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Startup for entrepreneurs

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Participants in Cambodia’s first Startup Weekend contest discuss their business idea during the 54-hour competition.

Among scattered coffee cups and empty Pringles canisters, roughly two dozen computer programmers, software developers and budding business leaders huddled over brightly lit Macbook screens and scrawled tech jargon onto whiteboards, all in an effort to create the next big thing.

Or, at the very least, a prize-winning business concept.

This was Cambodia’s first-ever Startup Weekend, a chance for the Kingdom’s future business leaders to prove their entrepreneurial mettle by building a business in 54 hours.

“There are a lot of Cambodians that have great business ideas,” Darren Jensen, Startup Weekend’s Phnom Penh leader, said.

“But for whatever reason they are too worried about executing them. So Startup Weekend is all about actually getting out there and executing.”

Startup Weekend is a national nonprofit organisation based in Seattle, Washington. It brings business leaders together to create products and launch startups by hosting contests around the globe.

Similar events were also held in cities as varied as Moscow, Shanghai and Lagos last weekend.

The recent influx of IT companies into the Kingdom is increasing the number of qualified Cambodian software developers who will hopefully go on to start their own companies, said Chris Brown, a local entrepreneur and a Startup Weekend participant.

“Cambodians are entrepreneurial by nature. Just look at every street corner,” Brown said.

“So if you train them at a high level, then they can leave and start their own businesses and hire even more Cambodian developers. So it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”

The three-day event near Phnom Penh’s Russian Market was spent in a caffeine-induced rush to develop business concepts before final presentations on Sunday night.

Five teams competed for cash prizes and a chance at US$16,000 in funding to launch their business idea.

Mentors from the finance and startup world were on hand to provide guidance while a panel of judges selected the winner: an SMS dating service.

Despite the passionate performances at last weekend’s event, Cambodia still lacks IT skills at a time when expertise in the industry is becoming increasingly important, Jensen said. “There’s a huge shortage of qualified software developers in Cambodia, but that’s what we’re trying to change and grow through things like Startup Weekend,” he said.

“If we can energize the sector, we can give these computer science grads coming out of university the jobs they want to do.”

Deputy Vice Chancellor of Cambodian Mekong University Philip Dews, who served as one of the mentors, said the competition was critical to engaging Cambodia’s youth.

“Cambodia needs this … I’m so impressed by the young people in this country. They are hungry for knowledge and ambitious, and we need to get more of them involved with events like this,” he said.

Sam Ng, a business manager at Shift360 who served as one of the judges, said that the weekend’s contest represented the future of the Kingdom’s diversifying economy.

“It’s important to foster the economic growth in Cambodia beyond agriculture and tourism and into technology. It’s the meal ticket out. It can’t just be about selling rice,” he said.

“I’m realistic enough to realise this is a long way off, but we can start to get there with these types of grassroots events.”

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