Canadian geek in Myanmar

Category: Start ups

2017 Technology predictions for Myanmar

Written for Frontier Magazine

AFTER YEARS of listening to stories about Myanmar’s looming “digital leapfrog”, which had little to do with content and everything to do with infrastructure, the conversation on technology is finally starting to turn.

The numbers speak for themselves. With mobile penetration now sitting at around 75 percent, of which an astonishing 78 percent have smartphones, it’s safe to say that Myanmar is now well and truly “connected”.

Excitement about the potential of Myanmar’s tech revolution isn’t new. But now the conversation is less about how Ooredoo, Telenor and MPT – and now the soon to launch Mytel – are going to sign up customers than how these new netizens will use their phones. In other words, we are finally starting to focus on the content side of the equation.


After the initial rush to invest in Myanmar back in 2014-15, it felt like things slowed down in 2016. This year opened up with a bang with the announcement of Code2Lab securing a US$500,000 investment – a relatively large sum for the Myanmar tech startup scene.

This could just be a taste of what’s to come, though. After years of tyre kicking, I think institutional investors from the more developed markets in North America and Europe will finally start putting some money on the table. While there have been a few examples of seed rounds over the past few years – such as RevoTech, Nex and Star Tickets – by and large the big tech venture capital firms have not been ready to place their bets yet.

But while investment was sluggish overall in 2016, there were two outliers: Oway Ride picked up $3 million from the International Finance Corporation and innovation hub Phandeeyar closed a $2 million round led by Omidyar. These were later-stage deals and I think this trend will continue – that is, we’ll see more later-stage and larger ticket size fundraising rounds close in 2017. Don’t expect to see any significant exits though.


As much as most of us would love to have the convenience of online shopping and delivery becoming mainstream, the reality is that this still won’t be the year for e-commerce in Myanmar. There are two business models in this sector: asset-heavy and on-demand. The former is very risky without proper market data, and very difficult without clear import laws and reliable supply chains.

The latter model requires consumers (and brands) who are willing to pay a premium for convenience. While there are certainly some in Myanmar who fit this category, success will for the most part depend on volume. That’s still missing here.

Finally, the infrastructure required for the mass adoption of e-commerce such as last mile delivery – delivery direct to the home – and digital payments is still largely missing. The bottom line is that e-commerce is a capital-intensive play and even behemoths such as Rocket Internet have struggled to gain traction here because the market is simply not ready.


While e-commerce waits for its moment, we are set to see some fascinating ground wars on the financial technology front. This will be a combination of the local banks modernising, heavy-hitter mobile payment companies trying to buy market share, microfinance institutions continuing to expand into niche areas and local upstarts fighting for a piece of this potentially enormous pie.

There is much to be done before we see real mass adoption of digital money – or any kind of financial inclusion for much of this country – but rest assured that tens of millions of dollars are being spent to make it a reality. While education of the market seems like the biggest barrier at the moment, Myanmar also lacks a network of merchants that accept digital money.

That’s an obvious problem – it’s hard to convince people to use digital money when it’s not accepted anywhere. This will need to be a key focus area, particularly for the banks and mobile money companies that are vying for market share.

The banks have a unique opportunity to “leapfrog” as well. It will be interesting to see if any take unique approaches to growth, such as through the use of agent or kiosk banking instead of brick and mortar branches.

Read the rest of the article here.


Connecting Myanmar

I have been helping to organize a TEDx event here in Yangon which has given me a deeper appreciation for this amazing country.  With the theme of “Myanmar Connects”,  TEDxInyaLake aims to promote the world of ideas to Myammar via TED and TEDx talks, and in turn contribute Myanmar’s ideas to the world. While this goes well beyond technology, there is certainly an element of that. Which got me thinking about the changes I’ve witnessed in the past 3 years.

Back then I was running around SE Asia pitching a localized social network in Myanmar, a place where the mobile penetration was around 12% and limited to the wealthy elite as sim cards were still hundreds of dollars. Internet penetration was even more grim with most estimates sitting at below 1%.  Most people thought I was nuts.  Now, only a year after the foreign telcos have launched their services, mobile penetration has grown to an astonishing 45%. But what does that really mean for the tech scene here?  Yes, mobile penetration has seen exponential growth, and in the cities,  internet penetration and smart phone adoption is following, albiet at a slower rate. But you are still dealing with a largely disconnected society. Seventy percent of Myanmar citizens still live in rural locations and remember the amazing, exponential growth of mobile penetration? Not surprisingly, that’s mostly in the urban areas with only  21% of rural households owning a mobile device and while I don’t know what percentage of those devices are smart phones, I’m willing to bet it’s in the single digits. And unfortunately, the easy growth part is over…those who have been waiting for years to get a sim card now have one.  That doesn’t mean that the rapid growth will stop, only that the initial explosion is over and we will get to the harder to reach people and areas.

Then there’s the problem of content.  I’ve always said that just giving people a sim card doesn’t actually connect them to anything.  The past few years have seen an explosion of localized apps and online services but with almost no exception, they are targeted to the smart phone users, which is growing but still only a total addressable market of less than ten million people. And let’s not forget their limited purchasing power.  The local tech startups are also competing with the industry giants, which have now all localized their service offerings for this market.  In some case, those giants are spending enormous amounts of money to buy marketshare.  The chat wars are easy to spot: Beeline, WeChat and LINE, all “unicorns” battling it out with each other while a few local players attempt to play with the big boys.  Even Viber is losing all ground now that they aren’t the only chat app that a) offers voice calling and b) allows for account authentication.  It’s easy to be number one when everyone else is effectively blocked – something we saw happen in Vietnam a few years ago. Once the government stopped blocking Facebook, home-grown Zing took a major nose dive in market share.

So why am I here?  Well the story of how I landed here and why I stayed has been written and I didn’t write this to turn people off from coming here. Besides, it’s not all doom and gloom – let’s not forget that a couple of years ago the government said they wanted to get the mobile penetration to around 80% in three years.  Most people laughed and yet, only a year after the foreign telcos have launched their services, mobile penetration sits at over 45%.  In fact, there have been two other countries in the world who have been able to grow from below 15% to over 80% 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. This is the first time in the history of the world that a telecommunications infrastructure has been built data first and Myanmar will come online faster than any of it’s neighbours.  Being able to witness that firsthand is reason enough to be here.

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.

Lessons from my Dad: Vietnam War veteran, refugee, awesome human being

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my father’s death so of course he’s been on my mind all day.  My dad was an incredible man – he grew up poor in Vietnam then our family came into some wealth before losing everything in the Vietnam War.  On the surface, our story is like so many others who survived the war and fled the ensuing punishments after the fall of Saigon and while I could write a whole novel about our escape and early days in Canada, that’s not what I’m thinking of right now.

Today I’ve been missing my dad and reflecting on what an incredible man he was and everything that he taught me.  This is a man who for all intents and purposes lost everything but picked up the pieces and kept going.  Not only did he make a new life in a country that was half way around the world where he did not speak the language nor understand the customs, he did it with a wife, three young children under the age of 5 and three siblings all in their teen years.  He raised five children who by any standard are successful. We are all educated, financially secure and (mostly) sane. Not one criminal record in sight.

But the part that I’m most grateful for is that my dad absolutely insisted upon his girls being educated and career-oriented.  Let’s be clear here, he was an Asian man of a certain generation so this was seriously bucking the trend. Throughout my life I heard people tell my parents that they shouldn’t allow me to read so much, be so educated, be so career focused, etc because no man was going to want me.  Not only did my dad ignore all that foolishness, he staunchly stood in the way of match-making efforts or anything else that would have distracted me from my ambitions and for that I will be eternally grateful.  I don’t know if I would be the same person I am today if my dad were different but I do know that the road I chose would have been astronomically more difficult.

My dad continues to be my role model when it comes to overcoming obstacles and adversity and coming through the other side as a happy, kind and generous human being.  He set a great example for me as I go through the startup madness. Yes, I can build something from nothing. Yes, I should stop listening to the negative voices around me who tell me to follow the crowd. Yes, I can pick myself up again and keep going when I hit a bump – or when someone knocks me down. Most of all, he taught me that just plain old hard work can overcome a hell of a lot of barriers.

Thank you Dad. I love you and I miss you.

Women in tech in Myanmar

So recently I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In…actually, I wrote a fairly extensive blog post on it, which was lost and instead of rewriting it, I’ve decided to write this one first.  I will still write one on my thoughts of Lean In but suffice it to say, it’s been fairly motivating, which was surprising to me.

One of the things I’ve always been fairly passionate about is girls in tech, especially in developing markets like Vietnam and Myanmar.  Study after study shows that connecting women to the Internet has profound benefits to their lives, that of their families and even provides a significant boost to the national income.  And yet it’s estimated that women in developing worlds are between 25-40% less connected then men.  I believe that there are two major reasons for this:

1. There are not enough women working in technology therefore not enough representation of a female’s viewpoint

2. One fallout of the above is that there is not enough digital content catered to women

Myanmar presents such a unique opportunity in that it is a nation that is coming online all at once and if we can ensure the voice of the women are heard just as loudly, there’s a good chance that Myanmar connectivity is balanced fairly evenly between genders as it comes online.  What’s even more interesting is that in Myanmar, it’s estimated that 95% of the teachers in post-secondary STEM classes are female and over half of the students are girls.  

Even though more girls graduate with Computer Science degrees than boys in Myanmar, the fledgling tech scene in Myanmar is still dominated by men, especially at the higher levels of the organization. Even at the budding entrepreneur level, I have only ever met one girl but countless boys who are in various stages of launching a tech start up. I think one of the biggest factors that is causing the high drop off rate of girls with STEM educations versus women in tech leadership is that the girls are simply not aware of the career choices available to them with their degree – I noticed a similar trend in Vietnam.  Basically, girls graduate with a CompSci degree and think that they either need to become a software programmer or network engineer. Entrepreneurship isn’t as culturally accepted as it is in more developed nations, especially for young women who would be expected to be settling down with a family in a few years.  Meaning, it would be much easier to tell mom and dad they work at a big company (even as an admin) than to try to explain that they are building something that fewer than 10% of the nation could even use, let alone want to try. So these girls abandon a possible career in technology very early on, which is a real tragedy.

Here’s a story that Thaung Su Nyein from Information Matrix recently shared with me…

The ICT committee at the UMFCCI (basically Myanmar’s chamber of commerce) was hiring and received 12 candidates – 11 females and only 1 male.  Of those 12 candidates, only 3 (the male and two females) were interested in an actual tech role, the remaining 9 wanted to apply for secretarial / clerical jobs.  This hurts my head and of course motivates me to try to change the tide here before these behaviours become too ingrained like in other developing countries.

Back to the book Lean In, there many parts of that book, especially early on where I rolled my eyes…and yet as I completed it, I realized that the real message that I got is that the few women leaders out there need to start speaking up and helping to create a new generation of female leaders.  Until there’s more representation at the top, we will continue to struggle with the gender divide.  Oh..the other message I got loud and clear is that “feminist” isn’t a dirty word 🙂  In any case, I realized after reading that book that I needed to step up.  Not only am I a female CEO for a tech company, I am also in a market where the gender divide is even greater than what Sandberg deals with.  So, over the next few months, I hope to gather women in technology leadership roles in Myanmar together to help. These young girls need role models and mentors. They need to see a viable career in technology, one that can be highly rewarding for men and women.  More to come as we start to roll out some of our programs…

Start up lessons

I had prepared the presentation below for Barcamp Saigon today but by the time the disorganized staff had schlepped me back and forth, they had closed off the ability to submit topics so I was not allowed to present. Usually at Barcamps you can submit a topic at any point during the day but apparently the organizers here felt the need to be fancy. All that amounted to is that I had two presentations prepared that are now just content for my blog. Given how busy I’ve been lately, it’s nice to have some content to post actually.

Below is something that I put together and is very specific to me and SQUAR. As with most start up information you find online, it should be noted that every company has their own stories and nuances. Hopefully this can provide some food for thought for any budding entrepreneurs, especially in Asia where our game is played so much differently than in the Silicon Valley.

It should be noted that we moved very quickly: product from concept to Google Play store in less than 4 weeks, oversubscribed investor interest in two weeks and a ton of media interest within 5 days of a beta launch. A combination of great timing, hard work and a bit of luck has SQUAR in the enviable situation of Silicon Valley investors like Sequoia seeking me out.

One day soon, I will write a more detailed story about the SQUAR start up story but for now, would love to hear from others who have done this in the region to see if they have additional stories to tell.

Down with the Eye Rollers

Anyone who’s done a start up knows that you’re going to get a lot of doubters and haters in your early concepting stage.  For those who are going to go through with the leap, you’ve got to grow a thick skin and brush off the negativity and just keep going.  I’ve certainly been meeting my share of the Eye Rollers in recent months.  On one hand, they do provide some valid points but oftentimes I’m finding that the perceived value I’m getting from them is not close to offsetting how damaging their negativity is to my psyche.

I was recently pulling myself out of a funk of a this-isn’t-going-to-work conversation when I came to the realization that this particular Eye Roller was very similar to the worse boss I have ever had.  The Dictator was a classic low self esteem, going to push everyone down and take all the credit type.  You know the one – Vietnam is FULL of them.  Anytime I presented an idea to her, she would pooh-pooh everything and tell me exactly why it wouldn’t work while rolling her eyes at me, at which point in time I would shuffle out of her office with my head down in embarrassment.  BTW, this was REALLY early in my career.  After a while, I noticed that many of the projects we were getting “from the top” resembled my ideas but with just a little bit of refinement.  Ah, the corporate rat race, how I do not miss thee.

Fast forward a decade or so and here I am.  Refining a product idea I want to spin into a start up and I’ve got another Eye Roller in my life.  Luckily I’m not the same young girl that the Dictator pushed around.  Still, the basic principle remains the same: she listens with barely contained derision, interrupts constantly with comments like “yeah, I’ve heard all this before” and ends with a lot of “you’re wasting your time” type comments.  While (Thank God) I’m not her employee, the Eye Roller is someone who I was trusting to give me constructive feedback and help me to flesh out a few nuances of my product. Instead, I got total demoralization and pretty much nothing I could construe as useful…lots of broad “things” I should look into but that she could barely understand.  I wasted half a day chasing down a lose end and when I went back to ask her to give me more clarification, I got a blank look and a response along the lines of “oh I heard it from someone somewhere”.  Grrrr.

Ten years ago I dealt with the Dictator by eventually quitting my job but there’s no way that the Eye Roller is going to get me to give up.  Thank God, I’ve got really smart people in my life who are not only enormously encouraging but willing to place money against my idea because, dammit, it’s a GREAT one.

Managers, take a moment to think of the last time you didn’t agree with an idea from an employee.  How did you handle it? Were you constructive and respectful, even if you thought the idea was bat-shit crazy?  Because here’s the thing, the most important thing really isn’t what you think of the idea, it’s how you handle the feedback.