Adrian Tan, head for Thailand of Anchanto, a Singapore-based global software company SUPPLIED
Seen in a small box on a Zoom screen, Adrian Tan could easily pass for someone in his late 20s or early 30s, but his long CV and his current position as country head for Thailand of Anchanto, a Singapore-based global software company, tell you a lot of other stories.
“I have been in technology, believe it or not, for 25 years,” he says.
His passion began very early, when his father bought him an Apple IIe, a personal computer launched in 1983 — “I think you will see that in a museum these days,” he quips.
He also remembers being “intrigued” by a program similar to Excel that was “like a super calculator”. “I fell in love with computer technology and I knew it was going to be my stuff,” the 43-year-old executive tells Asia Focus. His LinkedIn professional profile certainly attests to that — revolving around technology, startups, logistics and supply chain, e-commerce, and even human resources technology.
Mr Tan’s journey into the e-commerce space started around 2008 and his involvement deepened when he founded Groupon Singapore, known as Beconomics before Groupon US acquired the business.
Back then, retail stores and 2B2 (business-to-business) companies dominated the market, and e-commerce was still nascent, making it a real challenge for anyone trying to handle thousands of orders every day.
“Interestingly, back in 2011, I was already working with Anchanto,” recalls Mr Tan, adding that Anchanto wasn’t the software company it is today. It was instead an e-commerce enabler and fulfilment company providing pick-and-pack warehousing, delivery and selling online.
Marking its 10th anniversary this year, Anchanto was founded in Singapore by Vaibhav Dabhade, an electronic and communications engineering specialist whose entrepreneurial family ran a successful logistics business. It is now a global SaaS (Software as a Service) company providing order management, inventory management and warehouse management systems to medium-sized and global companies including e-commerce distributors, brands and retailers.
Its customers include DHL, Nestle, Fossil, Panasonic, Telkom Indonesia, Asendia and SCG Logistics, to name just a few. During the annual 11.11 mega sales event recently, 2.2 million orders were processed via Anchanto’s platforms.
Anchanto has offices in nine countries across Asia Pacific. The Bangkok office was set up in 2020 amid the pandemic. “I was technically employee number one,” says Mr Tan, adding that he was in Thailand pre-Covid to look for career opportunities, and since he and Anchanto go back a decade, it didn’t take long for him to get the job.
“My biggest challenge was setting up a team, which we did. We managed to build a team of 10 people and go to market very aggressively,” he says.
Covid has prompted millions more consumers to move into the e-commerce space. Thailand alone has seen 9 million new online consumers since the pandemic in 2020, according to the e-Conomy SEA 2021 report by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company.
The fact is, merchants have to follow where the customers go. Thirty-four percent of online sellers say they would not have survived the pandemic if not for digital platforms. Investment has poured into the online space to facilitate the transition and engage with a growing customer base.
If a business strives to be successful online, its systems need to be able to update across all channels in real time, says Mr Tan.
Anchanto provides two key software platforms. SelluSeller is a multi-channel e-commerce management platform that enables businesses to streamline operations across their channels and helps them integrate with other marketplaces like Shopee and Lazada in one centralised dashboard. Wareo, meanwhile, is a warehouse management system that helps 2B2 and B2C (business to consumer) operators. The benefit of using SaaS is that it takes away the headache in investing and maintaining a system.
Anchanto has seen many types of businesses testing the e-commerce waters, but not everyone is equipped to navigate this wild space.
Mr Tan breaks down his company’s clients into three types: the ones that are already selling online, the ones that are about to start, and the ones who don’t know where to start.
“The companies that are already doing it, they’re spending way too much time on all the manual operations,” he points out, adding that Anchanto helps them to automate the operations that can be paperless, allowing them to reduce and redeploy staff into areas with higher value.
Meanwhile, the challenge for those companies trying to embark on the e-commerce journey is the timing: how to address the problem at the right time?
With a unique situation like the pandemic in which everything is uncertain, some companies decided to wait while some decided to jump on the e-commerce bandwagon. The ones who waited started struggling again because of the new waves of Covid.
That leaves the last group, the one that is not yet online for various reasons: they have no idea where and when to start, their management team is not tech-savvy, they fear their physical store will become redundant, they think a big change in operations is just too complex, or they are just waiting for the pandemic to end.
“I think that for anyone who wants to change, not only must they know what the problem is, they must know what pain it causes … and they also need to know what they’re losing” until they understand, and then the solution can be provided.
Mr Tan cites DHL as a case study. “DHL requires a solution that is scalable” — the ability to increase volume without really needing to increase manpower — “and robust” — the ability to handle different situations accordingly.
The global logistics company also wants to modernise its fulfilment and warehouse process and better manage warehouse workers’ workflow. As well, it needs to connect more effectively to the marketplace to reduce integration costs.
In a typical operation, when an order is received, the seller will download the order sheet from the online marketplace. An administrator will break down each order, print the paper and give it to the warehouse workers to pick and pack. Meanwhile the admin will enter the shipping information in the logistics system, print the label and put it on the package when it’s ready.
With Anchanto’s system, the admin function will be removed as the system will automatically pull the orders from every single marketplace such as Shopify, Magento and other e-commerce providers globally. Orders will be presented in a single dashboard.
A handheld device given to workers will intelligently distribute the correct orders to the pick-and-packers. When packages are ready, the shipping label can be printed from the handheld device. Then the order is ready to be shipped.
Going paperless reduces human error, and Anchanto’s system also allows DHL to separate flows for B2B and B2C orders.
For Mr Tan, buying a software solution is not about looking only at the features and the price of the services, “It’s about fixing a pain and a problem that they have.”
In his view, Anchanto not only provides strategy and solutions, but it also provides customers with a business opportunity. It does this by addressing gaps, whether they be technological, development or integration.
For large companies that handle many diverse business units such as Central Group and SCG Logistics, Anchanto software is able to adapt and configure by turning on and off certain functionality to suit each business unit whether it’s food, electronics, fashion, and so on.
“Whether we like it or not, e-commerce is here to stay. And that has been proven across the world,” says Mr Tan.
Among the e-commerce trends he observes is that large companies are starting to “insource” and retake full control of their own operations. As an SaaS provider, Anchanto can fill the need for companies that lack the robust system needed to scale and support all operations.
Another key trend Mr Tan believes will pick up is cross-border e-commerce: sales from outside to Thailand, and sales from Thailand to other markets.
The first category mostly involves sales from China. Customers tend to buy from Chinese sellers because the products are cheap in case anything goes wrong. Mr Tan believes the real opportunities lie in sales from Thailand because items can be sold at higher prices abroad.
Right now the volume of the latter is low, he says. “I would say maybe in the whole ecosystem, less than 6-7% is really selling B2C cross-border out of Thailand.”
He believes mid- and lower-tier sellers will be the pioneers, selling unique products such as Muay Thai boxing gear, unique T-shirts, certain types of sports gear overseas. Anchanto, with its ecosystem integration, now can help customers sell in 24 countries.
Omnichannel — the ability to connect online and offline channels to provide a seamless experience — is also on the rise. Mr Tan says the challenge centres on connectivity between two different systems used in the online and offline space “You need something to connect the dots … and that’s what we do”.
Concerns over privacy and security issues — which are ignored by many companies in Thailand — must be addressed to ensure a healthy future for e-commerce, in his view. More consumers and governments are starting to question the data and privacy protection policies of platform companies, which is an encouraging sign.
Anchanto is certified with ISO 27001 for information security management systems. It also complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Armed with in-depth knowledge and a dedication to precise execution, the company is starting to look beyond just what it is doing now. “There is absolutely nothing stopping us from going beyond into logistics management, fleet, car and rider management,” says Mr Tan, adding that “it’s about how we help customers utilise that information more — we call this the technology stack.
“We are not providing just one solution. We are providing a stack of solutions that can sit on top of each other that will complement and help the customer grow in terms of capability.
“When you give a company capability, they do new things. They do things they could not do before.”
Throughout the interview, Mr Tan is eager to share his expertise, and his passion shines through the stories he tells. Part of his success is down to being himself, with a strong mix of interpersonal and analytical skills.
Mr Tan sees himself as “someone who understands technology very quickly, who can see potential in different parts of business gaps and trends.
“I guess what I always look forward to doing is to help companies, people, friends, family around me to really understand complex ideas” such as SaaS for example.
The skill to spot things very quickly is “a combination of experience and sharp eyes for being sensitive to things,” he says.
“I read people very well which helps me to really understand what they’re thinking, how to get the most out of them. I think being able to do that helps me then put together the perspective that most people can’t get.”
He likens it to peeling an onion — trying to see beyond the surface layer of a conversation into a deeper one. “When you peel back enough layers, to see everything, then most of the story starts to make a lot more sense”.
His approach to people including clients is simple yet has proved to be powerful throughout his career. “Just be honest, just be sincere. The rest will flow naturally,” he advises.
“Be clear about what you’re saying and the questions you’re asking. Always make sure people understand you.”
Mr Tan loves talking to young people just to “inspire and show them what’s possible. I tell them my stories, to give them context that this world is so much bigger. And I also share my failures and my success.”
To close that generation gap, one has to be open-minded and engage with others as equals and not assume that they won’t understand. It helps to try to talk about something that they’re interested in because everybody always wants to talk about that.
Working with large organisations excites him because of the complex ecosystem and the challenges it presents him to solve. It might spook others but not Mr Tan. “When I look at it, I enjoy asking questions and getting more clarity about it,” and then the consultancy begins.
“I love doing that because every time I add value for someone, some company or anybody, it makes me happy.”
Mr Tan views failure as the beginning of every success. Despite his solid professional profile online, “what most people don’t see on my LinkedIn is that I have also gone through a whole series of startups, which didn’t gain much success as well.”
But failure can teach valuable lessons. Failure, he says, has a “unique ability to adjust your mind so that you will never want to have that [pain] again.
“The problem is that sometimes failure makes people too afraid. However, going through quite a number of failures hasn’t made me afraid at all. In fact, I would say failure is just another way of making sure that you’re closer to success.”