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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Five of the city’s top startup successes

Five of the city’s top startup successes

Adrienne Ravez, 31, thinks Cambodia’s startup scene is worth paying attention to. Ravez moved to Phnom Penh with her husband and business partner, Yohan Brizolier, 34, to set up Geeks In Cambodia, the first online media outlet that focuses solely on startups and new technology.

Their website provides entrepreneurs with relevant business news and advice, whether it’s about international sites such as Facebook, or local information showing the potential of Cambodia to readers abroad. The couple sold their communications agency in France and moved to Cambodia because they believe the country has such a promising market for startups.

Ravez says that the pillars of a startup are fast growth, an innovative product or idea and starting a business from nothing.

“When we spoke about this project to potential partners a lot of them were eager to see what it was going to become because they think Cambodia can be very positive in terms of startups, but it’s only just beginning. I think we’re starting the project at the right time,” Ravez says.

She adds that even as far as France heads are turning to the region as the upcoming place to invest as more and more training facilities become available, though she is quick to add that there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of resources and availability of venture capital.

The will is there, judging from the interest her own website has garnered.

Geeks In Cambodia has been up and running for just a month and a half, and at present is only available in English. But despite this, and without any marketing campaign or advertising, the website has already pulled in more than 6,000 visitors.

For Rithy Thul, the 27-year-old founder of Small World, a platform for startups and one of two co-working spaces in Phnom Penh, it is imperative for members of the huge youth population to create their own jobs.

“I think there will not be enough jobs in the next two years. There is a need for people to create their own jobs and to create more jobs for other people.

“The more independent people who stand up and start something the better.”

Playing the dating game to win

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Husband and wife team, David Wilkie, 29, and Mara Kheam, 26, might not have met online, but it was their idea for mobile dating service Chibi that led them to win the very first Startup Weekend in Cambodia in 2011. Startup Weekend is a networking event that aims to inspire and educate attendees and hopes to match entrepreneurs with investors.

“We thought Chibi was a good idea because in Cambodia we didn’t have anything like it before, only advertising phone numbers in magazines or chat on TV. So we thought of doing a private chat,” says Mara.

To date Chibi has more than 41,000 registered members and 10,000 active members each month who tend to chat in “Khmerlish”. Their idea has proven so successful and transferable that plans are underway to launch the service in Thailand.

The service allows users to chat using SMS and then exchange phone numbers to talk outside of Chibi. Wilkie and Mara have kept a close eye on the business and are making plans to make the service cheaper to use and more attractive for users.

“We charge five cents per SMS but we think some Cambodians are put off because 5 cents is very expensive for them. We want them to enjoy chatting on Chibi rather than just getting each other’s phone numbers,” Mara says.

The pair didn’t need much capital to get started, but an investment of their time was non-negotiable, and convincing Mara’s family that it was a worthwhile endeavour was at times tricky. “They wanted me to be a doctor. But I gave them good reasons and now they can see we’re growing. They think it’s a new world now that people meet each other in forums – they just laugh. It’s still confusing to them,” she says.

Wilkie says that his initial concerns and preconceptions about setting up a startup in Cambodia have disappeared. “We were really surprised how easy and straightforward it was to get the business registered. It’s a good place to try ideas out, especially for a tech startup.”

Tech creation

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By day Sopheakmonkol Sok, 25, is a part-time teacher at Phnom Penh’s Economics and Finance Institute and a solution developer for digital data organisations. By night he leads social enterprise startup Coding Gate.

At present Coding Gate’s main goal is to obtain laptops for the team (all fifteen of them,) who are soon-to-be graduates of web programming. Aside from Sopheakmonkol, or Monkol for short, all the other team members attended Passerelles Numériques, a training programme dedicated to educating students who couldn’t otherwise afford further study. Without Coding Gate they would not be able to afford a laptop either, which is crucial for practicing their newly acquired skills.

To buy the laptops Monkol looks for clients that are outsourcing IT work, and uses the profits from the projects to pay for laptops. After just one month and a half they’ve already bought four, but his aim is to get the remaining 11 laptops before the students officially graduate in November.

Monkol says that work has come in quicker than he expected. “We’ve gotten the projects so fast that our own company hasn’t started yet and we’re not officially launched.”

Once their goal is complete Monkol and his team have no intentions of resting on their laurels. If they can complete their mission to get 15 laptops by November Monkol vows to put a commercial strategy in place, whereby Coding Gate will create their own tech products. “Later we will get into the real competition in the business, building web applications and tech solutions that can benefit companies. We will be focused on web development – creating websites or web applications.”

he Game boys

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Ear Uy, 30, started Osja Studios, Cambodia’s first game developing team with Chivalry Yok, 27, in 2011 and in less than two years their team has tripled from four to twelve. They’ve produced three mobile games, and their most successful to date, Asva The Monkey, has received international success, with more than 130,000 downloads across the globe.

Ear says that paying homage to Cambodia has always been part of the goal. “Our mission also is to put some of our Cambodian culture into our games. Asva wears the traditional Cambodian trousers and on his cheek he has the Cambodian magic tattoo for protection and strength. The games feature Angkor Wat and pagodas.”

But the road to success has been paved with challenges. “We don’t have many resources [in Cambodia] like school or teaching [for game developing], so we have to research online. Mobile gaming is a new thing in Cambodia. We had to learn by ourselves from scratch.”

Aside from their commercial success Uy and Yok have also developed social enterprise projects. Osja Studios was subcontracted by an NGO to produce a quiz show for good men campaign against domestic violence.

One woman wonder

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Sreat Mom Sophear, 31, always wanted to be a banker, but without experience no one would take her on. After university she worked as a flight attendant, but eventually she saved up enough capital to start her first business, Sophiya Travel & Tours, in 2005 with just $2,000.

Sreat started with just two staff but now has more than 100 across her threefold business empire, which includes U & Me Spa – which boasts four outlets – Sophiya Travel & Tours and a hotel construction business.

Despite the constant expansion of her business, Sreat believes she isn’t that successful and “still has a long way to go”.

Rather than trying out new concepts or markets Sreat says she prefers to focus on maintaining and developing what she already has. Sreat’s entrepreneurship recently earned her an invitation to the United States courtesy of the embassy and the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce.

Hotelier

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Back in 2006 Somethearith Din, 40, was one of the first to realise that there was a distinct lack of boutique hotels in Cambodia. It was with this idea that he and two friends decided to launch Frangipani Villa Hotels.

“I fell in love with the private sector and investment. I resigned from working as a business consultant because I loved my business more.”

With just $6,000 between them they opened the first hotel, but consumer demand and a commitment to the project ensured that a further seven opened in the years following.

Somethearith and his co-founders recognised changes in the market and have adapted their business plan accordingly and are considering expanding to other parts of Asia.

“Now there are a lot of boutique hotels in Phnom Penh and also the tourist numbers have increased. Last year we got 3.5m and this year over 4m are expected. So now we make medium sized hotels.”

Somethearith was also invited to the US, with Mom Sophear.

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