Cambodia – From a painter to a social business idea

How much would you be willing to pay for a painting? Well, it depends on various conditions, a painting at Sotheby’s might worth a few millions dollars, but a painting in Angkor Wat might only cost you a few dollars.

Back to a journey in 2015, I visited Cambodia with a group of volunteers from Hong Kong, and paid a visit to a number of social enterprises and NGOs there. Among them, it was a leisure visit to Angkor Wat that inspired me most. It was a hot and dusty day, and there was a boy dedicated with his paintings.

“10 dollar, sir, do you want one?” He came to me and asked. I gently said no, and walked pass, but then he chased and asked me again. “5 dollar! 3 dollar! do you want one? It is beautiful.”

I stopped, and an idea sparked. Instead of directly giving him the money, I asked him for an email, and told him that I wanted to purchase some digital copies from him, at a much more decent price, for some productions of goods. It was the birth of my social business, Traveler Stores, which I wanted to create a platform and new travel brand that associates travel experiences with products.

I was thinking that instead of purchasing the painting for once-off, perhaps we could establish an online marketplace that allowed the talents from all over the world to curare their arts products, and get a much more decent revenue from selling there. I took a reference to Pinkoi, a popular online store in Taiwan, where they grew from 5000 designers in 2013 to over 280,000+ design products in 2015.

However, it was a failed experiment to me. First, I underestimated the difficulties of operating a marketplace. To build up a successful marketplace, you need to build up both the demand and supply, which I made a wrong estimation on the demand for the curated travel products online. It was also a problem about the story-telling which I failed to create a sense of empathy with the products with the potential purchasers. Finally it was the technical capacity, while it was okay to develop the e-commerce store on WordPress, I found the customization details were tricky and out of my capacity to make a smooth operation.

Despite the failures, it was an important and valuable lesson that made me rethink about the myth of product-market fits, or I would say, the founder-product-market fits. It is not only about sourcing the right products and finding the right market niche, but also about whether you and your team is capable in delivering the solutions.

When it comes to social business, sometimes the balance among the above elements might become even harder, as apart from taking care of the mix, you also need to integrate your ideas with the social needs. Nevertheless, it is always good to start and learn from the mistakes, and to emerge stronger from the past.