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What I learned setting up a startup incubator in Myanmar – and what you need to know about the country itself

Phil (pictured below) is the CEO of Pollenizer, a startup factory in Asia-Pacific that also works to design incubators and entrepreneurial ecosystems for big companies. Ideabox, Myanmar’s Ooredoo-powered incubator, opened its doors to applicants on May 12.

Myanmar - straight to the future of tech

My first encounter with Myanmar happened around a board table at Indosat HQ in Jakarta, Indonesia. If I am honest, I probably couldn’t have told you where Myanmar was on a map when that meeting began. As I watched the briefing slides flip through, I wondered if it was possible to do what we were about to attempt. Fewer than one percent of the population on the internet; fewer than five percent with a mobile phone; a few computer associations – that was about it for the newly-opened country’s tech scene.

How the hell were we going to launch an incubator here?

The Pollenizer team had been invited by Ooredoo to help do just that. The telco had just received a license to roll out super fast 3G in the country and things were about to change quickly. The internet was coming and for the people of Myanmar the first experience would be through the screen of a smartphone. No Windows 95. No dial-up modem. No Netscape browser or IE4. This country is going straight to the future.

For my first trip to Yangon, I had low expectations. I was going to a Barcamp in the hope of discovering entrepreneurs. Barcamps, where participants define the agenda each morning at the start, are a great place to flush out geeks. The last one I had been to in Sydney had 250 participants and the quality of debate had been high. When I got to MICT Park for the event I was surprised to see a lot of people flowing out of the building. Really. A lot. It turned out there were 8,000 people. Many wearing the hacker T-shirts and jeans that made me feel at home.

Most impressive was the talk by Thar Htet called ‘Myanmar Needs Entrepreneurs – You.’ He kept a packed crowd (by the time he was done there was no standing room left, never mind the seats) enthralled with what will happen to Myanmar if people step up to entrepreneurship and what it will take to grow an ecosystem. The content would have been interesting to a crowd in San Francisco and revealed a level of self awareness and drive that was an exciting revelation.

It was starting to become clear that there was more to this country than that slide deck I saw in Jakarta.

See: Myanmar poised to have ‘60 million citizens come online almost overnight’

Myanmar - straight to the future of tech

Photo by Phil Morle.

Accelerating progress

My next trip was for the Code for Change hackathon. Now we were getting into a deep ocean of uncharted waters. The team wanted to take hacker culture out for a run for the benefit of the country’s NGOs. But who would show up to this weird new event? And if anyone did come, would they come back the next day? What would they build? Who would give up their weekend to build web apps? We had no idea and half expected to spend the weekend alone. 80 people came in the end and they did not look up from their screens, even during the powercut at midnight on Saturday.

I am starting to understand that something spectacular is about to happen.

10 years ago I was a startup founder in Sydney, Australia. In those days it was pretty isolating, but undeterred we made Pollenizer and started building companies. 10 years later, the Sydney startup ecosystem is booming. #Startupaus got there a lot quicker than Silicon Valley did because there were lessons already learned and the internet is delivering new speed and scale to the entrepreneurs in its number.

Two years ago we started working in Manila, Philippines. With Kickstart Ventures, we are co-founding companies and helping #startupph grow its ecosystem. It feels like it took two years to get somewhere that took 10 in Sydney.

Now here we are in Myanmar, launching the first startup incubator. We finally opened up the program to applications and received 15 of them in the first hour.

Myanmar - straight to the future of tech

Here is the opportunity that I now see. When we built our first websites in 1992, none of us had any idea what the web would become. What if we had been able to come forward in time 20 years for a sneak peak and then returned to start building. That would have been an unfair advantage to be reckoned with. In Myanmar, we are going to provide web solutions to people for the first time, direct to smartphone over fast 4G. Wow. This country is going straight to the future.

Here are the reasons to dive into Myanmar

60 million people: I live in Australia, a big island with just 22 million people. It can be hard to make startups there because the market is so small. 60 million people is massive. We can work with that. Certainly Myanmar is not a wealthy country with a GDP of $51 billion compared to Australia’s $1.5 trillion, but this will change. The internet does that. We just need to be patient and the time won’t come again when this country gets to experience the products it will become loyal to for the first time.

Fewer habits to change: When I was building Kazaa in Estonia in the early 2000s, the Soviets were a recent memory and the EU was just starting to stimulate the local economy. There were no ATMs, not much of a phone system and a hopelessly old-fashioned government bureaucracy. When it was able, Estonia went straight to the future. Straight to mobile, straight to internet banking, straight to world-leading egovernment. There was no ‘old way’ to get in the way.

Determined talent base: Estonia didn’t stop there. They went on to build Kazaa and Skype. There was so much talent there that needed an outlet and an opportunity to show the whole world what they were capable of. I think we are seeing the beginning of this in Myanmar.

Low startup cost: The average wage is still very low in Myanmar and I expect the internet will increase this as education and jobs flow in through the fiber optic cables. The companies we are starting in Myanmar today have one-tenth of the operating costs of our companies in Australia.

The chance to make a real difference: Most of all what I love is bringing entrepreneurship as a force to a country where massive problems need to be fixed in education, healthcare, agriculture, tourism, and government. That calls for problem-solving startups. No more social networks for dogs or deal platforms for restaurants (to poke myself). We’re talking life altering tech.

Come check Myanmar out – it’s heading straight into the future.

See: The state of 4G in Southeast Asia

Editing by Steven Millward

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