Thai entrepreneurs are creative, but they lack charisma, says Line Thailand’s Managing Director

Yon Heong Tung
Thai entrepreneurs are creative, but they lack charisma, says Line Thailand’s Managing Director

In an interview with e27, Ariya Banomyong spoke about why Line is successful in Thailand, and how the startup ecosystem can improve

Japanese messaging app Line may not be a household name in some markets, especially those in the West — unlike WhatsApp — but in Thailand, nearly 60 per cent of its population — or 41 million — are registered users of the app.

To Ariya Banomyong, Managing Director of Line Thailand, there is a simple explanation for this phenomenon — Thais really love digital stickers (a juiced-up version of emoticons). In fact, Thais love stickers so much that they are willing to drop real currency for them. It may sound mind-boggling to people who view messaging apps as mere utilities, but in Thailand, there are physical kiosks that sell digital stickers for the Line app.

And it isn’t just the stickers. Like WeChat in China, Line Thailand is slowly but surely nurturing its own ecosystem of mini-apps. Thais can currently order food, keep abreast of the finance market, watch TV programmes, and soon, even order taxis, all on one app.

e27 caught up with Banomyong while he was attending Slush Singapore, to talk about Line Thailand’s operations, how it partnering with stakeholders to grow the ecosystem, and the strengths and weaknesses of Thai entrepreneurs.

Here is the edited excerpt:

There are many mobile messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook messenger, but Thais seem to have a special affinity for Line, why is that?

It’s mainly due to stickers. For us, it’s important to understand the local behaviour and the local culture. The reason why stickers are so fit for the Thai culture is because Thai people like to communicate and convey emotion. Other chat apps are mainly about sending a message; it’s very functional.

The second point is that Thai users enjoy the different services on the Line platform. Thai people are open to enjoy services that Line has to offer, be it playing games, watching TV, ordering food, shopping and whatnot — they are a lot more open to doing that on a chat platform.

What kind of services does Line Thailand offer?

For Line Thailand, we fully localise the business and services. For instance, Line Man is only available in Line Thailand. It is our O2O (offline to online) platform. It has four services, messenger (courier/parcel delivery), food delivery, convenience goods (grocery delivery) and postal services.

We also have Line TV (for watching TV programmes), and Line Finance (finance market news), which is only available in Thailand.

As a consumer, you don’t want to download a single app for every category; people are downloading fewer apps these days. So for us, it is about putting all these services under one app. And in Q4, we are launching Line Taxi so users can book taxis.

How does Line Thailand innovate to stay relevant in this space?

We are very nimble, Coupled with that, we now have our own engineering team that is based in Thailand. So we have even more flexibility when it comes to service creation and innovation. So services like Line Man was developed in-house by the Thai team.

On top of that, we acquihired a startup called DMG59 in June (DMG59 is a software company that was previously a Line Business Connect partner, developing CRM software ).

We have the flexibility to invest in the Thai ecosystem, and we partner with Thai startups.  Our Line Finance service is powered by Thai startups such as StockRadars and Finnomena.

What about the emojis or stickers? You said Thais love stickers a lot. So what are you doing on that front?

On the sticker front — don’t underestimate stickers, it’s a big business. Obviously, you have animations, you have sounds and what not. One thing we did is we partnered with GMM, which is the largest music label in Thailand.

We created music stickers based on the data GMM had. We went and took some of the very popular songs in the 80s/90s Thai songs, and we took the hooks of these songs, which may convey sadness, gratitude, love or what not, and we made them into stickers. The next day the stickers became a massive hit. That’s the kind of innovation that is based on consumer insights.

Apart from that, we partnered with a leading Thai kiosk operator, with over 110,000 kiosks nationwide, to allow Line users to buy stickers. Thailand is still a cash-heavy country. Users can go to these kiosks and select their desired stickers on the LCD screens and insert coins to purchase the stickers.

How can Thailand corporations and enterprises fund growth in the ecosystem?

Obviously, funding is a key enabler to fuel the growth of startups but it’s not the only thing, right? At the end of the day, you are going to invest where there is scale. So how do you help Thai startups to scale?

So aside from funding, what we [Line Thailand] do is w partner with them [startup] for different services. For example. our driver fleet is from LalaMove. We also partner Thai logistics postal service Alpha. For Line Finance, we partner with StockRadars and Finnomena. So all these are Thai startups. We are not investing in them, but what we provide them is access to our platform and to our user base.

The Thai government is launching a lot of innovation initiatives such as the Thailand Roadmap 4.0. But at the same time, it also pretty heavy-handed in controlling Uber and Facebook. What are your thoughts on that, and how does it affect you as Managing Director of a large social media app?

The way I look at it is every country — it’s not just Thailand — will always see that tug of war between government and tech because the regulations have to keep up with new technologies. So that’s the main reason for that friction.

What is important, the way I look at it, is: it’s important that we work with the government rather than against the government because if we want them to help the country change, we need to help. Because we are the tech expert, so we should be able to guide the government on what are the changes that are required.

For example, I mentioned about Line Taxi that we launching in Q4 this year. It’s going to be a service that is 100 per cent legal.

In the tech industry, we always talk about disruption; we don’t always need to disrupt everything or disrupt everyone, sometimes maybe the best approach is just to partner; it might take a bit more time and effort.

Where I give credit to Thai government is with their Thailand 4.0 roadmap; the government is recognising the importance of technology for the future of the country. So I think that’s the key point — if they have this vision then how can we not partner with them?

Facebook was ordered to take down offensive content by the Thai authorities. For Line’s case, how do you moderate the content and make sure there is nothing offensive?

Regarding that, I think we are fortunate that the conversations going on Line are private conversations so it’s like I’m picking up the phone — there’s no one else listening. So we don’t face the same kind of pressure. We don’t really post online; we chat with our friends in a private discussion so it’s not public, that’s a big difference.

But if Line was ordered to disclose these private conversations?

I think everyone of us needs to comply with the law, we just need to follow the legal regulations.

What kind of challenges does the Thai ecosystem face? For example, Singapore has a shortage of engineering talent. What about Thailand?

[Laughs] Well, if you think you have a lack of engineering talent it is probably even worst in Thailand. That’s where this Thailand 4.0 policy comes in, we need to open up the country to bring in talent. There’s no way we are going to be able to form new talent as fast as the market requires it.

Short term: we need to import that talent. So I think that’s where the Board of Investment (BOI) and other government agencies need to help in opening up the country.

I think that is something Singapore does very well. I think you have a shortage of talent but at the same time, you have a lot of people coming outside of Singapore, so that’s one of the things that we can do.

What about nurturing local talent?

This is my personal opinion, I believe Thailand has what it’s called a ‘Hero’ culture. Right now Thailand if you look at the startup community, the startup ecosystem, it’s been around for let’s say 3, 4 years. It’s been really exploding in the past three years.

What we missing right now is that one startup that makes it big and inspire the rest of the thai startups and new generations to say “we can actually make it.” And I think that is what we need. In Singapore, i was just listening this morning, you have a lot of exits so that inspires people, it can be done.

The second point is about 4, 5 years ago, everything that was tech was coming from the US. Silicon Valley and everything; but now we have big Asian tech companies whether it’s like Line, Grab, Garena (now called Sea), Go-Jek, Alibaba.

So you start seeing this uprise of Asian tech companies, so for me, that is really good. So that’s why I joined Line, I want to be part of these Asian tech companies. In Asia, it should be us [Asian companies] dominating this region and then going to the US and Europe and other continents.

You are a mentor of DTAC. Based on your experiences, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Thai entrepreneurs?

Thai people are very creative, very tenacious, and when I look Tourkrub and Fastwork — these are very good teams, very good attitude, and no bullshit, they are just about getting the work done. I think attitude wise, capability wise, we have that.

I think the hurdle I tend to see across the Thai ecosystem is they tend to get stuck on a couple of points:

1. When it comes to the point to scale, I think that’s where they need to think way bigger, because you start from a small size and suddenly you basically managing a business with a lot more people, you are engaging with a lot more stakeholders, VCs, corporations. So you need to adapt to that change, you are adapting to a different stage so that’s where I see a lot of Thai startups getting stuck.

2. Along those lines, because you start going out and meeting a lot of VCs, investors, brands, corporations, you need to have the charisma and power to engage with them. So we need to coach them [Thai entrepreneurs] and help them sort of step up to be able to approach these kinds of people. And that is actually not easy.

Do you think language barriers might have played a factor?

That’s a fair point — language. If you want to go regional, English is a must, and English is still a weakness in Thailand. Fortunately, amongst the startup community this is less of a problem; but still, if you compare with other countries, we are not as comfortable with other countries.

How do you impart the entrepreneurial mindset to your entire company? What management strategies do you use?

There is no recipe for that but basically, it starts by pushing them. It doesn’t come naturally, it’s how you push them to have that 10x thinking and say: “What if you could double the size of your business, the size of your user base.”

Usually they will start by not believing that it is possible. Start by pushing them, sometimes you are going to have to do a bit of handholding on the first couple of months or steps and suddenly when traction comes and they will see it’s possible.

You have to create that belief that is possible; you can’t just say, go and then do it, You have to help them believe it, you have to help them believe it can happen. So that first step is important. That’s how we try to build that confidence.

Image Credit: DTAC

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