The news wasn’t lost on Rita Nguyen, a 37-year-old Vietnamese-Canadian who has decamped to Myanmar and created Squar, a local-language social media site aimed specifically at the long-isolated country’s youth.
With a background in mobile gaming and social networking, Nguyen is helping to fuel an internet revolution, just as the country starts to build out its 3G networks. Squar was launched last June with seed capital of $500,000 from angel investors in return for a 20% stake. It is targeting 1.5 million members by year-end (Myanmar has an estimated population of 60 million). Nguyen, who is CEO, and her cofounder and vice president of operations, Quynh Anh Nguyen, (a Vietnamese-American and no relation), own most of the rest of the company.
Nguyen, who was brought up and educated in Canada, says Myanmar can’t be approached in the same way as Western nations. “Myanmar is a unique country with a unique set of challenges,” she says. “It is absurd to think that you can get products that work in other markets and simply drop them into a market like Myanmar.”
In the past, the telecom sector was dominated by a state-owned monopoly, leaving the country with one of the lowest wireless penetration rates in the world. According to a report by Deloitte Touche Tomatsu, fixed-line penetration stood at just over 1% at the start of 2012 and mobile phone penetration was at just below 4% (Deloitte notes that those rates would be higher if actual use of fixed lines and mobile phones was included).
Up to now, says Nguyen, there have been three barriers to the expansion of online services in the country: Politics, infrastructure and culture. The first two are being dismantled. In 2010 the government slashed virtually all restrictions on internet usage, including censorship, and last month’s license awards will lead to better infrastructure.
Culture may be the toughest nut to crack. “Our problem isn’t politics or infrastructure,” says Nguyen, “It’s 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?”
This, she says, is where Squar — made up of the initials of the original three founders, one of whom has since dropped out — comes in. She describes the site as an accessible virtual destination with an open interface that appeals to newly-connected Burmese, most of whom have little or no online experience. Its most active categories are photography, relationships and feedback.
Nguyen says she plans to monetize Squar through advertising and partnerships with big consumer brands, and as the site evolves she will add gaming (the company released its first mobile game in December and is releasing three more this month) and e-commerce, although Nguyen says she won’t offer e-commerce based on a Western model that requires credit cards as most Burmese don’t have them.
Squar tries to appeal to young Burmese by holding community events such as a youth festival in November that attracted 10,000 people and sponsors including Coca-Cola KO +0.86%, Unilever, HTC and Ooredoo. Nguyen says having staff on the ground also helps. There are 11 employees in Yangon, mostly handling marketing, and a nine-person development team in Ho Chi Minh; Nguyen splits her time between the two.
Squar has been described as Myanmar’s Facebook, but Nguyen says it’s “not designed to compete with Facebook.” Squar, she says, “is a much more comfortable experience than trying to navigate something in a foreign language that has features that are useless to you.” She adds: “There is room for more than one social network, especially in a market that’s so hungry for online content and experiences.”