What’s less than two months old, has hit the headlines globally, and has more than 79,000 ‘likes’ and over 16,000 people talking about it?
No, it’s not Prince George Alexander Louis but the precocious SQUAR of Myanmar, the once isolated Southeast Asian nation’s own version of social networking site Facebook.
China has Weibo, the ‘Chinese Facebook’; Indonesia has Zuma; and now Myanmar has jumped on the bandwagon of Asian countries seeking a virtual place to meet, chat and do business, all with a truly local flavour.
What makes SQUAR unusual is that it is the initiative of two outsiders – 37-year-old Rita Nguyen and 28-year-old Quynh Anh Nguyen. Both are techies, born in Vietnam but brought up in the West, and quick to spot the business potential in Myanmar.
Myanmar has undergone a sea-change after the reforms in 2010. Elections have been held, a civilian government has replaced the military regime, the country’s most celebrated ‘prisoner’, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been released from years of house arrest, and Western sanctions have been lifted.
The government has been opening up the country to foreign investment, and multinationals like General Electric and Coca Cola are rushing in to do business.
SQUAR’s time too had come. Rita, a Canadian citizen, has 15 years of experience in mobile gaming and social networking applications. Anh, her partner in the project, is a business administration graduate who till now had lived mostly in the U.S.
The inspiration came when Rita, a former executive with U.S. gaming company Electronic Arts, moved to Vietnam three years ago to work with the co-founders of VNG, the country’s premier digital platform, and mig33, a popular social network in Asia with over 70 million users in developing markets like Nepal and Bangladesh.
In January, Myanmar capital Yangon hosted BarCamp, the open-house conference of techies from all over the world which was started in the U.S. in 2005 to discuss technology and the Internet.
Though Myanmar, with a population of nearly 60 million, has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates – about one percent – the Yangon meet is said to have been the largest in the world, attracting over 6,000 participants.
Rita attended the Yangon event, her first visit to Myanmar, and found the “perfect storm” for her.
“The timing was perfect as I have been living in Asia for a few years and was looking for a new challenge,” she told IPS.
“I’ve built and launched online communities internationally for almost a decade. Myanmar was an exceptionally cool challenge: how would I build a community in a place that was so disconnected, both from a geographic as well as technological perspective? So I convinced Anh to move back to Asia from Seattle and here we are.”
“Yangon has a lot of youth and they host the largest BarCamp in Asia,” Anh adds. “We thought it would be cool to create something to connect the users and provide them the ability to share information. Myanmar is quite cool right now. Everyone is interested in it.”
After a pre-launch in late June to test the waters, SQUAR is now up and running. What’s more, it has already managed to snag a major corporate sponsor.
In July, Coca Cola returned to Myanmar after a six-decade hiatus and began a promotional blitzkrieg. Along with Facebook, SQUAR too was involved in the online promotion of the ‘Coca Cola Happiness Journey’, accompanied by roadshows in Yangon and Mandalay.
During its pre-launch phase, SQUAR was available only on mobile phones. Now it can be accessed on PCs, Macs and tablets.
Besides being in the Myanmarese language, SQUAR’s unique selling point, according to Rita, is that it is built specifically for the Myanmar market as it is today.
“We are highly focused on an open, public experience that encourages [Myanmarese] nationals to discuss and share information with one another,” she said.
“Facebook specifically is much more of a closed loop community focused more on your personal relationships. In a country like Myanmar, where most of your friends and family are not online yet, Facebook can be a lonely experience. SQUAR is a place to find friends who are already connected.”
One of the most active users is someone by the name of Phyonaing. The new SQUAR user’s first post is a laborious instruction to fellow users on how to use the keyboard to type in the local language.
Besides creating a platform where community meets technology in Myanmar, Rita says SQUAR can be used to boost business.
“SQUAR offers a unique opportunity in Myanmar to connect directly with the youth of the nation,” she says. “This is why our partnership with Coca Cola was so successful. They had traditional media (coverage) but there was no real way to activate the youth directly with real-time contests and promotions.”
That’s something SQUAR was doing daily for Coca Cola, leading up to the Happiness Journey.
Getting funds for the project – 500,000 dollars – was a piece of cake.
“Though not substantial, we did need some start-up capital, specifically because Myanmar is so expensive to operate in,” Rita said. “Raising the funds was incredibly easy through my own established networks. Myanmar is a hot story and there is so much opportunity there; so it wasn’t difficult.”
The major challenge was connectivity. Internet access in Myanmar is limited and the speed slow, prompting Facebook pages like ‘I Hate Myanmar Internet Connection’.
However, with Myanmar due to host the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in 2014, the government is working to improve infrastructure, connectivity and telecom services.
In a landmark move in June, it awarded two new licences to Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo companies to provide additional mobile phone lines.
These would be a blessing for initiatives like SQUAR.
Describing how they operate, Anh said they have an office in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, where all the developers sit. There is another office in Yangon with six staff members.
The plan now, she says, is to add new features that the community is asking for. “This means creating fun and unique experiences for the SQUAR community through contests, promotions and partnerships.”
Generating revenue is not a priority yet. “At the moment we are only focused on ensuring that we are building the best social experience for [Myanmarese] nationals,” Anh said.
Rita laughed off the question whether they are Myanmar’s Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder. “Oh no, definitely NOT Zuckerberg,” she grinned. “Too hot to wear hoodies here.”