There are certain skills that, upon learning, can make an almost life-changing positive impact on a person’s life. Language skills, coding, STEM know-how and management proficiency can dramatically impact an individual’s ability to find success.
In today’s Internet-centered world, there are a multitude of options for a ‘teach myself’ education. Youtube comes to mind as one of best places for online learning. It allows people to close education gaps by gaining employable skills for a fraction of the cost of a University or traditional schooling.
This alternative education model is especially important in Myanmar, a country with one of the highest gaps between the educated elites and the rest of the population.
According to an academic paper presented by Po Po Thaung Win at Thailand’s International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies in July 2015, the country’s five-decades-long rule by the oppressive military junta decimated higher education.
The problem was most acutely highlighted by current democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988. Her student-led anti-government protests lead to the shuttering of all Universities for two years in the country. (Three years later Aung San Suu Kyi would win the Nobel Peace Prize).
Only until a few years ago have officials begun to actively look to reverse this trend and improve the education gap.
So, bearing all this in mind, how does the average Burmese person teach themselves the skills necessary for employability in the modern economy?
Enter, the Internet, and specifically a Singapore-headquartered startup called Burmese Hearts.
“We are an e-learning marketplace platform for Burmese speaking around the world where users can learn outside the university or school system,” Alex Robu, Co-founder of Burmese Hearts, tells e27.
The company has been around since 2010, but pivoted into its current iteration in June 2015. It is based in Singapore, but recently took a trip to Myanmar to meet with investors in the country.
As of March 4, it has about 9,000 learners and crossed the million pageviews barrier during its first six-months — averaging about 200,000 pageviews a month. Currently, the company has over 600 lessons.
What is particularly interesting is the Facebook community is huge for a very small operation (run by Robu and his wife Thiri Myat Sanda with no employees). The page has an impressive 140,000 likes, updates multiple times a day and generates consistent interactions from Burmese speaking community members.
Considering the fact two people grew the account from 7,000 likes in June, it is a remarkable accomplishment.
Burmese Hearts generates revenue by taking a commission from each booking processed through the platform (listings are free) as well as a revenue stream from international partners when a learner is taking a course abroad.
Moving forward, the company will institute a customised subscription fee for companies using the ‘Learning for Business’ product. Also, the team wants to integrate an e-commerce platform for learners to purchase education-related materials like games, puzzles and educational toys.
The company is a reminder to the startup community, and media organisations like e27, that businesses (and their Founders) are a diverse bunch with different values.
Yes, the unicorns of the ecosystem should be valued. But so should a tiny company chugging along. Because while it does not land ‘newsworthy’ investments, it is making an impact on an underserved population.
A [literal] mom & pop operation
Burmese Hearts is entirely self-funded.
Robu and Sanda share duties while both managing parenthood and Robu working a full-time job.
This means, for example, as Sanda is a mother, she will grab a few hours when their daughter is asleep to work on the site.
While certainly exhausting, Robu actually sees some value in the situation.
“Having limited time may be also an advantage, because it pushes you to focus and deliver at your best. There are no full time employees or part-timers and both of us build the platform from scratch to 200,000 pageviews per month,” he says.
Robu is in charge of the IT/technical side of the company while Burmese-speaking Sanda curates the content. Subjects range from a host of subjects like programming, design, cooking, the arts and English grammar.
“Most lessons are video recordings between 3-20 minutes, some are audio recordings and few are text based or other format. It can also be a combination of video, text and exercises files. A learner is able to preview some of the course lessons without enrolling in the course,” says Robu.
In the early days of the startup, the couple had to generate the content themselves (which, naturally, meant taking the daughter on a long walk or weekend activity).
What the company embodies, without announcing, is the constantly projected ideal of having a founding team that is truly passionate about the project. Enterprise companies simply cannot raise the type of funding a fintech or e-commerce company can. But, maybe that is the point.
“I believe if your startup is trying to solve a real problem coupled with passionate founders and on top of that having a marketplace business model, transaction based, recurring subscriptions for companies, investors may find it interesting enough,” says Robu.
And this is highlighted when I asked Robu what a good 2016 would look like. He did not mention expanding into other regions, or raising a large Series A or hitting a specific revenue target. He said,
“A [good year is] when we give learners something more to learn and something to look forward to. [It] encourages them to learn more and change their lives for the better.”