How to check out the Myanmar startup scene
Written by Marty Spargo
In May 2017 I spent a few weeks in Yangon to take a closer look at the Myanmar startup scene, to research the Burmese market and to visit the country for the first time. I learned a lot about the people and the culture during my stay and I hope to share some of that with you so that you might find it easier to plan and execute your own trip to Myanmar.
I also cover off a little bit of information not specifically related to the Burmese startup scene. If you’re not interested in that feel free to skip ahead!
I’ve been interested in visiting Myanmar for at least a decade. Ever since studying Aung San Suu Kyi in high school it seemed like a place shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Over the coming years I visited most other Asian countries, so it was only a matter of time until I visited Myanmar too.
I knew precious little about the place. I knew the military had controlled the place for a long time and I knew that Myanmar was enjoying some of the highest GDP growth rates in the world, but that’s about it. I didn’t know if it was offensive to refer to people or the language as Burmese (turns out it’s not), I didn’t know whether I would be able to get by OK with English (turns out you can) and I didn’t know whether I would be able to get money out of ATM’s easily. I had recently been spooked in China, so I had my guard up. Turns out that’s easy too.
I posted my Australian passport, a visa application form and a money order to the Myanmar Embassy in Canberra. I think in less than a week it was sent back to me with my single entry visa ready to go. Simple. I did notice that it includes different terminology than my Chinese visa which stated “enter before” which is obvious. The Myanmar visa instead says “valid until” which caused me a little bit of angst because I wasn’t sure if that meant I had to be out of the country by the date printed or not. They only give you three months after all.
I got a relatively cheap flight by doing the work on skyscanner.com. I paid $539 total for the return with Air Asia via Kuala Lumpur. The flight to Myanmar is painful, with a two hour transit in KL at around 7am Sydney time ensuring that you arrive a scattered mess. I found it interesting that as you are going through immigration there is a glass wall beside you with people waiting outside in the arrival hall peering in at you. That’s the first time I’ve seen that. I was also surprised to see how relaxed the place was. I thought after decades of military rule the place might be stringent and regimented, but the lady who was stamping my passport was super casual. She also confirmed that the “valid until” date printed on my visa could be interpreted as “enter before” which was a nice welcome too.
Before heading out to grab some transport to the place I was staying I wandered over to have a chat to the people manning the information booth. In some parts of Asia there are trusted taxi companies and companies that you should avoid. But it turns out that the taxi’s are all surprisingly trustworthy here. In fact, they don’t even have meters. You just get in, tell the driver where you want to go and they tell you the price. From my experience during my stay the price they tell you is generally only slightly inflated versus what you should be paying, and they don’t try to rob you blind like taxi drivers do elsewhere in the world. Prices vary from $1 for a 5 minute ride to around $8 for the hour trip to the airport. By the way, they also don’t have receipts, so if you're hoping to get a fistful of receipts from your cab rides you will be disappointed.
I’m currently on a tight budget, so I opted for a guest house type place. It wasn’t fancy by any stretch, but I did have my own room, a comfortable bed and decent wifi, so it was plenty good enough for me. Besides, I wasn’t going to be spending too much time in my room, so I didn’t feel the need to get something with all the bells and whistles. I ended up paying $12 USD per night (currently around $16 AUD) and I was right in the middle of the city in a pretty handy location. I don’t think there are too many other capital cities in the world where you could get a nice clean room in the CBD for $16 a night!
I was surprised at how expensive gyms were in Yangon. Even really bad gyms aren’t cheap, but the place that I chose to get a month membership from – Training Ground was probably the most expensive. It’s a nice gym with good air conditioning, good equipment and super friendly staff. The manager told me the price for a month was around $160 AUD, but I bargained it down to $130. Expensive, but worth it.
I typically turned the gym into my office in the evening after I had been evicted from the co-working space I was working in (details below) before going home to continue working online after the gym closed. I found it interesting that the personal trainers who roam the floor in the gym are getting paid by the gym to help people with technique and motivation. This seems quite different to the rest of the world where personal trainers are basically roaming around to try to find clients wanting one on one sessions.
The personal trainers were also forced to exercise every day and had an Australian English teacher come in regularly to help them improve their English because so many of the clientele are foreigners. All pretty cool initiatives if you ask me! I got on well with all of the team, but one guy in particular was a total legend and I now consider him a mate. Cheers Nicky!
A developing nation
Decades of military rule had basically shut off Myanmar from the outside world and left its people impoverished. It still holds the dubious title as being one of the least developed nations in the world. I was really keen to talk to anyone who had seen the transition from military rule to democracy, but didn’t get too many opportunities. I didn’t meet many foreigners who had been there for more than a couple of years, but there were some interesting stories about how a few years ago there were almost no cars on the road and there was no internet outside of a few 5-star hotels.
The Burmese that I spoke to about the transition didn’t say much other than how much the people hate the military. During one such conversation that took place in a nice Burmese restaurant when it came time to pay the bill and leave I noticed the bar tender was mixing up nearly a dozen cocktails despite there being no one in the restaurant except for us. When I enquired about what they were for the bar man told my new Burmese mate Nicky that the drinks were for an Army General and a bunch of girls that he was bringing from a KTV bar later in the evening. Of course, I asked if we could have one each, the bar man obliged, and Nicky and I enjoyed a cocktail courtesy of some rich, corrupt military official. They were quite tasty too!
A besieged history
I don’t want to turn this into a story of Burmese history, but I was interested in learning as much as I could during my stay. All I can say is that the Burmese have been subjected to inconceivable events and have collectively been through an awful lot. They are an amazing nation of people.
Without making light of a serious moment in their history, my favourite story of stupidity comes from 1988 when whoever was in charge suddenly decided that all existing bank notes would no longer be considered legal tender. Millions of Burmese lost their life savings over night. The ruler decided that because 9 was his lucky number that only notes divisible by 9 would be permitted. Thus, 45 and 90 Kyat notes became the norm. What a bright idea!
It sounds ridiculous beyond comprehension that something so reckless and impractical could happen. This decision led to a recession and subsequent demonstrations in 1988 which are now infamous for thousands of civilians being gunned down by their own military in the streets of Yangon. Now you know why I was so happy to drink that guys cocktail in the restaurant that I mentioned above.
Before arriving in Yangon I had a bit of a look around for co-working spaces in the city. For me, I usually do a search for co-working spaces and gyms and let proximity to those things guide the approximate area that I end up staying in. There weren’t many options that showed up.
The one that looked the most interesting to me, and the only one that I saw during my stay was Phandeeyar. Apparently it means “create” in Burmese. On my second day in Yangon I went to the address listed for Phandeeyar in the searing heat. Once I got inside and felt the fantastic cold AC my only question was about how good the internet was before quickly deciding that I was happy enough to call it my base while I was there.
The cost is currently $35 USD per month, which seems like a decent deal to me. The mix of people using the co-working space was roughly 60% Burmese and 40% foreigners, but there were only ever around 20 people in the room in total.
Also under the Phandeeyar roof is an Accelerator which I thought was pretty interesting to see up close. Phandeeyar run regular “startup challenge” events to flush out the best and brightest budding entrepreneurs and their ideas, then invest in a few of them during their next cohort for their Accelerator. It seems like a beautiful model from what I can tell. Hats off to the people behind it.
Overall, I would say that the place wasn’t very social compared to my recent experience in Shenzhen or even compared to Sydney. Everyone seems stressed out and busy, but I did get to know some of the other co-working residents pretty well during my time there.
I should mention that the usual state of affairs at Phandeeyar was:
- Air conditioning
There were plenty of days all three were working, but there were also days when none were working. The average day usually got you two out of three.
Something I didn’t like about Phandeeyar was that the place is not open 24/7 and they generally kick you out for the day around 7pm. I had to specifically ask for access on weekends too. In this day and age of entrepreneurship having unlimited access around the clock has become the expected norm in my book.
The internet oscillated between as good as what I have at home in Sydney and borderline unusable. There were a fair few times where I just had to throw my hands in the air and say “OK, I guess I’m going out to do those product giveaways that I planned to do this evening a bit earlier than I planned to!”
I got myself a local simcard and $10 worth of data which got me 4Gb. What a deal, I wish 4Gb in Australia only cost $10! That lasted me my full 3 weeks and ran out the day before my flight home. I then topped up another 500Mb for $1. It was definitely good to have a local simcard with data as a backup plan for any wifi problems wherever I happened to be. I spent plenty of time “hot spotting” from my phone to get online.
It was damn hot while I was in Yangon. I arrived in mid-May, which apparently is the hottest time of the year – immediately before the rainy season starts. The first five days that I was there were the hottest. It was around 37 degrees with 80% humidity making going outside between 11am and 4pm pretty uncomfortable. The temperature did cool down to tops of around 32 after the first week as daily rain became the norm.
If you don’t have much of a sense of humour you may not love Yangon. Things go wrong and break daily and you just have to see the funny side and get on with things. In addition to the general mayhem that is everywhere you look when you go outside, things don’t always work as advertised or expected.
Sometimes the elevator doesn’t stop at your floor despite having pressed the button and it will just sail right past you forcing you into the stairs if you’re in a rush. Another time I was sitting in the co-working space and a makeshift set of lights suddenly started making a fizzing sound before smoke came erupting out. Then there was the time I was in a restaurant having lunch with some of the people from Phandeeyar when a giant rat fell out of the roof and nearly landed on the table beside us before scurrying off.
But my favourite memory of Yangon madness was during an afternoon storm while sitting in Phandeeyar when a piece of roofing caught my attention as it went flying past the window and towards the ground below. It was probably one metre by one metre corrugated iron and I have no idea where it landed 11 stories below. I told the only other guy in the room about it and he seemed pretty concerned about his car which was parked down on the street. Personally, I was more worried that it might have hit someone!
I’m usually pretty up for eating super local wherever I go, but the street food in Yangon didn’t look like it would agree with me, so I didn’t get too adventurous. On one occasion I was heading down for lunch at the same time as some of the local Phandeeyar staff and I asked them where they were going and if it was good. They replied “not good for you”.
The street food options looked a little safer than Jakarta, but not as safe as Bangkok. I got pretty sick for 24 hours on one occasion and had a separate bout of the runs that lasted a couple of days too. That’s strange for me, because I spend a lot of time in south east Asia and rarely get sick. As someone else pointed out to me – you can get sick anytime you eat something in Yangon, no matter where it is.
Myanmar’s young seem just as interested in entrepreneurship and startups as the young in any other country I’ve been to lately. It’s cool to see. Also, kudos to Phandeeyar for their involvement in nurturing the next generation of Burmese business leaders. They create an ecosystem to inspire and empower young Burmese to chase their dreams – something I can only support.
One thing that I noticed immediately was the average age of Burmese entrepreneurs and wanna-be-entrepreneurs. I would be surprised if anyone was over 25. I fully expect the next wave of disruptive Burmese businesses to be founded by people under the age of 30. People were talking about Fin-tech, Agri-tech and the sharing economy.
One of the companies that I’ll be keeping an eye on as they develop is Kargo. Their team of roughly 10 people was using the co-working space as their home while I was there and they seem like a good bunch of people. They seek to bring truck operators and people needing to move freight together on a single platform in an Uber type way.
Ride Sharing Apps Having spent a lot of time in Indonesia I am very interested in the story of ride sharing apps. Grab has already arrived in Myanmar and Gojek is rumoured to be planning an imminent launch here too. Local options like Hello Cabs and Oway Ride have obviously seen the explosion in Indonesia and sought to position themselves as the local first movers. However, I don’t know if I see these kinds of services taking off here in the same way that they have in Indonesia. For one, taxis are everywhere when you walk outside and you rarely have to wait more than a minute until you’ve got one. Secondly, the fare the taxi driver tells you when you get in the cab is more or less the same as the fare you get when booking through one of those apps. Part of the attraction of these apps in Indonesia is that they remove the chance of being severely ripped off by the driver – the fare has already been confirmed before they even arrive. But if you can very easily get a taxi when you want one and the fare is roughly the same as using an app I don’t see it taking off to the same extent as they have elsewhere.
Mind you, many might disagree with me, I read that a local Burmese business man had recently invested 7 figures into Hello Cabs. I’ll also be watching these businesses with interest.
Before military rule Myanmar (then Burma) was the brightest prospect among its south east Asian peers for the future. Hopefully now that democracy has finally arrived the Burmese can make up for lost time and quickly catch up for the lost decades.
I was surprised to learn that Myanmar has among the highest smart phone usage per capita in the world, so I would expect the next generation of successful Burmese businesses to be apps of some kind.
I hope this blog helped to provide some practical tips for planning and executing your trip to Myanmar. I hope to see more of the country next time I go back.