The first time I met Sopheak was as part of our introduction session to the Entrepreneur Life (EL) program (2011). He was one of 15 young aspiring entrepreneurs who started in our program that same year. Sopheak was sociable and easy to connect with. I would often find him telling a funny story or joking around – and it wasn’t long before he forged strong relationships with other students, trainers and mentors. To be clear, Sopheak did take his learning journey in the EL program very seriously, but he certainly also knew how to have fun!
Sopheak was much like all our other EL program participants – he had a dream to start a business that could provide sustainable employment to disadvantaged youth and also be profitable enough to support his family in the future. Like most young Cambodians we met in our time in Phnom Penh, Sopheak wanted to break free from the negativity of the past and move on to create something exciting and new in Cambodia! In Sopheak’s case, his vision was to start a healthy snack food business in Phnom Penh, with multiple outlets and even potentially including a franchise business model. Sopheak’s vision and forward thinking blew me away – throughout the next few months, I could see that he had both the commitment and street-smarts to see his dream become a reality. No doubt Sopheak benefited from more Western-styled progressive thinking and insights to modern technology thanks to his work at an INGO, and also via his extensive networks throughout Phnom Penh city and abroad. In addition, he clearly also brought the necessary enthusiasm, work ethic and clear vision to develop his idea.
The Snacker started out offering healthy snacks and homemade ice creams including flavours made with local ingredients (such as Durian!). The business was established in 2012 with a small team comprising mainly family /relatives under Sopheak’s direction. It is worth noting that since starting The Snacker, Sopheak has often considered leaving his job at the INGO to put all his energies into the business. However, Sopheak has decided to remain committed to his INGO work while building The Snacker in his hours after work /during weekends. There are always pros and cons to any decision to move full time into being supported from a new start-up business. Either way, I have admired Sopheak’s tenacity to juggle multiple responsibilities of family, work and community life all while building his business.
The Snacker experienced a good level of early success – appealing to a broad market locally including Uni students, young families, trendy professionals, and also many expats and overseas tourists. Most customers loved tasting something new, fresh and different to what the usual myriad food sellers offered in Phnom Penh up to that point in time! Customers were also delighted to support the social cause of the business and through increasing word of mouth, a focused sales and marketing strategy (including use of social media channels), The Snacker experienced a high level of growth over the first 2-3 years of operation.
There are several factors that I believe contributed to The Snacker’s success, this is based on my observations over the years since he started the business:
1) The Snacker ice cream recipes were inspired by original recipes handed over from an experienced ice cream seller in PP. Sopheak had built a strong friendship with an old ice cream seller in Phnom Penh (who was close to retirement age) and was willing to handover his recipes. This ability to acquire proven recipes enabled Sopheak to short-track his production development cycle and enter market testing/customer feedback activities with a known product.
2) Throughout the EL program, we were able to connect Sopheak with an experienced Business Mentor who provided a significant level of strategic input and advice throughout the business planning, set-up and customer validation process. Sopheak also gathered other advisors around him, which I believe was important in his early stages of business growth.
3) The extended network of friends and professional contacts were a real asset and certainly provided an amount of goodwill upfront from potential customers willing to try out The Snacker. The ability to gain solid word of mouth referrals and engaged customers posting positive reviews on social media provided a huge boost to initial sales.
4) By conducting market testing using already proven recipes – Sopheak was able to gain valuable feedback early on from potential customers and using a ready to market product. Through early feedback processes Sopheak was able to improve on the original recipes and offer a range of flavours that he could be confident would satisfy customer taste buds!.
I met with Sopheak in Phnom Penh in March 2016 to check in with where the business is at currently, what were some of the lessons he has learnt and to talk about his plans for the future. I also asked Sopheak to complete our Emerging Enterprise Leaders survey – here are some of his responses:
In what year did you start your social enterprise?
We started The Snacker in mid 2012.
In what locations are you operating currently?
Our first outlet was located in car parking lot of Russian market (corner of street 163 and street 450), Phnom Penh (Cambodia). We introduced mobile cart selling model throughout Phnom Penh, added some university café sales locations and offered a franchisee to sell our ice cream in Café in Phnom Penh and Kampot town.
What main products / services do you offer customers?
Cambodian best homemade ice cream.
What types of customers are you targeting?
We have divided several target customers ranged by ages and locations. In general, we targeted 70% are local and 30% expats whom stayed in Cambodia longer period.
How many full-time staff does the business employ currently?
The Snacker has employed 10 full time staff.
Describe how you create value through the business – in particular, how you create value for your customers, staff and shareholders/ stakeholders.
Customers: We are faithful to our customers as we proclaim our mission is to provide safe and healthy snacks. We have always remained consistent in making our ice cream healthy-organic at an affordable price.
Staff: The Snacker is a small social enterprise business, which its mission is to make a contribution in giving employment opportunity to unfortunate girls and women to some who may end up to work as a garment workers and immigrate to work in abroad country as house maid or labourer. We also targeted to employ university students who may want a part time job to help their school tuition fee.
Shareholders/Partners: The Snacker welcomes partners who see the need of people and would like to contribute in making a difference through this business at the same of earning income for their portion.
What strategic leadership decisions have been made that you consider to be defining moments on the journey of growth?
The Snacker has been operating with its own outlets, to some we also do as a franchise partnering approach, and now we also provide catering and supply ice cream direct to some restaurants and parties (including a wedding reception). In the future, The Snacker would like to move on its growth trend into both a retail and franchiser model. So, our next step is to first enlarge our production capacity ensuring our commitment quality stays the same, and then we can boost our marketing through traditional and social media.
Can you describe any personal leadership crises that you may have experienced on the journey to date and any key leadership lessons you learnt as a result?
In developing The Snacker I have had experience with several kinds of partnering with investors. Some investors were easy going but some weren’t. Making story short, we have learnt that not all investment would fit to the business but seeking the right one is really crucial. Especially, we need a partner who really buys in to the business vision and mission. And another piece of advice, do not forget to have an exit plan in a contract.
Describe any significant transitions occurring currently within your business / social enterprise (or in your market) and what you are most excited about when considering these transitions.
Firstly, The Snacker has been established in the market through a mix of between small start up business and social enterprise. Its popularity has been introduced by word of mouth and The Snacker stories in google search engine. The Snacker has transformed one step at a time from a small start up business into a professional business in a future. We want to expand it as the first leading best Cambodian ice cream business in Country and other countries in ASEAN community.
On the topic of leaders learning how to fail-forward / fail-fast: Can you describe any failures you may have experienced over the years – those that you now look back on realising you actually gained or learnt something significant from the experience.
One big failure we have experienced with The Snacker was when we stepped into a restaurant business (due to buying in to a vision of doing another business with a group whose values and vision were for making a good contribution to Cambodia). It was a big failure and we lost about 30K after going into that restaurant cafe business. One big lesson I learnt is to not lean on a vision alone, but to also look carefully on what motivates each of the partners joining in partnership over the long run, and to never take on this kind of improper partnering ever.
Describe what brings you the most joy and satisfaction currently in your role as an emergent business / enterprise leader
My most joy and satisfaction as the founder and owner, is that I am really happy to see that finally my idea and dream did work out even though its still small scale but has been great move so far. I am really proud of The Snacker business as it also played an important role in creating a safe snack environment as a new choice here in Cambodia. It’s been a journey to explore business experiences so far since we started The Snacker from scratch. And I also would like to highly thanks to EL program that helps in inspiring and equipping me so far. Without your professional training, The Snacker may never been existed. Thank You!
Well, I hope you have enjoyed hearing about The Snacker social enterprise and Sopheak’s journey. If you are ever travelling through Phnom Penh city – do yourself a favour and stop in at The Snacker to enjoy some of their yummy ice creams!