Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Silicon Valley school comes to Yangon

Budding entrepreneurs dreaming about quitting day jobs to found successful start-ups will soon have access to a Silicon Valley-designed training school that aims to help them do just that.

Phandeeyar put on more than 100 events last year at its office in downtown Yangon. Photo: SuppliedPhandeeyar put on more than 100 events last year at its office in downtown Yangon. Photo: Supplied

Yangon-based innovation lab Phandeeyar is opening a Myanmar chapter of the California-based Founder Institute to cater to what it says is a huge pool of local entrepreneurial potential.

The lab has been holding community hack-a-thons and other tech events for years, but at a startup challenge in November last year – where participants had to brainstorm business ideas – over 200 people turned up.

“Even with the interaction we had with the community we were still blown away with how many people participated,” said Phandeeyar chief executive David Madden. “At the point we realised we really need a formal structured program. We keep discovering different pockets within the community that are passionate about this.”

Myanmar has several established tech firms and Phandeeyar recently welcomed six teams with fully formed ideas – ranging from an online marketplace for freelancers to a comicbook app – into an accelerator program.

Looking around for structured programs that could cater to people in the earlier stages, Phandeeyar decided on the Founder Institute as “the most successful program at taking the Silicon Valley model and exporting it”, Mr Madden said.

Started by US tech entrepreneur Adeo Ressi, there are now Founder Institute chapters in 115 cities across more than 50 countries. Mr Madden will be a co-director of the Yangon chapter along with Phandeeyar colleagues U Thar Htet and Jes Kaliebe Petersen.

Although downtown Yangon is a far cry from the San Francisco Bay area, the contents of the 14-week evening course are the same in every chapter – from Afghanistan to Argentina.

“The curriculum is the same,” said Mr Kaliebe Petersen, who worked on a Founder Institute program in Kabul. But participants in the Yangon chapter will also have face-to-face interaction with industry mentors based in Myanmar and across the region, he added.

“It’s tailored in the sense of getting a local angle on, say, customer development, and hearing from people that have done it here,” said Mr Kaliebe Petersen.

Across the 14 weeks, participants – who must first pass a startup aptitude test in order to be selected – will work on everything from developing ideas and modeling revenue to fundraising, marketing and intellectual property.

But unlike many business courses in the local market, it is unlikely that even half the participants will make it to the end. Graduation is based on developing a strong idea and strategy, building a team of mentors, completing assignments and formally incorporating a company.

Across the world’s Founder Institute chapter the graduation rate is less than 40 percent, according to the institute.

“You don’t attend to get a certificate to put on your resume,” said Mr Kaliebe Petersen. “You attend to build a company.”

The application is free for those attending one of Phandeeyar’s information sessions, and the course fee is US$375 before an early bird deadline. But scholarships may be available for applications where the only barrier is the fee.

“That’s a non-trivial amount of money, but it’s also extremely good value for what people are getting,” Mr Madden said. “This [course] asks the question of potential entrepreneurs in the strongest possible terms: Are you serious?”

If a participant graduates and her company manages to raise more than $50,000, she will pay a full tuition fee of $4500. Although the failure rate during the course is high, Mr Madden says more than 80pc of the companies created through the program survive.

“The course is about doing the work necessary to [allow you to] quit your job,” Mr Madden said.

Phandeeyar is starting Founder Institute information events next month, and the first course is scheduled to start in December.

“The aim is to see the first class graduate by Thingyan 2017,” Mr Madden said.