James Henderson

Building digital products from the heart of Bangkok

As an entrepreneur, Opal Piyaporn Kijtikhun has confronted the challenge of self-discovery, embarking on that soul-searching mission of understanding core values and the reasonings behind decisions.

Originally a lawyer, the transition to technology has required continuous learning and evolution, leveraging team members and clients as an “essential source of education”.

“This journey has transformed me into a broad-minded person who cultivates a positive attitude and values resilience,” said Opal, now CEO and co-founder of Senna Labs.

Opal Piyaporn Kijtikhun (Senna Labs)

In heading up a Bangkok-based IT consultancy firm that pushes the boundaries of innovation, such personal attributes are considered essential when navigating the digital state of play in Thailand.

Open-mindedness is critical in progressing the digital conversation at a pace required to enact true change, guiding inexperienced organisations through flexible methodologies and sustainable approaches.

Throw a healthy dollop of gusto into the mix to keep spirits high during the rollercoaster ride that is enterprise-grade transformation but also ensure expectations remain grounded with strong stamina levels.

It’s this approach – both personally and professionally – that affords Opal the platform to speak with authority on a subject of heightening importance in Thailand.

“Enterprise appetite for digital innovation is high as companies aim to stay competitive and adapt to changing circumstances,” said Opal, who launched Senna Labs in 2017.

Driving a digital product agenda

According to Opal, adoption of digital technologies continues to trend in an upward direction with consumers and conglomerates embracing new solutions and services in equal measure.

At an enterprise level, Thai organisations are notably initiating application migration projects to improve data accessibility, storage and security in response to increased cloud availability and access locally.

Naturally, this is complemented with escalating investment in security as the need to protect sensitive data and systems becomes paramount in a market experiencing double the amount of cyber attacks since COVID-19.

Delving deeper, advanced companies are building strategies that place artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), big data and analytics and mobile technologies at the heart of future growth plans.

“Organisations are seeking to solve business challenges such as increasing efficiency, improving customer experience, reducing costs and staying competitive with technology solutions,” Opal added.

“This journey has transformed me into a broad-minded person who cultivates a positive attitude and values resilience”

Opal Piyaporn Kijtikhun (Senna Labs)

When national adoption levels are at stake, public sector intentions also fall under the microscope with the government viewed as mission-critical in moving the transformation dial.

Specific to Thailand, the mandate is to progress digital product adoption from innovator (2.5%) and early adopter (13.5%) stages into early majority (34%) and late majority (34%) territories.

While not always a true mirror of market development, the technology adoption bell curve at a minimum offers key benchmarks in the country’s pursuit of digital excellency.

The Thailand Digital Catalog likewise represents a step in the right direction – a new initiative unveiled by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES) and the Digital Economy Promotion Agency (depa) in February 2023.

The launch is designed to serve as a mechanism for enhancing the quality of digital products and services developed by local start-ups and service providers, aligned to international standards.

Available via depa’s TECHHUNT platform, the catalogue currently houses a selection of more than 300 qualified digital offerings – spanning software-as-a-service (SaaS), digital content, smart devices, hardware and firmware – which are available for procurement by both public and private sectors. This could prove to be one such example of a rising tide approach to widespread digital adoption.

Outside of technology, Thailand is also navigating economic change in the form of ongoing post-pandemic recovery efforts but more significantly, the aftershocks of a sizeable political earthquake.

With Pita Limjaroenrat of the Move Forward party poised to become the country’s youngest prime minister in 78 years – sitting in pole position to govern in a coalition government with Pheu Thai – “technology for equality” was made as a pre-election pledge.

“Thailand’s digital economy, going forward, must go beyond Thailand,” committed Limjaroenrat, speaking at Next Step Thailand 2023 earlier this year. “We must aim for [an] ASEAN single digital market at least but it must start at the local level. Aim for regional and hyper local on implementation.”

Opal Piyaporn Kijtikhun (Senna Labs)

Market enabling conditions

Despite well-intentioned initiatives, media speeches and analyst reports advocating the benefits of building digital products in Thailand, the gap between enthusiasm and execution remains alarmingly wide. Not entirely out of reach but broad enough to throw a spanner in the innovation works.

For Opal, the common barriers preventing organisations from embracing such change at speed include the complexity of technology and the limitations of legacy systems, hampered further by ongoing security concerns and a worsening skills crisis in the country.

“But there may also be cultural barriers in Thailand that make it difficult for enterprise-level organisations to build out digital products at speed and scale,” Opal added.

“This could include factors such as a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, risk aversion and a preference for traditional business models. It may require a multi-pronged approach to address these challenges and enable digital transformation in the country.”

According to the World Bank’s Thailand Economic Monitor, the rapid expansion of digital services and solutions in Thailand relies on market enabling conditions, chiefly:

  • the level of readiness by firms to adopt digital solutions and take up of internet services by the general population
  • a large talent pool in STEM and ICT subjects
  • availability of high-quality connectivity infrastructure, with good coverage, that includes electronic payment systems
  • the presence of a vibrant digital ecosystem, which includes innovation finance
  • a conducive regulatory environment that promotes competition, investment and dynamic entrepreneurship

Which all conditions interlinked, World Bank recommends that removing constraints to private investment and improving enabling factors can also help expand and accelerate business participation in digital markets – industry-leading companies such as Senna Labs driving the agenda equally helps lower barriers to entry.

“Our key focus in the short-term is to develop an innovative approach that would assist companies in Thailand in constructing sustainable and successful digital products,” Opal explained.

“But the major impediment currently affecting our business is the lack of readiness of companies for digital transformation, which encompasses factors such as inadequate comprehension about digital products and over-reliance on traditional business models.”

“There may also be cultural barriers in Thailand that make it difficult for enterprise-level organisations to build out digital products”

Opal Piyaporn Kijtikhun (Senna Labs)

This is when the value of Opal’s self-discovery journey kicks into gear. For this is broad-minded person – who cultivates a positive attitude and values resilience – is differentiating Senna Labs in market by rapidly creating “innovative and distinctive” software products while delivering “outstanding” customer service.

“Our forte lies in providing technical expertise in a particular niche, such as manufacturing or energy, and having a customer-centric approach built on industry experience,” she explained.

Developing a successful digital product is a continual process requiring constant refinement, with Senna Labs guiding organisations through three phases of methodology.

“The first phase, known as Discovery, aims to outline product goals and directives, culminating in UI [user interface] and user stories,” Opal outlined. “Once the goals are established in the discovery stage, implementation begins, which is when product development starts.

“Finally, the Launch stage incorporates strategy and ensures that all guidelines are clearly identified and communicated with clients. Our development life cycle is meticulously organised and adheres to standard practices.”

In housing more than 40 employees in the nation’s capital, Senna Labs provides services specific to UX (user experience) and UI design and mobile and website application development, leveraging expertise in machine learning, digital assessments and Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) regulation.

Notable customer projects include work with BANPU – Thailand’s largest energy company – which hired Senna Labs and McKinsey to digitally transform business operations, in addition to projects with SCG Chemical, Amarin Group and Srichand among others.

Strategic partnerships with software specialists as well as experts in cloud, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and drone technologies are central – including alliances with Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Alibaba Cloud and Huawei.

“Despite being a relatively new business, we have successfully served numerous major companies in Thailand and launched more than 70 thriving digital products,” Opal said. “We are also extremely proud of our company culture, which places great emphasis on happiness and efficiency.”

During the next 6-12 months, Opal said Senna Labs is prioritising enhancing efficiencies in resource allocation, streamlining processes and leveraging emerging technologies to improve business operations.

“My advice for entrepreneurs seeking to build a specialist technology business is to focus on developing a clear value proposition, building a strong team, maintaining agility and investing in innovation,” Opal added.


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