Canadian geek in Myanmar

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.

Technology for women

As with many Asian societies, women – especially mothers – are a core to the family and community. If we affect women, we affect everyone. On average (globally), 90% of the money women earn, they reinvest in the home and the family. 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. By deliberately focusing on breaking down barriers that stop women from connecting we accelerate the engines of growth for the country’s economy. And yet it’s estimated that women in developing worlds are between 25-40% less connected then men.  Women in Myanmar are 29% less likely to own a device then men according to a recent GSMA report.  I believe that this comes down into two things: 1. There’s not enough women in the tech sector and 2. Mostly because of the first problem, there’s not enough people building tech with the needs and perspectives of women in mind. The issue of not enough women in tech is vast and probably deserves its own piece in the future but there are immediate things that can be done regarding the second.

Beyond the issue of gender equality, women make up half of the population and consumer market so it just makes economic sense to include them. A great example of this comes from the gaming world (of course I’m going to use a gaming example). For decades, gaming – especially console gaming – was predominately male-focused. Then in 2009, Nintendo introduced the Wii and turned the gaming world on its head.  Not only did they sell over 10 million units that year alone, eight of the top twenty selling games in 2010 were on the Wii, predominately driven by fitness and dancing games. Nintendo tapped into a couple of key drivers. First, women themselves were a huge untapped gaming market. By making gaming accessible and removing barriers to entry, they were able to effectively double their addressable market. Their mantra of “5 to 95” meant that all their design choices were made from the ground up to be inclusive for non gamers. Second, women make almost all the decisions when it comes to household purchases. Nintendo’s focus on family-friendly games appealed to women and women just do not buy shooting and fighting games for their families.

As with most technology stories, content is king…or in this case, queen. Building products that appeal to females and their specific interests means that there’s relevancy, which is a key driver to any tech adoption. As mentioned earlier, women are the core of the familial units. This means that they are often the primary health care providers, not just for the children but also the elder and ailing. Women are also the ones who are focused on the household diet and nutrition and the ones who make most of the financial decisions for the household. Products which tap into the domestic needs of a household or help the women in their day to day lives will surely appeal. Appearing fun or frivolous isn’t going to work with this group.

Another driver for adoption is in the design process. Creating products for women means that you need to consider what would appeal to them – and I don’t mean pretty pink hearts. Rather, consider this from Nintendo’s perspective and create the product from the ground up with women in mind. For instance, women, especially women in developing markets have less leisure time then men, meaning they are less inclined to spend large amounts of time trying to understand a new tech product. Design decisions such as breaking up the content into bite sized pieces and ease of entry are critical to female adoption. Take a look at the Duolingo app as an incredible example of how to break down e-learning into consumable chunks. Easy to pick up and understand, spend a few minutes with and come back to when time allows.

When trying attract women to your product, consider the other traits that are more typical of females. Generally speaking, we tend to be the planners and researchers – whether it’s more superficial things like restaurants and vacations to more serious needs such as healthcare. In general, we are more risk adverse and subsequently more inclined to plan for future. Women are more social and do not spend a lot of their spare time on themselves but will take the time if it is for the benefit of their family.

Having said all of this, the single most effective way to get more women connected is to get more girls into STEM majors and encourage these young women to stay in the tech sector once they are done school. Groups such as Geek Girls are trying to do their part but it’s a big issue that requires more awareness and support across the board. Myanmar presents such a unique opportunity – here is a country that is coming online almost overnight 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.

Catching and keeping your first million customers in Myanmar

I recently started to write a few articles for a local business magazine, Frontier.  Below is an excerpt and link to the first article.  The next ones are about rolling out tech to Myanmar consumers and the third about building tech for girls. Hit me up with any other ideas you think might be interesting!

Catching and keeping your first million customers in Myanmar

Myanmar’s mobile penetration has seen exponential growth particularly in urban areas, with internet penetration and smart phone adoption following at a slightly slower rate. Nearly 70 percent of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas where mobile penetration is significantly lower than the cities. While I don’t know what percentage of those devices are smart phones, I’m willing to bet it’s in the single digits.

The easy growth part of this story is over: those who have been waiting for years to get a SIM card now have one. The challenge now is to get to the harder to reach population and areas.

For those with smart phones, there’s a big question of content. The explosion of localised apps and online services has been targeted at urban users. It’s a growing market but a market of less than 10 million people with limited purchasing power.

Myanmar has about 30 million people who have mostly come online for the first time in the past 12 months. They have no digital footprint, no knowledge of how to find content and pay for content, no online communities where they gather. So how do you get to these people?

…Read more here

Choosing easy

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. – J.R.R. Tolkien

It’s only been a few weeks so probably a little too early to call it but 2016 is shaping up to be the best year yet. A series of changes and shakeups, some planned and others forced have put me in an amazing place recently, both professionally and personally. It’s rare that we take the moments to slow down and recognize happiness but I have to say, right now, sitting on a rooftop watching the sun go down on the other side of Shwedagon, I’m happy. Really happy.

I’ve been mulling over this, trying to determine what’s different and how I can consciously, proactively keep living like this. I think it’s tied to a conversation I had with a friend about a week ago. I rather blithely announced that 2016 was the year of no assholes and more importantly, choosing the easy path. We laughed about the first but had a surprisingly deep conversation about the latter.

We both agreed that we needed to stop always taking the hardest, most challenging paths laid in front of us. It was time to stop proving that we could conquer and accept that we have. To start choosing ourselves over our reputations. To provide some context, this was a person who was also in their late 30’s and running a major conglomerate. I was shocked that I was getting not just support but active agreement from someone who is wildly successful and simply didn’t have an off switch that I could ever see.

As a society, we are so ingrained to believe that the easy path is the opposite of the rewarding one. That by choosing easy, we are choosing to forego rewarding. I’m hellbent to prove this wrong this year. Like I said earlier, it’s a little too early to call it but I suspect 2016 is going to be highly rewarding AND one of the easiest I’ve had in a long time. Who’s with me?