Aswin Phlaphongphanich was always the quietest kid in the class. The patka on his head set him apart from others, he rarely spoke and was frequently picked on. The classmate who sat next to him for the yearbook picture didn’t even know his name.
Born in Thailand into a Sikh family from India, the 40-year-old entrepreneur describes himself as a “minority on minority on minority” and looks back on his childhood as a time of introversion and unhappiness.
“I was the only odd one out, the only different kid in school. If you asked my classmates or teachers, they might not know me,” he says.
The founder and CEO of SawasdeeShop Group, a provider of telecom-related services, says his introversion is now a thing of the distant past, partially thanks to the circumstances that induced him to become an entrepreneur.
“People may face racism in their childhood but as they grow older they have two choices: they can go totally in or come totally out,” Mr Aswin tells Asia Focus.
When he established his first business at age 21, the role and responsibility as a leader helped expedite the transformation, making him more outspoken and confident.
“I had to hire and lead people who were in their late 30s or 40s. They were coming from such smart and intellectual backgrounds, so I had no choice but to change,” he recalls.
“If I didn’t portray the leadership role, I could never gain respect from them and I wouldn’t be able to grow and lead the team.”
Confident leadership, he says, is especially crucial for startup businesses because the founders only have a finite period to prove themselves.
Mr Aswin repeated that belief to himself over and over, and eventually started to use his identity and uniqueness to his advantage, seeing it as something of value, rather than embarrassment.
“It’s up to you whether you want to use it in your favour or not. If I’m unique and shouting out that I’m a brand and use it to make my identity, people will remember. It’s your decision to capitalise on it or become an introvert,” he says.
BUSINESS IN THE BLOOD
Mr Aswin has faced many setbacks and disappointments since the beginning of his business journey, but he never gets discouraged. He never gives himself the choice to give up. The same perseverance also drove his grandfather, who came to Thailand over a century ago to start a textile business.
“My grandfather was only 14 when he came to Thailand, or Siam at that time. He imported textiles from different parts of the world and walked around, village by village and house by house to sell, literally knocking door to door,” he says.
As the business grew, it opened up the opportunity for Mr Aswin’s father to receive a better education and experience life abroad. Receiving a full scholarship from the Thai government to study in Germany, his father later started a business with German counterparts in Thailand and became very successful.
However, the Asian financial crisis hit the family particularly hard, bringing the business close to insolvency. Mr Aswin, returning home in 1999 as a fresh graduate from the United States, felt compelled to do what he could to help out.
“I came back in that post-crisis period when banking and businesses were collapsing. I had no other options but to start something of my own, differentiate myself and do something completely different,” he recalls.
Mr Aswin chose to turn crisis into an opportunity to pursue a business he was passionate about, in the field of technology, without having the pressure of succession as his father was preoccupied with his own predicament.
“If it wasn’t so, I might have just joined the family business and taken it forward like a lot of other successors.
“But my forte is not in traditional industries. My mind is more on the technology side. Technology is where the exponential growth is, but the chance of being disrupted and revolutionised is also very high.”
When he began his business career at 21, the dot-com boom was peaking in the United States, and Mr Aswin looked for something that would work in Thailand.
“In 2000, I saw that the next big thing would be digital marketing. I knew that it would be the hot thing to sell or to have,” he says.
Armed with a unique educational background in both engineering and e-commerce and marketing degree, Mr Aswin decided to build an e-commerce platform.
However, being directly related to the owner of a bankrupted family, it was almost impossible for him to obtain loans to set up his business.
After a bumpy start, Mr Aswin finally launched SawasdeeShop as one of the first e-commerce platforms in the country in 2000. But it’s one thing to be an early mover and another thing to be too early, he discovered.
“Thai people only owned personal computers at the time and they still didn’t want to use credit cards. This was 19 years ago. In the US, [e-commerce] had already started booming. It was too early for the Thai market,” he says.
Mr Aswin had no choice but to shift his focus to something more relevant. That led him to apply his engineering training and instincts to telecommunications.
The most important thing for any business, he affirms, is to understand what the consumer wants. “Even if we may not have expertise in the industry, we still try to do it in a way that consumers will like.”
In addition, Mr Aswin emphasises having a multicultural workplace, as it promotes diversity of thoughts and ideas.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s about accepting you the way you are and if you can add to the team’s value,” he says, added that his companies employ a wide range of nationalities from Cambodian to Russian to Indian and Thai.
“If I don’t hire a Cambodian, I would never know how a Khmer thinks. If I think from a Thai-Indian perspective of what they think, it’s generally wrong and mismatched.”
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