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Local social networking site in Myanmar: What is Squar thinking?

For a market, where the internet penetration is in the vicinity of just 1 per cent, launching a digital business focussed on social, which essentially means investing in just an idea, needs foresight and risk taking ability in equal parts. But when there is a 30-50 per cent growth in subscriber base month-on-month, the idea does not look so bad. Rita Nguyen, Founder and CEO of Squar, Myanmar’s first social network, has been widely credited for taking a step such as this.

Launching though was just the beginning. In Ms Nguyen’s plans ahead, there are more properties to add to its offer, gaming being on the agenda and monetisation plans as well. Speaking to DMA, Ms Nguyen, elaborates further on what it is to be a digital entrepreneur in a ‘new’ market and Squar’s way forward.

Myanmar is a very nascent tech market with just 1 per cent internet penetration. How has the experience been in beginning a social networking site in the market?
There are really two sets of experiences in a market like Myanmar if you are working in the digital sector – the first is that of an entrepreneur/ founder and the second is of living in developing market that changes every day – rolled in to one. From a founder’s perspective, I could not have asked for more — there are no shortage of challenges and fun things to do. The market does not have any real benchmarks so you have the opportunity to make mistakes and learn along the way. This connects to the part of being in a fast evolving digital market. The things we do now will help shape the face of this industry in the market, and I think that journey comes with its own unique experience.

While there are various conversations related to the telecom boom in the market. Are you seeing enough signals to say that a local social offering will show growth in the next year?
There are constant signals telling that the internet penetration will grow very quickly. The demand is there, it is now a matter of access. In the current state, the SIM card and internet cost is too much. But players such as Telanor that are all set to enter this market will solve that problem virtually overnight. There are people in the market who have phones but no SIM cards and they are waiting for it. This is another sign of the demand in this market. Just to give perspective here, the local telecom operator had a lottery USD 2 SIM cards last year. They had over 350,000 cards to offer and over a million people turned up for the lottery to get the SIM. This just underlines that in this market, it is a now a matter of infrastructure catching up and some very big players have realised that.

You have launched the site in Burmese language. What was the thought process there?
I chose Myanmar, and the language that works here is Burmese. It is a market of 60 million people and this is again an indication of the enormous potential – that’s about the same number of people who speak Thai and Cantonese in the world. I guess the real question here is less about the language and more about the localisation of digital experiences for Burmese people. And my view on localisation is that it goes much deeper than just language translations. Building experiences specific for this country means that we are also considering the cultural nuances here and what’s going to resonate and what the locals here want and need with their online experiences.

How is the pace of subscriber growth in the last 10 eight months? And what plans for year ahead?
We have consistently hit between 30-50 per cent growth month over month with 55 per cent in February alone – and that’s a short month. Our goal is to be hyper focussed on launching apps, games and content into the Myanmar market – at least three games a month, for the remainder of this year. Later in the year we will be looking to implement our monetisation plans, which is really exciting.

As a digital entrepreneur in Myanmar, what is some of the advice that you have for others who are interested in beginning a digital business?
Just do it! The people here are starved for content and while there’s not a lot of people online, those who are, are very active. For instance, we started to roll out games just two months ago. We have three in the market, with one only launching last week…and we already have over 1.1 million games played in total. Our engagement numbers on the social network are off the charts and consistently get over 50 per cent monthly active users.

Noor Fathima Warsia

A veteran journalist in the Indian marketing, media and advertising fraternity, Noor Fathima Warsia took on the role of Group Editor -– APAC for Digital Market Asia in May 2013. Noor has focussed on tracking trends and developments in the Indian media industry.