Kounila Keo: I always remind myself to run my own race

Kounila Keo is the Managing Partner at Mekhala Radiant Communications. She was listed on Forbes 30 under 30 Asia in 2017. Kounila is known as one of the first few Cambodian women bloggers. Her blog, Blue Lady Blog, discusses issues related to social development in Cambodia. Kounila holds the master’s degree in public policy from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

Q: You are an inspiring leader. You have been selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2017. Do you have a word to describe your own identity?

Kounila: My identity is what I remind myself every day. I came from a place where I had nothing. In one word, I would say I was from a place of hopeless. I kept telling myself that I am going to get better one day. I motivated myself that other people can make it—I am also able to make it. Even though I was not able to do it at that time, I kept reminding myself that I will be able to do it because others have already done it.
I always remind myself to run my own race. When you want to get what others are having, you have to ask yourself ‘have you worked as hard as them?’ In our society, we have the poor, middle class and rich people. I have never thought that only rich people can be successful. Of course, rich people can access many great opportunities, but we should be able to catch the opportunities if we work hard. We need to look inward into ourselves. You shouldn’t think about what other people have. When you compare yourself to others, you will be disappointed and frustrated. I won’t compare myself to others, and I won’t compare others to me either.

Kounila Keo was giving her interview on December 17, 2019.

Q: When did you start thinking about starting your own business?

Kounila: When I got a chance to study in Singapore for two years, I observed the general environment of Singaporean society including business environment and so on. People there work very hard. If we talk about studying, students in Singapore study very hard. Some students study from the morning till around 10pm. Students study on the weekend too. I still remember my time at junior high school and high school in Cambodia. I haven’t paid much attention to school. Singapore encourages students to be self-reliant. Education is highly competitive. That’s why Singaporean are brave and outstanding everywhere they go. Student’s qualification can compete with other developed countries.

When we talk about business, Singaporean like the business. They like the trade. I learned from them. I also observed that this is the trend in other countries that I have been to. The opportunity came in when I met some friends in Singapore who are interested in running businesses in Cambodia. When I returned to Cambodia, I thought that, if I worked with other companies to save money to buy a house or car, that should not be a problem. But, I looked at the social trend at that time. People shifted from working with the NGO to run their own businesses. Cambodia also has shifted from the least developed country to a lower-middle income country that attracted foreign direct investment from other countries. I saw that as an opportunity. I am an opportunistic person. I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to be a teacher. I learned to observe the market trend. Then, in 2016, I thought it would be a great chance to run a firm. But, I didn’t have financial capital at that time. I had an only idea and physical energy and motivation.

When I started a business, I told myself that life can be hard in the first 2 or 3 or 4 years. But, it won’t take me too long—now I am in a struggling time. That was so challenging in my first year. An entrepreneur needs to understand that there won’t be all flowers and ross there.  Please should not expect to be blossoming immediately—that won’t happen. I worked from A to Z. I worked on almost everything. I have done things that I have never expected to do. I made the logistic arrangement such as generating the invoices and doing accounting works, etc. I worked by myself when I first started running this firm. That was the start-up life. I didn’t have work-life balance, but I enjoyed it. I managed my health well. If my health is not well, how can I manage my business? I have to take good care of my health.

I don’t think I am born to be a businesswoman. I guess one thing led to another. The connection that I created helps to shape my ways. As Steve Jobs said, ‘the dot is connected.’ I am a realistic person, not an idealist. I look at the market trend. I love what I did before. I also enjoy creating jobs and helping younger people to get jobs and having better skills.

Q: This is your first business. Do you have any suggestions for other young girls or women who want to pursue their life’s goals?

Kounila: The start-up would firstly be surprised by the tax system. You have to know that all businesses in Cambodia are obligated to pay tax. I haven’t had knowledge of the tax system because I used to work for others that their finance and admin team took care of the tax issue. When we start a business, we need to look at the tax law. If we don’t follow the law, we are obligated to pay fine. I have an example of my friends who set up the company. Only 2 people are joining to run the company, but they didn’t pay attention to the tax law. They were obligated to pay the penalty, about $10,000 after one year of their operation. This is a serious issue because you want to run a business legally when you start it. I learned it by doing it. I asked people who have experienced it. Also, I work with the tax agent.

The second challenge is we can’t get profit from our business. That might be because we set up a business in a wrong location, or we don’t reach out to the right costumers who have the power to pay. I looked at every angle. BUT, DON’T LOST YOURSELF IN BETWEEN.

I would suggest that firstly you have to take good care of your health. When you have good health, you can find more solutions. You will be more organized. Second, you have to have a team. You can’t do it alone. You have to know how to delegate tasks to your team members. You need to boost your productivity and build up your team along the way.

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