Launching a Social Media Network in Myanmar with Rita Nguyen, Co-Founder of Squar
Rita, please introduce yourself…
I have been building and launching consumer technology solutions internationally for 15 years.
Before starting SQUAR, I worked with the co-founders of VNG, Vietnam’s premiere digital platform and mig33, a leading social network in Asia with over 70m users in developing markets such as Nepal, Syria and Bangladesh.
How did you get the idea of creating SQUAR?
The concept for SQUAR came about incredibly fast. I came to Yangon for the 2013 Barcamp (tech conference) and was absolutely blown away by the level of interest and energy that people have for tech here.
Barcamp conferences are held all over the world, and the biggest one on record was in Myanmar, a country that has internet penetration rates similar to Cuba and North Korea. That’s mind blowing.
It was a no brainer that we should do something here. And there was any number of options. In the end we settled on the social media because there was nothing here that was really built for Myanmar people – no place for them to organise themselves socially or start building their digital footprint.
Of course there’s Facebook here, but it’s not particularly well suited for Myanmar’s situation. And it’s not just the language – the kids here haven’t already got the extensive online networks that we take for granted in other places.
In developed countries our online experiences are extensions of our offline lives, whereas here that’s not the way things work. Because of that, SQUAR has a very open and simple interface. You can accumulate and make friends and chat based around common interests.
SQUAR came together because it’s a great way of combining the immense passion for tech here with the huge market gap in social networking.
It’s a very unique and exciting situation.
What’s exciting about starting a startup in Myanmar?
There’s a lot of reasons why we are starting in Myanmar right now, a lot of it has to do with good timing. The country is on the edge of massive social and technological change and there is really no online destination that is specifically targeted toward the people here – as explained above.
What are the primary challenges of running a SQUAR in Myanmar?
It depends on how you think about it. It’s everyone’s first reflex to blame the shaky infrastructure here. But once you get on the ground, you begin to realise that’s a marginal issue.
The infrastructure will come, it’s inevitable. It’s just a matter of time, and there’s other people working on that.
For us, the bigger challenge is thinking of helpful ways to insert tech into the lives of people who have lived without it up until now.
Developing the technology sector is vital not just from a business point of view but from a development angle as well. And we need to get really creative about how to engage with our audience.
There is nothing habitual about the way people use technology here – and there are mountains of opportunities to show people how they can take this very basic technology and use it to drastically improve their way-of-life.
So in terms of challenges, that’s a bigger concern for us than infrastructure, and it’s why we have a big team of community managers who know how the country thinks, it’s very important.
What strategies are you using to gain users/traction?
Up until now we have been doing a lot of work on branding and marketing around Yangon. It’s been really successful.
For example we ran a youth festival last month that had almost ten thousand people come along. Which is jaw-dropping when you think about the changes in Myanmar over the past 2 years.
We have been partnering with some of the big consumer companies coming in such as Coca-Cola, HTC and Ooredoo to help.
Moving forward, we want to engage with the community more. We really want to start bringing our product into people’s lives here. We are working on all levels of government and civil society to put together some great socially responsible initiatives.
We don’t just want to drop ourselves onto the market, we want to help vitalise the tech sector and promote Myanmar content. That’s why we are putting together plans for a tech incubator starting in the first half of next year.
It’s going to nurture tech start-ups that focus on women in Myanmar. We are also putting together programs around education, health and civil society.
In terms of traction and users, it’s really just about finding creative ways to make our platform useful to the people here.
What advice can you share with entrepreneurs wanting to start or expand their business into Myanmar?
Just do it. The same basic challenges exist with any tech start up and yet, this is a market where it’s incredibly easy to meet other business leaders and develop partnerships.
While there is certainly change coming to the connected base, doing anything in technology here means you have to be realistic about the challenges of reaching your marketing.
In Myanmar, the issue is not interest, it’s awareness and how you get your message out there.
What’s the best way to become a part of the local business community in Myanmar?
Just get here and start. Before I came to Myanmar, I did a bunch of research on LinkedIn and added several business leaders in Yangon and asked them to meet.
It was incredibly easy to get some time with these people. Everyone here is here to do business and that’s really obvious when you’re here.
Beside social media, what opportunities do you see emerging in Myanmar right now?
It’s really like shooting fish in a barrel here right now. Technology is an especially good choice because there are so many gaps in the market and for the first time, there is some serious overhaul of the infrastructure happening.
It’s exciting to think that over the next year or so, many people in Myanmar will be using this technology for the first time, and we want to be on the forefront, showing them all the great ways they can use it.
Exciting. What’s next for Squar?
There is a lot of exciting things coming out of the woodwork for us. One of the really cool things we have just started with is gaming.
We released our first game last week and its had a great reception. It’s a trivia game, which asks trivia-style questions about Myanmar in Burmese language and the kids can level up and challenge their friends.
It’s a great thing because up until now they’ve had to play games in foreign languages, which for some games takes out most of the functionality.
The foreign games are also made in places that have no interest in the Myanmar market. It’s going to be a really cool thing to see kids playing games that are made for them in their language.
I explained above about our social initiatives, but that will also be a big focus for us. We are also working on a lite version of our app that can be used on feature phones. This is important because we can’t really expect people in rural Myanmar to have smart phones, but it’s a market that we’d really like to work with.