By ASINA PORNWASIN
THE NATION WEEKEND
The company’s accelerator programme, which serves as an incubator for bright ideas, has nurtured 46 startups with a combined company valuation of Bt5.23 billion.
Sompoat, also known as Meng, took over dtac Accelerate in 2015, succeeding Krating Poonpol, who initiated the programme in 2012.
Of the 46 startups, each has achieved an average growth in valuation of around five times. Some 72 per cent of the startups from dtac Accelerate have secured vital follow-on funding; elsewhere in Asian, the proportion is around 20 to 25 per cent.
Before taking over at dtac Accelerate, Sompoat, 40, worked with Citibank for 11 years and as head of digital marketing at UOB for 18 months.
He graduated in electrical engineering from Thammasat University and went on to gain an MBA from ABAC. At Citibank, in his first post, he worked as a management associate at the global financial giant, which has a presence in 13 countries across Asia Pacific, for two years. He was based in Singapore, which served as the company’s regional office, for one year.
He oversaw financial and product acquisition for Citbank’s retail banking operation before moving to UOB. At that time, the Singapore bank launched a new business unit, digital marketing, and Sompoat was tasked with getting the unit up and running.
A turning point for Sompoat came in 2013 with the birth of his son. He was then aged 35 and decided to leave UOB and take time out for family life.
“I did not know how I could go about being a good father and, since I wanted to spend all my time with my son, I quit my position at the bank. I remained looking after my son until he was aged five,” Sompoat said.
During that period he found time to take classes, for Batch 6 at Disrupt University, as it was known at Disrupt Technology Venture. The organisation was run by Krating, a figure regarded as the godfather of startups in Thailand.
“I was interested in him and his thoughts, since his words and actions guided me on to the path that I love. I desired to take his class and through that we could got to know each other more closely – and that led to him bringing me to dtac Accelerate,” says Sompoat.
He loves works that involves building up something from scratch. Before starting his first job, Sompoat and some of his friends established the Thai iPad Club as an iPad community, and went on to develop a Thai keyboard for iPad. That was before the launch of iPad in 2010. He also developed a system for displaying maps on a tablet for taxis, and a company went on to buy the system. It was during that time that he met Krating.
“He (Krating) said if I did my own startup, ultimately I could do only one to two startups each year. But at dtac Accelerate, I could help at least 10 Thai startups each year. That is a huge difference and it made it more meaningful for me as a motivation to join dtac Accelerate. And that allowed me to do what I love, pursuing technology and starting new things, all while having time for my family,” Sompoat says.
Sompoat started taking care of dtac Accelerate Batch 3 before moving on to the current Batch 6.
He started his journey at dtac Acclerate with an emphasis on managing his team, since he realised that good management is required when trying to bring out the best in a team.
“We need to put the right man or the right woman in the right job in an exact fit. The talent can deliver in a job to meet expectations, but they can deliver at a rate of 10 times that if they are in a job they love,” Sompoat says. “Therefore we need to know what particular passions are driving the team members.”
He says he is grateful to the executives of dtac that gave him a licence to fail and a licence to succeed - without intervene in his management decisions.
He says that approach is vastly different from the environment in his banking career – and this difference is driven by the youthful profile of the team members, who are mostly from the generations Y, Z and millennials,
A new way of communication is needed with such people and, says Sompoat, technology provides the common language.
dtac Acclerate rates its success according to the achievements of startups in each of the batches, Sompoat says. When a startup succeeds it is his team’s success; if it fails, it is his failure.
dtac Accelerate invests in pre-seed round of funding of up to Bt1.5 million for each startup.
Another measure of success is the reputation of dtac Accelerate. Once startups from dtac Accelerate succeed, this prompts an increase in applications to join the programme, boosting the likelihood of more quality startups in the pipeline.
Through the four batches under his management – from Batch 3 to Battch 6 - the numbers of applications jumped dramatically from 30 prospective steams in Batch 3 to 600 teams seeking spots in Batch 6. But the number of quality startups is more significant than number of the applications, which double every year.
What’s more, the challenges set for the teams are changed every year, Sompoat says. The company needs to adjust the challenge for each batch according to the tech startup ecosystem situation. For example, from lean startup, scale and hook to blockchain.
“The challenge in Batch 3 was to help startups to secure seed funding after attending a four-month camp, while the challenges in batches 4, 5, and 6 were to help startups to secure pre-series A funding and pave the way for batch 7, which aims to help statups to secure series A funding,” Sompoat says. “Our challenges change according to the quality of the startups in our camp.” The curriculum is always updated. This is to ensure the startups keep benefiting from their participation in dtac Accelerate. “It is to offer what they need, such as growth hacking, customer base, public relations, and fundraising,” he says.
dtac Accelerate has been evolving every year. Startups selected to join the camp need to be smarter and be more proficient. Each year, around 10 to 12 teams attend the camp.
“Moreover, there are a lot more female founders in tech startups. Startups run by female founders show new characteristics such as a more dedicated focus on people management and more concern in taking risk. I admire female founders. I personally like the culture of startups that have female founders,” Sompoat says.
He says dtac Accelerate aims to build startups, to invest, to mentor – and to seek mentors for them.
“A good team sharing the same passion is one of key success factors for dtac Accelerate,” he says.
“The ultimate goal of dtac Accelerate, from day one, is to build the first unicorn startup in Thailand.”
A unicorn is a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion. It is a long journey but Sompoat believes the company is on the right track.
He is confident that at least one to two centaur startup – companies with a valuation of more than $100 million - will emerge from dtac Accelerate in the next three to five years.
Around 72 per cent of startups from dtac Accelerate secure follow-on funding, putting Thailand in the top three countries in this space in Southeast Asia. This success has helped draw mentors from overseas to participate in the camp.
The startups that pass through dtac Accelerate on average enjoy five time the normal growth in 12 months in terms of traction and valuation. Since 2015, the total valuation of startups in dtac Accelerate was around Bt500 million; this has increased to Bt5.23 billion this year.
“There are two more large exit deals scheduled to be completed by the end
of this year,” says Sompoat.
In Batch 5, nine of the 12 teams secured funding, seed and pre-series A stage funding. At that time only 20 startups in the whole country achieved that. Sompoat says this means that almost 50 per cent of the total number of startups to reach that mark have been in the dtac Accelerate family.
He says that as long as Thai startups need acceleration, he and dtac Accelerate will be there for them. The new challenge for dtac Accelerate is to encourage more Thai startups to move on to series B fundraising.
“It is like the domino effect. If we drive startups to secure series A funding, more venture capital funds will invest in them for fear of missing out,” says Sompoat
The tools that dtac Accelerate use are not only for dtac itself but they form a blueprint for the other 13 countries where Telenor operates. The dtac Accelerate model has already been implemented in seven countries.
“dtac Accelerate is local outfit from Thailand but its model is being implemented in many other countries. As part of a telecommunications organisation, the value added to customers is important. If we have value added on shelf to address all our customers’ lifestyles, we will win the game over the long term,” says Sompoat.
Investments in startups in Southeast Asia have been increasing dramatically. In 2016, this came to US$18 billion. Investments in startups in Thailand amounted to US$230 million as of early this year.
“The beauty is, the more foreign investment in startups means more money to employ people, create jobs, and create other investments,” Sompoat says.
The first unicorn startup will spur global venture capital funds to invest in Thailand. “An indirect benefit is to draw more investment to Thailand,” Sompoat says. “Thailand has the potential to have unicorn startups.”
He makes the point that Thailand does not yet have a unicorn startup because the product market is not yet fit for the global market, even though it is adequate for local market.
“Many talented founders think global companies execute locally successfully, but executing in the global market is very challenging since the product-market fit is totally different,” says Sompoat.
“The challenge is to think which way to move to between ‘thinking globally and executing locally’ and ‘thinking globally and executing globally’.”
The dtac Accelerate family consists of 46 companies, each with 50 employees. dtac Accelerate also works as a partner with a lot of tech companies, and much of the success comes from the mentors at hand.
“The startups in dtac Accelerate create about 10,000 jobs. This may sound small as a contribution to the country’s GDP, but it is a good start,” Sompoat says. His greatest concern is the depth of the talent pool in the country, especially as seen over the past 18 months; it has not improved.
“There are not enough expert developers and leaders in the developer community in Thailand. This affects the startup ecosystem as a whole,” Sompoat says.
Each accelerator has different strengths and he fees proud to play a part in the startup ecosystem. Currently, there are 13 accelerators in Thailand. dtac Accelerate plays a role as accelerator and a corporate venture capital (CVC) fund.
“Not every startup needs acceleration,” he says. “Most startups required being accelerated in different ways, and that’s why dtac Accelerate has three different tracks - an incubation track, an accelerate track, and a global track. “Successful startups need a strong technical team. They also need the right support from the government, which has been promoting startups.
“Over the past three to five years, Thailand’s startups ecosystem has been rapidly growing.”
Sompoat says he is happy working with the younger generation. “Every morning I wake up to help young people’s startups move one more step forward to success,” he says.
“It makes me happy. I am creating an environment for the next generation and for my son’s generation. I get a chance to do things that are very good for the next generation.”