Soundskool roared into the musical education and retail sector in Cambodia in 2012, and has since established itself as (one of the leading companies in the industry) a strong brand in the sector. With a clearly defined vision, focused marketing, and striving to stay at the forefront of industry developments - both with their content and indeed how they can achieve business goals through operations and technology - Soundskool embodies the bright future found in many dynamic startups across Phnom Penh (and indeed Cambodia).
In the first of our influential interview series, we spoke with Soundskool’s CEO Gabi Faja-Holm. Gabi arrived in Cambodia in 2010 and fell in love with the landscapes and possibilities the country presented. Soundskool is a word play which means both ‘sounds kool [cool]’ and ‘school of sound’.
Gabi has ensured business operations don't see individuals purely as 'customers' but also as ‘students’, with the intention of enhancing the Kingdom's musical output and quality for years to come.
Mäd: What do you think are the most important qualities that have helped you succeed?
Gabi: Firstly, waking up early, and going to bed early. I aim to wake up before my alarm rings! If you are passionate about what you're doing, you can't wait to get started. This translates into effective usage of time.
Fast and effective decision-making has been key for me.. Every decision has an impact on our business and the employees that work hard for it. Taking risks is also important. I believe the number one enemy is procrastination!
Finding the right people is the third aspect of success, I believe. Finding colleagues that share common goals is hard, but incentivising and motivating them is even harder. The right people have a mix bag of character traits such as independence, self-criticism, fast thinking, get-in-or-stay-out attitude. An outspoken mind is also very helpful.
Mäd: What gets you up in the morning?
Gabi: 'Fear of missing out'. By waking up late, you miss the sun coming out, you miss coffee, you miss whatever’s going on all around. I love that time between 6:30 and 8:30 - it's my favorite time in the morning - the sun is coming out and you can plan your day when others are still in bed, you feel you’re getting ahead of the pack.
If you’re an entrepreneur you have to be like a child yearning for a toy: ‘I want it today, not later!’
Mäd: What's your typical day like?
Gabi: Until we opened the latest store, in August 2019, it ran roughly like this:
Wake up, coffee, think of something, see problems, and try to solve them. I did this with a morning department meeting. This would gather everyone who was working on a particular task and discuss it. Then, I’d write down my to-do list and delegate. Using Bloo actually!
I’d delegate all day, try where possible not to do the work myself so I could think of more problems to solve and more solutions to implement. I suppose I’d mostly be meeting people and help them become self-sufficient, and teaching myself how to help them.
I spent a lot of time designing the stores and thinking of their use. That definitely got me up! Who knows how many more we will open.
Mäd: People are certainly important to you, what are your most important considerations when building a team?
Gabi: People’s attitude. Bring in people that have a strong attitude, and certainly don’t employ based just on CVs or diplomas.
Let's say we're talking about a marketing team here. Do they have imagination, creativity? Do they want to help each other naturally? Do they just work by themselves? Can they spot issues and come up with solutions?
Sometimes it's also good to have a little bit of attrition or friction between members. If everybody gets along just fine then everybody gets complacent.
To quote Alan Greenspan: “All people appear motivated by an inbred striving for self-esteem that is in large part fostered by the approval of others.” In other words, we seem to have the need to showcase our worthiness to others, so some people will speak out to highlight different solutions to the same problem. This is key in my opinion.
Mäd: Effective leading seems key, especially in that culture of ‘learning to lead’ that you promote. Do you have any role models that have guided your thinking?
Gabi: My first role model was my father. I know this is gonna sound cliche but it’s true. He was a musician and an orchestral conductor. He was a romantic free spirit, a hedonist. He hardly slept because he couldn't believe how cool it was to be alive.
He was incredibly passionate and talented. I grew up, partly, wanting to be like him. He lived in the golden era of Classical music - 1950s post war Europe - until he passed away, recently. The economy in Western Europe started booming (1960-70s), you could travel the world, and creativity flowed for musicians and artisans. He was my first role model, but I recognize that today you couldn't live like that.
Another role model, who also sadly passed away about 10 years ago, is Christopher Hitchens - the famous Vanity Fair columnist. He was witty, politically incorrect, and incredibly intelligent. He spoke his mind, and didn’t believe that being offended was an answer to a question. I believe the same, now. [Laughs]
Aside from Christopher Hitchens, I’d note Sam Harris and Arthur Rubinstein as poster pin ups, however there’s an endless list for those that inspire me.
In fact, my favorite read is the biographical collections of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. He lived for almost a hundred years and had a truly amazing life, which he records in great detail. He's an idol of mine, so perhaps his biographies have influenced the way I live, and think.
Mäd: Hoping that many share your inspiration and enthusiasm for both knowledge and passion, what would you like to see humanity achieve in your lifetime?
Gabi: Well, I could be predictable and say to eradicate poverty and make everyone more equal, but I don't believe in that. This is quite a question… ideally answered over dinner with some people [laughs] because it needs a bottle of wine for sure.
One thing I'd like the world to start doing would be to stop killing so many animals. That would be nice. Less pollution would be nice also. Ah, also less ignorance and stupidity.
Regarding world poverty, I don't believe that helping the poor purely with handouts is the way to go. I think people need to get out of poverty by themselves in a free market. Granted that current forms of capitalism aren’t perfect, however I do believe in free will and the rewarding of success. It’s proven to work for a large chunk of the population.
For example, look at the effects of free market capitalism on South Korea and the speed at which the country went from one of the poorest to one of the richest countries in the world.
Nobody in Seoul was complaining in the 1990s, where children were getting paid 1$ a day to produce microchips. That's the way to end poverty, you roll your sleeves up. Complete oversimplification, I know, but you get the point. Now Korean kids are making $3,000 a month as juniors in startups. What was that 30 years? Find me another way to end poverty that fast.
Having said that, I’d like to see a better way that capitalism can fill the gap between abject poverty and absolute richness. We don't really need government intervention. I think technology can solve this, and I don’t think we’re that far.
Mäd: Applying thought more directly to your business experiences: While working in, what many deem as, a ‘developing country’, how have different technologies changed the retail landscape in Cambodia already?
Gabi: Cambodia was lagging behind, with virtually no online retailers. Some businesses tried before but since folded.
Now Cambodia has a bunch of online retailers emerging, but primarily for food and clothing. Perhaps it’s that creating online ordering platforms poses many challenges, but I think it’s a management issue, not a technological one. The tech is out there but governance needs to keep up.
As online presence has grown, those taking advantage of it are succeeding. Soundskool has a straight ahead, simple website that allowed us to do well over the coronavirus period - which created an undeniable blip in walk-in sales.
True (Amazon-style) online retail should require no human intervention from the seller until the cart is completed. True online retail, without any shop keeping interaction, is still really hard to do here. Asking someone to spend $300 and pay in advance of the delivery is a massive step for Cambodia. In the U.S. this is the norm as people collectively buy billions of dollars worth of online goods.. ‘Click to buy’ must become a norm for Cambodians to truly enjoy the benefits of online retail.
Cambodia may even become a leader in South East Asia. I mean it. Cambodia is getting set up nicely in the digital age. I believe in online sales as the future of commerce here, and I believe that eventually we’ll see payments done in virtual currencies too, using blockchain and other new technologies.
The reason I say the latter, is that Cambodia doesn’t have much control over its monetary policy due to its dollarized economy. Recently, Serey Chea - the Director General of the NBC - spoke about the use of a Blockchain platform based on DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology alas Blockchain) to skirt the US dollar and use its native Riel currency instead. Then we would be a few steps away from enabling other digital currencies like Bitcoin in the next 5 years, if the government wanted to allow this. Again, look at speed of change. In 2009 there were less than 300 ATMs in the whole country.
Mäd: What advice would you give for businesses looking to succeed with the continued ‘e-commerce boom’, both here in Cambodia and in the ever-evolving global space?
Gabi: I'd like to see retail to develop into something more exciting, and Interesting. Amazon is not exactly a fun fair ride. We place value on making a shop both beautiful inside and out, so we should then think as to what kind of websites would match this aesthetic. And what kind of messages would have genuine meaning. Maybe it could be more dynamic virtual assistance, maybe it could be VR buying experiences through new virtual shopping devices. Once dreamt, we need to ask who's going to be developing this new technology?
I have a sneaky feeling that those leaders are still 12 years old, and I bet it will be a bunch of kids that revolutionize this space. Amazon and Alibaba watch your back!
The Coronavirus pandemic cemented the importance of developing online platforms. I think virtual retail is a truly unstoppable force and businesses need to develop their virtual presence or ultimately risk failure.
The Soundskool brand benefits greatly from the investment in online content and sales.
Mäd: What's the biggest differences, in your opinion, of the importance of brand nowadays compared to like 6 or 7 years ago?
Gabi: With Soundskool I was focused on discovering what could work in Cambodia. We took risks as the market was fairly underdeveloped and I think our brand emerged to be cool. I also really like it. Many people like it. Whilst it’s always been cool, we now have three people working in full time marketing roles, so we're really squeezing our band's potential. Before we only had a logo or a name.
Now we sell a lifestyle, and I think when you look at our advertising it's pretty clear. We're not selling a guitar; We're selling a home with somebody playing, and relaxing with friends. Take Coca Cola as an example; they aren’t a drinks company. They are a marketing company that promotes lifestyle.
So, I think that's the main change for us. Our importance on brand evolved from nice design to a whole thought-process and culture, that we can market throughout everything the business does.
Mäd: Finally, what's the most challenging aspect of running a retail business in Cambodia?
Gabi: Pricing. Many companies focus on price, few on their products.
I believe that focusing on your product and conveying the right message trumps the efforts of pricing-based. Some businesses are selling a price, not a product. That is a mistake in my opinion. At Soundskool we aim to showcase the product through our brand and quality messaging. Looking at Cambodia even just 5 years ago, again there has been tremendous progress, and I am certain consumers will enjoy better pricing, service, and products in years to come.
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