Thai tech entrepreneur a bridge for NZ–S.E Asia start up communities

Leading Thai tech entrepreneur Amarit Charoenphan says New Zealand was not high on his list of places to visit, or do business, until he came here as part of a Foundation programme connecting Southeast Asian tech entrepreneurs with their kiwi equivalents. The visit opened his eyes to NZ's start-up scene, which has kept him coming back every year since.
Amarit talking to an interviewer

Amarit: "“New Zealand’s a small country, but it punches above its weight,” he says"

Self-described as New Zealand’s “go-to Asian guy for all things related to tech and Asia”, there was a time not so long ago when Thai entrepreneur Amarit Charoenphan had barely given New Zealand a thought.

“New Zealand was never on my list to visit,” Amarit – founder of Thailand’s largest co-working space HUBBA – says frankly. ”Then I had a chance encounter on LinkedIn with someone who’d taken part in the Young Business Leaders Initiative [YIBLI] programme run by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and he said to give it a go.”

That “serendipitous introduction” in 2014 to the work of the Foundation marked the beginning of a love affair with New Zealand that brings Amarit back every year.

“I loved the experience so much,” Amarit says.

“I’m involved in a few leadership programmes myself, but the YIBLI programme was the best put together from a contact perspective. People showed up wanting to engage. It led to a lot of business opportunities and relationships that have continued to today.”

Three years after that initial connection with New Zealand Amarit joined the inaugural cohort of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship – an international community of entrepreneurs, investors and start-ups working together in New Zealand to address some of humanity's greatest challenges.

Amarit sees his fellowship role as acting as a bridge to the Southeast Asian start-up community. With his background in technology – he also runs Techsauce, the biggest and best tech event in Thailand – he is well placed to identify both strengths and weaknesses in the New Zealand entrepreneurial scene.

“New Zealand’s a small country, but it punches above its weight,” he says. “It’s liberal but collaborative and community minded. It has a strong tech ecosystem with ideas around cooperative methods of working using technology as an enabler.

“In New Zealand people walk you through their business models and share ideas. There’s a sense of camaraderie that makes it feel like home.”  

Amarit: “New Zealand’s a small country, but it punches above its weight. It’s liberal but collaborative and community minded."

On the minus side, Amarit says he has the same conversations today that he had back in 2014, traversing the well-trodden path of expanding business operations to the U.S., Europe and Australia at the expense of possibly more lucrative Asian markets.

“A lot of Kiwis don’t try to challenge themselves beyond their comfort zone,” he said. “In Asia there’s an appreciation for New Zealand values and qualities like sustainability. But it’s hard to capture New Zealanders’ interest and that’s something that still hasn’t been solved. I continue to engage with YBLI and Kiwi friends and encourage them to be open minded.”

Amarit believes New Zealand start-ups would benefit from putting together an international team from day one, following the example set by most successful Thai start-ups.

“People need to look outside New Zealand and think global from the outset,” he says. “If you only have a team of Kiwis, they just care about their own back yard. An international team who know and understand different cultures and languages won’t be defined by their home base.”

“That’s a great role for YBLIs and the Foundation’s Leadership Network.”

Amarit is also concerned at what he sees as New Zealand’s lack of “a unified, concerted voice” on the international stage. He says a more concerted effort is needed on a national level to promote New Zealand with “one voice, one brand and one effort” to support the next generation of Kiwi entrepreneurs.

Amarit’s business ethos of helping others has been the theme of his life. His views were shaped in part by the experience of working with hill tribes in northern Thailand for two weeks as a student. “We built structures they may or may not have needed,” he says. “All the students had the time of their life, and after we left, everything went back to normal.  

“That crystalised with me the idea that we feel we’re doing good, but it’s not sustainable.”

Amarit’s answer was to found co-working space HUBBA, which quickly became a runaway success. Looking ahead, he wants to be part of the solution to the challenges facing the world today, ranging from climate change to the Covid-19 virus.

“It’s tragic that it’s taken a pandemic to realise that the old business model no longer works,” he says. “I hope we can be part of the transition to remote working, networking and sharing ideas.”