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Thailand’s Bitkub wants to become the ‘Coinbase’ of Southeast Asia

Written by Stephanie Pearl Li Published on   5 mins read

Will tightening regulations and competition hamper Bitkub’s growth?

On any casual stroll through Silom, one of Bangkok’s financial districts, it is impossible to miss dazzling green billboards showing the same strapline: “Think of Bitcoin, think about Bitkub.” Beside the Thai words is a portrait of Bitkub’s founder, Topp Jirayut Srupsrisopa.

As Thailand’s largest crypto exchange by market share, Bitkub has plastered its name across the country’s capital city. Its ads are found in subway stations, on skytrains, in major shopping malls, and along highways.

Bitkub’s high-profile presence mirrors the way Thai citizens have embraced decentralized digital currencies in recent years, lifting trading volumes on domestic crypto exchanges from USD 143 million in 2018 to USD 2.5 billion in 2020, according to the Bank of Thailand (BoT). As of November 2021, domestic crypto trading volumes amounted to USD 6.6 billion, 164% higher than the 12-month volume of 2020.

Many of those transactions took place on Bitkub, which has a 97% market share in Thailand, according to data provided by the company. It is now moving to replicate the success of Coinbase, the Nasdaq-listed crypto exchange, in Southeast Asia. The firm plans to expand to Southeast Asian markets where there are no dominant crypto exchanges. These countries include Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines, Jirayut told KrASIA.

But Jirayut’s ambition may be tempered by regulators across the region who have spoken about tightening rules over blockchain-based assets, not to mention competition from other major crypto exchanges also eyeing entries or expansions in the region.

“We don’t want to enter a red ocean of competition. We want to be the first to venture into a new country, to work with the local government, and to be the most preferred platform from day one,” Jirayut emphasized.

Preparing the building blocks of Thailand’s largest crypto exchange

After graduating from the University of Oxford, Jirayut worked as an investment banker at Evotech Capital, at the time a boutique investment bank in Shanghai, in October 2013. He came across Bitcoin while he was researching penny stocks, which are low-priced shares that are subject to dramatic market fluctuations.

Jirayut moved on from Evotech two and a half months later and secured another financial consulting position at the Marquis Advisory Group in San Francisco, where he was introduced to Dan Shatt, the former general manager of financial innovations at PayPal. The two met up at a pancake shop in Silicon Valley, where Jirayut asked Shatt about his thoughts on Bitcoin.

“The impression towards Bitcoin eight years ago was either something related to money laundering or nobody knew what it was. But Dan replied that bitcoin is going to change the world and the financial landscape,” Jirayut recalled.

Shatt’s response stayed at the back of Jirayut’s mind. Eager to learn more, Jirayut left San Francisco after just one month and headed for the Philippines. There, he met up with Yield Guild Games co-founder Beryl Chavez Li, an old friend from their days of studying at the University of Manchester.

By April 2014, Jirayut was back in Bangkok, where he launched his first-ever crypto venture, a Bitcoin exchange called Coins.co.th. It was a bumpy journey, and Jirayut had to manage everything on his own. He saved every penny that he could, using a corner of his parents’ clothing shop as his “office.”

“We had issues with regulators, including the Bank of Thailand and Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO), which sent me an investigation letter,” Jirayut recalled. “My parents were very disappointed in me back then. They sent me all the way to Oxford, hoping that I would work in reputable jobs. But I ended up in their clothing shop. They asked me to shut down the business so many times.”

Things eventually took a positive turn. Coin.co.th and Philippine crypto and fintech startup Coins.ph were acquired by Gojek in 2019 for USD 72 million. This gave Jirayut the capacity to start something new.

He founded Bitkub in February 2018 with initial capital to the tune of USD 3.2 million from angel investors. “Usually, when you build a billion-dollar company, it takes at least USD 400 million. We only spent USD 3.2 million before becoming profitable,” he said.

Over two years, Bitkub’s revenue has grown by 1,000% annually to become the largest crypto exchange in Thailand. The country’s oldest bank, Siam Commercial Bank, acquired 51% of Bitkub for THB 17.85 billion (USD 535 million) in November 2021, giving the company a unicorn valuation.

Bitkub Capital Group now has nine subsidiaries that operate different business lines and services, including NFT trading, initial coin offerings, and blockchain innovation. Most of Bitkub’s revenue is still drawn from its crypto bourse, where it charges trading fees, blockchain transaction fees, as well as withdrawal and interest fees, according to Jirayut.

One important consequence of Bitkub’s meteoric rise is the shift in perspective in Jirayut’s parents. “Now, they are very happy [about my business], especially when they see my face almost everywhere in Bangkok,” he said.

Unfazed by competition 

Although Bitkub holds the dominant market share among crypto exchanges in Thailand, an array of up-and-coming players have joined the fray, including Zipmex, which bagged USD 41 million in August 2021 in a Series B investment led by Krungsri Finnovate, the venture capital unit of the Bank of Ayudhya, Thailand’s fifth largest bank in terms of assets, loans, and deposits.

In January, Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange by volume, also announced a partnership with Thai power producer Gulf Energy Development to explore the potential of building a new digital asset exchange in Thailand, per the Bangkok Post. Last July, the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission filed a criminal complaint against Binance for operating a digital asset exchange without a license.

With many entities attempting to replicate Bitkub’s success in Thailand, Jirayut remains unfazed by the competition. He said these developments will create a healthy market dynamic for Bitkub’s business.

Thai regulators are setting rules to define operational limitations for crypto firms. NFT trading platforms now must be licensed, and crypto capital gains will be taxed at 15%. Perhaps one rule that is under discussion will impact Jirayut the most—Thailand may ban crypto ads, which would mean Bitkub’s billboards in Bangkok would have to come down.

“We have to constantly adapt to regulatory changes. Before becoming a fully licensed exchange, it took us two years of education with the Securities and Exchange Commission and regulators to push the regulations forward,” Jirayut said.

When asked if Jirayut had a particular person or company that he looks up to, he said that Coinbase remains “a role model” for Bitkub. “They work closely with regulators. They are the first publicly traded and fully licensed crypto company in the world. They strike a balance between regulatory compliance and innovation, keeping both the old and new world happy,” he explained.

Following Coinbase’s path, Bitkub has plans to go public too, Jirayut said, although the destination and timeline are still under wraps.


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