Developing Economies

Can This Man Bring Silicon Valley To Yangon?

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    Nay Aung is the founder of Oway, a tech startup in Yangon, Myanmar. He used Taste Cafe as his unofficial office when he started his company — in part because it was one of the few places in Myanmar with a stable Internet connection.
    Lam Thuy Vo/NPR
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    One of Aung's employees holds up the receipt of a payment he is about to deliver to one of Aung's partner hotels. Even though Aung enables tourists to handle their travel bookings online, he still has to deliver cash to his partners by hand.
    Lam Thuy Vo/NPR
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    Educated in the U.S., Aung worked in Silicon Valley for a number of tech companies, including Google, before returning to Myanmar. Here he is at his office shortly after closing time. His employees keep to a tight schedule, starting early in the morning and leaving at 5:30 p.m. every day.
    Lam Thuy Vo/NPR
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    Aung gives one of his employees feedback during a monthly meeting. Giving regular feedback is one of the management techniques he brought from Silicon Valley to Myanmar. After the meeting, he hands his employees thick envelopes that contain their salaries in cash. Even though Nay eventually hopes to develop online and mobile payment services, most of his employees prefer to be paid in cash.
    Lam Thuy Vo/NPR
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    One of the main challenges Aung faces in running an Internet startup in Myanmar is not having a consistent Internet connection. There are several Internet and electricity outages every day.
    Lam Thuy Vo/NPR

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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 — Oway.com.mm — 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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