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Co-Founder of Paperspace Asia, Sombat, shares his take on Office Design

“I don’t believe that at this time anyone knows about office design as well as I do. I’m confident because I have been with it for so long. I started designing an office in 2001 and have never stopped doing it, so I can predict the directions the field of interior design will take.”

Sombat Ngamchalermsak has every right to blow his own trumpet. The co-founder of Paperspace Asia is the same designer who conceptualized offices for big-name industry players such as Google, Facebook, Airbnb and the like.

EARLY CAREER YEARS

A graduate from the Faculty of Architecture at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang in Thailand, Sombat started his life as a designer at an international company in Singapore. In 2007, he conceptualized the workplace design for Facebook way back before it became the behemoth today. Soon, Yahoo, Microsoft and other multinationals started knocking on his doors. After 5 years in Singapore, he returned to Bangkok to set up an office and continued to work for the company for another 5 years until he decided to open his own interior design studio.

EVERY ENTREPRENEUR’S ROCKY ROAD

With all his network and accolades chalked,  Sombat thought that striking out on his own would be easy. It was not. His design studio did not get a single work project in the first year, despite his vision of securing at least 50 projects.

“I had to figure out another way so I opened another office in Singapore. This allowed me to see that for Thai entrepreneurs to grow, they need to expand their business to a regional level,” Sombat shared. “With this direction in mind, I cooperated with my business partner in Singapore to establish Paperspace as a platform for design companies like the one I built.”

BUILDING A PLATFORM OF COLLECTIVES

Based on observations in the field, Sombat knew that there were thousands of small design firms in Asia that have outstanding ideas and remarkable delivery but lack key components essential to running a business such as marketing, operations management, and legal compliance. When it comes to a bottleneck, these small firms may not have sufficient manpower to cope and get all the work done well when a slew of projects converge at the same time.

This became the gap that Paperspace’s business model aimed to fill. By having small design companies become members of its collective, Paperspace’s focus on the market would be client-centric, right-fitting projects to suitable players of the collective so that every team member leverages on its expertise to deliver the best value to the client.

“We manage the back-office systems for members of the platform, handling items such as liaison, filing of necessary paperwork, compliance with business regulations, drafting contracts, marketing, and accounting,” Sombat said. “These areas are often the pain points of architects and design firms. To be honest, in the first year that I opened my design studio, I was still confused when customers asked for a VAT invoice.”

At present, Paperspace has been in business for over four years, with 3 offices in 3 countries—Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines—alongside with 135 collective members. Management fees are collected from its members, which start at 20 percent.

Is it a challenge to garner members within the collective? No  issue at all, as Sombat shares, given that interior design firms work in the same circles. The process involves discussion with key company leaders as well as project collaborations to align oand leverage on each other’s strengths. There is also the discovery of team chemistry when people work well together.

“Comparatively, approaching potential clients is more challenging because our Paperspace model is new to them. They don’t easily buy into the idea of bringing various design companies together in one place,” he shared. “Clients initially view us as an agent, a middleman, or a marketplace, but as soon as we talk in detail, they realize that we operate on a collective model. I think we are quite similar to Airbnb— and our client will feel more secure knowing they are dealing with a reliable, international group of design firms.”

TECHNOLOGY IS ELEVATING THE FUTURE OF WORK AND OUR CONCEPTS OF THE OFFICE

In the process of setting up Paperspace, Sombat realised how much its teething process paralleled that of tech start-ups.

“The inspiration came from when I designed Airbnb’s office. I never actually met them before, having relied on video conferencing to communicate throughout the six-month duration of the project,” Sombat recalled. “Seeing how they digitized everything, I saw the opportunity—if we can adapt to digitization quickly, we can dominate the market before anyone else.”

Leveraging on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Paperspace is now in the process of developing its processes and shifting key business focuses to a digital platform. The team constantly experiments with new ways and ideas of engaging with each other, collaborating in-person  or through screens.

Despite a rise in trends of working remotely, be it away from the office or at home, Sombat believes that future work life will still involve offices. They may become smaller in size, and some companies may not require an office building of their own. Some may look to adopt co-working spaces for meetings and informal brainstorms.

“It is impossible to talk and work together smoothly if we have never actually met. When I work, I always try to meet the other person face-to-face even just once. Seeing each other through video conferencing monitors may not always be enough to properly get the work done,” he noted. “As such, a workplace is still essential, but it is not a place where we have to report to or be there all the time, and it does not have to be big.”

WHERE SOMBAT SEES PAPERSPACE HEADING

Paperspace’s five-year plan is to become the leader of the design market in Asia, focusing on the corporate customers who realise the impact of disruption upon their businesses, seek organizational changes and don’t know how or where to start.

“There are thousands of design companies out there, but only a select few remain aware on how to address real issues that need fixing within corporate clients,” Sombat said. “We plan to expand to India next year, our fourth country. Our strategy when entering a new market is to partner with a local company. Right now, we are at the stage of finalising contracts.”

Sombat has also been planning to raise a Series A round of funding. However, since the business is in a niche market and lies in a unique position, getting investor buy-in can be challenging.

“We are not a consumer product company where our output is immediately tangible. Investors who have never had an experience with a business like us take awhile to understand,” he said. “So we have to make sure our back-office operations are excellent to stay focussed on where we are heading. Paperspace will be a Michelin Star, a trusted brand, the first choice that customers think of when looking at the design of work and offices.”

Article adapted from
Paperspace knows well about Office Design. Bangkok Biz News, 2018, October 23.

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