Thet Lynn Han, known as Ricky Thet, is the 36-year-old founder and CEO of Bagan IT. The Myanmar-based development company has been operating since 2010, when Thet moved back to Myanmar from Singapore. Bagan’s products include a local-language keyboard, an e-bookstore, and a fortune-telling service.

Are we coders or phone fixers?

When my country began to change in 2010, to open up, I knew I wanted to be part of building the new Myanmar. But, at that time, there was none of the basic infrastructure the rest of the world takes for granted. 

My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but I loved computers. I couldn’t study computer science in Myanmar when I graduated from high school in 2000, so I left for Singapore to study and then stayed there to work.

During the ten years I was living in Singapore, I wanted to read books in Burmese, but back then, almost none of them were digitized. You had to have a hard copy. So when I came back, I wanted to put Burmese-language books online. 

In 2012, when we launched our first apps, very few people were online in Myanmar, and data was very expensive. People would often turn off their data when they weren’t using it. That meant it was almost impossible to get user insights about what wasn’t working for users, and digital literacy was very low.

We began working with the mobile phone technicians at the local tuck shops where people buy and fix their phones. Often, when customers had issues with their phones or just didn’t know how to use certain features, they’d come back to the shops where they had purchased them and have the technicians help. We’d show these guys how to use our apps so they could answer a customer’s question about our products. If we were releasing something new, we’d let the technicians know, so they could tell their customers.

We had whole relationship teams who would travel around the country to meet with mobile shop owners, collect their insights, and show them how to use our latest applications.

One product at a time

Our first product was a Burmese-language keyboard. The most common Burmese font, Zawgyi, is not compatible with Unicode, the international standard for encoding fonts, and the background processing is based on the English language. This was especially an issue, because between 40% and 50% of the phones in Myanmar are Chinese phones made for the Chinese domestic market. All of these obstacles combined meant there were a lot of rendering issues and limitations for the Burmese font.

Google didn’t launch its Burmese-language keyboard in Myanmar until a few years ago, but we were here first. We could see what the Burmese people needed. Our keyboard currently has 10 million monthly active users. 

After the Burmese keyboard, we tackled books. The publishers were suspicious of digitizing books at first, and it took years of building relationships with them to get the 10,000 books we have online now. Same thing with our fortune-telling app, Min Thein Kha, which has 50,000 daily active users. Once the payments for the e-bookstore were running, it was a proof of concept we brought to the family of Min Thein Kha, the most famous Burmese fortune teller. They saw that the fortune tellers they worked with could get paid if they put their services on an app. 

But the biggest challenge was payments. Less than 2% of people in Myanmar have access to a credit card, and 75% are unbanked. We needed to find a different way to bill them.

The local telecom companies are the only entities that cover the whole population. We persuaded them to let us charge users for app-based purchases on their telephone bills, but we had to be very deliberate when designing to make it clear to people that that’s what they should expect. Even that was not a perfect solution; a credit card might charge you an extra 5% on top of your purchase. With the telecom companies, it could be anywhere from 45% to 60% in additional charges and fees. 

In order to partner with the telecom companies for billing, we needed to be able to ensure a minimum guaranteed revenue, so it was, and still is, very important that everything we built be attractive to our users. And we needed to demonstrate that we had the capacity to handle all of the customer support.

Building everything yourself

In other countries, these kinds of payment and customer-service systems would already be set up. Things are changing quickly here in Myanmar — mobile money is becoming more popular — but even now, I’d say only 30% of our work is building the apps, whereas 70% is dealing with these kinds of infrastructure issues. 

Now, as things are progressing and more, and Burmese people are coming online and getting phones, we can call customers directly to get insights. We’re also getting some data using Facebook, but more than anything else, we rely on calling people for feedback. 

In the early years, we had an automatic refund policy — if someone said they were charged incorrectly, we’d give the money back, no questions asked. It’s an important way to build trust with people who are using apps like these for the first time. If we didn’t get it right, how would users ever trust something like mobile money? 

We saw it as an investment in our users and in our future.