Who wants to be a tech entrepreneur?

Cambodia’s online marketplace may lack the sophistication of its Asean neighbours for now, but the scenario could look very different in the next few years. Penang Monthly met up with some wannabe tech entrepreneurs at the second annual Startup Weekend Cambodia.

Michael was very nervous. There was only an hour left before he had to present his project and he hadn’t finished preparing. Worse still, his total time for the presentation had gone way past the allotted 10 minutes. "You spent too much time on the beginning. Try cutting down the part about the size of the language learning market," I suggested to him. His team, “100Words”, was building a language acquisition web and mobile application based on the 100 most commonly used words in English.

The “100Words” team was one of nine competing at the second annual Startup Weekend Cambodia. This is a 54-hour weekend event where programmers, designers and entrepreneurs come together to launch startups. The event has so far been held across 335 cities in 95 countries.

I participated in my first Startup Weekend in Singapore just four months back. Our team was “StarCall”, which let fans bid for a chance to video-call their favourite celebrity. We came in second place. This time around, I was invited to Cambodia as a mentor to help participants throughout the weekend.

Darren Jensen, the local organiser of Startup Weekend Cambodia.

The team leader of “DressFuture” showing off his business model.

I arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the venue – Yellow Tower, located across the river and on the quieter side of Phnom Penh. Teams were already formed and had started working on their ideas. I toured around introducing myself to the teams and learned about their ideas.

One of the teams presented the "Student Tracker", a student attendance notification app for teachers and parents. The team leader of “Student Tracker” told me his little story about how the idea was born: "I remembered when I was small, I skipped school for an entire month. When my dad found out later, he beat me up. But since he only found out only at the end of the month, I couldn’t catch up on my schoolwork after I got back. With ‘Student

Tracker’, this problem is solved since the parents know immediately if their children skip class.” I thought it was a good problem to solve, but the key would be whether their customers would pay to use it. “You need to do some market validation,” I suggested. They told me that they would be calling schools and teachers within their network as a start.

"With ‘100Words’, you can learn any language in a month," Michael (whom I mentioned earlier) pitched his idea to me. I asked him how his app was different from thousands of language learning apps out there. "It's very simple. Just 100 words to get you started. And Tim Ferris uses it." Tim Ferris, the author of The Four Hour Work Week, has a huge cult following on his blog, where he discusses a range of topics from hacking to learning languages. "Very cool. How are you going to build this?" I asked. "We don't know. Our programmer didn't show up today," Michael frowned.

“Most of the people I met wanted to learn something. At the same time, they also have something to teach,” Saamnang from team “TeachMate” told me. His team wanted to build a learning and teaching community on the internet. “Have you heard of ‘SkillShare’?” I mentioned a website which had a similar idea and which had already gained traction in the US. Saamnang told me he had never heard of it but would look into it.

The next team I met was made up of three fashion college students. Their idea was “DressFuture”, a fashion design community that lets anyone create their own designs easily through mobile apps. Despite them being the youngest team in the event, I thought their idea was the most ambitious. I cringed when they showed me their business model, in which they would try to get manufacturers, clothing factories, retail outlets, brands and consumers to work together in harmony. “You have to get rid of the gatekeepers and middlemen!” I also suggested the idea of letting users order their customised fashion designs directly from the clothing factories.

Sunday

"Where is the ‘DressFuture’ team?" Tony, another mentor who works for the US Embassy, asked me. It was Sunday, the final day of Startup Weekend. Thirty minutes before the final presentation, the “DressFuture” team was nowhere to be seen. “They must have given up," I told Tony. There were many stories of teams not making it all the way. Some teams simply "imploded" along the way due to internal conflicts. Some just didn't bother to show up.

"Wait, there they are!" It turned out they were busy hosting an event of their own to do some customer development. Customer development is a methodology developed by Steve Blank, a retired serial entrepreneur and entrepreneurship professor at three major universities. "Getting out of the building and talking to customers” was the main idea of customer development. And the “DressFuture” team did just that, literally.

Team “TeachMate”.

uTeam “100Words”.

The final presentation started. The judges, consisting of startup investors and venture capitalists from all over the world, filled up the first row. There were at least three huge video cameras shooting. The place was full. I sat in the last row.

The first team to present was “BookShuttles”, an online shuttle booking service. They were followed by “E-Coupon”, a location-based coupon provider. "Pretty generic ideas so far," I tweeted.

Then it was “DressFuture's” turn. They went through their presentation with confidence and passion. The judges seemed impressed. “TeachMate” went next. The judges weren't too impressed with the idea. “The chicken and egg problem,” one of the judges said, which usually poses a problem to marketplace type websites where they needed to figure out whether to gather buyers or sellers first.

Next up was “Student Tracker”. I liked how they presented their demo in front of the judges on an iPad. The judges liked their business model of targeting private schools as their first batch of customers, which meant that they would have no problem charging and getting paid.

When Michael from the “100Words” team stepped on the stage, his voice was shaky. He couldn’t finish his entire presentation and missed some of the slides. However, the judges seemed intrigued by the idea and asked plenty of questions – almost always a good sign.

The last team to present was “UAV Demining”. Their idea was to use mini unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to scan areas for landmines, which were still littered all over Cambodia from three decades of war.

The last team to present was “UAV Demining”. Their idea was to use mini unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to scan areas for landmines, which were still littered all over Cambodia from three decades of war.

The last team to present was “UAV Demining”. Their idea was to use mini unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to scan areas for landmines, which were still littered all over Cambodia from three decades of war.

That isn’t always the case though. According to statistics on the Startup Weekend website, roughly 80% of participants planned on continuing working with their team or startup after the weekend, and only 36% of the startups are still going strong after three months.

I was exhausted but content. Compared to the Malaysian startups I had spoken to, the Cambodians were more humble, eager to learn and surprisingly ambitious. The only downside I saw was the lack of developers. I had met no more than 10 developers during the entire event. If only more people here could learn how to code, they would pose a serious challenge to other countries in the same region. Whatever the outcome, it was definitely a weekend to remember!

Lim Cheng Soon is the founder and curator of Hacker Monthly, a favourite read of programmers worldwide. He is a born and bred Penangite.



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