Ben Heller

Founder of Exquisite Thailand

Formally starting his career in the industry in 2004 as an intern at a sourcing agency in Hong Kong, Ben Heller has grown a career weaving through global sourcing, supply chain logistics and government services. It is a far cry from the career he studied for in the film and TV production. He eventually found his passion in making connections between businesses and always striving to find the most efficient and cost-effective way to connect businesses on a global scale. He has rare and unique experience having worked all along the supply chain from the factory floor in China, sourcing and merchandising offices, warehouses and logistics offices, to the retail sales floor in Canada. It was a work opportunity that brought him to Asia, and what he found in Thailand was a land of possibility. Anyone who has travelled to Thailand and walked through the countless markets sees an amazing spectrum of high-quality handmade products of all kinds. These products are almost totally ignored by large mainstream retailers. The simple lack of productive scale means retailers can’t fill their shelves with Thai made goods beyond rice and seafood. But Ben sees this as a major opportunity to use his accrued skills and connections to create and satisfy a niche market. He seeks to find the best Thai made products to sell in the global marketplace, giving opportunities to the craftspeople who make them, allowing them to grow their businesses and support their communities.

Where did the idea for Exquisite Thailand come from?

The concept behind the idea of Exquisite Thailand goes back over a decade. With my experience in sourcing, logistics and strong Thai business and government connections, I’ve had this idea floating around inside my head for a long time. It seemed like a natural evolution to combine my learned skills and experience and make the jump into entrepreneurialism. I just needed a kick in pants to get started. With my office getting shut down in the pandemic, it was just the motivation I needed to run with the idea.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My average day is quite structured. I start my day by getting my kid ready for school, that’s always priority #1. Family first, always. Now I’m very lucky that my office, home and kid’s school are all within a 10 minute walk, so I don’t have to worry about a commute. That’s the privilege of urban living I guess, and that alone boosts my productivity significantly, as well and gives me a ton of freedom. I go home for lunch and it affords me the flexibility to get in a few workouts during the week, something I find increasingly important as I get older. My best advice on maintaining a high level of productivity is to stay organized, write everything down and embrace the technology. The cloud has made my life and business so easy to manage. Having access to all my information wherever I am is paradigm changing. I used to ask older colleagues what conducting business was like before email, now I can’t imagine it without the cloud.

How do you bring ideas to life?

When inspiration strikes, I like to think it through and talk it out. Talk with my business partners, my wife, I’ll even play devil’s advocate with myself. Really thinking through an idea and getting as many perspectives as possible is critical. It’s so easy to miss a small but vital detail when you’re blinded by your inspiration. Once I’ve decided to run with an idea, the first thing I do is break it down into a process with objective goals. I’ll often make a physical flowchart I can check-off in-keeping with my productivity strategies.

What’s one trend that excites you?

It may be early days, but the trend in what I like to call “demand re-shoring” really gives me some long-term optimism that my business model can be a success. I think there is now a critical mass of people wanting to buy products from places other than China, people tired of poor-quality goods and feeding an oppressive regime. Now that the price differential between China and other producing countries is dropping, it allows more and more people to make the socially and economically conscious choice to look elsewhere. The general trend to re-shoring production out of China is only growing stronger and I like to think we’re part of that movement.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Using the technology. I consider myself lucky to be old enough to have grown up and worked in a less technological era (one of my first jobs as an Intern was getting PCs Y2K ready), but young enough to have grown up with the evolution of the connected business. I think it gives me a perspective that encourages me to seek efficiency through technology and not to take it for granted.

What advice would you give your younger self?

When you go to school, study what you love, not what you think you want to do with your life, because that changes.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Debt is generally a bad thing, and growth should be organic, not fueled by excess debt.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I’m a little stumped by this question. I guess you can say I’m always trying to find new ways of doing things, always striving to be a little more efficient. I suggest to not stuck doing the same thing over and over endlessly. There’s almost always a better way. Keep refining your processes.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Putting the customer first. They’re by no means always right… but you have to put them first. Sometimes you just need to take the time, hold their hand, and close the sale. A loyal customer is invaluable to a startup.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I’m still pretty new at being an entrepreneur, I still have a lot to learn and experience, and I believe failure is a great teacher and motivator. In this venture I have failed dozens of times trying to source by products in Thailand. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars lost. Now, I knew going in this to be a massive obstacle. The business culture in Thailand is difficult to navigate. But the disappointment of deals falling apart doesn’t get easier. But I’ve taken my L’s and taken the time to examine what went wrong and refined my process. Things have gotten better. Much better.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

A small photo studio for rent with facilities and equipment for entrepreneurs do their own product photography.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Date night with my wife. Being an entrepreneur can be hard on a relationship. It’s amazing how good a simple night out at a comedy club can be for a relationship.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

This is tough. I really have 2 pieces of software I find invaluable. QuickBooks and Microsoft 365. I can’t imagine running a company without these tools. They just make things so much easier. I cringe at thinking how much time it would take to manage my business without tools like these.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I think every entrepreneur or business savvy person should read The Fourth Turning. I think understanding demographic shifts and a more volatile world in terms of Macro influences and using that data to position your business to be prepared for this paradigm is absolutely critical.
I’m also currently reading The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan. Again, this book charts the changing demographics and how we’re set for a period of deglobalization, which I think pairs well with my thoughts on demand re-shoring and pivoting away from China.

What is your favorite quote?

Buy the ticket, take the ride. – Hunter S. Thompson
I have it tattooed on my arm. It’s a reminder to not take life too seriously, go with the flow, and not try to control every last detail.

Key Learnings:

  • Embrace the technology.
  • Put your family first.
  • An efficient business is a profitable business.
  • Take the time to think through problems before reacting.
  • Dig into your failures and learn from them.