For a country where living standards scrape the bottom of the barrel, it’s hard to imagine that car prices in Myanmar were sky high a decade ago. Thanks to import restrictions imposed by the previous military regime in the early 2000s, a second-hand Toyota van used to cost about K100 million (US$97,000) in Myanmar. According to Myanmar Times, the same vehicle could be bought in Thailand for just K4 million (US$3,800).
Then in late 2011, a new government swept in with a series of policy changes. Director of Farmer Auto Showroom Soe Tun tells Irrawaddy in a recent interview that car import policies have changed about ten times since. Today, the same van might cost around K13.5 million (US$13,000). Suddenly, the Burmese have a fighting chance to own the cars of their dreams.
Wai Yan Lin, CEO and founder of online classifieds portal builder Rebbiz, witnessed this first hand when he visited his hometown in Myanmar in late 2011. At that time, he was still working in Singapore, and had spent most of his life there. During his time in Yangon, he saw many major changes in the automobile industry that convinced him that it would grow exponentially in the coming years:
“Although the internet penetration in the country was very low at that time, I saw people using the internet to search for their desired cars from international car auction websites. While more cars were being imported into the country, people were still having difficulties in buying or selling. Being a person who is working in the tech industry, I saw this as an opportunity, and believed that I could solve the problem they are facing.”
Excited by this prospect, Wai pulled together two other friends upon touching down in Singapore, and got down to work creating an online platform which connects car buyers and sellers in Myanmar. A few weeks later, MyanmarCarsDB was launched out of the small apartment in Singapore. Wai still remembers the exact date: January 4, 2012.
First mover problems
Being the pioneer in this industry, Wai and his team naturally ran into a handful of problems right off the bat. The first hurdle was figuring out how to get the initial listings. “We started calling our friends and relatives back in Myanmar to ask whether they had any cars for sale,” Wai recalls. “After a few days of trying to get the content, we managed to collect a few car listings for our site to launch officially.”
They came to the issue of money. Given that a startup ecosystem was practically non-existent in Myanmar at that point of time, it was all but impossible to expect any interested investors. The trio decided to pool their money to tide themselves over the early period.
“We started everything bootstrapped – no employees, no office in Myanmar, and a very limited marketing budget that came out of our own pockets,” Wai says.
During this time, he flew back and forth between Myanmar and Singapore several times to meet with people in the automobile industry to promote and explain their product and services.
“Our team kept on trying and educating car buyers and sellers on how to use our products, how easy it is, and how efficient it is for their buy and sell processes,” he says. “But some meetings didn’t turn out well as the idea is new for a country like Myanmar, and not many people believed or understood what we were doing.”
According to Wai, even his own parents didn’t think the business would survive in the early days.
The turning point
Undaunted, Wai and his team continued meeting people and hunting down listings. “Although the internet penetration was low, connection was unstable, and the cost of internet is expensive, we kept believing that we could grow when the time comes,” he explains.
A year in, they started to see some good traction on the platform, with listings and users growing steadily month-on-month. It was at this time in late 2012 that some angel investors from Singapore finally took notice of MyanmarCarsDB.
“They saw the potential of our product, and were willing to support us in growing our business,” Wai says. “We managed to close the seed round of investment in January 2013, and it was the major milestone of our startup.”
Things really began to take off from there. Today, the website sees 43,000 unique visitors and gets 1.2 million views per month. Meanwhile, its Android app receives 25,000 unique visitors and 4.3 million views monthly.
45,000 cars have been listed since the launch, and Wai has secured MyanmarCarsDB’s second round of funding from Malaysia’s Frontier Digital Ventures as well. He believes strongly that things are only going to get better in the near future:
“The lack of good infrastructure and having a small number of internet users makes people think that tech startups and online businesses in Myanmar would not survive […] But I have a clear vision for the future, and I only think for the long haul. I believe that the numbers will grow, internet connectivity would improve, and millions of people would be able to access the internet in the very near future. There is a bright future for tech startups here.”
Even the entrance of Rocket Internet’s Carmudi – which entered the market just a few months after – and its deep pockets did little to slow down MyanmarCarsDB’s rapid growth. Its competitive advantage: a deep understanding of the local market.
“Since we launched, we are very focused on user friendliness and localization. We understand what local people want,” Wai explains. “We build a product that locals could use easily, even for those who are very new to the internet. Also, we always provide better customer service. These made us stand out from the competition.”
With fresh funding in hand, and little bit of hard work, Wai expects to be the clear market leader in the near future.
Interestingly, the path that Wai took is the exact opposite of many startups in Myanmar. To cover monthly expenses, many local companies – such as NEX – tend to start off as development firms, and build their own products only when they’ve earned enough to do so. For Wai, it was a conscious decision not to follow down the same road.
“As I’ve been working in development agencies for years before I started this, I knew how demanding the agency life is,” he explains. “I realized that it is very difficult to balance between the development services and own product [so] I decided to jump straight into building my own product.”