Talk about bonding with your brothers. When Cambodian entrepreneur Vichet In was 28 years old, he put up a business with his brothers Vichea, then 30, and Visal, then 23. This was in November 2011, a time when Internet usage in Cambodia was only beginning to pick up.
“I asked myself what people liked to do on the Internet,” In says, “and the answer came to me that people liked to download and read the news.” That venture, which sought to bring viral lifestyle and entertainment stories to Cambodians, was called Khmerload. The brothers soon delineated their roles: Vichet was CEO, Vichea was in charge of operations and Visal covered technology.
More than five years later, it was reported that Khmerload would be the first Cambodian start-up to receive funding from Silicon Valley-based 500 Startups – to the tune of $200,000.
Being A Pioneer
Vichet was taking his masters in the U.S. in 2006 when he started experimenting with doing business over the Internet. At the end of each semester, he sold course books on eBay and Amazon, amazed how convenient it all was. He also did a lot of online research and foresaw that Cambodians would be doing similar things once the Internet became more accessible and affordable.
When he did get the chance to set up his own company with his brothers five years later, he realised a sad truth: Cambodian start-ups had difficulty getting international investors on board because there were no success stories yet. “There were very few start-ups back then,” he says. They sent emails pitching their business to venture capitalists, but did not get any reply.
It was a choice between pushing harder or giving up altogether. The brothers had bootstrapped their operations. It proved to be a challenge, but it was also rewarding when all the hard work finally paid off.
After five years, they found their niche. “Celebrity and lifestyle content do well in terms of virality,” says In, adding that they deliberately stay out of politics.
Still, they needed fresh capital to expand their operations and build their credibility. And because they knew getting investments outright would be a feat, what followed was a business plan that took them overseas much earlier than they had expected. “We decided to go to Myanmar first and proved we could scale. At that time, we were already big and successful in Cambodia,” In says.
Khmerload’s combined market – 55 million people in Myanmar, with 30 to 40 million Internet users, and 15 million in Cambodia, with 8 million Internet users – made it more attractive to investors. Regardless of location, after all, one has the same appetite to be updated about what is going on.
For In, business can only get better. “The environment is good,” he says, citing Cambodia’s consistent GDP growth rate of 7 percent.
Specifically, Cambodia can be attractive to tech start-ups. “There are many problems to be solved and there are not many solvers and some existing solutions can be improved. Tech start-ups are founded to solve problems, so I can see plenty of opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs and investors.”
In says the most promising industries are classifieds, on-demand services, e-commerce and fintech.
Sure, there are challenges. There is lack of access to funding to scale operations. Start-ups also have limited ability to attract talented staff because many of them are already making good money in traditional corporate companies. Support from government is limited – there is no government fund to incubate or accelerate them.
These however are not impossible to surmount. The trend is that there will be more overseas investors paying attention to Cambodian companies.
Building Success Stories
“I believe there are many smart young people in Cambodia,” In says. “Once they realise they can make money from tech start-ups, they will be motivated to establish their own start-up and there will be more success stories from Cambodia.”
In says he hopes Khmerload – given its beginnings, its struggles and now its success in scaling and attracting investors—can serve as an inspiration to young people and assure them there is future in tech start-ups.
He offers lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs: Focus on building a great product, form a great team and learn from mistakes along the way. Down the road, plan for regional expansion either through bootstrapping or securing investment from local or international investors.
It’s apparent Khmerload is headed in that direction. It has been incorporated in Singapore as Mediaload, with a vision to be a leading digital media organisation in Southeast Asia and beyond – quite a long way from the brothers’ adventure it started out to be.