The Wallstreet Journal lists 168 “unicorns,” a term venture capitalist Aileen Lee coined to describe startups valued at over one billion US dollars. Why “unicorns”? Because they remain very rare. The US, of course, gets the lion’s share, including giants like Uber, Airbnb and Snapchat. But Malaysia and Indonesia have recently entered the club. Thailand? Not yet.
Every since I launched dtac accelerate, now the biggest startup incubator and accelerator in Thailand, my dream has remained the same. I want to help build a Thai startup to be the first unicorn in Thailand.
To get there, dtac accelerate functions very much according to the principles that guide startups. Some call it the innovator’s method, the lean canvas or the agile method, I just call it “build, measure, learn.” My users are the startups in our program. Seventy perfect of our startups get follow-on funding. In Southeast Asia, the average for accelerators is 20 percent. In Thailand, it’s even lower. So I’d say dtac accelerator is doing very well.
During our four-month program, we have 24 workshops minimum. We get people like Nir Eyal, the bestselling tech author and entrepreneur, or Ash Maurya, the father of the “lean canvas” business plan. We have gurus in Android, Google, iOS. We have strong partnerships with giants like Amazon, Google, Line, Microsoft and Facebook. And we have the dtac customer base along with the Telenor reach in 13 global markets. But to build a unicorn, we must continuously improve our training. Things we taught two years ago are now completely obsolete.
Helping to build a unicorn isn’t just a question of keeping up with the latest tech. It’s also about mentoring the right people.
This year, we had 600 applications. We have a two percent acceptance rate. It’s easier getting into Harvard than into dtac accelerate. The people here are the best of the best.
Each batch of startup at dtac accelerate looks at the next and says, “I couldn’t have gotten in if I had competed with these guys.” Currently, we have two MIT graduates in batch 5. We have a startup, TourKrub, that have transaction more than 200 million baht during the boot camp or FINNOMENA from batch#4 recently cross over THB 2 Billion transaction within a year. And trust me, the next batch will top that.
Despite all this progress, things still run that little bit slower here compared to Singapore or Malaysia. That’s why these new work methodologies that we use are so essential to building up our skills. The other problem is that we Thais have a tendency to look at pain points experienced within our market of 70 million people. That’s not big enough to build a unicorn. We need to think global.
We also need regulation to keep with the times and truly deliver on the government’s promise of Thailand 4.0. Thai law limits stock options to listed companies. That doesn’t work for startups! Another big problem is that foreigners cannot hold more than 51 percent of a company. That’s the biggest concern for investors. So one third of our startups list in Singapore. It’s a sad loss for us.
The government has committed to changing this, but I feel it will take another two years. There is also the issue of digitalization. The are current rules that demand you physically meet your customer, or give them paper receipts. We need more sandboxes, like the agreement the Bank of Thailand has with some banks, so that everyone can use eKYC (electronic “know your customer) and e-receipts.
Unicorns take time, but I’m confident we’ll get there. If you’re wondering who I’d bet on, I’d say Thailand’s first unicorn will have been in the early batches of dtac accelerate, the ones now in series C or D of their talks with investors. In particular, Finnomena and Claim Di are very easy to scale and they solve a global pain point.
I can’t wait for batch six to start. When I see the passion in the eyes of those kids, that’s what gets me going. When you talk to them, they want to change the world. At the end of the day, that kind of passion is the most important thing to build a unicorn.
Sompoat Chansomboon is Managing Director of dtac accelerate, Thailand’s number one accelerator that empowers early-stage startups through mentorship and financial support.