Asia used to be a great stopover destination when flying to Europe to get some shopping done or head to the beach, but times have now changed. Australia’s startup community would benefit from spending a little longer on that stop over or holiday where they will find a rich and bustling startup ecosystem, hungry to collaborate.
Looking beyond the sheer scale of China, or the crowded startup hubs of Hong Kong and Singapore, reveals a market that’s brimming with opportunity for Australia’s creatively minded entrepreneurs. Take Thailand for example, where our delegation visited recently as part of QUT Creative Enterprise Australia’s Asia Immersion program as part of the Collider Accelerator.
At a basic level, Thailand has the fourth largest population (>68 million) and second largest economy (2017 GDP $600.24 billion) out of the ASEAN nations; 70% of the population used smartphones and there are approximately 46 million active social media. It’s also our ninth largest trading partner in the world, according to DFAT, so it’s a market close to our shores that warrants attention.
You’ll also find Thailand is an increasingly affluent country with the middle and upper classes fuelling a culture that’s more entrepreneurial on the business side and very technologically engaged on the consumer side. For example, Thailand leads Southeast Asia in time spent on mobile internet usage, with an average of 4.2 hours per day putting it well above the average of 3.6 hours per day.
For context, Americans spend an average of two hours per day and the appetite for content and e-commerce is continuing to grow. Australia’s startup community should be chomping at the bit at the high internet and mobile use amongst Thais, with many of our products and services transferable or aligned with the growing appetite for digital content.
Who is building the Australia-Asia links?
There are also a number of groups doing a great job at connecting the dots including AustCham Thailand and Austrade, and CEA is working actively with our partners in Thailand to support the growth of both of our ecosystems and markets. While we have a Free Trade Agreement in place, it doesn’t really support startups but there is something better. The Thai Board of Investment’s (BOI) friendly policy towards startups provide tax free concessions along with visa and establishment support and they are aggressively targeting great international entrepreneurs and companies.
We’ve seen some encouraging progress lately. Most notably Australia’s DATETIX acquired Thai dating startup noonswoon in 2016, but the traditional SME space is where we’re seeing the most success, perhaps showing a way forward. Our recent delegation to Thailand incorporated visits from Australian companies who had established there, showcasing their stories of success, failure and experiences.
These included companies such as healthcare consultant InterMediKa, innovative construction company Lexicon, engineering firm EPIC Service Co, digital marketing agency Primal and web developer Mad Appe. Seeing those companies succeeding provides a gateway for the startups to follow. And then there are the amazing creative tech Thai startups like Ookbee, Lensod, Pomelo and Fungjai, or Asian giants like aCommerce and Omise that have paved the way in the Asian ecosystem and provide so many learnings for Aussie startups looking to build bridges into Asia.
We are also seeing an increasing number of investors looking towards Australia’s startup scene as an untapped opportunity, particularly if startups have products and services that can easily localise to Thailand. Telecommunications, med-tech, travel-tech, creative-tech and fin-tech are all high areas of interest for the new generation of Thai entrepreneurial investors, and with friendly local laws, comfort in the Australian economy and market access into most of ASEAN, these investors bring more than just money to Australian startups.
What is missing?
What’s lacking is a deeper presence of Australian organisations delivering activities on the ground, working alongside Thai ecosystems and startups bringing structural expertise with many of the organisations supporting the Thai startup industry bring from the US or elsewhere in Asia. The same goes for the companies making the acquisitions.
This is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon across Southeast Asia where Australia’s startup community focuses is on some of the ‘usual suspects’ – China, Hong Kong and Singapore. It needn’t be this way. Australian startups really should keep a close eye on ASEAN, whether it’s Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos, they have incredibly willing markets in need of fantastic localised products and services.
The secret is building great collaborations with coworking spaces, government agencies, universities and tech talent that provides you with a holistic view of the activities across the landscape and where you can fit in. The coworking spaces, like Australia, tend to be a collecting point for keen entrepreneurs and startup founders but there are some great skills that exist in the university ecosystem. It has to be a two-way street. Similarly in Australian coworking spaces like The Coterie at CEA, incubator and accelerator programs and startups groups like Brisbane/Melbourne/Sydney startups are really strong online groups providing that bird’s eye view of the ecosystem.
There’s much more to be done, more bridges to be build and more collaboration to be undertaken for Australia to truly be considered part the world’s most exciting economic regions. It’s time for the Australian startup ecosystem to engage and join our ASEAN neighbours where we can have real and immediate impact rather than trying to drag everything here to our shores. Jump on a plane, make a few phone calls and immerse yourself in an entrepreneurial wave not seen since the late 90s and early 2000s.
Mark Gustowski is chief executive of QUT Creative Enterprise Australia.