Serial entrepreneur Paul Srivorakul (pictured), who founded and exited Admax and Ensogo, was born in Thailand, has lived in the Philippines and Singapore, and grew up in the US. After he graduated from UC Berkley, Paul started working at Ask.com in a sales position in 2000, his first dip into the world of internet business.
On a vacation to Thailand with his brother, Paul sensed great opportunity in the country. He decided to call quits at Ask.com and relocated to Thailand. Two of his elder brothers followed shortly. He spent three months teaching himself Dreamweaver and Flash, and then with his brother, John Srivorakul, founded Impaq Interactive, a web development outsourcing firm.
In a year, Impaq grew from two to 20 people in the team. Paul explains to us that Impaq also started to venture into online advertising and became the official ad reseller for Microsoft (on Hotmail, MSN) in Thailand. Under Impaq, Microsoft’s advertising revenue from Hotmail and MSN in Thailand grew from $100,000 to $2.5 million within a year. Paul’s experience as a reseller with Microsoft got him thinking that Impaq could also help other publishers to sell their ad inventories.
“Er… What’s a banner ad?”
And so he did, creating a simple ad network where publishers will embed their codes for banner ads to be inserted and run automatically. Paul shared how tough it was to educate clients back then. They would ask questions like “What’s a banner ad?” and “Where will it be linked to?” Paul also quickly realized that most of the potential clients who he spoke to didn’t even have a website to start with. So Paul and his brother set up Newmedia in 2004, an ad agency to help manage all of these clients. With Impaq and Newmedia, Paul could serve its clients from creating websites, creating ad creatives, and managing their ad budget. Besides being a reseller for Microsoft, Newmedia also became a reseller for Yahoo in most countries in Southeast Asia.
Paul had the idea of owning the digital advertising space in Southeast Asia. He established Digital Marketing Solution (DMS) Group in 2005 which housed Newmedia, Impaq, and also the ad network business, Admax. DMS Group raised $12 million led by Softbank and IDG Ventures to build and scale Admax. In three years, Admax had over 100 people and expanded to six different countries. Paul was the CEO initially but believed that he needed to bring in someone who can take the company to the next level. He told me:
I was so overwhelmed, I was under 30 and I was managing the COO and CFO and different business units. [Back then] I didn’t have strong management experience even though my management team was really good. I realized that I needed to find a guy that can actually take [Admax] to the next level.
In 2008, he brought in Grant Watts, an ex-Yahoo and Microsoft regional manager to take over his role as CEO. It turned out that Watts was the right man to lead the ship. Admax was acquired by Komli Media in February 2011. In the same year, Newmedia, which was then part of Edge Marketing, was acquired by STW Group in December 2011.
Next up, Ensogo
With a good management team running Admax, Paul and his brothers left to start Ensogo, a coupon discount site, in 2010. The Srivorakul brothers — Paul, Tom, and John — together chipped in $200,000 to start the business. When Ensogo first launched, Paul expected to have just 500 orders a month. But somehow it ended up with 1,000 orders in the very first day and soon revenue was doubling month on month. The most amazing thing, Paul said, was that they were able to calculate how much money they could make for every marketing dollar spent. Ensogo was testing banner ads to experiment which ad creative gives the highest yield. He said:
We never approach the daily deal space as like an e-commerce play. We approached it like advertising. Not just to advertise but also to drive them to purchase.
Apparently, the Srivorakul brothers’ nine years of experience in advertising and media have brought them the needed expertise to catalyze Ensogo’s growth. One big misunderstanding that many people have about Ensogo is that it is a group buying business. It’s not. Rather, Ensogo is more like a coupon discount site which doesn’t require a group of users to band together before the purchase is triggered.
It wasn’t a mature payment system then. [We thought group-buying] is too confusing […] just 50 percent discount, you buy it and get it.
Growth was so good that investors were knocking at Ensogo’s door. Eventually Ensogo went with Berlin-based daily deal expert Rebate Networks who invested $2 million. Paul was advised to spend the investment within five months as a land-grab strategy. Profit wasn’t a priority – growth and market share were the aims, and it paid off. In June 2011, U.S-based LivingSocial acquired Ensogo. After some number guessing, I deduce that the acquisition sum should be above $30 million but Paul declined to give an exact figure.
After the acquisition, Paul stayed at Livingsocial for a year before starting Ardent Capital, a fund focusing on e-commerce or related businesses in Southeast Asia. The fund has so far invested in Burufly, Anthing.lk, e27, and Playbasis. He said:
First year for me [in Livingsocial] was good enough. [There is] too much opportunity. For me it wasn’t about the money. It’s about building value, building companies and being part of that process.
Speaking about failures, Paul shared two experiences. In 2006 he was involved in an online jobs classified and referral program startup called Yellow. It raised over $4 million but couldn’t get any traction and was shut down in 2010. Another failed startup, Earthhop, which hoped to be the Expedia for Southeast Asia, didn’t go well either and was in the deadpool within two years. Though Paul wasn’t part of the management team, he humbly considers both cases as part of his failures.
His tips for success?
Figure out what is the real problem and it’s always the hard problems. Be very clear on what you want to do with your company before you even build it.