Phnom Penh’s startups: ‘the art of battling giants’

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.

Also:

Morning coffee with Coffeepreneurs

With coffeepreneurs Bunleang Chang and Sakada Sam

Left: Bunleang Chang of Brown Coffee, me (middle), and Sakada Sam of K.E Cafe.
A morning of talk about all things coffee and everything in between over coffee at Brown Coffee in BKK1.
Got to the cafe in the BKK1 district from Tuol Kork by bike for the early morning exercise and double espresso. Bunleang had coffee latte and Sakada had hot Americano.

One of the most important things from the more than one-hour long conversation was that before Brown Coffee became a well-established coffee chain brandname, the first for Cambodia, Bunlong the co-founder had to work long hours and stayed in the coffeeshop for a couple of years in the early days.

Mekong ICT Camp: 2008 – 2017

In 2008, I flew to Bangkok and then took a mini van to Pattaya. It’s the first Mekong ICT Camp that took place in Thailand. The week-long workshop was inspired by Asia Source. 

The series of this Mekong ICT Camp continues the following years, 2010, 2013, 2015, and 2017. Only the latest one, 2017, that it’s organized outside of Thailand. I fortunately attended all those events. I started as a participant. Later on I took part as a facilitator, board member, and organizer. 

In 2008, upon the return from the first Mekong ICT Camp, I managed to work with a few Cambodian participants to initiate and start the first BarCamp in Phnom Penh. The BarCamp Phnom Penh is now everything for everyone across Cambodia. It’s amazing to look back and see how a idea and inspiration can aspire me to start doing things that now involve or impact thousands. I didn’t really imagine that. I just wanted to do something I’ve learned and feel that I pay back. 

After these five Mekong Mekong ICT Camp, I think the mission is accomplished. This latest camp took place in Siem Reap. It’s an attempt. I retire from this, although knowing that it means a lot to me.

Now I I have to think about the next thing after nearly a decade. The built network among people in the region and lasting friendship are the best things to have and to nurture.

Chea Langda, BookMeBus fearless founder

Chea Langda, BookMeBus CEO
Chea Langda, a doer and fearless founder

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 local to book their bus tickets with a just a few clicks or swipes.

Bangkok for one week

The first few days at The Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park for IFC Asia 2017.
June 25 – July 1, 2017

Bangkok from the above
Skytrain is the fastest way to get around Bangkok
A Digital strategy for crowdfunding masterclass where Professor Beth Kanter and I were co-teachers on the very first day of IFC Asia 2017.
Fantastic food in Goji Kitchen & Bar of the Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park
Inside the giant Goji Kitchen & Bar

The last several days in Bangkok

A soft shopping in the IKEA Bangna in Bangkok
IKEA’s newest SLADDA Bicycle

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?

A tech blogger has written a story as a review: http://wheninphnompenh.com/uber-launch-cambodia/

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.

Read more:
The Cambodia Daily: Ride-Services Giant Uber Launches (Softly) on Phnom Penh Streets
Cambopedia: Taxi services in Phnom Penh
WhenInPhnomPenh: Uber finally launched their beta in Cambodia and here’s how you can ride for FREE