The journey of Cambodian tech startups and the road ahead
Jesse Orndorff is an author of Startup Cambodia. In a recent email interview, he told me that “Over the last five years we’ve seen a major shift in how Cambodians use technology. In the urban areas, the smartphone penetration rate is very high with the under 35 age group, and we’re seeing a major shift into how this new generation consumes content, makes purchases, and engages with businesses.” He added that “the startup scene has grown tremendously.” Jesse wants to use his book to promote the inspiring stories of Cambodians that have taken the startup journey.
Last month, I moderated a startup talk (Smart Travel & Living with Mobile Apps) at Emerald Hub, one of Phnom Penh’s co-working spaces. Five startup founders/co-founders admitted that one of the biggest challenges is changing customers’ mindset. Digital payment is relatively new to the majority of the Cambodian population. As Jesse pointed out “The most exciting thing that I would like to see is an easy and accessible way to accept mobile payments. Right now accepting digital payments is very challenging and that’s stifling a lot of the market in Cambodia.”
At the startup talk session, the Cambodian tech entrepreneurs (Chea Landa, BookMeBus CEO; Uch Sarath, pengpos Co-Founder; Soliya Kong, Joonak Delivery Founder & CEO; Malypoeur Plong, Stops Near Me Founder; Bong Chhlat, Co-Founder) told the audience about how they started out their startups. All the speakers have one thing in common. Frustrated by the lack of a convenient way to book a bus ticket to visit his home town Battambang, Chea Langda launched a website that list bus operators, departure schedules, and prices. Currently, it’s becoming a rising startup star as well as an excellent example of building a successful startup in a country like Cambodia.
While most of the startups focus mainly on the Cambodian market, there are also new, untapped opportunities as well as critical challenge. “In the next five years, I think we’ll see growth in the sector, larger investment deals, and startups from Cambodia moving into other markets in ASEAN,” said Jesse who has been in Cambodia since 2010.
Lately, global media outlet Red Herring featured BookMeBus in its story: Cambodia’s Tech Scene Needs Private Money, But It’s On The Up. “Southeast Asia has been racing towards tech in recent years, and several formidable ecosystems have appeared across the region. For Cambodia, one of its smaller nations with a population of just 15 million, progress has been slower: infrastructure is underdeveloped, and funding still comes primarily from NGOs.”
Companies are beginning to thrive. BookMeBus, founded by puckish programmer Langda Chea, began to solve the problem of convoluted transport booking in Cambodia. “I thought it was very simple: get a website of all the companies’ information so everyone can see all the timetables,” he says. “Then, when I started, I saw something bigger.”
Now BookMeBus processes 2-3,000 tickets per month and $38,000 in revenue. It is one of very few privately-backed tech firms in Phnom Penh.