After 20 years in digital marketing, including a stint at tech giant EA, Vietnamese-Canadian Rita Ngyuen came to Myanmar when the country was still a digital no-fly zone. After co-founding social media platform MySquar, Forbes Asia named her one of the Power Women to watch. Her latest venture is Jzoo, outfitting brick-and-mortar businesses with a high-tech loyalty platform. Customers get rewards and discounts, and Jzoo fills the data gaps for a relatively unexplored consumer base.
You came to Myanmar in 2013 to start a social media company, but Myanmar doesn’t exactly have a digital reputation. Why here?
I landed here, and I was at Shwedagon pagoda and walking around. It was January , there were no ATMs, my SIM card cost me $350, but I remember looking around and there were all these monks sitting there playing on their phones. And it was one of those pivotal moments. I was like, “I know it’s early. Everyone knows it’s early. But I have to be part of it.” I missed out on Vietnam when it opened up back in the ‘90s, and I always kind of regretted that because I’m Vietnamese…I really didn’t want to miss out on this. It was just too cool an opportunity.
What inspired the switch from social media to Jzoo?
If you heard my investor pitch [for MySquar] back in the early 2013 days, it was never a pitch about social media. Social media was the sexy, interesting story, but it was always a data story: “This is a country where 52 million consumers are coming online overnight, and no one knows anything about them.” How do you understand who these people are when they have literally never had a digital footprint? I wanted to be in there for that.
Arguably we still no very little about what’s going on in this country as far as who consumers are. We had a census for the first time in 30 years, and that’s fantastic, but that doesn’t give us a hell of a lot of information about who these people are, really….We’re looking at 52 million consumers, and we still don’t know much about them.
What sort of market data resources are there now?
There are several market research firms here…But they’re still sending foot soldiers into these villages and doing surveys in these mom and pop shops who are selling packets of shampoo and conditioner. That’s how market data is being done today.
What can Jzoo bring to the table?
The exciting story about Myanmar is “tech is coming online.” But the reality of that story is you’re looking at a world where Yangon is a little bubble where everyone has a cheap, Chinese phone. But coming out of that, your numbers drop off a cliff. In the population of the city there’s about 70 percent mobile penetration. In the rural areas it’s about 22.
So we built a loyalty program in a way where no one would need technology. We bring Android tablets into our merchant locations. It’s facing the consumer, and it’s playing a little cute video and telling them, ‘To get all these free rewards, just sign up today.’ On the consumer side, we also have an Android app they can carry on their phone. Or if they don’t have a phone, we have a sticker, a little QR code sticker you can put on your phone or bag or whatever.
What [retailers] get in return is they understand their customers. What they’re buying, when they’re buying it. But I’m not looking to be a TNS or an MMRD. Mine is a technology place, it’s not a research place. I’m more on the analytics side, helping retailers sell to their customers. There’s a new Chatime opening at HHL, and we’re going to be able to send messages to all of our base and say “triple the points if you come this weekend.” We can drive traffic and drive behaviours based on whatever our merchants need.
What about very small retailers, the mom and pop shops?
Imagine having a tablet that is sitting at all of these little stores and being able to immediately get customer feedback on any particular product or question. Imagine that there’s a typhoon coming through, I can take over those tablets sitting at home in Canada and send a warning about that: “This is what you need to prepare for, this is what you should buy.”
We haven’t done a big target towards them simply because we started 15 months ago. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t get this tablet sitting up in Bago very quickly. It’s a ten minute installation, and then you’re done, you’re good to go.
But I don’t imagine these shops are very interested in consumer data trends. What’s in it for them?
One of the reasons I haven’t gone to those mom and pop shops yet is because we haven’t really figured out the value proposition for them. I have some ideas about what will work, but we’re just now starting to talk to them about it. We’re just now running a trial this week. We’re going to go to the mom and pop shops outside of Yangon and talk to them about installing Jzoo, and we have a couple of different controls. One group is going to talk about it this way, another is going to talk about it that way, and then we’ll see which works.
Talk about tracking people with QR codes, about taking over tablets from Canada, driving consumer behaviour, this kind of language might make people nervous in Europe or the US. Not here?
You think about marketing that happens in the US — this is exactly how, and they’re actually much more sophisticated. And the terminology is quite acceptable, it’s the same thing. And we’re designing our platform to US privacy standards, not Myanmar. There are no Myanmar privacy standards. I’m very clear about that to our merchants. We do not release private information. We do not allow for their information to be shared with their competitors.
I think what you’re talking about goes to personalized marketing. So when you go onto Agoda and you look for a hotel in Nay Pyi Taw, you start to see hotel adds for Nay Pyi Taw all over the goddamn world, the internet world. You see it on Facebook, you see it everywhere, because it’s been re-targeted. We’re not getting anywhere close to that phase. We’re interested in the aggregate.
Yes people are squeamish about their personal data, but everyone understands that marketing happens, and it’s actually much more relevant to you and much more important. That’s where we’re going with this story: I just want to know my customers better, I just want to give them what they want.
Yes, but people in the West tend to be squeamish about feeling like a commodity, another number in the system. Do people here feel the same way?
No, not so much. And I’m not even talking about Myanmar specifically. I’ve worked in the region quite extensively the last five years, and I would say that is less of a problem. People in Southeast Asia have very little problem with marketing. They’re very open to clicking on banners and reading pamphlets. Part of it here (and in Vietnam ten years ago) is that they’re content starved. They’ve got very few messages bombarding them. We are overly sensitive because we’ve got millions and millions of adds coming at us at all times.
If I look at the types of campaigns I was planning for EA back in North America, you had to get pretty damn creative. Product placement is a really big deal in North America in TV and games, whereas here, you just place the damn add. Seriously, it’s just not that big of a deal. They’re not as worried about putting up a product placement of a Toyota logo in a TV show. They don’t care, that doesn’t matter yet because people are seeing the Toyota commercial. It’s less of a problem.
As time goes on and your database grows, what are some other things you can use it for?
Consumer data, especially consumer spending data, is really incredibly powerful. I always use Alibaba as an example. Alibaba started out as a basic ecommerce platform ten years ago. And because they have so much consumer data, because they know what everyone in China is doing, they are now doing things like building their own banks. They are working with the Chinese government to build the central credit rating system.
So imagine being able to use Jzoo data to validate microtransaction loans, as an example. If there’s no credit rating system, if there’s no centralized database anywhere for anything in this country, if there’s no centralized digital infrastructure to speak of, being able to know who these people are helps to prop up a whole lot of different types of industries. You obviously need scale and scope to do that, but the possibilities are endless.
What have been the biggest challenges?
We come up against really strange things. When you’re doing a peer technology play, all you’re really doing is building code, which can be built from anywhere, and you’re sending it up to the universe, which can be sent from anywhere…We got stuck with the infrastructure. What we’re doing is so operationally heavy because we’re bringing hardware into stores, teaching people how to use it on site. The stands, the security stands for our tablet, could not be manufactured here…The stickers were upside down and sideways, and we had all kinds of weird strange problems with that. Now that we’re in the market and we’re rolling, we bought ourselves some time to be able to find better sourcing materials, but it was the strangest little things like that that hung us up.