Ex-Googler Returns to Myanmar To Build Booking Site From the Ground Up
An employee stands behind a MasterCard logo during the launch of the international credit card issuer's first ATM transaction in Myanmar, in Yangon November 15, 2012. Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters
Nay Aung is so totally at the right place at the right time, with travel online and mobile e-commerce in Myanmar at its very nascent stage. Let’s hope Oway.com.mm isn’t too much of an early-mover.
Myanmar-born former Google business operations and strategy manager Nay Aung has an ambitious goal: to make online activities, from payment to bookings to e-commerce, the norm in his hometown.
Nay Aung, a graduate of Stanford University in California and the London School of Economics, has returned to Myanmar with a dream of cashing in on three high-growth-potential business sectors — tourism, online payments and e-commerce.
“I came back. I wanted to do three things in the new economy — to start a company in the travel area, to start a payments company, and to take a position in a commerce-related area,” said the young exec, who spent four years with Google.
He achieved his first goal by establishing Oway.com.mm, an online travel agency, in Myanmar in 2012 with the aim of helping independent travellers plan their trips, and to cash in on the country’s booming tourism sector. He is the company’s CEO.
The website offers a wide range of services for both international and local customers such as hotels, domestic and international flight reservations, car rental, tourism packages and visa services. It has relationships with 400 hotels and all of Myanmar’s domestic airlines. Around 5,000 customers, most of them from Europe and America, have used the system. It is the first Myanmar-based travel website to allow international visitors to make secured online payments.
Having secured 27th SEA Games Official Hotel Reservation Partnership status for Oway travel agency, Nay Aung expects the site to grow 200 per cent in terms of traffic in its second year. And, growth in Myanmar’s tourism is projected at around 30 to 50 per cent this year.
In Myanmar, the Internet penetration is around 1 per cent, mobile-phone penetration about 5 per cent, and the economy still largely cash-based. The 35-year-old entrepreneur is on his way toward achieving his second goal of launching a product that will allow card users of the Myanmar Payment Union — made up of 17 local banks — make online and mobile payments. But he would specify what this product is.
“We believe that this is something that is going to correct itself within one year. I have no doubt that within one year the Internet access will be as fast as in any other country.”
This second product is likely to be launched before the end of this year. Development of the last item, related to e-commerce activity, is also underway with the target to come out sometime next year. To achieve the three goals, he has put importance on team-building and recruiting a diverse workforce.
Located in Junction Square, one of the most modern shopping centres in Yangon, Oway’s office has around 30 employees — locals and foreigners. Many of his team have work experience with groups such as Google, HP, Amazon.com and American Insurance Group.
“The method I use for hiring people is to set priorities in terms of what you’re looking for, look for certain attitudes. People tend to … hire people who are resourceful, the ones who are able to stand on their own,” said Nay Aung, who said he learned about this approach at Google.
His experience at Google also taught him problem-solving, the importance of teamwork in tackling challenges, and benefits of a diverse cultural working environment. However, he admitted Myanmar employees still tend to lack the ability to innovate.
Despite being a Myanmar citizen, having operated in Myanmar for almost two years now, Nay Aung has not been able to escape the basic challenges of doing business there, such as finding an office, infrastructure, telecoms, recruitment and fundraising.
“There is a huge difference between starting a new business in the States, in Silicon Valley, where there is a lot of support, and starting one in Myanmar, where you have a lot of explaining to do, a lot of convincing to do, with the investors, and to the employees about the products,” said the MBA holder who once worked for Blue Lithium, an innovative Internet company that was later bought by Yahoo!
He admitted that the most difficult task he faced was trying to convince business entities to embrace new tools and systems they are not familiar with, as well as finding his first customers, and then boosting that from 10 customers to a hundred or even more. He spends most of his time at work but also finds some times for relaxing.
“I would recommend travellers to visit the beautiful beaches in the southern Tanintharyi division, such as Kawthaung and the Mergui archipelago, or Putao in Kachin state, where you can see snow, and Mrauk-U in Rakhine state, which is an ancient city. You will feel as if you have travelled back in time,” said the new-face businessman who also likes to make short trips to places off the beaten track. He plans to introduce 80 new activity packages in many destinations in Myanmar.
In the near future, he also has a plan to bring his experience to develop his family business in garment manufacturing by developing a new line of business.
“My family has always supported me and they give me independence in my career choices, even though they are not familiar with the Internet. My father recently wanted to use Facebook and I just taught him. Now, he is on my Friends list,” Nay Aung said. ___