I confess to writing a misleading headline: iProperty Group, Australia-listed and Malaysia-based, did not pay $8 million or $6 million, in either Australian or US dollars, to purchase Thai real estate portal ThinkofLiving.com in February.
As described by ThinkofLiving CEO Beam Toranavikrai earlier this week, the acquisition is complicated, involving an initial A$8 million cash-and-iProperty share deal plus subsequent payments pegged to revenue. But since the sale of the three-and-a-half-year-old condo listings site will eventually add up to much more than A$8 million (US$6 million) for the four Thai owners, I don’t feel I need to apologize over much.
What’s actually most interesting about ThinkOfLiving is that it was built the old-fashioned way on founders’ sweat equity and yet succeeded so rapidly amid a mass of other Thai property sites also dependent on the ad revenue from property owners and developers. As Beam explained at a Bangkok Meetup event, he launched the site on his own in August 2011 while still holding a day job. It was profitable by the end of the year. As he put it, he had “failed” at a bunch of jobs that perfectly prepared him to create and run a property website: real estate ad rep, IT technician, writer, and website designer.
The innovative concept behind ThinkofLiving was the creation of its own content, instead of relying on materials supplied by the condo developers. After worming his way into new developments, Beam shot photos with his phone camera and wrote his own descriptions of the buildings and units. Another innovative aspect: the site initially focused only on new condos coming onto the market, though later adding new houses and older condos; it still doesn’t list rentals.
The great floods the deluged Bangkok suburbs and central Thailand in the last quarter of 2011 could have spelled an early end for ThinkofLiving, but Beam turned them into an opportunity by reporting on the flood damage to condos and construction sites. He was suddenly pulling “hundreds of thousands” of monthly page-views: “More than I was to get in 2012!” Some of the wary condo developers were now eager to be featured and to advertise on ThinkofLiving. Incredibly, the four-month-old site ended up earning 500,000 baht (about $15,000) in December 2011, so Beam invited two friends (and later his brother) as partners. Although they continued to hold regular jobs, the three added new content everyday.
“Quality is More Important Than Quantity”
Anyone involved in writing or making images for websites has groaned on hearing that “content is king.” It was probably popularized by the founder of Craigslist or Demand Studios and usually refers to sheer quantity obtained at minimal wages. But when Beam used it, he was referring to his decision to hire architects as writers shortly after the company finally got its own office in 2013. ”Quality is more important than quantity, though quantity is important too,” he says. I think it’s safe to say that Thai architects are not writing copy for US 1 or 2 cents per word.
Conforming to the rules of the old-fashioned media, he said that a rigid barrier is maintained between the content producers and the ad sales staff; the content people might be saying something critical about a company that has just spilled out for a big ad. Maintaining this independence isn’t easy for any kind of media in Thailand. When I asked Beam about the importance of user reviews, he seemed a ambivalent or indifferent: yes, users can offer their own opinions but fake reviews, often posted by rival developers, are a constant problem.
The company also quickly moved on to employ professional photographers and videographers. Most of the content per project, still all Thai language, is visual, including street directions. The first Youtube video debuted in November 2012. Next came a program on the cable Money Channel and a ThinkofLiving Youtube channel. The Youtube video above, you can see Beam and partner Oe introducing a unit in a new development.
Next to come in 2014 were print booklets and an expo at a posh Bangkok mall because “you have to do off-line too.” I can’t tell from that video which of the eight price segments that condo falls into but if you feel there are way too many downtown Bangkok skyscraping condos under construction and that their proclamations of “luxury” are getting old, it’s informative to poke around ThinkofLiving to see what the other 99% aspires to. Sometimes it’s modest, low-rise attached two-decker like this, which reminds me of something you might see in a remote Tokyo suburb.
Units in the lowest “super economy” segment are priced at less than 45,000 baht (about US $1,380) per square meter. The very top-end “ultimate” level units–not to be confused with the “upper class,” “high class,” “luxury” or “super luxury” segments–are 200,000 baht (about $6,150) and up per square meter. I have yet to meet anyone, Thai or foreign, that doesn’t think there’s a condo bubble on the verge of exploding in Thailand. Beam seemed to agree but said that while the high-end market may deflate, there is still room for growth at the lower end. You have to get out beyond the central city and see what’s popping up for the new Thai middle class along the MRT (subway) stations and the new Skytrain stations across the river.
Not the Traffic Leader
Despite all the site’s glitzy trimmings today, it’s an inspirational story. Beam didn’t let himself to be put off by the specter of existing property sites or the lack of money, top-flight cameras, an office or ad sales staff. “We had no initial financial support, had no loss in three years … We’re now the number one portal,”Beam said, quickly adding, “not with the most traffic but with the most revenue.” According to PropertyPortalWatch and SimilarWeb, ThinkofLiving’s traffic ranks about fourth among Thai property sites with 510,000 monthly page-views, though most of its coverage is still of Bangkok. With 1.48 million pages (!), it’s way behind the largest site, DDProperty, with 9.63 million pages (!!) and some English content.
Evidently, iProperty, founded by classifieds tycoon Patrick Grove, was satisfied with ThinkofLiving’s books. (Last year, another of Grove’s listed companies, iCarAsia, added Thailand’s One2Car.com to its regional auto classifieds empire.) But ThinkofLiving’s emphasis on content creation and new condo sales differs from iProperty’s wide-ranging sites in six other countries with their emphasis on listings, and inclusion of buyers, sellers and rentals, and both commercial and residential properties. Like ThinkofLiving, though, video plays a huge role in iProperty’s properties.
Beam said that, according to the terms of the site’s sale, his team will continue to run ThinkofLiving on their present model, perhaps picking up some ideas from iProperties’ other sites. The immediate goal, though, is add condo content from beyond Bangkok.