A new generation of budding young entrepreneurs is rising in the form of tech-savvy businesses. ASEAN Forum meets some of the players in the burgeoning technology sector.
BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS
Heng Kong is representative of a growing number of young Cambodians. “Look at Mark Zuckerberg,” he says, referring to the man behind global social networking website Facebook. “I want to be like him; be my own boss and make my own success and money.”
The 17-year-old student from Phnom Penh outlines grand plans to study information technology and business at university before launching his own tech-related company that he hopes will rise up the international ranks.
Developers like Kong are encouraged by the low level of startup investment needed and the high number of success stories, such as the highly addictive Flappy Bird iPhone game, which took Dong Nguyen three days to develop from his bedroom in Vietnam and quickly shot to fame, earning him more than $50,000 a day from in-app advertising. More and more youngsters are following in the footsteps of “Zuckerbird” armed with high hopes of their business soaring skywards.
This, coupled with a rising number of tech-related events, such as Start-Up Weekend, DevFest and Development Innovation by USAID, has spurred the sector into unchartered and exciting realms. “It’s a new trend among Cambodians who like tech now,” says Ear Uy, of game developers Osja Studio. “I think this is mostly because of social media and the news, which feature the success of new startups more and more.”
Uy, 32, was among the country’s first to successfully launch a tech-related company in Cambodia. In November 2011, co-founders Uy and Chivalry Yok became the Kingdom’s first home-grown game developers when they started Osja Studio. To date they have produced two platform games, with the latest – Yak Aww – having launched in April 2014, and a series of smaller games for smartphones, iPhones and tablets. “When I started my game development studio, I was kind of alone in the industry in Cambodia,” Uy recalls. “I faced many challenges, such as human resources, game development knowledge and how to market the product.
“At that time, everything seemed to be trial and error. If it didn’t work, we’d change it. Eventually, we formed the right team – a team with common interests and passion in what the company is doing.”
Innovative thinking and an entrepreneurial spirit are inherent in Cambodians, claims Tharo Sen, listing the popular Brown chain of coffee shops, Chatime, KOI and Toto as examples. “Entrepreneurship, owning businesses and startup topics have been favoured by most Cambodians,” the mastermind behind fashion app, TrendX, says.
However, he is quick to point out that the Kingdom’s tech industry requires more growth, with few successful tech start-ups getting off the ground. “There are also few proper institutions that provide intensive knowledge on technology, either software or hardware,” Sen, who travelled to Stanford Business School in America to seek backing for his venture, adds. “But people who pursue computer science skills will definitely be strongly required in the next five years. In this sense, the tech industry provides more opportunities to young Cambodians, and they are starting to realise this.”
Start-Up Weekend provided the Limkokwing University graduate, whose team won the 2013 event with restaurant recommendation app, Vrecommend, with the perfect platform to learn about the industry and its nuances. Now approaching its fifth year, the event sees budding businesspeople work in teams to develop a concept during the 54-hour event. Guided by mentors, they produce a business model and develop a test-run product. These are then pitched to a panel of judges, providing invaluable business experience and feedback.
When the event launched in 2010, it was mostly expats competing for the top spot. But each year the number of locals taking part has increased. “This has really helped Cambodians to exchange ideas and grow their skills,” the 23-year-old says.
However, despite the growth in the tech startup sector, there is room for further improvement and growth. Compared with neighbouring countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, the industry is immature and lags behind. “Successful startups and businesses such as Flappy Bird and VNG in Vietnam have inspired Vietnamese youngsters,” Sen says. “In Thailand, you have so many growing incubations with growing startups. The key difference is the lack in the culture of nurturing Cambodian youth to become tech-savvy driven.”
This is a sentiment that is echoed by Uy, who believes more government backing is essential to make the industry, and ultimately the economy, boom. Initiatives such as those in Malaysia and Singapore where tax exemptions, investment budgets for fixed assets and sponsorships to attend tech events abroad are offered to startups attracting more people into the movement, and helping it to mushroom.
“If the government could support and become closely involved with the tech scene, it could improve a lot in the future,” he adds. “Or if we have more tech investors who are interested in emerging markets like Cambodia. They could bring more investment, advice and experience. This really would help to improve in the future.”
More innovative and creative thinking combined with passion and drive is also needed to help the local scene reach its potential and startups succeed. “Look for real problems that exist or they experience themselves and want to solve and improve through technology,” Uy advises. “Never enter a business because you see others doing it a lot. You should have a passion for what you do and focus on making sure your service serves the customers and delivers what you promise.”
START-UP WEEKEND CAMBODIA
A 54-hour event that brings together designers, developers, entrepreneurs and experts in a range of fields. Teams spend three days drafting business models, coding, designing and carrying out market validation before pitching to a panel of experts. Cambodiastartupweekend.org
GDAY & DEVFEST CAMBODIA
gDay is a series of conferences run by the tech community, with Google backing. DevFest covers a variety of Google Developer products with an opportunity to run product-focused events at the festival. Devfest.gdgkh.com
An annual global emerging technologies conference hosted by MIT Technology Review. EmTech is a meeting place for business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs worldwide who are passionate about turning ideas into solutions. Emtechsingapore.com
TECH CONFERENCE VIETNAM
Annual EdTech event organised by Saigon South International School and United Nations International School of Hanoi. Involves a series of dedicated workshops, talks and groups. Vietnamtechconference.org