By Thin Lei Win
YANGON (Myanmar) - It was a typical Friday night in Singapore and Ye Myat Min, the 24-year-old university dropout and bespectacled founder of tech start-up NEX, was restless and bored. He did not want to go out but neither was he keen to extend his already lengthy working week. So he started coding instead.
“I’ve always had this itch to create an anonymous social network but couldn’t really find the time to do it for a lot of reasons; primarily due to my crazy schedule,” he said. “That weekend, I decided to just hack it and postpone everything else.”
By Monday, Ye Myat had a rough version of Hush, a mobile phone application that allows users to post location-based musings anonymously.
“I’m not at all trying to sound political, but the country has been closed off for so long. Burmese people are usually conservative and rarely speak up. So one of my motivations (for making it anonymous)... was to change that aspect of Burmese people,” he told Myanmar Now in the company’s new office, an open plan space in downtown Yangon.
“Things have changed a lot. This is the right time to speak up and make your opinions matter,” added Ye Myat, his elbows resting on the meeting room table, the glass top covered in numbers, equations and questions from a brainstorming session that just ended.
Launched with little fanfare at the end of 2014, after Ye Myat moved back to Myanmar, Hush now has over 15,000 users, mainly in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon but also in two other big cities, and in countries with large Myanmar populations such as Singapore and Thailand. The company aims to triple the numbers in six months.
NEX, where the average age of an employee is 25, is symptomatic of a new generation of young, enthusiastic and technically-savvy entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of Myanmar’s opening up to bring the country into the digital age.
The company has already attracted foreign investors and media attention in its two years of existence. When the company won a second round of funding totalling US$150,000 from Singapore’s Blibros Group late last year - the first funding, also from an investor based in Singapore, came in 2013 - the news was featured in Forbes Magazine.
Jonas Lindstrom, CEO and Partner of Blibros Ltd, which has been investing mainly in tech start-ups for over a quarter of a century, said Ye Myat’s talent and Myanmar’s potential convinced him to invest.
“It was a rare combination of a young, talented and ambitious entrepreneur but still very humble,” Lindstrom told Myanmar Now in an e-mail interview.
Hush - not to be confused with a South Korean app of the same name - works on similar lines to Tinder. The user swipes through the posts, called Hushes. A left swipe dismisses the post, a right denotes like, and a tap to participate in the conversation.
“We were one of the first to introduce Burmese language stickers,” Ye Myat said proudly, as two of his close colleagues, both 23, grinned and nodded. The team is also behind the Facebook page Yangon Redesigned where Yangon’s landmarks and famous Myanmar brands get a design makeover. It is a cult favourite with creative types.
It has not all been smooth sailing, however. Hush 1.0 had a lot of bugs which took a week or two to resolve. They then tentatively released it, only to realise within an hour they had published the wrong app.
“Thank God nobody downloaded it,” the young CEO recalled. They published the correct version during the night.
People in Yangon’s burgeoning tech community were early adopters of the app. Then local media heard of Hush and user numbers jumped. They are now working on Hush 2.0, which NEX says is a much-improved version slated for release some time soon.
The new version includes a search feature and categories but more importantly, curated content that the team hopes would encourage quality conversations, rather than users posting their relationship status or what they had for breakfast.
“What we wanted to see is more well-thought-out content,” said Ye Myat.
“During this six months we’ve seen posts about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There were hundreds of comments but they were all constructive … because nobody knows who you are so it gives you protection,” he added.
Yet there are also aware of the challenges of allowing anonymous postings. Since religious conflict erupted in 2012, Myanmar has been engulfed in online hate speech. Vitriolic and inflammatory comments targeting Muslims, who make up a small fraction of the predominantly Buddhist country, have become worryingly common on blogs, web forums and Facebook pages.
Internet access is still low, but it is increasing, from only 0.3 percent of the population in 2010 to 1.2 percent in 2013, according to the World Bank.
“We are very, very concerned. Not just us, but our investors and advisers too. We need to find the fine line between being anonymous and not turning it into a hate speech platform,” said Ye Myat.
In two years’ time, they would like to see Hush being used in all the major cities in Myanmar, said Arkar, a childhood friend of Ye Myat and one of NEX’s developers.
The company itself has seen a sharp upward trajectory, from something Ye Myat formed with his friends while he was still in Singapore, to a fully-fledged agency with 22 staff, some of whom were hired in a decidedly unorthodox manner.
Take one of the designers. Ye Myat hired him straight out of high school based on his Instagram photos.
“Where’s the fun if you follow a more conventional route of hiring? I wasn’t worried per se. I believed in him,” said Ye Myat, who himself took an unconventional path to becoming a CEO.
A coding geek who turned to music after finding out he was “really bad” at maths and physics, Ye Myat rediscovered his first love when he found out what broadband Internet could do in Singapore. He then started designing websites to earn extra money while attending a diploma course in IT at Republic Polytechnic, so he could buy a shiny new Mac like his new friends.
He wanted to set up a company in Myanmar when he graduated but his parents, a father who works at an embassy and a housewife mother, wanted him to continue his university studies.
He obliged but received two warning letters and failed a subject in the first semester. A third warning letter would see him kicked out of school. When an angel investor stepped in, he left his studies and set up NEX,.
Ye Myat says he does not regret leaving university and encouraged would-be tech entrepreneurs in Myanmar to set up businesses regardless of their education or the difficult environment.
“I’ve met plenty of people who are screaming they do not have enough opportunities. My main advice usually is to look inwards instead of outwards,” he said “One needs to start looking for problems (people) are facing on a day-to-day basis and think about ways to solve them. It doesn’t have to be a totally radical solution. One could simply iterate on an existing solution and make it better.”