Just like many other businesses, big or small, travel booking startup BookMeBus has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic during the last two years.
“We had a very hard time,” said Chea Langda, founder and CEO of tech startup, BookMeBus.
“Tourism businesses [have been] hit hard. We were the first to get hit and we were the last to recover from the crisis,” he added.
Founded in 2015, BookMeBus is a travel booking platform that allows travelers in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand to book their bus and ferry online.
Langda said the startup had been doing well before the outbreak of Covid-19, which has seen many businesses in Cambodia close down. And BookMeBus was not exempt from the crisis.
When asked how he survived his startup, Langda said the struggle was quite challenging.
“It’s very unfortunate for tourism businesses. But we decided not to give up because of this crisis,” said the young technopreneur.
“My only goal at that time was to keep the co-founding team. I know that we can try many things, but whatever it takes, not to lose the team,” he added.
How did you manage to keep the core team?
Things were quite challenging during the crisis, Langda said, as most of the co-founders could not get the salary everyone used to get before, and everyone has a family and kids.
So, the strategy at that time was to try to find different projects so he could leverage the team, and the talent that they have.
“I told my team that if we keep laying off by doing nothing, and just keep laying off, one day we will lay off ourselves as well,” said Langda. “We must do something to survive,” he added.
Then, the team decided to find different projects and try to innovate.
For example, according to Langda, at that time, when the bus could not transport passengers, BookMeBus was working on a project to help minivan drivers to deliver cargo.
In 2020, Langda thought of a scenario that the lockdown would happen because it already had in neighboring countries.
He thought, despite lockdowns, people still need to eat, so he thought BookMeBus could use buses and minivans to transport groceries to lockdown areas so people did not need to go to supermarkets or shopping malls because of the virus.
“So, I thought this could be a way out,” said Langda. “But, unfortunately, in 2020, the lockdown did not happen, so the project failed,” he added.
Amidst the crisis, a new joint venture launched
In 2021, Langda said, one of the country’s leading transport and logistics companies, Vireak Buntham, had an initiative to work with the government to provide grocery deliveries to red zones – the complete lockdown areas.
The owner and founder of Vireak Buntham remembered what BookMeBus had tried but failed earlier.
“Hey, Langda, last year, you did something about grocery delivery with the chatbot and those technologies. Can you share with me some experience because right now I am doing that?” Langda recalled the first conversation the owner of Vireak Buntham started with him.
“Then, we talked. We discussed it. And the idea did not stop at the lockdown thing, but it went on to the e-commerce thing,” said Langda.
“So, we both believe that Vireak Buntham has logistic infrastructure with nationwide coverage, and BookMeBus has the technology, the know-how, so why don’t we work together?” said Langda.
Then, BookMeBus and Vireak Butham jointly founded VTENH – the e-commerce marketplace platform – the investment of which enabled Langda to maintain his core team of co-founders and to recover from the crisis.
According to Langda, who also serves as managing director of the new joint venture VTENH, the e-commerce marketplace – VTENH – has been launched for almost three years now.
So far, about 30,000 products have been listed on the platform, and all goods shopped could be delivered nationwide, within a 48-hour timeframe.
Next Five-Year Plan for BookMeBus
For BookMeBus, the original plan was to go beyond Cambodia with the ambition to help more transport operators in Southeast Asia move online to become part of the digital world and benefit from the internet industry.
But, because of the pandemic, the plan to expand BookMeBus to other neighboring countries was slowed down, according to Langda, but he said this did not mean the plan was given up.
“Now, we see that we have more ability to help Cambodians and businesses here in Cambodia by leveraging on our experiences. We’ve already proven that Cambodian consumers can shop, can buy online, and can make payments online,” said Langda.
“With this know-how of ours, we think we can help more businesses, not only limited to transport, travel and tourism but also expanding to other industries as well,” he added.
Landa said BookMeBus is going to launch more businesses in the tourism industry, which is to leverage on the user base it has spent eight years building.
The next plan for BookMeBus is to help other tourism businesses like hotels, tours, spa & massage, restaurants and so on to leverage on the ecosystem it has already built.
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