The Innovation Blind Spot – Why we back the wrong ideas and what to do about it
By Ross Baird
In recent years, Ross Baird has built quite the reputation for himself. Entrepreneur, investor and now author. In 2009 Baird founded Village Capital, a VC with a unique peer-selection approach, and has since worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and investors in more than fifty countries, including EME in Myanmar.
The hypothesis of his book is that innovation today suffers from three major blind spots – blind spots that negatively affect how we do business, innovate and invest. The first blind spots has to do with how we, as investors, choose new ideas; the second with where we find new ideas; and the third with why – why we invest in new ideas to begin with. These blind spots result in investors overlooking untapped companies, untapped markets and untapped industries.
How we invest: One size does not fit all.
Innovation breaks moulds, it doesn’t fit them. Baird urges investors to look beyond traditional ways of identifying and selecting startups. Investors rarely make decisions about their next investment at a pitch event. Let’s face it, people who are looking for money are going to tell the people with money what they want to hear, and most investors know that. And not all great founders are pitch wizards. This is one reason EME uses an adaptation of Village Capital’s VIRAL scorecard (see our recent blog) to give founder and investor the chance to have an in-depth discussion. Also, while many VCs prefer to hear about companies through their networks and are closed off to enquiry, our door is open and we’re very happy to meet and discuss with founders who reach out to us.
Baird pushes investors to consider their ecosystem. Myanmar isn’t Silicon Valley. Spray and pray (making lots of investments, hoping one or two make it big) doesn’t fit the same metrics here as there and expecting entrepreneurs to model themselves on Brian Chesky (Airbnb CEO) is pretty pointless. The innate diversity of Myanmar forces us to think outside the box, playing to the strengths and uniqueness of individuals, companies and new ideas. True innovation, not copy-paste from outside, takes time and committed investors.
Where we invest: looking beyond (a) location.
Fun fact: in US, more than 75% of startup investments flows to only three States – California, New York and Massachusetts – the Big Three. Baird points out that, similar to patterns known from real estate, market frenzies over specific locations can cause prices to rise rapidly, and force investors to pay a premium, for no other apparent reason than location. Does this lead to a location price premium for startups? The Myanmar Times recently wrote that Myanmar had a burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem. But, while the ecosystem is certainly developing, it’s a Yangon phenomenon, not Myanmar-wide. Is Myanmar on the path of building a Big One like the US has a Big Three? The laws of supply and demand show us that if demand outgrows supply, prices increase, allowing startups to demand a higher price for equity. On the other hand, if there are a lot of startups looking for funding and the demand is limited, prices decrease.
As rational investors, one of the things we fear the most is something called, “irrational exuberance.” Irrational exuberance is, simply put, a state of mania. In the (stock) market, it's when investors are so confident that the price of an asset will keep going up, that they lose sight of its underlying value. Investors egg each other on and greedy for profits overlook deteriorating economic fundamentals. Baird urges us to search out opportunities where others are not looking, targeting industries ripe for disruption, and where irrational behaviour is nowhere to be seen. Mark Twain summed this up nicely by saying, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”.
Why we invest: between money and meaning.
Baird’s investment philosophy is thoroughly rooted in the impact investment tradition, and he is very much a one-pocket thinker. One-pocket thinking recognises that what’s good for society and what’s good for business does not have to be mutually exclusive. The book offers valuable insights into the rise of impact investing, mapping out its development from the start of the micro finance movement to legendary Ben & Jerry’s, and the growing field of large international venture funds devoted to one-pocket thinking. EME is not an impact investor per se, but we do seek out investments that have positive impact. We are positioned in the intersection between money and meaning, strongly committed to Myanmar’s sustainable development.
The book is riddled with interesting statistics, and thought-provoking narratives. Did you know that 50 percent of the Fortune 500 in 2000 were no longer on the list 15 years later? And that female founders are more likely to succeed than male founders? Baird is articulate and knowledgeable which makes a strong foundation for a stimulating read. This is a book well worth reading and will perhaps illuminate your very own blind spots.
One of EME’s favourite taxi conversations is discussing what startup ideas could work in Myanmar. As investors, we meet with many startups and ecosystem players and have a birds-eye view of what is happening (and not happening) in the startup world. In this post, we’ll be sharing some of the business opportunities we see in the market that we’d love somebody to take a crack at.
In our previous post on the Startup Idea Matrix, we talked about how startups succeed by trying out new strategies in new industries. In Myanmar, there are many tried-and-tested startup strategies from abroad which haven’t been implemented here yet. In particular, we see a lot of opportunity in subscription-based models, which are inherently more sustainable than transaction-based models. Mobile payments players like Wave and OKDollar are beginning to find traction, and startups should capitalize on the emerging opportunity for frictionless digital payments.
As a disclaimer, each of our proposed ideas would require a lot of additional market research, brainstorming, product testing etc, and success is definitely not guaranteed. Yet that’s what makes them worth trying! Without further ado, our top startup ideas are:
Why do startups exist? Aside from satisfying the financial or social aspirations of the founders, they play a crucial role in the wider economy. Startups innovate, by running semi-scientific experiments to test the effect of new strategies and technologies on problems in the real world. They figure out the right combination of incentives, rules and actors to generate economically valuable activity, and there’s an incredible illustration of this by Eric Stromberg on Medium called the Startup Idea Matrix.
In this chart, rows are markets and columns are strategies. Cells contain examples of leading companies that have successfully applied the strategy to the market. For example in the ‘User Generated Content’ column, we have the following market examples:
In the ‘Shopping’ row, we have the following strategy examples:
What’s fascinating about the chart is just how much of it is empty. Cells could be empty because that strategy/market combination hasn’t been tried before, or more likely, it hasn’t worked (yet). Note that over 90% of startups fail within 5 years, an incredibly high failure rate which is justified by the huge potential reward for figuring out the right strategy-market combination. Also note that this matrix can and will change over time, as new technologies are invented. For example, the smartphone brought about a wave of new companies and apps that all sought to exploit the new opportunities created by mobile internet-connected devices. Only a small number actually figured out a winning strategy on a global scale - Uber for transportation (in some places), Whatsapp for messaging, Strava for social fitness etc.
Even with such terrible odds, systematic experimentation with new strategies and technologies should be the goal of every startup ecosystem, because this produces the economy of tomorrow. We often talk about obliquely about this idea as a venture capital firm, saying “Someone should create a startup to solve X problem in that industry. It’s going to happen sooner or later.” Startups often refer to it when they say they are the “Uber for X”, meaning they are testing the strategy of Uber (on-demand, location-based) on a different market or industry, thereby solving a new problem.
Due to barriers of infrastructure and language, a miniature version of this idea matrix could be made for almost every country. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit in Myanmar in terms of proven business models that have worked overseas, and in a future post, we’ll be sharing our top startup ideas that we think could work in Myanmar. We don’t guarantee the success of any of these ideas, but we’d love to chat to anyone attempting them. Who knows, they might just become Myanmar’s first unicorn.
Paying for houses and cars in huge pallets of cash is normal in Myanmar right now, but will be almost unimaginable in just a few short years. Financial technology in Myanmar is at a critical inflection point - many players have thrown their hats into the ring and are innovating in order to win customers and digitize a highly cash-based economy. We’ve attempted to map out the current state of the Myanmar fintech landscape below - see how many of the companies you know!
As can be seen from the map, payments are especially messy - mobile wallets (Wave, OKDollar etc) are competing with cash acceptance networks (Reddot, 123), banks (AGDPay, KBZPay), card networks (MPU, Visa) and platforms (Oway, Get) in an all-out war to gain traction, although cash is still the main competitor, accounting for over 99% of ecommerce transactions. We expect to see a lot of consolidation in the next 2-5 years, with a digital payment adoption rate that mirrors the trajectories of other countries in the region like Thailand and Indonesia.
One of the major challenges is a lack of financial infrastructure, for example interbank transfers and credit bureaus, although progress is being made on these fronts, aided by new regulation from the government.
The fintech ecosystem is evolving rapidly, and overall we think it’s in a healthy state. As adoption rates climb, everyone will reap the benefits of increased convenience and efficiency, driving growth in the economy as a whole. We’re looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.
See full list of sectors and players below:
Telcos: MPT, Telenor, Ooredoo, MyTel
Mobile Wallets: Wave Money, M-Pitesan, True Money, OnGo, OKDollar, MyKyat
Payment Systems: MPU, MyPay, Reddot, Get Digital Store, Paypoint, 123, 1stop, Giantpay, Oway
Banks: MOB, Aya, CB, Shwe, KBZ, Yoma, MAB, AGD and more
Backends: ConnectNPay, 2C2P, Trusty E-commerce, Fintech Myanmar
Lending: Thitsaworks, Scorestarter, Mother Finance, Zigway
Crypto: Skybit, Everex
An interesting pattern has cropped up as we comb through our EME database of all the startups and investments in Myanmar from 2012 onwards: we can identify three distinct waves of startups based on time, product and business model.
The first wave: fundamentals
Founded from 2012 to 2014 or so, the first wave of startups were the fundamental consumer internet platforms, mostly online marketplaces for cars, jobs, houses and travel. Often founded by repatriates who had worked in Singapore or the West, these companies included CarsDB, iMyanmarHouse, Oway and MyJobs, as well as more pure-technology companies like Bagan Innovation Technology (Myanmar-language keyboards) and Nexlabs (software development).
Rocket Internet entered the market aggressively in 2013 with a stable of platforms including house.com.mm, motors.com.mm, ads.com.mm and more, none of which are still alive today except Shop.com.mm, which is now owned by Alibaba. Honourable mentions go to the nascent social networks and chat apps which didn’t have much of a chance against the blue tide of Facebook that swept the country. Most of the first wave companies are either dead or dominant by now, although new competitors can enter their markets at any point.
The second wave: niches
From 2015 till 2017, the second-wave was defined by more niche value propositions. There was still a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked by replicating successful overseas models in more specialized markets. These include companies like Joosk Studio (digital animation and illustration), Bindez (search engine & news aggregator) and Bagan Hub (B2B ecommerce). BODTech also made a round of investments in Flymya (travel), YangonD2D (food delivery), Innoveller (bus ticketing) and more.
Also included in the second wave were fintech plays, often by corporates or regional entities. These include large companies like Wave Money, Reddot, Ongo etc, all trying to stake out territory in the digital payments market. Many of these companies are beginning to see real traction, as they carve out their niche in the rapidly growing digital economy.
The third wave: experiments
We are seeing from now onwards a third wave, defined by greater experimentation, either with business models or with technology. Witness Expa.ai (chatbot builders), RecyGlo (recycling-as-a-service) or Mote Poh (employee rewards coupons). While some of these models have yet to be validated, the ecosystem is in a healthy state as entrepreneurs continue to innovate.
Some of this experimentation has been made possible by the entry of institutional investors and accelerators, for example Phandeeyar, whose accelerator program has graduated 11 startups and counting. The incubator / accelerator space is becoming increasingly crowded, with Rockstart Impact, SeedStars, Impact Hub and more beginning to make their presence felt.
EME sees opportunities across all three waves of startups. CarsDB, one of our first two investments, is a leading member of the first wave as undisputed #1 in online car classifieds. Our other portfolio company, Joosk Studio is a definite second-wave company - providing a first-of-a-kind product in a specialized field with opportunities for further expansion. We’ll continue to look for companies across this whole spectrum as the Myanmar startup ecosystem develops further.
Join the conversation on our Facebook page to let us know your thoughts.
We have an office bet going on here at EME. Over lunches at MICT Park and long cab rides to downtown, we discuss the following proposition: Myanmar will create a unicorn (a company with a valuation over $1 billion USD) within the next 5 years. The stakes are a round of beers for us and possibly much higher for the market at large.
Disclaimer: we’re not talking about existing companies or prospective investments (that’s a separate bet), so much as the overall trends and market conditions that would allow a unicorn to emerge.
As anyone who has stood in line at a Myanmar government office can tell you, there are significant structural challenges for startups to solve. Nevertheless, the population is large, young and increasingly digitally-connected, and as McKinsey suggests, the economy could enjoy years of strong catch-up growth over the next decade in line with other countries in the region like Indonesia and Vietnam. This creates a long-term opportunity for a local tech company to grow into a unicorn.
Sector-wise, the startup would probably be in transportation, ecommerce or fintech. All of these sectors have large market sizes, viable business models and can use technology to scale. While other sectors (healthcare, education, logistics etc) also have large potential markets, they are often more challenging to digitize and/or monetize.
For funding, this prospective unicorn would probably get seed investment from angels and local funds like EME, then tap regional VC funds and family offices for Series A / Series B. Corporates and later-stage PE/VC investors e.g. Alibaba, Softbank, Sequoia, would fill out the later rounds. Investors are increasingly interested in Southeast Asia and have a lot of unspent capital. As long as this prospective unicorn could demonstrate strong user growth and potentially expansions to other countries in the region, access to finance wouldn’t be an issue.
Of course for the purposes of the bet, the potential unicorn would have to avoid getting acquired before reaching that magic $1b valuation. Even after reaching unicorn status, a company may stay private for many years (now often referred to as the Softbank Effect after SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund). Acquisitions by major global platforms seem to be preferred to IPOs at present. Nevertheless, the recent listings of Sea, Razer and Kioson prove that IPOs can be viable for Southeast Asian technology companies.
Overall, we’re very optimistic about Myanmar’s prospects for a unicorn in 5 years. As long as startups continue to work hard, engage users and build products that generate real value, the chances are good that a local player can grow sufficiently fast to achieve unicorn status. It may come as no surprise then, that EME is investing in and supporting early stage tech companies.
If you want to join the bet, take our poll on Facebook. See you for beer in 5 years.