Tharum's blog tech and me in cambodia

I received these questions from a Cambodian university student who’s working on her master’s program. Her work focuses on the emerging entrepreuneurs in Cambodia. The questions center around the business technology startups in Phnom Penh. The answers are my observation and perspectives.

You may also want to read: Phnom Penh’s startups: ‘the art of battling giants’

Question: What is tech startup? When has it happened in Cambodia?
A tech startup is a process or a journey of transforming a idea into a business that generate profit by an individual or a group of people. An amazing idea is still cheap without the execution. That’s what a startup is all about. Just like any businesses, this startup concept has been here in Cambodia for a very long time. But in our modern time Cambodia, in this digital age in particular, we’ve witnessed more and more startups here and there especially in Phnom Penh.

Question: What is your view of technology business in Cambodia? Is it a big field and going on well?
It’s almost impossible to do business without relying on or integrating technology. Both business and technology are way better when utilizing one another. They’re seamlessly together. The future of technology business is here.

Have government or other key players provided financial and non-financial support for this technology business?
The ministries play a very vital role to encourage and support this technology business sector to grow. The Ministry of Education as well as the Ministry of Tecom are at the forefront to nuture the young generation of entrepreneurs to do well.

What are the opportunities for this kind of business in Cambodia? And what are the challenges they face in this context?
Cambodia has a growing population of young people who are fluent in English and can develop technology skill very well. The ability to take on an idea and develop it into something amazing is a huge opportunity. In content production business, some Cambodian groups can launch digital platforms in the local language, build the audience, and have the opportunity to scale them to the region with external funding from some investors. It’s like mining gold. However, this is not without challenges. The local ecosystem to support these early stage businesses, who are a shoestring budget through bootstrapping, is not yet fully in place. From mentorship to seed funding to regulations, Cambodia is still in its early phase.

Do you know any tech entrepreneurs in Cambodia? Their typical profile?
Most of the tech entrepreneurs I’ve met are young men in their mid 20s. They’re fluent in English-language communications, very tech savvy, and socialable.

What are your views on the female entrepreneur in Cambodia?
In tech business, the playing field is open to everyone with creativity and the ability to take or minimize risks.

Do you know any female entrepreneurs in technology startups? May you name some?
Malypoeur Plong who founded Stops Near Me, a mobile application for Phnom Penh residents to take advantage of riding the city bus. Leakhena Long of Joonaak Delivery is another entrepreneur to watch out.

What do you think the barriers women face? Especially in technology? Do you think men and women face the same challenges?

Are there any supporting organizations or investors in technology startups?

Is it hard to attract investor or get loan? And do those financial institutions discriminate between men and women entrepreneurs?

What do you wish to see from the Government as well as other stakeholders?

The future is here.

While I’ve been expecting to get my hands on Google Home Mini, I got this Amazon Echo first. As I’m writing this blog post, this the second day with the Echo (although I prefer to communicate with Alexa more). So the Echo is a smart speaker made by Amazon. Alexa is the digital assistant, whom I have a conversation with.

Before I can add more about my experience with this smart speaker, here’s some interesting things I like about the Echo:

  • It’s very straightforward to set it up with my home WiFi. It took me a few minutes install this device for the first time.
  • Before I headed out for lunch, I asked Alexa, are you hungry? Alexa said: I’m not hungry and thirsty. Thank you for asking. 😉
  • During work today, I had Alexa playing some NPR News. I also asked Alexa to open Ocean Sounds.
  • Each time I ask about tomorrow’s weather, Alexa points out the weather in West Lake (USA). But when I’m more specific by mentioning Phnom Penh, she can give the specific answer.
  • I believe Alexa is potentially a home tutor for English language. My 6-year-old son, Tom, will be able to ask Alexa about Pluto, Asteroid, and space, the way he used my Moto G 5 Plus smart phone to say Hey, Google.

Thank John for this 2018 gadget gift.

A story I wrote about Asia’s technology trends to watch in 2018 was published on Red Herring on December 22, 2017.
Read my full story here: Asia’s Top Tech Trends in 2018: By the Letters.

Across Southeast Asia, rising tech startups and firms are vying for glory in 2018. While artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) may be touted as the next big things in Silicon Valley, Asia will embrace simpler trends. According to a report by Google and Temasek, Southeast Asia’s Internet economy is flying along: it will reach $50 billion this year, and $200bn by 2025. Here are some of the biggest trends to watch out for heading into the new year.


I’ve started listening to Gary Vaynerchuk podcast lately through the word of mouth from Sereyboth. Seth Godin the magnificent marketer guru has long been one the best bloggers I’ve following for years.

I came to this YouTube video after listening to another video talk by Seth while I was gardening at my front yard.

This video title does really resonate with me in this 2017.

Sophie, my 3-year-old daughter, started her first year at the kindergaten several months ago. This year, her school will be supporting LICADHO’s Early Years Behind Bars for its annual beloved Giving Night.

I’m supporting this cause. And I’m asking you to join this with me.

What: I’m now collecting donations of child/adult toothbrushes as well any gently used or new toys, books, clothes or art supplies for children born into Cambodia’s prison system.

When: I’ll bring the donations of mine and yours to The Giving Tree School (Tuol Kork Branch, house #5, St. 325, Phnom Penh) on December 11th, 5:00 – 7:00PM.

How: If you wish to send your donations of stuff (not money) through me, please drop me a line of your pick-up location (Google Maps link) and mobile phone number. Thanks!

Last year, when my son 5-year-old Tom was a pupil at the school for this Giving Night, I also donated a set of Raspberry Pi 3 starter kit to the Rabbit School Organization. This year, I’m planning to get old books for the donation.

Currently, I’m on a Telegram chatroom of nearly 40 Cambodian tech folks (less than 10 are active) discuss about the potential of blockchain, Bitcoin, and Ethereum, among their personal pursuit in mining the next the big thing.

This Sunday late afternoon, I came across this blog post (in my Gmail inbox sent from The Brain Food Newsletter) from my favorite blogger, Seth Godin. His latest catchy post is Money for nothing.

In his blog post there is also a link to another blog post, which mentioned this book, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages.

Personally, I thought The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) and the dot-com bubble (1997 to 2001) are pretty the same thing as this blockchain big bang.

Updated: December 7, 2017
The National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) has just warned the public about the risk of the Bitcoin and other cryptopcurrency. While the rejection has been widely publicized in the media, it’s not just warning but also a big publicity for this blockchain technology and cryptopcurrency.

Cambodians spend much of their time playing on Facebook, the world’s popular social networking website. Despite Cambodia is a hotbed for Facebook experiment, I expect that it will not affect the number of growing users. Of course, a small number of people here (including me) don’t like it.

If you’re wondering why Khmer people are in love with Facebook, please continue to read on.

Each and everyday, Facebook asks me: What’s on your mind? Here’s my answer to Facebook the company and its shareholders.

1- Cambodians started to hate TV because TV talked to them without listening to them.

2- TV is expensive. They spend money to buy a TV set just to watch. That’s all. Not fun. Nothing much on TV are cute. No cute cat. Not much to see selfies.

3- Cambodians think that everyone in Cambodia and all over the world is on Facebook. So they have to be on Facebook even being the last one in the kingdom to get on the social site.

4- Cambodians can create organic content with high reach. Cambodian users are probably the best viral content creators on the planet.

5- Cambodians have already abandoned TV. Facebook is the main source of all things day and night.

6- Ads spending on Facebook is high and growing non-stop. Why? Big, medium, and small businesses no longer want to spend their marketing money on TV and newspapers. They can easily pay Facebook to the work. $1 per day? Acceptable.

7- Cambodia’s Facebook users care about being on Facebook. Facebook Explore Feed. Who cares?

8- On Facebook, business is business. You have to pay to get in the frontpage if you want to sell.

9- On Facebook, you’re completely free to share your personal information and content (photos from your backyard, yes).

10. Blockchain? What? Facebook invests in you all and mine your data like a pro.

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There is this new thing called Explore Feed for all the not sponsored Page content. It’s a Facebook’s experiment. And Cambodia is among the six test countries. So only sponsored Page posts get shown on the prime Frontpage.

The world’s most popular social networking site has just launched a new version for Cambodia’s users, among 6 other countries, the Facebook Frontpage. This newest test version is dedicated to updates from its users and sponsored content only. No more. For those publishers and brands who spent their budget on gaining the quanity of Likes will not get the same treatment of having their messages on the first front page. Those messages are now placed in a secondary section called Explore Feed. Just like its name, it means Cambodian Facebook users will need to do their own exploration.

Also: 12 reasons why Facebook is so popular in Cambodia

Facebook is a tech company that focuses on the result. Tweaking a small feature to get more advertisers to continue spending more money is the goal for the company and the shareholders. User experience is secondary. Publishers or Page owners with largest followers has already spent their marketing budget on getting the number of Likes. It’s as if the number of Likes is useless. This new feature allows Facebook to keep earning more from these businesses and others.

Cambodia has a lot of love stories with Facebook. But the interesting timing is Facebook, Google, and Twitter, are being grilled for their role in the last year’s US election.

I think the majority of Cambodians may not notice this tweak. What matters is that they still see that Facebook is working and feeding them the content they want to consume. If the social networking site were having a one-hour downtime, the public will get angry much more
than this introduction of the Explore Feed.

It’s the first time ever that this issue has happened. Facebook should have done much better than this. But after all, it’s the global tech company that can decide without listening to their users.

This is the worse tweak ever. My tweets here (also others’)

Most users will never know or notice. Nobody should ever blame Facebook.
https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/10/this-could-be-the-end-of-facebook-hive-podcast

I was quoted in this VOA News article here: Facebook Faceplants in Cambodia.

TechTalk 2017

One of the biggest sessions at this year BarCamp Asean (a special edition of BarCamp Phnom Penh), TechTalk 2017 offered some highlights of Cambodian tech startups to the enthusiastic audience. Key business players from big to small shared their thoughts on their tech offerings, challenges, golden opportunities, and what it’s like to build and grow a company. Read on my note from this event as I kept trying to capture some of the most important points from the speakers.

When: October 22, 2017
Where: Institute of Technology of Cambodia

Anthony Perkin, Chief Technology Officer of Smart, on cashless society

  • examples using cashes from India, China, and Canada
  • Mobile money in Cambodia is higher than in Thailand and Vietnam, although not
  • recorded by the national bank
  • Paying the electricity bill… now being replaced by SmartLuy or Wing
  • The last step is to run the transaction on the phone
  • Build the trust. trust the company behind them
  • SmartLuy

Sophorth Khuon, Founder and CEO of Morakot Technology, core-banking system for microfinance and banks

  • 70 registered micro finances, not capable to purchase software.
  • started out as a 3 people team
  • worked in the industry for about 10 years before starting the Morakot
  • first started by soliving the software price
  • support from outside and in a foreign language: time consuming
  • 1) affordable 2) cloud base 3) quick implementation 4) automate config
    expansion: Myanmar,The Philippines, and Laos
  • Sustainability: Started with our own money
  • careful to spend and cashflow: no salary
  • reserve money for 3 years
  • funding: careful with fixed cost, payroll
  • start small
  • pricing: monthly or yearly subscription, maitanenance fee
  • To start a tech startup, focus on a particular software (banking)
  • cashflow is very important. revenue from software or funding. the best funding source is from revenue. banks don’t like startup (risky).
  • investment from the co-founders and their relatives
  • The more operations , the spending rises
  • no pricing structure can be problematic later on

Leakhena Long, Joonaak Delivery

  • 2 years and 7 months in operation
  • Be honest with yourself
  • The initital idea is not great yet.
    The startup journey is very struggling
    4 people. one day, we were in a cafe and talking about starting a cafe. A missing piece, no delivery service. Only meal temple.
  • Our life would be very convenient if there is a delivery service. Regularly met up to continue with the idea
  • I don’t like when things didn’t move
  • We should go to Startup Weekend
    Joonaak Delivery was shaped during the Startup Weekend. Parcel delivery. 2nd place in the startup weekend
    Disappointed by not being in the first place but learned why.
  • 2 deliverymen. now 20 deliveryman
  • Her friend run a shop, need the service because to deliver the product to the customer, he needed to close the shop.
  • From the beginning, it was all manual. From paper to Excel, to application. to track.
  • In the future, to have a mobile to power the merchants and the customer to see the delivery tracking
  • Keep yourself learning, in the market
  • Everyday, there are many new delivery services. We need to continue to develop, warehousing, packaging.
  • After 2 year sand a half, the journey is hard, but we believe in what we do
  • Talk to mentors, talk to parents,

Ly Channa, CTO of BookMeBus

  • BookMeBus started in December 2015.
  • Get to know each other. Met in a coffeeshop and started working on the idea.
  • Started with 4 people. Now more than 10 people
  • Started as a bus ticketing platform
  • Buying a bus ticket is not very convenient. People out of Cambodia cannot easily buy a bus ticket
  • Keep wokring on the product
  • In 2016, released a simple mobile app.
  • Won the ICT award. Getting known to the local market
  • BookMeBus: bus ticket, private taxi, ferry
  • What I want to share here: when you started with a business, along the way you can see other opportunities. Ferry.
  • Next year, we’re planning to expand in Myanmar
  • We learn more from the trasnportation providers to allow us to
  • As a programmer, keep learning from going to events.
  • Commitment. Work hard. work until 1AM. Technology is just one part. Committment is a driving force for success

Bora Kem, Investment Manager of Mekong Strategic Partners

  • What we see in the market today
  • What an investor looks for?
  • Team. A business that is scalable. Large growing market. Traction. Testing the work.
  • Add value to the startup team
  • one hundred early startup stage.
  • Super focus on being local. How customers react, buy thing, work with financial institution
  • There are a lot of of web development agency
  • Marketplace. Listing space. No clear winner.
  • Regionalization. Region as the next market.
  • What does the future look like? I don’t know. A few guesses: ask yourself 3 things: is the future already here? Last time, after landing in San Franscisco airport, I took an Uber taxi, stayed in an Airbnb place, shop on Amazon
  • Young people are the driving force in buying
  • The third. What if. There are so man things impossible. What if the challenge you face won’t exist in the future? What does it mean to your customers? What if technology can give you the info you don’t have before
  • If you’re thinking about starting a startup, now is the golden age. Old people cannot tell you how to build app. But you can tell them

Makara Khov, Underscretary of State, Ministry of Post and Telecommunication

  • Industrial 4.0. Physical and cyber world
  • Innovative environment: government, industry, academe
  • Infrastructure & platform of innovation. Knowledge technology transfer. Policy & relegation. Human resource for innovation. Public private partnership
  • Agile innovation
  • Mobile penetration: ~130%
  • Broadband Internet: ~75%
  • T/ICT development policy 2020
  • Telecom law, subdecree of ICT licensing regime
  • will have R&D ~7M$/year
  • USO ~14M$/year
  • ICT Federation to represent the sector
  • Cambodia ICT awards. Stimulus measure
  • Do not expect quick investment from investors. Build a great product first.
  • Create NIPTIC. Improvmeent of education quality in high school
  • Open investment climate

Chy Sila, CEO of Sabay

  • Sabay started in 09, 2007. About 10 years old now. We’re the early to get into this sector.
  • A brand that focuses on vision. What we want to do. A source of inspiration for the youth of Cambodia
  • Future trend
  • Focus what’s happening in the world and next
  • Inform, inspire, entertain. Pioneer. The trend in other part of the world. Inspire.
  • Bring on awesomeness
  • The products that make people happy
  • I listen. I read.
  • In Cambdoia, our technology lags behind about 15-20 years
  • Learn from other giant startups and adapt and implement in Cambodia
  • Augument Reality
  • If we do not follow future,
  • Read more. Global trend. not copy. but it’s happening.
  • AI. VR. Do we know about them?
  • Sabay Der. Kanha. Women are 55%. In just one year, but 45% of traffic of Sabay
  • Backend payment. Sabay Wallet. Sabay Coins. Created since 2007
  • Soyo. movie content. drama. iflix. jaikontv.
  • Our vision is VOD is unique. we produce our own movie.
  • We’ll launch with Smart.
  • We cannot live far from our smartphone.
  • Focus on mobile first since 2014.

Panel discussion: opportunities and challenges of startups in Cambodia

Chanda Pen, moderator

Socheata Lim, Vice President of Young Entrepreneurs Association of Cambodia (YEAC)

Ros Khemra, Regional Accesss to Finance of Mekong Business Initiative (MBI)

Zoe Ng, Managing director of Raintree

Sopheak Chheang
Member of Corco and Co-founder of Emerald Hub
Sokunpanha You
Head of Strategy, Smart Axiata

Chanda: One of the issues facing startups
a company needs at least 3 years of capital
What are the some the criterias that Smart looks to invest?
Smart Fund. 5 millions dollar that invest in early stage compnay. lacking of fundings is one of the challenges

To MBI: what are some of the things MBI is looking for?
we’re an ecosystem builder that supports startups. government in Vietnam, Singapore and other countries are turning their focus to support startups
Startups have a lot of potential.
Startups can grow from a small company into a big one in the region
Investors look for in a startup. Team. skills. Realistic of the product. and growth potential.

Socheat
invest in 4-5 startups. 3 gone. one is half success
a lot of young and talent people. only 16 million population
Ecosystem is important

EmeraldHub
what advice to you have to startup people
A lot of challenges and opportunities
If you start the business, you need a clear mission, vision,. strong team and commitment.

Zoe Ng
What advice do you give to entrepreneurs
Networking. The people they know, partners, are one of the driving factors…
Have fun. Relationship is not going to last if you’re not having fun.
Try different things all the time.
Don’t just go to tech tech events.

Sokunpanha:
Smart Startup
CSR: Support events like BarCamp Asean, …
invest in company
Invest in young startups
partner with iflix. Support ecosystem.

The tech ecosystem in the region:
Khemra
The whole ecosystem: corporate support, government support policy
More co-working spaces
In term of technical capacity, we’re good. Top ten in 2016-2017. BanhJi top 10.
We have a smaller community, but good.

As competition among key players in Cambodia’s tech startups is at a new height, 2017 is the year of creative partnership. Uber and Grab are making their presence felt in Cambodia. The two giants are powerful in how they operate, market, and compete. Uber opened its Phnom Penh office mid this year, before officially launching a few months later with the presence of US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt. Singapore-based Grab quietly started by hiring young Cambodian talents to start its operation in the Cambodian capital. The arrival of the Silicon Valley’s company and the King of Asia will transform the Cambodian transportation sector dramatically in the next few months. Uber and Grab are in Phnom Penh to do both: to educate the local market as well as to bring this small, growing market more competitive. However, the future of the local startups in this category remains uncertain.

The art of battling giants

Unlike in Vietnam and Singapore, startups have a better ecosystem to operate thanks to the policy of starting and doing businesses. However, it’s new to young Cambodian entrepreneurs to enjoy that local support advantage. This year, Khmerload, a Cambodian Buzzfeed-like startup, received an investment from Silicon Valley-based 500 Startups. However, the Cambodian startup registered its business in Singapore, instead of its home country.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s home of tech entrepreneurs and startups, local startups have introduced their services to the locals and travelers on their shoestring marketing budget. Even though they’re new and small, they have been featured prominently in the local and international media outlets. BookMeBus, a 2-year-old startup was featured in CNN for making it easy to book a bus ticket. Other local startups like PassApp, Exnet Taxi, and iTsumo have been in this transportation and ride-hailing business for a couple of years. Time will tell. But their direct competitors are Uber and Grab.

For customers, the arrival of Uber and Grab mean more choices and better offerings. For the founders of Cambodia’s tech startups, it’s now the ideal time to draw inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

Cambodian startups have to be very creative in partnership to take on the superiority of Uber’s technology. Cambodia’s ride-hailing ITsumo has recently partnered with Choice Taxi, a private taxi company offer 24 hours services.

With Cambodia’s largest money transfer agent TrueMoney, BookMeBus is now able to offer better customer-experience that the startup CEO believes will help grow its base of users. Most of Cambodian people still rely on cash for payments. This partnership allows BookMeBus to make it easy for more local customers to book their bus tickets at TrueMoney’s network of agents across the country. Also, the Cambodian unicorn startup last year tied a relationship with mobile money transfer services provider Wing.

On the digital content media and video on demand (VOD) front, the local streaming providers have to welcome and play a very competitive game with global players. Netflix launched in Cambodia with the film release of First They Killed My Father, directed by Angelina Jolie. It’s probably one of the most of strategic marketing and public relation campaigns to make its name known to the Cambodian users.

Mobile operator Smart is a partner with Malaysia-based iflix, a Malaysia-based company that offers video-on-demand service. Smart has recently acquired 30% stake in home-grown entertainment content producer Sabay. These businesses hope to become Cambodia’s digital champion in a few years. Both Smart and Sabay claimed that this October deal will help them to realize their dream.

Whether the partnerships come from pressure of Uber and Grab, it looks like the users will enjoy better, enhanced services with more added-values for their money. Probably this creative partnership is what the the small (startups) can battle the giants, both Uber and Grab.

The presence of both Uber and Grab also proves that Cambodia has it all for global businesses to launch and operate. Super fast Internet? Yes. Mobile 4G coverage? Yes. The majority of the young population who embraces digital technology? Yes.

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