Founded in mid-2013, Boonmee Lab has already launched three products within half a year and gained reputation as a highly creative tech startup. Cityscape (launched September’13) is a free soundscapes collected from various places around the world to boost creativity while working. Ratchadamnoen.org (launched November’13) is a one-stop Thai political news timeline feeds from all sides for people who’re interested in hearing and comparing news from all perspectives without bias. Wityu.fm, their main product, is a curated and personalized radio experience that learns and plays music according to each individual’s preferences.
Can you introduce yourself briefly?
Thiti (CEO) is an experienced designer with experience in Thailand and New York City (as a Fulbright scholar). He is also a lecturer at Faculty of Architecture at Chulalongkorn University.
Puripant (CTO) is a PhD candidate in computer science with interdisciplinary research interest in human-computer interaction and visualization.
Rapee (Developer) is an all-round developer with experience in large-scale mobile and web platform. He previously worked at CyberAgent in Japan before coming back to Thailand.
Yoonjo (Designer) studied Psychology and Interaction Design in the U.S. and formerly worked at Rakuten Japan as a web director.
This is quite a diverse background. How did you guys get to know each other?
Yoonjo: Some of us were roommates, some of us met in Seoul, then in a Thai restaurant in Tokyo. Last year Thiti and Puripant found out about the True Incube competition just three days before the application deadline and they invited me and Rapee to join the project of creating a personalized radio together.
What was the result? Any other competition Boonmee Lab has participated?
Yoonjo: We were in the final 20 but didn’t make it to the last 5. We were also in the final round of JFDI in Singapore.
What is the reason behind failing in your opinion?
Yoonjo: At that time we still didn’t really have an actual product. Everything was just a mock up.
Thiti: It’s a difficult concept to implement because of the licensing. That makes startup incubators want to stay away from the music industry. It’s very tricky, which is true, but we will figure it out.
Rapee: I agree with Thiti. I think each incubator has its own agenda and preferences. It’s just that music industry isn’t among theirs.
Let’s talk a bit more on your projects, especially Ratchadamnoen and Cityscape which took a considerably short time to build and launch. Can you share with us the stories and lessons learned?
Thiti: Cityscape was the first project we all worked together on. We decided to create a fun project and launch it before the completion of wityu.fm. We wanted to get our hands dirty rather than just talking. Working on small projects benefits your team a lot in terms of synergy, from working culture to how you make decision together as a team. We have learned a lot from that.
Rapee: It’s a pilot project since people still don’t know you well. We could spend a lot of time on trial and error, it’s really important to fail early before you start a serious business. Learn what you can do and what you can’t do.
Yoonjo: For Ratchadamnoen, the rationale behind is simply that we want the fastest and easiest way to consume news, not necessarily politics but everything, economics, sports, or even entertainment. It’s really important on how you deal with overwhelming information out there these days. In politics, for example, different perspectives matter a lot and we don’t really want to spend our limited time reading various newspapers just to understand the different sides.
Thiti: Although we spent just couple days to develop the site, we got a huge audience within a very short period. The key point of Ratchadamnoen is to ‘compare’ not to ‘consume’ different perspective. People normally consume what they prefer or want which is the cause of a narrow-mind. I think the comparison of information is a very interesting service with lots of potential especially during the Thai political crisis.
Rapee: There’re lots of ways to create a product but we like being minimal – nothing fancy, just being cheap with right audience and timing.
Can you explain how wityu works?
Rapee: It’s a learning radio. Every radio station will be preconfigured with sample songs and some music attributes like mood, genre, activities, and time of day. Songs that are streamed to you will evolve as you listen to more songs tailoring the listening experience to each individual. Wityu collects what you like and what you don’t like, promoting or demoting song’s ranking in accordance to their music attributes relationship. We believe that everyone has his/her own preferences, unique only to you, that’s why we pick up this personalized approach rather than to go with crowd-based approach (e.g. you’re likely to love this song because most people think so).
How do you deal with intellectual property or ownership rights?
Thiti: We are negotiating with local record labels. It’s surely a painstaking process. We got a good deal from some of them which can kick start a project very soon.
Basically, we all have the same common goal; more quality music and less music piracy. The idea of going to 4share and get all you want has haunted the whole region for decades. We need to change the paradigm by working together.
What is your revenue model?
Thiti: Initially we aimed for a subscription-based model but after some research we may go for sponsorship and advertising instead. That’s still a big part we are working on. People in Thailand are still not willing to pay subscription fee for services like in overseas countries but I think it’s going to change. It’s just a matter of time.
Tell us about competitors and substitutes. Is there any in the local market?
Yoonjo: There are so many similar products in the global market, Melon, On Demand, Spotify, and Pandora to name a few. I used to use Melon when I was in the U.S. and then all of a sudden they stopped streaming to U.S. and I was really disappointed! Then I started trying Pandora and Spotify. What I like about these products is that we just need the streaming to listen and there’s no need to download to your devices.
Rapee: For the local market, we recently found out that there’s a pretty similar service that just started this year, but we are confident that wityu still has a lot to offer in future releases.
Thiti: I look at the market from three segments: 1) On demand music such as Spotify and Deezer, 2) Radio service such as Pandora and Tunein and 3) Social network music such as 8tracks and Grooveshark. We are a hybrid kind between the first two but not the third. We believe listeners don’t need millions of random playlists, they want a dozen of decent ones that they can always enjoy. Every station in Wityu.fm is organically growing overtime by user-suggested functions that match each station. Wityu.fm starts the stations then users help making it better. For example, you want to listen to best heartbroken songs in the 90s, not 20 mediocre stations on the internet.
We love the existing radio experience. We are just creating new radios where people can go and enjoy in a more convenient way, and we will continue to focus on delivering that experience.
What’s your next plan? Investments, new hiring or any upcoming cool releases?
Thiti: We are currently open for an investment to expand our workforce. We are carefully looking for 2-3 people to join our team. As for the next update, we want to increase audience’s participation such as user suggestion, user profile and other update on music database and exclusive DJ program.
Rapee: We plan to go mobile soon as this is of very high priority, initially on iOS, then Android.
Yoonjo: Since wityu’s main goal is to offer great listening experience anytime, anywhere, mobile is definitely coming soon for wityu. Additionally, Ratchadamnoen in a Korean version has just been launched last month.
Wityu plans to expand worldwide instead of staying in one country. The first country will be Korea. The online music industry has already been settled down in Korea for about 10 years, meaning that people expect to pay for what they listen to. It can be good for us that we can get paid customers through subscriptions without much trouble, if we want. It could also be bad because it means that music license laws are strict and the cost might be very high. I see a change happening in Korea where the more online radios are coming, rather than on-demand music listening sites. It is the right timing for us to go and start creating an online radio culture there as one of first pioneers.
What do you like and think could be improved about Thailand’s startup ecosystem?
Thiti: The startup ecosystem here is immensely growing. I can see so many opportunities to grasp and also many problems to be solved by innovative product. Most of the problems need to be solved locally by local talent. Developing country users are always spoiled by perfectly made product from oversea. We have no idea how things are actually developed. We need more early adopters who want to play, try, support, use and build something together. That’s crucial to me.
Rapee: What I like it here is that there are always spaces to be filled up. You have more chances to create a successful start-up here. Many markets have not yet been saturated. Unfortunately, not many people are ready for the opportunities out there. I wish entrepreneurship class could be included in every curriculum in school. We have many talented and smart people here it’s only that they mostly work for big corporates or go abroad. We need them to stay in the country and have an environment that encourages them to challenge themselves in the new economy.
Lastly, since wityu’s services are integrated with social network, is there any interesting statistic you can share with us?
Thiti: The average listening time is 45 minutes which is a lot longer than what I expected. Generally, to make a website that can attract people to visit and hang around for more than 2 minutes is hard already.
Rapee: Even for Facebook, if you look at separated visits people don’t spend a lot of time on one page without navigating to the next. Thanks to this long usage behavior, I think there are many opportunities that we can exploit. I was also personally surprised to find out that among our audience, girls usually listen two times longer than guys!