By ASINA PORNWASIN
THE NATION Weekend
Into this space came Yod, a former UCLA Anderson MBA student. He set up Wongnai with the aim for it to become to the largest food and restaurant review online portal in Thailand. Eight years on, Wongnai is recognised as the leader in this segment, serving as the prime online destination for foodies wanting to do some research on culinary selections.
With this success behind him, the 35-year-old chief executive is intent on driving Wongnai forward into the top three of technology companies in Thailand. He aims to have at least 30 million users engaging with the Wongnai platform in their day-to-day lives within the next three years.
“We need to capture between 50 and 80 per cent of the total Internet users in Thailand to actively participate in Wongnai’s services,” he says. “At that time, the services will not be limited to food and beauty, but will be expanded to take in a lot more.”
Yod says it was only with the first mission achieved that he has plotted the even-bigger mission of expanding the services on the platform.
“Now, among the top 100 companies in Thailand, none is a tech company,” he says. “Once we asked ourselves, which is the giant Thai tech company? But the answer was, there is none. Thailand does not have giant tech companies like China’s Tencent and Alibaba and the US’s Facebook, Google, and Amazon.”
To achieve the goal, he concedes there is a lot more work to be done. First of all, the products, the Wongnai app and website, need to be improved and become meaningful to people, he says.
“It needs to have a lot more use cases, rather than only food. It also needs to have a lot of daily active users, rather than having weekly active users, which now number about 2 million,” Yod says.
“We need to have people using Wongnai every day in the same way they use Facebook and Line. Thus, only having food reviews is not enough. We need to add a lot more features in the use case of food and to have more use cases in other industry such as travel.”
Towards these goals, Wongnai is working to launch Wongnai POS (by FoodStory), as a Wongnai platform for restaurants that is connected to Wongnai’s services including reviews, deliveries and, lastly, payment.
Yod has built up the company to the point that it now has 300 employees, working under the company’s core values of impact, passion, speed and flexibility.
Wongnai has three million monthly active users using the Wongnai app, but counts a total of eight millions users of all Wongnai services every month.
“Having a much improved product alone is not enough to drive the company to achieve these goals,” Yod says. “All the teams need to be more efficient, from the management team to those in business development as well as the engineers and content teams. All of them need to know their customers and users well in order to develop and deliver the right product and service to address their needs effectively.
“We need to have more people in teams. It might not be on the scale of 10 times bigger but we need the team sizes to be four bigger than they are today in order to drive Wongnai to grow by 10 times to become a top tech company in Thailand,” says Yod.
Food will remain the biggest source of content on the portal, but it will also boast beauty, cooking and travel as developing areas for content.
Wongnai has the largest food and restaurant database in Thailand with 250,000 entries nationwide. It has around 2 million weekly active users for the Wongnai food feature. In terms of room to grow, Yod is looking at tripling this.
But, for his ambitions for Wongnai to grow by 10 times in order to become a giant tech company in Thailand, he says the new use cases, including beauty and travel, need to succeed.
“We need to expand from being a only food review app to becoming a lifestyle app that engages people every day,” Yod says.
The monetisation model of Wongnai is built around advertising and transactions. In the food area, Wongnai has partnered with Line Thailand to offer Wongnai Lineman delivery services that generate revenue from transactions. Voucher, deal and food events – with 20 events already this year - are the other ways that the company achieves monetisation of Wongnai in the food domain.
The lion’s share of the revenue – at 80 per cent – comes from media advertisements. And the revenue streams from transactions are very promising. With this in mind, Wongnai acquired FoodStory to develop Wongnai POS (by FoodStory) by connecting 250,000 restaurants to the Wongnai platform, which draws around 8 million users. The Wongnai POS platform is designed to serve the needs of restaurants and to seamlessly provide them with real-time datbase updates to the Wongnai platform.
Yod highlights what he calls Wongnai’s unique horizontal organisational structure, known as squad, which allows staff to work together across functional teams of development, content, marketing, sales, designer, and business development in order to serve the business domains of food, beauty, cooking and travel.
“It is likely that we have many small companies (squads) inside Wongnai,” he says. “Each cross-functional team consists of all people from the functional teams. They think, plan, and act together to achieve the goal themselves. I let them do all the stuff together covering strategic planning to action planning, and execution. The working culture here is to let everyone show their competencies.”
He says he has learned from Spotify and Netflix, successful companies that provide content streaming, which have squad teams operating inside them.
“I have found the squad team system works very works,” Yod says. “It is easier management since I can manage both vertical (functional team) and horizontal (squad team) at the same time.”
Another distinguishing characteristic of Wongnai is that it is a tech company that is driven not only by the technical team but by the media and content teams as the main resources of the company.
“This is so we can localise to fit to business in Thailand. If we play a role as the platform only, without offering content development for customers, our business performance might not be as good as it is now and we might not grow as rapidly as we expect to. We do what we need to in order to serve the market’s needs and that’s why customers love us.”
Yod has chosen to develop his own content production team since he believes that full-time staff have a long-term interest in the company, instead of those employed on a freelance or outsourcing basis.
“I have no background in content development and earlier I did not pay attention to creativity matters since I am an engineer, I focus only on high productivity and efficiency,” he says.
He is very strict on employees’ adherence to the company’s core values - impact, passion, speed and flexibility. He just sets goal for his teams and then gives them the freedom to create. He finds that this way of management, especially when it is executed by young people, is very effective.
Wongnai has become one of the most attractive companies in young people’s minds. Yod is confident that its hiring appeal is very strong.
“We run the company with these core values and that helps us to attract a lot more talent. It is likely that with this momentum under way that talent will attract talent,” he says.
The secret of Wongai’s success, Yod says, lies in its execution. “Wongnai’s mission is to connect people to good stuff and the company’s mission is to become a top 3 tech company in Thailand in the next three years,” he says.
“As for how we achieve that goal, it is to follow the company’s core values. Our staff need to be impacted people, they need to be productive and results oriented. Their passion lets them enjoy working and they use their heart in their work. Speed is a must since we need to compete at speed. Meanwhile, attention to flexibility opens to new things and lets us get ready to face changes.”
Another way of cementing the core values with staff are the town hall-style meetings that are held every three months. “These events are to let all staff show their capabilities. They also provide a charge in energy for employees and keep them connected to the CEO,” he says.
He concedes that he is a tough CEO, as he says he is serious about the work requirements and that the company’s culture must be results oriented. With this mindset, the staff are under pressure to succeed.
“A growth mindset is more important than skills. Thus, it is not only skills that he looks at when recruiting people who have potential, are a good fit for the organisation, and have the right mindset.
Yod characterises himself as a CEO who aims to keep on improving himself. Otherwise, he says would not be fit to lead others, he says. He wants his self-improvement ethos to serve as a model for his employees.
As for retirement, he has set no goals.
“Successful people in this world do not retire too early,” Yod says. “A goal is not to stop at ourselves, and instead look for meaningful ways in which we can create for the country or the world. When I am working, I don’t have cares. Working is a part of my life. Some days are not enjoyable, but as a whole, it is a life mission. I desire to create a bigger impact for the benefit of the country. Everyone always has be challenged to come forward in life.”
For Wongnai as a lifestyle app, if it is to become the No 1, it needs to have a better app, with better execution, smarter talent, and better care of customers while creating more value for users, he says. “Everyone want to produce a people’s lifestyle app, so that means we need to compete to get people to spend more time with us,” Yod says.
On the acquisition front, Wongnai has added blognone.com and Brandinside.asia. The content teams of these platforms are kept separate from Wongnai’s content team.
Yod describes Blognone as having good potential for further growth once merged with Wongnai’s aggressive and ambitious culture.
“We bought Blognone because it is a good company with potential,” he says. “The founder of Blognone is helping us as part of Wongnai’s management team. I think there are no boundaries between tech and media companies, as evidenced by Amazon’s purchase of the Washington Post.”