Sahib Anandsongvit had a problem: his family, who ran a boutique hotel business in Bangkok, constantly needed to find skilled workers to repair rooms, clean facilities, or perform other services on short notice. Traditionally, Thai small business owners looking for service providers have relied on word of mouth, or flyers pinned to trees and telephone poles around the city. But how can one be sure that the provider is trustworthy, and how can they be found quickly for emergency repairs?
To address this problem, Sahib co-founded a new company called Seekster. Unlike a traditional business in this space, which might hire a fleet of service providers and pay them an hourly rate, Seekster took a “platform” approach. Without hiring a single provider directly, Sahib built an online marketplace where small, and medium enterprises (SMEs)—like his own family business—can find, hire, and rate the services of independent cleaners, plumbers, pest exterminators, and air conditioner technicians who sign up on the platform. Businesses on Seekster get fast and high-quality services, while individual providers get immediate access to a customer base and can parlay good ratings into much higher and more reliable incomes. In fact, Seekster providers earn more than triple the minimum daily wage of 310 Baht (about $9).
What’s more, this business model allows Seekster to grow its user base extremely rapidly—fueled by a 15m Baht ($450,000) seed funding round, Sahib aims to double the company’s gross transaction value and quadruple the number of Seekster service providers in 2018.
Across Asia, online platforms like Seekster—which leverage rapidly expanding mobile broadband and cloud computing services to facilitate transactions—have emerged as valuable tools for navigating the connected world. By 2020, over a billion people in the Asia-Pacific alone will be served by online platforms, and platform businesses are already active in sectors as diverse as finance, logistics, cross-border trade, talent acquisition, household services, and the traditional buying and selling of goods. Farmers in Indonesia are using platforms to access crop information from top universities, weather data from the Indonesian meteorological agency, and daily commodity prices from nearby markets. An unbanked bookseller in Gaya can conduct customer transactions, make purchases, and protect savings from financial shocks—all by using a local online payment platform. Through a local education platform, a gifted student living in a remote or rural area can access accredited university courses. And Asia’s women micro-entrepreneurs are now using many of the same platform-based business tools as well-capitalized entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
While the rise of online platforms suggests new opportunities for the promotion of sustainable and inclusive growth within the region, it also demands much further research, investment, and dialogue on these topics. As more Asian economies progress to upper-middle income status and beyond, the challenge of increasing state effectiveness and shifting toward more knowledge-driven, high-value work is paramount. Analysis by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) suggested that ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’ changes were needed in the way both developing and developed countries pursued key growth and development outcomes if the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were to be achieved by 2030. How online platforms might shape the region’s long-term growth story is yet to be seen, but the potential that these platforms have to revolutionize how things are done is without question.