Despite her brief time as an investor in Southeast Asia, Phanthila “Mook” Saengthong nonetheless noticed a common trait among the business founders who were doing most of the region’s innovating.
“Most of the founders come from common backgrounds,” says the Bangkok native. “They got their education from really good schools abroad and went back to start something. But there are many people that have the potential to innovate and start a business in Southeast Asia who just don’t know how to start, don’t know how to find resources or even raise that seed round of funding.”
The situation is getting better, she says, but there’s still a lot that can be done to improve what she calls the “tech ecosystem” in Southeast Asia, especially for start-ups. She’s hoping to bring a bit of Silicon Valley’s can-do mindset with her when she returns home after graduating from Stanford GSB.
You’ve said innovation matters most to you in business. Can you name three factors that need to be present for innovation to thrive?
First, people need to be able to see that innovation is possible. In Silicon Valley, people take more risks to become entrepreneurs because they’ve seen so many people who tried and succeeded, and they see the possibility. It’s getting better, but in Southeast Asia most people don’t want to take as much risks because they don’t see that many examples of those with similar backgrounds who tried and succeeded. That mindset needs to be present.
And the other factors?
Resources. They need someone to invest in them, so they have money to grow their business. To innovate you need resources and capital to scale up your innovation.
Third is mentorship. After they recognize what’s possible and find the resources, founders need someone who can guide them through and give them the necessary know-how to think of products, come up with a business model, and how to scale.
Do those conditions broadly exist in Southeast Asia?
I feel like there’s so much potential in Southeast Asia. That’s why I want to go back. The reason I came here is because I feel like the tech ecosystem here is one of the earliest and most active. All the resources, successful tech companies, and successful investors are concentrated here.
How do you hope to improve the climate for innovation when you return?
Let’s frame it around those three factors. Now I know what makes the mindset of the people see things that are possible, how to get the resources, and how to mentor the new generation of founders. With those three factors, I’ll take what I learned here to help empower the new generation of tech companies in Southeast Asia.
What was the most valuable thing you learned during your time as a summer associate for Asia Partners?
I learned from one of the partners his thesis in investing. He said you have to be two things: Be contrary but be right at the same time. You have to go out and hunt for things that people overlooked, but you also have to use your judgment about whether it’s a good investment.
Any memorable investments you were involved with at Beacon Venture Capital that proved particularly instructive?
When I was there, it was a time when crypto-blockchain was a huge trend. Back then the firm had made no investment in those companies. So my team did two things: We ramped up our know-how in the industry. That’s the right way to go, because as an investor you need to keep yourself updated about what’s going on in the world. We scouted around and we researched how crypto-blockchain worked, what is the value chain of the industry, who were the players in the industry, who would be a good target for us to invest in. Eventually the firm invested in some companies but not a whole lot. This emphasizes that thorough research is very important given the bear market a year later.
What qualities were you looking for before investing in that new and often uncertain technology?
The most important thing about early-stage investment is the founder. I think figuring out why that founder is working on that company or why the founder is working on that specific problem is the most important thing. If the founder is working on a problem that’s personal to them or they’re passionate about, that’s enough to keep that founder going through the challenges in the first stages of building the company, that passion and motivation. The second thing is figuring out if the founder is the right fit for that product or business. If the founder had some success in previous projects, or they have a reputation in the industry, tells you whether that founder is the right fit for the problem they’re solving. The rest you can help the founder figure out. But you need the right founder who is motivated to solve that problem.
You worked as a business strategy manager at Facebook in Singapore between 2018 to 2021. Were there any strategic challenges Facebook was confronting at the time, and how did you address those?
Throughout my three years there, I worked with clients from various industries, including the ones that struggle to ride the digital trend. For example, there is a local FMCG distributor who was mostly focusing on offline channels for marketing and sales. Their executives were struggling to transform the organization as they barely used any social media or digital channels to browse and buy products. They are among the top 10 advertisers in the country in terms of marketing spending. However, they were losing market share as consumer behavior shifted to online, especially during the pandemic. I worked with them on digital marketing and e-commerce capability-building plans to defend as much revenue as possible.
How did you try to address that?
I first brought in resources to re-skill their team in digital marketing skills from planning to execution. I highlighted the shift in consumer behavior and helped them plan their media. I also connected them to e-commerce platforms and worked on the partnerships to onboard them into digital sales channels to smoothly connect the whole customer journey experience online from awareness to actual purchase. Once they saw the actual ROI coming from the online campaign, they gained confidence in continuing with innovating their digital efforts as consumer behavior keeps evolving.
Is there someone in your life who you consider a mentor?
I’ve had so many, but I think of my first manager at Facebook, Chawadee Wongphyat. She has been really supportive throughout my career and I still keep in touch with her. I joined Facebook as a new college graduate, and one of my weaknesses was relationship-building skills. My job was to work with clients across industries. That’s very difficult for me because in Asia the idea of seniority is more prevalent than in Western culture. It was difficult for me to establish trust with our more senior clients. Those skills also help me in the venture capital world, because you really need to go talk to a lot of people.
Do any particular books, professors, or experiences at GSB strike you as especially meaningful?
The class I liked best and which was really relevant is called Creating and Scaling High Potential Ventures in Developing Economies, taught by Steve Ciesinski and Howard Rosen. It’s a case-based class, so every week we would study a case on companies or investors from all over the world — Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East. There are a lot of common characteristics in developing economies that I found really helpful for my post-MBA goals. We’d not only read the case, but they’d have the founders there for us to talk with. I could ask them why they made certain decisions. They were very open to share everything. It’s helpful, because my goal is to go back to Southeast Asia and drive the tech ecosystem there.
Photos by Elena Zhukova