My Thoughts on Startup Weekend Cambodia

This weekend was Cambodia’s 4th Startup Weekend event and for the 2nd time I was helping coach the event. If you don’t know what startup weekend is, it is a 52 hour event where anyone can find a team and build a startup. The entire weekend builds up to a final pitch session in front of a panel of judges who pick the top three startups.
As a coach it was my job to help the teams throughout the weekend with their business ideas, design, and implementation. The Startup Weekend team asked me to support the business building and UI/UX questions. This year, I noticed a few things that have me questioning the value of such an event in a developing country like Cambodia.

Now to clarify a bit, I am a huge supporter of Startup Weekend. I believe in their goals and I want it to succeed. I also want to see more Cambodians successfully build their businesses. It’s from that place I share my thoughts, I think we all have a lot to learn from and grow.

Also, this is not a criticism on the organizers, coaches, or judges. Having worked with them at and on Startup Weekend, I know they care deeply about the event and success of Cambodian startups.

Focus on Pitching, Not Building

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a builder of things. I love to build. It’s how my mind works, processes, and grows. So it pains me to see that so little product building is actively happening. In the Startup Weekend guides that all participates receive there is an entire section focused building a minimum viable product (MVP). But in both the years I have attended, I’ve seen few, if any actual MVPs built.

The final session becomes an endless run of powerpoint presentations and no workable prototypes. If Startup Weekend is going to be a real catalyst for startups in Cambodia, then products must be built during the event.

Issues for Developing Countries

I also struggle with fairness of such an event for a country like Cambodia. The skill level gap between Cambodians and foreigners is wide. I’ve seen foreign teams come in and completely blow away the local talent.

In addition to the talent gap, we have an issue with setting good business models. Most teams were trying to build businesses that were trying to be a better version of an existing local business. Some were just trying to flat out copy a business from another market.

We need to focus on providing training on developing an idea and problem solving. This is a key aspect that was missing from a lot of the team leaders I met with.

No Investors

Cambodia doesn’t have a booming internet market, the growth is huge, but it’s still a tiny market. Online payment processing doesn’t exist and most Cambodians don’t have a credit card. With those market factors building a startup that can make money online is close to impossible. There are a few startups making money but most are classifieds, forums, directories, or startups focused on outside markets.

Startup seed money in Cambodia is almost non-existiant. Which provides for a anti-clamtic end to Startup Weekend, where even getting an investor to show up to the event is difficult. As I walked around Startup Weekend this year, I couldn’t help but thinking: “Who is going to invest in these companies?”

It would be great to network and get some investors from some of the neighboring investment groups. I’m thinking about JFDIAsia or 500 Startups level people to come in and advise.

Lack of Education is Hurting Cambodians

The lack of education is hurting the quality of the businesses coming out of startup weekend. In Cambodia, cheating and bribing to get through high school has been common practice for years. Just this year the government finally put in measures to prevent cheating and the results are clear. This year the pass rate was only 40%, down from well over 80% the year prior.

I’ve seen this first hand in my company. Most of the inverviews we do include skills testing to make sure that candidates understand the basics.

This is reflected in the business plans, slide decks, and the presentations at startup weekend. Lots of unoriginal ideas, templated decks, and lack of speaking practice all gave me the feeling of discontent.

If Startup Weekend is to be a long-term success, focusing on capacity building for Cambodians will be key. I am hopeful that the recent systems put in place by the government will help increase the level of knowledge out of highschool. Which will in-turn provided higher skilled startup founders down the road.

Failure to Launch

While at the event this weekend I ran into two different founders from the last Startup Weekend. Both of them placed in the top groups at Startup Weekend 2013 and both of them had just recently launched their products. Almost an entire year later, only two groups that I know of had launched their product.

I am disappointed that only two teams have launched their products. We are not doing enough post-event to help these teams or founders launch their business. It was great to see CoLab offer office space to the winners this year. I am still wondering what else we can do to help.

Should We Give Up?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should give up on startups in Cambodia or on Startup Weekend. I do think we have a lot of work to do in order to help grow this event into what it should be. Startup Weekend should be an opportunity for someone to come with an idea, find a team, and build out the plan and product in a weekend. And possibly find an investor or two.

Right now taking an event that has worked in developed countries and dropping it into a developing country like Cambodia isn’t working.

Capacity Building Before the Event
Developing a series of training events before Startup Weekend is one way to help build capacity for the startup process. A few topics I think that would help: idea generation, problem solving, business planning, basic forecasting (cap table, burndown charts, etc), public speaking, and how to pitch to investors.

Focus on MPVs
I want to see things being built. Testing, market valuations, surveys are fine, but the ultimate test of any product or service is asking a user for money. The last two years I’ve left startup weekend thinking that no one is going to build this stuff. If I feel that way, can you imagine what an investor is thinking?

Ongoing Resources for Participants
I did notice that this year the winners were given free space in a local coworking building, which is great. I think we need more of these types of resources available for the participants of Startup Weekend.

As a startup owner, we can help build out a support network of other businesses. Then using that network we can focus on helping Cambodians build their businesses.

About the author

Jesse Orndorff

The founder of Glean, an agency for change. Formerly Innovation Program Manager at DAI. He's now focused on building technology and startups that work on challenging issues and doing social good.

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By Jesse Orndorff

Jesse Orndorff

The founder of Glean, an agency for change. Formerly Innovation Program Manager at DAI. He's now focused on building technology and startups that work on challenging issues and doing social good.

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