3 Unexpected Business Lessons You Can Learn From a Mass Protest

Ryan Ong



“Ryan, we have too much local content,” the editor said, “you should check out businesses in other parts of Asia. Like, I dunno, Thailand.” I thought this was excellent advice, so I left for Bangkok and went to the most logical place to explore business acumen. That is obviously, the middle of a massive anti-government protest:


Important Political Caveat

The protests in Thailand stem from a complicated web of political issues. It is a serious crisis that the average Singaporean will not, and may never, fully comprehend – vulgarities on HDB walls are a different level of political protest than a grenade in the face.

So, this article is not a statement on politics in Thailand, or a suggestion that the situation in there is a trivial. We acknowledge that it’s a difficult time for Thailand, and wish the Thai people all the best for a better future.

This article is a non-political look at what goes on during a protest, during a primarily peaceful period (March 2014).

I assure you, any political motives you spot are derived from your own fertile imagination. Getting the Bak Chor Mee man to not add liver, without being sworn at, is the height of my political ambition.


This is the Occupied Area:

When you step into an occupied area, the first thing that confronts you is firearms, body armour, and sentries at full combat readiness. If the place you’re in is Ukraine, that is.

In Thailand it mostly looks like this:


Major threats include gun violence, explosives, and unreasonably priced T-Shirts.

Despite the perilous situation, I had to investigate further. It was my duty to MoneySmart readers. And also, those were some cool as hell Bermudas for under $3. Here’s the (non-political) lessons I learned from the people there:


Lesson #1: Always be Networking

Check out the following T-Shirts:

The trick to T-Shirt captions is to make them subtle.

That’s one of several designs available, and they’re all manufactured to pretty high standards. On top of that, the stalls respect copyright. The owner proudly explained that no one else was allowed to produce the same design.

The system works something like this:

University students design the T-Shirts and license it to the stall owner, who happens to have a factory. The stall owner pays for the design, and that money goes to support the protest.

In return, the stall owner gets a monopoly on that particular design, and can sell the T-shirts for whatever amount she wants. The movement leaders get to spread their message, and the stall owner can make a living.

Isn’t it amazing¬† when people from different backgrounds team up?


We should probably be worried when Anti-govt. protestors respect copyright more than most Bugis Street vendors.


Lesson #2: Blend the Product and the Message

The first problem was drawing attention to the protest: getting and keeping attention is key to the protestors’ momentum. The message has to get out, and that’s exactly what the stalls’ products do:


Am I alone in thinking they can re-brand these for 4th of July at the American Embassy?

Before you dismiss that stuff as paraphernalia, take a minute to think: how often do people buy your organization’s advertisements?

It’s not just locals that frequent these stalls; tourists are intrigued by them too. And when tourists buy, they basically pay money to help spread the word internationally.

Now I don’t believe the stallholders are just there to turn a profit – many of them are real patriots, driven by a cause and not their pocketbook. But intentionally or not, they’ve blended their product with their message.

That’s something too few start-ups consider – besides just working well, what does your product’s packaging and appearance communicate about you?


Lesson #3: Concentrate on Your Core Product

The stalls aren’t run in the haphazard manner we’re used to here. I’ll use those pushcart stalls at Bugis Junction as an example: the successful one mostly push one main product. The unsuccessful ones push a dozen different products, and have no idea which one really makes the most money.

Stalls at the rally don’t have that problem. Most of them are on a one stall, one product system:

If your sunglasses are cool enough, you can intimidate the riot police into backing down. Well known fact.


With current ticket sales, this is what the 5th Transformers movie will look like.


Considering it’s 32 degrees in a mass protest, I’m surprised ALL the rioting doesn’t happen in this stall’s queue.

Oh and that picture in point 2? That stall IS focused too. They may all be small trinkets, but they’re not mixed with hats, bags, sunglasses, etc.

The stalls simplify their supply and operations, and keep costs low; because they focus on one product they already know will sell.


And the Biggest Lesson of All…

Is that it helps if you believe you’re doing the right thing.

I’m not talking about passion; passion is overrated. I’m talking about a quiet belief that you’re solving people’s problems. And that your product, in some small or big way, improves their lives.

Tell us some business lessons you’ve learnt from unique situations! Comment Below.

Image Credits:
Johan Fantenberg (banner & thumbnail photo)

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.