The startup ecosystem in Myanmar

by Rita Nguyen

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.