In search of spaceships: A serial Thai entrepreneur’s journey
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Charn Manawanitjarern improved health with Haamor, upped teaching with Taamkru, and is always cooking up more. Where does this serial startup founder get his fuel from?

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There’s an old saying that entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff, and building a plane on your way down. To that Wicharn Manawanitjarern says, “Why build a plane when you can build a spaceship?” Known to his friends as Charn, the effervescent, go-getting founder of startups Haamor and Taamkru wants nothing less than to change the world — one spaceship or stellar business at a time.

Haamor, an online hub of doctors and medical information, has reached over 10 million unique visitors and serves one million active users each month. Taamkru, an app that gamifies preschool exercises to improve academic performance, sees 120,000 active users each month and has held the number one spot in both kids and education sections of the Thai and Singapore AppStores. Both companies are now expanding into mobile formats, and Taamkru’s latest funding round has inspired the team to reach for heights that no Thai education company has reached before.

These stories can make being a Zuckerberg or a Charn look easy, when it most certainly is not. Behind every great success is a greater struggle, and that’s the story I wanted to hear. Although his businesses are seeing this kind of growth today, Charn would be the first to tell you that dreams don’t come true overnight.

Long and winding roads

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Charn Manawanitjarern, Co-Founder and CEO, Haamor

Charn started eyeing entrepreneurship when he was a young Key Account Manager at P&G. Though he enjoyed work, he believed he could do more with his life by building something new than by achieving somebody else’s goals. His friend and now co-founder/CTO, Keerati “Oil” Inochanon, shared those sentiments. Minted by U.S.degrees and more awards than most people win so early in their careers, the quixotic duo struck out on their own and felt like nothing could stop them. But they soon realized that good intentions and great ideas aren’t enough.

“The hardest days were before we found Haamor,” he confides. “Everything we tried just failed. Imagine ten businesses in two years! Some of them had already raised money, but then the U.S. subprime crisis happened and investors just fled. After failing so many times, I started questioning myself. Am I actually as good as I thought I was?”

The shift from corporate maverick to owner of nothing was a hard pill to swallow, but they refused to give up — and even threw in all sorts of personal incentives to keep going. “We told our girlfriends that if these businesses don’t take off, we’d have to postpone marriage. The girls were supportive of course, telling us, ‘Do what you need to; take the time you need. We know you’ll be great someday!’”

After two years of slogging it out, putting themselves where they thought they needed to be, building expertise and making contacts to no avail, Charn and Oil reached a point of no return. They had depleted their savings, lost an inch of their hairlines, and decided that if this next venture didn’t work, they’d have to return to corporate jobs.

Then, as if the universe had overheard, they finally got the breaks they deserved. If the past few years saw them persist through failures, the next would see them inch their way to success. The first thing they did when Haamor took off? Propose to their girlfriends.

Setting a course for the stars
Four years ago, Charn’s mother was diagnosed with stage-zero cancer. Luckily, this meant she had a 95% chance of being cured (and today she is well), but at that time Charn’s family didn’t even know that stage-zero existed. They did what anybody in confusion would, and looked it up online.

Surprisingly, a search on the Thai word for “cancer” yielded primarily spam and out-dated websites. Slightly annoyed but determined to get the best information on how to care for his mother, Charn continued his research in English and nearly missed the business opportunity; it was actually Oil who sparked the idea behind Haamor. Seeing what Charn went through and remembering that only 70 per cent of Thais speak English, he wanted to know how many Thai searches for cancer were left unaided every year. The answer: a whopping four million. And with only three doctors for every 10,000 Thais, and each public hospital doctor seeing on average 75 patients daily (thrice the World Health Organization’s limit), it seemed unlikely that these people could get the assistance they needed even in person. For millions of Thais, life-saving knowledge was lost in a black hole.

Oil pitched the idea to Charn, and the dynamic duo immediately set out to create the biggest hub of critical health information that Thailand had ever seen: written by doctors, simplified by businessmen, and brought straight to patients alongside real-time consultation. This would address a huge problem — but with the stakes being literally life or death, were two virgin entrepreneurs the ones to trust with a solution? This is where grit shines.

What you have is all you need to get started
Competitive advantage builds upon itself, and our two founders knew that the first step was to establish credibility — if not by track record, by endorsement. How do you get big fish to endorse small fries? They used two tactics.

First, shared vision. Dr Puangtong Kraiphibul, the oncologist who treated Charn’s mother years before, was now semi-retired and writing medical books as a way to give back to the community. Having taught more than half of Thailand’s oncologists and being one of the country’s most respected medical minds, writing made sense to the professor emeritus — but not everyone could access her printed material, and not everyone who did would be able to understand it. Charn and Oil pitched the prospect of putting her expertise on the internet, in simple terms, so that her work could reach and help millions more. She jumped on the opportunity, and this would be Haamor’s golden ticket.

Once she came on board, they ranked the 100 most-researched diseases in Thailand and delegated content writing to her students. They used common language and gave the articles a Wikipedia-like structure to make them comprehensive but user-friendly, and soft-launched the website with no advertising — just unbiased, critical information on 100 diseases. Once this database was compiled, they showed it to more doctors, sharing Haamor’s vision and demonstrating that this was a high quality project backed by the best in the business, one that would be easy for them to join. In no time, the site went from covering 100 conditions to 1,000 to 10,000. The idea was selling itself.

Second, out-learning the competition. The founders spent six months talking to hospitals all over Thailand in order to understand the pain points not just from the demand side (patients) but also from the supply side (doctors, hospital administrators). They used hard facts to strengthen their pitch, sharing their website’s visitor activity alongside Google search data to prove that they were addressing an unmet need. And they gained unique expertise — becoming the country’s very first licensed distributors of Microsoft Health Solutions, an operating system designed for doctors to better use medical equipment. Even though Microsoft eventually shut down that division, this gave the founders a foot in the door that nobody else had, and earned them the trust of major hospitals who were now willing to partner with them.

All this gave Haamor more than enough fuel to gain traction and monetize their website, and until today no alternative exists that has nearly as much site traffic, content, or community interaction. They snowballed their way to product superiority, building on what they had or could cheaply acquire, but they started with literally just their ideas, acquaintances, and time invested in research.

Making the voyage count
Though advertising revenues make Haamor a successful business by any standard, what makes it really special is not the content, which doctors already had; nor the model of integrating into a hub, which has been done — it’s the resulting change in patients and doctors’ behavior. Before Haamor, doctors hesitated to share expertise online because this might be construed as self-advertising, for which they’d lose their license. But since half of the website’s contributors are retired doctors and the other half are protected by Haamor’s quality standards, self-advertisement and credibility stopped being issues.

For the first time in Thailand, doctors post content not anonymously but with their names proudly attached, patients get quality medical assistance before ever stepping into a hospital, and both sides trust an information source enough to promote it all on their own. Doctors are waking up earlier and staying up later to answer patients’ questions on Haamor’s forum. With 10,000 daily users and hundreds of doctors responding, the web boards handle more health queries than the average Thai hospital. The admin team manages to keep a 100% answer rate with less than 24-hour turnaround time, making them more efficient than paid services.

“Sometimes people are in really bad shape — suicidal — and you can’t resolve those things overnight. In one thread the doctor did back and forth consultation, it became like a helpline. The patients are so grateful they post pages worth of thank you notes,” adds Charn. The website has become a community that people trust and come back to, and that’s how Charn knows they have done something good. “Save even just one life and it’s worth all the trouble.”

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Going to space camp
Though Haamor eventually became a success, one might still not call it a template for starting a business. In Charn’s own words, “We stumbled a lot. Those days we were still stuck in the mindset of 30-page business plans, and Taamkru might not be what it is today if we ran it the same way.” What spelled the difference between the two? Experience is one factor, but Charn credits the change to KratingPoonpol’s Disrupt University.

Touted as Thailand’s most successful accelerator program, “the University” gave Charn and Oil the insight and mentorship they needed to take Haamor to the next level. More importantly, the chance to work with Silicon Valley’s best minds and iterate toward success alongside their classmates showed them how to turn any future business idea from vague to viable with much fewer birthing pains.

Charn’s trials with Haamor and in the two years before proved that he had exactly what it takes to experiment your way through hard times; and this was a trait that most of the program’s 200 alumni shared.

Finding an orbit
When Haamor became healthy enough to explore expanding the business, the path was much clearer. They had a great backend and excellent SEO, and were adept at selling their traffic to advertisers in healthcare — why not build a new concept with the same model? They looked into the industries that garner massive advertising and found that parents of preschool age kids are a huge market, so it would make sense to target them. Around the same time they were researching, the World Economic Forum released a study ranking Thailand’s education system 8th out of 10 Southeast Asian countries — where numbers 9 and 10 were auto-ranked because they didn’t take the survey. Once again, our founders had found a problem worth solving.

The one barrier they faced with Taamkru that they didn’t have with Haamor was market saturation; educational apps pop up every day, and it takes spectacular content to stand out from the crowd. They duo decided to find a backdoor — if a saturated market hadn’t solved such an important problem by now, the competition must be missing something. They realized that 99% of kids’ education apps make learning fun, without measuring results in a way that parents believe is useful; they are games where getting to Level 5 has no value in the real world. So they designed Taamkru to fill that gap — featuring content that was fun, yes, but more importantly covered the same material and built the same skills that would be required in private school. Winning games or leveling up would actually mean that the child was ready for school exams, and that’s something that parents would never put a time limit on; rather, they might try to get their kids to play everyday. Taamkru would be their trusted schoolbook, gamified.

To do this well and do it before the competition could copy their strategy, Charn and Oil set out to build the best team around their idea. They brought in a third co-founder, Norasedth “Premy” Thienprasiddhi, who owns kindergartens and would understand how to work with Thai parents and students. Thienprasiddhi then introduced them to Dr. Chankrisna “Shompoo” Pholvivat, a seasoned producer of Kindergarten teaching manuals, who would become their fourth co-founder and content expert.

Together, they decided to introduce a feature that would make their app more addicting than any other learning game out there. I like to call it “the Tiger Mom Trigger” — statistics and rankings, comparing your child’s performance with that of other app users across the region. “Even if many parents say that they don’t want to pressure their kids… if you tempt them with a little button that shows how their kid fares versus others, believe me, they will all press that button,” Charn says with a chuckle. Every Asian investor he has spoken to agrees.

Taamkru’s ability to fill a distinct market gap, catering to consumer behavior while providing them real benefits, made it succeed faster than even its optimistic founders had hoped. “It was a personal goal to become Thailand’s number one education app in three months,” Charn says, “but we got there in 45 days. And now that we’ve set the bar, we have to go over it!”

To infinity and beyond
Exactly how they plan to shoot for the moon, Charn wouldn’t say. But he tells me the image of a founder building his spaceship is not entirely accurate. “To be the best, you need the best people,” he asserts. “And they’ve got to be great at what you don’t do well, or you all sink together.”

That’s what Charn learned when Oil helped turn a personal hardship into a meaningful business, and that has been their focus since getting funded: building Taamkru 2.0. Going from a team of six and a half people (including part timers) to 16 full-time staff, many of whom he considers to be even stronger than him and his Co-founders, Charn positively buzzes with excitement about what this group can accomplish. “When you have five miracle-working programmers on the same team,” he declares, “miracles WILL happen. That’s what we want the startup scene to see with us 12 months from now. We aren’t afraid to fail. And if we can’t do it with this much brainpower, who else can? We want to go all the way, feel bigger than anyone else — this is the time, and we’ve got the team to do it.”

 

 

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Angela Poe Noronha

About Angela Poe Noronha


Angela is a rough n' tumble Filipina with a heart for impact and head for innovation. When she's not writing or posting to Facebook, this restless spirit loves to explore cities, meet people, and make adventurous new memories with them. Don't be surprised if someday her stories include YOU!

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