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When Shivam Tripathi first landed in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, fresh out of HEC Paris business school, and saw the masses of people using smartphones he felt sure this was an ideal place to pursue his dream of starting an online business.
“I realised immediately that this was a land full of opportunities,” he recalls. “The population was young and the economy so dynamic that you [could] feel it just by looking at new buildings, businesses, franchises and shops.”
While Mr Tripathi was right in his hunch about mobile phone use, a significant barrier to his achieving his digital entrepreneurship dream was the difficulty in receiving payment.
Cambodia is still a cash-based society. Few have bank accounts and fewer use credit cards. Undeterred, Mr Tripathi launched an online bus-ticketing service, called CamboTicket, which started trading in 2014.
Buying bus tickets by phone promises to be a money spinner in a country where the lack of extensive air and rail networks makes travelling by bus the main method of getting around.
CamboTicket has achieved some success, generating up to $20,000 of ticket sales a month, in a little under 18 months. Tourists have largely driven demand and make up more than half of CamboTicket’s sales.
For the 20 per cent of customers who do not pay online, Mr Tripathi has had to find creative solutions for collecting payment, such as partnering with a local food delivery company in Phnom Penh to pick up cash from customers’ homes.
Perhaps his best bet is a system enabling people to pay for their purchases through a text message by connecting with Cambodia’s mobile phone money transfer service Wing.
Mr Tripathi admits that it has not been easy and he has made it more difficult by not remaining focused on the changes that could expand the business faster.
“In the beginning, we spent a lot of time building [unnecessary] partnerships with local transport companies,” he says.
He also berates himself for getting too absorbed in day-to-day operational and administrative activities early on in the company’s evolution, losing focus on the bigger picture of where future growth would come from.
“This problem could have been addressed faster had I hired someone at mid-management level who could have taken over such responsibilities,” he says, adding that this is something he has now done.
Although some of his former tutors at HEC Paris were helpful in providing Mr Tripathi with practical advice in launching CamboTicket, he admits that his former classmates were at first a little sceptical about his choice of start-up location. “Nobody expressed directly to me that I was completely insane but I could sense it was seen as a surprising move,” he recalls.
Since the launch, however, Mr Tripathi has found that attitudes from among his student friends have changed, particularly since others in his year group on the masters in international finance course are starting businesses of their own.
“I interact with them a lot because we have similar challenges,” Mr Tripathi says. “It helps both me and them to share experiences with them.”
The business school links are being strengthened as CamboTicket is hiring students from HEC Paris for six to 12-month internships, working on business plans for 2016. Mr Tripathi is also exploring how to make better use of his alma mater, such as engaging the services of the HEC Entrepreneurship Center.
“HEC has a great alumni network and different focus groups, and I would like to utilise the resources provided,” he says. “But I have to admit that so far, I have not been able to leverage the network to the full extent.”
Despite the significant challenges still facing the business, Mr Tripathi is upbeat about the opportunities and his chances of success.
“Although the market is still not ready when it comes to online payments, I feel that pioneering companies like ours have an advantage because we can learn a lot while there is not much competition,” he says.
In a little over a year, he has built a system able to sell tickets on more than 70 per cent of the available routes in Cambodia, plus several across the border into Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.
This has brought significant improvement in transparency in pricing, schedules and services in a market that was previously driven by thousands of unorganised offline agencies, according to Mr Tripathi.
“We have realised that there is a much bigger problem within the travel and tourism sector which we can address within Cambodia and in the neighbouring countries,” he says.
“If you are one of the tiny companies currently trading successfully, you will be most ready for the opportunities whenever the Cambodian market is ready for large-scale e-commerce activity,” adds Mr Tripathi.