It’s Friday night in Siem Reap, and while businesses wind down and revellers hit the streets, nine groups of budding Cambodian entrepreneurs are poring over sheets of paper and preparing to pitch a business idea in two days’ time.
The groups are competing for a chance to head to Ho Chi Minh City for a startup accelerator bootcamp in May and eligibility to receive six months of mentorship and networking opportunities with experts, investors and innovators across the region. Many of the participants only met their teammates 10 minutes ago and will be pitching a business idea they first heard just 20 minutes earlier.
The format will be familiar to anyone who knows the world of startup weekends and hackathons, which bring together people from different backgrounds and levels of experience to create a product, discuss business ideas and learn from mentors. However, unlike hackathons, Startup Weekend is not limited to tech startups – though there are always a fair number of ICT business ideas in the mix.
The theme this time round was travel and tourism, and the event held at Siem Reap’s trendy BioLab cafe on February 23-25 was part of the Google-backed Startup Weekend series. Previous iterations of the event have focused on topics like fintech, women in business and education technology.
Participants and organisers agreed that the 54-hour weekend entrepreneurship platform is sorely needed in both a city and country where the startup scene struggles with some of the key components of success – scalability, exposure to other markets and possible investors, and attracting the right talent. And the travel and tourism theme seemed only fitting.
Cambodia received 5.6 million international visitors last year, up from 5 million in 2016 – but few homegrown firms are capitalising on or innovating in the sector.
Be Chantra, a familiar face on the Cambodian startup scene who runs a co-working space in Phnom Penh among other projects, has helped to organise startup weekends since 2011 and has seen it move from a general event into specific sectors.
“We want to connect Cambodia to a regional startup ecosystem, help people find resources and teach them about different business models,” he said.
Chantra said he was happy to see around 70 percent of participants were from Siem Reap this time round, and almost all Cambodians, as the last time Startup Weekend was held in the provincial capital most of the participants were foreigners or from Phnom Penh.
He acknowledged that Siem Reap tends to see traditional businesses rather than anything with a tech focus, and within that area are mainly copycats and franchises. Even in Phnom Penh, he adds, “we still don’t have enough success stories to hear and learn from. It’s a small market, and it’s hard to scale. Incubators tend to be short-term projects, and they need to run for more than six months to be proper incubators.”
“But if these people are crazy enough – and serious enough – they can find opportunities,” he added.
At the event’s opening on Friday, February 23, Marcus Holmes, the event’s facilitator and CEO of The Phnom Penh Post, addressed the group of around 50 participants – a mix of local tourism and tech workers, developers and students.
“This weekend is not about starting nine new businesses,” he said. “Most of these ideas will probably fail. It is about creating 50 new business leaders – all of you.”
The participants were initially shy to pitch their ideas for tourism-related startups, but after some encouragement more than a dozen took the stage, and the other participants selected whose fledgling business idea they would like to join, eventually creating nine teams.
The ideas revolved around gaps in the local market. One involved a smartphone app similar to Tripadvisor, but categorised by local meals rather than restaurants, in a bid to encourage travellers to learn about and try more Khmer food. Another was a tourist information website called Siem Reap Walks, which would provide a live-chat function to answer tourists’ questions and act as a middleman between travellers and local tour providers, allowing people to create a customised itinerary.
Another team planned to set up tours for older travellers that specifically focus on showing them how people their age live in the Cambodian countryside. It was pitched by Hean Kimheang, who works at a local hotel and was brimming with excitement on the second day of the event, which saw the teams hit the streets with their ideas and get feedback from potential clients and business partners before returning to the event’s hub to create proof of concepts such as websites and apps.
“As someone with less education than some others here, I don’t know how to start my own business,” he said. “But this is my idea, and now I have a talented team of two developers and a business student, and we want to try to grow and possibly find funds.”
The weekend’s most coveted prize was a place on the Tourism and Travel Tech Accelerator Bootcamp run by Mekong Innovative Startups in Tourism (MIST). The project, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Australian government, aims to provide promising startups with knowledge and connections, and a possible link to angel investors and venture capital firms.
“Our endgame is we want solutions to scale, to create wealth, growth and sustainable development outcomes,” said MIST’s Jason Lusk.
Lusk said that while the possibility of creating Cambodian-grown unicorns – companies valued at over $1 billion– is small, there are opportunities for growth, social good, and fruitful mergers and acquisitions across the region if companies are better connected.
After 48 hours of frantic planning, the teams presented their ideas to Lusk and a panel of judges – all experts in the local industry – on Sunday evening, February 25.
The judges awarded the ‘best validated’ prize to Siem Reap Walks, praising the ability of the team of four students and a developer to reach out to local travel agents who ponied up a small amount of money as a symbolic investment to demonstrate their willingness to future partnerships.
Proeun Panhary, the 21-year-old student who first pitched the idea, said she is more motivated than ever to get the project off the ground.
“Coming here showed me how to go out and prove my ideas,” she said. “I’m so excited, and I really want to make it happen because it is my passion.”
The MIST prize went to The Cyclo, who pitched the idea of introducing a fleet of bicycle rickshaws to Siem Reap. While the “cyclo” is a declining sight in Phnom Penh, they argued that the three-wheeled passenger conveyance had high potential to catch on in Siem Reap, giving tourists a way to see the city’s sights at a leisurely pace and explore the temples of Angkor Wat. Each bicycle rickshaw would be powered by a driver, but also supported by clean energy generated from solar panels.
The team comprised four Phnom Penh-based employees of telecom firm Smart Axiata–Chhor Chanthyda, Seng Rotty, Chum Prathna and Lun Sovathana– and one Siem Reap local, 26-year-old Van Leat, who works at local travel business Asia Natural Tours.
The idea came from team leader Chanthyda, who said she now planned to finish polishing the team’s pitch to show investors.
“I learnt a lot about business models from the mentors here,” she said. “I think people in Cambodia, especially women, have ideas, but they don’t know how to turn them into action. I think events like this should be nationwide to encourage more women and girls.”
Touch Socheata, a co-founder of technology firm InoTED and one of the event’s mentors, said it was positive to see so many of the teams at the event run by women, while acknowledging wider problems in the sector.
“Many people in Cambodia have brilliant ideas but the business knowledge is not there,” she said. “They should join jobs in bigger businesses and work their way up first to get the knowledge, then identify their strengths and team up with other people.”
“There have been lots of improvements in business for women and girls, but we need more affirmative action, encouragement and programs to take place,” she continued. “Most women run small micro-businesses whereas men run bigger ones.”
On choosing Chanthyda’s cyclo idea for the top prize, MIST’s Jason Lusk said his decision came down to impact, scalability and innovation.
“Bringing cyclos to Siem Reap is a new idea that’s unique in the market but evokes the glory days of Angkor Wat and is something many people would find a pleasant way to travel,” he said. “With investment, it could quickly grow into people’s preferred way to see the temples.”
“It would have a positive environmental impact, and the cyclo drivers would likely be vulnerable, high-need people provided with a new industry in the city,” he added.