Meet the man behind Thailand’s co-working empire

With his network of co-working spaces in Bangkok providing a home for creatives, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads alike, HUBBA co-founder Amarit Charaoenphan has come a long way since hatching his business plan in a dimly lit, noisy branch of Starbucks

One of Thailand’s most impressive entrepreneurs, Amarit Charoenphan has forged a co-working empire in the kingdom with his HUBBA brand

Amarit Charaoenphan was broke, lost, and frustrated in the months he spent trying to build a mobile app in 2011. Navigating the perilous waters of early entrepreneurship that claim so many daring young people, Amarit could feel himself being dragged down by bad advice and a lack of government help.

In October 2019, his problems got worse. Bangkok had been lashed by heavy rain and floods, and Amarit was forced to leave the city. He found rental accommodation in Pattaya, but it was hardly conducive to starting a business. With no wifi and only the paltry power of a 2G Blackberry for Internet, Amarit turned to the only alternative: working in a coffee shop.

He found a Starbucks, but it was dim and noisy, the chairs uncomfortable and the wifi expensive. Amarit and his business partner got thinking: Where could they work temporarily, with good internet speeds and in the company of fellow remote workers?

They did some research and found a growing culture of co-working spaces where young entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts were sharing ideas and being mentored by people who had been where they were at an earlier stage in their career. But to their disappointment, none of these were in Thailand.

Digital nomads interact in a HUBBA space

Like all good entrepreneurs they turned the challenge round to their advantage. In 2012, they opened HUBBA Ekkamai in Bangkok with the aim of drawing on a community of tech-savvy people receptive to their app. The co-working space proved such a success that they never bothered with the app. In the seven years since it started, HUBBA has launched four co-working spaces, all in Bangkok, has had its own mobile news feed, hosted special events, speakers, and held ‘Speed Hackthons’ to help foster innovation.

With more and more people rejecting the conventions and confines of an “ordinary” office job, Amarit sees great potential in driving entrepreneurism in Thailand, with co-working spaces being engines for creativity.

How many co-working spaces were there in Thailand when you launched HUBBA in 2012?

We were the first. We wanted to signify that intensive working was a combination of collaboration and community. A lot of people didn’t feel they were part of something and that they wanted some sort of shared vision, aspiration or lifestyle. They felt like they wanted to come together and that their lives would be better if they were working alongside other strangers.

We wanted to create a vibe that would encourage people to talk to one another, to share ideas, to feel inspired and energised. The idea is if people aren’t doing things together, they are not harvesting the full benefits of the co-working space—because the real key to whether you will succeed in business is not what you know but who you know and asking people who once had the same problems you are now facing.

The various branches of HUBBA in Bangkok all feature stylish, minimalist design, and social areas geared towards interaction

How can you create that balance of offering people the peace and privacy they want when they’re working at a co-working space while engendering a sociable atmosphere?

People, by default, won’t socialise. The good co-working spaces are the ones where people are heads-down working; they’re not there to drink beer and hang out. So, it’s really the job of the community leader like myself to get people to talk to each other so it’s not just the most extroverted people who get the benefits from co-working spaces. We try to make HUBBA spaces sociable and friendly and relaxing by organising drinks, lunches or movie nights for people who might not want to talk shop after work. There’s a few sociable folks who want to come to these events and then there are those who aren’t so keen because they are too busy. But for those, there’s always something they would like to learn or know more about. So, we have skills workshops, talks, knowledge-sharing sessions hosted by people who have succeeded or failed in business or just want to give back to the community. All of these events are opportunities for like-minded people to meet.

More: Year in review: the rapid adoption of coworking spaces in Asia

What has the government been doing right or wrong to encourage entrepreneurship on a local level and to draw people outside of Thailand to come and work here?

In the first two years since HUBBA launched, we had to educate the government and ministries about what a start-up is. They were still trying to certify people with different courses from Microsoft, they were trying to shove people in a co-working space in Chaengwattana, in the middle of nowhere. After they got their stuff together, we have a new development where every government agency wants to be on this Thailand 4.0 (digital economy) bandwagon because it’s the hottest thing since sliced bread; everybody wants to show they are not out of trend and are aligned with the Prime Minister’s vision.

That said, all the great ideas that were proposed in the government’s consultation process have not been implemented as quickly or as aggressively as we had hoped. The problem we face in Thailand is attracting, encouraging, and retaining talent. There are so few people who speak great English and so few people who have worked for tech companies. Large enterprises are building tech teams, small businesses are trying to go digital, and salaries are increasing exponentially, so we are struggling to get people to stay or come to work in Thailand.

Seven years after launching, HUBBA now has four branches in Thailand’s capital

There appears to be a severe tightening of visa restrictions. How has that impacted people in creative industries and those who work remotely?

Our visa situation is becoming more and more strict. The reason—if you read between the lines—is not that they want to dissuade tourists; it is because of an archaic view that unless a foreigner is a tourist and here spending big bucks, they are here to do something bad.

While there will always be bad actors, the world has changed. And though someone might be here on a tourist visa, the moment they open their email or talk on WhatsApp and respond to a request about work, they are technically working. So, when the nature of work has changed, the law should also change. When the government strategy is to encourage innovation, but we have a shortage of talent, they need to find a way of encouraging tourists and digital nomads who fall in love with Thailand to stay longer and contribute to the economy and build a company out of Thailand.

Vietnam is one of the countries being most keenly watched in Asia for its thriving tech and start-up scene. What do you make of it?

Thailand has always been great at all the commercial, graphics, and design stuff, but we don’t have a lot of coders. Vietnam has a lot, and HUBBA has a lot of its development outsourced to Vietnam.

People feel Vietnam is a high-growth and promising market, and the Vietnamese have a great work ethic. But Vietnam is grappling with similar problems that we have, which is trying to open up the economy to the startup market. Vietnamese entrepreneurs also find it difficult to raise money and are having to figure out the problems of starting a business out for themselves. So, we haven’t seen many Vietnamese companies go regional yet. But the smart money is on them—they have the population and tenacity for it. They have the ecosystem, but there’s a lot of work to do.

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 156 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine