Interview with Serial Entrepreneur and PiPay CEO Tomas Pokorny

This week, we interviewed Tomas Pokorny, a multi-talented entrepreneur heavily involved in Fintech and startups in the Kingdom. As a self-proclaimed “generalist”, Tomas has worked in several capacities throughout his career, from commercial pilot to fintech entrepreneur to startup mentor. Tomas, who hails from the Czech Republic, also played and will play a central role in EuroCham’s newest chapter, the Central & Eastern European Business Association (CEEBAC), set to launch during Europe Week on 11 May.

EuroCham: Your work in Cambodia has spanned many different sectors. How did you find your niche in here and why do you find it such an attractive place to work?

Tomas: I consider myself a generalist. I used to be a pilot, and when I stopped flying, I switched to fintech, which in a way makes sense because my aviation engineering background combined with my re-education in financial management creates a nice fintech pair. I founded my first fintech startup in the United States, and we chose Cambodia as an ideal market to venture into next. I failed quickly, fortunately quickly enough to learn my lesson and pick myself up fast. With a bit of luck, friends, and a leap of faith by the majority shareholders/investors that took me under their wing, and with sheer amount of newfound dedication, I was able to start working in e-commerce.

This venture quickly expanded into outsourcing, and we grew from about 30 people to around 1,000 people during our merger year, learning and expanding into sectors such as customer service, data mining, data analytics and others. The venture and the majority shareholders from it are still around and keep growing, together with the rest of their large portfolios of businesses.

Looking back, Cambodia was an ideal choice because it was and in some ways still is, fairly easy to start a business. Regarding access, entry, and living standards, ten years ago, Cambodia was the easiest place to come and work as a foreigner. You could get a working permit and a working visa easily. You could speak English pretty much everywhere, and overall, despite inevitable challenges, you could get by have relatively high life standards without exorbitant costs. Today as well, there  are still many areas and verticals missing, and that unlocks entrepreneurial opportunities. If you’re smart enough and innovative, there are gaps to be solved and solutions to be adopted here and globally.

Using a multi-focused business approach created a bit of chaos in my life, but it was a blessing in disguise. It unlocked so many learning opportunities for me that materialized when we were able to start Pi Pay, a fintech venture I was very passionate about. Our efforts were rewarded when we were partially acquired by SMART Axiata, enabling us to strategically pivot from a B2C do-it-all venture to a B2B, niche payment tech and payments processor and ecosystem enabler. 

Some of the benefits of fintech are that you talk to everybody, not just those in banking or insurance, but SMEs and non-traditional businesses too. Everybody taps into digitalization sooner or later. Being a FinTech expert suddenly opens up for you to become a real generalist (which works for me well, considering I pride myself in that) – allowing you to handle multi-sectorial disciplines on a strategic level at least, ranging from logistics, strategic and change management, digitalization, sales, government relations, and much more.

Besides my fintech roles, I remain and probably always will be a “start-upper”. My latest venture, Brixie, is a tokenization and assets fractionalization company with global ambitions that is based in the USA, Europe and Asia and with assets commitments from all continents (except the Antarctica) exceeding $250m in value.

EuroCham: The Central & Eastern European Business Association will be launched during Europe Week at our Night out In Europe Event. Why is now a good time to launch this association and what kind of initiatives can we expect to see?

Tomas: It’s always been a right time, but it was even better pre-Covid. There was a bigger community flourishing, with many more Czechs, Slovaks, Pols, and others here. There has always been a strong connection between Cambodia and Central Europe, they have always enjoyed good relations.

Back then, during times of Iron Curtain, there were major diplomatic relations and cultural, educational, and industrial expansions. There were connections with the whole eastern bloc, including Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. After the Cambodian revolution and after capitalism took hold in Europe, many of those commercial ties were broken, and only now they are starting to resurface.

The challenge is that this connection is being promoted by embassies without any proper commercial support from the private sector, as government tends to focus on the public sector, and likewise the private sector often doesn’t match with the public sector. Support of regional communities can’t only come from the government level. Government support is good, but unless you have commercial support from private institutions as well, it’s hard to build economic ties. So this needs to go hand-in-hand, with private-public partnerships. Hence, CEEBAC under EuroCham, with ties to both segments, seems to be the right move.

Challenges remain, as embassies usually push products from their countries to the country they are present in, but there is on real synchronization creating a two-way street. There is no glue in between, so with CEEBAC, we should be acting as the glue and create a bridge, not on the government level, but the private level. There needs to be a two-way street of commercial relations and communications and that can be utilized by embassies and governments of particular regions to extend their support, towards projects that makes sense.

Imagine communities of Central and Eastern Europeans in Cambodia shipping back to their region their expertise and “exotic” (from European perspective) goods and innovations/solutions. Likewise, repatriated Cambodians and companies in the Central and Eastern bloc could do the same, towards Cambodia. This two-way economic and cultural exchange could be organized via an independent organization that has government ties, making it commercially flexible to execute initiatives. And that’s CEEBAC under EuroCham.

Some say the Cambodian market is small, but it’s still bigger than many of the countries in the Central & Eastern European companies combined. Once private companies prove there is traction and volume in this economic partnership, more will follow.

Also, we cannot overlook the cultural and educational links. The King studied in Prague, and Cambodia has a growing cultural interest in classical music, arts, etc. With Cambodia’s past and the former Soviet Union past, there are some links there as well. The Czech Republic used to be one of the wealthiest nations in Europe, the same as the Angkor Empire, before history changed this track. Hence, I believe that educational and cultural exchange within and between these two regions makes more and more sense. With CEEBAC, we’d also like to collaborate with Cambodians who have studied in the region and returned to Cambodia to work. They will help provide a valuable bridge to the culture, as they have an understanding of both regions.

What is this region known for and what sectors do you see potential in?

Tomas: There is massive potential in connecting the Central & Eastern European economies with Southeast Asia, and Cambodia specifically. There is undervalued Tech and engineering goods and services are currently undervalued. Eastern Europe is known for its light and heavy machinery production, from medical equipment to aeronautics.

A second priority, or the lower-hanging fruit, would be in the food and beverage and fast-moving consumer goods sector, such as dairy, meats, wine, and dry goods. Cambodia could prosper as a trading hub for the region and play a much more significant role. For now, most transport routes run through Thailand or Vietnam, but Cambodia is in an even better position, able to connect Central and Easter Europe with SE Asia and far east Asia as well.

EuroCham: You’ve been working in FinTech and related sectors for a long time, how have you seen this market develop over the past few years and where do you think we are headed? How has PiPay adapted to the rush of players to the scene?

Tomas: Changes that the NBC made with Bakong while making KHQR the national hub of payments has spearheaded the adoption of digital payments. We are not far, maybe 2-5 years, from completely maximising digital payments across the entire country including rural areas. It’s simply much easier.

This inclusion has also created a different level of competition across players. The Cambodian FinTech and financial institutions scene is super crowded. There are opportunities to branch out, enter the e-commerce trading space, lifestyle application providers market, become ecosystem enablers, or just merge with the other sector players, working together on a bigger pie rather than trying to keep multiple fractions of a rather small pie.

The companies that provide the best consumer experience will survive, and it may be beneficial for mergers and acquisitions to occur. There will also, I foresee, be big opportunities between fintech and insurance. This is currently a massively underserved sector and I dare to say that we will see insurance companies becoming fintech firms and/or part of a wider fintech ecosystem, seen for the first time ever in this usually legacy driven industry.

This situation and eventual industry re-branch into new business verticals will ultimately help digitalization, clarification and transparency across other sectors with large public need, such as lending, digital identity and others.

EuroCham: What projects are you most excited about in the future?

Tomas: I’m looking forward to finalizing Brixie and launching it sometime this year – it’s about time I nail a final few bits and pieces, and I also have some smaller ventures on the horizon. My wife has also expressed an interest in entrepreneurship so together, we will launch a more socially-focused venture soon. As I said, I will always keep going and as an entrepreneur, startups are the perfect vehicle to keep growing and evolving.

Community-wise, for me personally, I’m focused on internationalization and creating more programmes that connect users, entrepreneurs and opportunities across the globe. By connecting people and ecosystems this way, instead of trying to do everything myself, I think I could have a bigger impact and make a bigger change in the future.

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