Founder of Cambodia’s top local website wants to bring joy to young people through innovative entertainment platforms
(Ma Xuejing / CHINA DAILY)
Sila Chy Thmor has a very simple ambition — to make the people of Cambodia happy. It drives everything he does, especially the businesses he runs.
To date, he is the founder of two companies: Sabay Digital Corporation and CBM Corporation.
Sabay is a digital enterprise dabbling in everything from online games to Sabay News, the No 1 local website in the country, while CBM is a food and beverage company that owns and conceptualizes brands including T&C, Pizza World and BB World.
“I want to do something for my country,” said Sila, 43, who was born and raised in Cambodia. He belongs to the new breed of Cambodian businessmen who are youthful, cosmopolitan in outlook, well-traveled and passionate about shrugging off their country’s war-torn image and modernizing it.
Lofty as it sounds, there is also logic behind his vision. Devastated by the Khmer Rouge and the war with Vietnam, the country has a violent history that remains fresh in the minds of Cambodians. The legacy of that is a national mindset that tends toward dark thoughts filled with worry.
“The older generation is full of what-ifs all the time, plagued with concern that war will return. But the young people deserve to have a happy environment.
“So I started to think about how to help them,” Sila said, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, looking completely at ease in the Elephant Bar at Phnom Penh’s Raffles Hotel Le Royal.
To that end, his company Sabay — a multi-platform content provider that takes its name from the Khmer word for happiness — offers a wide range of solutions. In April it began providing video on demand, similar to the Netflix service but with local Cambodian content.
Indeed, entertainment is the business’ forte. “When someone interacts with any product or service from Sabay, I want them to be happy,” Sila said.
The multi-platform approach serves that goal and offers much more than just escapism.
“I want to promote reading and writing,” he added.
Sila said the company commissioned the writing of more than 100 novels by local authors. Accessible via a subscription service, they also come with an audio book option. Moreover, Sabay is now converting the novels into television drama series.
Sabay is also active in the movie space. The company distributes films and even owns a cinema — a $5 million theater that is the crown jewel of the mega Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh. Ultimately there are plans for Sabay to make its own movies too.
As much as possible, Sila encourages his team to produce happy, positive content.
“I reduced the number of ghost dramas they can make from five to two a month. I don’t allow the Sabay News website to publish news on traffic accidents, which Cambodians love to read about. Why do we need to focus on dark and pitiful things?”
Ever since Sila founded Sabay in 2007, online games have been very much a part of the business — initially through licensing and later by producing games.
“We were the first company to do this in Cambodia,” he said. “I decided to after noticing that it was popular in other countries where I was traveling.”
Its games, such as AK and JX2, are among the most widely played in the country. Sabay even has its own virtual currency, Sabay Coins, which players can use to purchase in-game or online items.
In fact, that arm is so successful that Sila is now looking to replicate the business model in other developing countries, such as Myanmar and Laos.
He set up an office in Singapore as a springboard to invest in other countries, and also has a studio in Zhuhai, in South China’s Guangdong province, where he employs 10 staff to design mobile games.
Familiar with the challenges of setting up a digital company from scratch, he is comfortable entering markets where there is practically zero support.
As the first entrant to the digital market in Cambodia, Sila had to build Sabay’s own infrastructure. That included investing in its own Internet service provider (ISP), fiber optics, dial-up service and cables.
The upside was that the company ended up owning all that infrastructure and today can boast of selling data centers, an ISP and commercial domestic Internet exchange.
Born in 1974, the year before the Khmer Rouge took power, he said he was birthed “in the jungle” as a breech baby.
“I was a survivor; my parents said I was very stubborn. That’s why they gave me the name Sila, which means stone. I guess that’s where I developed the attitude that nothing is impossible and to never give up.”
He remembers that after the Khmer Rouge fell, he walked 80 kilometers with his family to Vietnam, where they lived for 10 months before returning to Cambodia because they missed home too much.
Those years were challenging, to say the least. After dropping out of university, he worked as a tour guide in Angkor Wat, the World Heritage-listed temple complex in Siem Reap province. In 1998, he invested $500 of his own savings into a shop selling CDs and movies.
With his friend Kouch Sokly, they expanded CD World before moving on to open food and beverage business CBM Corporation in 2002.
“Fifteen years ago, the food scene was very quiet — that is why we decided to focus on it. We started with our own brand, BB World, selling burgers.”
The following year, they launched T&C World, said to be the first cafe in Cambodia with air conditioning.
“We modernized the surroundings for drinking coffee, mixed with serving traditional food, and started a trend,” Sila said. No longer was coffee only a beverage for “old people”.
“The business ran for 10 years and at its peak we had eight outlets,” he said.
Along the way, CBM also conceptualized other brands, and clinched the franchise to represent South Korean bakery chain Tous Les Jours.
Sila is less involved in CBM now, but is still engaged with its strategy, business development and marketing.
Most of his energy is devoted to Sabay. He hopes he can grow the company and eventually take it public.
Given his trajectory so far, reaching that goal — and the added happiness it brings — should simply be a matter of time.
Sila Chy Thmor
CEO, Sabay Digital Corporation
2007-present: CEO of Sabay Digital Corporation
2002-present: General director of CBM Corporation
How does making others happy manifest in your treatment of staff?
This year, my plan is to campaign for my staff to be ‘worry-less’. I’ve implemented human resources policies such as medical leave, dental benefits, giving them a cake on their birthdays, and mandating that on the last Friday of every month we should all go out and party together. If we are not happy, we can’t make other people happy.
What advice do you have for other Cambodians looking to expand their business overseas?
Work with partners around the region. When I first started talking to potential investors in Sabay, I felt very small because Cambodia is a country with a small population. You shouldn’t forget that. But it is important to expand, because ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is emerging and we should all want to be a part of it.
You have been to more than 40 countries. What are your favorite travel memories?
I like to go where I can be close to nature. Last March, I went up in a hot air balloon in Bagan, Myanmar. It had always been on my bucket list, and I was very lucky to get a spot at the last minute. The ancient city is still very virginal and I hope it stays that way.
Year of birth: 1974