Incubating the future in Myanmar

Project Hub Yangon co-founder Pete Silvester mentors a team of MBA students on planning a business start-up. Photo: Richard Edwards
Project Hub Yangon co-founder Pete Silvester mentors a team of MBA students on planning a business start-up. Photo: Richard Edwards

Starting your own business in Myanmar poses challenges that are insurmountable for most – which in no way reflects the skills of those wishing to try. According to a World Bank report published at the end of last year, Myanmar improved more than any other country in terms of ease of doing business. However it jumped from the very bottom spot of 189th to being 167th – which means that there is still a very long way to go before the country’s next generation of entrepreneurs can turn their professional ambitions into reality.

The local social enterprise Project Hub Yangon (PHY) is Myanmar’s first start-up business incubator and has been collaborating with Indiana University since 2014 to provide MBA students with new opportunities and skills through the USAID-funded Advancement and Development through Entrepreneurship Programs and Training (ADEPT) program. ADEPT is a three-year program that improves the success of the Yangon University of Economics students through entrepreneurship skills education. The partnership is funded by USAID with support from HP, the Vina Capital Foundation and Business for Social Responsibility. It’s one of three higher education partnerships in Myanmar that were launched by USAID in 2013 and aim to build on what President Obama called “extending a hand” to Myanmar during his first visit here in 2012. The partnership also represented the first bilateral agreement reached between the two countries since 1957.

PHY works with MBA students at Yangon Institute of Economics to provide entrepreneur skills training that aims “to encourage students to develop problem solving skills and start new businesses,” said PHY co-founder Allison Morris.

“What we have been doing since 2014 has primarily been going into the school and running business idea competitions. We also run one-off seminars and invite guest speakers, which gets students excited about solving problems through business.”

This year, MBA students who performed well at the business idea competition were then offered the opportunity to take part in a three-month entrepreneurship incubation program as an alternative to doing an internship.

PHY is currently providing oversight and mentoring to a team of three promising students who are setting up an events management company.

With bank loans being virtually non-existent and other channels of credit all but closed in Myanmar, participants must have a realistic vision to succeed, said Ms Morris.

“We encourage participants to think of a business idea that is practical and that could get off the ground within three months. When we first started out, for example, a number of people wanted to build online apps – but lacked any app building skills. We said, ‘Okay, you could spend three months learning those skills, but you wouldn’t be actually starting a business.’”

Project Hub team (L-R) - Kyaw Ye Min, Myat Kay Khine Hsint, Kaung Myat Kyaw. Photo: Richard Edwards
Project Hub team (L-R) – Kyaw Ye Min, Myat Kay Khine Hsint, Kaung Myat Kyaw. Photo: Richard Edwards

The three months is geared towards providing practical experience by speaking face-to-face with prospective customers, carrying out market research and applying the lean start-up methodology.

Ms Morris summarized the methodology as a practice that involves starting a business with a viable product as cheaply and quickly as possible.

“For example, the participants initially thought that the first necessary step in setting up their event management company was to buy a printer and a truck. However we explained that the first step is to go out and talk to a potential customer, and then eventually, when you have money from customers, you can buy things. It’s all about starting small – that’s what we’ve always taught at Project Hub – not to spend money first, but to make it.”

Ms Morris said that students often feel quite uncomfortable about the idea of approaching strangers with the goal of pitching a business idea; but that’s simply par for the course.

“Their goal this week was to go and do a survey of 50 mothers about hosting children’s birthday parties. We emphasized that those 50 people are potential customers, so when the survey is finished at the end, the students should try to see if they can get them to agree to run an actual event. It makes people very uncomfortable doing that, but at the same time, the goal is to win the customer,” she explained.

As well as building up sales skills – which are typically fairly weak in Myanmar, in large part due to a lack of opportunities – participants are also taught marketing skills that include research, web design and social media, as well project management tools, tracking tools and advanced online communicative tools. In addition to daily coaching sessions, they also meet with an expert mentor every other week to hone their new skills and to justify their rationale for various decisions along the way.

ADEPT participant Myat Kay Khine Hsint told Myanmar: All That Matters that “Kaung Myat Kyaw and Kyaw Ye Min and I joined this program to learn as much as we could. We don’t have much experience when it comes to starting up a real business and have difficulties in becoming entrepreneurs because we lack skills, experience and knowledge. This program has been really amazing – we’ve been mentored 24/7.”

“Our program manager provides guidelines about how to brainstorm like crazy to come up with a profitable business idea, approach real customers, build up a real business and financial model, deal with competition and supplier analysis and conduct market research as well,” she added.

Myat Kay Khine Hsint plans on continuing her business project after she completes her MBA, and also has an interest in social enterprises and becoming an “ambassador at some respectable entrepreneurship organization to encourage other newcomers like us [to start their own businesses].”

Whilst internships nowadays are plentiful in the commercial capital – to the point where Ms Morris said that MBA interns “have their pick of so many different companies,” she believes that the incubation program offers unique advantages over a more traditional path.

“Participants get to test out a business idea in a risk-free atmosphere and to discover what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. The second thing they acquire is real-world business skills and they test the knowledge they’ve accumulated from their textbooks. Whilst it does of course depend on the type of internship a person does, ADEPT participants develop professional skills that can be used in the workplace – such as how to develop a work plan, use online tools and utilize good presentation skills. If they have done this, they know how to take initiative, solve problems and are comfortable with performing challenging tasks. And that’s something an employer will look for that will make them a really valuable employee, if that turns out to be the route they want to take,” she said.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for young Myanmar entrepreneurs to reach their business ambitions, boost their entrepreneurial skills, and contribute to the growing Myanmar small-and-medium enterprise ecosystem,” said Richard Edwards, Incubation Program Manager at Project Hub.

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