As Myanmar opens up, Burmese mobile dev agency seizes moment, turns into product firm

[As featured on TECHINASIA]

By Daniel Tay

In Myanmar, technology has been playing catch-up very quickly with the rest of the world over the past year. The entry of Qatari telco Ooredoo has seen the price of sim cards dip to a paltry US$1.50 – more than 1,300 times cheaper than they were five years ago. The subsequent demand was overwhelming to say the least, with more than a million customers snatching up Ooredoo SIMs within just three weeks of its launch. With Norway’s Telenor coming into the picture, the competition will ensure that prices remain low.

Given that Internet broadband prices are still extremely steep, and a smartphone can cost as little as US$43, it makes sense that the Burmese are opting to access the web via the latter instead – almost 49 percent of them, in fact. With the government pushing for 74 percent of the country to have access to cellular services by 2016 – that is, about 37 million people – the mobile market is ripe for the taking, and local startups are sensing the opportunities.

One of these startups is development firm NEX, which just last week secured US$150,000 in funding from Sweden- and Singapore-based angel investor Bilbros. While NEX used to work primarily on web and mobile development projects for clients, it has more recently begun to develop its own series of products as well.

Finding the right time

The reason for the delay, according to founder and CEO Ko Ye Myat Min, was that he wanted to wait for the right time. “When we started in 2013, there wasn’t any major push on mobile penetration. As a mobile development firm, we thought it would not make sense for us to release our products while mobile penetration was relatively low,” he recalls.

Things started looking up in 2014, with major telcos pushing for mobile adoption across the country, and the government throwing its weight behind the momentum. Min decided it was time to change their focus:

More and more, people are getting connected every day and this creates huge demand on mobile apps. So, we decided that this would be the right time to start creating our own products. We’ve formed micro teams within our company and started focusing on products and side projects throughout those teams, while some of the other team members maintain the agency business. We will definitely be taking this route from now on and build up our product portfolio. I think this is the most sensible model for a 20-person team in an emerging market such as Myanmar.

Min tells Tech in Asia that he first begun looking for investors earlier this year at Startup Asia Singapore 2014. “I made a list of investors whom I liked in an Excel sheet. And then, I started cold-emailing them with a pitch deck of Fyre,” he reveals.

Not surprisingly, the success rate was low. But some investors did respond, and Min made his pitching rounds. It was by no means easy to get buy-in from them though.

“Being from Myanmar, it was difficult since the investment seemed risky for most of the investors. But in the end, we managed to raise US$150,000 from Blibros, whom we were introduced to via our angel investor, Ned Philips.”

Ned Philips was their first investor, putting US$50,000 into their coffers. Min says that the funding will mainly be used for product development and hiring of talents.

Fyre, a cloud-based mobile storefront platform that allows merchants to build apps for their stores, is still in works – it’s the fourth app that the NEX team has been working on. The other three were launched in quick succession over the past few months:

1. Kabyar

A simple app that lets you read Burmese poems on Android or iOS devices. It has been downloaded over 100,000 times so far, with about 1 million screen views monthly.

 

2. Nexy Keyboard

This app provides an easy way to type Romanised Burmese, or “Burglish” – a representation of the Burmese language or Burmese names in the Latin alphabet – on iOS 8 devices. In just four days, it has gathered over 5,000 downloads and counting.

Myanmar’s mobile app landscape

NEX doesn’t have a lack of competitors in Myanmar, according to Min. However, while there are many apps being created, he says that the Burmese are still lacking quality.

“What we are seeing is that Myanmar’s app market is filled with many utility apps. We feel that the market actually needs more content-based apps, such as books, videos, music, news 2.0, and so on,” he adds. “Also, SMEs are still not utilizing technology due to lack of education. We believe there can be a lot of innovation in that space.”

With huge demand for quality apps, Min believes that there is “enough pie for everyone to have a piece.” He is, in fact, hopeful for more and better competition. “We’ve seen so many development firms getting started, but only a few product companies. I hope there will be more product-focused companies in the near future.”