Writer Ellie Dyer visits a unique house in Phnom Penh and finds that young entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the Cambodian capital. Photograph by Charles Fox.
On the spacious balcony of a large villa in leafy Toul Kork, a group of students is hard at work. With oddly-shaped plastic parts, metal components and wheels strewn around them, the futuristic scene is, at first, somewhat hard to decipher.
A quick peek into an adjoining room reveals all. A robot, inspired by film character Wall-E, sits happily on a high shelf, illustrating that these unassuming youngsters form fledgling technology group ArrowDot — one of a number of enterprises that have made their home at an unique entrepreneurial hot house called Small World.
“The space is available for us at any time,” says ArrowDot’s Tep Sophatra, a 20-year-old fourth year student at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, as she helps make a robot designed to pick up rubbish. “We can call it a free space with fresh air, so we can enjoy working here.”
Launched in 2011, Small World provides basic needs for start-up businesses, explains its co-founder Rithy Thul. An entrepreneur himself — he launched a real estate consultancy aged just 19 — his early experiences demonstrate the challenges that many young Cambodians face when entering the commercial sphere for the first time.
“I used my kitchen as my office, an Internet café outside as a communication room, and hotel lobbies were my meeting place for clients,” recalls the 27-year-old businessman, who now runs an adventure tour company. “When my clients asked where my office was… I didn’t have an office.”
“Starting Small World, it’s a good feeling to be able to provide young people with this,” he adds.
The peaceful, sprawling space provides room to work, electricity, water, a low-priced food service, meeting rooms and internet facilities in one centre — saving burgeoning enterprises much-needed cash. “They can use the whole house as their business address and then they can rent one or two tables for their team,” Rithy says.
Since its launch, the friendly environment has proved adept at bringing business people of the future together. Small World holds regular sessions with guest speakers in order to share ideas and experiences.
ArrowDot has been based at the centre for 10 months, while a successful tour business was launched at the villa last year. And although other start-ups have fallen by the wayside, Small World provides the opportunity and flexibility for youngsters to attempt to fulfil their ambitions.
“Most young people today are looking to start or invent something new and to participate in moving the developing world,” says Rithy, who believes the Internet has given young business people an easily accessible education resource, while cheaper travel enables them to gain inspiration and experience. “The idea is to inspire young Cambodians to say ‘if we start something, we can market it to the world.’”
For more information about the space and its events, visit smallworldcambodia.com.