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Business Insider: Years of experience pay off for job site

BongThom founder Ken White poses with his two children at his office, located in the Outpost co-working space in Phnom Penh.
BongThom founder Ken White poses with his two children at his office, located in the Outpost co-working space in Phnom Penh. Robin Spiess

Business Insider: Years of experience pay off for job site

The Cambodian economy continues to grow, and as it does, the number of available jobs is increasing. But it’s not always easy to match viable candidates with positions in their preferred industries. The Post’s Robin Spiess sat down with Ken White, founder of local jobs platform BongThom, to discuss recent changes to the platform and the importance of encouraging job access as a tool for empowerment.

You established BongThom in July 2000. How has it changed and grown over the past 18 years?
Our job announcement portal, BongThom, was the first of its kind in Cambodia. It first became really popular in 2005 when it was still a free service. At the time I wasn’t making a penny – we did it as a community service. But there came a point when I was just losing too much money, so I decided to monetise it, which was a difficult move to make.

In January 2007, when it was still free to announce jobs on the platform, we had 585 job announcements – and the very next month when we started charging, we had only 85 paid announcements on the page. But by the next year, we were up to over 500 job announcements again, all paid. Thankfully, the monetisation process actually worked. Now, we have about 1,000 or 1,200 job announcements on our site per month.

How have you managed to remain competitive in this market for so long?
The website has grown along with the economy. Competitors have come into the market – including Everjobs, which is a huge company – but they could never seem to make a go of it here, and I’m not entirely sure why. I don’t think of myself as good at business, but one choice I did make was to keep my prices very low. The job announcements market has a lot of big international players who could come into Cambodia and overtake our business, but we keep our prices so low it’s almost not even worth their while coming into the market at all.

Another aspect of it is just trust. When we first came into the market offering our services for free, Cambodians were very attuned to the fact that we were trying to do something good. They could see we were trying to do the right thing, so we got a good reputation that’s stuck with us.

How do you plan to alter your platform in the future?
The website has been running for 18 years, and at its core, it’s still the same system, so it’s a bit antiquated. But that’s about to change. We’ve almost finished a prototype for a completely new system and website.

This new platform – which we’re calling BongSrey – will be launched as a jobs portal specifically geared toward the applied labour sector, especially for the garment and construction industries. Part of the reason BongThom has had a limited impact on the applied labour sector is because the literacy rate in Cambodia is not too high yet – so the new platform will be entirely sound-enabled, with a lot more icons and videos. The first draft of the prototype is nearly done, and it will launch by mid-2018.

Soon, we’ll also be making a new site called Khonnect.com, which is where we will post all of our classified advertisements. So we started with just BongThom, but soon there will be four portals: the original BongThom where we advertise job announcements for the skilled labour sector, our new portal BongSrey where we will advertise jobs in applied labour, Khonnect for classified ads and another site – called Leng Pleng – for advertising music concerts and events.

Have you noticed any major shifts in types of jobs being offered in Cambodia during your time operating Bong-Thom?
There was a big shift from NGOs offering jobs on the site to the private sector really starting to dominate in about 2010. The whole site has been very Phnom Penh-centric for a long time, with almost 85 percent of the jobs announced being based in Phnom Penh at one point.

But there’s been a bit of decentralisation lately. More and more, we’re seeing jobs offered in Siem Reap, Battambang and Kampong Cham. Now, I believe only about 68 percent of our jobs are based in Phnom Penh, with the rest in cities where local jobs are growing in number. Interestingly, Sihanoukville seems to be growing rapidly, but there aren’t many jobs being offered to the locals there.

How do you hope to see increased access to jobs changing the playing field for local workers?
We want to make sure Cambodians have access to jobs – that’s always been our goal. We’ve started noticing that as more jobs are becoming available, more young people have started job-hopping: they get a job and then immediately start searching for another job, and don’t usually work more than two or three years in any one spot. Now that jobs are easier to find, job-hopping is easier than ever. This has resulted in a lot of jobs starting to offer better benefits and higher pay, to attract people to stay. So while that might be difficult for business owners to manage, it’s great for local people who are getting increased wages and benefits as a result.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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