Programmer entrepreneurs: Start anywhere, including Thailand

A $10 million startup might not impress Silicon Valley's Internet tycoons, but software entrepreneurship is a global enterprise

The hours may be long, but few professions offer as much flexibility as that of the software developer. I'm not just talking about not needing to dress or bathe properly. If you're a programmer on vacation somewhere and never want to leave, maybe you shouldn't. Many places will welcome experienced software developers with entrepreneurial spirit.

What does the welcome look like? In Thailand, the Board of Investment can help you with tax incentives, including an eight-year tax holiday that can be deferred for up to five years if you lose money during your first few (which is common with any start-up). The Board can help you with visas and all the standard legal stuff that might arise. If you become rather successful, there's a "one-stop shop" in Chiang Mai where they can connect you with various agencies for visas, taxes, and real estate.

A tale of two expats
I spoke to John Douglas, the head of Mycos Technologies in Chiang Mai, who's been in Thailand for more than 12 years.He  started out in Colorado and worked in Texas for a larger company. Having no previous experience running a company, he moved to Thailand. He was originally on vacation and immediately fell in love with the culture, food, and people. Luckily, his daughters were young and his wife was agreeable.

He took advantage of Thailand's untapped talent and lower cost of labor (45,000 baht or about $1,400 per month is considered high) and developed charting components for .Net, achieving "modest" success without marketing or sales departments. From there he was able to land a few clients from Ireland, Australia, the U.S., and France, mainly doing offshore programming work. Currently, Mycos has grown to about 45 people primarily through word of mouth.

I also spoke to Steven Prussky, who started two companies:  SiamMandalay and Aware Corporation. In 1993, Steven visited Thailand and witnessed the artistry and crafts in the northern area around Chiang Mai. By 1997, he'd moved and incorporated as a limited company in Chiang Mai and has since expanded. I toured his compound, and it's an impressive combination of Thai and Western architecture, which Steven understandably takes great pride in, since he designed it and focused on small details like exposed brick (which in Thailand is seen as odd).

Because Steven was an IT guy by trade, he automated and built software around his business. While doing trade shows around the world, including in the United States and his native Canada, people would see his software, which delivered the real-time inventory and supply chain management we now take for granted to the crafts industry. Other companies started to want that software, too.

Aware Corporation was born and now is a full-service IT firm that sells local IT services primarily to telecommunications companies and banks. Internationally, it sells mainly to mid-market-size companies.

Steven also provides an example of how technology people handle their non-technology business and "return to the well," so to speak. As SiamMandalay's wooden puzzles and games faced increasing competition from cheap Chinese knockoffs, Steven once again found a technical solution:  3D-rendered cheat sheets.

See you later
Both of these guys went on vacation and never came back. In a global economy, in a high-demand field, there may not always be a reason to.

Of course, cultural challenges often present themselves. This is a sweeping generalization, but in work situations, Thai people tend to avoid conflict. That's welcome most of the time, but in an engineering discussion, a difference of opinion can be an asset, and the boss may want to know if you disagree on a technical basis. Douglas' lesson learned was "first, deflate your ego," and then take time and develop trust.

There are advantages as well. As Prussky put it, "If you go to Silicon Valley and say, 'I've got a $10 million idea,' they’ll tell you, 'I'm sorry, I don't know anyone who is interested in $10 million.' In Thailand, the lower costs and immaturity of the market means there are tons of opportunities in business apps." In addition, both men agreed that in Thailand, employee burnout is more rare. People work consistently and with focus, but they don't work crazy hours. They also don't slump the way that's common in the "90 hours and loving it" environments common in Silicon Valley.

What about the political risks? While in Bangkok, I took a walk through a protest camp (which the State Department does not recommend you do), and, on my way home, the prime minister was deposed by the court. While in Chiang Mai, I had dinner with the U.S. consul general, Michael Heath. He confirmed that the business policies of Thailand had been consistent through multiple governments and a coup. Foreign-owned businesses that weren't heavily exposed to the softening local economy had been largely unaffected.

So if you're a developer and have enough liquid assets, and you go on vacation and never want to come back ... maybe you don't have to. Thanks to the worldwide effects of globalization, it's a great time to be a developer. If you want to see the world, start a business, or live abroad, we're at a moment in history when the world really is your oyster.

This story, "Programmer entrepreneurs: Start anywhere, including Thailand" was originally published by InfoWorld.