Can This Man Bring Silicon Valley To Yangon?

May 24, 2013
Originally published on May 24, 2013 8:29 am

Like a proud father, Nay Aung opens up his MacBook Air to show me the Myanmar travel website he has built. But we wait 30 seconds for the site to load, and nothing happens.

"Today is a particularly bad day for Internet," he says. This is life in Myanmar today: Even an Internet entrepreneur can't always get online.

If Nay could show me his website — — I would see a travel site that lets people around the world reserve rooms in small hotels in Myanmar, and book flights to towns that weren't even on the grid a few years ago. He says he's getting about 500 bookings a month right now.

The Internet outage doesn't seem to phase Nay or the dozen staff members in his office.The power was out completely a couple of hours ago, so even a very slow Internet is an improvement.

"Sometimes it's totally out of your control," he says. This is the calm side of Nay Aung, who calls himself a devout Buddhist, and who was born and raised in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

But Nay is also a product of the United States. He got his MBA at Stanford and worked for Google in Silicon Valley. He still has his stylish haircut and Ralph Lauren shirts. And this version of Nay Aung was a little more high-strung when he came back to Myanmar a year and a half ago.

"When I first got here, it really aggravated me," he says of the challenge of running an Internet company when you can't get reliable Internet.

Nay had always wanted to return, and he saw an opening a few years ago. The government was moving toward more democracy, and Western countries were considering dropping economic sanctions. Nay wanted to be one of the first Internet pioneers in this incredibly poor country.

But being the first means you have to figure out how to build a company when the power goes out all the time. At first, Nay moved around with his laptop, working in coffee shops and restaurants where the power was on and the Internet was working. He eventually found the best Internet in Yangon, at a coffee shop owned by someone with a connection in the government.

He also had to find foreign investors — some of whom didn't know much about Myanmar. "They literally brought in a huge map, and they asked me to point out where Myanmar is."

Nay eventually got his investors. He hired Web developers in India and put servers in Singapore. A bigger challenge was getting mom-and-pop hotels in Myanmar to sign up for his site. "Many of the hotels don't even have bank accounts," Nay says. They do business only in cash. Nay has to bridge the two worlds.

While I was at the office, I saw an order from Germany come in for six nights at a small hotel in Yangon. The guy who booked the room paid with a credit card on the website; his money went halfway around the world in the blink of an eye.

But the last few miles took considerably longer. To make the reservation, Nay pulled U.S. dollars out of a safe and gave them to a young delivery guy who went outside and took a city bus to the hotel.

At the front desk, the transaction is entered into a three-ring binder — just before the lights go out because of a temporary power outage.

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And now let's visit a country that is just emerging from decades of being shunned by the West. That country is Myanmar. After years of economic sanctions, people there are ready to start enjoying the technological advances the rest of the world has. NPR's Robert Smith from our Planet Money team profiles one young man trying to build an Internet startup in a place where there's not much Internet.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: He acts like a proud father. Nay Aung opens up MacBook Air to show me his baby: his Myanmar travel website.

NAY AUNG: Wait, oh, one second here.

SMITH: Oh. It says network error. Something's going on today.

OK. If Nay could pull up the website, I would see something pretty amazing for a poor country like Myanmar. It's called Oway, a travel site like Expedia, that lets people around the world reserve rooms in small hotels all across Myanmar. You can book flights to towns that weren't even on the grid a few years ago. Frankly, they are barely on the grid now.

Now, just to make this clear, we've been waiting 30 seconds for your site to come up.

AUNG: Today is a particularly very bad day for Internet.

SMITH: This is life in Myanmar right now. Even an Internet entrepreneur can't always get online. Nay Aung was born and grew up here, back when it was known as Burma. But his Internet chops come from the U.S. He got his MBA at Stanford, worked at Google. He still has the stylish haircut, Ralph Lauren shirts. When he saw that Myanmar was opening up, he moved back a year and a half ago. Nay was convinced that travel would be the first big business to boom in the new Myanmar, and he approached investors in Asia and the United States.

What was their first question? Where is Myanmar?


AUNG: Oh, literally (unintelligible). They literally brought in a huge map, and they asked me to point out where Myanmar is.

SMITH: See China? See India? It's right in the middle.

AUNG: Exactly right.

SMITH: Nay got a few venture capitalists interested. He hired Web developers in India, put the servers in Singapore - typical usual stuff for an Internet startup. The hard part, though, was that he had to convince hotels in Myanmar that they needed to be on the Internet. See, a lot of the hotels in the country are mom-and-pop affairs. They do their reservations on paper. They only use cash.

AUNG: They don't even have bank accounts, right?

SMITH: And they're hotels?

AUNG: They're hotels. Exactly.

SMITH: In order to make the website work, Nay had to pull off a pretty neat trick. He needed to be the middleman between the two different worlds: high-tech and no-tech. For instance, when I was at the main office, I saw an order from Germany for six nights at a local hotel in Yangon. The German paid with a credit card on the website.

Now, that money went halfway around the world in the blink of an eye, but it can't get all the way to the hotel. You see, here, Nay faces a classic challenge that entrepreneurs have in almost all developing countries: Whoever goes first has to figure everything out, like how to get money from the international banking system to hotels that do business like they did 50 years ago.

Nay's solution? He goes to a lockbox next to his desk, pulls out a bunch of cash - U.S. $20 bills, to be exact. And he entrusts that cash to the final step in the money's global journey: a 23-year-old employee named Sheinn Ko. Sheinn goes outside with the money and gets on a city bus.


SMITH: It takes about 40 hot crowded minutes for Sheinn and me to get all the way across town.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: And when we get to the hotel, this high-tech Internet transaction ends up in a three-ring binder. Then, of course, I see why they still rely on paper.

Whoa. The power just went out.

Back at the office, the Oway website is up and running nicely.

AUNG: So this is, essentially, you know, what the site looks like.

SMITH: Oh, that's nice.

And it's getting some traction, about 500 bookings a month so far, and growing. Nay says right now, only a tiny percentage of the population of Myanmar has access to the Internet. He wants to be there when the rest get online.

Still, I've got to ask him: Do you ever think that it's too soon to start an Internet business in a country that doesn't really have payments and a telecommunications infrastructure? Like, maybe you came back too soon?

AUNG: Yeah. Yeah. I thought about that a lot, right, when I first came. Right? You could never get the timing right.

SMITH: But then Nay pauses, and pulls out a very Silicon Valley reason for why people go to all the trouble to be the first.

AUNG: So now I think we are finding ourselves one of the leading, you know, brands in this space. Right? Because you don't, technically, have a lot of brands in the first place.

SMITH: Yeah. You don't have a lot of competitors.

AUNG: Exactly. Right.

SMITH: Of course, getting in early in a country like Myanmar has its downside, too. If you do such a good job of solving all the problems, you've made it easier for the competition to will follow you. Robert Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.