Ages 35-40, First Years Overseas
There are parts I left out of this article because I wrote about them already here: www.ThailandGuru.com/journal-mp-thailand.html - the second half of that article.
The internet did not exist in Thailand for all practical purposes, and in fact it was illegal to set up a private, commercial communications system. This was my first experience at being prohibited in doing any internet business. It was all reserved for monopoly providers given a concession by the government, and word had it that it required a lot of under the table money and connections.
My only internet connection was an international direct dial to the USA, at considerable expense. (There was a monopoly government run packet switching gateway to the outside world, but it was minimal and terrible. A few other people also had the idea of doing something with internet, but they were turfy. The only positive interest I got from the Thai side was from a few universities with very kind people, though of limited utility and potential, and cognizant of the government powers.)
After arriving in Bangkok, the government related consulting went very slow, to say the least. Meanwhile, I met a lot of expat executives in the purely private sector, working for multinational companies who were keenly interested in using my skills. After just 4 months, I switched to consulting to these multinationals, and at about the same time I also moved out on my own, leaving Maggie's luxurious "free" apartment paid for by her employer in the heart of the city center.
The year 1995 was also a year in which I did a lot of tourist-like exploring as well.
My work at first was to a fairly diverse range of multinational companies run by directors and upper level managers from Australia, the UK, US, and Europe, but staffed mostly with Thais. Some were Thailand branches of blue chip multinationals, whereas others were small and medium sized enterprises. It was a great learning experience to see how these purely private sector corporations operated.
My job was usually bringing American software and networking expertise into the company in order to organize their information and project management systems. I was surprised to find Australians and Europeans as well as Americans overseas to be very significantly behind the USA in computer usage and systems setup. I was fairly well ahead in the USA, but in Thailand I was much further ahead.
As always, practical applications was my interest, not so much the technology itself.
I quickly decided to focus on the engineering and construction community, as it both had the most interesting projects (I love engineering projects) and also had the best referral potential. I am accustomed to getting work by referrals rather than advertising. It is good to be a known entity in a community, with references who people already know, rather than all the time required to get acquainted as a complete stranger and build up trust. Also, I just love engineering projects that design and build things, and was fascinated by all the projects of these companies, from skyscraper buildings to factories.
Design work was usually split between an office in a Bangkok highrise, a construction shack on the site of the work, and offices overseas where experts reviewed designs. I most enjoyed visiting the sites. They were just getting hooked up with modems to network all these sites.
In Thailand, I stand out as a foreigner, and my point of contact at each site was usually the top guy there who was usually a foreigner, or one of his small handful of top foreign managers/mentors. I was highly respected by all the Thai workers. I didn't need to say anything. Dressed in business attire, all I had to do was put on a hard hat and I could freely walk around the site. I also had access to all the data, and enjoyed going over the design plans and tracking progress in construction, including memos of problems and solutions which cropped up. I learned a lot about engineering and construction projects in a short time, vicariously.
I got along with the Thai staff very well. Many foreigners don't. It can be very frustrating to work with Thais, and often requires a lot of patience and gentle coaching of staff. The top levels of Thai management are usually bright. There are staff problems in all countries, but add on the language barrier and different culture, and it can be quite a challenge. Thai people value harmony and avoid conflict. Sometimes, this leads to avoiding problems until they get too big. On the plus side, Thai people like a sense of humor.
I also learned a lot about the property business, since that's what a lot of projects were about -- developing properties -- and in various social gatherings, I got to know who's who, and to meet some of the analysts and investors.
Foreigners are a small minority in companies in Thailand, and we tend to socialize a lot more in business situations. It's nice to talk with other native English speakers who are expats doing business way over here in Thailand for one reason or another. Expats tend to be high achievers relative to folks back home, and also to have diverse backgrounds, so compared to back in our native countries, there tends to be a lot more socializing that goes along with business.
One thing that struck me was that practically everything was imported western technology. The companies saw as their mission the training of Thai staff in western methods and standards. The greatest challenges were trying to get the Thai staff to be able to analyze, solve problems, and create solutions on their own. I'd had these problems with many American programmers, but in Thailand the situation was much worse.
I came to really appreciate my own origins.
I was also appreciated by others for my solutions, relatively speaking.
Many times, I was sent to fix problems at companies which already had many I.T. staff with university degrees in computer science. They were slow and seemingly unable to solve problems which they weren't trained on.
All this work was spotty, as I was a consultant and not a fulltime employee. I would work a day here and a day there, as needed.
However, I had moved out into suburban Bangkok and was living very, very cheaply like a Thai, so I was able to make ends meet while pursuing this adventure. Embedding myself in mainstream Thai culture also helped me develop my Thai language skills.
THAT was my secret to surviving in Thailand -- living very cheaply, like a Thai, in purely Thai areas. Once you cut your costs to the bone -- rent just a small room in an apartment block at Thai rates, eat Thai food on the streets, take the bus, and generally live cheaply like a Thai -- you can go consult to a multinational company for one day and live on that for a week.
As my business sometimes got me into areas in which I lacked experience, I occasionally hired programmers from a few universities and recent graduates who had supposedly learned the latest technologies. With most of them, I was shocked at their lack of problem solving skills, how they addressed issues, the solutions they proposed, and just the lack of attention to detail and quality. They were copycats, and I had a very difficult time getting them to think out of the box. I would just come out doing the work myself, figuring it out as I go, and showing them how. It took a lot of attrition and time before I got a short list of good techies who I felt comfortable referring to a customer. I wouldn't take the pay but would leave it between the customer and the other techie, and steer clear of complications.
In talking with many Managing Directors, they said there are a lot of good engineers, architects, and other skilled people, but it took a whole lot of interviews and probationary hiring periods to find the good ones. Some were quick to point out that it's the same everywhere in the world, but it's worse in some places than others.
When it came to ideas for developing internet software applications, the Thai programmers were almost totally inexperienced with internet, as it was slow to come to Thailand. Further, there was a bad attitude about cutting edge new applications. "If it's such a good idea, then why hasn't someone done it?" Of course, once someone does it, then it's too late to get on the front of the wave. They really were little more than copycats. I was really exasperated.
Unfortunately, I lost track almost entirely of progress in the internet business. Thailand was nearly cut off from the internet, as the monopoly Communications Authority of Thailand disallowed private sector internet without a license, required everyone to use its international link to the outside world which was overloaded and unstable, and gave out only a couple of licenses (with under the table money) to a couple of ISPs who offered horrendous service. When my companies needed to transmit files overseas, we did so by direct dialing in the early years.
Being cut off, I lost some domain names like PermaNet.com and PermaNet.org , but eventually I got permanent.com secured. (I never got into domain name speculation, considering it wrong. I was a True Believer in the purity of the internet at the time. How idealistic and naive I was...)
I was also awed by the amounts of money going thru the property sector, which dwarfed what I saw on internet ventures.
The internet news was about how many of the companies like Yahoo had yet to turn a profit, but had deep pocket investors who could wait until the time came (which they were correct about). So many things changed. Leading search engines like AltaVista.com and indexes like Lycos.com went from the forefront to becoming footnotes in history as new ventures came forward, many of them fuelled by IPOs (Initial Public Offerings). Some people I knew in the USA were making a lot of money on website design and IT services, but I didn't know anyone of Yahoo calibre or anything near it. A lot of people got rich by having a garage operation which was severely stressed financially but bought up by some giant company that wanted a quick entry without the slow startup phase.
I had an on-off relationship with Thai programmers and the small internet community in Thailand, and all too easily drifted back into consulting to the multinationals.
Back to 1995, just a year after arriving, during my computer consulting, I met my first Thai wife at the architecture company she was working for, a Chinese Thai who was born and grew up in a place called Nakhon Chai Sri, right next to the Tha Cheen ("port Chinese") River, where her Chinese grandfather had done business. We had a daughter, Angela, in late 1996. We moved to a nice house in suburban Sammakorn Village. (I say "first" Thai wife because the marriage lasted just 4 years.)
In retrospect, the years 1995 to 1997 were a golden time in my life, when I learned a lot and expanded my horizons.
The 1997 Asia Economic Collapse
I mark 1997 as an end point to a "golden time" in my life because a turning point happened when the Thailand economy as well as the region suddenly collapsed into an economic recession, nearly all my work suddenly ended, and indeed I didn't get paid for some recent work. Most expats departed. (For example, in the 1996 Lighthouse Club annual ball, more than 500 people attended. After the recession, we had only around 11 reservations and just cancelled it.)
I survived mainly because I am not a big spender, unlike most expats here. I am very economical. I had a family to support, but had considerable savings. My wife and I had visited the US in 1996, and at that time I decided not to relocate back.
Actually, in 1997, I found myself at the heart of the CAUSE of the entire Asia economic collapse, and that turned out to be quite a learning experience -- I had seen the warning signs, but had gone along with the groupthink in denial.
When I arrived in Bangkok in 1994, I was amazed by all the very tall skyscrapers, as well as all the construction cranes. Later, I was even more amazed to find out that there were no highrise buildings in Bangkok in 1985, and most of that construction had occurred in 1987 to date, with the construction rate slow at first and then multiplying.
Thailand had been one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and Bangkok was the epicenter. There's no other city in Thailand that's anything like Bangkok.
A combination of cheap labor, good infrastructure (especially interprovincial roads, partly because America's main bases during the Vietnam War were spread around Thailand), sociopolitical stability, and generally pro-business government policies (and rather flexible enforcement of rules and regulations) had made Thailand a favorite place for investment for factories geared to export. A big port was in Bangkok. Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore had already industrialized and become expensive, and Thailand (and communist China) were among the most interesting frontiers. Thailand had a long history of cultural stability as well as close ties to the West.
Demand for office and apartment & condominium prices had skyrocketed during the initial boom, resulting in a lot of property investors becoming extremely rich in a short period of time. Suddenly, legions of property investors flocked in.
The problem is that there was overbuilding. Suddenly, a seller's market became a buyer's market. The glut was tremendous. Property companies suddenly could not get anywhere near the prices they expected, and there was vast amounts of unsold and unrented space. The property developers couldn't pay back loans.
Trouble started to show in early 1997, when many big companies stopped paying their bills. These included some of my customers not paying me. Then banks and savings & loans started to collapse. The domino effect spread from Thailand all over Asia, including the second largest bank in Japan.
This is all explained in detail on another website of mine at www.ThailandGuru.com/culture-1997-bust.html
In July 1997, the government was forced to float the Thai currency, the baht, and it instantly plummeted. At the same time, emergency laws had been passed forbidding cash transfers out of Thailand which did not meet strict standards. The whole banking system and economy seemed on the brink of a catastrophic collapse.
In a short time, everyone's savings in Thailand banks dropped to less than half their value in US dollars simply by the devaluation of the Thai baht. They still had their full value in Thailand, but the Thai baht wasn't worth much if it was moved outside Thailand and converted into US dollars. (Of course, Thailand became a great place for tourists coming here who would get far more for their dollar!)
Combine this with loss of work, and my situation had changed dramatically.
The two years 1995-1996 had been great years, but 1997 was bringing in dramatic changes. It is also notable that in 1994 when I had seen the incredibly large numbers of highrise buildings under construction in Bangkok and questioned whether this was sustainable, I had actually been right at the time, and later wrong to go along with the groupthink of so many high level experts in the business community who were so overconfident that the "Asia tigers" were able to continue this kind of strong growth for the foreseeable future.
Right after the currency crash and massive layoffs, most working expats left Thailand in 1997. I stayed. I still had enough consulting work if I really scrambled and a little bit of savings to get by awhile, but only if I spent them in Thailand and spent very, very carefully. If I moved the money overseas, the buying power was much less.
Some companies tried to keep going with a skeleton crew, and kept me on for minimal pay. In general, these companies sent all their expat staff back out of the country except the top director ... and me as parttime staff as needed. After all, they had recognized (with my coaching) that I.T. is the core of their business, not just secretaries on advanced typing and editing machines, but that information technology was the core of businesses like theirs. Most companies didn't get this, but some did, and for some I was the only expat they kept on, as a consultant rather (not fulltime), as they appreciated the value of my expertise as well as my ability to explain things to them in plain English.
Some of these companies I tried to keep going by "offshore labor outsourcing", i.e., using their Thai engineering design staff to work on construction projects in overseas countries such as Australia and the U.S. Usually, they were able to get work from their multinational's other branch offices around the world, but some were able to get work from others, often by referral. Unfortunately, marketing to strangers in Western countries got little work, and poor rates, but consumed a whole lot of time and effort. It was a lesson in offshore outsourcing, that referrals count.
I used my idle time in 1997-98 to complete the PERMANENT book, in 1997-98. I self-published it in 1998, paying for all the printing costs myself, for 1000 copies. No publisher was interested in publishing it because I also insisted on having the entire contents of the book freely available on the internet, and in fact the internet version would stay more up to date.
This was a lifelong ambition, and I'd really made no time to complete it until now.
My thinking was this:
In retrospect, I had great hope in the internet. Just like many investors, I invested a lot in this internet hope, only for it to come crashing down in 1999 like the rest of the internet stocks.
The PERMANENT website was highly popular, but the donations were quite insufficient, and the book sales had little profit margin due to international shipping costs. I had countless volunteers, but few actually followed up with any work as agreed, and most of the work which did come back was of poor quality and late. To get decent work, PERMANENT needed money and fixed-fee contract jobs, not rely on volunteers.
Thanks to a fortuitous consulting job in 1998 at the right time, for a company opening an offshore engineering design office in Thailand, I made a small batch of money. Then, the office set up, my work was over and I was idle again. However, there was enough money to buy an airplane ticket to the USA if I could keep my costs down there.
I was able to buy one airplane ticket to fly back by myself to the USA for a space resources conference in New Mexico, to touch base with people I'd lost touch with over the years, and also explore the job market there. (This was a professional conference of engineers and scientists, not an advocacy or enthusiast symposium. Government was the normal source of funding of most of them, directly or indirectly.) I had written a paper which had been accepted for presentation, and it was about how we could network the community in-between conferences and share resources by internet.
I arrived on the second day of the conference. Having crossed 11 time zones, the jet lag was about as bad as it could get, and I was pretty exhausted from the flight. I arrived to find out that people were looking for me because I had been appointed a moderator for a session the previous day. Something was lost in the emails. However, I had a presentation to deliver almost right away.
I also experienced difficulty speaking English as regards big words, as I hadn't spoken my native language much over the previous year, and I had learned to use simple English in Asia. Being with sophisticated people, I was often at a loss for sophisticated words and expression, unlike yesteryears. My mind was a bit foggy from the 12 hour shift in my schedule, and I stumbled thru my presentation and the rest of the conference. After awhile, I learned to just stay quiet and watch. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see and meet some of the new people who had entered the quality literature and business work. I had hoped maybe there was some work I could do in the USA, but there was apparently nothing on the immediate horizon. There were people at the conference who had been in my current position before, and had needed to suspend their efforts periodically when nothing had taken off and go back to other work.
I had a good few days talking with old friends and new acquaintances. As the conference was winding down, it started to go along the lines of some before it -- ad hoc, short technical workshops at the end. I was more concerned with business and sponsorship. However, it didn't look like I'd get any work in any space development field anytime soon.
I chose to spend my last few days renting a car and taking a short break driving around beautiful New Mexico and staying in the cheapest hotels I could find ... and sometimes sleeping in the car ... pondering my future before dashing back to Thailand. I also explored the pay in small jobs and the cost of living in the USA.
In the end, it was clear to me that there wasn't enough immediate support for PERMANENT as regards financial income, and as regards alternative work in the USA, it was just way too expensive to live in the US and I would need to save vastly more money before I could even consider a move back to the USA.
I had achieve my goal of getting the PERMANENT concept out into the world by the website. I had to leave the PERMANENT website fishing hook out there by itself, and get back to finding some projects which would hire me for enough hours per month to get back onto my feet financially.
I returned to Thailand and started looking for work again.
I had assumed that the economy would rebound after a year of adaptation, and while the property market was dead (largely because of the bankruptcies without bankruptcy laws, long story, leaving so much property with legal problems) and the remaining banks barely alive, I thought that there would still be work in factories for exports. However, that had dried up, too, because consumer spending power all around Asia was way down, and most factories were exporting to both the West and Asia.
There was little work. Money was running out.
Some business associates were opening new offices in the Philippines due to the much better English there (romanized language), so a customer flew me out there with my wife, but we did not like the country due to its lack of safety compared to Thailand, and after doing some work for my main customer for a week or so, we flew back and decided to stay in Thailand.
We cut costs by moving to her parents provincial home just an hour west of Bangkok, and lived there for a year.
I had created a company before for my consulting, but it had died in this economic environment.
One of the consulting jobs I got was for a large overseas property investment company to drive around Bangkok and some seaside properties which they had invested in, survey the ground truth about these properties, and network their sales/rental offices via internet to their overseas office for management and auditing purposes. (Their Bangkok main office had collapsed.) Most of the properties were empty and with skeleton offices (lots of stories here!). The investors were definitely not going to sell at that time, but were sitting on the properties in anticipation of a much better market in a few years.
However, during my long drives I started thinking about how I could get involved in the property market which I thought would eventually boom again in a few years.
I also thought about some other businesses. The problem is that I didn't have the money or the quality partners to get anything going quickly.
In fact, on a few occasions, I literally ran out of money, really down to my last dollar.
Notably, I had previous friends who I had helped in Thailand when they ran out of money, going back to 1995. I had not just lent but had given them money, and also given them work instead of doing the work myself. However, they were still unsuccessful here, most of them departing before the 1997 crash. They had typically gone back to their home country, and in the ensuing years had become successful. One guy had started his own business and was telling me how successful he was, sending photos of his lavish overseas vacations and wedding, talking about how rich he had become, etc., like he was rubbing it in. He had gone completely broke in Thailand and I had GIVEN him money and work. Did he reciprocate? No. He had an awful website, and I offered to fix it up for him for cheap, but he refused that, too. However, he continued to egotistically rub in how successful he was.
I had to borrow a little bit of money a couple of times (totaling a few hundred dollars), and that's when I found out who my true friends were. A few local Thai friends and a few PERMANENT volunteers donated money. Fortunately, that rock bottom time was brief.
I learned how to live like a Thai and poor person, not just theoretically but real life experience.
I wasn't suffering or starving or anything like that. People generally don't starve in Thailand. If I had no ambitions in this world except to support myself and my family, then I could have started a beach front restaurant or tourism business like a lot of other expats. I was happy at times. Where else can you drive the short distance to the beach and get a hotel right in front with a nice view for $10 per night? Or the mountains? For long hauls, air conditioned buses go there for $10 and local transport is pocket change. I could understand why so many people live in Thailand teaching English for less than $1000 per month and are happy. However, I was not interested in being a teacher, either.
The difference was my frustrations -- what was required to make progress in PERMANENT. Already, I had stopped mailing books for free to VIPs around the world (whenever I could find their addresses), which cost more than $10 per book in shipping.
I also learned what it must be like to be an immigrant to a foreign country. My spoken Thai language skills were sufficient for social things, but insufficient for reading (it's a different script) or doing serious business at that time. Living in a province with no other foreigners around me was quite an existence. My wife's family was half Chinese immigrant, so they knew a little of what it's like.
I was really living by an internet connection, and as far as business was concerned, I may as well have been on the Moon connected only by internet.
In previous years, I had helped other expats arriving in Thailand and had written a few web pages about it, and so I had the idea to put together a guide to living and working in Thailand. I thought by turning that into a business, I could meet expat business people and investors coming to Thailand who might hire me to help them get established. In 1999, I collected these things I'd written before, and I started to fill in the gaps. It was just one of several business ideas I was developing, all as www.permanent.com/[subprojects] but as this Thailand guide project developed, it got significant inquiries.
Shortly after the millennium turnover, I got the domain ThailandGuru.com and immediately launched my guide. (People had referred to me as "the Thailand guru" before, long story.)
Partly due to my frustrations, my relationship with my wife had some problems and we also split at around this time, with me moving back to Bangkok to focus on getting a business started again. This is another long story I really don't want to discuss in public.
I did some business from Thailand Guru, including some property business. It could have been a lot more, but my Thai associates just totally dropped the ball, such as not showing up for appointments with customers, or coming unprepared without appointments with landlords, and things like that. I had invested a lot of time and effort in developing a website section and talking with these potential customers, and it was all so frustrating.
This was a common problem -- people talking big like they wanted to work with me in starting a business, but then not following thru with real implementation. It was a lot like PERMANENT volunteers, except this was real money and basic business.
I started to really think about who was reliable, and two people came to mind. One was the PERMANENT artist, Sam, who always did high quality work, far exceeding my expectations and doing it on schedule. He was mostly self-taught. I asked Sam if he would come to Thailand, as he had no decent job in New Zealand, and he expressed serious interest. I decided to push for this full force.
A second person was a Thai journalist I had met in 1998 and held in high esteem at the time, a do-gooder with big ambitions, and who had a lot of experience interviewing and developing relationships with top leaders in Thailand. We had a mutual admiration. However, her journalism work had a big setback when a key associate above her passed away, and she was wanting to doing business for a livelihood, so we started to explore possibilities. I was impressed with her poise and sophistication, and willing to give this a try. This very close relationship continued until 2008 when we finally split, both personally and in business, all at once. I'd rather not get into too many unnecessary details just out of consideration to everybody involved and what I think would be their preferences for privacy.
I would rather end this segment at around the year 2000 because it is where I stopped working on PERMANENT for the most part, and started focusing on developing a business for survival.
When I was in my 20s, a lot of people were already working on their retirement pension, and sacrificing options of what they could do in their young life. I told myself that I didn't want to live off government social security when I was old or work for one entity for all my life just for the pension, and I wanted to start a business which I could retire on -- money from my business. I thought that at age 40, I had not yet succeeded in establishing any such business which could support me, and wanted to focus on that next.
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