Startup meets showbiz on reality TV program

Local start-up entrepreneur Ko Min Zeya Phyo didn’t plan on entering the competition which won his company the chance at more than S$2 million. Now the Code2LAB founder – not by nature a PR man – has found himself in a surprising place: in front of the camera.

Last year, restaurant management platform provider Code2LAB won a Yangon start-up bootcamp put on by Lithan University College, earning Ko Min Zeya Phyo US$2000 and a spot on Channel NewsAsia’s second season of Start-UP, a Singapore-based reality television show which aired its first episode last week. The entrepreneur has survived the cut to eight finalists, and is in the midst of filming episodes that see Code2LAB and fellow ventures face challenges and try to crowd-fund their start-ups.

Ko Min Zeya grew up in Myanmar and at age nine moved to Singapore for more than two decades. However, his thoughts frequently wandered home. “The strange thing is that all the time I’m there, I have the urge to come back here,” he told The Myanmar Times from his office in 6-Mile.

He worked in a relatively autonomous department of a large company in Singapore. When his department decided not to launch the product they’d been working on, he found that corporate life no longer suited him. The timing lined up with some important developments in his home country. “With Myanmar opening up, I decided maybe I should give it a try here,” he said.

Code2LAB had earlier aimed to tackle tourism but found they were too close to the bleeding edge to succeed in Myanmar. Ko Min Zeya Phyo turned his attention to a major issue plaguing restaurants here: human resources. A local restaurant, Shwe Palin, told the start-up founder of difficulties like staff training and turnover. “They have 101 problems that I thought could be solved easily,” Ko Min Zeya Phyo said.

He said the company started when it deployed its flagship product, a restaurant management system run on tablets called SmartSales, for Shwe Palin – its first customer. With SmartSales, waiters take orders on the floor and then send them to the kitchen and cashier at the same time, he explained. The result: fewer man-hours spent on orders, benefits for waiters that didn’t have to pay for mistakes and better customer service, according to Ko Min Zeya Phyo.

The company took its product to Lithan University College’s StartUp bootcamp last year. Ko Min Zeya Phyo only threw his hat in the ring after a friend and fellow start-up founder pushed him to apply.

Red Dot Ventures founder and managing director Leslie Loh, who will judge companies on Start-UP and also acts as chair at Lithan Education, said Code2LAB proceeded on from the bootcamp to the show because of its team and solution.

“It’s a combination of capable management and having a product that is right for a specific marketplace,” he said.

Ko Min Zeya Phyo echoed this sentiment. “When the [startup bootcamp] was held, I think I had the right product that actually solved problems for local businesses,” he said. “I was able to present a good story to the judges.”

Code2LAB’s narrative encompasses what makes make Myanmar a unique – and uniquely challenging – environment. For example, the company’s product had to work in the face of blackouts with the potential to stop the system in its tracks.

“In the whole process of building this product, we’ve become so adaptive to the environment,” he said. “We’ve actually implemented a closed network GPS system so that every device that is connected is all battery-powered and we can run for hours.”

Ko Min Zeya said he has changed as a result of Code2LAB. The company originally had three founders; now he heads it up alone. With his technical background, he says speaking up might have made him nervous two years ago. And he has faced personal challenges – his family, including his 5-year-old child, remains in Singapore, and the distance can be wearing.

“Whatever I’m doing I have to make sure that it’s justified for being here,” he said. “When I left Singapore … I gave up everything and came back here in the hope it would be something that’s meaningful – as a milestone in my life at the same time, look – Myanmar is opening up – I did something for the community as well.”

The show can illuminate a budding scene that has been cordoned off for so long.

“In a way it will help local startup community as well,” Ko Min Zeya Phyo said. “The whole startup ecosystem has been trying to bring the standard up … we want to tell the world that look, there is potential here. There’s a market for start-ups as well. We want to bring in incubators, accelerators, investors.”

Though the founder has mostly kept Code2LAB bootstrapped, the company has received two rounds of funding. One saw an investment of US$100,000 for 10 percent equity, thereby valuing the company at $1 million.

While SmartSales took it to Start-UP, the company is working on a second cloud-based iteration which will feature a marketplace for customers, a scorecard for restaurants, and a new Software-as-a-Service subscription business model meant to cater to companies as they develop.

With more than 30 clients, Code2LAB earns revenue – about US$120,000 inside its first year, Ko Min Zeya Phyo said. Though its near-greenfield home market means the company will face less competition, Ko Min Zeya Phyo also says the firm has the potential to succeed in more than Myanmar.

More than one company can succeed on the Singapore show, as judges can choose to divide the S$2 million among at most four entrepreneurs that wish to accept terms of investment. Funds won on the program could provide fuel for the new product, according to Ko Min Zeya Phyo.

In the meantime, he’s having some friends over to watch the first episode of Start-UP. With it, Ko Min Zeya Phyo has made major moves into the spotlight of the regional stage, bringing Myanmar along with him.


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