BANGKOK/MANILA -- Southeast Asian startups have long drawn inspiration from the big U.S. information technology companies. Now, some entrepreneurs are zeroing in on opportunities yet to be tapped by the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon.com.
Natavudh Pungcharoenpong is the first to admit that his company, Thai e-book store operator Ookbee, is not a global player. Instead, the CEO sees it as a "hyperlocal" business.
Established in Bangkok in March 2012, Ookbee creates e-books in Southeast Asian languages Amazon does not handle -- not only Thai but also Malaysian, Tagalog and Vietnamese. It has attracted more than 6 million readers across the region; its total e-book downloads have surpassed 8 million.
This was not Natavudh's first IT venture. In 2000, as a graduate student, he founded a software development company.
Ten years later, when Apple introduced the iPad tablet, he realized that even if he bought one, he would have access to little Thai reading material. Natavudh started visiting local publishers, encouraging them to digitize their titles and offering to do it for them. The response was better than he expected.
In January 2011, he set up his first e-book store to coincide with the release of the iPad in Bangkok. About a year later, recognizing the regional growth potential, he turned that service into Ookbee.
To boost sales, Ookbee packages 15% of its e-magazines with videos or music. Publishers have embraced the company: 90% of the e-magazines Ookbee sells are available exclusively through its store.
The company has been expanding rapidly. It entered Vietnam in 2012, followed by Malaysia and the Philippines in 2013. By the end of this year, it expects to be setting up offices in Indonesia.
The remittance man
Over in the Philippines, Miguel Perez is capitalizing on the booming market for remittances.
More than 10 million Filipinos -- equivalent to about 10% of the country's population -- live and work abroad. Most regularly send money home. Remittances reached a record $23 billion in 2013.
While the money is flowing fast, Perez said the process can be a "headache" for overseas workers.
"Many of them are still unbanked," he said. "It is not unusual that the money they send is not spent in the right way by their family members."
Perez, now 48, thought there must be a better way. In 2008, he founded Ayannah Information Solutions to provide it.
The Manila-headquartered company gives overseas Filipinos an easy way to send money home -- and restrict how it is used. This is achieved by sending gift certificates or prepaid cards in lieu of cash.
Users need not pay online. They can simply go to stores affiliated with Ayannah in the cities where they work. Since 2010, Ayannah has built up a network of some 7,000 such stores. Its customer base is approaching 100,000.
The most popular choices are prepaid cards for cellphones, followed by drugstore gift certificates and fast-food coupons.
Perez studied at Harvard Business School and worked in Silicon Valley for four years. Calling himself an "overage entrepreneur," he suggested he simply found "something that only I, as a Filipino, can do."