Is it about going against the current, or passion for entrepreneurship? Let’s dig in the mind of Sopheakmonkol Sok!
The most unrealistic career advice anyone could give a 23-year-old is to start their own business fresh out of college. The formula of a success business venture has been tried and tested: Gain work experiences, network, form a plan, network a lot more, find money, identify your market, find investors, establish a budget, and then, and only then, do you start dreaming.
If Sopheakmonkol Sok had followed the path most travelled, then Codingate would not be here today. At 23, just a few months after graduating, Sok cofounded Codingate, a programming shop that offers web design, business applications, and graphic design. Three years later, he won the Smart Technology Entrepreneur Award. A year after that, he made it to Forbes Asia 2017’s 30 under 30 list for the brightest young entrepreneurs, innovators, and game changers.
The journey has not been easy. Sopheakmonkol Sok had to overcome a number of hurdles that transformed him from a programmer to an entrepreneur.
After graduating from the University of Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic in Information Management in 2012, Sok returned home, to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where it quickly became obvious to him that home could not provide the growth and development he wanted. There was no market potential for the IT business, so he brought his expertise to Phnom Penth.
There, everything was new to him and everything was a challenge. He took a job teaching at a university, where he met a group of like-minded individuals. It was there that his dreams began. He saw the passion, commitment and will to succeed in his students and he decided to help them. His plan was as simple as it was complicated: He wanted to get laptops for his students, but everything in between was a complete mystery.
“I had a full time job teaching at a university while I managed the project. It was difficult.”
He recognized his problems from the very beginning. Unlike people who had been in the industry for years, he was brand new and relatively unknown. Nevertheless, he convinced his friend, Rithy Thul, to cofound Codingate, and with their team of dedicated and dynamic young students, they started a Skills-Exchange-Laptop campaign. Instead of being paid in cash for their work, they were compensated with laptops.
“It’s not about getting the laptops. It’s about getting work.”
In order to achieve their goal, they had to have clients. Using their combined prowess in interpersonal and communication skills as well as expertise in technology and programming, they managed to instil trust in people, enough for them to invest in this new venture. Though still very much a newcomer in the business, Sok lead and inspired his team to strive for the best and set clear goals for them to achieve.
Sok was very careful with the work he accepted. He only took on jobs that he knew he and his team were capable of handling in order to ensure the confidence in his team was not in vain.
What started out as a campaign meant to help his students gain laptops grew into something more. In October of 2013, three months after starting Codingate, they successfully obtained 11 laptops.
Working together with a team of programmers, graphic and web designers gave Sok an idea. It is impossible to be a one-man-army in the IT business. Even though the business is grounded in its base in coding and programming with parts and segments that could be divided out and done by different people, Sok saw that it is necessary to have a team of people to make the technology more workable and user-friendly. By having a group of people with different skills and talents working on the same project, Sok recognized that the result would be better as a whole.
“It’s a risk. It’s a startup and a passion for us,” he said when he pitched the idea to the team, expecting most of them to walk away. Instead, he found himself with a team of 13 members.
“It was a big challenge for me because I went from working on one project with a few members to being a leader with a team.”
With a bigger team, came more responsibilities and more work. Sok learned on his feet and began to accept projects that are just a little more challenging, a little beyond their scope, forcing both him and his teammates to continue to grow and expand their expertise.
In addition to motivating his team, Sok had to handle the clients, public relations, finances, and all the roles involved with keeping a business sustainable.
To date, Codingate had taken up more than 150 projects and expanded their team from the original 13 members, to 40.
Their core passion of helping others and improving themselves remains strong. Sok believes it is important that they continue to train young Cambodians to be leaders in the country. “Cambodia is a country that has almost everything,” he said. “We had a civil war and it brought the country down,” he said, adding that because of the war, they lost a lot of great minds. The Cambodian Civil War was the military conflict that defeated the Republican government in 1975 and led to the Cambodian genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 1.5 to 3 million lives were lost.
Despite those setbacks, Cambodia is growing fast. “We’re coming back…” he continued. “If you look at the landscape and the growth of the country, I would say we have the fundamentals to grow.”
Codingate is part of that growth, developing from a small team trying to get laptops, to an established company working with national and international clients. Codingate leverages the skills and talents of everyone in the team to provide user-friendly software and marketing solutions in the marketplace. The success of Codingate is also able to trigger the startup spirit in the community, something that Sok enjoys seeing.
“Cambodia can code for the world”
When asked about the key elements to his success of transforming from a programmer to an entrepreneur. he credited the commitment, focus and the ability to be flexible and improve.
“I was lucky,” he added. “I have a good mentor.” His mentor is an entrepreneur who was an experienced programmer with experience in the IT business. He guided Sok on how to manage the team, project, finances, and technology.
However, there was one advice that he refuses to accept.
“Since day one of my entrepreneurship journey, I’ve always challenged it when people say failure is okay when managing a startup. To me, Failure is not okay.”
Sok believes that while mistakes are understandable and part of the growing process, failures are unacceptable. Sok explains that repeating the same mistakes over and over again will lead to failure. When a startup fails, it isn’t just the founder that holds the short end of the stick but the people who had put their trust in the startup and dedicated their time and effort to making it a success. “And for me, that was the key motivation to not give up. No matter what challenges I faced, be it economic or business, I learned fast. I won’t give up.”
It is this mindset that motivates Sok to improve Codingate and in turn, inspire his employees. Sok understands the value of growth and encourages his employees to do the same.
“Since 2016, we’ve been running an internal training program, Fast Track Software Development Program. The idea is like a startup beacon.” The program aims to focus solely on software development and market possibilities without worrying any other factors. The development program currently has 3 ideas that Sok hopes to turn into successful ventures of their own.
Looking back, Sok acknowledges that Codingate’s success stems from it’s focus on the people. His teammates were working not just for the sake of the money, but because they want to create something that is good and sustainable. By taking money out of the equation, the motivation becomes the work itself, and they brought that spirit forward in every project they handled thereafter.
“The stronger my team, the better we can support one another.”
Being an entrepreneur is a challenge, certainly, but Sok advices future game changers to find a group of people they trust and inspire them to be leaders. “Train someone who can replace you,” he says. The only reason why successful people don’t burn out is because they have people they trust to do their work in their stead when they go on vacations. He emphasizes the importance of having a team that can motivate each other to improve and work on challenging – and overcoming – weaknesses.