PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Khmerload, a Cambodian entertainment news website modeled after the American media giant Buzzfeed, has become the country’s first local tech startup to attract the backing of Silicon Valley investors.
A $200,000 investment to be exact.
The money came from 500 Startups, a global venture capital seed fund and startup accelerator founded by PayPal and Google alumni, Dave McClure and Christine Tsai, who took notice of the website, launched five years ago.
The grant pushed the company’s value to more than $1 million, according to In Vichet, Khmerload’s founder and CEO.
Several sites, and growing
Vichet, also the CEO and founder of Cambodia’s popular Little Fashion ecommerce site, said he convinced investors that Khmerload had growth potential, enough for a return on the investment.
“We showed them that we are in the top three websites in Cambodia,” said Vichet, who did his graduate work in economics at the University of Michigan. “We also have traction in Myanmar, where we recently expanded. So they see that we have done a lot while already generating revenue. They saw our potential.”
Khailee Ng, the Southeast Asia-based managing partner of 500 Startups, said Khmerload’s probable growth extends far beyond Cambodia’s borders.
“Getting to the top media position behind Facebook and Google’s properties with such a lean budget is something not many entrepreneurs across Southeast Asia have done,” Ng said.
“I’ve actually never seen anything quite like it. To be profitable, yet have increasing traffic growth rates? This investment decision is easy,” he added.
The $1 million may not seem like much compared with the $1.7 billion value of Buzzfeed, until measured against Cambodia’s per capita income of $1,070, according to the latest World Bank estimate.
More Cambodians on internet
The 500 Startups grant comes as more and more Cambodians are using the internet and Facebook, according to an Asia Foundation study that found most go online exclusively through their smartphones. This mimics trends for sites like Buzzfeed.
Khmerload has gained more than 17 million page views per month in Cambodia, allowing it to expand into Myanmar last year, opening a sister site, Myanmarload, which already generates about 20 million page views per month.
It has also carried out a successful pilot in Indonesia, said Vichet, and was incorporated in Singapore as Mediaload.
However, Khmerload’s Buzzfeed-style approach of viral content and quick clicks has led to criticism.
Vichet admits that the site originally relied heavily on tabloid and entertainment content or, as he put it, “nonpolitical content,” an important distinction in a nation where the constitution provides for a free press, but where the state closely monitors the media and — one way or another — controls its content.
But as the site has grown to reach millions, he says, it has diversified to include more informative content, including educational materials and technology news.
And 500 Startups is no doubt aware of Cambodians growing embrace of the online world. In 2000, an estimated 6,000 Cambodians used the internet. Today, the company estimates 5 million active users in Cambodia.
Tech startups are also on the rise. About 120 have sprung up in Cambodia, along with some 10 co-working spaces in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, according to Thul Rithy, founder of Phnom Penh-based co-working spaces SmallWorld and Emerald Hub.
Mediaload’s next moves include expansions into Vietnam and Laos, Vichet said. He’s also keen to help other Cambodians obtain Silicon Valley investment.
“Even with a good idea, it is really hard for Cambodians to get an investment from [Silicon Valley], as there is no precedent of success,” Vichet said. “I hope I can deliver good returns to them so that in the future they will invest in other Cambodian technology startups.”
This report was originally published by VOA’s Khmer Service.