Coworking is a relatively new concept in Sri Lanka. It’s only been a few years since we’ve seen the likes of Colombo Cooperative to HomeTree Coworking to Hatch take off. Yet, only a decade ago, this concept was completely alien to most. This was true not only in Sri Lanka but in neighbouring countries as well. It was in 2011, that Thailand got a glimpse of its first co-working space. Although adoption of the concept was slow at first, Hubba and its co-founder Amarit Charoenphan have come a long way since as we learned at Disrupt Asia 2019.
“The name Hubba is derived from “Hub” in the English language and “Bha” in Thai, which means crazy. The idea is a callback to Apple’s 1984 commercial.” – Amarit Charoenphan
Hailing from a background in non-profits, Amarit began his journey by trying to help the hill tribes in Northern Thailand. He helped build multifunctional rooms and taught kids their ABC’s. But after 2 weeks, he came to a bitter realization. Despite the best of intentions, his efforts were actually a burden on these rural tribes.
After swallowing this bitter pill, Amarit’s goal in life was to simply get rich and help people.“I told myself that I was going out to save the world, one shovel or tea basket at a time,” he said sharing what he felt at the time. This realization led him to Google the word, “social entrepreneurship.”
From this search, he ended up working with an incubator focused on nonprofits. Sadly, many of its startups didn’t survive. Reflecting on the situation, Amarit said, “We did everything by the book such as helping them draft a business model canvas and find mentors. We had the passion but we were failing.” He was clueless and began doing his research to see what was going wrong.
What started with a Google search
So he turned to Google and searched for “how to start a startup”. Eventually, after exploring the world beyond Page 2 of Google Search, Amarit’s attention was drawn towards a concept called co-working spaces. He saw that people gathered in these spaces to exchange ideas, sharing their experiences, and supporting each other. He looked up whether anything of the sort existed in Thailand. Not to his surprise, there weren’t any.
The closest thing was “shared” working spaces. But these were expensive as he explained, “With each print out you took and every word you uttered to the receptionist, you were being charged. By the time you get the bill, you realize you’re paying 3x more than you agreed to.” The only other options were cubicles inside government offices. Somehow, these were worse, “They were so lifeless that it was like someone died there 10 times over.”
Having learned of this novel concept, Amarit shelved the idea until October 2011. At the time, Thailand was hit by a massive flood. Everyone left the city, including Amarit and his family. They went to Pattaya, but he found it impossible to work there. Describing the ordeal, Amarit shared, “The hotel had poor WiFi. So I went to a cafe by the beach. Great views but too many tourists. I then decided to work at a Starbucks where the Internet was $5 for 5 hours, which was ridiculous.”
This ordeal was a frustrating experience for Amarit. Seeing all that was wrong, he realized it made sense to build Thailand’s first coworking space. He mentions how “We found a house and imagined working out of garages as Google, Apple and Dell did. If it didn’t work out then we figured we’d at least have a nice office space or we could convert it to a bar. We chose to figure things out along the way.”
Doing things the unstartup way
6 months in, however, their space failed to draw in the crowds. Hubba had no customers and the founding team weren’t even sure how to go about it. Sure, they had visitors, but they were mostly tourists. They didn’t have any real customers. To make matters worse, Hubba was burning close to $6,000 per month. With a month of runway left, they were panicking.
He reached out to one of his mentors who told him point blank, “You’ve done things the unstartup way. You built a product without understanding your customer. You spent $150,000 to build a prototype and now you’re clueless. It’s high time you treated this like a startup and not an SME. Start questioning everything.”
That’s exactly what they did. Amarit and his team began talking to their visitors. Digital nomads would often ask why Hubba was started, and that they were looking for this sort of thing years ago. Many of them had the same grievance. Summarizing all their feedback, Amarit reflected, “It’s not just about the space. Yes, people love being productive and hanging out. But it’s really about what you can do to help them get to where they want to go.”
Through these conversations, the team started understanding the needs of the community better. They also learned that they needed to raise awareness and introduce the value of coworking. It also gave them a stark realization. There will always be more coworking spaces in the future. Each with spaces more luxurious than the last. Hubba didn’t have the money to compete in such a manner. They had to compete smarter.
Hubba: bringing together investors, journalists and corporates
Today, Hubba sees itself as an innovation catalyst. Much of this evolution, was due to its community feedback. An example Amarit shared was Hubba Connect. The Hubba team lost track of how many times their members asked to be connected with investors and journalists. The Hubba Connect platform enables just this.
Further, to encourage innovation, the corporate sector must also fit into the Hubba puzzle. Currently, Hubba hosts a number of corporates in its coworking spaces. The relationship between startups and corporates may seem chaotic. When in reality, it’s interdependent. Startups need corporates, and corporates need startups.
In Sri Lanka, a handful of corporates have already come to this realisation. An example of local corporates and startups collaborating is the John Keells X accelerator. But in Thailand, many corporates feel they’ve missed the bus when the startup ecosystem kicked off a few years ago. According to Amarit, corporates are now at a stage that they don’t want to miss the next wave of opportunity. Hence, many corporates are keen to be deeply involved in the startup ecosystem.
Another reason why corporates take a keen interest in startups is they wish to grow in an agile manner. On the other hand, startups are looking to get corporate support, be it funding, infrastructure or both. Both parties are desirous to engage with each other. However, both are clueless on how best to form a healthy partnership. Amarit wants Hubba to be a place where the two worlds can be brought together.
Currently, there are a number of initiatives that Hubba facilitates to foster such collaboration. These range from helping companies find speakers for events, to conducting innovation programs at companies. Furthermore, services like Hubba Insider and research reports on the Thai startup ecosystem serves to keep the corporate sector informed so that they don’t miss the next big opportunity.
Supporting education to uplift the ecosystem
Amarit’s entrepreneurial journey literally started off with a Google search. When he took the first steps to build Hubba, Thailand didn’t have the infrastructure to enable a vibrant startup ecosystem. Hence, he firmly believes awareness and education plays an important role.
In Sri Lanka, we have entities conducting initiatives with the same goal. These range from ICTA’s ImagineIF programme to independent initiatives like Hackadev by UNDP, to our many Startup Weekends. In Thailand, Hubba Academy also aims to do the same. In essence, Hubba Academy focuses on areas like design thinking, data science, digital marketing, and even skills like sales and presentation.
“We feel that upscaling and supporting education is important,” says Amarit. But like in Sri Lanka, Thailand shares similar challenges. Amarit mentions that unless there are strong government subsidies, access to education will be limited.
It’s not that people don’t want to learn. But rather, most aren’t ready to pay for online learning methods like what Hubba Academy offers. Further, the industry is seeing a shortage of teachers as well. There’s only so much educators can earn from conducting online classes. On the flip side, online education can help offer better flexibility and access to a broader variety of subject matters.
An individual can learn several skills via initiatives like Hubba Academy. Amarit points out that these skills could double or even triple an individual’s salary. As for the future of Hubba Academy, It’s looking to partner up with more instructors and schools. “We want to be the distribution hub for knowledge,” says Amarit.
Leveraging hackathons for the better
There are quite a few ways where one could fine-tune themselves to become entrepreneurs. While Hubba Academy is a great choice, hackathons are another and Amarit is no stranger to hackathons. Hubba regularly hosts hackathons alongside other organisations.
Hackathons like Siri Ventures x HUBBA Stadium: “Liveable Society” and Startup Battleground not only draws the crowd in Thailand. But they also pay attention to the many different emerging avenues in tech such as PropTech and LivingTech. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, it’s no secret that we love our hackathons. But that’s not to say most hackathons here are game-changers of any sort.
So how can hackathons offer real value? Amarit believes that we should rethink hackathons in general. He goes on to share that hackathons shouldn’t be used as launch pads for new business ventures, a sentiment we ourselves shared in the recent past.
Instead, it’s better to use it as a means of incubating individuals. Ideally, hackathon participants should move forward. That means going ahead with incubation, acceleration, and finally funding. Making hackathon participation a one-off thing isn’t the best way to go about it.
The role of localisation and innovation
We often hear how localisation is important for startups to have success in the market. Locally, we’ve seen companies like PickMe and Bhasha, launch products that isn’t a novel idea, but added a touch of local flavour to gain leverage over the others. But Amarit believes that localisation can be a double-edged sword if a company doesn’t pay attention to the right variables. This is particularly true for companies looking beyond their local market.
“Innovation is about making life better, more convenient, less costly, and more fun for everybody. I think that’s very important these days with the world going to hell in a handbasket.” – Amarit Charoenphan
On one hand, localisation helps companies expand into multiple regions. On the other hand, companies may invest more time than usual trying to understand the nuances of the local territory. So by the time a company is ready to launch, competitors may have already taken the lead.
It’s very likely that a startup founder you never met is exploring the same idea as yours in another country. Amarit considers this diversity to be beautiful. Elaborating on this, he said, “Whenever I go to the Techstars APAC Summit, I see people from 40 countries pitching similar ideas. That’s the beauty of the startup movement. From the very first day, you have unlimited competition.”
In the face of unlimited competition, he continued, “If you’re not hungry, trying to move faster, and use better technology, then someone will overtake you.” Hence, it’s essential that startups constantly innovate. But where does innovation come from exactly? Amarit believes innovation is born out of scarcity.
Beyond innovation. The basics for a startup to succeed
To be precise, problems come out of scarcity, which thrusts for new innovation. Classic examples like Uber and Airbnb are a testament to this. Thereby, it’s important to ask questions. It’s important to question everything. Not only will it help identify problems. It will help you build a better startup as well. With the challenges the world faces today, there’s plenty of problems to go around.
Yet, with each round of innovation, startups must accept they will be fundamentally disrupting their business. As Amarit puts it, “We’re constantly working to go from 300 to 3000 to 3 million users. Each time you add a zero, you’re fundamentally disrupting your business. You have to go out there with epic ideas because if you don’t then somebody else will.”
“Businesses succeed when they can change habits” – Amarit Charoenphan
But while innovation is about solving problems, he went onto say that’s not what successful startups do. Returning to the example of Uber and Airbnb, successful startups change habits. Even in Thailand, ride-sharing was a novel concept 5 short years ago. This was the case in Sri Lanka as well.
Likewise, the same can be said of ordering food through an app, e-commerce, and even watching your favourite movie online. Today, the companies operating in these industries have completely reshaped our habits.
Nevertheless, changing habits is merely one of the many challenges a startup would face. To the founders at Disrupt Asia 2019, Amarit shared, “In this day and age, it’s not solely about innovation. People think the startup life is a glamorous one. It’s actually a grind. But the moment your passion dies, that’s when your company fails. It’s not when you run out of cash. If you have the passion then even if you’re out of cash, you’ll find a solution.”
Looking to the future
Hubba goes to show that the community is a powerful thing. Co-working itself is an important part of nurturing entrepreneurship and the startup ecosystem. But taking the initiative yourself and pushing through the system can be rewarding in the long term. Hubba was built at a time when coworking was a novice concept. Today, it has grown to be a tech ecosystem builder in Thailand.
Amarit and Hubba also show that sometimes different markets may often be faced with similar problems. Today, Thailand is 43rd in the Global Innovation Index with Sri Lanka coming at 89th place. But that doesn’t mean the two markets always face different problems. What’s different is how the stakeholders react and take action to move forward, which comes back to the original point.
Community is a powerful thing. It can help a budding startup find its core team or it can bring an entrepreneur together with a prospective investor. At the end of the day, it’s about putting your hand up and wanting to help. As Amarit puts it, “If you want your neighbourhood to be clean, look after your neighbourhood. Take the trash out and sweep.