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Tech startups in Cambodia

Posted on:December 4, 2022 at 03:22 PM

This blog post Starting up Cambodia is a collection of my writings (including notes and interviews) I wrote over the past years. It’s all about all things technology, digital, startups, Internet, and coffee culture in the heart of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Starting up Cambodia

The early chapter

In May 1997 people in Cambodia could join the wider world through the Internet for the first time. Back then, the dial-up connection speed was 64Kbps, which allowed the Internet users to exchange email messages and surf web pages.

Fast forward to 2016, you can subscribe to a dedicated 150Mbps fiber optic connection. In a country like Cambodia, once lagged behind nations in Southeast Asia, is now head to head with them in term of infrastructure, innovation, and technology. Today, videoconferencing, broadcast live video, or watching 4K video content on YouTube or Netflix are definitely possible with high quality connection.

The Internet penetration in Cambodia (a population of over 15 million) has increased rapidly (only 9% in 2015, 19% in 2016). From small businesses to large organisations, the backbone of their daily operation demands fast, yet reliable Internet connection.

Here’s an amazing map that shows the growing technology community in the heart of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital city. Internet Service Provider (ISP) like SINET partners with Impact Hub Phnom Penh, a global network of collaborators focused on making a positive impact in Cambodia, the latest business incubator TekHub, and SmallWorld where Cambodian entrepreneurs and digital nomads can connect with the large communities. The tech entrepreneurs are so enthusiastic to build their startups to market here and hopefully in Southeast Asia.

In January 2017, a new startup accelerator and incubator will be opened in the heart of Phnom Penh. Trybe is going to be a place where people make, do, and share. A maker-space, a co-working space, startup focal point all in one. With these startup communities continue grow like mushrooms in rainy season, Phnom Penh is becoming a charming city of startups. A more premium class work space is just a few walks away from Wat Phnom: Rain Tree Development. “Nurturing entrepreneur spirits falls within our core values. We’ve been working with Impact Hub and Tekhub since the beginning,” Vireak Ouk, SINET’s Chief Operating Officer, told me recently.

Since 2011, Phnom Penh’s coffee culture has been growing rapidly and remarkably. To offer their customers the world class in-store experience, many of the coffee shops use dedicated Internet service to serve hundreds of customers with multiple devices each day. Some of these coffee stores are local coffee chain Brown Coffee and Bakery, Coffee Bean Tea & Leaf, and Joma Bakery Café.

There is much more to see happening in 2017 as Cambodian tech entrepreneurs are looking forward to a more growing number of mobile Internet users to tap into. Those co-working spaces and cafes with high speed Internet connections are the new, modern home offices for tinkerers and innovators to build the next big things in Cambodia.

This is a recent interview I gave to a foreign correspondent. In the email questions & answers, I talked about the technology community and the emerging startups that Cambodians think help taking the Kingdom of Cambodia on the global map.

1) How was Cambodia’s tech scene changed since you started covering it?

Nearly ten years ago, tech geeks here worked quietly on their own. No collaboration, no exchange of what they’re doing. Basically, there was little communication and community in place for that. Today, the tech community is just amazing. It’s growing, and people are well-connected. This means people have more organic support and collaboration than in 2007.

2) What kind of challenges and opportunities do Cambodian tech startups face? Are they particularly active in some industries vs others (e-commerce, mobile money, etc.)?

Cambodian tech startups don’t, at this point in time, really have the kind of support from the government like in Singapore or even Thailand and Vietnam. The main challenge facing the startup people here is: to change the mindset of the users (or customers). For example, even a successful startup that can build the best tech platform with a lot of payment methods, local customers are not willing to take the risk.

3) What are for you some of the most interesting Cambodian tech startups active today?

There is a big gap in term of doing things and living life in an ordinary way. To me, some of the most amazing Cambodian startups are those tackling the common issues. It’s not really about disrupting a sector but transforming it. For example, a Cambodian startup like BookMeBus offers a convenient way to book online bus tickets. Home delivery service like Joonaak is changing the way Cambodians shop their products and get them delivered to their doorstep.

Chea Langda is a startup co-founder of BookMeBus. The young Cambodian left his 8-5 job to launch a website that lists bus trip information. It came out of his frustration when finding a bus seat to his hometown, Battambang province, from Phnom Penh. The BookMeBus now is one of the most popular websites among expats, foreign travelers, and locals to book their bus tickets with a just a few clicks or swipes.

4) In what ways do you hope to see the country’s tech scene improve? I’d love to see Cambodia’s tech scene to grow organically. The community, the service providers, the government, the investors, and everyone in between have the belief that to have a good environment, infrastructure, and support in place will help tech startups doing well. One day, Phnom Penh would become the most amazing city in the region for startups.

5) What’s the typical profile of Cambodian tech entrepreneurs? This is so typical that a lot of founders I’ve met and talked to are men in their late 20s and early 30s. They’ve got the enthusiasm, commitment, and necessary skills to start things out. They’re much more connected within the community, too.

6) What kind of financing opportunities do Cambodian tech entrepreneurs have? Are more private investors investing in Cambodian tech startups? I don’t really think there are many opportunities just yet. Right now, it’s small. So it’s a big opportunity for those interested in doing more things with Cambodian startup people.

My interview with BookMeBus CEO Chea Langda

Chea Langda, a doer and fearless founder

This is a full interview with Langda Chea, a co-founder of Cambodia’s most exciting startup, BookMeBus. This year, the Cambodian startup was awarded the gold medal at Cambodia ICT Awards. Langda’s dream for his startup is to become Cambodia’s main system for reserving millions of bus and ferry trips every year.

How did you get into the startup? What did you do before?

Langda Chea: I stepped into startup life because at that time I failed to convince my former boss to approve my proposal (not bus ticketing); thus after a careful thought with a big belief on the project, I decided to quit my job in order to execute my own plan. At that time, I was an IT project manager of one Japanese company. It tooks me a few months to remember my bus ticketing idea (BookMeBus) which was conceptualized since 2013 yet it had been put on hold because of full time job.

What’s BookMeBus? And why?

BookMeBus is a ticketing platform, both web and app, which allows traveller to book their bus tickets within Cambodia and across the borders of our neighboring countries like Thailand, Ho Chi Minh, and Laos.

The naming wise, BookMeBus sounds like a phrase that is “to book me something” so I think it is easy to remember since this phrase is very common and being used in everyday life.

The reason why I chose to start BookMeBus because the way how people buying bus ticket in Cambodia is such a hassle. Passengers have to either call to the bus station to make a temporary reservation or buy over the counter. However, bus counters are often far away from each other, there is central bus station exists in Cambodia. Thus, I think it would be great to have a one-stop shop for buying bus tickets that is to use technology to fill the gap.

How did you first start it out?

I started by building a prototype, a few HTML pages, and show them to my cousins and close friends in order to do the crowd funding. Luckily, the idea is convincing since the other also see the same thing and belief. As a result, I collected $20,000 to legally register a company and set up an office.

What’s the 3 main challenges facing BookMeBus and Cambodia-based startups?

Talking about challenges, there are so many as the internet things, especially e-commerce in Cambodia has just emerged. If I am to choose 3 main challenges I have encountered so far, these are as follows: It happens on the demand side where there is very little trust given to online things by local passengers. They worry about the E-Ticket might not be as valid as the paper-based ticket that they obtain from the bus company themselves. More than this, they have a stigma that buying things through agent is always more expensive and full of scam. Yet, they forget the point that it is online things that bring transparency, convenience, and cost saving. I think we need to do lots of PR things to build the awareness and trust.

Most of the bus company owners in here are old-school people. All booking are recorded manually on their books (paper-based work) which do not allow them to accept the advance booking from Foreign market. And when we proposed management system to them in order to help controlling their booking well as well as to drive them more sales, they have so many concerns. On one hand, they worry that their left-over seats of each departure are shown publicly to their competitors. On the other hand, they afraid that their genuine sale transactions are being revealed to auditors of TAX department. I think time & result are the medicine of this illness. Last but not least, Bank’s online payment fee in Cambodia is very high comparing to other neighboring countries’.

How did you manage to raise VC funding? How did you pitch them?

We are expanding so we need intelligent people to help us, to work with us in order to scale up the business very fast. Then, we decided to take investment from angel investors who do not only provide money but also resources and networks.

To pitch to investors is easy but to win their hearts is the big challenge. Luckily, there is a MAIN (Mekong Angel Investor Network) come to Cambodia. In this event, startups are given a chance to be mentored and one-on-one coaching by successful people from different countries. At the end, it comes a pitch event which I am given 5 minute to present my business to investors and only 3 startups were selected among 13 startup to meet privately with respective investors. BookMeBus was one of them.

One of the investors told me that he like my team, commitment, achievement and BookMeBus’ vision that is to become the travellers’ first choice of making every means of transportation bookable in the next 5 years.

  1. Yes we aggregate bus lines on our site. So far we have around 30 bus companies in partnership with.
  2. The current practice is that in order to buy bus ticket people need to travel to different bus counters which are far away from one another. This is totally a hassle. Since there is NO central bus station in Cambodia, fraud, poor service, and market dominance remain.
  3. BookMeBus offers only pre-paid booking. People can pay by VISA, Master, JCB, and some local payment gateways like Wing, Pay&Go, SmartLuy, and E-Money. Currently, BookMeBus is the biggest site who provides variety of online payment method.
  4. We have only one competitor which is founded by an Indian. In term of market position, BookMeBus has taken the lead now based on its sales volume which is about USD 40K monthly. What makes us unique is that we are a local brand which have more advanced technology and market understanding. As of now you can either book your bus ticket on the go with mobile app, Kiosk, and some off-line stores available at populated area in the city.
  5. Our unit economy is that we are given commission fee from the bus operators for every ticket we sell. Besides, we also earn from providing our SaaS based inventory to our bus partners.

– Who are the investors? Mekong Angel Investors Network (MAIN) and a group of local investors (successful business people)

– What’s the name of the regional incubator where Bookmebus got accepted? BookMeBus is in one program of SmallWorld (local) which is called Startup BoomCamp. It is kind of incubator program.

– Where will you specifically spend the money you just raised? hiring talented people that can help expanding the business and do some digital marketing campaigns

– Is this seed round or pre-seed? It is seed round

Uber ride in Phnom Penh?

This is an email interview I gave to The Cambodia Daily’s journalist Hang Sokunthea today

Date: 22 June 2017 at 12:09

I am writing a story today about the Beta test that Uber has launched last week and wondering if you could comment on the story? Do you know about this? What do you think is the significant of Uber coming to join the current market in Cambodia? We have Exnet for metered taxi, PassApp for both taxi and Tuk Tuk, and a few like GoTukTuk for only Tuk Tuk ride. Isn’t that already enough to serve the 1.5 million population city?

My full response Uber is a unicorn disrupter (valued at $1 billion or more). So it’s not surprising that the Silicon Valley startup has to prove that it takes the world, including the Cambodian and other Asian markets, with its ride-hailing application.

Taking the recent Uber’s global leadership aside, I think this arrival will transform the Cambodian transportation sector positively.

I don’t really think the city has enough transportation service providers just yet. Let’s welcome other players like Lyft and GrabTaxi to come and compete here for the best offerings and services for the growing population of the city.

The presence of Uber in Phnom Penh will gradually change Phnom Penhers’ perception of access to private transportation. Most of the middle-class Cambodians prefer to own their vehicles. Some expats may rent a car. The convenience of ordering a ride with reasonable price (without being ripped off) offers an ideal choice.

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

Southeast Asia Technology Trends 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.

Pathmazing: Cambodia’s tech giant

I had a tour at Cambodia’s tech giant Pathmazing and its academy this morning. A large, open space where 80+ young Cambodian coders and software developers take on global projects for clients like eBay. Some new in-house products for the Cambodian market are coming out in a couple of months. Steven Path, the CEO of Pathmazing, told me about how his new app Tesjor will shape the lifestyle of Cambodian youth and budinesspeople here.

The future of Cambodian tech sector is here in the heart of Phnom Penh. Thanks Steven Path for the amazing one hour tour.

TekHub: new co-working space for Cambodian tech startups

The Cambodia Daily’s Hang Sokunthea quoted me in her latest about ‘Incubator Opens a New Home for Tech Startups.’

Bun Tharum, a tech blogger and communications specialist, said the hub provides a “great combination of hybrid resources where new and successful startups continue to grow organically.” “TekHub might be an ideal place where tech startups can benefit the development and nonprofit sector as they tend to execute fast,” he said. “This is something you don’t find in the nonprofit DNA—to improve and iterate if something doesn’t really work.”

My complete email interview: I think the new Tekhub is a strategic collaboration. The Asia Foundation, the Impact Hub, and internet provider SINET are all a great combination of hybrid resources where new and successful startups can continue to grow organically. Tekhub might be an ideal place where tech startups can benefit the development and non-profit sector as they tend to execute fast. This is something you don’t find in the non-profit DNA to improve and iterate if something doesn’t really work. Tech startups can be a catalyst of change in this regard to come up with tools and business models for this so called sustainable development.

A lot of startup founders usually start working on their ideas from their bedroom and cafe. But a place where a good group of skilled people can ideate and collaborate is a just starting point to create social impact.

Some of Cambodia’s startups you should know

An Cambodian tech observer opined this:

“Cambodia’s tech startup sectors and funding are booming. But here’s the thing, if every fresh kid and their buddies only aspire to deliver cool big-screen “sexy” keynotes in their jeans and t-shirts, who are left going to do the good-old boring stuff like err… getting things done or honest-to-goodness wet work?”

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.

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?

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.

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

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

Leakhena Long, Joonaak Delivery

Ly Channa, CTO of BookMeBus

Bora Kem, Investment Manager of Mekong Strategic Partners

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

Chy Sila, CEO of Sabay

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.

What does ‘digital’ mean for Cambodia?

If you’ve been around Phnom Penh’s busiest boulevards, you must have stumbled upon billboards that say the city is hosting its first, grandest event of all time for digital and tech inclined people, entrepreneurs, and investors. “Digital Cambodia”.

In the late 1990s, Cambodians started to flock into the wider web, struggling with Khmer language on both reading and writing. Numerous initiatives like e-government projects and launching Khmer web portals were the starting points.

These days, if you sit down with some bright, young Cambodians, sipping iced coffee, they will tell you their determination and struggle with their dream tech startups.

The generation of ‘playing Facebook’ is still here, and learning how to be more mature. Or probably never will.

However, talking about all things digital, what does it really mean for a charming country like Cambodia?

Forget the remark that Phnom Penh is a Silicon Valley of the East. This capital city may not be the second Shenzhen.

If there’s any new, global trend, Cambodia will wholeheartedly embrace with open arms and heart. The Web 2.0 is an old synonym. This country has been quite known for its Cloggers. E-government. We hear it and live with it. Industrial revolution 4.0? That’s the frequently mentioned keyword today. Not so sure about tomorrow.

Jack Ma is in Cambodia: paying a visit to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Jack Ma is a new household name among young Cambodian entrepreneurs who seek inspirations through his quotes of successes and failures. His visit to Cambodia coincides with the Digital Cambodia event this 2019. He might make a surprise visit there. Maybe.

The past 20 years have laid the foundation of Cambodia today in term of digital technology-driven society and economy. The infrastructure, the literacy, the mindset (technological and entrepreneurial), have come a long way.

Now we’re here, in 2019. Going digital also reminds us that the electricity is essential for all.

Fast forward to 2029, the Cambodian kids would be coding ‘Hello, World!’ with ease thanks to donated Arduino(s) and Raspberry Pi(s).

Whether it’s blockchain, smart city, internet of things, or whatever, the backbone of the digital infrastructure is having more than enough electricity power for individuals, small businesses, and the growing number of skyscrapers is.