By Sanne Breimer
Htun Khaing Lynn understands there are large-scale issues throughout the country, naming the Rohingya crisis and the rebel battles in the northern states. “I definitely hope that it’s going to change,’ he says, when asked about the current state of his country. “But we have to be patient and look at the bigger picture; there are a lot of good things happening around us as well.”
Htun Khaing Lynn works for innovation lab Phandeeyar, and although he has had opportunities to work abroad, he instead made a conscious decision to stay and, “watch his country change.” In the startup community in Myanmar, politics don’t currently play a big role. “As the government doesn’t really care about what we’re doing, because they have many other priorities on their list and supporting the tech ecosystem will come in a bit later. But we do have the Yangon Innovation Centre coming up, a collaboration between Seedstars and the Myanmar government. It will be interesting to see how that turns out.”
Three years ago, Htun Khaing Lynn didn’t know what a startup was or what a startup founder is supposed to do. “I had no idea what product to build or what business model to use. And that’s pretty much the situation of all young people in Myanmar.” It was Phandeeyar Founder David Madden, a tech entrepreneur with a wealth of entrepreneurial experience in Australia and the United States, who organised the first-ever hackathon of the country in 2014, named ‘Code for Change.’ From there, things began to change rapidly, as there was a massive opportunity to build a space for the community to come together. Nearly two years later, the founder of Phandeeyar organised the first accelerator program and that’s where Htun Khaing Lynn entered the startup world.
“I think there are over 200 startups now; the ecosystem is in a very promising situation. I know it’s still early to say and we’re far behind places like Vietnam, Bangkok, Cambodia, Indonesia and, of course, Singapore, but there are global companies entering Myanmar now and initiatives like the Facebook Developer Circles which settle down here,” he explains. In the long term, Myanmar needs more domestic investors, at this stage, it is still too risky.
“Rather than a startup deal, they would do a Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) deal, with which you might not have a lot of returns but, at the same time, you have very little risk. People are not yet willing to put all they have into startups. We need to improve that,” says Htun Khaing Lynn. Most startup funding comes from Singapore. A group of young entrepreneurs visited the city-state at the beginning of the year, like Andrew who founded Nay Yar, a company that helps young working people to find an apartment in Yangon. Even though many of his friends live there, and he has ideas for his business in Singapore, he doesn’t really like it — “people don’t smile when they’re walking down the street.” With his company, he wants to have a positive impact on the lives of people who work hard but aren’t in a position to pay for an apartment. “Landlords want people to pay six months in advance, but most of them can’t. So, we want to help them with that problem. We’re looking for a bank to partner up with and we also talk to employers who can cut an employees’ salary to bridge the gap,” Andrew explains. His friend, Auon Khay, who is 28 years old, founded Hivephing, a construction marketplace, where he connects subcontractors looking for new projects to suppliers of professional construction workers.
Construction and real estate are two of the biggest problems in Yangon that need solutions, Htun Khaing Lynn acknowledges. “The construction industry is booming but there’s not a lot of technology innovation going on there. The challenges in the transportation and infrastructure sectors are big as well, the public transport system and the QR code paying system are still lagging behind what’s happening in surrounding countries. But,” he says, “then you have to work with the government and that can be a bit tedious.”
Even though the ecosystem is still male-dominated, in Phandeeyar, there are influential women as well. Pwint Pwint San and Tin Thandar Oo founded HydroPlant together, an agritech startup in building smart farming systems. They note a lack of skilled employees in Myanmar, especially in the agricultural sector, so they put a lot of effort into training and consultation. Because they need to convince farmers that their smart systems work, they grow fruits and vegetables themselves as well. Yuthu Zinhtet, who founded the fashion startup OneSett, recognises the lack of trust in innovation and new business. Her aunts and uncles are disapproving of her being an entrepreneur. She calls the social norm in the country the biggest challenge to the startup scene. Also, on the dependency of Facebook she says, “my business needs a website or an app for people to order and buy my dresses, but even though I could get the money to build something like that, people still need to learn how to use it.”
Thazin Ni, co-founder of Asia Art Connect, doesn’t seem to have a problem with that, maybe because her art business focuses on the international market. Her challenge lies much more in good market insights because useful data in Myanmar is a long time lagging.
And Myanmar needs more tech knowledge, that’s for sure. Htun Khaing Lynn says, “the biggest struggles in the scene in Myanmar now is the lack of tech talent. Everybody is looking for CTO’s. Most people have good ideas, full-blown ideas, but they don’t have enough tech to build them. And also, domain knowledge is a problem. Entrepreneurs sometimes have 0% idea of how real estate works but still want to start a business there.” The country itself has its own problems, like limited digital literacy among people. “People still think Facebook is the internet. If you’re launching a product in the Appstore or on Google Play, nobody is going to download it. There’s a massive barrier between being innovative and actually delivering the product to the audience. That is holding some of the entrepreneurs back from reaching their goals.”
Asking what they see as their opportunity, the entrepreneurs give different answers — the quality of Myanmar’s art, the number of problems that need solutions, being a role model to a younger generation and what Htun Khaing Lynn is saying, “this is the best time to start a business in Myanmar. The government transforms; it’s just a matter of filling in an online form and paying 200 dollars nowadays to register a company, and they are working on an intellectual property law to protect entrepreneurs better. The market is full of potential, venture capitalists from the region need to dive into Myanmar soon, and there’s no better time than now.”