Back in February this year, I chanced upon a rare internship opportunity with 500 TukTuks via my university’s Global Innovation Immersion (GII) programme and thought to myself, why not give it a shot? Back then, my understanding of the Venture Capital (VC) world was limited to the “sharks” from “Shark Tank” and unicorns such as Grab (incidentally also a part of the 500 portfolio), but never gave much of a thought as to how young startups could grow from a base of angel investors to attracting top VC funds.
Fast forward to August 2021, where I’m now at the tail end of my stint with the 500 TukTuks team, famed for taking chances on young startups it likens to the iconic TukTuks of Thailand (small, lean, fast, agile, and dangerous!), and I now have a much stronger understanding of both the startup landscape in Thailand and have a better understanding of what VC investors look out for in promising startups.
Across the past 3.5 months, friends and strangers alike have asked questions such as:
“What’s it like to intern at 500?”
“What is the Thai startup scene even like?”
“Why a virtual internship?”
“Why Thailand and not Jarkarta or Shanghai where the startups and cheque sizes are bigger?”
I hope this post will be able to answer some of these questions and give aspiring VCs a small glimpse into the exciting world of Thailand’s startup scene and its top seed-stage Venture Capital fund.
Thailand’s startup scene
When one hears of Thailand and Bangkok, the first things that probably come to mind are the beautiful beaches, the rich culture and traditions as well as the vibrant nightlife. While all these hold true, I’d like to challenge you to think about a whole other side of Thailand that’s quietly emerging.
- Southeast Asia’s strongest public market
- Lightnet: The world’s first conglomerate-backed blockchain startup
- Pomelo: Southeast Asia’s leading omnichannel fashion platform
According to Jumpstart Magazine, the kingdom is currently home to over 540 startups, though anecdotal evidence suggests that this figure is understated given the sheer volume of startups that are operating in stealth mode or are unregistered such as student-run ventures.
Coming from Singapore where the scene is mostly driven by foreign-owned venture capital firms (many of which consider Singapore to be a gateway hub to the region) and robust support by the government and tertiary institutions, the Thai scene in contrast is driven very much by support from local Corporate Venture Capital (CVC) firms. The implications are simple, Thai investors value growth through strategic partnerships while ones in Singapore are driven more towards nurturing innovative ideas, both of which foster thriving startup communities in their own ways.
Just like how aspiring founders are often advised to try a stint at a startup before launching a one themselves, Thailand is perfect for a young aspiring VC to gain an understanding of what it takes to support an early-stage startup with limited resources and support before taking a deep-dive into the innovation landscape.
While Thailand is one of the world’s top manufacturing and agricultural hubs as well as the world’s 26th largest economy, the landscape is very much tilted in favour of larger conglomerates and growth stage startups which catch their attention, making it harder for VCs to justify a potential portfolio company to their investors.
Singapore in contrast, while a much smaller economy driven by both Government-linked companies(GLCs) and Small and medium-sized enterprise (SMES), has relatively strong support for young startups and their founders and as such, VCs are more comfortable with taking chances on riskier startups.
A Singapore-based founder who had started a company in Thailand during the thick of the COVID-19 crisis last year, summed up his preference for starting in Thailand as:
“Young startups in Singapore are often told to look abroad and expand into foreign markets without much of a thought into how much their success is driven by the fact that the Singapore market is extremely business-friendly and supportive of young startups.
You can’t say the same about Thailand, where the market is larger, more unforgiving and the average person can’t afford to take chances on a product or an idea that does not work. That’s why I chose Thailand. If I can make my startup work here, it can certainly work in Cambodia or Laos or Myanmar where things are even less certain”
Hence, Thailand over the larger, well-established startup hubs of Jakarta and Shanghai as I was lucky enough to meet and learn from plucky founders who were brave enough to take on their larger contenders even with the odds stacked against them.
Why take on a virtual internship?
When I applied to 500 back in February 2021, there was still a semblance of hope that I would have had the opportunity to fly to Bangkok in May.
Alas, as the COVID-19 situation both in Singapore and Thailand continued to escalate and with borders shut, the team and I faced the unappealing prospect of working remotely through the summer months.
While the remote internship proceeded better than I had previously anticipated, here are some pros and cons students in a similar situation might want to consider before pursuing your virtual stint.
|Advantages of a virtual internship||Disadvantages of a virtual internship|
What is it like to intern at 500?
I am incredibly grateful to Mamaew, Pat and Twwo not just for taking a chance on this young, ill-experienced, sophomore-year business undergraduate (hardly the typical profile of a VC investment analyst intern!), but also giving me opportunities to learn valuable lessons both as an aspiring VC and entrepreneur.
No two days are alike here, and I am fortunate to have had the chance to try my hand at evaluating pitches, figuring out what makes a good pitch. Learning what a real Investment Memorandum (internally referred to as a deal memo) looks like and how to present one amongst other lessons in interacting with startups and performing deal-sourcing and due diligence and even interacting with other VC firms.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the many kind souls across the #500strong community whom I have interacted with and spoken to about the innovation landscapes in New York and the Middle East for instance and for their insights and advice on how I can continue to pursue this journey of supporting young entrepreneurs across Southeast Asia.
If there’s one word I could use to describe 500 TukTuks and its parent organisation, it would be “nurturing”.
Nurturing, as on calls with the TukTuks team and potential portfolio companies, the team always tries to end off the call with advice on how the company could continue to grow and frames feedback positively, even if they are not interested in continuing the conversation with these founders.
Nurturing, as everyone I have met is passionate about young founders and supporting startup ecosystems and loves doing their part to grow and care for the next wave of big names in the innovation landscape, be it through accelerator programmes, VC mentoring hours or actively giving back to the community.
Nurturing, as there’s this genuine excitement about finding unpolished, overlooked teams and supporting their growth, through good times and bad and constantly giving these founders chances to improve if the startup is committed to being a part of the portfolio.
Finally, here are three key takeaways from my short stint with the 500 TukTuks team:
1) Be Bold: It’s okay to ask questions!
Being very new to the VC scene, there was and is still a lot for me to learn from both my mentors as well as the startups and investors I had the opportunity to meet.
That being said, even if you feel like the least experienced person in the room, or that your questions are too silly, ask, for the person on the other side may find those questions intriguing and may be more than willing to share their own thoughts and experiences.
2) Be Open-minded
VCs get the opportunity to see how the market operates from a true birds eye view and with that comes both potential game changers as well as ideas that don’t necessarily make sense in the current market. Nonetheless, it is good to keep an open mind and do your own research on the startup’s vertical before hastily coming to any conclusions on the actual worth of the firm and what they hope to bring to the table.
3) Be Kind
Kindness is severely underrated in the world of finance but something all top VCs have in common. Throughout my time with the TukTuks team as well as the 500 team across the world, I’ve met so kind, warm and nurturing people all keen to make a difference in the lives of young founders and likewise,the founders I have spoken to have all said that they would pick a warm-hearted and supportive investor with a smaller cheque over a harsher and more demanding one even if the cheque size is twice as large.
Kindness begets kindness and as someone sitting on an investor’s seat, do know that you have the power not just to change someone’s life through the cheques you write, but also the words you say and your actions towards not just founders but other players in the startup ecosystem.
I hope that this sharing has given other aspiring young VCs and founders an alternative look at the Thai startup landscape as well as the often-overlooked side of VC funds, who are more people-oriented than they appear at first glance! Feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn if you have any other questions regarding my experience with the TukTuks team, SMU’s GII programme or just want to chat about the many exciting innovations that have emerged in Southeast Asia!
About the Author:
Anaanya is a finance and financial forensics undergraduate at the Singapore Management University who joined the 500 TukTuks team as an Investment Analyst Intern from May to August 2021 under the Global Innovation Immersion (GII) programme.
Outside of her role at 500 TukTuks, Anaanya is a keen advocate for young, impact-driven ventures as well as FinTech innovations promoting financial access and fraud mitigation and hopes to one day return to the venture capital scene either as a venture capitalist or an entrepreneur!