E131: Tom O’Sullivan talks about the evolution of Realestate.com.kh and the Cambodian real estate market in 2024

Cambodia Investment Review

In the 131st episode of the Rising Giants podcast, Max Thornton and Karousek welcome Tom O’Sullivan, Director of realestate.com.kh, who talks about his transformational journey since moving to Cambodia in 2013, initially helping to set up a social enterprise training restaurant, before branching out into the real estate industry. The subsidiary company, DGB, started in Papua New Guinea as a property portal, before expanding to Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Reflecting on his move to Cambodia, Tom says: “I came here in 2013 after completing a Commerce degree in Melbourne. My first stop was in Battambang to help run an NGO project: a restaurant training social enterprises. The restaurant is still open today and is a testament to success in the hospitality industry.” Despite initial culture shock and skepticism from his friends, Tom embraced the experience, and found that Battambang’s expat community was made up of mostly French NGO staff and teachers.

Attracting investors and growing businesses

Tom founded realestate.com.kh in Cambodia after a high school friend started a business in Papua New Guinea. “When the opportunity arose to expand into more markets, it was the perfect timing for me to be in Cambodia,” Tom explains. This expansion played a crucial role in attracting investors and growing the business.

Read more: Cambodia Real Estate Awards 2024: Industry leaders recognise innovation and excellence at Sofitel event

Tom acknowledges the importance of Phnom Penh’s professional network, something he initially downplayed. “Having a chamber of commerce or a network may have helped me grow faster,” he admits. Learning the intricacies of the Cambodian real estate market and how a technology platform works was one of the early challenges. They started with a customer relationship management (CRM) system and gradually acquired enough properties to launch the platform.

The REKH team.

Speaking about the evolution of their business model, Tom said: “In our original model, agencies paid a fee to have agents listed on their platform. We started off with a freemium model, but we observed global trends and shifted towards monetising transactions on our platform.” This shift became critical during COVID-19, when subscription revenues fell dramatically. Inspired by a successful venture in Thailand, adopting a transaction-based model helped us pivot effectively.

Content educates both domestic and international buyers

Tom emphasized the importance of education and trust in building customer loyalty. “We have published educational content to build our brand and educate domestic and international buyers on the benefits of using our platform,” he said. His compensation has also evolved from a labor fee to a fair market rate to reflect the company’s growth and strong market position.

Under the umbrella of Digital Classifieds Group (DCG), realestate.com.kh has a presence in multiple markets including Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. “We have learnt a lot from each platform, improving our services and incorporating new ideas,” says Tom.

Tom O’Sullivan, Director, realestate.com.kh

Regarding the current Cambodian market, Tom emphasized that there was significant development between 2015 and 2017 driven by international interest and the growth of the domestic market. However, in 2019, oversupply issues emerged, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “After COVID-19, the market saw a surge in revenge spending, but by 2023 the trend had reversed, leading to a challenging environment,” he explained. Quality projects in prime locations remain strong, but there is growing attention on the domestic market.

Potential to list in Australia by 2025

Looking to the future, Tom outlined a long-term vision that includes mergers and acquisitions and potentially listing in Australia by 2025. “We’re focused on becoming as efficient as possible and are ambitious on that journey,” he said.

On a more personal note, Tom shared insights from his own daily routine during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Morning exercise and meditation have become an important part of my day,” he said. Reflecting on his advice, he said, “Telling someone is half the problem solved, and very few things worth doing are easy.”

Tom’s story speaks to the dynamic evolution of realestate.com.kh and the Cambodian real estate industry, characterized by adaptation, education and strategic vision for the future.

Listen to the full podcast here.

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