Head to theCOMMONS on a Friday night or a late brunch morning any day of the week to witness just how successful it is. The community space on Bangkok’s trendy Thong Lor is always jam-packed with families laughing, friends chilling, fun workshops, social events and people coming together through their shared interests, ranging from art, coffee, indoor cycling, pilates, music, food and more. While some may see it as a ‘community mall’, theCOMMONS’s unique mix of vendors, green and semi-outdoor area and education-focused initiatives for the lifelong learner ensure that theCOMMONS goes far beyond what we’d find at the usual air-conditioned Bangkok mall. It’s hard to believe the successful community space that opened 3 years ago ran into initial challenges with funding as every Thai bank rejected theCOMMONS concept altogether. What seems so normal now was actually very unusual and risky not so long ago. We sat down with one of the community space’s co-founders, entrepreneur Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan, to see how her and her brother and business partner started theCOMMONS empire. With plans to expand at the end of this year, see how the tale of gut and grit served to ensure the success of what has become a central fixture of Bangkok life.
Hero image courtesy of Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan, Featured image taken by Jacqueline Michelle Ochoa
My name is Vicharee. I spent most of my life in the US, I went to boarding school in Virginia, finished my undergrad and MBA and worked in the US for many years in retail before I moved back to Thailand about seven years ago. I’m a mother of 2 little ones. When I moved back here I had this feeling that I didn’t want to go back to corporate life and that I wanted to start something on my own. That’s when I started to think about becoming an entrepreneur.
My background is more in retail. I started off in consulting, working for the Boston Consulting Group and retailers like Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works in the US. My brother is the one who is in F&B and so he’s the one who started the food and cafe side of our business. When I moved back we wanted to work together so I started helping with the F&B side and then together we came up with the idea of merging F&B and retail and that’s how The Commons came about.
No, there wasn’t anything like it. Back then, 7 years ago, there started to be a lot of smaller producers and a lot of farmer’s markets that were popping up maybe once a month on a weekend like the Bangkok Farmer’s Market and the Spring/Summer Market. I started to see a lot of really good quality producers who had interesting products but then you had to wait once a month to find them at the Farmer’s Market.
So the idea was to bring these guys together and connect them with their customers on a more permanent basis. For me, being a mum and coming back to Thailand in the beginning was quite frustrating because there was not a lot to do for the kids. I found that a lot of the activities ended up being in big shopping malls.
Some people might consider theCOMMONS to be a community mall, however when we were concept-ing the idea, I wanted it to really be the opposite of a mall. I wanted an outdoor/semi-outdoor space that would bring people together. We tried to integrate as much greenery into the space as possible so that you could sit outside of an air-conditioned room and be a little bit closer to nature, with fun activities and events where people with similar interests could come, meet up and connect.
It was a lot of gut. Of course we had a plan and I built my financial model and everything, it was just taking that leap. We started by thinking of the concept, and we approached a lot of the people we wanted to join. We actually had 60% of the tenants already confirmed before we even had the financing to build the place.
Once we gathered some of the people we wanted to build this community together with, we engaged an architect [Amata Luphaiboon from the Department of Architecture] who we thought was really interesting and worked with him to come up with the design of the space.
Once we had the design and we had the tenants, we actually thought that we would get a loan from a bank to invest and build the space. We didn’t buy the land, the land is a longterm lease so we don’t own it; we found the property, we fell in love with it, we got a longterm lease, we thought that we would be able to get funding from the bank, but it turns out we got rejected from every single bank we applied for a loan at.
They looked at us and said ‘Okay, so you’re a community mall, so over 60% of the space should be leasable’ and when they saw our plans, they said ‘This is crazy, what are you building? Why do you have all this free common area space, why aren’t you leasing out a lot more of the space?’ And then they looked at our list of tenants and didn’t know who they were and then asked us questions like ‘Where’s your McDonalds? Where’s your Starbucks? You should have a supermarket in here.’ So every single bank didn’t understand what we were doing and they all said no.
It took us another 6-9 months to raise funds. We ended up approaching any friend, family, anyone we knew who believed in our idea. In the end, we were able to get 16 investors who believed in the need for a space like this in Bangkok. We were really lucky to get these angel investors and that’s how we were able to get enough money to build the place.
I knew in my gut it would work, and that I wanted it to work, and I really believed it would be something different for Bangkok and something new and interesting for the community.
Definitely the team. I’ve been really fortunate to have an amazing team, especially the core marketing team. We don’t have a lot of resources, we don’t have an unlimited budget to do lots of marketing, so we had to be really creative around how to build awareness of the space and how to engage the customer.
In the beginning, because we were new to real estate and operating a building like this, there were a lot of challenges in terms of the maintenance and mechanical work, that I knew nothing about. I had to learn really quickly and fix things along the way, so that was definitely a challenge. In the first year of opening we learned a lot in terms of what products and services worked and didn’t work. We had tenants who came in with great products but then learned that these products were not something the customer here wanted. We tried to support some very local new budding entrepreneurs, but some of them weren’t really ready to operate a business, so it’s both in terms of what products work and finding the balance of giving opportunities to young entrepreneurs.
For me, it’s a place that connects people and brings people together, and we try to promote the concept of wholesome living. For us, wholesome living means you eat well, you take care of your health, you spend time with people you love and you always try to learn something new. So we try to incorporate all those elements into the space. That’s why we have a lot of good food vendors who offer high quality products; we have an exercise space so you can take care of your health and stay fit; we have a kid’s space so you can spend time with your family and the ones you love and this area here we’re in, we always have different workshops and in a way, it’s not just so people can learn something new, but it’s so they can connect. If you’re interested in coffee brewing and i’m interested in coffee brewing, we can come and we meet here, and it’s a way to connect people who have similar interests and we hope in that the friendship made will go beyond their time here.
So right now our company is structured so that there’s a holding company called Kinnest Group. Under this, we have the F&B Side [Roast, Ocken and Roots Coffee] and the lifestyle side [theCOMMONS and Little Pea]. I primarily look at theCOMMONS and Little Pea and he primarily looks at the food side, but honestly we work together a lot, so I help out on the food side, and he helps out on theCOMMONS side too, so it’s a very good partnership.
I’m so excited. We found a plot of land on Sala Daeng Soi 1. I love the space, it’s very similar to where we are now, it’s not on the main road but a little bit set back, but it’s very accessible, you can enter it through Sathorn, Silom, Rama 4 and it’s a nice neighbourhood. We engaged the same architect, although he was under a lot of pressure because he wanted to build something that was architecturally interesting but wasn’t just be a copy of what is already here.
So he went and he studied the history of Sala Daeng, and he found out that Sala Daeng was the first railway that went from Pak Nam to Hua Lumphong; the train station right before Hua Lumphong and was Sala Daeng and it was called Sala Daeng because back then there was a little sala [open pavilion] that was daeng [red] for people to sit in while they waited for the train. With that in mind, the architect took the history of the neighbourhood and the red sala as inspiration for the layout of the new COMMONS’ roof, so stay tuned to see what it will look like. It’s scheduled to be open in December and I’m keeping my fingers crossed there will be no delays!
For me, I think there are a few things:
1. Since I have this really amazing team, how do I continue to grow them and keep them engaged? Its sort of a balance, once the team gets bigger you also need to grow to keep them growing and have a career path for them too, so it’s really around maintaining and engaging the team, and creating opportunities for them to grow. That’s one thing that’s always on my mind.
2. The other thing is financing. We have a lot of plans to grow this coming year and also in the next 5 years. It’s back to the same issue of finding the right partners and the right investors to raise enough funds for us to grow.
3. For me, as an entrepreneur and mum, how do I balance everything? Maintaining that wholesome and balanced life that I want is a challenge, but I try to be very conscious about it. This is really geeky, but I’ll share it with you anyway: I have a spread sheet that I use to track how I spend my time, just to make sure I’m spending enough time on each of the businesses, on the food businesses, the Commons, Little Pea, on developing the team, and also personally. It’s also how I ensure I have enough time to go and work out and stay fit. I see how much I spend on each thing and I set targets on how much I want to spend on each thing each day and week. I’m nowhere perfect, it’s definitely a work in progress, but I’m consciously trying to be better.
I also force myself to go home at a reasonable hour every night, I try to have dinner with the kids every day as much as I can, I put them to bed every night and I reserve the weekends for them. I think it’s not just the quantity of the time I spend with them, but the quality, so making sure I’m not working when I’m with them and making sure that I am fully present.
Definitely make sure that you are passionate about what you’re doing, that you have that gut feeling that says it’s right and that you believe in what you’re doing, That alone is not enough though. You must have that grit, you must persevere, you have to really enjoy it day in and day out and put in your all. Know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at and try and gather people in the expertise that you are not good at. That would be my advice.