How Startups Can Overcome Challenges in Myanmar | Techsauce

How Startups Can Overcome Challenges in Myanmar

In our previous post, we outlined some of the challenges that Myanmar has in the coming years ahead. Just like any other country, these challenges will take time, patience, and cooperation from all stakeholders.

However, what should entrepreneurs with an idea do in the meantime? Should they wait for improvements in internet or traffic? Should they wait to see how their idea or something similar plays out in other markets over the next year?

In the words of Richard Branson: “Screw it, just do it.”


Solve Myanmar’s Pain Points

Following general ideation techniques is important and useful. Regardless of the ideation technique you prefer, the outcome is clear: identify clear pain points and find solutions for them. This can be through their personal experience or through someone they know, like a family member or a friend. The key however is to go through this ideation process within Myanmar’s context. By turning into the skeptical observer, the entrepreneur in Myanmar can realize that there are both things that are universal in their pain points (e.g. I have trouble waking up!) and that are more central, though still applicable to other countries, to the context of Myanmar (e.g. there are only padlocks and keys for gates, I could be trapped!).

Be Android First, while Mitigating Challenges

An easy trap for entrepreneurs to fall into is to look at other markets and to bring that product and model to this country. Sometimes this makes sense. After all, certain wants and needs are universal. However, this can be a tragic shortcoming as it either leads to solve a non-existent pain point (e.g. a friend of mine wanted to sell drones in Myanmar) or fails in truly disrupting the country.  The best thing a startup can do is to skate to where the puck is going. The most obvious example of this is through smartphone penetration and rising income levels.

This comes with serious challenges. For one, as an almost entirely Android market, developers are going to have some trouble with the variety of handsets and operating system versions. Next comes something obvious, but also tricky – language. For one, Burmese is a particularly difficult language to translate into something quick and understandable. What may look quick and catchy in English is longer and confusing in Burmese.

Zawgyi font can be a headache for developers.

Second, of the two fonts used, Zawgyi and Unicode, Zawgyi has considerable use in the market and is a nightmare for developers and entrepreneurs who want to create an application that allows basic user-friendly features like search. This means when developing your application with Zawgyi, ensure the usability and value-add do not rely on any of its flaws. Smart entrepreneurs will guide their users on Zawgyi to perform actions without search and, for something like an e-commerce startup, automatically provide recommendations.

Always Design with the User at Center

Human-centered design is a valuable process for all startups. However, in Myanmar, where there is a huge number of ethnic groups, religions, and backgrounds, any startup that does not incorporate HCD principles will be left behind.

A proper design process can ensure startups are building products with the customer in mind.

Human-centered-design starts with the people and ends with specific solutions that addresses their needs. In a market where most people have just been introduced to a variety of services and products, a design process that starts with their needs and perceptions can make their experience simple and easy.

At Wave Money, for example, we’ve used the human-centered-design process for our customer app, working with both rural and urban customers to create a user-interface that is easy to understand for the people of Myanmar. This is huge, because if start-ups really care about growth hacking, they’ll know the starting point is creating a product that people understand. [Full disclosure: I work for Wave Money.]

Another way HCD can ensure a startups success is by overcoming digital literacy. Although smartphone penetration is high, digital literacy remains low. The lack of digital literacy has had a tough impact for Myanmar and entrepreneurs can design their products and businesses to be as intuitive and easy-to-understand as possible.

Incorporate Facebook

For many, Facebook is the internet in Myanmar.

Facebook is massive in Myanmar. An increasingly common saying is “Facebook is the internet.” This implies two major things for entrepreneurs. First, there is high expectations for the performance of your application and for your business. You’re competition on usability, responsiveness, and performance is not the entrepreneur down the street – it is the developer in Silicon Valley. The best way to deal with this is to both build a clean MVP and avoid the razzle dazzle that can make an application clunky or slower. Just focus on what the user wants and nothing else. Of course, this still may not be enough so an entrepreneur should also use important development techniques to give the impression the application is fast. This means give immediate splash screen, allow the user to interrupt at any time, and provide feedback while the application is loading.

Second, incorporating social media in your product and marketing strategy will be fundamental. There are no two ways around this. It’s simple – weave in Facebook, Viber, and other major digital platforms into your company. This means allowing sharing through your application and creating trust through simple Facebook pages and ads will be key to survival.

Factor in Unit Economics…Or Else

Myanmar is a rural country. It is also a cash-based country. These two factors already present operational expenses that can easily eat into a start-ups budget. Unit economics is notorious for being one of the most difficult and challenges aspects of any startup in the world. As Sam Altman of Y-Combinator notes, “One of the jokes that came out of the 2000 bubble was ‘we lose a little money on every customer, but we make it up on volume’.” He goes on to write “Burn rates by themselves are not scary. Burn rates are scary when you scale the business up and the model doesn’t look any better.  Burn rates are also scary when runway is short (i.e., burning $2M a month with $100M in the bank is fine; burning $1M a month with $3M in the bank is really bad) even if the unit economics look great.” Remember, this is about startups in Silicon Valley.

Entrepreneurs in Myanmar would be wise to note that this is even more of an issue when unit economics gets eaten by logistical costs like transportation and cash-management, which are even bigger headaches here than elsewhere. If not careful, the entrepreneur will either keep a price point that is completely unsustainable or too high for their target market. Either way, they have walked into a trap and will be unlikely to survive.

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It

Nothing valuable, especially a startup, comes easy. The challenges in Myanmar are real. Anyone serious about business in the country will tell you it will require grit, relentless determination, a lot of hard work, and luck. That’s before you get into a discussion on the money you’ll need.

There is only one solution: do it now and do it for Myanmar’s context.

When lack of reliable electricity is an issue, build off-grid solar.

When lack of insurance prevents risk-taking and burdens poor families, bring micro-insurance.

When the vast majority remains financially excluded, build mobile money.

When garment factories lack reliable systems, build a production management system.

Any entrepreneur who is discouraged by the challenges will miss the opportunity to impact millions of people just introduced to the internet via their smartphones with rising incomes and real pain points.

The entrepreneurs who survive in this market won’t be the ones who give up when the electricity goes out or the 3G goes out. The ones who survive will be the ones who solve a meaningful pain point, create a scalable business model, and take into account the country’s context. It won’t be easy, but screw it, just do it.


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