It was January 31st, 2015, I was 28 years old, and I had spent exactly three years in Cambodia working with small NGOs, start-ups, and private schools. Looking back now, those three years prior to the launch were instrumental to understanding what it would take to set the foundation for our start-up in the heart of Phnom Penh. This is the story of how I, and my now wife, Imen, were able to take an idea that we believed in and turn it into a reality.
Hold Onto Your Idea
I remember the exact spot we were in when my wife and I committed to the idea of investing in our own place to host weekly cultural events in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We were in a tuk-tuk (the best form of transportation for tropical areas if you ask me) heading east on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard when my wife said, “why are we waiting, let’s do it!” I know that may sound cliche, but it was literally a “spark” kind of moment. We were on our way to the Toul Tom Pong area of Phnom Pen (a new hot spot for expats) to check out a house for rent that could possibly serve as our new permanent location for our events. Honestly, looking back on that moment now, makes me realize how easy it is to let a good idea go if no one else is there to back you up and commit. Thankfully, Imen was never one to shy away from trying new things (maybe it’s the Carthaginian in her), but most importantly, she believed in the idea and that we could do it.
Grow Your Idea
A year and a half prior to our launch, I started a multi-cultural discussion group, called Twelve Tables (the name was based on a set of Roman laws) which met in various venues around the city. Phnom Penh had a vibrant expat community while I was there, with a ton of weekly events to choose from. If someone had an idea they wanted to try out, the community was pretty good at supporting it, at least for a season. The year and a half prior to launching allowed me to understand how the expat community responded to different events, along with learning about the various channels for advertising and networking. By the time we signed the contract, I had a list of platforms to post on and a community eager to get involved.
Have a Strong Foundation
About a month prior to signing the contract, the idea to have our own place had really started taking shape, and I had already begun working on a new name and logo, although I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance to use it. Since the name Twelve Tables was connected more with our discussions, I knew I wanted the new name to have a “edgy”, yet relatable feel. I came up with the name, Atlanta’s Edge, because I felt that no matter how far a person is from their country or home, it is in a way an extension, or edge, of their culture. And since the foundation of Twelve Tables was to discuss serious issues with people from all over the world, we didn’t waver from this, but simply amped it up by adding cultural presentations, trivia night, live music, and cultural documentaries.
Commit and Make it Work
Did I mention I’m a huge fan of Thai Pillows?! (Here’s some online). I discovered these while I was working in Chiang Mai, Thailand and they never left my mind. For setting up a chill and informal place, these were the bedrock. But back to the point of this paragraph, be savvy with your money. This doesn’t mean go for cheap quality, it means, think outside the box and choose what is most important for your venue. Perhaps it’s my deep respect for minimalist Japanese designs, but with a start-up at least, keep it basic and build on it.
Find A Dependable Team
I know that not everyone will find their future partner as part of the co-founding team, but the point is, find a team that is willing to appreciate the small and big wins during the start-up process.
Get Volunteers…Get Good Volunteers
For the aesthetic touches to the place and for running various errands, I was able to put out an ad out for volunteers on different websites like Idealist, Workaway, WWOOF and Couchsurfing. The great part of launching an idea in a touristy city is the number of travelers that are always looking to get involved in activities for free or for a place to crash. Word of advice here, always have a clear set of responsibilities and expectations for your volunteers, as your vision needs to always be grounded in practical, daily tasks. I had at least 10–15 people contact me via Workaway and Couchsurfing, but they were only looking for a short-term stay with little or no commitment. With that said, I finally selected a young, German guy, who was instrumental in helping us launch on our target date and even stayed around to be the MC at our launch party, thanks Simon. Along with Simon, there was a talented artist from India, Yash, who helped us by painting a number of cultural pictures all around the building, as well as hosting Couchsurfing meetings at our place once we were up and running (of course free drinks for the host, thanks Yash).
When December came, we knew we had to aim for the New Year to launch by, although a month and a half to have everything up and running seemed almost impossible, especially since we had not yet hired or trained any of the local staff. Finding local Cambodians who were friendly and could speak English was not a difficult task, but still we went through the hiring process and again, I’d say we got lucky thanks to some solid recommendations from our Cambodian friends. At the end of the process, we ended up hiring four employees, two for the front of the house (hostess/cashier and waiter/bartender) and two for the kitchen. During high school and college, I worked as a server and QA in a restaurant in my hometown, so this allowed me to properly train the staff and set up a smooth workflow. My wife and I tagged team on running the kitchen, coordinating/hosting the events, and helping serve the guest.
Once Committed, Never Look Back
When January rolled around, we had to push back our first target date of the 1st. We decided to quit our part-time jobs and go headfirst into making sure that we were ready to go full on by the 31st (still in January ;). At this point, there was no turning back, the biggest part of the investment had been made, and any delay would be a waste of time and money. I remember January as a blur now, as I felt like every day was filled with a long list of things to do, from making sure our kitchen was properly stocked, to getting the uniforms, menus, and pamphlets printed with the new logo, to… oh yeah, having a full list of events ready to go!
Remember Your Supporters and The Journey
After having a few trial runs with some close friends and having promoted the event on our Facebook page and local websites (some of which posted without our knowledge), we were ready to launch on January 31st. My wife (Imen Money) and I were so pleased to see such a diverse group of supporters come to the opening. We even had expat neighbors who had their own businesses come and show support. We had old friends, like Louis from Taiwan, Maggie, Emma, and Kirina from Kenya, Marc from Spain, and Bob from Belgium, who continuously showed their support through the entire process, thanks guys! And although our families couldn’t be there to see it happen, they wanted to send their own donations to help get the launch off the ground. I know I’m leaving out a lot, as I went back to check all my emails from November to January and realized the amount of people, I contacted for both big and small things. But perhaps this is the biggest lesson I can take away from this experience. The fact is, it is impossible to know all the things needed to do when you start something new. You have to simply stay focused, believe in yourself and your team, and take one day at a time. The best part, you will find out along the way all the small details that need to be taken care of, and that’s part of the journey, and the fun, so get started!