Ever found it hard to secure a seat on the buses back to your provinces during Khmer New Year? You are not alone. Bookmebus.com’s founder, Langda Chea sat down with Geeks In Cambodia to share how the pain of finding a seat was the inspiration behind the online ticketing portal, his vision, his future plans and his message to all aspiring Cambodian start-ups.
This interview has been edited for clarity, flow and length.
Hi Langda, nice to meet you, let’s start off with the first question. What is bookmebus.com?
Bookmebus is an online bus ticket-booking portal which makes all the bus companies’ departure information in Cambodia available online. It allows passengers which are both local and international to conveniently find, book and pay for their bus tickets online. Passengers who book their ticket with bookmebus.com can take advantage of technology by using e-tickets and m-tickets. There will not be a need to print it out; they just need to show it at the time of boarding the bus. It saves the environment.
How was your start-up founded?
Back in 2013, during Khmer New Year, when I was on my trip back to Battambang province, finding a bus in Cambodia was very painful. Every bus company was full and normally we go to the provinces by bus. But that time, I ended up going by taxi. After several calls, I was transferred from one driver to another driver. It was definitely more expensive than taking a bus. And this is a problem; I started to think what could be the solution. Within these 5 hours of sitting in the taxi, you cannot do anything; you can only just sit in the car. So I took that time to take a survey with the taxi driver, I asked him what does he think if we published his profile to the website and everyone can contact him directly.
So you already had an idea to do this back then?
Yes, because my background is a programmer, and programmers are supposed to provide solutions to problems. So I asked him and he was surprised, and he said that if there were something like that, he would be happier, he wouldn’t have to challenge to get the customers with his other competitors. As of right now, he waits for his customers, but when there is such a service, customers will look for him instead. And I even thought of the name, at that time it was Cambotaxi. And after I reached Battambang province, I bought a domain name. Because I was aware that it will be easily sold out, others might take that name, so I bought that domain name.
In 5 hours you thought of the entire idea?
Yes, first with the name and the logo.
Currently, how big is your team?
Right now we have eight members, within this 8 members, we are divided into different teams. We have the management team, I.T team, media team, and even a sales & marketing team.
What’s your vision for bookmebus.com?
Talking about vision, bookmebus wants to be the first choice of both travellers and in the business in the next five years. We want to provide both operators and travellers with the most cost-effective and accessible way of making travel bookings in every corner of Cambodia. Just like our slogan: where every corner is bookable.
When you just started the company, what were some of the obstacles that you had? Or that you ran into?
Firstly, I had the idea, but I needed a team. We can’t do things alone. We need a team. So I created a prototype, a few web pages of bookmebus.com to show them to my friends and my brothers, to see if they were interested, and yeah they were interested, so we started bookmebus.
One big obstacle we had were obtaining Cambodian passengers. Right now, we have launched bookmebus for 6 weeks, and we have received around 200+ bookings but most of them are foreigners and very little Cambodians. Online payment is a big problem. We did a survey last time during Barcamp Phnom Penh. We asked the participants if they liked our service, and they agreed that it is new and they like it.
I asked them: “Do you know Wing? Pay&Go, AMK or Visa card?”
Yes, they knew, they knew what e-payment was, but the next question is, “Do you have an account? To pay online?”
They said no. And they came up with different reasons, so this is a big problem and bookmebus is planning something big to solve this problem and to really encourage them to go online. We do not want them to go with traditional ways like cash on delivery, phone booking or ticket delivery. We really don’t want that. We want them to go online. We are doing something new to get them online.
It will be very hard to get away from this concept or this mindset. They are not paying online not because they don’t know the benefit, it will take time for them to get used to it.
Are you coming up with a mobile app or something like it?
Yeah we plan to release a mobile app, hopefully within this year or early next year, it is really important to use mobile app.
We based the business on e-tickets or m-tickets. So for example if you do not have a smartphone, but a normal phone that can receive SMS, we will send an m-ticket (or an sms) to your mobile phone once you pay for the ticket online
You have a ticket code, you have the departure information, and now all you need to do is to show it to the inspector at the time of boarding the bus.
Do you think there are other competitors or are you a very niche service right now in Cambodia?
I think there might be a competitor or a similar service but the thing is bookmebus would be happy to see more and more of such services, or e-services such as e-commerce, online booking, to come to Cambodia. It would help Cambodia’s tax or tourist industry to bring it to the next level.
So how did you bring the bus operators online?
Since we launched, we have partnered with 15 bus operators, and bookmebus is very selective in partnering with them, it is not about how big or small they are, but we focus on their responsibilities and the amount of transparency that they can provide to our customers and passengers. So to get them onboard, we provide a booking management system, system training, website, and online marketing.
We provide these services for them because those small bus operators or bus companies have nothing. They don’t even have a Facebook page or an email address. So it’s very hard for tourists or foreigners to contact them, no one will reply to their email or respond to their feedback, so bookmebus wants to bring them to a standard way of doing things.
What is the impact of bookmebus on Cambodian society?
The impact of Cambodia, just like what bookmebus is doing, is to bring the tourism industry and tax industry to the next level. Secondly, we are ready to gain benefits from the ASEAN integration at the end of this year. And it also helps economic growth because it attracts more tourists to visit Cambodia. It creates convenience so tourists will find it easy to find places to visit in Cambodia.
We are also a good model for other start-ups. Because I am also a Cambodian youth, I don’t have much money, but I have an idea.
Is there any specific way that you can reach out to the Cambodians and to bring them onto the e-payment wave?
Talking about our target, it’s with the tourists, expats and we will move to targeting Cambodians. We are doing something big, which I can’t tell you right now, and that thing will make booking available everywhere, they can pay and book their bus ticket everywhere.
When can we expect to see this launched in the market?
Probably next year, because it takes time to do this. And we can see that more and more banks and telecom companies add more services to payment gateways, such as Wing, Pay n Go, AMK, so on and so forth.
They make things very easy, you don’t have to go to the bank, to open an account; you just need to install the app, and verify your account to your telephone number. It’s very easy and it has lots of benefits. You can do anything with just one click to your mobile. I think more and more people will go online soon, as long as there are payment gateways in Cambodia.
What are some future plans for Bookmebus.com?
Talking about future plans for bookmebus, we have a ton of plans, but we have to prioritise them based on the demands, so firstly it’s about building a mobile application and secondly, it’s about taxi booking, which I originated from. My apologies to the taxi driver that I talked to, but I could not start with taxi driving, as it had a fixed schedule so it will be very hard to manage but bookmebus has already came up with a strategy. We will bring them online soon.
We also plan to make air-flight booking and hotel booking available on our site. Actually, we already signed a contract with Air Asia so next year we will be ready to publish the air flight booking on our site.
We are building a brand called bookmebus.com. People will remember bookmebus.com as a traveling agent/portal, which will help them in such ways.
Do you have any comments about the start-up scene in the future?
Last time, I gave a presentation at Barcamp and about how programming creates business. There were many participants that joined and most of them had a very good idea of doing business as well as a unique idea, but the thing is, they are not brave enough to execute that idea. They are afraid of this and that. They don’t know how to start. My message to Cambodian youth or whoever who wants to start their business, be brave. Be brave. Think big and start from small and there are many communities out there who are willing to help them, like Smallworld, Impact Hub, Development Innovations, they provide consultants to those startups. So be brave. And the other thing is that people born in this era are very lucky… why? It is a technological era. This is a big thing and this will create many opportunities for them. Just like bookmebus, we don’t need a large amount of money to start a business. We can start it from small and we will be able to reach out to many people.
Head here to find out more about the start-up portal and to try it for yourself. To all aspiring Cambodian Start-ups out there, best of luck. Remember, ‘be brave’.