When I met with Khmerload founder In Vichet recently, his wildly popular website was leading with stories typical of its entertainment-driven coverage: Two local pop singers have been spotted wearing the same outfits; a feature on the family of a well-known Cambodian business tycoon; and, with more than 7,500 shares, a series of photographs that emerged of young, female stars in skimpy bikinis.
While Khmerload publishes more than just gossip and titillation, it remains the backbone of what has been hailed Cambodia’s most successful startup after it received a $200,000 investment from 500 Startups earlier this year.
Crime, sport, health and beauty, tech news, and what Vichet describes as “OMG” stories, also appear on the site that’s been dubbed the “Buzzfeed of Cambodia.” There is also an educational vertical aimed at students.
But while Khmerload has captivated readers as well as Silicon Valley investors, politics is one notable topic that doesn’t make the cut. In a country where political tensions are running high—opposition leader Kem Sokha is behind bars on treason charges while Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to continue his 32-year rule by another decade—that could be seen as a problematic omission, a calculated commercial decision, or both.
Politics, Vichet admits, is “tricky,” but the decision was driven by financial considerations. When he began building the site with his brothers Visal and Vichea in 2011, Vichet did a series of experiments to see what drove the most traffic. “We wanted to build a website that has a lot of people coming to visit it,” he says.
“[In terms of] political news, the big news happens once in a while. You get a lot of traffic on that day, and then you don’t.”
Vichet, who doesn’t have a background in journalism, is unabashedly a businessman.
After completing his undergraduate studies in management at a Phnom Penh university, the 30-something undertook his Masters in Development Economics at Williams College in the United States.
It was while he was pursuing a PhD at the University of Michigan—on a scholarship funded by the International Monetary Fund—that he came up with the idea for Little Fashion (an online retail portal), followed by Khmerload.
He dropped out of the program to launch the website, whose offices are now situated above the storefront of Little Fashion in the heart of Cambodia’s capital.
The bulk of the staff are on the editorial desk and produce an average of 35 to 40 articles a day, with about 80 percent of their story leads harvested from social media.
Although Cambodia is a small market with a population of about 15 million, Vichet had identified that viral content was a lucrative untapped market.
Khmerload now records up to 20 million pageviews a month, he says, and has 20 staff. Vichet is currently recruiting to double the size of the team. The bulk of the staff are on the editorial desk and produce an average of 35 to 40 articles a day, with about 80 percent of their story leads harvested from social media.
“They’re not trained, but they can be good journalists,” he says, adding that much of the “hard news” Khmerload publishes comes via partnerships with local news outlets.
The company has also created similar platforms in Myanmar and, in recently, Vietnam, which has necessitated a company rebranding to Mediaload. Both other sites are presented in the local language and content is produced by staff on the ground.
“Now that we’ve got money from investors there’s a responsibility to use the money well. At the same time, we have to scale it fast,” Vichet says.
A foray into the bankable Indonesian market was less successful than hoped, with Vichet concluding that cracking the archipelago would require a large budget. Nonetheless, he’s undaunted and is determined to spread the Khmerload model across the region.
“I’m looking for a seven-digit round, then I can extend to many other countries,” he says. “I think some will be in South Asia and one or two in Southeast Asia. So the goal is to go everywhere.”