As the CEO and Co-Founder of Obaki, Pasit “Joe” Viwatkurkul has seen struggle and success at close quarters. But through it all, this former headbanger remains a tech genius with empathy.
At the base of a highway leading towards the Los Angeles business district, an 18-year-old heavy metal guitarist stood wearing a suit and tie, holding a sign with his phone number that read, ‘Please help. Invest in me’. His long hair pulled back, the lead guitarist of Derogatory – whose debut album, Above All Else (on FDA records), is available on iTunes and Spotify – was looking for an angel investor for his job portal app, Music Freelancer. Among the barrage of nasty messages (and even trash) hurled at him, he did indeed get one from an angel investor. The app, by the way, went on to win the prestigious Namm award in 2017, and netted the tech genius a cool US$ 50 million.
Eleven years on from his days of holding up that sign, I connect with erstwhile headbanger Pasit “Joe” Viwatkurkul, CEO and Co-Founder of Obaki (Mstar Holdings), in a coffee shop in mid-town Bangkok. Vastly different from his head-banging persona, Joe, at 29, is the epitome of a successful, conservatively dressed businessman; charming and friendly, with more than a hint of self-depreciation. Born and brought up in America, he feels more American than Thai, with the workings of Thai society still a bit of a mystery.
“Home is Los Angeles. The past two years since I moved to Bangkok have been an education. I’m still learning,” he shares.
I am curious, however, why he had to hold up that sign in the first place. His father, after all, is the legendary Jakapun “Jack” Viwatkurkul, CEO and President of Mstar Inc, with an empire that encompasses technology, real estate, capital, trading, entertainment, finances, electronics, medical, and the food business. Headquartered in Los Angeles, Mstar spreads across 30 countries.
“Dad refused to fund me,” Joe laughs. “Initially, I was mad at him, but then I understood. He wanted me to be tough, to understand what it takes. I was working three jobs. Going to school [University of Southern California; BA in Business & Commerce], working on my startup, playing music, and holding up that sign. I did everything myself. I believed in Music Freelancer.”
It was a belief that paid off handsomely, earning him his father’s respect. “I think all dad wanted was for me to get what he calls ‘American grit’… perseverance and toughness. He pushed me to the limit, and I’m grateful. I learned that if you push a little harder, don’t give up, and don’t care what people think about you, success is right around the corner. It was embarrassing to stand by that ramp, though.”
Joe eventually moved to San Francisco to find more investors. “Another great decision,” he admits, “as I made so many connections there. The funny thing is, dad already knew a lot of VCs, but he was like, ‘find out yourself, go network’. So, I did. I crashed on a friend’s couch for six months, walked everywhere, and took the bus as I didn’t have spare cash. I was still playing gigs too.”
Through it all, his father’s message was loud and clear: skip the hard part, and you skip 90 percent of the learning. “It was about understanding how the world works. It was years of sacrifice – not doing anything except working. My friends even reached out to my mom to check if I was still alive!”
Music was, and still is, his escape. He plays the guitar, and has The Scorpions and Judas Priest on his playlist, but his primary focus now is Obaki, an app that connects chefs – both professional and home cooks – directly to customers. It’s been described as “Uber or Airbnb for cooks”, but it actually goes deeper, much deeper; connecting cooks to readily available produce, sourcing from farmers, and providing them with a platform cutting out intermediaries. It also encourages tourism by platforming home cooks and hard-to-find local specialties. All this with an easy-to-use dashboard.
“A cook could even offer a homestay or sell a product. Everyone makes money: the cook, the farmer, the host. Everyone will be background checked too. The possibilities are endless,” Joe remarks, adding that MoUs with various agencies and universities are already in the bag.
Though focused on Obaki, Joe is also actively involved with other aspects of Mstar Holdings – R&D departments for web and mobile technology spanning AI, Fintech, SaaS, and potential startups. He has also developed and co-created over 20 businesses under the Mstar umbrella.
On the subject of Thailand, Joe is upbeat. “The creativity here is phenomenal! But they are afraid to fail. They just need to have that confidence. It’s all about passion, finding your balance, and adapting. Unfortunately, people don’t adapt very well here. What’s missing is essential mentoring.”
He goes on to explain how it’s time to give back. “Instead of having the tourism dollars leave Thailand, we plan to keep them right here with Obaki. We are the first startup in Thailand to list on NASDAQ (in the final stages). Many startups in Thailand are looking up to us, saying, ‘if they can do it, so can we’. That feels good.
“I want to help people achieve. That’s my destiny. Once I get that Obaki IPO, I can help more people. The listing will be a big boost for Thai startups.”
Joe also confesses his love for supercars, and reveals that after selling Music Freelancer he rewarded himself with a second-hand yellow Lamborghini Gallardo. And he’s currently waiting on his four-door silver CC850 Koenigsegg. “I drove that Lamborghini to the beach in Santa Monica, and sat there eating my sandwich, literally crying. I couldn’t believe I had done it. This was my first big win!”
Joe gets that cars are a status symbol here in Thailand, but what he doesn’t get is why. “Silicon Valley billionaires literally use taxis. No one in America cares what you drive. Here they do,” he shrugs.
“In America, it’s about how big of an impact you can make to effect change. And that’s what Thailand needs. Not what you drive or what you wear. Zuckerberg literally wears the same clothes. Take that money and invest. Don’t buy that Porsche till you have earned something of your own. Then reward yourself.”