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Oct. 10, 2017, 10:16 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Cambodian viral site Khmerload has new plans for a BuzzFeed-like digital empire across Southeast Asia

In Vichet launched Khmerload while he was still a PhD student. Now, with Silicon Valley backing, he’s added new editions in Myanmar and Vietnam and is looking at several more locations in South and Southeast Asia.

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, stories in that vein remain the backbone of what has been hailed Cambodia’s most successful digital startup, after Khmerload 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 — pardon the cliché — the “BuzzFeed of Cambodia.” Khmerload also runs a learning 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. Independent media is being stamped out: In September, The Cambodia Daily shuttered amid government pressure over allegations it owed millions in unpaid taxes, while popular U.S.-funded broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America were forced off air. (Khmerload’s cautiousness is echoed in the editorial strategy of OMGDigital, a Ghana-based digital startup we wrote about recently that targets a millennial audience and is working towards pan-African expansion, with Silicon Valley support.)

Politics, Vichet admitted, is “tricky,” but the decision to exclude posts that verge on political topics was driven by financial considerations. When he began building the site with his brothers Visal and Vichea in 2011, Vichet conducted 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 said. “[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 master’s 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, and then with 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.

Although Cambodia is a small market with a total population of about 15 million (and with moderate, though rapidly expanding, internet penetration), Vichet had identified that viral content was a lucrative untapped market.

Khmerload now records up to 20 million pageviews a month, according to Vichet, with more than 45 percent of its readers from the past three months falling into the 25- to 35-year-old age bracket (just under 59 percent of those readers were women).

Vichet is recruiting to double the size of the team, which is currently at 20 staffers. The bulk of the staff are on the editorial desk, producing 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 said of the writing staff, adding that much of the “hard news” Khmerload publishes comes via partnerships with local news outlets.

Revenue comes from two main streams: banner advertising and sponsored content. Vichet admits the site doesn’t clearly mark advertorials, so there’s no way for readers to distinguish which articles have been paid for by advertisers. “For ethics, yes, we should do that. It’s not on our mind; it’s not a top priority yet,” he said, adding that he would consider doing so in the future.

The site was turning a profit before the recent cash injection, according to Vichet, but the new investment is going into Mediaload’s international expansion.

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. A foray into the bankable Indonesian market was less successful than hoped, with Vichet concluding that cracking the archipelago would require a large budget.

“Now it’s not profitable, because we have to scale fast,” he said. “That’s why we need another $1 or $2 million. Now we’re doing it the startup way.”

Nonetheless, Vichet said 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 said. “I think some will be in South Asia and one or two in Southeast Asia. So the goal is to go everywhere.”

A version of this story was first published in Splice Newsroom.

Mediaload founder and CEO In Vichet with members of his team at the company’s Phnom Penh headquarters. Photo from Mediaload.

POSTED     Oct. 10, 2017, 10:16 a.m.
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