Setting up a Web Design Business in Cambodia with Robert Starkweather, Founder of K4 Media

Robert Starkweather shares his experiences moving his Web Design and development company, K4 Media, from San Francisco to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.

Robert, please introduce yourself…

My name is Robert Starkweather. I am a web designer and developer based in Phnom Penh. My background is in print. I came from the newspaper industry in Houston, Texas, where I am from, and later in California, where I worked first at the SF Weekly and later at NBCi.

My company, K4 Media, is a small, boutique web design firm. We specialize in small- and medium-sized enterprises. We do everything from design, html/css/js coding to db design and web application programming.

What’s the story behind creating K4 Media?

K4 Media was first opened in San Francisco in 1999. Then, as now, it was just a couple of people and a team of freelancers. When I moved back to Cambodia in 2001, the company came with me.

How did moving to Cambodia come about for you?

I had many Cambodian friends in San Francisco. I wanted to travel. Southeast Asia seemed a cool place to go in general, Cambodia in specific. So I came and I traveled the region a bit and then decided to check out Cambodia.

In those days things were much more different than now. Getting set up was buying a computer and working from home. Later on I partnered with others for bigger projects, offices, etc. Like most things in life, if you have money that helps. A lot. If you don’t, you have to be a bit more creative. I am a believer in starting small.

How does the web design industry in Cambodia compare with elsewhere in Asia?

I have never lived anywhere else in Asia, so I don’t have much perspective on how things operate elsewhere. But Phnom Penh has a active, I would say thriving, tech community — with a Hackerspace and a few tech incubators around, plus loads of young, enthusiastic people.

What are the primary challenges of running a web design business in Cambodia?

The challenges here are in many ways similar to business everywhere: getting enough customers, managing the ones you have properly, marketing, etc. But sometimes the challenges can be more localized, for example power outages, road closures, riots.

When the power goes out you can’t work. When the police close the roads, it can make getting into the office a real challenge. But the road-closing things seems to have passed.

Other things might include the challenges of emerging markets, where the customer base is still relatively under-educated. But in fact, those challenges exist even in mature markets.

The banking infrastructure is virtually non-existent in terms of credit cards and online merchant possibilities. So e-commerce within the country is still years away, at least.

Internet, too, is still slow and expensive, although not as bad as in the past. For example a 1MB connection costs me $25 per month. At home I have 4mb per month for the same amount. I think 12mb is the maximum available.

Also – there’s a lot of alsos – government regulation is weak to non-existent, as is law enforcement; corruption in the judicial system is rampant.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the local work force in Cambodia?

Younger Cambodian’s are, as a rule, super keen to learn English, computers and tech things. This translates into a broad, energetic work force. What many lack, however, is a solid educational foundation and, of course, experience. As a rule, I think most tech businesses do well here. All the ones I know of do well. The primary driver I believe is English proficiency, which is miles ahead other countries in the region. Also, because of the history, there seems to be a missive, innate desire to “catch up,” as it were.

What’s the best way to find and hire exceptionally smart designers and developers in Cambodia?

Million dollar question! Poaching is one. But I would say building and developing in-house is the best long-term strategy. Find people who are willing to learn and teach them your way.

You can post job ads at the dozens of job web sites, but I have had quite limited luck on them. It can be challenging. That’s why I try to find people with the right character and invest in them.

What advice can you share with entrepreneurs wanting to start or expand their business into Cambodia?

Cambodia is not for every one. The country is more developed now than at anytime in recent years, but it can still be trying for many. Come, hang out for a while if you can, even if it’s only a weekend or two. Find others who are doing similar things and talk to them.

Maybe you can find an existing enterprise to partner with. Or you might see better ways to start off on your own. Just know that it will not be easy, and if you came with the idea of making a lot of money, be prepared to put in the hard yards.

What’s the situation with foreign nationals opening up a company in Cambodia?

Easy as handing over US$800, or whatever the going rate is these days. You’ll have to hire a fixer to make it all happen, and the fixer will keep most of that $800 (or more likely share it with all the paper pushers in the ministry he needs to get your documents sorted). But that’s about it. It’s pretty straight-forward, actually. Foreigners can own 100% of the company, no problem. They just can’t buy land.

Beside web design, what business opportunities do you see emerging in Cambodia right now?

Hmmm. Another good question. I am not sure. Cambodia can be treacherous for outside investors. And markets here are already over-saturated with companies losing money. Take telecoms, for example, there’s a dozen big players and the few that aren’t on the verge of bankruptcy are engaged in a damaging price war.

Lately there has been an influx of Japanese and South Korean businesses, mostly restaurants, open. Most foreigners open bars or restaurants, and that sector is crowded. Maybe agriculture?

What’s next for K4 Media?

I keep contemplating expansion. More staff, more clients. At the same time, the pressures on price continue to grow, and the local workforce continues to increase its capacity. Outsourcing might be an option, or a partnership with a good local company. For now, at least, I will try to keep my existing customers happy while I procrastinate a little while longer.

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