Bangkok Phil

A dollar or two on the side

A look at some of those business sidelines destined for failure


Many Thailand long-term teachers have had what I call ‘a Chatuchak Market eureka moment'. You're walking around the weekend market - not looking for anything in particular - and you stumble upon something that you could sell for at least ten times the asking price back in (insert name of own country in this space) At least that's the theory.

You've also had a bellyful of rowdy students, early morning flag ceremonies and that complete prat in the admin office cocking up the teacher schedule for the fifth time this semester. Suddenly there's a whole new career path opening up before you. It's basically a four-step plan.

1) Fill large container with cheap Thai goodies.
2) Send to UK port.
3) Brother-in-law Kevin organizes collection and distribution at the UK end.
4) Kevin becomes rich. You become richer.

Then you talk to some knowledgeable person in a freight forwarding office and realize that given the cost of transportation, any profit you hoped to make on those hand-carved chopstick sets would be wiped out before the cargo ship had chug-chugged its way into the Gulf of Siam. The dream - albeit momentarily - is crushed.

Now you may well be a teacher who lives to stand in front of a whiteboard. You may be up half the night compiling lesson plans. But the world loves a teacher who is also something of an entrepreneurial optimist.

My first introduction to someone from this enterprising group of full-time teachers and part-time capitalists came in the early 90's. I had been in Thailand no more than a few months but got into conversation with a Swedish bodybuilder (as you do) who was staying in the same apartment building.

My initial chats with Patrik were mainly about his rather splendid superbike but eventually talk turned to how to make money in Thailand - preferably without becoming a teacher. He immediately handed me a cheaply-produced business card and said proudly "import export - that's what I do"

In those days I was easily impressed. I had visions of creaking dockside cranes in Gothenburg and men in hard hats unloading large containers laden with Patrik's booty. As Patrik the bodybuilder and I became friendlier - in the sense of sharing the odd beer and not going off to the gym together you understand - I learned more about the nuts and bolts of his business. It basically involved buying a dozen fake polo shirts from his favorite Sukhumwit street-vendor, trotting off to the Bangkok Central Post Office, and then sending the shirts home to his Mom.

This operation he would repeat once a month - or less frequently depending on how much he'd drunk the night before. My illusions were quickly shattered. I couldn't bear the thought of Patrik's mom, sitting at the kitchen table in her pink housecoat and carpet slippers, dutifully checking off a list to confirm how many moody polo shirts Uncle Peter and Auntie Gretel had ordered.

That was of course in the days before the wonderful world-wide web took over our lives. Over the past few years, many ‘wheeler-dealers' looking to supplement their teaching income have turned to the world's favorite auction site, E-bay, on which to tout their wares and hopefully make riches beyond their wildest dreams.

The only problem is that the western world has had quite enough of floppy fishermen's trousers and Thai wooden place-mats thank you very much. Some teacher-cum-entrepreneurs have been successful. The majority have failed miserably.

Since I started running ajarn.com, I've had numerous e-mails from would-be entrepreneurs and circus side-show acts - all looking to seek their fortune in Thailand with limited investment capital (so a go-go bar is definitely out of the question) I've also noticed that many folks possess an alarming propensity to do as little research as possible.

My all-time favorite e-mail came from a guy in Canada who had worked on several Hollywood movies as a stunt double. He rather fancied the idea of opening his own stunt school and teaching the tricks of the trade to stuntmen in the Thai film industry. If a Thai stuntman wanted to jump off a twenty-storey building, then this particular Canadian was the man to demonstrate how it was done.

I showed this e-mail to a colleague I was working with at the time - a man known more for his biting cynicism than anything else. My colleague, somewhat predictably, thought it was a ridiculous idea. His response still tickles me to this day. "If you want to get a Thai guy to jump off a tall building, then tell him you'll take care of his family for the rest of their lives - and he'll do it for real"

Some would say a tad sarcastic but he does have a point. As I often tell folks who ask for my extremely limited business advice - if it can be made, then a Thai can make it cheaper. And if it can be done, then a Thai will do it for a fraction of the cost.

Don't get the impression I'm looking down on those who are simply trying to make a quick buck on the side. Far from it. It's that sense of business spirit and adventure that keeps the world turning. And let me tell you - I've had my ‘eureka' moments too.

One idea that enters my head every six months or so is to offer a proof-reading service to Thai companies. The idea seems to gather momentum every time I read a glossy brochure for a new condominium development and it contains gems such as "we will be your best friend for your living experience" and "all your convenient lifestyle is on your doormat" We've all read this stuff and we've all scratched our heads in bewilderment. Something is most definitely getting lost in translation.

I'm certainly not the first foreigner though to nurture the idea of running a proof-reading service. I know several teachers who have had the same inspiration but ultimately got nowhere because culturally speaking, you are up against it from day one.

For Thai businesses to hand over badly-written English communication for a foreigner to check and re-write is generally accepted as an enormous loss of face. Especially if the guy who wrote "our condominium is locate in the downtown area of Bangkok so you don't have to spend time too much for your travelling" lived and studied in England for fifteen years.

So I'm sad to say that the proof-reading idea has been knocked on the head yet again. But all is not lost. Get on E-bay because I've got a lovely pair of lime green floppy trousers for you to bid on. These are the kind worn by genuine Southern Thai fishermen. Buy two pairs and I'll throw in a set of hand-carved salt and pepper shakers in the shape of elephants. Now you can't say fairer than that.

 




Comments

Capture their details right away and enter them into the system.

Give value, build up trust but don't ever pitch them.

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing" George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950)

"If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner".
Tallulah Bankhead (1903 - 1968)

Great article. The secret of making money in any business is to get good, really good, at marketing. Finding customers is the most challenging and most important part of any business. You need to know how to spend $1 and make $2. Simple as that......and with the least amount of complexity as possible.

Most of the teachers i met had god awful ideas on how to make money. I came to the conclusion that entrepreneurs and teachers are poles apart. There are exceptions i'm sure but I've yet to meet one. Probably the two worst businesses one could ever get involved in is running a language school, or running a bar

It's never been easier to make money in Thailand without having to teach. You can set up a google adwords campaign in 10 minutes and have customers knocking on your website door. Skype is getting better and is dirt cheap when not free.

Get good at marketing and the Thailand (or soi cowboy) is your oyster!

By Jimmy, Bangkok (4th March 2010)

The world has changed for entrepreneurs. Brick and mortar businesses are part of a dying model. There are limitless opportunities on the internet for imaginative and skilled people. English teachers can use their language skills to write copy, build websites, and do internet marketing in their spare time.

By johnny larue, Florida (2nd March 2010)

For years and years I've heard people saying "Everything that can be done has been done .. give up"
They were probably saying when those nerds invented Google in the back shed. When I finally get an original multi million dollar money making idea .. I'm not telling you guys about it ! :)

By Keekwai, Chanthaburi (27th February 2010)

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