Canadian geek in Myanmar

The startup ecosystem in Myanmar

So, I had another blog post all lined up to be my first one post-launch but given my afternoon, I think I’ll go ahead and write this one. It’s been on my mind for a few weeks so good to get it off my chest.

A few weeks ago I saw a Tech In Asia post about the writer’s view on the weaknesses and challenges in the startup ecosystem in Vietnam and then asked for feedback on other countries. I knew immediately what I would have responded. Since I didn’t then, I will now.

First off, some background. After months of intense work, our team finally launched Jzoo yesterday!!  It was one of the most complicated projects I’ve ever worked on given how many online and offline components we needed to juggle.  There was the tech piece, which is usually difficult enough to get right but also selling/signing partners, training our staff, their staff, finding hardware and vendors (in Myanmar!!) who could do what we needed, installation in partner stores…the list goes on and on.  That’s all on top of all the regular fun of a tech startup when it’s just an apk file you throw out to the universe.  Our team is brand new (two of them were only with us a week at the time of launch) and yet they pulled together to FLAWLESSLY roll out the hardware and software, not an easy feat by any stretch, made almost impossible by the fact that we were in Yangon :)  I’ll definitely share some of the behind the scenes fun on another post.   Suffice it to say, I’m extremely proud of the team and how much work they put into this launch.

We have purposely been fairly quiet as it’s literally day two and we are focused on getting the hardware into stores, and finding issues, optimizations, etc…this strategy (and subsequent tradeoffs) was to be the original blog post but I’ll write about it later.  Most of the feedback we have been getting has been positive and while the whole concept is new to Myanmar, people seem to be understanding immediately what they need to do…which is clearly important.

So here’s where the point of this post comes….

I received some negative opinions about the product today, which in and of itself is fine.  Had it been actual feedback that I could have actioned, it would have been better :) But it was the way the opinion was delivered that got me going.  A Facebook post with me publicly tagged. Basically an open invite for all their friends to jump on top of the dog pile.  This happens ALL the time in Myanmar and it’s a terrible thing that needs to stop.  The public mocking and ridiculing are immediate and non-stop. The road to entrepreneurship is extremely difficult and mentally draining and if at the end (or beginning) of it, you can expect a public lynching, it’s going to stop even more people from going live, which is a real tragedy.  And what’s really funny is that I fully expected this from one of the founders here and would make bets that there are far more out there that I’m not tagged in. But here’s a quote I always try to keep in mind:  “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”. True words by the fabulous Reid Hoffman, a personal hero.  While i’m not actually embarrassed, I do know that the product isn’t perfect.  That said, I’m not sure that it ever will be perfect because my bar keeps rising :)

My point to the erstwhile poster (who has since graciously removed the post) is that the startup ecosystem in Myanmar is one of the most divisive and derisive that I’ve come across.  There are all kinds of camps and no one is supportive of the other. A very good example: Last year Ooredoo/IdeaBox organized a Connected Women conference and one of the panels was around women in tech.  Now, I personally know of four other female founders/leaders in the tech space here and yet I was the only one on the panel with a bunch of bankers and lawyers from outside Myanmar (oh, and one of their staff members). Great women but if there’s only ONE panel about women in tech in a Connected Women conference, couldn’t they have at least made an effort to find some women who are actually in tech?  Plus, I wasn’t even invited by Ooredoo but rather their partners, GSMA!

A very successful Burmese businessman once told me that if there were a national pass time in Myanmar, it would be jealousy. But there is simply no need for this in the startup space here – Myanmar is a world full of opportunities and a robust and healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem benefits all. This isn’t a zero sum game folks.

Why Myanmar?

I very often get asked this question – what bought me all the way here to start a tech startup of all things back in 2013, and more recently, what keeps me here.  I find that the Letter from the CEO section of the business plan I originally wrote in 2013 still explains why I’m here better than anything…so here it is:

The development of our business model came about when I visited Yangon, Myanmar in early 2013. It was immediately clear that there was something special happening in the country. The locals were young, energetic and motivated. The government was determined to pull Myanmar into the 21st century and the people were clearly eager to help. Over the course of several months traveling to Yangon, I started to notice something amusing. In downtown Yangon, the street vendors began to remove all their random wares from the shelves, and they started filling their stores, tables and kiosks with mobile phones. The digital revolution had arrived in Myanmar.

The very idea of developing a tech start up, especially a consumer- focused one at such an early stage of Myanmar’s infrastructure development is a bold one. While there are clearly accessibility issues today, there’s no doubt that this is going to correct itself rapidly. Myanmar’s re-emergence is occurring at a time when bridging the digital divide is cheaper and easier than ever. This is a country that will come online faster than any other nation we have ever witnessed. Not only that, Myanmar will go straight to the smart phone, largely bypassing desktop and feature phone adoption as was seen in other countries.

The company was formed to capitalize on the massive opportunities presented by recent reforms in Myanmar. Virtually overnight, an untapped market of 60 million consumers has opened up. Infrastructure gaps have been – and continue to be – a central focus of the reform. However as the technology of access and distribution improves rapidly, major problems remain in engaging with these new consumers.

As for the question of why I stay…I guess the best way to explain that is to take an excerpt of my current business plan, which I’ve posted below.  But the short story is that the country is going through a time of exciting and unprecedented change and I still want to be part of it. I will write much more openly about what I’m doing in the coming weeks and months but this sets up the basic framework for why I’m still here and launching a second venture.

In 2012 there were over 190 million people in Southeast Asia who belonged to the middle class, meaning they have the ability to make purchase decisions based on a level of disposable income. Research shows that Southeast Asian consumers are impulse buyers with a growing preference for early adoption. They are also increasingly affected by the consumption trends of their northern counterparts China, Korea and Japan, where brand identification is slowly becoming a primary driver in consumer behaviour. As manufacturing moves south from China’s hub cities, we are also seeing countries like Myanmar and Vietnam become literally closer to the products that their growing middle class are buying, setting a precedent for a rich consumer ecosystem.

With a combined population of over 150 million people and economic expansion exceeding six percent annually, the spotlight of consumer growth is on Vietnam and Myanmar. Vietnam has the fastest-growing middle and affluent class (MAC) in the region. Business operators have tapped Myanmar and Vietnam as Southeast Asia’s new growth frontiers, as Vietnam’s consumer population will rise from 12 million to 33 million between 2012 and 2020 while Myanmar stands to have a consumer class that is the same size as Malaysia and The Philippines by 2030. Consumers in Vietnam and Myanmar are rapidly developing purchasing power making them increasingly attractive global business prospects. Their MAC segment is expected to double in size by 2020 according to BCG.

And yet Myanmar is a country that has no consumer-friendly banking, no common e-payments system, no credit ratings, not even reliable postal, telecoms or logistics networks – digital or otherwise. There is literally no central data. The government recently carried out their first census in 30 years. International market research companies like Nielsen are still sending out foot soldiers to interview villagers selling shampoo sachets in remote areas. A consumer-led initiative like Jzoo, which doesn’t even require our members or partners to have a mobile phone poses one of the simplest solutions to bridge the information gap – both to the citizens as well as back to decision makers.

Stay tuned for some exciting times… :)

Moving beyond betrayal

Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of when my world blew into small, dull pieces and it’s made me reflect on the past year.  The road to today was not easy but as I sit here and take stock, I must admit that I’m in a much better place now.  My life is vastly richer and full of shiny, new opportunities. I have (mostly) culled out the people that no longer add value and am focused on relationships that enrich my life.

And yet, as I stand on the very edge of launching a new venture, I found myself constantly fighting anxiety with taking the next, critical step.  I wrote previously about how I would be opening myself up to pain and failure again but I’ve come to realize that this isn’t what’s holding me back.  A few months ago, a good friend (and highly experienced entrepreneur and VC) told me, “I don’t know how you did it, this wasn’t simply about you failing but overcoming betrayal on a massive scale”.  And he’s right. Frankly, I wasn’t around long enough to have a chance to fail.

A year later and I’ve realized that I’m finally not angry anymore.  It’s so tiring to be angry all the time.  But here’s a truth that stays with me:

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.”
― William Blake

The hardest parts of last year was coming to terms with the actions of those I considered friends and who I provided opportunities to, treated with dignity and respect and invited along on my journey. That they were part of something that was so incredibly ugly and cruel still astonishes me.  But my very awesome and loyal co-founder forwarded me this quote:

“Karma: No need for revenge. Just sit back & wait. Those who hurt you will eventually screw up themselves and if you’re lucky, God will let you watch”

So now, this is what I try to keep in mind as I firmly shut the door to last year and move ahead with my life:

“It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them.”
― Confucius

I can say with real honesty that the haters haven’t won – I haven’t lost faith in humanity (or investors).  As a matter of fact, I’ll be bringing on new advisors and investors this month as I gear up for the next journey, which promises to be much more fulfilling and rewarding. Time to stop looking in the rearview mirror…the road ahead is going to require all my considerable focus and energy.

The high cost of negativity

After my last, fairly depressing post, I was going to work on a fun, upbeat post next but I have to say, it’s been a little difficult given the various conversations I’ve been having over the past few months.  For some reason, I’ve been surrounded by negativity lately, both personally and professionally.  Investors are moaning that there’s not enough deal flow, entrepreneurs are having a hard time with raising funds. On a more personal front, many of my friends have been in Myanmar for 2-3 years and the rose tinted glasses are certainly starting to dim. Everyone’s just a little too frustrated with life and work here these days.  It’s a good thing the holiday is upon us so everyone can go take a damn big breath and cool down.

While I’ve never been accused of being Susie Sunshine, I also try not to complain and either make the best of a situation or change it.  Living in Yangon, there also seems to be a really strange, twisted kind of insular view of how things are “crazy” here.  For instance, I recently rented a car and have started driving myself around town.  Nine out of ten people are shocked by this and always say, how do you deal with the traffic???  Um….seriously?!?  Yeah, there’s definitely some infrastructure problems here but I don’t see it much worse than most cities of equal size. Would Yangon benefit from a metro system? Sure! But have these people been to other large Asian cities like Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh during rush hour? Forget Asia, I’ve been known to idle for over 1.5 hours in stupid Vancouver traffic to travel the same distance that I would in Yangon in half the time…and Vancouver isn’t even known as a problematic traffic city.  Added to that, the city has half the population of Yangon with a skytrain and extensive public transit system.  So, yeah I get stuck in traffic sometimes in Yangon but I am wondering where all these expats have come from that in a city of 4-5 million, there are no traffic jams and all the drivers on the road are perfect and would never dream of speeding or passing on the right hand lane. Food for thought – according to Time.com, here is the list of the worst cities for traffic jams. See? Someone has it worse.

But this post isn’t meant to be about me ranting but rather to remind everyone that being surrounded by negativity can have major impacts to your life, work and health.  As an entrepreneur, I have to keep not only myself but also my team motivated at all times.  It’s hard enough to do that on a day to day basis but almost impossible when you have people who drag you down.  I have two very distinct situations at early points in both of my startups when I was talking about my idea, bearing in mind they were early stage and with people I trusted. The feedback was so negative that in both instances I almost stopped, which would have been tragic.  Luckily, I also has some really incredible, smart people around to prop me up too.  I wrote more about the first example here.

It is so important to find positive and reinforcing friends and advisors and to surround yourself with the right support system, something I talk about a lot. That’s not to say that you should look for people who are just going to tell you what you want to hear, which is counter-intuitive.  Here’s the best distinction I have read about this: “…there is a difference between complaining and having someone bring your attention to an important matter which needs to be addressed.” This comes from this awesome article that tells you why you become dumber and less healthy just by simply listening to people complain…kind of like the harmful effects of second hand smoke. Time to be more aware of the cost of negativity in both yourself and those around you.

I’ve recently started something called 100 Days of Happiness. It’s basically posting one picture a day of something that makes me happy. It is a simple exercise that is mostly about being mindful. So instead of focusing on the negative, or allowing the people around you to drag you down, try something that forces you to think about things that make you happy every day. I’m surprised at how difficult this can be some days but I’m still really glad I’m directing my energy on thinking about what makes me happy rather than pissed.  Try it, even if you only do 10 days. What’s the harm?

The psychological toll of entrepreneurship

I woke up this morning to one of those nasty, horrible days every entrepreneur goes through. The one where it’s all too much and you just want to huddle in the shower and never emerge.  But this time it wasn’t about the current venture I’m working on. As a matter of fact, that is going very well and I am incredibly excited about the idea and the team executing against it.  What got me this time was looking at last year and thinking that everything I touched in 2014 was a huge, fat fail.  This is exactly why I don’t look in the rearview mirror! I sat around this morning wondering why the hell I am even considering doing this again. Surely I was the world’s biggest masochist to open myself to the same kind of betrayal and heartbreak from 2014.

A few hours into my day and several chats with friends and family later, I’m feeling a lot more balanced.  I’ve been reminded that while i don’t have anything physically to show for my efforts on 2014, I do have a lot more experience and strength. I also have a fuller life with hobbies I enjoy. Besides all of that, and the most important thing of all, I have amazing friends and family who are there to catch me, remind me that I’m great and nudge me on my way again.

I met a young girl earlier this week who is interested in becoming an entrepreneur and I told her to go find some entrepreneur friends. Surround herself with people who will understand what she’s going to go through. Entrepreneurship is truly the loneliest journey you can take so you need to make sure that you build pit stops along the way with people who will nudge you on, no matter how much you want to wallow, who high five you at the wins and hug you at the fails.  This is especially true if you’re doing this while single.  There’s no one there at the end of the day to catch you when you want to fall so you need to make sure that you build a strong safety net you can rely on.

On the reverse note of all the above, being an entrepreneur is also one of the funnest and most rewarding things you can do too.  The roller coaster ride is intense, which is probably why some of us do this more than once.  I am a huge supporter of people who want to join this journey.  Just do it safely. Find some outlets for stress relief. Build your pit stops. Surround yourself with your champions.  And remember, it’s okay to wallow every once in a while too. And if all this fails, read the “forgive yourself” lesson from the previous post :)

Now I’m going to just fucking get on with it.

The Secret Sauce of Startups

“So, tell me everything I need to know to start a tech company in Vietnam”

That was a question I was asked last week. And the guy was totally serious.  Even worse, he was an overseas Vietnamese or (VK as we are more commonly known here), in his 40’s and had just joined a tech startup as an ‘advisor’.

I had breakfast with a lovely female entrepreneur today and she told me she gets many similar kinds of enquiries. Either that or ‘how do you balance entrepreneurship with life/kids/etc’.  We had a good laugh over this supposed secret sauce of entrepreneurship, as if there was a silver bullet of some kind that made you brave (or crazy) enough to take the leap into this world.  If I had this sauce, I’d be rich and taking a helicopter to breakfast not a beat up, hot and run down Yangon taxi.

But after a couple of hours mulling this conversation, I realized that there actually is an answer.  The next time a want-erpreneur asks me, I’m going to say just fucking get on with it. Or I guess the more common vernacular is JFDI – just fucking do it.  Here’s the big secret: not one of us has all the answers and if we’re doing it right, we start with way more questions than answers. Every single entrepreneur I know goes through patches of faking it because that’s just what needs to happen.

Someone asked me today what my biggest lesson from last year was and I said that I learned to forgive myself.  Just fucking get on with it but give yourself room to fail.  Just fucking get on with it but forgive yourself when you make mistakes. Just fucking get on with it and when you fall, pick yourself up and move on.  So just fucking get on with it.  What’s the worse that can happen? Well, I guess a whole lot actually. But take it from someone who has gone through the worse possible first “exit”, it’s all survivable.

The Big Moments

Those of you who know me know how much I love Joss Whedon of Buffy and Avengers fame. I’m unabashedly a follower of all his work, the dude is flat out brilliant. That said, his stuff is not exactly deep and meaningful so I was quite surprised when I came across this quote from him: “Bottom line is, even if you see ’em coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”

I’ve spend the better part of this year dealing with some pretty big moments. First as an entrepreneur then losing the company and even attempting my first real relationship – 2014 certainly wasn’t dull.  I was saying to a friend last night how I can not wait until this year to be over as I’d like the psychological “break” that comes with a new year.  His response is that one day I will look at this year as one of the best of my life, even if it was shitty overall.  And he’s right. There are only a few times as an adult when life tests and changes you so dramatically in a small period of time. When the trauma is so great that there is a distinct “before” and “after” picture. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I am a different person today than I was a year ago, and that’s not a bad thing.  I’d like to think that the me of today is more patient and stronger, though maybe a little more cautious and perhaps less trusting too.

That last part is sad but the overall tradeoff works for me because when you are forced to put yourself back together, you will find gaps and spaces that can be filled.  You also get the opportunity to discard the things that no longer make sense. In the past 12 months alone I have quit smoking, started baking, cooking, running, golf, yoga and French lessons.  I’ve shed friends and “trusted” advisors and opened myself up to romance, better mentors and stronger friendships.  I’ve relocated to a new country where I knew almost no one and have taken the time to build new friendships and forge new relationships.  My life, though dramatically different from the corporate ladder-climbing of my EA days or pitching-entrepreneur days of last year, is much richer and fuller for all that.

There have been no shortage of lessons learned this year but hands down, the most important thing I’ve learned is to prioritize my bucket list over my to-do list.  I don’t claim to have the answer to the ever-elusive work/life balance question but I do know this – startups take a whole lot out of you and are easily all-consuming.  I’ve spent the past six months trying to figure out who the hell I was outside of work and that’s because I never protected the part of myself that didn’t self-identify as a career woman. Once that was ripped away, the parts that were left didn’t have a whole lot to cling to.  The battle this year was hard-fought but the lessons learned were important and not something easily forgotten.

So my plan is to blow out 2014 in the most over-the-top, bucket-check-list, creating-big-moments way I can and kick off 2015 properly.  This past year has been full of shocks, betrayals and heartbreak but also firsts, lessons and growth and while I can already see that it was a pivotal and important year for me, the psychological fresh start is welcome and I can’t help but get giddy as I look ahead to 2015. Whedon is right, no one really wants their life to change but if it has to then I’d rather create my own Big Moments, thank you very much.

One final word as this has been my first post since shit went pear-shaped – I owe my sanity to a few key people this year and you probably know who you are. I don’t know how I would have made it through without you and I will be eternally grateful and indebted to you. You taught me the importance and power of building a strong support system and the characteristics I need to foster to be that for others in my life.  Thank you and I look forward to an amazing 2015 together!

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