The brains — and current CEO — behind Builk, Patai “Bote” Padungtin, shares his views on the local startup scene, pushing through amidst a pandemic, and transforming a longstanding industry.
In Thailand, the relationship between contractor and client can be a rocky one. Despite its sizeable market, the local construction industry holds a rather notorious — albeit misguided — repute for exceeded budgets, delays, and trickery amidst suppliers. It is a desire to rectify this misbelief that drives Builk today. The brainchild of Patai “Bote” Padungtin, Builk is a free, web-based application, especially designed to help SME construction businesses in Thailand efficiently manage, and successfully complete projects, through digitalising the industry. Among one of the first startups in Thailand, Builk has since expanded throughout Southeast Asia, with now over 18k users from Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Cambodia. In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Bote about his views on Thai startup culture, moving forward after Covid-19, and using the digital medium to revolutionise an industry.
Name: Patai “Bote” Padungtin
Profession: CEO at Builk One Group
Industry: Construction, e-commerce.
Startup since: 2010
Tell us about your business. What do you do?
We’re a pretty old tech startup that was founded back in 2010, and has essentially been trying to digitise the construction industry. We provide software to SME contractors, real estate developers, and construction material suppliers, to help them work together more efficiently. We’ve also got an e-commerce store that assists the supply chain.
Basically, I’m a Gen X guy, so to be frank with you, my original passion wasn’t to create a better world — like what many Gen Y or Gen Z-ers think today. My initial goal was to build my own company, and accumulate wealth. I’m a civil engineering graduate, and I first entered this industry as a general contractor. I was pretty bad at it, too — I couldn’t manage my projects well, and I faced lots of challenges with financial and quality control. So I teamed up with friends who worked with software, and we thought, why not create a software for people like me — people who are bad contractors. It would be a software that’s easy to use, and affordable. That’s how Builk started.
Now my goals have changed. After you fulfil your basic needs, you start looking at what’s ahead. Today at Builk, we’re trying to change the construction industry in Thailand. Here, people do not have a very good impression of contractors. They’re expected to cheat, to exceed budgets, and delay projects. We hope to change the image of these people — these professionals. So far, we’ve helped a lot them with cost-control, and we’re gradually building up a community of very good contractors nationwide.
What is a normal work day like?
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, our office announced a flexible location policy, so I’ve been working from home, or co-working spaces. We’ve implemented a system of all-day progress tracking, and we hold conference calls, so it isn’t necessary for all 100 of us to come to work together.
If you ask me, I’m “the guy with a dashboard”. I’m always looking at many dashboards all the time, to see what’s going on for each of our products, and the progress of different projects. I also talk to a lot of people — I try to be a mentor for my management team, and other startups in the country, because I’m considered a pretty old startup here in Thailand. I try to empower my team members, because we’ve got so many products under our company, so we’ve got to manage them like separate, individual startups as well. What I can provide them with is financial support, and inventories — as for the rest, I want my teams to be able to take charge.
Tell us about your best — and worst — day at work?
My best day at work… Well, I think it’s that moment when we find out that what we’re doing has made a real impact on other businesses. I remember in our first year, we got a basket of fruits from one of our users. They came to meet us personally, and thanked me for building this platform. I felt really touched — it’s that feeling when you realise you played a part in helping someone succeed, when they were struggling the same way you did before.
For bad days, I think it’s pretty normal for startups to have a bad day, if not many. When your plans fail, or there are unexpected issues, or when you get rejected. I wouldn’t say any of those are the “worst” days — they’re just normal days for us. To me, the worst days are if you feel like there’s nothing you can do, and you don’t want to get up to work in the morning. Now that I’m doing this business, at least I feel like what I am doing is meaningful, even if things go wrong.
What has been your biggest hurdle?
I’d say people. Personally, I’m not very good at people management. It’s fine with a small startup team, but when you go from 10 people to 20, things change. Then you go from 20 to 50, and 50 to 100, and the changes are very big. With a small team, we had a lot of fun, and we could build a strong culture, but to maintain that culture with a growing team requires a better process. As founders, it’s important to improve our skills in that aspect, and that’s been quite challenging for me.
How did you overcome it?
We’ve been releasing a lot of new HR-related policies along the way, and sometimes I just acknowledge that this isn’t my strong suit, so I need people to help me — like external consultants, or internal teams. It’s really about bringing a lot of different skills together. These issues, I can’t handle alone, but with a team we are able to achieve them. That’s kind of the biggest lesson learned — I think the most important thing is to realise our own weaknesses, and be open to asking others to help with those areas. I will strengthen my strengths, and am open to accepting help for what I’m weaker in. As a CEO, you can’t be a superhero who does everything yourself. Even CEOs can fail sometimes, and we share failures from different levels in the company. Just accept it, and make it a lesson learned for everyone.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start up?
I think it’s always confusing if you decide to do your own startup. You’ll face your own challenges, and everything might not go as planned. Your first idea could be totally wrong, your revenue could be 10% of what you expected, and you might end up with double the estimated cost. The key is to prepare yourself for such situations. If you can handle those expectations, you can definitely grow and you’re going to learn a lot along the way.
Many startups just jump into this space, because they think it’s cool to have your own company, or it’s a good way to get rich. But this isn’t Silicon Valley. Thai startups have to find their own path, which is not that easy. When you read the western bible of startups, you have to remember to adapt it to the local way — the Thai startup way. That may be a part of why we don’t have many Unicorns here, like they do in other countries.
More on that note — what do you think of the market size locally?
The market size here is fair enough — it’s not that big, and it’s not that small. We’re pretty good at adopting new tech, but I think if you compare us to overseas markets, especially for B2C or lifestyle startups, Thai people are a lot more open. That’s why startups that have a lot of knowledge on how to come up with something fast and highly scalable, end up entering into this country and conquering the market pretty fast. Thai startups usually cannot compete at that kind of speed, so we have to find something that’s more like the B2B market, which moves at a slower pace. The ecosystem here hasn’t fully matured yet — we’re still in an early stage, and very few Thai startups have made it to a high point of success. If you ask me, we’re in need of more mentors, more deep angel investors, and a deeper understanding of startups.
You’ve expanded a lot within Southeast Asia. Why is this market important for you?
Thailand was a good start for us because of the market size, and the construction industry itself. There’s a clear lack of management tools in this sector, so the need for our services was very visible. When we looked to expand, we thought about which countries were facing similar challenges as Thailand. We tried to tap into Indonesia at first, but failed because we could not find a partner there — we were trying to expand on our own, and we faced a lot of challenges. So now, when it comes to expansion, a key part of our decision making is whether we are able to find strong partners who share the same passion as we do here — partners who also want a digitalised platform for contractors.
Would you say each of these markets is very different?
The difference is mostly in values. Here in Thailand, we talk mostly about cost control and project management. When we went to Myanmar, however, a lot of our conversations focused on educating, and offering international standards for construction processes — over there, they’re keener to learn. Philippines is the same. There, they’re looking for certification, and platforms for e-learning, or information exchange. So there are these differences for the same kind of platform in each market. What we learned is that it’s very important to have a hyper-local strategy — to listen to local needs, and customise or adapt our marketing strategies to fit them.
As a child, what did you aspire to be?
I grew up in a contractor family, so my parents said I should become an engineer, but I’ve loved design since I was a kid. I guess you could say I’m a right-brained engineer — an engineer who loves the creative side of things. I grew up during the time our country was developing very fast, and I remember taking the school bus and seeing all this construction work and equipment, and all these massive machines — that’s kind of where the love came from. As a young boy, I wanted to build these kinds of things. I wanted to be part of the industry that was creating our country.
Looking back now, what would you have done differently?
I don’t know. I think we’ve learned a lot. I started this business with zero knowledge of startups, and along the way we faced a lot of challenges, and all of that has led to our business today. Now we’ve got a team of over 120 people. Back then it was very hard — when we started in 2010, there was no startup community in Thailand, so I didn’t know where to even begin. It’s only in 2014, when I’d gone to Silicon Valley and returned, that I realised what a startup was all about, so I felt a bit like I’d lost the first four years of my business because of my lack of knowledge. I guess if I could restart under the circumstances we have now, I would try to gain more knowledge, meet more people, and try to learn from them.
How hands-on are you?
I used to be very hands-on, especially during the early days. I’d go into all the details of all our projects. Lately I’m trying to step back and let my team work on things, but sometimes when there are projects I’m particularly interested in I’d jump in. I’m trying hard not to be too hands-on all the time, because I would like my team to grow.
What are your goals for the future?
Last year, we’d set our goal to enter an IPO in 2022. Since Covid-19, things have become more challenging, because now we have to focus on making sure our company continues to grow and stays profitable during a recession, but ideally we’d like to stay on the path to IPO.
How do you define success? Do you consider yourself to be successful?
I don’t really have a fixed definition of success. I’m happy with my days, I think I’ve made some impact, and the business is strong enough, but I still think we can do more. I’ve never wanted to retire early. I want to spend my old days working, and talking to people who see my value. I think what we’re doing here is building a legacy — we want to change an industry. I also want to give support to other startups who are facing tough times today. It’s quite challenging for Thai startups — it’s like we’re small seeds planted for the future, and suddenly shaken by Covid-19’s heavy storms. At the end of the day, I think the important thing is understanding that it’s okay to fail. Even myself, I’m surviving today, but who knows what will happen in the next couple of years — disruption can occur anytime. It’s okay to fail as a founder. What matters is how you use your experience to restart, and get back up.
To find out more about Builk, visit builk.com.