Vroom to grow: This Cambodian start-up enables seamless transit in Southeast Asia

Inc. Southeast Asia | 7 April 2017

BookMeBus is every traveler’s ticket to the touristic wonders of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam

Bloated tourist arrivals, stories of scams and bribes, chaos at the borders—anybody who’s backpacked his/her way across Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos knows how much of a logistical nightmare land transportation can be.

Transit within these picturesque countries, where buses, trains, and shared taxis are the main (and cheapest) modes of transport, can be quite the hassle.

Langda Chea, the founder of Cambodian start-up BookMeBus, says there is currently no main hub in Phnom Penh for all buses plying from the city. “You have to pay at the counters of these bus companies, and they’re all in separate locations. There is no single bus terminal in Cambodia until now, so it’s a hassle if you need to transfer from one bus company to another. It can be very time-consuming and not an efficient way to travel at all,” he shares.

Shared taxis do not present a better alternative either. Inevitably, riders are “cheated” by these shared taxis as the drivers need all five seats filled before leaving. “When you call and ask if they already have enough passengers, they’ll say they have only one seat left. But when you arrive, you’re the only one there so you have to wait for the other four passengers—it’s kind of a scam that loses you a lot of time,” says Chea.

A rocky road to seamless transit

With Cambodia “having a lot of public holidays,” Chea would often make the trip from Phnom Penh to laidback Battambang to visit his parents. Having left with no other option but to take the bus, he’s no stranger to the challenge of securing a seat on a bus during peak season in Cambodia. A web designer, he decided to put his programming skills to good use by addressing what has been a bane of his existence.

In 2013, while Chea was still employed at a Japanese company, the idea of an online ticketing platform for both web and mobile materialized. “As a web designer and programmer, I didn’t think it would be hard to create a website that publishes all scheduling information about bus companies and at the same time enable passengers to buy bus tickets online,” shares Chea, adding that he interviewed bus drivers on his way to Battambang. “They welcomed the idea,” he says.

Chea started BookMeBus in 2013 and worked on developing the technology alone for the first two months. He eventually pitched the idea to his brother, cousin, and friend, and all four co-founders pooled an initial $20,000 in the business. “We bootstrapped without any business plan. After less than six months, we ran out of money because I kept spending it. I had no background on business and realized that to be competitive, we needed mentorship from individuals who had done this kind of thing in other countries,” he shares.

In Cambodia where the tech start-up scene is just emerging, getting an investor is easier said than done. “It’s hard for angel investors to evaluate start-ups, especially early stage start-ups like BookMeBus at that time,” relates Chea. “It takes a while for them to make decisions on the valuation because it’s risky and the market is not really big enough. Investors are usually interested only when they see the potential of the start-up to expand to other countries in the region,” he shares. Corruption, as well as Cambodians’ slow digital adoption, are turn-offs for them too.

It took Chea three tries, not to mention a gold Cambodian ICT award, to finally convince 12 angel investors to take on BookMeBus. “By their third visit, our monthly sales was already at $3,000 and still growing so they took notice,” he shares. The first round of funding, which amounted to “$15,000 spread across 12 investors,” is admittedly small but Chea says “we do not really focus on the amount of money but more on who our investors are and their ability to input value to our start-up. We needed mentors and we got them—our investors come from Australia, United States, and Czech Republic. Most of them have a lot of network, have good resources, and their expertise bring more value to our organization. They’ve mentored me to think outside the box and see how big the world truly is.”

While most of Cambodia’s biggest bus companies regard BookMeBus as a competitor, the portal is now the official booking partner of almost 50 percent of Cambodia’s bus companies. “There are around 65 bus companies in Cambodia, and we work with 30 of them—mostly the small bus companies,” says Chea.

These days, it’s looking like BookMeBus is cruisin’. The platform has expanded its transport options to include private taxis, trains, and ferries—“And in the future, shared taxis and air tickets as well,” Chea informs—and its destinations now cover key cities and townships in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. “We now sell up to $90,000 worth of tickets per month,” shares Chea, adding that because 90 percent of its sales currently come from foreign travelers, there’s plenty of room for growth in the local market.