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The Final Frontier: Tech Entrepreneurs in Myanmar

The team at Burma Computing Systems (not its real name) had a problem. They had a significant deal with a Singapore customer and were on-site installing bespoke software. The software itself was hosted on servers at BCS’s headquarters. The problem was that a) BCS is based in Myanmar, b) this happened four years ago when the country was still closed off from most of the external world and, c) for some reason, all internet connectivity in the country had stopped for four hours. The team at HQ realized they were running out of time and so did what entrepreneurs do best: hustle. They ripped the servers out, threw them into a truck and drove to the Vietnamese border. Getting to the border, they hustled again. After an hour of negotiation they were allowed through and stopped at the first cybercafé. Then, once more: the hustle. Bursting into the café, they found the owner and negotiated exclusive use of his connection. Finally they re-attached the servers, called their teammates in Singapore and re-initiated the installation process, meeting the deadline by the slimmest of margins.

This story was recounted to me when I visited Mynamar in early June as part of the inaugural World Economic Forum on South East Asia. While the majority of our time was spent in Nay Pyi Taw being introduced to the country’s broad strategy, we also spent a day at the Myanmar ICT Park meeting local technology entrepreneurs who shared more than a few tales like the one above.

During the day, we were reminded of the stark challenges facing Myanmar’s nascent tech industry. The power went out three times, and there was much discussion on the challenge of building an e-commerce business in a country so underdeveloped that it has just one ATM usable to foreigners. Basic services considered essential in Silicon Valley and other technology hubs cannot be relied upon in Myanmar, although the country’s leadership is taking all the right steps to fix these issues: improving its legal systems, relaxing financial constraints on external investment, building telecom infrastructure, running an open auction for its cellular spectrum and even adapting university syllabi for modern needs.

These changes will take time, but despite the massive uphill struggle ahead, I found myself excited by the potential the industry has. Why? Because, in years of analyzing why Silicon Valley works and why other, equally well endowed hubs do not, I am not alone in identifying a primary issue being a mentality gap. Maybe it’s San Francisco’s gold rush history or the anti-establishment streak that defined the area in the 1960s, people in the Valley bring more than money and skills to the table. They bring a belief that what they are working on matters. When their businesses hit inevitable road bumps, they don’t give up. The drive is too great. They hustle and hustle and hustle. A pivot here, a re-factoring there, a new round raised and a new team assembled. This was the mentality that I saw in Myanmar. While the decades spent under the wilderness of international embargo may have given rise to massive infrastructural (but ultimately tractable) challenges, those same conditions mean that the entrepreneurs in Myanmar have already proven they can thrive in extremely difficult conditions. Ironically that cultural advantage is the hardest one to create in aspiring entrepreneurial hubs and, as a result, Myanmar may find innovation comes more naturally than for others.