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The Challenges of Launching the First Online Travel Agency in Myanmar

By:  Mike Hess Jun 24, 2013
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Nay Aung, founder of Oway.com.mm.

Oway founder Nay Aung

Starting a business is a hard. Starting an Internet business is often even harder. Starting an Internet business in a country where many residents don’t have electricity and those who do have barely surfed the web? Well, that’s either insane or brave, and it’s exactly what Nay Aung is doing in his home country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

“I don’t want to minimize the pain I had to go through,” Aung says with a laugh during a Skype conversation that shifts between audio and video because of Myanmar’s bandwidth issues. He is describing his creation of Oway.com.mm — essentially the first travel website in Myanmar since the country underwent major political and cultural changes in recent years. But getting investors and building the new company isn’t the first challenge he’s tackled.

College and Internet Success Abroad

After growing up in Myanmar, Aung pursued education abroad and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Law and Economics from the University of Arizona, a Master’s in Economics from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Stanford University. Post-university, he was involved in a start-up that was eventually bought by Yahoo, and then he spent nearly four years working at Google. So what made him want to move on from a successful early career in Silicon Valley to go home? It was part business opportunity, but also something else.

Creating Significant Opportunities Back Home

“I wanted to do something on my own that was meaningful,” Aung says when asked about his decision to launch Oway. “I didn’t do it because I just wanted to start a company — it had to have some impact. That’s important to me. If you’re going to do something meaningful, you’re going to have to make a commitment and it’s going to take a long time. To me, what I look for is how you can have a meaningful business that’s good for the people. It’s not about the monetization. If it’s good for the people and is meaningful, in the long run it will be a good business — no matter what. That’s why I chose the industry I chose. It’s not a short-term business that will get a return immediately — and there’s a huge level of risk involved — but I feel like it's going to be good for the country and the people.”

Aung believes there is long term potential in the online travel industry. The tourism and corporate travel business has been growing in Myanmar since the country became a democracy last year after five decades of military rule. For example, after 60 years of absence, the Coca-Cola Company is doing business in the country and recently opened a bottling plant in Myanmar.

But the systems for arranging travel there are very weak.

“In the U.S., people take for granted how easy it is to book a hotel. You search, find the one you like, book it and pay. It takes two minutes. Here in Myanmar, in the past, you had a choice of basically three hotels that could be found online, the price was very high and you had to make a phone call and then go to the actual place to pay for it in cash. Instead of two minutes, it’s four or five hours.”

Aung is trying to change all that by creating a system that allows visitors to reserve rooms at hotels both small and large and book visits to remote towns. The country’s infrastructure isn’t ready for a huge influx of tourists, but Aung thinks the potential is there.

“There are about about 1 million people coming into Myanmar a year. You look at Vietnam, it’s about 9 million. Thailand is about 24 million. There’s a huge, huge market,” he notes. But in order to build the tourism industry in Myanmar, the overall processes of most hotels and businesses need to be overhauled as well, Aung says.

Oway is already providing payment solutions for Myanmar residents who are accustomed to doing business with cash. The majority of locals — from all socio-economic backgrounds — don’t have a credit card. The company is selling gift certificates and prepaid Oway cards through local retailers. Aung hopes to propel his work in the travel industry to transform the electronic and mobile payment systems in the country.

Then, if all works out, he’d love to tackle the electronic marketplace, akin to Amazon.com or Alibaba.com. But there is still a long way to go. In launching Oway, Aung found himself facing more hurdles than he ever imagined.

Overcoming Seemingly Insurmountable Obstacles

“My thought was that I’d come back, have an office, hire people and we’d get going. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “There was no electricity. The Internet service was so bad I had to move around a lot to find the best connection. One place would have service from noon to 3, another place had it from 3 to 6. So I’d move with it. Another issue was that the people I hired weren’t up to doing international work. I was demanding a lot, but what I was getting just wasn’t up to my standards. It was such a painful experience. The first year, I barely slept. I lost like 20 or 30 pounds, it was really stressful.”

The people around him thought he’d throw in the towel. “About a year ago, everyone kept saying, ‘Hey, Nay, when are you going to go give up and back to America?’” he recalls. Another issue: Potential employees and clients were skeptical about why a comprehensive Myanmar travel website was even necessary.

“So for three to five months, I was running it on my own. I was the only guy working with the engineers in India and developing the products,” Aung says. Ultimately Oway launched in October of 2012 and was earning revenue within a month.

Advice for Other Entrepreneurs

In a land where you pay your employees in manila envelopes stuffed with cash and you never know whether you’ll have an Internet connection, one has to wonder if there are any innovation and management tips from his life in the U.S. that apply to his current business.

“The best thing about Google was the people I interacted with. They do a very good job hiring, and the personalities I met really allowed me to understand the type of people I want to work with. And the processes there are also very good, such as how you give feedback or how you train someone to be more innovative and thought provoking. In the first three to six months here, I just didn’t have the time to do that. But now I'm trying to create a risk-taking, numbers-driven culture in my business.”

“You can’t replicate Google culture with Myanmar culture,” he acknowledges, but there are things he’s learned that he believes apply to all start-ups.

“You need to have a vision, and particularly in the start-up world, you need to have an acute understanding about what’s needed in the market,” explains Aung. “You have to address something that’s really needed and have a smart way to address it. It has to be useful to your target audience, and it has to be implementable. That’s very important: Don’t think about how you can make money — think about how you can address the challenges and needs in the marketplace. The rest, it will happen on its own. That’s what Internet companies are about. They don’t require $5 million to build, they just require a huge commitment and a smart way to address marketplace needs.”