Disrupting Thailand’s B2B food marketplace: A conversation with Makro PRO’s Tirayu Songvetkasem

| Podcast

In this episode of The Venture, we feature a conversation with Tirayu “Mac” Songvetkasem, the chief digital officer of Siam Makro, the Thai branch of a multinational serving the hotel, restaurant, and catering sector (HoReCa). He also heads a recent Makro spin-off, Makro PRO, which has leveraged the mothership’s market experience and network of partners to become Thailand’s leading B2B marketplace for food products and services. Mac sat down with McKinsey’s Tomas Laboutka to discuss Makro PRO’s mission to bridge the divide between start-ups and incumbents, its funnel-based approach to attracting talent, and the importance of remaining agile and open to disruption. At the close of the interview, McKinsey’s Maria Ocampo weighs in.

An edited transcript of the podcast follows. For more conversations on venture building, subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Podcast transcript

Andrew Roth: From Leap by McKinsey, our business-building practice, I’m Andrew Roth, and welcome to The Venture, a series featuring conversations with legendary venture builders about how to design, launch, and scale new businesses. In each episode, we cut through the noise to bring practical advice on how leaders can build successful businesses from scratch.

In this episode, we share a conversation with Tirayu Songvetkasem, who is also known as Mac. He is the head of Makro PRO and chief digital officer of Siam Makro, the Thai branch of a multinational serving the hotel, restaurant, and catering sector, also known as HoReCa. Makro recently launched Makro PRO, a B2B online marketplace offering food products and services by leveraging the mothership’s 32 years of market experience and network of more than 5,000 partners and small and medium-size enterprises. In less than a year since launching, Makro PRO is already Thailand’s leading B2B marketplace for HorReCa buyers and sellers. Mac sat down with McKinsey’s Tomas Laboutka to discuss Makro PRO’s mission to bridge the divide between start-ups and incumbents, its funnel-based approach to attracting talent, and the importance of always remaining agile and open to disruption.

Tomas Laboutka: Mac, I’m excited to have you on the show. You’re a true technologist with experience on both sides of the table. You’ve built start-ups in the United States and Asia, led large digital programs at Rakuten, and are now chief digital officer at Makro. I’m always super curious—what attracted you to join the dark side, the incumbents?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: That’s a really good question. When I first talked with the team at Makro, I felt like they had a really big aspiration. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to help them build a true omnichannel and achieve their ambition. I started to think it through, from their initial idea to the fact that the company has the right to win with the commitment from the executive board. And at that point, I decided I wanted to join them and be part of this journey.

Tomas Laboutka: That’s quite interesting. There’s a very clear introspection coming from you—your awareness that this is a big aspiration from the mothership, commitment by the board, but also the right to win. Can you tell me a bit more about that? What’s the right to win, and what is it here at Makro?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: If you look at Makro’s path in their offline business, they grew it by scaling the warehouse stores. But when the disruption [with the pandemic] hit, the executive board realized they couldn’t do only offline, since the consumers started to shift online. At that point, we knew we needed to disrupt ourselves. We knew we had the right to win, since we have fresh products and a large footprint nationwide. With our network and facilities, we thought we could build this new business and have the disruption happen inside so we could drive and create a new business on top of our existing business and transform ourselves.

Tomas Laboutka: You’re talking about the right to win and the nationwide distribution. People know Makro; the brand has been around for decades. But I want to dispel one myth, which is that unlocking assets is easy. Can you share a bit more about that experience? How do you tap into these assets, into this right to win?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: It’s easy to say we want to disrupt and build a new venture within the company. But when it comes to execution, it’s really challenging. We first needed alignment with the executive board to establish the right expectations and gain the mothership’s commitment, which was critical.

When all that fell into place, we decided to build a start-up within the mothership, so we could cultivate that start-up culture, move fast, innovate, and try new things. But we also need to keep the lines of communication open with the mothership to avoid any potential conflict. We hold regular, real-time stakeholder meetings to keep them updated, which allows our executive board to remove any obstacles and keep us moving.

Within this start-up bubble, we created a new culture to foster a sandbox environment that aligns with our aspiration to move fast. We also received a commitment from the executive board to unlock funding so we can innovate and build on our aspirations.

Tomas Laboutka: That’s a great foundation, and it feels like there was a bit of a back-and-forth with the executive board. How do you prevent people from double-hatting and ensure everybody has their own responsibilities?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: I would say it’s both internal and external. Internal means we have to cultivate the culture. External means the part we touch—how we cultivate people and enable them to win. The way we do that is by cocreating with the executive board. We pull them in and say, “We have transparency, alignment, and your commitment, but we want you to cocreate and build with us while giving us guidance.” But we empower the team to drive the process.

Tomas Laboutka: This is incredibly important—this role of the executive board, the sponsors, the mothership, and then the role of the team. But I want to go back in time a little bit. You’re attracted to this big aspiration; you get the resources you need and start learning how to unlock them with the board, with which you cocreate. When did you start thinking, “This is not just an aspiration; this is a real business. We are launching something that will actually succeed”? Do you remember that pivotal moment?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: Yes, I remember that moment. We had the day-one hypothesis, the blueprint, and launched the MVP [minimum viable product] within three months. After we launched, we attracted a small set of customers, started to see a reorder rate, and received positive feedback from them. And we knew there was something there—a real business that we could grow. We said, “This is going to be a big opportunity for us.”

Tomas Laboutka: It’s amazing when you go to market as fast as you did and get that kind of feedback. But, of course, there are many, many challenges at that moment and as you scale. Looking at your current challenges, what’s top of mind right now?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: It’s a lot, but I would say it’s a fun and worthwhile challenge. Because when we disrupted the mothership, we created this sandbox, and we know it’s a real business we want to grow at hyperspeed. Our challenge is how to accomplish that in this online space. The key part for us is to focus on the fundamentals of OTIF—on time, in full—when we fulfill an order.

When we talk about OTIF, it’s not just how you can fulfill the order on time and in full. Because when you consider that online retail starts offline, you have to fix the fundamentals. We have to address the ecosystem chain, including the operations process, the supply chain, the service quality, everything. All of that combines to form OTIF. I would say that’s the big challenge for us—developing the mindset to transform the offline into a real omnichannel to drive this result.

Tomas Laboutka: This really hits the nail on the head, because you start with the aspiration and the mothership’s assets. You have a distribution network throughout the country you can leverage. You hit the first product–market fit, you start scaling, and now the rubber hits the road when you realize you have to disrupt and change the whole operations of the offline business in order to scale. And it’s not just tweaking one thing or just one channel you ramp up, like performance marketing, and then everything happens; it’s actually end to end. So, the transformation becomes core to the whole organization. And that’s quite a challenge indeed.

Tirayu Songvetkasem: Yes, it is. And it happened in parallel, because as we built the start-up, we knew it could have growing pains. We started the company with a small team and grew by 100 to 200 people within a year. At that point, the start-up itself, what we created in the sandbox, had to evolve. And at the same time, we had to disrupt the mothership to say, “Let’s work on this so we can scale this business together.”

Tomas Laboutka: Absolutely. And you’re right. Within the year, Makro PRO has become the leading B2B marketplace for hotels, restaurants, and cafés in Thailand, with hundreds and thousands of orders a day from hundreds of third-party sellers. It’s quite a milestone you’re hitting, but it’s an ongoing journey from the few core employees at the beginning to the couple hundred you have today.

The majority of C-level executives cite attracting talent as their top-of-mind challenge. We conducted surveys earlier this year and found that 87 percent of C-levels don’t see themselves as ready to attract the talent they need. Do you have any advice for fellow incumbents and new ventures on attracting world-class talent?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: I think this is a key question. We knew when we started the business with this aspiration that the strategy was going to pivot, so we needed the right talent. We also needed to understand what type of business we were going to build and what type of people we needed to drive and cocreate this business. And finally, what was the best culture we could cultivate to enable them to perform?

Now that we’re clear on all of that, we just live it and export it to new talent. We can also market this in public and tell people, “This is the environment we’re going to build, and we think you’re the right person to come in and help cocreate with us.”

Tomas Laboutka: So, you have this whole employee branding that you’re trying to market. And of course, this sandbox you created is not always easy to protect from interference from the board or the mothership. How did you work through these challenges and keep the sandbox intact?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: What we did was redesign the value proposition and the career path, because we knew that the talent we needed for this business was really different from our core business. We also rearchitected the career path and compensation plan because it’s not just about attracting talent; it’s about retaining them, so they can grow with us. And although we cannot move as fast as a start-up from scratch, we have a commitment from the executive board to take advantage of the enterprise scale of the mothership while moving as fast as possible to compete with other start-ups.

Tomas Laboutka: Do you have a metric you measure when you talk about the speed of acquiring talent?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: Yes. We examine the period from the first time we engage with a candidate to the time we decide to hire. We analyze the funnel: when we first engage them, where they are during each step, and when we hire them. That way, we can tweak the funnel to eliminate any roadblocks and modify or optimize each step.

Tomas Laboutka: Love it. It’s a very analytical approach to talent, and it makes all the sense in the world because you want to match the speed of start-ups, and it’s something you can have real conversations about with the board to unblock anything. You’re a veteran in the industry and already know the ins and outs of how to operate in this environment as an incumbent. But of the folks you’re trying to attract, though many might come from start-ups, many might be new to this sandbox approach you’re setting up. How do you help them? How do you coach them in this environment so they can succeed and interact with the mothership in a way that’s going to help them thrive?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: First, I would say I’m not a veteran by any means and am still learning every day. I think that’s part of the beauty of this venture. When we hire folks from pure start-ups, I tell them to go fast but at a sustainable speed, because we’re trying to find that bridge between the speed of a start-up and the maturity of an enterprise. They know they can’t move fast like a start-up and always take risks and need to appreciate the maturity of risk mitigation. And when they see that beauty on both sides, then they see the bridge in between.

The key part for me is to empower them. But first, we need them to see the difference between a start-up and an enterprise and see that we’re an environment that sits between the two. The next step is to empower them to try to fail fast, keep pivoting, and learn from that. Then we can start coaching them to gain experience and find the balance between the expectations of the mothership and how they want to drive the business and drive that innovation.

I think the more we learn and pivot in that area, the more I learn along with them, because each environment is very different. And you don’t have to follow a recipe to be successful. It’s more a methodology we apply as we pivot and learn together. I would say that’s the key part and core of our culture—that everyone feels like this is a playground. They come in and learn. If they don’t see the context or they hit the wall or make a mistake, it’s totally fine, because we’re going to grow and keep going.

Tomas Laboutka: Wow, that’s amazing. You say, “Hey, I’m not a veteran, and I’m still learning.” What advice would you give your 60-year-old self for the decades to come?

Tirayu Songvetkasem: That’s a good question—and a tough one. I would say a few things. First off, enjoy and have fun. That’s a key part that can be difficult, but there’s always a positive side to any challenge. And if you work alongside the right people, you can drive that positive energy to enjoy the challenge.

Next, be open to agility and disruption. If you really believe in disruption and agility, I think anything is possible. It’s not about the idea that what we have today is best. It’s about how we can pivot and be open to the disruption that’s going to come and using our experience to ride it and to take advantage of that opportunity to make something better.

Tomas Laboutka: Amazing. I can sense the fun you’ve had by building this and your openness to learning, to agility, and to pivoting on your journey since you joined and all the way to building the largest B2B marketplace in the country. Thanks so much for sharing all these gold nuggets, and thanks for joining us.

Tirayu Songvetkasem: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Tomas Laboutka: Now comes a segment where we invite McKinsey experts to share their unique perspectives and insights. I am joined by Maria Ocampo, an associate partner with deep digital expertise who is focused on talent. Maria, welcome. It’s a real pleasure to have you on the show.

Maria Ocampo: Thanks for having me, Tomas.

Tomas Laboutka: What really stood out for me in the interview with Mac is the notion of building a new culture right next to the mothership. Corporate venture builders often think, “I’ve got the green light to build, so now I can go and set up my new venture, and the culture will just take care of itself.” But clearly, that’s often not the case. Based on your experience, what are some of the essential principles in designing culture?

Maria Ocampo: We know through innovation studies of a hundred-plus companies that the likelihood of a successful venture increases by a factor of 3.4 when you cultivate culture around six main principles: purpose, looking outward, experimentation, collaboration, empowerment, and refinement.

The first one is purpose, something we know this generation of top talent is very focused on. For example, green business building does not necessarily require a new set of skills, just a group of people focused on the purpose of saving the planet. So, if you think of marketing for green business building, you’re thinking about marketing with a strong sense of purpose around sustainability.

Tomas Laboutka: That’s clear. What is the next one?

Maria Ocampo: The next one is collaboration, which means getting a multidisciplinary team working together in an agile way in a challenging environment. I’ve seen organizations make this succeed with different systems of peer bonuses. And if your team wins a peer bonus contest, how will you collectively decide how to share it? So that is one way that I see innovative companies creating opportunities for themselves around team building and learning.

Tomas Laboutka: So you’re really incentivizing the whole team to perform, because they are the ones who are then deciding how they’re going to slice up the cake, so to speak.

Maria Ocampo: Exactly. And the way to win these points is by helping other team members.

Tomas Laboutka: That’s fascinating. What’s your favorite design principle for building culture?

Maria Ocampo: Empowerment, which means not only providing autonomy and clarity on processes. Because when we’re talking about ventures, we’re talking about really small organizations where everyone needs to pull in the same direction. That’s why a strong and clear culture is important very early on, when the founding team is empowered and involved in creating a new venture. Hiring and involving the C-level very early on to become involved in shaping this culture, setting this direction, and stating these principles of empowerment is a key to success as the company grows.

Would you like to learn more about our business-building practice, Leap by McKinsey?

Tomas Laboutka: And once you establish a culture, as we’ve heard from Mac, it’s not just to help build a business but something you can radiate outside the company. You can make it part of the employer value proposition and broadcast it to the world to attract the right talent to help you build a business. Culture is certainly one of the key building blocks. What’s another good foundation for the employer value proposition?

Maria Ocampo: In a world where hiring is going to be one of your top priorities, you have to think about how to give people the opportunity to work on challenging projects they will find stimulating and intellectually rewarding. Next to that, of course, is being a great employer, since people want to be part of an organization with a meaningful mission and values that align with theirs. Last but not least is personal growth, which means providing opportunities for career advancement with tailored capability building along the way.

Tomas Laboutka: Reskilling and upskilling is something that seems likely to be the norm going forward. What are some of the interesting ways new ventures are designing their personal growth and career paths for talent?

Maria Ocampo: We know that 50 percent of the target talent for new ventures prioritize leadership opportunities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean lead leadership. To attract this new venture talent, you need to reconsider what leadership means. For example, we talk about giving people the ability to switch between the managerial and expert paths, following their own developmental goals. Am I going to be a tech lead, or am I going to be a really advanced, skilled Java developer?

Tomas Laboutka: That’s a fundamental one, because you’re basically saying, “You know what? I’m going to lead as a thought leader, not as a people leader. I’m not going to manage a squad of engineers, but I’m going to be just really, really good.”

Maria Ocampo: Yes. And the vast majority of venture talent are really driven by this. In my experience, when you force those folks to manage people, it tends to be a bit messy because they don’t have the motivation to lead.

Tomas Laboutka: That is a very good point. What are some of the other components?

Maria Ocampo: Giving talent the ability to move quickly between different roles to gain additional skills, like a back-end engineer who wants to dabble with some data engineering.

Tomas Laboutka: So you allow them to rotate?

Maria Ocampo: Exactly.

Tomas Laboutka: Any other components of personal growth that you recommend for new ventures?

Maria Ocampo: Give people the flexibility to choose their own learning curriculum. Move away from the corporate learning catalog and give people a personal development budget to find outside opportunities for more learning.

Tomas Laboutka: It kind of goes back to the design principles of the culture. You empower them to ultimately take control of their own growth.

Maria Ocampo: Indeed. It’s important to give people a defined vision for how they can progress in their careers. But don’t necessarily tie them to it, since individuals may have other ideas.

Tomas Laboutka: This was fantastic, Maria. As always, these are practical insights on building talent first in new organizations. Thanks again for sharing.

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