STARTUPS

Founder’s Story: Chim Poly is Restyling Cambodia’s Barbershop Experience

A $50 haircut – the most expensive he’d ever received – provided Chim Poly with the inspiration to elevate the barber experience in Cambodia. The result is a chain of vintage-style barbershops that are a cut above the rest.
Chim Poly (right) and Eng Pao pose for a picture at their Kambuja Barbershop. Both entrepreneurs want to elevate barbershop industry in Cambodia. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Chim Poly (right) and Eng Pao pose for a picture at their Kambuja Barbershop. Both entrepreneurs want to elevate barbershop industry in Cambodia. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Chim Poly was pursuing his postgraduate studies in Australia when he experienced one of the most expensive haircuts he’d ever had. Compared to the haircuts he had in Cambodia, he was impressed. Back home, haircuts weren’t great and places weren’t clean.

It was these personal stories that inspired Poly to found his own barbershop business, elevating the Kingdom’s hairdressing standards.

Sitting in a plush leather barber’s chair in his vintage-style barbershop with walls adorned by a quirky collection of antique art, Poly said when he returned from his overseas study in 2014, he landed a job at one of the country’s biggest telecoms companies, CellCard, before picking up employment with other major players, including Uber, Wing and TADA.

However, the now 33-year-old harbored a passion to found and run his own business. And he still clung tightly onto the idea of launching a barbershop.

“When I was studying overseas, I went to a barbershop and it cost me around $50. That’s expensive. I was wondering why it was so expensive. I realized their barbers and their shops were of a very high standard,” Poly told Kiripost at a recent interview at one of his barber shops near Russian Market in the capital’s Tuol Tumpoung.

“Here in Cambodia, we have not seen such a standard yet. So, this is an opportunity,” he added.

Poly, who is married with one son, put his business idea into action. He founded his first barbershop, Simple Barbershop, in late 2019 with the aim of setting a model for barbershops and raising the standards of living of the barbers.

A barber is serving a customer at Kambuja Barbershop. Kiripost/Siv Channa
A barber is serving a customer at Kambuja Barbershop. Kiripost/Siv Channa

A desire to improve and a search for a partner

In Cambodia, Poly graduated with two bachelor’s degrees – one in banking and finance and the other in business English. In 2014, he graduated with a Master’s degree in business administration from Australia. Despite his educational background, work experience, and fierce passion to run a barbershop, Poly admits he had no experience cutting hair, so he started to look for a partner.

“The passion to help barbers made me start up this barbershop business. But I didn’t know the business of this field and I am not a barber, so I started to search for someone to partner with,” Poly says.

He started his search on the Internet and social media and found Eng Pao, who is a seasoned barber and has already run a barbershop.

“I found a guy who already owns a barbershop and who’s a barber himself. I then chatted to him via Facebook messenger asking to meet, and he agreed,” Poly says.

A partner found and a joint startup kicks-off

After meeting Poly, Eng Pao, 30, agreed to join hands with him to run barbershop businesses under the umbrella company, Simple Group.

“There were five people, if my memory is correct, approaching me before Poly, but in the end I chose Poly as partner because after our meetings, we knew that we had a common vision. We wanted to walk on the same path,” says Pao, who is also known as Thav Virak.

Simple Group has since grown to operate a booming barbershop business in Phnom Penh – two are called ‘5 Barbershop;’ three with the name of ‘Simple Barbershop’, and one called ‘Kambuja Barbershop.’

Poly is a co-founder in charge of the business side of the company while counterpart Eng Pao takes charge of training and qualifying barbers to ensure work quality.

The reason for having three brands, explains Poly, is that each caters to different categories of customers. For example, the 5 Barbershop brand targets low-end customers, charging $2.50 for a haircut. In contrast, Simple Barbershop and Kambuja target medium- and high-end customers at $7 and $15 respectively.

Chim Poly and Eng Pao pose for a picture with their staff at Kambuja Barbershop. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Chim Poly and Eng Pao pose for a picture with their staff at Kambuja Barbershop. Kiripost/Siv Channa

An ambition to upscale business and revolutionize the industry

For Poly, the barbershop business is not as simple as some people may think. And he has an ambitious plan for Simple Group, aiming to open 100-plus branches across the country.

He adds that the business will be driven by technology, using a web-based digital system to manage the shops. “Our approach is a bit different,” Poly said, adding he plans to operate some barbers under a franchise model. “Not all barbershop branches are necessarily owned by Simple Group, meaning that interested individuals could own them.”

“I think if we own everything for our own profit, we won’t achieve the goal of bolstering the industry as a whole. Our model is not about profit alone; it’s about improved value in the sector. We want to see each barbershop be of a certain certified standard. When the entire industry is standardized, we will create value for it,” he adds.

Any barbershops not owned by Simple Group but seeking to become affiliates, Poly said Simple Group will provide them with training and certification of their barbers, as well as the technology to manage the shops.

In addition, Simple Group will supply affiliate shops with quality yet affordable products.

“We will supply shops with a tech system for shop management. We digitize the payment system and vital records. We believe that only technology can help us upscale this business,” says Poly. “Unless we manage it this way, we can’t uplift the barbershop business to the next level.”