Ajarn Street

Flying solo

What it's like to start your own 'Thai-style' business in Thailand

Workin 9 to 5
What a way to make a livin
Barely gettin by
Its all takin
And no givin
They just use your mind
And they never give you credit
Its enough to drive you
Crazy if you let it

Dolly Parton, 9 to 5, (1976)

Why I had been working as a teacher for four years I don't know. I won't say I hated every moment of it, but I definitely never looked forward to my next class. While life as a teacher in Thailand can be very easy, for many chalkies it's definitely not rewarding or challenging in any sense.

When I visited Maesod the first time I decided to come and live here and start a factory. I was attracted by the town's abundance of cheap teak, cheap Burmese labour and beautiful girls. I invested well over B100, 000 and countless hours in the business. B100, 000 is a lot of dough on a teacher's salary. I worked full-time and I was lucky to get a good part-time gig. The sad part is I had to clamp in my nightlife. Fortunately equipment is cheap and some of the Japanese machinery made in Thailand is really good quality. What we could not get locally we improvised. The Burmese are very innovative. Our wood-saw is made of scrap wood using a pulley set, a blade and an electrical motor. And it works very well.

Although I am an engineer and ran my own business in SA, I had to learn everything: Accounting, teak, wood-manufacturing, internet-marketing, export, speak Thai, speak Burmese. At the beginning I had to do everything myself - the website, the samples, the marketing, etc, etc. Luckily I am a jack of all trades; an engineer (B Eng Industrial degree), teacher (MA ELT degree), designer (cause I love it), writer/author (same reason) and production manager (I'm good at it).

My philosophy is not to pay for advertising. If you are creative, you can get enough free advertising. I designed my own logo, my own website and my own products. I am actually a master copier. Word of mouth is by far the most effective and it's free. I've learned a lot about internet marketing: websites, blogs, Google-ads, articles, press releases, etc. I know what doesn't work; I'm still trying to find out what actually works. If you Google my name or teak boards, I will come up on the first page. I do my marketing the tried and tested way. Source a handful of wholesalers and pitch them over and over and over again. No other manufacturing company does this!

I have learned not to compete with the Thais, or the Burmese, for that matter. They just drive their workers to do longer unpaid hours and cut more corners to come up with a cheaper (and inferior) product. I realized that you can make more money as a teacher, and now I specialize in export products only.

I can't give the Thais any credit for making my life as a start-up businessman easy. The logic first step is to get a couple of woodworking machines, a Burmese carpenter and then make a few samples to put on a website. My Thai neighbor/landlord broke the bed-base we made, told my (illegal Burmese) workers they'll cal the police if we work at the house and finally gave me an eviction notice when I decided to make the stuff in the kitchen myself.

Nor does the Burmese (government) make it easy. There are regular skirmishes between the pro- and anti-government factions and sometimes rocket grenades fly into Thai territory. At present the Maesot-Myawadee border is closed and I can't cross into Burma to buy teak which is much cheaper than the Muslim traders in town.

My first order was refurbishing chairs at the local coffee shop and thereafter making chairs and tables for them. We work from a large wooden house on stilts. Downstairs we manufacture, and upstairs we do the finishing and packing.
Some days were quite hectic. I would sign in at 8 o'clock, teach one or two periods and rush home to spray a sample or cross the border into Burma to buy teak. In the afternoon I would rush back to teach my last classes. Or I would be up all night waiting for my teak to come across the river. Or phone in sick to finish a sample.

Do I pay more because I am a farang? I wouldn't say so. I always ask the price first. When a supplier overcharges me, I blacklist him. I often double check Thais' prices against their Burmese shop-assistants' version (I can speak numbers in both Thai and Burmese). Also, I'm in Maesod, not Bangkok.

Burning the candle on both ends can be quite hectic. I was trying to balance two jobs and it does not work. You can only be sick so many times or have to go home, because TOT is installing another line or you have to see a knee-specialist or need to go for acupuncture, or whatever.

The business is still in its infant shoes. Building an export business takes time. I was lucky to get a US hit on my website requesting custom-made teak cutting boards. I've promised myself that if I get another order over $1, 500, I will be flying solo. Or maybe the school will just kick me...

Writer Andre Park also has his own website to promote his teakwood kitchenware business and a few other things besides.


Nice one Andre. It's good to see someone attempt get out of the rat race and do something different to make a living here. My only worry is your employment of illegal Burmese workers. How long will it be before someone in a fit of jealousy or a good old-fashioned grudge puts the knife in and tells the authorities? And what about your work permit. I doubt that extends to making teak wood products.
Despite my concerns, I wish you the best of luck in your venture.

By Timbo, Bangkok (3rd March 2011)

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