Canadian geek in Myanmar

Being grateful

As another Canadian Thanksgiving approaches, I look forward to my first real turkey dinner in years!

Aside from dreaming of the impending gluttony, I’ve also been thinking of the things I am grateful for. This year has, without a doubt been one of the best years of my life. I wrote earlier in 2016 that I was trying to be mindful of what it is that makes me happy and to consciously focus on that, rather than getting distracted by just getting through the day. I’ve spent too much time simply coping and it feels good to be living again.

This has been on my mind a lot lately and it really comes down to one very simple thing: I have surrounded myself with the most amazing cast of characters. My people are there. They are present. And most importantly, they want to be there, no work required. At 40 I’ve finally learned how to be protective of my time and part of that is not wasting it on relationships – friends, colleagues or otherwise that take a lot of effort.  You know the ones I’m talking about. They are the ones that fuck with your mind and drain your soul. Instead, I allow a lot of time and personal space for those who enrich my life and help me to live as large and boldly as possible.

So on this Thanksgiving I extend a deep and heartfelt thank you to those around the world who let me part of their lives. I know I can call on you when I need. You are all readily available with a raucous beer, a celebratory champagne or a commiserating whisky.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Proudly Canadian. Introducing Mark McDowell, Canadian Ambassador in Myanmar.

After three years, our Canadian Ambassador in Myanmar is wrapping up his time with the foreign service here. I remember meeting Mark at the Canada Day celebrations in 2013 within weeks of him landing in Yangon. Mark is warm, welcoming, quirky and fun-loving. Basically, the antithesis of all the diplomats I had met in Asia thus far. Over the years he has represented us well and I’m proud to call him a friend. Tomorrow is Mark’s last day as our Ambassador and to honour that, I am posting parts of an interview that he kindly agreed to do with me. We cover a wide range of topics but I was mostly interested in Mark as an individual and leader for this blog. Some of the more political stuff is covered in an article that will run in next week’s Frontier magazine, which I’ll post once it runs.

Canadians, generally speaking are just so different from Burmese in just about every measuring stick I could use.  How do you in your job or DOES your job need you to bridge that and how does that happen?

The job of the Ambassador is very often to identify the similarities between the countries. I can think of a couple of reasons why Myanmar and Canada are the same. Let me talk about the country first and then the people.

Canada and Myanmar are both countries that are multicultural and multiracial. They are very geographically spread out and very regionalized and that’s why the whole issue of federalism is such a big interest here and that’s one thing that Canada has to offer. Leaders in Myanmar like Daw Aung Sang Su Kyi has specifically said that she thinks that Canada has a better understanding of the challenge of pulling a country together of very disparate elements and dispersed geography. So that’s one element plus there’s the economic aspect being a country that has a lot of natural resources and agricultural potential.

I’ll tell you the one thing I find Burmese and Canadians very similar on. You know they’re both painfully polite. Burmese people are excruciatingly polite, to the point that it is sometimes counter–productive just like Canadians. And modest. Self-effacing.

That’s so true! So when you think of your time here…do you think that have you changed?

Wow, that’s a good question. I think so. I tend to be an impatient person and I have become very patient. Not in interpersonal relations but I’m impatient at work and trying to get things done. But in terms of work, I’ve become more calm about things and when things don’t work the way you want, be more relaxed. It’s not such a disaster.

So what’s next for you?

I’m taking a break from the foreign service.  I have done the most interesting job and it’s time to do something else that will be different or fun or frightening.

One of the things I often get asked about is getting started in entrepreneurship, like “when am I ready” or “what should I be doing”. I always tell them to do what you’re afraid to do.  The thing that scares you is probably the most interesting. If it doesn’t scare you a little bit then it’s probably not the right opportunity.

The other advice I always give people in Canada, don’t be afraid to screw up once or twice, especially if you are young and don’t have the responsibilities of a family yet.

Oh, good one. I find it such a failure-intolerant place. Not just in Myanmar but Asia in general.

If you’re interested in statistics, this will be familiar….I’m trying to think what sports analogy to use


Okay, here’s one…you shouldn’t wait for the perfect shot and having an open net or you might wait the whole game, it’s better to just throw some shots on net and eventually one of them will go in. Here’s another statistic. If you know American football, here’s another one I always use. If you never throw an interception, you are not playing optimally. If you don’t have a failure, it means you’re not optimizing your level of risk. If you make money on every stock market deal you ever make, you’re being too cautious.

The US is still more risk tolerant than Canada but that’s because you have places like the Silicon Valley which are very, very risk tolerant because you can’t innovate without trying and you can’t try without failing.  If you were to look back to when you were 30, what would you tell yourself to have prepared for this role you just completed. Put us into the context of where you were at 30 first.

When I was 30, I was doing a PhD and I was starting to realize that I didn’t have the drive to…writing a thesis is like you have to go work by yourself and you have to sit down and write every day for 10 hours all by yourself. And I was starting to realize that I didn’t have the burning desire to write about something that would get me through that 10 or 20 months. I guess I wish I had taken on a job a little earlier because it would have been fun to try it and drop out of it earlier. Whereas getting into it at 32, I was a little bit financially trapped.  So that’s my advice to my earlier self.

Start earlier?

Well, my advice to most people is to start later but I started really late.

Fair enough. Tell me what your mornings look like in terms of when you wake up and before you get to the office. What’s going on?

Wow. I’m a terrible example in this! I’m exactly like my teenage son. I set my alarm clock and I wake up and I turn it off. And it’s only when my wife is like, you have to leave in 5 minutes, I get up and I shower in one minute. The kids and I share a cab and I’m like ‘I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming” as I’m putting on my pants and grabbing my socks and tie. I’m a terrible person in the morning and getting to the office at 8:30 is just an incredible challenge for me. And I think I would be much more productive if I could work from noon to midnight. And I basically go to the office and the whole morning I’m just trying to survive and get enough coffee into me and then maybe after lunch I can do productive work. If I decide to stay late and everyone’s left, that’s when I can really think. Or after dinner once the kids are asleep.  I can only do anything intelligent at night or on a plane or a train. I made a list once ranking the most conducive places to working and number 1 is train and number 2 is plane then there was cafe and office was down there like number 7 or 8.  Office on the weekend. Swimming pool, beach then office.

What is the best or most impactful thing that you have bought under $100 and why?

It’s funny, the first thing that came to my mind is that I have a windbreaker that I bought in 1995 in NY that I bought at Old Navy. I take it on every trip I go. Every time I go camping or hiking or whatever. I still have it. I had it for 20 years. It can’t be destroyed and because I travel a lot in tropical places, you don’t want something too warm but you want something to keep the rain off so it’s my invincibility cloak.

So, in the event of a zombie apocalypse I suppose you would take your windbreaker with you but what else would you do?

I’m a fairly systematic person. Although my personal habits can be chaotic but once I settle down, I’m very systematic. I go through, where can I ensure my security and then after security you’ve got to start thinking about water and food and what’s your long term survival plan. So in a zombie apocalypse, I would want to get myself in a very comfortable but safe place and then get some food and weapons and just hunker down. Then you have to gather information.

I ran the embassy in Bangkok during the tsunami so let me just think, that’s the equivalent of a zombie apocalypse.  First thing you’ve got to do is have to account for the safety of your people. Then the second thing is you’ve got to start getting labour power. There’s an apparent problem, you have to start thinking where am I going to get the staff and resources to deal with it. And at the same time you have to start go gather information about the problem which is going to be very imperfect at first. And then very shortly after, those two things start moving in parallel, you have to start sharing information. Although, in a zombie apocalypse, I wouldn’t share information, I’d look out for myself.

Though, maybe in a situation like that, you might want to start to build some coalitions…

Any last thoughts on Myanmar?

The thing that’s interested about Myanmar is because it was disconnected from globalization for so long, it’s still got a very unique character. Whereas other places, thirty years ago when I met them had a very unique character but now they are very similar to everywhere else in the world. Places like China, Thailand. I like Thailand but Burma is more Burmese then Thailand is Thai.


Thinking lean to manage disruption

Another opinion piece. This time for the Frontier magazine digital insert.


Myanmar’s economy is dominated by large, legacy businesses with inefficient processes and embedded cultural and organisational challenges.

Companies such as these are often more concerned with protecting what they already have – their brand, reputation or market share. This can result in a lack of innovation and incentives to experiment with new practices.

Over time this legacy thinking creates a range of problems, from high operating costs to lack of responsiveness to customer needs. One only needs to look at the global retail sector for an example: the failure of bricks and mortar retailers like Blockbuster in the face of new online competitors such as Netflix.

Myanmar is not always an easy place to do business, but increasingly the barriers to entry or expansion are being lowered. As this continues, more agile competitors capable of meeting the needs of the marketplace will be able to establish themselves quickly.

This is creating a perfect storm for disruption – the overturning of long-standing business practices and market models. But by embracing disruption, companies can maximise their potential to benefit from a rising consumer class and increasingly tech-savvy customers.

Disruption and innovation are too often considered the realm of technology companies. Uber and its almost 200,000 drivers have disrupted the taxi industry globally, while AirBnB and its 2 million listings have wreaked havoc on the hotel sector.

But disruption isn’t just for tech startups. Starbucks, the global coffee chain founded in 1971, launched a mobile app in 2009 that combines customer loyalty with a digital wallet. Today the My Starbucks Rewards app has 12 million users and accounts for an unprecedented 24 percent of the company’s transactions in the US and 16 percent of its global sales.

Finish reading the article here

On being Canadian


A new Canadian Immigration Act came into effect in 1978 which finally recognized the status of refugees and more importantly determined that the the number of refugees accepted into Canada would be dependent on public support. Churches, corporations or groups of five or more Canadian citizens could now sponsor a refugee directly. Even better, in July of the following year the government introduced a matching formula. The government would sponsor a refugee for each privately sponsored one. By this time there were full planes of refugees arriving in Canada every couple of days. I was one of these people.

My father had been a high ranking intelligence officer for the South Vietnamese army – the losing side. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the threat of re-education camps, my father fled and hid in the jungles around the Mekong Delta where our family had resettled after fleeing Saigon. For the next four years our family would attempt to flee by boat over a dozen times.  On the fourteenth try we finally left the marshes of the delta from behind my great aunt’s house in the dead of night. On this small fishing boat were my parents, my older sister who was 7, my baby brother only a few months old and I, who had just turned two. Also included were my dad’s brother and cousin and my mom’s brother – all teenage boys.

Our family spent days on the water looking for land and refuge. One night we were spotted by a huge Russian ship which gave chase for a little while but then turned around and let us go. Eventually we landed in Malaysia and ended up on the Pulau Bidong refugee camp, one of the most crowded places on Earth. During the months we were there it was estimated that there were over 40,000 refugees in a space just a little larger than a football field. Because my father had served in the military, we were accepted by the Americans within weeks of landing in Malaysia. However they would not accept my mother’s brother as he was not a blood relative to my father. Since there was no way that my mom was abandoning her 13 year old brother, we stayed on for another two weeks when the Canadians accepted us.  Bullet dodged. I was almost an American.  

More seriously though, we were one of the lucky ones, there are stories of people spending years or decades in this hell hole. My parents told me that they thought they would have to bury me there. I was a small and sickly child and the travels and hardships of the refugee camp were taking their toll. There was never enough food and I had severe dysentry so what food there was was given to me to so I could get as much nutrition as possible. Could you imagine the decision they were faced with? Leave behind a 13 year old boy to ensure the survival of their 2 year old daughter or risk losing her in the hopes that there was another country willing to take on a family of 8 – mostly young men. What do you think are the chances of that family receiving sanctuary today? These are the moments and decisions that are rarely talked about. I had two uncles who tried to make the same trip only to disappear, never to be heard from again. We will never know their stories.

Assimilation in Canada was not easy but also not without humour. My parents do not often talk about the hardships and horrors but there are many funny stories of trying to survive our first Canadian summer.  We landed in Campbell River in June of 1980 and there surely was never a colder place on Earth. We were delivered to the Tyee Plaza Inn in Campbell River with a few garbage bags of clothes which had been donated. The beds were made up in the Western style of sheets being tucked tightly under the mattress. The next morning the cleaning staff came to see the whole family snuggled together on one bed with all the second hand clothes on top of us trying to stay warm. No one could find the blanket that should have been folded at the bottom of the bed according to the Vietnamese way. It had never occurred to anyone to disturb the immaculately made bed to crawl under the sheets.

I’ve always wanted to write down the story of my parents and one day I hope I still can. My father’s journey from rich kid to soldier to destitute refugee trying to feed a small army. Since he was the only one in our family to get out he was also responsible for sending money back to Vietnam. Originally, my young cousin was on the boat with us. At the last minute my dad decided that he should stay in Vietnam. Given the dangers of what we were facing, my father didn’t want to risk every child from the next generation. He figured if we made it then he could sponsor my cousin from where we ended up. This decision would haunt my father for the rest of his life. My mother coming from a  small village with no electricity to a foreign land where she did not speak the language, could not get around and had to figure out how to make a home. My first memories of Christmas and a donated food hamper with a huge turkey that my mom chopped up and fried with vegetables.

I recently met another Vietnamese refugee who did write down her family’s story. An excerpt can be found here. Her story is slightly different and she grew up in Australia but I could identify with so much of what she wrote.

If there’s one unifying  thing that is truly “Canadian”, it is our multiculturalism. Our acceptance and celebration of that very trait that is so feared in today’s world – diversity.  Canada is one of the very few countries that allows for private sponsorship of refugees, even without a family connection. Because of this I have been able to live a life full of choices. As my mom has often reminded me, I could easily be rice farming and raising ten kids in a small Vietnamese village instead of happily single and pursuing my dreams in Myanmar.

This morning I read a powerful article on the New York Times about the Syrian refugees who are landing in Canada. Definitely worth a read.  

Happy Canada Day!

Disruptive Technology

This week I was invited to speak at the management conference of one of the big conglomerates here in Myanmar. The theme of the conference was disruption and they asked me to talk about technology specifically as this was a fairly traditional company. Here is a link to the presentation.

The key elements were to showcase some majorly disruptive companies, Uber and AirBnB. I also talked about the Starbucks app to show how a large traditional company could be equally disruptive. And while all of these companies and products are massive, I wanted to show their humble beginnings too. Big corporations tend to view technology projects as massive undertakings and I wanted to introduce the basic thought process behind an MVP without giving a boring lecture about lean startup methodologies.  And finally I wanted to give them a few simple tools to think disruptively. Merely asking “how do I disrupt my business” isn’t going to help. That’s an almost impossible question to answer anyway.

My final takeaway from this is to not be intimidated by technology. The big dirty secret in this sector is that usually the tech is the least common denominator and the simplest part of the equation. The business rules and requirements are oftentimes much more complex. The issue in Myanmar specifically is that there are far too many high priced consultants trying to sell you a whole apple pie when you should be tasting only one slice to determine if you even like apples. Hell, you may not even need a pie but that’s going to stop them. So slow down and figure out exactly what problem you’re trying to solve, it can usually be done much simpler than the huge tech overhaul someone is trying to sell through.


Every time I go back to Canada, I have people asking me what it’s like to live in a place like Myanmar. While Yangon and Vancouver are worlds apart on about every measuring stick I could use, living here is not all that different on a daily basis. I work during the day, visit with friends at night and run errands on the weekend. Really, not that different from Vancouver. This surprises and probably disappoints them as their vague exposure to Myanmar centers around human rights and religious abuses, natural disasters and a lady who was stuck in a house for a very long time. It wasn’t until I moved to Myanmar that I understood what “life through a straw” meant.   

While these stories are important and should not be disregarded, there’s also the other side – that of the Myanmar as a normal society with normal human problems and solutions. Governments introducing policy, entrepreneurs starting businesses, parents feeding their kids and teenagers forming their identities…the human aspirations, behaviours and challenges not different than anywhere else in the world. And yet, because of Myanmar’s recent history, there’s a unique flare to how it’s happening here.

Nowhere is this unique Myanmar flavour better highlighted than through the sixteen speakers featured at the TEDxInyaLake event last month. The curators did a stellar job of blending personal human stories and living and working here with a few featuring some of the rich history and art of this place. While they are all worth a watch, I wanted to feature a few of my favourite ones in no particular order.

Love Poems: How love enriched Myanmar literature forever from by Nay Oke

The day started out with the theme of love. Nay Oke spoke about a famous poet who wrote nursery rhymes all the Burmese children would have grown up with. These were written by his late mother’s past lover and the story is beautiful.

What I learned from Myanmar entrepreneurs by Thura Ko Ko

Without a doubt my favourite one of the day. Thura uses humour to show how business works in Myanmar. For all the tire kickers who constantly ask me what doing business is like here, this is the one to watch.

Rebuilding Myanmar, One child labourer at a time by Tim Aye-Hardy

Tim has an incredible business converting buses to mobile classrooms and rolling up in front of tea houses to teach children outside of the formal education system.

Finding your place in the world through the pursuit of your passion by Mogok Pauk Pauk

Mogok Pauk Pauk shares a powerful story of resilience. The first and probably most famous transgender person in Myanmar, her story is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

The videos are all only 15-20 minutes each and are all worth a watch. I hope you enjoy these as much as I did. Here’s the full playlist for your viewing pleasure.

Strategies for digital success in Myanmar

Another opinion piece I wrote for Frontier Magazine.

Myanmar is one of the most exciting tech stories in decades. This is the first time in history that a telecommunications infrastructure has been built data first. A couple of years ago the government said it wanted to achieve mobile penetration of about 80 percent in three years. Most people laughed and yet, less than two years after the foreign telcos launched their services, mobile penetration sits well above 50 percent.

There are two other countries that have been able to grow from below 15 percent to over 80 percent in three years: Vietnam and Russia. Given the speed of adoption in Myanmar, there’s no reason to think that it can’t also achieve this target.

Everyone knows that Myanmar’s mobile penetration has seen exponential growth but merely giving people a cheap SIM card does not actually connect them to anything. The other piece to “connecting” Myanmar is through the content. Without the right incentives to bring people online, the infrastructure is meaningless.

So what exactly is happening in the tech scene here?

The past few years have seen an explosion of localised apps and online services but with almost no exception, they are targeted at smartphone users, which is growing but still only a total addressable market of fewer than 10 million people. And let’s not forget their limited purchasing power. The Myanmar tech startups are also competing with industry giants, which have all localised their service offerings for the market. In some cases, those giants are spending enormous amounts of money to buy market share.

The chat wars are easy to spot: Beeline, WeChat and LINE, all billion dollar “unicorns” battling it out with each other while a few local players attempt to play with the big boys. Even Viber is losing ground now that it is not the only chat app that offers voice calling and allows for account authentication. It’s easy to be number one when everyone else is effectively blocked – something that happened in Vietnam a few years ago. Once the government stopped blocking Facebook, home-grown Zing took a major nose dive in market share.

Myanmar has no consumer-friendly banking, no common e-payments system, no credit ratings, not even reliable postal, utilities or logistics networks – digital or otherwise. Most of the people online do not know the difference between the internet and Facebook, and have been signed up to Facebook by the person who sold them their phone. They have never opened a browser, don’t have email addresses and have a friends’ list that is full of strangers.

On the plus side, we are also dealing with a consumer audience which is not yet inundated with huge amounts of content and with a thirst for trying new things and open to marketing messages.

So how do you build technology for a group of people who want it but are not really ready for it? In a market where access and knowledge are limited and people are hesitant to try things they don’t understand?

Winning this comes down to two simple things.

1: Remove the barriers to entry

In a country where the technical barriers to entry are high, ensuring that your customers can access your product is key. This can mean different things depending on your product and target market but in Myanmar, it usually comes down to a creative mix of online and offline initiatives.

At Jzoo we install tablets at our merchant locations and allow for our consumers to access through a printed card. This allows anyone to join, regardless of whether they have a smartphone or not. Additionally, our partners do not need to have any technical infrastructure or knowledge to integrate online marketing initiatives.

2: Own the first five minutes

This is a mantra of the gaming world but should really be for anyone who is building product. Since you only get one chance to make a good first impression, make sure that it counts here, too. Think of the last time you tried something new and how discouraging it was to not understand it or even worse, when it didn’t work. By ensuring that the first impression of the product is flawless, you will lower your abandon rate and likely raise your referral one.

Be creative about how to accomplish this, but make sure your customers understand what is going on and are enjoying themselves. Features such as a lazy login (so users can experience the product before forcing a sign in), and tutorials, go a long way in helping to own the first five minutes and keeping your customers engaged.