ICT Award Winners: Cambodian Startup BookMeBus

BookMeBus, Cambodia’s online ticketing portal for buses, allows locals and foreigners to book and pay for their bus tickets online. Since our last interview with Langda Chea, founder of BookMeBus, the startup has been progressing by leaps and bounds. One of their most recent achievements is attaining the gold medal at the recent Cambodia ICT Awards.

We caught up with Langda to learn more about how far BookMeBus has come.

This interview has been edited for length, flow and clarity. 

What is the progress of BookMeBus so far?

We are eight months old and we have made ourselves well known among local and international travellers. On the demand side, which consists of our travellers, we have provided affiliated programs, which many travel websites are using. This brings us transactions and customers, which has led to us to earn 30,000USD a month. This is only the sales transaction. It’s not the revenue. A large amount of money goes to the bus companies.

As for the supply side, which consists of the bus companies, we have partnerships with 27 companies right now. All of these companies are good companies that provide good service. So you may ask, how about the rest? In total, there are about 60 bus companies. The rest are not really ready for online platforms yet; their customers are people in remote areas. They don’t have smartphones; they don’t have access to the Internet.

Recently, we were surprised to find out that emerging and new bus companies know us. They approach us for partnerships. This surprised me a lot because when I spoke to them in the beginning, they didn’t know what online platforms were and how it could help them. But now, people are starting to realise how going online can help them and their business.

Besides this, we are also expanding our service, but right now it’s only a soft launch. We are now expanding our service to sell ferry tickets. There is a high demand from international travellers when they reach Sihanoukville. We see this as a big opportunity, so why not sell ferry tickets? So right now we’re just doing a soft launch, to see if it can work like the bus companies.

Also, there are guesthouses and hotels that are using our affiliated program. When I first launched, I thought that guesthouses and hotels were our competitors, because they also sold bus tickets. However, right now, my perspective has changed because they can only partner three bus companies at maximum. If they partner BookMeBus, they can get 30 bus companies. So it’s easier for them. More and more of them are starting to use our service, but some are confused as they thought that we would allow them to set the ticket prices.

Most of them want to earn a large amount of money. For tickets, they expect to earn at least $3. But as an online platform, our policy is to sell the same prices. Once these hotels and guesthouses partner us, they get confused because they think they can overcharge.

The latest update of our progress is that we’ve just released our mobile app for both Android and iOS. We believe that it will be easier for passengers to book the ticket from anywhere and anytime at their fingertips, so a mobile app will bring us more customers.

Has there been an increase in BookMeBus users?

Yes there is an increase in the number of our tickets sold. When we first launched, we were only able to sell less than 20 tickets the first few months. We launched BookMeBus in October 2015. We hit the breakeven point in February 2016. So we hit the breakeven point after four months. We are now able to sell over a thousand tickets a month.

Are there new challenges that BookMeBus is facing?

Yes of course, no matter how mature or how far the business runs, there are always challenges. In our first interview with Geeks in Cambodia, our challenge was the payment method; people in Cambodia couldn’t make payment online. But we have solved this problem, and you can now purchase a ticket online even without a bank account. We use e-money provided by Metfone. Payment is no longer a challenge, but right now there is an emerging one – we find it very hard to replace the traditional ways of the bus companies. For most of these bus companies, their current practice right now is that they record their bookings on paper. Whenever you place a booking, they record it in the book.

Managing all of this brings many problems. For example, our customers tend to book in advance. Sometimes, customers can book three months in advance. But when we place these bookings with the bus companies, they cannot make it. They ask us to wait because we can only book a week ahead.

We tried proposing our inventory and our management system to them, free of charge. But this is not easy, because most of them tend to think that whatever is new will be time consuming. They are reluctant to make a change. When you introduce something new to bus companies, they feel like it’s going to take time. They think it’ll be hard because they have to spend time learning something new, but they forget that technology will bring them long term returns and benefits.

But we believe this can be fixed. Right now, we can already see the results when we introduce online platforms to our partners, they didn’t understand how online platforms worked, but now they come to us and they want to collaborate, because they want to increase their sales.

What were some of the lessons you and your team have learnt since the start of BookMeBus?

In the beginning, I was really crazy over investments. I was chasing investors without knowing if we really needed them for our situation. At that point of time, people didn’t trust online platforms. They didn’t believe in ecommerce. In Cambodia, the Internet is relatively new and people have just started using Facebook. Money was not really important at that time to for BookMeBus to execute the idea.

I was crazy about investments and I really didn’t know why I had to have investments, but I chased investors. It was the trend, so I followed the trend. I realised that this was not the right thing to do. Money cannot change the perspectives of people, we need execution. Some investors drive you in the wrong way because they don’t understand Cambodians well. At that time I realised that I have to be smart in picking in investors. I learned that we don’t really need investments right now. We need money but not that much of money. It’s also not just about money, strategic investors can help us by bringing us to this label or that label, or by marching us to partners that have potential for our business.

How has being a winner of the ICT Awards benefitted BookMeBus?

This competition is important for startup players. Firstly, I didn’t expect that I would win the gold medal. I just wanted to challenge myself. I found out that after this competition, despite winning or not, people will start to know your company. At the time of announcement, there were many investors, organisations, and media channels present. It’s a benefit for a business or a startup. It makes your service well known by many people. Luckily, we won the first place.

BookMeBus founder Langda Chea holding up the award that his startup has won

If you’re lucky, you will get the award, which means news and television channels will approach you. Previously, you’ll approach them but they will never look at you, now they approach you for free. Furthermore, the award and the money that we received from the competition will help us to grow our business. This will bring us more chances and opportunities in the business because more people start to take notice of you.

What future plans do you have for BookMeBus?

Our long-term plan involves making online booking possible for every means of transportation, not just bus services. You don’t have to go over the counter and run the risk of being cheated by some officer or agency. All of these are a hassle to travellers. We want to make them available online so you can access them anywhere and anytime. A goal we want to accomplish in the near future is to build a brand and brand recall. Whenever people need a bus ticket, they will think of BookMeBus. Whenever they want to travel, they will think of BookMeBus. We can help improve their experiences as well. Just like TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet, which every hotel is afraid of. Every service provider has to provide better service. If you ever mess up with your customer, you will never do well in the rankings. We aim to do the same. If we can emulate this model, bus companies will improve their services instead of being focused on earning money only. We want them to fight in terms of quality.

Do you have any words of inspiration for other aspiring entrepreneurs?

I am a young entrepreneur in Cambodia, and I believe there are many like me out there. Maybe they are smarter than me; maybe they have a lot more opportunities waiting for them. But it seems like many from my generation just build products. They will never sell it. They build a good product and they think people will come to them. But they are not making people aware of their product. They don’t bring their products and its features and sell it to customers. You have to do some marketing and some promotions. They just focus on building, building, building, and they wait for customers to come. I can say that this is not good. In business, you have to go out, you have to spend time building networks and joining workshops in order to learn what really is going on because your idea might not work. After some input from this community and that startup accelerator, it might help you in assuring your business and ideas.

Besides that, I just learnt recently when I went to BarCamp Battambang that many youths tend to prefer to run a business. But they forget that they are young, they have just graduated high school. They can launch a business, but I don’t think they will get much. I strongly recommend younger generations to have at least two years working experience. This experience will build their foundation. Just like me, I have gained through all the hardship and hassle I went through when I was a freelancer building websites. I made a lot of customers, but because I was a student, many did not trust my service. At that time you learn from it. So I also want these younger generations to experience this first. Pain can help them learn. I believe this will work well for the younger generations. If they were to go this way first and then launch a business, they will have a higher percentage of success.