In a time when all job advertising was done offline, 108JOB had the vision to challenge the status-quo and launched an online platform. Today, it has become the No.1 job site in Laos and it’s changing the rules of the game.
I bet you don’t know much about what’s going on in the Lao start-up ecosystem. To be honest, neither did I. I arrived in this country ready to enjoy its mountains, its wonderful waterfalls and its unique culture. But, start-ups? I would have to do some research first!
After some time I came across this online job platform. Pretty normal, who hasn’t used LinkedIn before? But, wait a moment, an online platform in Laos? In a country with a 20% Internet penetration rate, maybe it was much more innovative than it looked! Better take a closer look.
A few days later, there I was, in the office of 108JOB in Vientiane, sitting in front of Keo, one of the first Internet visionaries and online entrepreneurs in Laos.
Let’s begin the online revolution!
Meet Keo, the founder of 108JOB
Keovisouk Dalasane, Keo, founded 108JOB five years ago, in 2012:
“I was born and grew up here in Laos until high school. Then I went to study abroad for 5 years in Thailand. Came back, worked for the Government almost two years and went out again. This time I spent 6-7 years in Japan, studying (an MA in International Economics in Waseda University and a PhD in Public Policy in GRIPS) and working.
I worked there for three years in an online marketing agency. Within this time, I stayed one year in Shanghai to run a subsidiary and also travelled to many South Asian cities. After that I decided it was time to go home.
In the first in Laos, I run a small IT consulting business with friends. Like in a lot of start-ups, first you want to do things with your friends. But it didn’t work. Friendship and business partnership are very different concepts. After one year we decided to stop and go our own way.”
The vision of going online
After the break-up, Keo started trying to figure out what to do next. But one thing he knew from the beginning, is that his business would be related to the Internet:
“Internet is a big keyword for me. From my own experience in China and in Japan, I believe there is a clear direction towards the online world. And in Laos, users are growing and growing. It is also cheaper to start online, you don’t need a big initial investment, so there is not a big risk there.
So I started to think about it. When I was running the consulting business, we did small recruiting activities and I noticed the newspaper advertising is not working well.
There are a lot of jobs available in the market and a lot of people are looking for a job. So how come it doesn’t match up well? I started to collect newspapers from the National Library, back to 10 years. I tried to understand the core of the job advertisements in both the Lao and English language.
We understood that to do something good in recruitment, we had to control the recruitment media itself. So we decided to start a job magazine.”
He showed me one of the first numbers of 108JOB Magazine. Apart from job ads like in a newspaper, it had pieces of career advice and company presentations.
“In the beginning we had to survive with the magazine. People were not used to get information through websites yet. We also thought that the magazine would give us a lot of visibility. Now we have achieved a point where the magazine business is declining, but the online business is growing, which is what we envisioned.”
When they first started the business, they had to compete with newspapers. That wasn’t an easy task:
“Newspapers are daily, we’re not, and the job ad can be outdated very fast. We promised our customers that even if their ad in the magazine would take two weeks to be published, the online ad would be published instantaneously, even faster than newspapers.
At the very beginning the online platform was free, so whoever put an advertisement in the magazine also got it online. We did that for almost six months. The magazine let us survive during that time. After that, people started to see the power of Internet.
Now we only charge employers. Every job post is 25 dollars per week. We also offer an add-on service to help them manage the applications, about 5 to 10 dollars for one position a week. They can also access our CV database.”
I was surprised to see that most of the job offers were in English. Aimed to foreign talent?
“A lot of employers expect employees to understand a certain level of English. If you don’t understand the ad, you don’t need to apply.
Around 90% of the jobs advertised on our website are only for Lao nationals. One reason is that companies don’t want to have many expats. A second reason is that by law, there’s a quota system, and only 25% of the company’s employees can be expats.”
I also asked Keo where the name came from:
“108 means ‘a lot’ in Lao language. So 108JOB means that on the website you can find ‘a lot of jobs’. And it’s very short and easy to remember. As for the logo, it’s ‘108’ but it can also be ‘JOB’.
Three years ago we changed the name of the magazine from ‘108JOB Magazine’ to ‘108 Magazine’. This is also my way of making the magazine survive. The number of job ads is going down, because most of them shifted to online. The name ‘108 Magazine’ allows us to do more things, like featuring restaurants or new cars, becoming 108 lifestyles to enrich the urban living.”
From a magazine and a free online platform to the No.1 job site in Laos
With almost 1 million monthly views and around 100 jobs being added every day, there’s no doubt the website has revolutionized the job market in the country. But how did they get there?
“The main difficulty at the beginning was educating the market. Companies were used to the newspapers, so it wasn’t easy for them to move away. It was easier with the jobseekers side. When we started this, suddenly everyone started using Facebook.”
In a country where it’s much more common to have a smartphone than a PC, Facebook has been their best ally, as evidenced by their 49,820 followers.
“70% of the content is similar to the magazine one. But sometimes it’s just funny things, because it’s Facebook, you need to create engagement.”
Of course, it wasn’t all about having a good Social Network strategy:
“We got into the market with 30% of the average price of a magazine. Three years ago we even decided to give it away for free. We partnered with banks, gas stations and anywhere where people need to wait, and gave it away there. Even now, keeping the magazine is a way of educating people to come to our website. We print around 4000 per week.
Now that we’ve built our name, what we also do is organise career seminars and CV Clinics. Every week we invite around 30 students and talk about how to prepare to start looking for job.”
I wondered if the magazine wasn’t a business anymore, but a simple promotion tool:
“We aren’t making a loss here. We’re making money out of two sources of advertisement, the commercial ads, but also the job ads.”
Also, we try to bring the cost down as much as we can. A lot of magazines before us invested too much in the quality of the paper. Ours is just good enough for people to read it through.”
Apart from educating the people, the technological part has been quite challenging as well:
“We don’t have good IT talents here. It is easy to launch an IT business with simple features and functions, but when you want to add more complicated features, it requires more technical skills. We need to outsource the IT to other countries and pay for it.”
What about that 20% Internet penetration rate, another challenge?
“We see it as an opportunity. If you go to a country with 80% of Internet users, you are too late. We believe Laos will reach a 50% rate very soon. In Vientiane it is already high, here you see almost everyone with a smartphone.
There aren’t many business opportunities outside Vientiane now, but I think this will change. We are now launching a new product to target people outside Vientiane who are using mobile phones but don’t know how to use the browser, just Whatsapp and Facebook.
And what about the funds, where did the initial money come from?
“It was just me, bootstrapping a lot at the beginning. I think I started with around $10,000. We needed some initial money for printing. I didn’t get a salary during the first 6 months, just enough for my staff to survive. Second year I broke even operationally, and we’ve kept growing every year.
One good thing about the magazine was that if we could sell the ad, usually the client was willing to pay in advance. Another thing that helped us was to negotiate with the printing house and convince them to allow us to pay after three issues.”
The Lao Start-up Ecosystem
Before continuing with the interview, I have an unusual announcement to make. Next week we’ll be featuring Foxpress, a Lao Internet-based Fast Delivery start-up!
Here comes the funny part. Can you guess who is a co-founder? Bingo, it’s Keo!
“108JOB let people know me, but recently I also try to support new start-ups. In the case of Foxpress, I’m not involved in their daily operation, only in high-level planning and strategy.
We want to do what the German Rocket Internet is doing (taking proven online business models to new, fast-growing markets). Maybe we don’t have that big amount of money and talent, but we understand that there are opportunities out there. Our job is to look for more and more co-founders.
The big guys won’t come to Laos that fast. If we see something, we can be the first or second movers in the market”.
That’s exactly the reason why he’s not afraid of big platforms like LinkedIn:
“At first we thought it might become a competitor, but not now. The Lao market is not big enough to attract global players. It’s only about 7 million. So if they come, they will come at the very end. That gives us a chance to build up our own things.”
I tried to learn more about this young ecosystem without big angel investors, incubators or accelerators:
There’s still a lack of Lao start-ups in big events (like the Techcrunch ones). This is probably because of the language issue. We actually have some people with very good English, but they are not interested in startups.”
I had read that the Mekong Angel Investor Network (MAIN) visited Laos last year and they were not convinced to invest in the country:
“I think it’s too early for them. But it’s good they came here, so we better understand our problems and opportunities. Even if the MAIN itself might not work in Laos, we could make some personal connections.
Laos is too small to invite international investors at the very beginning. Eventually we may need to have our own Angel Investor Network to support our startups. At least 5 or 6 of us already started to put some money into new startups. A few thousand dollars. That should be enough to start something.
The thing lacking here is not the idea, but the execution. When we interview people and ask them if they are ready to devote to that business, we don’t see enough passion. They keep thinking about new things every day. That’s not convincing enough for Angel Investors to put money in.”
I also asked him about the political and legal situation for founding start-ups in Laos:
“There’s no special treatment for startups, nor anything preventing us to do business. Eventually, very disruptive and innovative start-ups, like FinTech ones, might have problems entering the market, because they would disturb the existing system.
For a foreigner, it can be tough to start without a local partner. Legally, there are restrictions for certain businesses, like the media one, that don’t allow foreigners to own 100% (although it’s possible to own more than 50%). Also, they could experience cross-cultural management issues when dealing with employees.”
Finally, of course I had to ask Keo about the job market!
“It’s not very difficult to find a job right now. The country is growing and big companies are opening more and more subsidiaries. If you know English, the chances are much higher. It also helps having basic IT skills like knowing how to use the Internet and Microsoft Office properly.
The salary of a new graduate is around $150. It’s growing, when I first started my company, a fresh graduate only could get $110 or $120.
Historically, the biggest sector was mining, but it will end very soon because we are running out of natural resources. Now, the most popular industry is banking. We had a lot of new banks opening, and recently we see more and more financial services like leasing or insurance services.
I think the banking industry will saturate in some years. The logistics industry might increase, as there’s a lot of infrastructure to build. For example, the Chinese railway is coming down to Laos and linking up, and the Government announced a bid to build a 500km highway from Vientiane to Pakse. Also in tourism there are big opportunities.”
Plans of diversification for the future
“We understand that we can’t compete with the big guys in terms of IT investment. But one thing we know very well is the local market. With the connections that we have we are trying to diversify into more HR related services, like staffing or payroll services. Now we have our client base, so we can just go to each of them and ask what they want.
For us, there are two ways of expanding. One is the domestic market. The number of Internet users is still growing, and we need to go to other regions apart from Vientiane, like Luang Prabang, a city with a lot of tourism. We have to be there, maybe with a different service.
At the same time, with the experience that we have we can go to Cambodia or even to Myanmar. It would be too late for us to get into Vietnam.
We went to Myanmar, the country is growing very fast but the competition is also crazy. Although it might be difficult for us to find partners, as they might not expect investors from Laos to have a huge capital to invest, I do have some friends there interested in exploring this job business.”
Not a piece of advice, but three
“Some people are too scared to start, they don’t want to leave their comfort zone. A lot of people that I know say that they want to do it, but they never start. But I also advice people to work for a few years before starting their own thing, especially in Laos. Maybe I spent too many years, but I think it’s good to go through a proper company and learn what a company should look like. That’s no 1.
No 2 is that too many people here, when they start a new business, don’t identify the problem enough. They just rush to get into business without doing enough research and studies, and then they fail. I don’t mean that you are not going to fail if you do this and that, but if you are going to fail, you should fail after you calculated the risk.
Also the funding part. A lot of people think they need to obtain $100,000 throughout some Startup Weekend activity or similar to start a business. It’s not a good mindset. Maybe you can start with whatever you have, just start small and go big later.”
Thank you Keo for teaching us so many things about 108JOB and the Lao ecosystem! Wish you keep growing like you are doing!
Hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I did! Next week we are still in Laos, so if you want to keep learning about this country, drop your e-mail below!