Nana – founder of TohLao – the first co-working space in Laos.
Q1: What do you appreciate yourself in the business mainly for?
One thing is raising awareness about what co-working space and startup is. A second one is that we are able to cooperate better in the region. For example two months ago I went for a startup conference in Vietnam, pitching an idea of collaboration for 5 countries. Also many organizations start to be interested in startup-related work, for example the US embassy in Laos. But there is still a lot to be done in order to make the whole startup ecosystem to be better. It’s not just us to do that, we need to make more people to be involved.
Q2: What is the biggest challenge for you now?
Our biggest challenge now… we still continue building awareness. For certain groups of people who are interested in startups or have started their own businesses they are here already. But it’s not only about them but also local investors. It’ still not clear for them what startup is and why should they invest. Another point is the government which slowly understands the startup community, why startups are needed and luckily after 1,5 years of events and activities we’ve organized, the government also came to discuss with us how we can collaborate and how they can support us. The challenge we have to overcome is how we are going to make this process even faster. Now we are doing activities slowly, based on the funds we can raise but I think if we can do it more and faster, the result would be better. Another challenge which I may share… because of Lao culture: my mother who is a banker couldn’t understand what am I doing and why. It took her 10 months to accept and decide to support me.
Q3: What advice do you have for yourself in this situation?
We want to have more co-working spaces in the country. The plan for next 3-5 years is to have one more co-working space in Vientiane, we want to expend also to other cities, which are tourists destination, so people can choose to work there as well. The business model for each place may be different. It can be a combination of co-working and co-living space. Now we are looking in details each place in order to prepare for up-scale. I want also to see successful cases of startups being able to raise funds, to send their product not just in Laos, but also abroad, look beyond Lao market. In a very long perspective I hope I could come back and invest in some of the startups. I hope to become an investor to support startups in growing.
Would you like to add something more?
We are the first and only co-working space in Laos at the moment. Toh means desk, that’s why we named it TohLao. We started in March 2014, we’ve had a variety of questions from people why we are doing this and whether is it gonna be ok or not because people here do not know what co-working space is, but worse than that people don’t know what startup is. So that was really difficult for us. But if we hadn’t started we wouldn’t know whether we can have hope for the startup community in this country. I’m a financial advisor, before opening this co-working space I got some problem with finding an office to start a business. Back then I worked from home, it was not easy, internet was not so good, many distractions … I needed an office. I used to leave in the US and I heard the idea of co-working space but I wasn’t so sure Laos is ready for that. In 2014 I looked at other countries around us who started to open co-working places: Vietnam, Thailand, even Myanmar so I thought maybe it’s good time for the region, maybe we should test the market as well. Because of Lao culture it’s difficult for young people to start a business. They don’t dare to take risk, it is so different from Thai, Burmese, people here live with their families, they have this attitude: let’s finish university, let’s find a good job, work for the government, don’t start business, because it’s so risky, you don’t know, you may fail… we have to try to change that.
The questions were asked on our behalf by Anna and Andrea from How to (ex) change the world.
Vientiene, Laos, 20th November 2015