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Budding undertakers take gold in business competition

Winners Lay Chunn Yi and Hou Sivhong now have the full support of both their families
Winners Lay Chunn Yi and Hou Sivhong now have the full support of both their families. Pha Lina

Budding undertakers take gold in business competition

Two budding entrepreneurs win expert seal of approval for a ‘one-stop’ service that overcomes superstitions

Following a funeral service last year, university students Lay Chunn Yi, 23, and Hou Sivhong, 21, were struck by the stress and sheer complexity of organising Cambodian funerals – not to mention the exorbitant cost.

The experience was the genesis of a business plan to start their own funeral agency, which last week won the gold medal at the Mekong Business Challenge, a competition for entrepreneurs in the Greater Mekong Region, a first for Cambodian students.

“People don’t talk about death until someone dies, and then they start looking around,” Chunn Yi said.

“That’s the time when they will know we are there for them.”

The plan, which was presented in Hanoi, entails a “one-stop service” that will organise funeral arrangements on behalf of the deceased’s family for a fixed cost. The agency will liaise with suppliers for coffins, monks and food and beverage businesses on a commission model.

Chunn and Sivhong, both students at the National University of Management in Phnom Penh, said the suppliers initially considered them to be competition.

“We wanted to be a funeral home, but suppliers didn’t talk to us. But once we changed to the agency model they were happy to talk to us and offered us higher commissions,” Chunn Yi said, adding that research for their concept involved meeting with families who had arranged funerals.

Chunn Yi and Sivhong are also speaking to microfinance institutions and life insurance providers to come up with ways to help grieving families access financing.

Funerals are associated with many superstitions in Cambodia. For example, the family of the deceased will tie a red thread around the wrists of attendees to keep away bad luck and will purify themselves with a ritual after the ceremony.

Chunn Yi’s and Sivhong’s family and friends asked them not to go ahead with the idea, fearing it was bad for young girls to deal with death.

“They said: ‘You are too young. Why do you want to do this?’ But we explained to them and, after winning, they now think it is a good idea,” Sivhong said.

The duo now move on to compete at the International Business Model Competition in the US.

Managing funeral logistics can be difficult
Managing funeral logistics can be difficult. Mary Kozlovski

Stephen Paterson, adviser to the university and co-founder of the Mekong Challenge, said the team stood out to the judges for their willingness to take risks – going against societal traditions and stigmas.

Paterson is also involved with the Cambodian qualifier round called the Business Model Challenge, in which two teams are selected from more than 60 applications across 20 universities to take part in the Mekong Challenge.

The local edition of the challenge has seen its fair share of successful alumni. Chang Bunleang of Brown Coffee unsuccessfully presented a business plan for an alternative energy venture in 2006.

Sok Piseth, co-founder and chief executive of GGear, presented Toys & Me, an educational toy to increase cognitive functioning in children in 2007 and, despite winning the bronze medal, he went ahead with his business plan and now sells the toys at three different locations in Phnom Penh.

Piseth, currently the president of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Cambodia, said it was encouraging to see young entrepreneurs come up with plans that are not completely focused on profits, but also dealing with social issues in Cambodia.

“This is a solution for people who want [to organise] a funeral. So this is a business which is solving a problem. So it is a win-win and can be executed,” Piseth said.

While there is limited support right now for startups, Piseth’s organisation is working on increasing networking opportunities between investors, established business people and young entrepreneurs. YEAC is also cooperating with the National University of Management to set up an incubator to help evaluate and support startups.

While there are obstacles, such as lack of government assistance and venture capital investment, Cambodian youth are as dynamic as their peers in the region, said Rahul Anand, founder of Singapore-based venture capital firm SEA Ventures, which has invested in Cambodian bus ticket website Camboticket.com.

He pointed out that Cambodian entrepreneurs would still need to sharpen their business skills, training and mindset.

“However, with increasing new businesses, including foreign investments, pouring into the country, it’s only a matter of time before we see some exciting and successful startups coming out of Cambodia,” he said.

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