Founder's Story

Single Mum Builds Advertising Agency from Scratch

Keat Aphivath hasn’t let being a single mum get in the way of launching a series of businesses. The 36-year-old CEO shares the highs and lows of being her own boss.
Hybrid Advertising CEO Keat Aphivath. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Hybrid Advertising CEO Keat Aphivath. Kiripost/Siv Channa

“I landed my first job in 2007 and in the first year of my career, I changed jobs three times. I felt like i wasn't fit to work for others, so I decided to quit my job and persevered to start my own business,” said Aphivath, CEO of Hybrid, one of the top advertising agencies in Cambodia.

Originally hailing from Battambang province and born to an average family of four, Aphivath set foot for the first time in the capital, Phnom Penh, in 2002 to pursue higher education at two universities – Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), and Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL) – at the same time.

In the capital, she lived in a rented flat room and taught English-language classes at weekends to finance her own living and study while supporting a widowed mother back in her hometown.

Starting a business from scratch

Aphivath started Hybrid with just four staff, including herself, with her small savings from one year’s work, and private loans with interest. She recalls the first thing the company did was to print business cards and leaflets.

“Back then, I asked myself when I would become truly successful if I continued to do just these?" she said. “I then looked at other things, like event activation which I was strongly interested in, so I started to go around observing others’ events, like concerts and so on.”

At this moment, Hybrid hired event activation specialists and were awarded many projects by now-defunct company Beeline.

Starting a business from scratch with little startup capital, things were never easy for Aphivath. But, being so committed to the business, she got loans with high interest rates from private lenders to keep operations going.

“Back then, I was worried too, but I told myself that I didn’t borrow money for gambling; I borrowed money for doing business,” said the 36-year-old CEO, who is also the single mother of a six-year-old daughter.

“When I started Hybrid, we were very small. I was doing everything. I was acting as the Messenger, Finance and Client service too. I did just everything I can,” she added.

From a four-people team to a company of over 100 staff

Officially registered in 2010, Hybrid is 12 years old today. The strongly determined businesswoman has founded and run three more companies in addition to Hybrid. They are Pronith Pithy Wedding Planner, Elite Travel & Tours, and Panasonic Distributor for BtoB business in Cambodia.

In running a business, Aphivath said, the most difficult thing is managing people. Kiripost/Siv Channa
In running a business, Aphivath said, the most difficult thing is managing people. Kiripost/Siv Channa

“When I start any business, I don’t do it just for the sake of having a business. If I start a business, I have to make sure it runs well before I move to the next one,” said Aphivath.

For Aphivath, every business has its own problems, and being fully engaged in the operations and committed to solving problems are key for business leaders.

“Every business has problems. What we must do as an entrepreneur is be fully committed to the business and fully engaged in it,” she said.

“I think if any business will succeed or not, depends on the captain because they are the one who holds the steering wheel. They must be fully involved in the operations,” she added.

Managing people is most difficult

Aphivath started her business without any prior business management experience or skills. The business has taught her along the way.

“I am doing and learning at the same time,” she said.

For a businesswoman with more than a decade of experience, she thinks the most difficult thing is managing people.

“I deal with many people with different thoughts and brains. Managing people inside a company is even more difficult than managing clients,” she added.

“I use a tailor-made approach in dealing with each individual. We have to listen to what they want. Suppose a staff member normally does a great job but one day they do not perform well, we don’t just blame them. Instead, we sit down with them and find out the reason why they don’t do well in their job. Then, they will feel that we care about them.”

For Hybrid, what makes you proud of the most?

Hybrid, according to the CEO, has never had a business development department. Yet, many clients have come to the company making it busy all year round.

She thinks people know about Hybrid through word-of-mouth from previous clients. “We receive good feedback from clients. They use our services, and come back again or recommend us to other clients, and this has become a cycle,” said Aphivath. “The moments that I am proud of are when clients say good things about us.”

Although Hybrid is her favorite among her other companies, Aphivath admits that agency business is busy and, most often, tiring.

“When people work, we work. When people rest, we still work because, we must prepare things in the evening for tomorrow’s event, for instance. And most events occur on weekends or public holidays. We are all busy all year round,” she added.

When asked if there have ever been moments that made her consider quitting, Aphivath said, “yes.”

“Sometimes, I feel that I am now able to earn, but in the process of doing so, I now don’t have much time for other areas of my life. I ask myself why I work so hard? There are, of course, some moments that I thought of wanting to quit. But, when I had such a feeling, I look back and remember how I started. When I started, I had nothing, and I've come so far and accomplished quite a lot in life, why should I give up?” she added.

A plan for an early retirement and a reward for herself

Aphivath said she plans to retire early to spend more time with her daughter.

Aphivath plans to retire at age 45. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Aphivath plans to retire at age 45. Kiripost/Siv Channa

She recalls the lost opportunity for an overseas study scholarship due to family reason after university. She has now registered for executive education under the Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School Executive Education.

The purpose, according to Aphivath, is to reward herself for the chance she lost to study overseas. “I remember when I had a chance to study overseas, I had chosen not to because of family commitments. Now, I am given an opportunity to study at one of the world’s best business schools as a reward for myself,” she said.

Her typical day as a businesswoman

Despite her tight schedule with businesses, the single-mum CEO has maintained a work-life balance. Every morning, she takes her kid to school, except when she has an event out of town or travels overseas.

Then, she does exercise a few times a week before starting office work. At work, her personal assistant helps her with the daily schedule as there are many meetings each day. However, she chooses what to join.

She normally stays late at work, with her average working day comprising 10 hours. She only has between four to five hours of sleep each night.

“I don’t socialize so much. I mostly attend work-related events only. On weekends, I take rest and spend time with my kid. If it’s my kid’s vacation, we go overseas together,” she said.

Key to success and message for young entrepreneurs

Aphivath believes what makes her business successful is that she has been fully immersed in day-to-day operations and follows market trends closely.

“We know what the current market needs are and meet those needs. Also key, is we have good human resources. We have talented people to work for us,” she said.

Asked what key message she would like to share with potential young people who want to take on their own entrepreneurial path, Aphivath said, “It all starts with knowing yourself first.”

“First, you must know yourself. What skill you are good at. There are two things. Once, you have the skill and the money and you can start a business. Two, you have the skill but you don’t have the money. If you don’t have the money, you can start small,” she added.

Another thing is knowing who your target clients are.

“If you sell breakfast for students, your target clients are students, so you must sell it near the schools, you can’t sell it ten kilometers away from the schools. No students will buy your breakfast. Your food must be quick to make, for instance, because students have short time during break etcetera.”

Some examples of business failing, according to Aphivath, are that people follow one another when they do a business.

“They see someone do it, and they just do it as well. That fails,” she said.

When asked what makes a good business manager or leader, she said, “I can’t say if I am a good leader, but I like to listen to the problems. When someone has a problem, I will listen to their problem, and their reasoning and then I make a decision.”