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Inspiring tech entrepreneurship

The arrival of Startup Weekend in Cambodia marked a new beginning for high-tech entrepreneurship as more than 80 people worked on all kinds of new business ideas all weekend at Yellow Tower across the Tonle Sap from The Riverside.

Chief Marketing Officer Joey Pomerenke of Startup Weekend flew out specially from the US to attend all three days and to lead a planning group of regional high-tech participants at the Lazy Beach private hideaway on Koh Rong island off the coast of Sihanoukville and is leaving on Tuesday.

“It is really about bringing the region together. The organisers from Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand can work together,” he said.

Startup Weekend originated in Boulder, Colorado in 2007 as the brainchild of a man named Andrew Hyde. Two friends of Pomerenke, Marc Nager and Clint Nelsen, attended a Startup Weekend in Seattle and found it very inspiring.

“They saw an opportunity to take this model and turn it into a non-profit and scale it up across the world.” In 2009, Nager and Nelsen paid Hyde more than $100,000 for the Startup Weekend concept and since then have grown it to 86 events in 2010 and 261 events in 2011.

“This year we’re on track to do 550 events,” Pomerenke said.

Since the status of Startup Weekend is as a non-profit, Nager and Nelsen were able to get a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the largest in the world for entrepreneurship, to fund Startupweekend.org. The first year’s grant disbursement was $250,000.

“This is funded all through corporate sponsorships and foundations. That’s how we pay our staff of 25.”

Pomerenke says the Startup Weekends are experiential education.

“You are learning by doing and you can take these two days over the weekend and have a zero-risk way of validating your idea. In two days you learn a lot, validate your idea with your peers and you have mentors and judges on Sunday night.”

He says a “ton” of real businesses have been founded as a result of Startup Weekends, citing Zaarly as one, a business that organises deliveries.

“Entrepreneurship is the best thing for economies,” Pomerenke said. “That’s where jobs come from and entrepreneurship pumps money into the economy and it is extremely important. Money comes if you’re nice to people and you’re willing to help,” he said.

When Startupweekend.org got the grant from the Kauffman Foundation, Pomerenke had a full-time job.

“We went from three guys out of a condo to a staff of 25 in the last year and a half. We have offices in Mexico City and London now.”

A key point about Startup Weekend is that it is run by volunteers. “We can’t do these events without volunteers and they don’t get paid. They do it for the good of the community and the way we’re able to have staff is all through corporate sponsors, foundations and that’s how they’re funding our operations. We take very little money out of communities.”

For the event that just finished this weekend at Yellow Tower in Phnom Penh, the early bird charge was $15 and the regular fee was $25, charges which cover the cost of the food. Pomerenke calls it a low-budget event that has a lot of impact.

“Our mission is to inspire change in the life of an entrepreneur. What that means is every single attendee here is going to walk away with something that’s different than the other person,” he said.

Pomerenke has attended startup weekends in Mongolia and Kota Kinabalu.

So far, there have been Startup Weekends in 335 cities in 95 countries. There will be an event in Iran this August.

“In Mongolia the winning team was an idea for greenhouses on top of buildings. They designed it over the weekend and six months later they had it on top of a building,” he said.

In Kota Kinabalu the winning idea was a new way of farming chilies.

Pomerenke says he sees a lot of opportunity for Cambodian software developers and for high-tech Cambodians to get involved in outsourcing, data entry and development.

“You can sell your services all over the world from Cambodia,” he said.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen. It is all about execution. Who is the first person who is going to get it to market? You can be a great leader and executor, but it is still about the team that is going to get it to market fast. It is extremely important to talk about your idea. You are going to think your idea is brilliant, but the more you talk about it, the more feedback you are going to get. When it comes to an idea, feedback is the most important thing you can get,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at stuart.becker@gmail.com

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