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From Silicon Valley to Yangon

by June 18, 2016 General

Myanmar’s tech scene has come a long way since internet cafes started springing up around 2004. However despite the abolition of heavy online censorship in 2011 and the introduction of Burmese script by Google in 2013 – along with the liberalisation of the communications sector that same year – searching the internet in the Myanmar language remained less than optimal. This prompted the creation of tech start-up Bindez, according to its CEO Rahul Batra.

Mr Batra mentored Bindez’s founding team during one of the first incubation programs held in Myanmar in 2013. The program was organised by Project Hub Yangon, USAID and the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and Mr Batra joined co-founders Ko Htet Will and Ko Ye Wint Ko as CEO as the company’s CEO after providing guidance on market research, funding strategy and market strategy.

Mr Batra grew up in India’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, Banglalore, and spent six years working at Google in the United States, Australia and India, before coming to Myanmar in early 2013.

“Internet searches are in my blood,” he told Mizzima Weekly.

However rather than attempting to replicate a search engine such as Google, which would “take at least five years and 10 to 20 million dollars,” Bindez has decided to focus solely on news.

“News consumption is the most disorganised and the most important. This is because Facebook is the primary access point, which means that news gets mixed up with non-formal news.”

Mr Batra said that classic news information searches have become obsolete due the prevalence of smart phone use. Bindez’s aim is to provide an alternative to Facebook and other segregated news access points and to ultimately make content search results more relevant. The app called Bindez Thadin, which means ‘news’ in the Myanmar language, has been downloaded more than 100,000 times and has 25,000 active monthly users.

Naturally, the success of Bindez depends in large part on the number of smart phone users in Myanmar. Fortunately the explosion in smart phone use will only continue, with Mr Batra predicting that penetration rates will reach 100 percent within the next two years.

As Mr Batra explained, “It’s a free Android app that uses content that we pulled off the web. It’s like a search engine, but for a mobile phone and it’s content-focused rather than search-focused.”

Thadin offers enhanced language compatibility and content relevance: Mr Batra likened the app, whose contents are entirely in Burmese, to a Yahoo portal. There are more than 20 news categories, including health and the environment. In future it will also provide the latest gas prices, weather news, a currency exchange service and job listings.

Bindez attracted 50,000 new users in the space of a fortnight after it released an elections category 10 days before the historic election in November last year. The feature listed candidate names, information about the plethora of political parties, as well as the voting process itself.

“We were committed to putting out an elections category, no matter the cost to us,” he said.

When asked about Bindez’s contribution to democracy in Myanmar, Mr Batra played down the significance of providing the election app when saying, “Like many other players in the country, we did our bit.”

At this stage, Bindez is not a profit-making venture and it’s gone through some trying times during its three-year existence, such as running out of cash completely during the first year of operations. The company was reduced to taking $15,000 worth of loans off the street because it lacked collateral.

However Bindez is now turning its focus to generating revenue and in January, Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm 500 Startups invested in Bindez. To date the local start-up has raised an impressive sum of half a million dollars.

 “Our goal now is to scale up; to get more users and start getting revenue. It’s important to start showing value because global funding dried up over the past few months. The philosophy now is to show value get money – not to keep dreaming,” Mr Batra said.

He said that Bindez will eventually generate revenue through advertisers, or through subscriptions in which it partners with media houses.

“Our offer is that we’re bringing a platform; bringing [media houses] traffic, and giving a voice to independent journalists or a new media company,” Mr Batra said.

Bindez is also focused on “getting smarter,” said Mr Batra.

It will provide users with search results based on what’s trending over 24-hour cycles.

“How it happens is that today, we put out three posts and they go into the trending section. Tomorrow, as someone reads the trending news, they get a better variety of content. Small decisions like these is where the fun is.”

Co-founder Yewint Ko told Mizzima Weekly that, “Everything is a challenge. Internet speeds, expenses, operations, hiring – you name it.”

He added that it’s also hard “not to know what Bindez will look like in one or two years from now and how it will grow. Because it’s not been done before in Myanmar.”

The team’s unusual line of work has attracted a team of staff who are passionate about their work.

“Some of our employees have defied their parents, who wanted them to take a job in Singapore or Japan, to remain here,” said Yewint Ko.

“Myanmar isn’t a risk supported environment. They call it a frontier market, but in the tech sector we are probably the riskiest investment in Myanmar. There are zero risky investments here. We are a bunch of young guys dreaming of doing something crazy that no one has done before,” said Mr Batra with a smile.