This War Story is one of those stories that was certainly interesting to experience, but oddly enough I haven't been really talking about this almost at all. It's a story of how severe natural disasters can also open up good relationships and expand businesses.
Back then I was (CEO) with Magenta and Ruukki Group, after a tradesale we had done about a year earlier. Magenta was a specialized hosting company for customized and demanding hosting solutions. We took care of clients like Habbo Hotel, Stardoll, IRC-Galleria and some bigger corporations like Nokia, Pilkington Automotive, McDonalds, Sony BMG, EMI, AOL, Coca-Cola company, etc.
I was in Thailand on 26th of december 2004 when the tsunami struck. Luckily enough I was in an area that wasn't directly hit by it. The earthquake was felt all the way there thou. We were traveling together with a group of friends and IT business people; me, one software entrepreneur, one engineering manager from Nokia and one private investor. We woke up early and turned on the BBC news channel which told us that "even up to 400 people might be dead". The figure turned out to be quite more than that in the end; 176 269 dead, 51 485 missing and over 125 thousand injured. More than 5 thousand dead in Thailand alone.
Magenta had a data center in Singapore, and our local british manager there happened to be in Thailand as well. He wasn't so lucky with the location; he had gone fishing with 6 other blokes on the morning of the tsunami. They got hit really badly by it close to the shore. He was the only one from the boat to survive, but survival almost cost him his legs: he had to climb out of the ocean through a coral reef, that pretty much shredded his feet and legs to the bone with big cuts all over. Recovery took some time, I can only imagine.
Finns are quite active with vacationing in Thailand. A few citizens were lost that morning. Fortunately there are also plenty of famous survival stories around. One of them is from the speaker of our national parliament, Mr. Sauli Niinistö. He had to cling to a light post while being washed by the tsunami. Later he wrote a book about his near death experience.
Us four traveling together were lucky with the location; however the effects of the tsunami were felt. Suddenly the area we were in experienced a huge influx of people coming in from the immediate disaster zone. There we people around with bandages on their heads, arms, legs etc. Many of them had seen the disaster up close and personal, but made a choice to continue their holidays regardless. The locals really welcomed them in and showed some of that famous Thai hospitality.
CC Atrribution: estorde@Flickr
A day or two after the disaster I received a call from an extremely well connected thai gentleman who put in me in touch with the CEO of Thailand's national Internet company (and regulator) Inet Thailand. This company has been originally set up by the order of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which is a rather unusual way to get your Internet business going..
Thailand has long had the kind of Internet infrastructure that is nationally controlled, and there's only one sizeable gateway handling traffic in and out of the country. Most traffic to Europe goes through the USA (the other way around as you would imagine) and this makes Thai websites very slow to access from the EU.
The Tsunami caused chaos, information was not easy to obtain, hundreds of thousands of worried relatives etc were trying to find out what ever they can on the net and the infrastructure could not handle it all. Inet Thailand asked for our help, and we immediately stepped in. It took a few efficient phone calls from the beach back to icy, cold and dark Finland to get everything organized. Magenta had a data enter in London, and we set up everything there in cooperation with Inet Thailand.
Altogether 14 different government instances had their data mashed up and collected to a joint mirror in London. Those included Thai ministry sites, crime scene investigation sites, Thai navy sites, hospital patient listings, victim ID listings, disaster information services etc. In fact you can still find all the data online here:
On the pages it still says "We would like to thank Magenta Sites Ltd for hosting the European Mirror of this site for the first 2 years, and Parisian Ltd for continuing hosting support."
The business related interesting part is what followed later because of all this. By setting up the mashed up mirror site and cooperating with the Thai authorities we established quite close relations that still remain to this day. We ended up establishing a Thai subsidiary of the company there locally and doing some business together. This was a big learning experience for me; how the Asian world of trust works. Once you are proven to be trustworthy things tend to flow quite a bit easier and all sorts of opportunities spring up. To a Finn it is somewhat odd when you get requests for quotation on businesses you have nothing to do with at all, but you get them because the trust is there ;)
My fellow board member from Aula Mr. Alex Nieminen who is a pro-level scuba diving instructor also did something similar: he used a diving website to followup and post the latest information better than any main stream media. He won a special recognition award from this.
Thinking aloud: There's the old argument that frequently comes up; wars and disasters are good for business and for economic growth. After experiencing all of that myself and seeing how much business and opportunity sprang from it all - I sort of agree. It is entirely plausible that severe disruption and chaos are strong forces in the creation of the new an unexpected. So be there with your own startup when something disruptive happens: have you thought about how to capitalize on the current economic downturn? You should.