Aung Kyaw Moe built a multinational Southeast Asian IT company that just raised $7 million but he kind of hates computers
Aung Kyaw Moe, 40, is back home in Bangkok from Vietnam, where he has talked with five banks about providing security software for debit and credit card users. Having finally found what seems like reliable local partner in this opaque market, he thinks there might soon be a Vietnam branch of 2C2P, the company he started on the edge of desperation a dozen years ago. As Group CEO, he does a lot of travelling since there are 2C2P offices in his home base of Thailand, as well as in Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia and the Cambodia. There are customers in Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia and the Philippines too. And in the past year, he spent two three-week stints on the US campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) while completing an online executive certificate, “an add-on MBA.”
In April, 2C2P also landed its largest chunk of outside funding yet - $7 million from Hong Kong private equity firm Amun Capital and Japan’s GMO Ventures Partners - for a total of $10 million in the past five years. Yet Aung Kyaw Moe doesn’t seem particularly worried about meeting investors’ expectations or giving up some ownership to outsiders. One of his mottos is to “be conservative in projection and try your best to over-perform.” He will expand his 85-strong staff and the product line of “cards, cash and cash-equivalent acceptance services” but “revenue has also grown significantly. Next year there will be another funding round with a bigger figure.”
Growing market in Myanmar
Much of his travel time in the past year has been spent in his hometown of Yangon, as 2C2P rolled out new payment services with banks and companies. The 1 million Myanmar nationals who have obtained ATM cards in the past year or two already have some of 2C2P’s technology in hand. Most owners may now just use their card to withdraw their entire salary from the bank, perhaps unaware that it’s also a debit card that can be used to make purchases. In the past year, 2C2P worked with the banks’ Myanmar Payments Union (MPU) to enable the cards to be used on the country’s first e-commerce platform. Users can now purchase items from 20,000 points in all: a combination of domestic websites and physical points-of-sale (POS) at large stores and hotels. Soon they will be able to pay online for flights on most Myanmar airlines with the MPU card.
It’s due to 2C2P’s work in the past year with Air KBZ, Asia Wings, Myanmar National Airlines and Yadana that those with foreign- or locally-issued Visa or MasterCards (or China UnionPay or JCB) cards can now book and pay for their tickets online. The sites may not be pretty yet, Aung Kyaw Moe says, but users have no need to worry about the security of credit or debit cards on the sites. They all employ “exactly the same technology and same system” as used by the websites of such 2C2P customers as Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Lion Air, Nok Air, Nokscoot and Vietjet. 2C2P software is also responsible for iACCEPT app for smartphones and tablets that enables owners to conduct virtual transactions with their debit or credit accounts.
As so often has happened in his life, Aung Kyaw Moe didn’t enter the electronic payments field—or settle in Thailand or study computer programming - because he was driven by a great passion or curiousity: there simply was no other option. To this day, he believes that being a physician would have been more rewarding: “Sometimes I hate computers. Well, I like it but it’s from the brain, not the heart.” Unfortunately, he earned only two distinctions on his grade 10 exams, which meant he could only study physics at university. Defying his civil servant parents, who wanted him to stick with his ‘destiny,’ he enrolled at the WMD computer training center in Yangon for a single reason: it was simply the only option at the time in Myanmar to earn an overseas degree. If he passed his exams after two years of studyng programming languages and databases, he would be eligible to complete the final year and earn a degree at a Britain’s Guildhall University. Breaking with his parents meant he had to pay school fees on his own, which he did by working for two-anda-half years as a night butler at the Strand Hotel. Last year, the Strand was one of the first facilities to accept payments by iACCEPT.
Working as a hotel butler
While computers weren’t his ideal field, Aung Kyaw Moe believes there’s no point in exerting any less than his best effort at a task. Such was his commitment that when 600 students throughout the country took the British-administered second-year exam for the IDCS diploma (or International Diploma in Computer Studies), he earned the highest scores in the country. KMD then sent him in 1997 as a teacher to a branch school in Phnom Penh, where he first encountered the internet. By 1999, having saved enough for a final year of study in London, he quit WMD and stopped in Bangkok to pick up his visa at the British embassy. His application was rejected. In his view, returning to Cambodia or Myanmar were not options. Thailand was his only option and but he could only legally stay for one month on a tourist visa.
He finally was hired for a job at Juris Asia, a Frenchowned company where he met his future wife, a Thai lawyer. The company was compiling a database with translations of various countries’ commercial law, but later turned to other kinds of programming, including for mobile phones. Basic Nokia mobile phones were very popular in the early 2000s and Aung excelled at
creating mobile games for them. His games were so clever that he represented his company in competitions in Singapore and Paris.
The birth of his son, Ta Ta, in April 2003, was the critical turning point. He immediately decided that he would send Ta Ta to Bangkok’s ‘best’ international school, ISB, the International School of Bangkok. (ISB may not be the ‘best’ school in Bangkok, but it is the most expensive: the annual school fees for middle school, which Ta Ta now attends, are more than $27,000. Aung Kyaw Moe also has an eight-year-old daughter, Mimie). To accomplish that, he needed to earn much more than an employee’s salary, so quit his job to set up his own company. He insists: “I would still be a programmer if my son hadn’t been born. I am one-hundred percent sure of that. After that, everything I did had a single objective: to send my son to ISB. I always had that in my crosshairs.”
When the telecom executives who had promised to invest in his mobile games company backed out, Aung Kyaw Moe was once again ‘desperate’ when a Thai friend working for Bank of Asia asked him if he could create a cheaper version of the so-called 3D Secure card security software than what was being offered by a Singaporean company. From a consumer point of view, Aung Kyaw Moe explains, “It’s that screen that pops up online when you buy someothing online that says, ‘verified by’ Visa or MasterCard.’ ” Characteristically, Aung Kyaw Moe agreed to a three-week deadline, downloaded the complex protocol, studied intensely, developed the software, and got it approved by Visa. Only then did his friend suggest that he sell it for 1 baht—in exchange for a recommendation to other Thai banks. Aung Kyaw Moe had no sense at the time how card security would factor into budding e-commerce, but the bargain worked. Today almost every Thai bank has 2C2P’s software. Singapore’s UOB bank, which acquired Bank of Asia, uses it throughout its regional network.
A Thai Paypal
He took even a bigger risk in 2004 when, along with another Thai friend, he decided to create PaySbuy, a domestic clone of PayPal, the US-founded payment systems that operates like a virtual bank sitting sole-
ly on the internet. PayPal at the time was illegal in Thailand and so, technically, was PaySbuy but Thai small- and medium-sized companies and their customers were looking for more efficient ways to transfer money. Within a few years, PaySbuy had 100,000 customers and staff from the Bank of Thailand were asking for help drafting an e-money license law based on PaySbuy’s business model. In 2007, the pair sold PaySbuy to Telenor’s mobile phone service in Thailand in 2007 for 200 million baht (US$6 million).
Yet Aung Kyaw Moe stresses that the road to success was a long hard slog: “In 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 ... I don’t even want to think of those years.” Often he slept overnight in the office. He faced constant rejection from possible customers. Some job candidates walked off interviews when they saw his first office was only 20-square meters. His wife’s jewelry was pawned
“multiple times” to make monthly salary payments.
Deciding in 2006 he needed to learn more about management and finance, he was accepted in by Thailand’s most-respected English-language MBA school, Chulalongkorn University’s Sasin Institute, which is partnered with the graduate business school of Northwestern University in the United States. A US professor at Sasin encouraged him to think beyond Thailand and to set up an office in Singapore. The professor also coached him on how to apply for a Singaporean government startup grant and how to make personal presentations to potential investors. Representing Singapore in Beijing, he even won an international competition with the three-minute presentation pitch.
By 2010, 2C2P had enough traction and highly satisfied customers that investors were seeking it out. Aung Kyaw Moe accepted $1 million from Singapore-based venture fund Digital Media Partners (DMP). Dmity Levit, DMP general partner, says that he was on the lookout for ambitious regional companies involved in electronic payments with reach into telecoms, banks and retail and an understanding of global actors (like Visa and MasterCard), country-level (like regulators and banks) and local (like consumer habits) shaping it all: “It was Aung’s ability to keep a clear view of industry dynamics at multiple levels that closed the deal. It is very rare in this space that the entrepreneur doesn’t over-focus on one opportunity. The mind of a chess player is necessary and Aung happens to be one.” (In fact, Aung is Honorary Secretary of the Myanmar Chess Federation and was a member of the Myanmar team that competed at the 2012 Chess Olympiad in Istanbul).
New finance options
In its dozen years of operation, 2C2P has gradually shifted its customer base from being a primarily a supplier of services to banks to one that services companies. The third front in the coming years be servicing people that don’t have a bank accounts or that seek more efficient ways to transfer money that sidestep the traditional banking system. Myanmar isn’t the only Southeast Asian country where the vast majority of the population doesn’t have a bank account. Some of the unbanked are already buying items online and paying cash on delivery to their homes or a nearby shop. Perhaps soon many will make purchases using virtual “wallets” stored on their mobile phones, as many Filipinos already do. Or they may be using a virtual international currency like Bitcoin.
Governments in the region often hold off writing laws regulating the new payment systems because bureaucrats don’t understand the technology or trends, Aung Kyaw Moe said, but he thinks the innovations will precede laws regulating them.
Rather like his experience with PaySbuy, he points out that, about a decade ago, most governments in and their telecom companies considered Skype and other forms of VoIP (or phone calls via the internet) outright illegal. “They finally became mainstream regardless of governments around the world trying so hard to ban VoIP. Today everyone uses it. AirBnb and Uber are similar examples.”
“Today I’m glad that I didn’t get six distinctions because I was forced to look at other alternatives and I committed one hundred percent,” Aung Kyaw Moe says. “I defied my ‘destiny’. I defined my destiny.”
Aung Kyaw Moe, centre back, with some of his 2C2P team. Photo: Facebook
2C2P is helping revolutionize payments. Photo: Mizzima
Aung Kyaw Moe, Group CEO of 2C2P. Photo: Mayco