You can just see a place and start a business next week: Guerrilla developer Thomas Menard
Born in France, Thomas Menard is a gallery owner and entrepreneur based in Bangkok. Living in London and Paris and travelling through Asia, Menard speaks to Aerostorie about quitting his job in favour of more excitement and the benefits of injecting more art into his life.
“I was working in finance, in London and Paris. Then I quit, because I wanted more excitement. I moved to China, worked in biodegradable plastic in Beijing and stayed there for eight months. But then I wanted to try and open a business. It didn’t really work out. I didn’t like China, I didn’t feel like it was the right place.
I moved to Vietnam, and I really loved the South East Asian parts, because it seems to offer more opportunities. Then I travelled to Bangkok.
At the beginning I didn’t like it. For the first few weeks I really hated it. Then I met an artist and we became friends, so she showed me other parts of the city. She showed me the underground scene.
My family background is in antique dealing so I spent my weekends, when I was young, in the flea markets, auctions… so I was collecting myself, even when I was working in finance.
And I got to meet this artist. It’s kind of like what I wanted actually, to try to do something that could be fun, related to art — something creative.
We opened the gallery four years ago, and that’s how I arrived in Bangkok, doing the gallery.
This gallery became popular because my friend, my partner, Lee Anantawat — an artist and art teacher — got to know a lot of people through her work, so we got popular quite fast.
At the time [the concept] wasn’t new. They had galleries which had closed, so at the time we opened, we were niche, trying to promote emerging artists, doing things a bit silly.
Silly art, a lot of parties. A lot of parties but it was still serious. We still seriously curated the show and we had good artists, who maybe wanted a bit of an underground space, something a bit raw. Here they could express [that] and do something a bit silly. When people came, they really enjoyed seeing the show.
When I arrived, [I felt that I] would stay as long as I felt there was something to do. But if it didn’t work I was planning to go to Malaysia or Indonesia. I wanted to give it a try. People are nice, they are quite easygoing. The weather is fine, there’s a lot of infrastructure — you can go everywhere. It’s quite creative as well, compared to other countries. Thai people are quite creative.
Starting a business seemed really easy at the time. I was at the shop house with my friend, her friend took over the three levels and she said ‘I’m looking for someone to rent the first floor’, so I said, OK, I can make an apartment. Then her friend left so I took over the whole place.
Friends and a few people who knew I was living here liked the fact that I live in a shop, and had renovated it… it sounds really good. It is actually much cooler than living in a condominium. I’m next to people, you can just walk one floor and you’re in the street. They have some street festivals sometimes… I think in this country it’s good not to live in a condominium.
So I opened another space not that far from here… the other place I opened is called the Soy Sauce Factory. First I opened it as a living space as well, with a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, a garage second floor, then an apartment on the third floor. I tried to focus on photography, so for one and a half years it worked. It was quite popular, but in the end I didn’t make enough money… I couldn’t invest more money, it was draining my account.
So I had people join in the first floor, and operating the food…. and I had my income come from [renting the room on] Airbnb… so I was able to keep doing the gallery on the second floor…
Every time I find a shop house, I take it and I will renovate it and find people to rent it… [this shop house] is going to be a Thai BBQ on the first floor, tattoo studio on the second floor, jewellery studio on the third floor and a bar on the fourth floor.
Because I do this... now I also attract investors.
It’s cool… because I have to renovate the house myself... I’ve done offices, I did a gallery, and a mall, a condominium, so I have my team, and now I’m renovating a hostel.
I could stay here without doing anything anymore, but I wouldn’t want to.
I’ve been here five years. In construction I have to speak in Thai, so I just learn it there… I started by learning the bad words and the bad expressions, but it’s cool to learn this way, just listening and repeating a lot. It’s not an easy language...
Starting a business was risky when I did it five years ago, but lucky for me I did it, or I would be in a condominium without any business! Since I’ve been here, I’ve been building my network… so now even if I don’t do this, I can do something else. I speak Thai and I can manage something creative, develop projects…
In Europe, you make one business. You have to stick with it for a long time because the investment is huge. It’s a big responsibility. When you’re here, you can just see a place that you like, go inside, ask the price and then start a business next week. Or like me, start 10 businesses.
If you commit to your business, you can make money in Europe and do well, but it takes longer — it’s really competitive. Here you don’t have to really be strict about it, but if it seems like it’s not going to work, no big deal — you just do something else.”