Guest Column

Pulling Strings Together

By Kyaw sit Naing 26 May 2017

Over the past few years of Myanmar’s transition since 2015, an evident change can be seen in the relaxation of printed press and Internet censorship, the revival of daily and independent newspapers, and the release of a number of journalists from jail. Without a doubt, people here in my homeland seem to be happier than before and more importantly, they are more hopeful about their future.

I, too, was hopeful about my future, aspiring to become an energetic social worker. I returned to Myanmar (Burma) in 2013 after receiving my Master of Science in Social Work from Columbia University, ready to work to make my dream come true. My ultimate goal is to become an agent of social change, enabling fellow citizens to envision a better future, to mutually appreciate their differences, and to draw strength from those differences in order to build a happy and cohesive society.

As soon as I stepped on the soil of my motherland, I started working in advocacy, promoting the rights of the LGBTQ community. However, I quit after two months, due to security concerns. Thereafter, I worked as an associate program director at the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation under the direct leadership of two of the most influential women in the country: Dr. Ohmar and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

After working at the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation for a year, a noble idea came into my mind to explore the technology sector’s contribution from a business perspective to promoting the mechanism of delivering services in the social work sector. This led me to come up with a different approach to make my dream come true. I ventured into the technology business with my two “repat” (as we call those who have returned to Myanmar from abroad) friends in 2014.

We developed Myanmar’s first ever restaurant search app called ‘MyLann,’ having been inspired by Yelp, back in the United States. We were highly motivated, energetic and dreamed big, imagining that some day, Google might buy our mobile app. In fact, it turned out not to be as simple as I thought. My friend, who is a developer, took the CEO post and the other friend, with his bachelor’s degree in business from UC Berkeley, took on the role of managing director. They both believed that I possessed good communication skills and, therefore, I was assigned to be in charge of marketing and sales.

At first, I had high hopes and enjoyed my life as a young entrepreneur. In spite of knowing that I lacked business knowledge and skills, I worked very hard. I walked into every restaurant in Yangon and spoke with many restaurant owners. Some showed interest, yet the majority seemed reluctant about online marketing tools, even though it could help them promote their restaurants in a more cost-effective way. In 2014, most companies would have rather concentrated on traditional forms of marketing such as billboards, TVCs, Radio FM Channels, and newspapers. They might spend millions on billboards but be cautious about social media marketing.

Nevertheless, I did not give up and joined many networking events like “Mobile Monday” and other young professional gatherings to expand my business contacts. It was not an easy path for a social worker in the technology business field as I was trying something totally out of my comfort zone. As a result of participating in networking activities, I came across two Australians who were working in Silicon Valley, who happened to be at the same event. They were keen to guide us through our endeavor for a few months. As Christians believe, “God helps those who help themselves.”

Soon, I developed connections with many well-known local restaurants and international chains such as YKKO and Manhattan Fish Market, and a leading online media channel supported our app. Our team worked countless hours to collect restaurant data, and eventually, by early 2015, MyLann became a leading local mobile app consisting of more than 1,000 restaurants’ data countrywide.

Despite our mobile app being regarded as a leading online restaurant search app, we encountered a shortage of cash and tried to raise funds. With hope of a breakthrough, we approached many potential locals to see if they would be interested in becoming angel investors; however, the outcome was not very encouraging. Moreover, not only was there no official government agency that would support local young entrepreneurs like us, but it was impossible for us to reach out to private banks.

As for access to finance for entrepreneurs, it is still very hard in Myanmar for two key reasons. First, banks cannot price risk: they can only charge interest between the 8-13 percent band. The nature of start-ups is riskier so they often get overlooked if banks cannot charge more than 13 percent interest. Second, the definition of collateral is very stringent and narrow: this gets more restricting because only collateralized lending is allowed in for now. This means by nature, smaller firms and start-ups do not have the assets that can be used as collateral to get loans. Therefore, banks only lend capital to the rich, who have all of the assets such as land and buildings. After a serious conversation with our management team and other key players in the respective community, we were unable to seek financial support to sustain our mobile app. Finally, the three of us decided to close this chapter and move forward to realize our own visions.

Beyond pride in our team’s effort and endeavor in introducing a novel idea to connect people and technology from a business perspective, we believe that the integration of technological mechanisms has the potential to deliver enhanced services in the social work sector. However, this experience vividly exposed the inadequacies such as lacking a stable cash flow or a strategic business model, which would later lead us to lose the focus on mobile apps. Second, there wasn’t a legitimate support system. Third, local people were not ready to search for things on mobile apps and instead, they tend to solely depend on Facebook to search (public sentiment when it comes to the internet is all about Facebook). An alternative use of Internet technology should be encouraged. Last but not least, was an insufficiency of competent human resources and expertise in the technology field.

As for the future in regards to financial support, the liberalization of the banking system will be essential. From the experience I encountered in entering the technology sector, if the above-mentioned strings could be pulled together, I believe the IT scene in Myanmar could be different.

Kyaw Sit Naing (MSW) is currently a visiting lecturer of Post-Graduate Diploma in Social Work at Yangon University. He co-founded Myanmar’s first restaurant search app called MyLann and resigned after a year. Before his entrepreneurial journey, he used to work as an Associate Program Director at the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation. He also worked as an Advocacy Coordinator at Colors Rainbow advocating for the rights of LGBT individuals in Myanmar. He received his Master of Science in Social Work (M.S.W) from Columbia University in New York City. He has a BA in Political Science and Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.