One of our neighboring countries, Myanmar is on the verge of the digital revolution. After 50 years of repressive military dictatorship, corruption, violence, and separation from the rest of the world, there is a sudden political and economic change in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar. This has created opportunities for innovation, as 60 million people prepare to get online for the first time. Currently, less than 10 percent of the population is estimated to have access to a mobile phone (all these numbers are estimates, since there hasn’t been an official census in years). HTC, Samsung, and Huawei phones are now for sale everywhere on the street.
Squar is the first local language social media platform created for the people of Myanmar. Squar is led by Rita Nguyen, who is a former executive with Electronic Arts (The people who brought you FIFA and MASS EFFECT).
On Biv.com, she spoke about her past. She said “I was born in South Vietnam. We fled when I was two after the war in 1979. Right before I moved to Asia, I worked for Electronic Arts for about five years. I basically built the online and social media and community teams for Need for Speed and a bunch of other franchises.”
“I went to Vietnam on vacation and met someone who convinced me to move to Asia [in 2010] to work for his startup. Then one of my friends convinced me to go to Myanmar to take a look. So I did that in January and pretty much knew right away that I was going to do something in Myanmar. She then returned to Asia and fell in love with the start-up world while working with the co-founders of VNG in Vietnam and mig33 in Singapore. In 2014, she was named on Forbes magazine’s ‘Women to Watch in Asia’ list.
Although Facebook was already gaining in popularity there, Nguyen believed that there was a for a Burmese-language and mobile-native site that connects locals to each other. And a platform for sharing local information, much like our very own ‘Desperately Seeking Dhaka.’ And hence, a social media platform for the Myanmar’s locals.
“Facebook is used in Myanmar. It is very much a newsfeed.” She says “But Burmese people don’t read and write English. The written language is like a Sanskrit-based language and our whole site is done in Burmese.” Says Nguyen.
“I went to some connections that I knew in Vietnam and convinced a couple of developers to almost work for free. We slammed the app together in a month. We went to angel investors in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and a Vancouver fund as well, and raised $500,000 almost right away.
Nguyen had been raised in Canada, but she knew that her educational skills and the market approaches in the West would not work in Myanmar. Nguyen knew she had three obstacles to face, those were politics, infrastructure and culture. While political reforms have somewhat alleviated the threat from the first two, Nguyen is having to put a considerable effort in tackling the cultural obstacle in making MySQUAR the next big thing.
“Our problem isn’t politics or infrastructure,” said Nguyen, “It is teaching people how they can use this technology they’ve never used before. How do we bring the Internet to a country that has been largely excluded from the international society for over 60 years?” Her way through this was to ENGAGE the target market: the Youth of Myanmar. One of her ways of doing so was hosting a huge event last November with an attendance of 10,000 people. The event was sponsored by the likes of HTC, Coca Cola and more.
While still at a pretty early stage of the business, Nguyen has big plans. She wants to monetize the site via partnerships and paid advertisements with large brands. Last August, they launched a free Mobile Messaging App for Squar users. Nguyen also has plans to create a platform for gaming within the site, and throw in e-commerce options in the future.
This story should be a lesson to our female viewers especially. The tech Startup scene is mistakenly seen to be a male oriented one, but we at Startup Dhaka do not believe the women of Bangladesh to be any less capable. A woman like Rita Nguyen has created a platform for the disconnected youth of a market like Myanmar, and that too in a very uncertain and untapped environment. And so can you!
Rita Nguyen is MySQUAR’s former CEO and she does not work at MySQUAR anymore. The current CEO is Linda Lim.