By Sanne Breimer
There aren’t a lot of businessmen or women in Laos, so when Sithong Sokphonexai wanted to start a shop, most of his friends were worried and didn’t think it was a good idea. “What you can’t see, you can’t do”, says the young entrepreneur when I talked with him in Luang Prabang. As a young boy, coming from a remote village, he dreamed about owning a business. “It felt like a good thing to do, but I didn’t know how to begin”.
Believing and trusting yourself
He designed t-shirts and sold them in the popular night market. Two American women who believed in him, invested some money to help him sustain. At that time he was still working in a restaurant during the daytime. After eight months in the night market, he got himself enough money to rent a space for ‘Lala Laos’, to sell his t-shirts together with other products like Buddhist jewellery, paintings, bags and scarfs. Even though his friends didn’t think it would work, the foreigners he met being a waiter were encouraging him to take the next step. “Most of the businesses in Luang Prabang are run by entrepreneurs from Europe and China. They told me not to listen to my friends, but to believe in myself. If it wouldn’t work out, I could always go back to my job in the hospitality business. So I took all my money from my bank account to rent this place and start my shop”, he tells with a big smile on his face.
Expand to other cities in Laos
The two Californian women are still involved. “They give me business advice, they help me to get to know my customer better and we discuss the next stages of developing the business”. With his shop, Sithong wants to contribute to the Laos society. Specifically in supporting young girls to go to school. “In remote villages, girls and boys go to primary school, but after that, boys are getting further education in the temple and girls are getting married. Which means they marry when they’re only fourteen or fifteen years old, with men that are twice their age.” People from the villages can’t afford to send their children to schools in the cities, it is just too expensive. So with the profit from his business, Sithong rents a dormitory where four girls are staying right now to go to school. “I want to open a shop and dormitory in Vientiane as well because this problem isn’t only in Luang Prabang.”
Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week
His friends are very proud of him now. “They tell me ‘I don’t know how you did it, but we really appreciate what you’ve built’. But they see me working very hard, so none of them started a business yet”, he says laughing. Hard work for Sithong means sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. “When I worked as a waiter, that was the only thing I needed to do. Being an entrepreneur means I have to do everything. Everything! From printing the t-shirts to mopping the floor and from building the table for the shop to cleaning the bathrooms. But I never say I can’t do it”. Being the youngest child (‘Lala’) in a family of seven children, he’s an example to his siblings as well. “They want to send all my nieces to stay with me”.
Having the perfect role model
Even though the shop is doing well, Sithong returned to the night market for extra income. Because that’s where most of the tourists are. “Renting a space in the main street isn’t affordable. There are mostly Chinese businesspeople who have enough money to pay five years of rent upfront.” He wants to buy land just outside of the city to build his own dormitory. “And to hire someone to take care of the girls as well. Because they’re still very young when they move to the city. Sometimes they get homesick. I want a mother type of person who can cook them food and take care of them during their stay.” Another thing he wants to work on is his social media strategy to get more customers to visit his shop. Then a tourist walks in and shows interest in one of the indigo blue scarfs. Sithong’s young daughter (4) sells me a t-shirt in the meantime, doing an excellent job as the new generation of businesswomen in Laos. I guess she has the best role model possible.