Meet Ye Myat Min, Founder of NEX
Startup connections from London to Myanmar.
Companies have signed up to CharlieHR from all over the world, but when the above popped up in January 2016 it really caught my attention. A few weeks earlier, I had booked my flights to Myanmar for a trip in October.
As you can imagine, I didn’t expect much when I fired off an email to Ye Myat Min, founder and CEO of digital product shop called NEX. Months later here I was sitting in a coffee shop in Yangon surrounded by Macbooks waiting to meet him. Turns out even in Myanmar things get done over coffee.
‘4G area’ screamed the sign next to me in Yangon’s one and only shopping mall. And what a shopping mall it is. Having spent the last 10 days in rural Myanmar, walking into the bright lights and western shops was quite an attack on the senses.
A 4G area seemed appropriate place to to meet Ye Myat Min, already a Forbes 30 under 30, and at the time was Charlie’s one and only sign up from Myanmar. I must admit I had some nerves as we waited for him to arrive.
“Traffic” sighed Ye Myat Min as he arrived “No Uber in Yangon yet.”
Straight away I knew we were going to get on.
Over the course of two and a half (fascinating) hours, I catch up with Ye Myat Min’s life story.
Having grown up in Myanmar, Ye Myat Min left for Singapore to study in 2009. “I never thought I was coming back. I was like, Bye Mum!”. Finding university a bit of a drag “with lot of free time”, he started building things. Alone with a few friends “we cloned Yik Yik”, the anonymous sharing app that became big in the US colleges, and ended up getting tens of thousands of users. “Turns out not many people will invest in something that contains things like hate speech,” Ye Myat Min explains why they shut it down.
That experience lead Ye Myat Min into the worlds of startups and business. Freelancing and creating websites for small clients while based in Singapore, he started building a good client base.
“Then, almost suddenly, Myanmar opened up and I decided to come back home to Yangon.”
Scoot forward a few years, Ye Myat Min aged 25 now runs NEX, a 65 person company that creates and builds technology for clients across Asia.
Interestingly, their model is not dissimilar to how The Eleven evolved before creating Charlie. NEX win a lot of social media marketing contracts “most people don’t need a website, they just want a good Facebook page they can advertise and sell through” and then Ye Myat Min sells in more technology solutions to the clients over time. For those who are interested: Viber* is massive in Myanmar.*
“It’s pretty obvious” Ye Myat Min says as we’re surrounded by lots and lots of waiters in our small cafe “places like this will do 99% of everything using pen and paper still, so the opportunities are endless. They won’t have website or any presence on social media.”
Naturally, we got onto the topic of HR “We’ve actually been looking for a platform like CharlieHR for a while” Ye Myat Min says as my ears pricked up. “A lot is done on excel and paper here, the Government is actually getting tighter and better at regulations around who is working where, so there’s a lot of admin. There hasn’t been anything in Asia which I’ve seen that would work.”
Here I am on the other side of the world, in Myanmar and Ye Myat Min is singing sweet music to my ears. I’m beaming.
In fact, to hire a new person into NEX, Ye Myat Min’s team have to go to the government office downtown to register their paperwork.
Startups are slowly picking up in Myanmar, and you can see Ye Myat Min is genuinely excited about that change in the wind. “There’s an awesome startup accelerator called Phandeeyar run by David Matler, you should go and see them if you have time”.
During my time in Myanmar I was fascinated by the how quickly the internet was being adopted. Much to the annoyance of my girlfriend and the friends we were traveling with, I spent most of my time asking people their opinion and experience with the internet over recent years.
The telecoms seems like a good place to start.
“There are three big ones” Ye Myat Min goes on to explain “MPT (Myanmar Post and Telecommunications) which is the largest, and is a joint venture with the government and a Japanese Company. Qatari-owned Ooredoo, and Telenor, which is Norwegian”
The internet is growing so quickly, it’s fascinating to hear about. Myanmar had a mobile phone penetration of less than than 10% in 2012.
In 2014, the game changed radically. Following one of the biggest tenders in telecom history, Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo were awarded licenses to operate their own telecommunication networks across Myanmar. In September 214, they both launched their commercial offers, with SIM cards at $1.5 and top-up prepaid cards allowing for cheap voice, SMS and data communications.
This triggered an unprecedented growth rate in internet penetration. The last report in June 2015 showed Myanmar to have a mobile phone penetration rate of 54.6%, up from less than 10% in 2012, with the Norwegians leading the charge!
Charlie’s lead product designer, Jørgen, is from Norway, so this had sparked my interest, and I’d seen Telenor everywhere in rural Myanmar. “Yep, they’re going after the rural areas. The Nordic countries are investing heavily in Myanmar. One of our investors is from there and I really want to visit soon” Ye Myat Min comments and drifts off into thought.
I’m not surprised Ye Myat Min feels connected to scandinavia, the work NEXdo is beautifully designed. They clearly have some serious design chops and wouldn’t look out of place as a London Agency.
We discussed raising investment generally and especially in Myanmar — “super hard, hardly any funds and few angels, basically you have to go to Singapore”. It’s almost comforting to know that it’s difficult wherever you go then!
In a rather strange twist of events, Ye Myat Min’s cousin works for the London Games company Space Ape, which happens to be an investment from our investors Connect Venture. The world is indeed much smaller than you think.
Two hours deep, I feel bad taking some much time out of Ye Myat Min’s clearly busy day. “I want to do what you’re doing soon”. Shit. Panic hits my face…
“An HR platform for Asia?” I enquire as calmly as possible.
“Ha no no” Ye Myat Min says with a laugh “Go from Agency to Product. That’s the whole aim. We have a great business, which is growing really well. But I want to build product again soon. There is so much opportunity here. For example, only 30% of the ATMs are actually online in Myanmar…”
“Yep, most ATMs at the end of the day someone comes along and takes a printout of the cash which has been withdrawn and goes back to the bank and processes it manually.” Madness.
“Very few people actually have bank accounts. That’s a massive opportunity too”. Ye Myat Min clearly has been thinking about some serious problems he wants to solve.
“I mean, we have a real problem because the Burmese language doesn’t use a standard web font. There were 140 languages spoken in Myanmar, which means a lot of the software available that you might use, just doesn’t work with our languages.”
And we’re off, ideas are flowing between us with my poor girlfriend, who had joined us under the pretense of a ‘quick coffee’, looking on in despair.
An API for the Burmese and Myanmar languages is what we decided on. “We’ve actually been thinking about that a lot” Ye Myat Min says. That’s settled then.
“You’ve got to get a Charlie office out here in Asia” says Ye Myat Min with a smile. Sadly he doesn’t want to run it…!
And with that, he give us the best tips on what to do with our last two days in Yangon.
As we say goodbye and Ye Myat Min walks away, I’m slightly blown away by the two and half hours I spent with him.
NEX is uncannily like The Eleven. The way they work, think and the impact they want to have.
As I reflect my time in Myanmar. The breathtaking temples of Bagan, our amazing trek to Inle Lake and the stunning beaches of Ngapali, it’s my conversation with Ye Myat Min that really stands out.
Every so often I get to meet people who I think are going to do something really special. It’s hard to explain, but it’s just this feeling. I got that with Ye Myat Min. NEX is already doing incredible things, but I really can’t wait to watch how they develop. Especially with Myanmar changing so quickly.
A country of amazing people, full of hope and nervous optimism for the future. That was my major take away from a two week visit of Myanmar. It’s going to be people like Ye Myat Min who turn that hope into reality, and I have a feeling it will happen much quicker than you or I can even imagine.