When Brandon Lee first came to Phnom Penh three years ago for a holiday he saw unlimited business possibilities. The trip came at a turning point when Malaysian-born Lee and business partner Ryan Taylor were looking into opening their own beauty salon in Malaysia.
Lee and Taylor found the overheads were too high and decided to tap into Phnom Penh’s potential instead. In 2010 they relocated to Phnom Penh to set up the Dollhouse hair salon.
The pair were prepared to jump through hoops to get the salon set up, and approached the venture cautiously. There was a lot at stake as they were funding the project on their own. But Lee said they found Cambodia very accommodating to their ambitions.
“During our research we found that most Southeast Asian countries are not so easy when it comes to getting permits and finding local partners,”
“Cambodia seemed to have an open door policy that allowed small businesses like ours to start-up without giving us a hard time.”
Lee and Taylor are continuing to tap into Phnom Penh’s growth potential. June 2012 saw the opening of their latest venture, Paperdolls on Street 240 and a half (an alley east of St 19). The store caters to a need for retail therapy in the city.
“Customers at the Dollhouse were complaining about the limited choices in retail therapy. So we started a small-scale business on the mezzanine floor of the salon and found it was really successful,” said Lee.
“Then we stumbled upon this alley off 240 and found out the rent was very competitive for the area. We immediately came up with the concept to expand our retail operation and create an outlet for young designers to have their pieces sold.”
The store stocks designers from the Southeast Asia region and Lee particularly encourages young Cambodian designers to stock their items in Paperdolls as a supplement to their online stores.
“There is a lot of talent but they don’t have the cash flow to spend on opening a shop front. So, they create online stores. But online shopping isn’t so easy with fashion. People need to touch the fabric and try on the item.”
It’s not just his suppliers that Lee sees potential in. He firmly believes that the expansion of his current businesses and the success of future projects lie in having a solid base of skilled local staff.
However, Lee faces the same challenges as anyone in the retail industry- high staff turnover.
“There’s always a plan for the next three months in terms of what we’re doing. For the business, there’s a lot of potential among the local population but they tend to come and go. We’re grooming our local staff to be more business minded and hopefully this training will keep them with us so we can expand our activities.”
Lee and Taylor have also been focusing their efforts on growing an interest in fashion outside of their shop fronts. In April the pair hosted Glamazon - the first hair show in Cambodia, and there is demand for another.
The risk they took in coming to Cambodia has been worthwhile. Lee firmly believes that had they attempted this venture elsewhere in Asia it would have been as rewarding.
“It’s the right time to be here, the growth is unlimited. If we were doing what we’re doing right now in Malaysia we just wouldn’t be as successful.”