Just weeks after our trip to Brazil, my partner at Blitzscaling Ventures and the Blitzscaling Academy, Jeff Abbott, and I kicked off our trip to Bangkok. Like Brazil, the trip served a variety of purposes. We had begun by decided to try holding a Blitzscaling Masterclass in Bangkok with our partner, Rise Accel. The fact that we were committing to a Bangkok trip anyway let me to accept an invitation to deliver the opening keynote to the Techsauce Global Summit (TSGS). And since we could, we added a talk for YPO Thailand as well.
To get to Bangkok, we flew Philippine Air out of San Francisco with a stopover in Manila. This was my first trip on the airline, but my research indicated that the pros were great food and great service, and the cons were that our particular route meant we were flying an older 777, and that the Manila airport tended to be chaotic.
The pros were certainly true. Jeff and I were struck by the extremely high level of service we received, always delivered with a seemingly genuine enthusiasm and good cheer. Since Bangkok is 14 hours ahead of San Francisco’s time zone, the plan I concocted for Jeff and I was to stay awake until at least 3 AM Pacific time before trying to sleep. Essentially, I figured we were better off jumping to 10 hours behind in two steps, five hours at a time. The flight attendants let me delay my dinner service until 2:30 AM, rather than shortly after takeoff, so that I could work until I actually felt hungry. As promised, the food was delicious. I was particularly taken with a creamy ginger pumpkin hot soup!
Some of the cons were also true. The business class seat did not compare to the brand new 787 seats on my recent Aeromexico flight. They were lie-flat, but were a bit too narrow for my shoulders, forcing me to contort myself into some funny positions. Despite these drawbacks, I was able to catch 5+ hours of sleep, which is pretty solid considering the circumstances. Jeff, with the “advantage” of being a massively sleep-deprived father of a toddler, was able to remain asleep long after I had awakened.
But some of the cons weren’t true, at least for us. Perhaps it was the hour (we arrived in Manila around 4:30 AM local time) but getting through baggage screening and to the lounge was quick and easy. At every step, an airline or airport official found us and pointed us to the next step. It took us less than 15 minutes to reach the Mabuhay Lounge. And while the lounge wasn’t up to Middle Eastern standards, or even Air France/British Airways standards, the food was quite good, and it wasn’t overcrowded at all (again, we arrived at 4:30 AM). We passed a restful few hours waiting for our flight to Bangkok to board.
Curiously, our flight from Manila to Bangkok was also aboard a 777-300ER, albeit one that was a bit newer than our SF to MNL ride. We again experienced excellent service and food, and in just three hours, we landed in Bangkok. BKK isn’t brand new (it opened in 2006, so 16 years ago) but it was clean and well-maintained. It really is astonishing how bad most American airports are in comparison to the flagship airports around the world.
The folks at Techsauce had booked car service for us; half an hour later, we pulled up to the Millennium Hilton Bangkok. The hotel was well-appointed and right next to ICONSIAM, the massive shopping center where the Techsauce Global Summit was taking place. It was also incredibly busy; it seems that we were there at the same time as an APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) conference so the hotel was full of government officials and other delegates. Their presence meant that there was a heavy police presence and metal detectors for the safety of the delegates.
The hotel itself was great. The rooms are big and comfortable, with universal power outlets that eliminated the need for the travel plug adapters I had purchased for the trip. I could see the river (and the many ferryboats traversing it) right from my window. And of course, as seems to be standard for luxury hotels across Asia, it offered an incredible breakfast buffet that was included with my room. The restaurant overlooks the river, which meant that I could see the riverboats while enjoying hot sweet soymilk. Is it any wonder that Jeff and I would periodically spontaneously exclaim, “This is a great country!”
ICONSIAM is a great example–in a city full of massive shopping centers, this one stood out. It turns out it won a slew of awards for its design.
It was an amazing building. Here are just a few photos that give you some sense of the scale. Anything mankind sells, it was available here.
After a nap, it was time for my first meeting. It was then that I learned that the Hilton and ICONSIAM were “across the river” from Bangkok’s main shopping district. Fortunately, ferrys across the river are plentiful. I walked about half a mile to the pier opposite my destination, the Mandarin Oriental, and caught a public ferry across. The cost was 5 baht, or about 14 cents. I had changed some dollars for baht earlier at the hotel. Unfortunately, I only had two bills of cash, and the hotel wouldn’t accept my 20 dollar bill because it had a slight tear in one corner, so I was forced to change a $100 bill at an unfavorable exchange rate. So my 14 cent ferry ride cost me about $9 in exchange rate losses! The ferry ride took about a minute. Then on the way back, the Mandarin Oriental’s ferry dropped me off right at the ICONSIAM pier.
At the Mandarin Oriental, I met one of my fellow speakers, Dr. Larry Weiss, a medical doctor and successful serial entrepreneur who had also traveled from the Bay Area. Yes, we had both traveled 24 hours to meet up in Bangkok, rather than simply driving 30 minutes in the Bay Area! Dr. Larry is working on a fascinating project, Symbiome, which involves restoring the benefits of our lost pre-agriculture biome, which is much more diverse. He uses the biome of a remote tribe in the Amazon rainforest, who still live as they did 12,000 years ago, and the local flora, to produce the bioproducts of that biome. These bioproducts offer protection from a wide variety of ailments. I later saw Dr. Larry’s TED Talk, and it was fascinating. The biome is a product of the environment and lifestyle; when members of the tribe travel to the developed world, their biome quickly dies off and becomes essentially the same as ours. And while Dr. Larry hasn’t been able to test it, he believes that if we were to travel to the Amazon and live a native lifestyle, our biomes would change to match theirs. The problem is that A) not that many people want to live a lifestyle without soap and B) encroachment by farmers and ranchers, and the general lawlessness of the hinterlands of Venezuela mean that the tribe and its environment will likely vanish in the next 50 years. Dr. Larry’s goal is to preserve as much as he can by demonstrating the value of their biodiversity. If you’re interested in investing, I can make an introduction. It’s well worth hearing the amazing story from Larry himself, who is incredible persuasive and passionate about the topic.
Once Dr. Larry and I returned to the hotel, we picked up Jeff Abbott and went to look for the Techsauce welcome dinner. It was then that we experienced another example of the amazing service in Thailand. As I was riding the elevator down to the lobby, a member of the Hilton staff boarded the elevator with a luggage rack. He asked me what my evening plans were, and I told him I was going to the Techsauce welcome dinner. He asked me where it was, and I said, “I don’t remember exactly, but it’s nearby, and it has the word ‘summer’ in its name.” I thought nothing of the exchange. Then when I had met up with Dr. Larry and Jeff and it was time to find the venue, that same staff member came up to me and offered to escort us to the venue. He had put away the luggage rack, figured out the venue, and dashed back to help me before I could get started. He then led us out of the hotel and a quarter of a mile down the riverfront, using his smartphone as a flashlight to help guide the way, and then bid us farewell, wishing us a fine evening, after we arrived at the venue and checked in. It was remarkable!
Here’s a picture of me at the event, as well as a photo with Jeff and Dr. Larry. Techsauce really made us feel like rockstars!
The evening concluded with a private fireworks show by the riverfront. I was standing about 30 feet from the fireworks barge. A few brave guests got even closer, but I don’t believe in getting too close to large quantities of explosives. I’ve seen a few too many viral videos to take that risk!
While most of the guests kept chatting away during the fireworks show, a few of us moved to the waterfront to focus on the display. Once the show ended, Jeff and I ended up chatting with one of them, a very savvy entrepreneur from Singapore with an interesting Sequoia-backed startup. We quickly made plans to meet up with him on Saturday to hear a formal pitch. Always be closing!
On Friday morning, I gave the opening keynote to the conference. It was quite a venue; I spoke on the main stage, which was an IMAX theater, which projected slides and videos on a gigantic screen. Meanwhile, the entire stage, which includes the surfaces that I walked on as a speaker, was made up of screens, which allowed the operations booth to change the appearance of the actual stage during the talks. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I thought it was incredibly cool.
I gave a 17-minute talk about “Blitzscaling in a Bear Market” and then we played a recorded 13-minute Q&A session that Reid and I had produced with the Techsauce team the previous week. Here are some photos from the talk, and some of the press coverage of it.
After the talk (and many many photographs with the attendees), I met up with Jeff for lunch. We picked one of the endless array of restaurants, which turned out to serve Thai boat noodles. This was a spicy noodle soup, which left us perspiring and swilling ice water, but was also quite delicious. After cooling down, we attended various talks and panels, and I met up with Annie Luu, who was moderating my panel on preparing for the next pandemic on Saturday. We had a great time talking about entrepreneurship and the typical mindsets of entrepreneurs. It was here that I learned a great new set of terms: internal reference and external reference. Because I believe in thinking for myself, and am willing to go against conventional wisdom if the evidence warrants it, I’m considered high on internal reference. This is a trait many entrepreneurs share.
Our final event of the day was attending the Orbit Startups happy hour at a truly remarkable venue in ICONSIAM, Fallabella. This Italian restaurant is located in what is essentially a giant open-air balcony, looking out over the Bangkok skyline. The event gave me a chance to meet a number of the folks from Orbit (which is an initiative created by SOSV); we had connected before virtually, but never in person, and it was fun to finally meet and share a glass of whiskey together. We also met a number of other colorful characters, including a French bicycling enthusiast and friend of the organizers who told us the story of how he came to Thailand and decided to never leave. I can understand why!
Here’s an example of the view!
On Saturday morning, we met up with our firework-loving entrepreneurial friend and his Thailand country head. They were impressive people with a very clear vision…stay tuned to see if they show up on the Blitzscaling Ventures portfolio page! After our meeting, Jeff and I met up with one of this Thai contacts, a fellow alum of his alma mater, the Thunderbird School of International Management. We had lunch at yet another of ICONSIAM’s restaurants; this one offered authentic pad thai, which was almost, but not entirely unlike the stuff we get in the United States. The pad thai comes in several variations (I got the standard) and as you eat it, you mix in bean sprouts, lime juice, crushed peanuts, hot chilis, and whatever else allows to achieve your preferred flavor profile. It was delicious. We also drank fresh-squeezed orange juice, which came in bottles, but was incredibly fresh and tasty.
After lunch, it was time for my pandemic preparedness panel. While at first I was puzzled by my inclusion, it turns out that none of my fellow panelists were medical professionals either; our focus was on the economic impact of Covid-19, and what we could do to prepare (economically) for the next pandemic. You can see photos of the panel and more coverage here.
While there was an evening afterparty for the show, featuring a performance by Boy Peacemaker, a former teen heartthrob (at 42, his posters made it apparent that he was still a very handsome man, but decidedly not a boy anymore; many people joked about seeing “Grown Man Peacemaker” in concert), I had been invited to a special dinner cruise by Jeff Pan of McKinsey’s Bangkok office. There was a great turnout of folks, including investors Brian Lu (whom Jeff and I had met earlier in the hotel) and Paul Ark (who works with my friend Tom Tsao at Gobi Partners). I had a good time chatting with folks on the boat, especially Paul, but I noted that we didn’t really get a dinner, and that most of us were so busy talking that we didn’t see the river either. Paul and I, quite sensibly I think, sat down so that we could take in the riverfront sights. Meanwhile, Thai hospitality bailed me out yet again; the servers could see my enthusiasm for actually eating, and so made sure they maintained a steady pilgrimage to my location to offer me small bites to eat every minute or so.
After the cruise, Jeff and I met up again, and set a course for our next hotel, the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchprasong. It was at this point that we can into Bangkok’s three major downsides. First, our taxi wasn’t air conditioned, so it was quite warm. Second, we were stuck on some of Bangkok’s legendary traffic. Whenever I mapped out one of our journeys on Google Maps, I was always surprised by how long it took to traverse relatively short distances; the traffic is the reason for this anomaly. Finally, for one of the world’s most famous cities, and one of its great tourist destinations, English fluency is surprisingly rare. This wasn’t a problem as long as we limited ourselves to 4- and 5-star hotels, but it soon became apparent that we spoke no Thai, and our taxi driver spoke no English. That’s because back at the Hilton, we asked for a cab to the Renaissance. It turns out that there is another location called “The Renaissance” to which our cab driver took us. We then struggled to convey to him that we needed to go to the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchprasong, which is presumably not its name in Thai. Jeff brought up the location on a map, and tried to use hand gestures to get our message across, but what finally worked was that we called the Renaissance front desk, explained the situation in English, and then our driver spoke with the front desk in Thai. I kept thinking that the conversation was lasting way too long, since it seemed to me that it would take about 15 seconds to confirm that we were guests there and give the address, but the conversation went on for several minutes. Fortunately, all was well in the end. Our driver got us to the Renaissance, and as I commented to Jeff, the detour cost us some time, and bumped the taxi fare from $3 to $5. All hail the strong dollar!
Somehow, our rooms at the Renaissance were even nicer than our rooms at the Hilton. It’s truly amazing what accommodations you can find in Bangkok for $130 dollars per night! The only downside was the loss of our beautiful riverfront view, replaced with views of downtown Bangkok.
On Sunday, we met up with one of my Thai LinkedIn friends, Suebpong, who graciously offered to take us around to see the sights. This was both incredibly generous of him, and incredibly useful for Jeff and I–we did not want to repeat our taxi experience of the night before!
We began with a breakfast at Mr. Jo. Mr. Jo is a classic hole-in-the-wall purveyor of Bangkok street food. In this case, the restaurant focuses on crispy pork belly. Jeff was a bit skeptical of the impact that eating pork belly for breakfast would have on his digestive system, but I assured him that the experience would be a highlight of our trip. Despite its humble appearance and insanely low prices, Mr. Jo is a Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant. The food was amazing. We ordered two plates of crispy pork belly, some dim sum, and some bowls of soup and noodles (with yet more crispy pork belly). It was incredible. I later found an interview that the owner of Mr. Jo had given to the Michelin Guide where he revealed that his secret was selecting the best pork belly fresh each morning, and frying the pork bellies in lard, rather than another oil, to maximize the savory porky goodness. Yum! You can see the main “kitchen” in this photo:
Next, Suebpong took us to visit the Temple of the Dawn, which is considered one of Bangkok’s most famous places. This Buddhist temple is visually stunning, sitting right by the riverfront. It’s supposed to be exceptionally beautiful at sunrise and sunset, when viewed from across the river. However, it was a lot of climbing, and some pretty hot work.
Afterwards, we took a ferry across the river and enjoyed a delightful coconut ice cream to help cool off. The ice cream was great, but what makes it even better is that it was served in half of a young coconut, with the coconut meat and roasted peanuts perfectly complementing the cool sweetness of the ice cream.
Our final tourist destination was the Grand Palace, the former royal residence. This was a huge complex, reminiscent of Taj Mahal and the Forbidden Palace in Beijing (though not quite as large).
The highlight is the Jade Buddha, a giant, well, jade Buddha statue in a gleaming gilded temple. We had to take off our shoes (in the rain!) to go inside, and no photography is allowed, but it was truly magnificent. Jeff was spiritually moved, later commenting that it took him back to his time studying yoga and spirituality in India earlier in his life. I did manage to take a photograph from the outside; it doesn’t do it justice, but hopefully gives you some of the flavor:
It was now time for us to get back to the hotel, and for the final time, we had to brave the Bangkok taxi system. Fortunately Suebpong was there to communicate with the drivers. It turns out that the typical fare was 50 baht (about $1.30) but because of the traffic, the taxi drivers demanded 250 baht. Suebpong thought it outrageous, but we couldn’t find a taxi driver who would do it for less, so we ended up paying the exorbitant fare, which works out to $7.50.
After a shower and a nap, one of our investors, Nattaphol (AKA Natt, AKA Golf) picked us up from the Renaissance and took us out to dinner with some of the key members of his team. This was a special treat for all of us; for Jeff and I, it was a magnificent meal with great company, while for his team, it was a chance to hear about blitzscaling straight from the (well-fed) horse’s mouth. The restaurant we went to, AdHoc, was a boutique that offered a single chef’s menu per day. It was magnificent. In fact, because of amuse bouches and multiple desserts, we were served a total of 17 different dishes. Amazing.
On Monday, we tried to take it easy with a lovely buffet breakfast. For lunch, we walked to Gaysorn Village, which is yet another of the giant shopping centers that seem to make up most of downtown Bangkok. There are so many of these complexes that experienced natives can traverse significant sections of the city without ever being outside! Gaysorn Village was also the location of Rise Accel, the firm which had invited us to Bangkok, and with which we had partnered to hold a two-day Blitzscaling MasterClass. After a traditional Thai lunch (we ordered too much food, but what else is new on this trip!) Jeff and I walked to meet with Xpedite Capital. Xpedite’s founder, Bart Bellers, had also spoken at Techsauce, and I had met him on the McKinsey cruise as well. He had come to Thailand in 2015 while leading corporate innovation for Amadeus, and decided to stay. Xpedite was working on a number of very cool but secret initiatives, and we enjoyed meeting Bart and his investment lead, Nina. Hopefully we’ll be able to announce a collaboration in the future–stay tuned!
After that, we returned to Gaysorn Village to check out the venue for the MasterClass and finish the planning with Jinn, Rise Accel’s COO, and the rest of her team. Then it was time to join Natt for a trip to yet another amazing dinner, this time hosted by another of our investors, Sopit (whose nickname is Jeap).
A brief sidebar on Thai nicknames: Because traditional Thai names are extremely long and polysyllabic, many Thais adopt a shorter nickname for general use. The nickname appears to have nothing to do with the traditional name; somtimes there aren’t even any overlapping letters. During our time in Bangkok (which you may recall came about because of an invitation from Kid, or Dr. Kid from Rise Accel) I also met people nicknamed Child, Oil, and Win. Our friend and investor, Nattaphol, also goes by Natt, but his original nickname is Golf. The reason he dosn’t go by Golf in typical business settings is that he then has to explain that he doesn’t play Golf. His dad gave him the nickname when he was a toddler, because he had loved golfing, but gave it up once he became a father because he loved his son even more, and wanted to spend more time with him. Fortunately for me, Chris seems to be sufficiently short already.
We had yet another amazing tasting menu; this was more traditional haut cuisine, but with more Thai ingredients. Jeap is quite the food and wine afficianado; she runs Villa Market, a chain of 33 stores that focus on high-end imported food and drink. Many of her best customers are expatriates who are longing for a taste of home. So in addition to the magnificent meal, she also opened a bottle of wine that my in-house expert, Jeff, assures me is one of the most famous in France. My own wine expertise is largely limited to Charles Shaw wine from Trader Joe’s.
Tuesday brought the start of our Blitzscaling MasterClass. This was a blast from the past for Jeff and I, since before the pandemic and Blitzscaling Ventures, we had focused on holding classes and events around the world, in Chile, Mexico, Qatar, Denmark, and Sweden. This MasterClass gave us the chance to try out some new tools we had developed right before the pandemic to help teach our approach to assessing and improving blitzscalability.
The first day focused on teaching assessment, while the second focused on improvement, including a set of Pixar Braintrust sessions based on the work I’ve done with the Unreasonable Group. The venue and our students were awesome; I overindulged on the many coconut-based dishes and desserts. I’m sure I gained 5-10 pounds on the trip!
On Wednesday night, after completing the MasterClass, Jeff and I experienced one more example of remarkable Thai service levels. We decided to toast our success, and our final night in Bangkok with a nip of Kentucky bourbon on the rocks; Maker’s Mark to be precise. Strangely, our hotel floor didn’t have an ice machine. Instead, we needed to call the front desk, and they would send someone up with a full ice bucket. Jeff made the call while I prepared my phone’s stopwatch, and the instant he hung up the phone, I started the timer. Less than 3 minutes and 45 seconds later, we heard a knock on the door. We were on the 12th floor. There were times it took longer than 3 minutes and 45 seconds to catch an elevator and make that ride. And yet a polite young man with an ice bucket was there in less than four minutes. Remarkable!
When Thursday dawned, both Jeff and I were happy to be heading home, but also sad about leaving this remarkable country and people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place with such incredible infrastructure, so many beautiful shops and restaurants, and such a gracious and friendly people. We joked several times about having to return to the barbarism of the United States, which seemed so surly and poorly-run in comparison.
We managed to squeeze in one last event–a YPO Power Breakfast at Rise Accel–where we chatted about blitzscaling with the YPO Thailand chapter. As with all the YPO events I’ve attended, the people were brilliant and interesting, and it was a great way to cap off the trip.
From there, Natt loaned us his driver to take us to the airport. Half the time of the trip was consumed in traveling the five blocks to the highway on-ramp, and the rest was the trip to the airport. Bangkok traffic! Once at the airport, one of our new YPO friends had asked the airport staff to escort us through immigration and security, and make sure we got to the gate. Remarkable.
Remember our outbound experience in Manila? On the way back, we decided to spare Jeff’s back and check in one of his bags. Since all it contained was dirty laundry, he wouldn’t need it on the flight. That turned out to be a critical mistake.
As with our outbound trip, we landed at the Manila airport. And as with the outbound trip, it was a short walk to secondary baggage screening to reach International Departures. However, our fateful decision to check Jeff’s bag ended up exposing us to a Kafka-esque hell. Instead of taking the elevator up to International departures and enjoying the Mabuhay Lounge, we were directed to a small chamber which terminated on the street. It was hard to figure out what was going on; we repeatedly heard contradictory things from the various airport personnel we spoke with. But after about an hour or so, we pieced it together. For whatever reason every passenger who had checked bags needed to come to this tiny chamber, find their bag, get it checked by security, and then they would be able to move on. This made zero sense, since the bags were checked through to the final destination, and no immigration or customs people were involved, just bomb squad swabbers. Here is how things worked:
1) Periodically, airport personnel would bring over a set of checked bags from the baggage claim, using a hotel luggage cart. The bags would be dumped outside the chamber.
2) Some of the bags would then be brought into the chamber. It was the responsibility of the individual passengers to fight their way through the crowded room and find their bag and take it to the security swabbers.
3) The security swabbers would unlock and unzip the bags, apply a sticker to them, and them dump then in a pile at the near end of the chamber.
4) Once your bag had been stickered, you can then proceed to the international departures terminal.
The whole process was an inefficient farce. Baggage claims exist for a reason; the ample space and conveyor belt makes finding one’s luggage relatively efficient. Now imagine that instead of having one spacious baggage claim conveyor per flight, all the flights’ luggage was being brought by had to an enclosed room that was 1/10th the size of a typical baggage claim carousel.
The room was 25% full of already-examined bags, 15% full of lucky passengers who were able to claim seats against a wall, and the remaining 60% was a jumbled mess of passengers, unclaimed bags, already found but not yet checked bags (since many had checked multiple bags and they rarely arrived at the same time), and airport personnel. There were passengers in wheelchairs or with crutches that had to navigate this mess.
I stayed in the room for 90 minutes, watching Jeff’s carry-on bag, before the room literally became so crowded that I had to leave. I took my bags and Jeff’s carry-on (more on this later) up the elevator, and in 90 seconds I was in the lounge enjoying dinner. Madness.
Jeff joined me in the lounge 30 minutes later. The baggage handlers told him his bag was missing, so they would find it and bring him down before our flight. Five hours after we landed, they fetched him down to see his bag. He confirmed that it was his, then they sent him back to the lounge.
And we had it easy. We chatted with another Jeff, a medical entrepreneur and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who had been on vacation in Cambodia. He had been stuck at the airport for 40 hours, without his checked back (which had all his clothes). He had planned a brief excursion in the Philippines to see his girlfriend, but had not been allowed to leave the airport for his romantic hotel getaway. Instead of spending a day being pampered at a luxury hotel, he had slept on the chairs at the airport gate! He was remarkable calm about the whole thing–I would have been bitter and furious.
Then when we went to board the plane, we went through yet another baggage screening, and yet another passport check (despite having gone through one simply to enter the international departures area). It was at this point that the baggage handlers ignored Jeff’s warning that the zipper on his bag was tricky, and that he could open it for him, and destroyed the zipper. They taped up his now-falling-apart bag with packing tape and sent him on his way to the plane.
So everything I said about Manila Airport being not was bad as its reputation? Forget I ever said it.
That brings us to the present. I’m composing this final paragraph with about two hours to go in my flight. Looking back on the trip, it has been one of the best business trips Jeff and I have ever taken together, even with the painful Manila airport coda. Bangkok was a fantastic city–far nicer than any American city–full of smart, friendly, hard-working people. If they can improve the prevalence of English-speaking, Bangkok is well-positioned to be a lower-cost alternative to Singapore in the region. Jeff and I certainly intend to return to see our new friends again.
End note: I ended up being so busy after landing that it took me nearly a month to actually publish this blog post. Sorry for the delay!