Fate made us meet Rithy Thul, co-founder of Smallworld Cambodia. He told us that he is a guy who enjoys riding bicycle, exploring and testing new startup ideas. But we know he is also one of the promoters of the growing startup ecosystem in Phnom Penh.
Although we would have liked to interview him in video, we met each other once we had left Cambodia. However, we did not want to miss the opportunity to know his point of view about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambodia and, above all, understand the role and challenges of young entrepreneurs in Cambodia.
Q: First of all, how is the startup ecosystem in Cambodia compared to other countries in Southeast Asia?
At present there are other coworking spaces and entrepreneurship training centers along with SmallWorld, with the most significant being CoLab, Impact Hub, EmeraldHub, WeCREATE, and Global Business Development by Kotra (Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency).
Government and International support and involvement has only recently become available, with the most significant programs being Ministry of Commerce Incubation 101, TigersMekong, StartupCup, Mekong Business Initiative, and Development Innovation. We are also networking with several private investors and working to form “Angel Investment Pools”. We also work with more well established funding sources, such as Insitor Impact Fund, Uberis Capital, and others.
Compared to neighboring countries in southeast Asia, Cambodia is a relatively new formed democratic state, having a younger population base with long-held traditional leanings toward self-employment. With a large proportion of youths feeling strongly about business, financial independence, and our newly established democracy, Cambodia is well poised to move ahead much faster than her neighbors.
Q: What will be the role of Cambodian entrepreneurs in the next 5 years?
It has been said that:
“a focused mind cannot predict the future nearly as easy as to create it.”
At this time, many of our young Cambodian entrepreneurs continue to study and work hard in an effort to determine what they want to do, and what they are capable of doing. One thing we feel to be certain is that will be a growing number of young entrepreneurs awakening and blossoming in the next five years to come.
These young entrepreneurs will be a fundamental and primary force in driving the Cambodian economy as their focus will be to satisfy needs and solve problems for our rapidly growing nation.
Q: Do Cambodian entrepreneurs focus on global or local market? Why?
Generally speaking, and with tourism being the exception, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and consumers, seem more concerned and aware of local markets over International markets. A majority of Cambodians remain ethnocentric and nationalistic, as many have never travelled outside their borders and have yet to see or experience opportunity outside of their own country.
Q: What was your goal when you started SmallWorld Cambodia?
SmallWorld Cambodia is a homegrown startup community, providing collaborative workspace and an office environment for early stage startups in Phnom Penh.
There are three main reasons why we formed SmallWorld:
- to create a platform to support and encourage action rather than talk.
- to provide an avenue for investing in promising new and innovative business models
- to build a vibrant startup community to serve as a backbone for an emerging Cambodian economy
Q: What are the main problems that young entrepreneurs face in Cambodia?
It seems to me that young people do not read or research enough of the right information, and this lack of information creates blind-spots in their development strategies.
This information gap is unfortunate, given we have the power of the Internet at our disposal. The fact that they cannot see the bigger picture or the complete picture creates a lack of self-confidence in pursuing their dreams and ideas.
In addition, young people lack of personal mentorship, and they have a need for close personal teachers who are knowledgeable, and who will be emotionally supportive providing encouragement. With a lack of personal mentorship, poor research habits, and an information gap, putting together cutting-edge proposals for acquiring seed-funding can be difficult.
As is the case with many youths today, there is a tendency for too much talking and dreaming, rather than pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, being decisive, and taking positive action in the right direction.
Q: What are the common characteristics behind any young entrepreneur in Cambodia?
- A desire for financial independence
- A strong commitment toward helping to raise the standard of living for their immediate family
- A strong cultural and national identity
- A sincere desire to help build a better nation and world for the next generation
- A strong personal commitment toward education and self-improvement
Q: Why teaching and learning entrepreneurial skills could be a good thing for young people?
Entrepreneurship in itself is a practical, useful, and self-empowering skill. It helps establish in a person a mindset to be more responsible, assertive, and action oriented. Entrepreneurship fosters creativity, personal initiative, leadership, and a strong self-identity.
For Cambodia, as for all nations, small business and entrepreneurship is the backbone of the economy. More employment and greater innovation happens through small business entrepreneurs than through any other type of business entity.
Q: Finally, could you tell us any examples of startups that you have accelerated in Smallworld Cambodia?
For working examples of enterprises that continue to be seeded at SmallWorld, or who have offices located at SmallWorld, we have: Toursanak, Codingate, Fairyland, CupMonster, PhnomPenhPackaging, Mioneer and Best Bio Medical Engineering.
All the above project, whether inside or outside of SmallWorld, continue to innovate, evolve, generate income, and employ others.