Despite challenges, Myanmar is ripe with opportunity as such a young ecosystem on the brink of technological change almost guarantees a first-mover advantage
Being first has its advantages. If you’re starting in a whole new category, you can charge whatever you like as there’s no competition. If you enter a market where there are many problems yet to be solved, you can have your pick of the litter.
But if you’re naturally attracted to massive challenges like navigating the frontier markets, you better be prepared for an uphill battle.
For entrepreneurs in Yangon, Myanmar, the startup journey is an arduous one. Although the mobile-first Southeast Asian country has leaped into the 21st century after foreign telcos Ooredoo and Telenor won licenses and has received up to US$8 billion of foreign investment, it’s still incredibly early days.
Building Yangon’s first incubator
Pete Silvester, former consultant for the World Bank’s Innovation Lab, is one entrepreneur that’s been hacking away in Yangon for the past few years. His vision was to help create value in the nascent ecosystem and offer resources to new entrepreneurs.
Silvester ventured into the Yangon market with caution and spent half a year validating his idea. After six months of talking to investors, potential partners and doing market research – Silvester and his wife Allison Morris opened up Project Hub Yangon – the city’s first startup incubator which has helped 15-20 companies to date.
A co-working space and an education platform for women entrepreneurs and social enterprises, Project Hub Yangon also helps organize the annual Global Entrepreneurship Week in the city. Education, said Silvester, is one of the things that is seriously lacking in Myanmar.
This goes for viewing entrepreneurship as a viable career path and also the cultivating of engineering talent. Silvester said that the universities here aren’t conducive to pushing out promising computer science graduates, so anyone who’d like to learn how to code is self-taught or goes overseas to learn.
Returning home to chase opportunity
Take Thet Mon Aye for example. She was born in Yangon but went overseas to Singapore to study Electrical Engineering and Computing before heading to the UK to get her Masters at the University College London (UCL) in Computer Science. After scooping up degrees from top schools, Thet saw her home country open up to foreign investment and decided to return.
Star Ticket, a platform that sells express bus tickets in tandem with convenience stores, is Thet’s way of bridging the online and offline world as Myanmar is a primarily cash-based society. The one-year-old startup already has a 10-person team and has officially launched for B2B clients just several months ago.
As a first-time founder in a community of other inexperienced entrepreneurs, starting up in Myanmar for Thet was like the blind leading the blind.
“There is no one to help us here. We need a lot of things, mainly experience, knowledge and money. A lot of the time, people will start a company, run out of money then move to Singapore to work for a big company,” said Thet.
First B2B trading platform
Although the majority of first-time entrepreneurs from Myanmar move to Singapore in search of greener pastures, some do return with the hopes of contributing. Steven Phyo, Co-Founder of Myanmar’s first B2B trading platform Bagan Trade, is one such entrepreneur.
After graduating from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Phyo stayed in Singapore and worked as a software engineer for a decade before returning to Myanmar in 2013. His reason for coming back was simple: To start an online business that lends value to the country and society.
Phyo is optimistic about Myanmar’s future but believes that Internet and payment infrastructure has to be laid out before it can advance.
Be flexible and fast
Despite all its challenges, Myanmar is ripe with opportunity as starting up in such a young ecosystem on the brink of technological change almost guarantees the first-mover advantage.
Silvester originally came in with the mentality that extensive market research and local partnerships should be prioritized. With experience, he now sings a different tune. As with the frontier markets where there is no preceding products or services to give consumers a frame of reference, the best thing to do is to build fast, gain traction and win your customers.
“If anyone wants to come and start a business here, they should come in with a basic MVP and be really flexible about how they want to do things. Try to learn as much about the market as possible but don’t obsess about market research. Just do it. The sooner that you’ve demonstrated that you can deliver something and start making revenue and building a brand that’s interesting and new, everything becomes easier.”