behind Thailand startup evolution.
His journey began with supervising app development and swiftly transitioned into diverse roles, from startup incubation to acceleration. Hailing from Lithuania, his foray into the Thailand startup landscape was serendipitous, showcasing his knack for embracing unexpected opportunities and turning them into valuable experiences.
About Start Ecosystem Expert Interview
Founders Lair is conducting a series of interviews where we go pick the brilliant brain of startup ecosystem builders on our platform to share their valuable insights about the startup ecosystem they are in.
We hope this personal observation from startup veterans can prepare global startup enthusiasts with the mindset that they need when entering that market.
You will be able to learn
- Why is that region great to start a startup or expand to?
- What’s the most important thing (hidden rule) that founders should know?
- What’s the biggest challenge that founders are facing in that region?
- Who are the people and organizations that founders should know in that region?