Interview With Cambodian Tech Players On Mekong’s Startup Ecosystem

With the successful end of The Mekong Ecosystem Summit 2.0, a three-day event that held activities to strengthen connections between startups, investors and various players in the region’s tech scene, Geeks in Cambodia had the wonderful opportunity to interview 3 Cambodian participants, whom we are sure are no strangers to anyone in the Cambodian scene, to give you their expert opinions and thoughts.

They are Leap Sok (L), founder of System Experts Asia,

Chantra Be (C), Managing Partner of Emerald Hub and organiser of various startup events like BarCamp Cambodia as well as Rithy Thul (R), an investor of BookMeBus and Promoter of SmallWorld.

So without further ado, keep your eyes wide open to absorb all the informational goodies this interview has for you!

*The following interviews were conducted separately, but for flow and clarity, have been structured and edited as one interview.

Could you let us know how you got to know about the Mekong Startup Ecosystem Summit in Laos and why you chose to be a part of it?

C: I came to know about Mekong Startup Ecosystem Summit 2.0 in Lao through MBI and TigerMekong as I had been in contact with them. As I am a tech community builder and also running a co-working space, I am considered to be a part of startup eco-system in Cambodia as well as a tech and startup player. To be connected to the Startup Eco-System in the Mekong Region, I took part in the summit. 

L: As I have been working with J.E. Austin Associates, Inc. (JAA), through Mike Ducker, who is a supporter of the TigerMekong Initiative and also one of the main sponsors for Startup Weekend 2016, I came to know about this event. As part of the startup and tech community builder in Cambodia, the purpose and goals of the Ecosystem Summit to connect all ecosystem builders across SEA together to find a better way for further collaboration across countries prompted me to take part.

R: TigersMekong team and SmallWorld have been working together for the last few years or so to promote technology startups in the Mekong region. As TigersMekong hosted the Mekong Startup Ecosytem Summit, we were able to be a part of it.

We are happy to be part of or to offer help to any activity that helps build community. The event was about connecting community builders to one-another, which is a good opportunity for community builders to showcase their works and learn from one another.

What were some takeaways you had from this Summit?

C: From the speakers, I was able to learn about their countries’ startup ecosystems’ successes and challenges. I was also able to connect and partner with other co-working spaces in the region.

L: A few key points I took away were:

-   The need to make Cambodia and its startup scene more visible to other countries

-   With the opportunity to be connected to different ecosystem builders and stakeholders who are actively working in their countries via the summit, I found out that there is some potential collaborative projects and business across Mekong countries.

-   The Summit also provided support funds to a few projects and one of them was from Cambodia.

R: My key takeaway was the need to get closer to key players in the region. It helps to expand our network and reach.

What are your opinions on cross-border partnerships and investments in the region? How would this impact the Mekong and Cambodia’s startup scene?

C: Cross border partnerships and investments are a great opportunity for both parties to work together to extend the business and branding both locally and regionally. It will impact Cambodia’s startup scene, as we will have more chances to have cross border collaboration with regional business partners, which provides more opportunities to our local startup to participate in regional business competition events, incubation or acceleration program. Startup founders will also make their products or services cater to locals as well as consumers in the region.

L: Partnerships and investments are always the ingredients that contribute to the success of individual businesses or startups as well as the whole ecosystem. One of the key points of the summit was to bridge the growth between businesses and startups within the Mekong countries so I believe that the Cambodian startup scene would benefit directly and indirectly from such partnerships and investments.

R: I think cross-border partnership is very important. Throughout history, cross-border partnerships have created innovations through the mixing of culture and experiences. It will lead to regional investment both inwards and outwards. For example, the event prompted me to think of a way to invest in Myanmar after seeing a startup pitch and talking to several key players from the country.

I personally don’t think any significant impact in the region is based on a single event. Rather, it acts as a catalyst to push improvements in the region as part of the many other initiatives in the past and many more in the years to come.

Do you feel that, over the years, entrepreneurship programmes and initiatives have helped the region’s startup scene? What kind of programmes do you hope to see in the future?

C: I feel that some entrepreneurship programmes and initiatives have helped the region’s startup scene such as MBI’s program, TigerMekong’s program, Hatch Fair event, Startup Fair event etc.

In the future, I would like to see Incubator and Accelerator programmes happen in Cambodia, as well as International programmes such as Global Startup Summit, Echelon Asia Summit, EdTech Asia, Tech Asia Summit, Angel Investment program etc.

L: Of course. For example, in Cambodia, just 3-5 years ago there were only a few startup or entrepreneurship programs or events happening but now, in 2016 and 2017 there is one almost every week.

These programs and events do contribute and help to develop the entrepreneurial mindset and experience. Some of them help to connect talents, mentors, investment and customers to new and established businesses and startups.

I do hope to see these events and programs continue to happen not just in Phnom Penh city but also in other parts of Cambodia. On the other hand, I would love to see more key players in the ecosystem work and collaborate together to strengthen these events and programs across communities and groups.

R: I think that over the years, entrepreneurship programs do help to develop the startup scene in the region. I sincerely hope that it will help push it in a positive direction.

Although more people are thinking about starting up, many of them do not understand how hard it is and what it takes to start and operate a successful company. In fact, many start a startup because it is cool, not because of passion, and compare themselves unrealistically to people like Steve Jobs and Mark. In addition, ecosystem builders, the government and other agencies are using Silicon Valley as a model to build theirs, which is not realistic if compared.

I would like to see more of a grassroot initiative program or programmes that directly support grassroots community builders as they are the people who know what the local needs. Of course showing what is possible in the outside world is important as well.

Another program would be startup tours, where startup CEOs come together and travel to other regions. This will ignite a stronger partnership, as founders know what their individual companies require. Matchmaking only works when both partners understand each others’ needs. Such travels are also more casual, making it easy to relate and connect.

What are some trends or future activities that can be expected of the region’s startup scene in the next few years?

L: It is a bit hard to say but technology transformations could happen in business sectors. At the moment, the only technology development is in the financial sector but are sparse in other sectors.

R: I think that there will be more connectivity. There will be a change in the model of a sharing economy for startups. I personally think that blockchain startups will be on the rise. I don’t think it will be soon, but it will slowly start catching up.

What advice do you have for startups and founders in the region?

C: In my opinion, startup founders need to find their niche market or business ideas that do not compete with big players. It has been a current trend in Cambodia for big players to enter with their business that serves both regional and global consumers.  Instead, they can think of building a business that can be acquitted by a bigger company.

R: Travel more and reach out to nearby regions. Make more partners to reduce competition. The best would be to be different, and right now, to be unique is to not be another mobile app or social app.

Geeks in Cambodia has certainly learnt much about the startup scene both locally and regionally through this interview, and would like to thank Leap Sok, Chantra Be and Rithy Thul for their enriching answers. Has this interview helped you? Let us know which advice has inspired you, or your own opinions on the startup scene by tagging us on Facebook or posting on our page!