Burmese entrepreneur Aung Kyaw Moe, founder and CEO of online payments company 2C2P, fought an uphill battle to be taken seriously by Thailand’s finance sector when he first unveiled his payments security system in 2003. Thirteen years later, 2C2P is established in nine countries throughout Southeast Asia and handles over two billion US dollars per annum in business to business transactions. InDepth caught up with the 41-year-old father of two at his office in central Bangkok to trace his unlikely rise to success and discover his ambition to build an international standard school for the less privileged in Myanmar.

Every business starts with an idea, but how do you turn your product or service into a viable business? Research is key: finding out who your potential customers are and whether there is a genuine demand for what you’re offering. Equally important is a sense of steely determination and a ‘never say die’ attitude, personality traits that the affable Aung Kyaw Moe has in abundance. “When I arrived in Bangkok (1999) I had nothing; my visa application for the UK had been rejected and I had no business contacts or money. But my adrenaline level was running high and I was determined to survive,” he says.

Making the right moves

As the son of civil servants growing up in Yangon, Aung developed a lifelong passion for chess from the age of 12. “Chess helped me to concentrate and focus”, he says. “I would study the chess manuals and memorize the games of the grand masters”. Success in local tournaments was reflected in his academic achievements. After completing years one and two of a UK degree syllabus at Yangon’s KMD college he was offered a position teaching computers at its sister campus in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The experience left a strong impact on Aung. “Back then (98 – 99) there were guns everywhere in Phnom Penh. I remember my students driving to college with AK47’s on the back seat,” he laughs, “when the police stopped them, my students, who were mostly rich kids, didn’t show them their license, they showed them their guns.”

After a year and a half in Cambodia’s ‘wild frontier’ Aung travelled west to the Thai capital, Bangkok. His plan was to complete the third year of his degree in England, but his hopes were crushed when his UK visa application was refused.

Alone and low on funds, did he consider returning home to Yangon? “No, not once. After the visa rejection I became more determined than ever to survive.”

Using the IT skills he’d gained in Yangon he did what many a Burmese traveler has done before him: began knocking on doors and looking for opportunities wherever they arose. 

After an anxious few weeks Aung secured work with Juris Asia, a French IT company that specialised in developing search engines for international companies interested in investing in Thailand. It was here he met his soon to be Thai wife, Aun, a lawyer who translated legal documents from Thai into English. In Aung’s opinion Juris Asia’s business plan, “was a good idea, but it was too early”. Online systems of payment were still in their infancy in the early 2000’s and the company was struggling to survive.  

Rather than go down with a sinking ship Aung made the bold decision to start his own company, SinaptIQ. “It was April 2003” he says, “I was now married with a new born son, he was my motivation to go it alone and make my business successful”. 

Aung’s breakthrough came when he designed a payment security system that would protect Visa card information in a bank’s DMZ zone. “It took a long time to sell,” he says. “Nobody took me seriously, I was only 26, Burmese and presenting myself as the CEO of a company I’d just set up,” he recalls. “A lot of the bankers laughed at me as they showed me the door”. 

Eventually the Bank of Asia agreed to give it a trial run, buying it for the measly fee of one Thai Baht. When the security system was proven to be effective all the bank’s who’d ejected the product made a dramatic u-turn, buying into the security system for fees considerably higher than one Thai Baht.

Was he angry? “No, there was no time for anger, my focus was on getting good tuition for my son. Every time I got pushed back I would close my eyes, see his face and try harder”.

The runaway success of the security system may well have left more than a few of Bangkok’s finance executives red faced and humbled.

From technologist to businessman

The arrival of Aung’s daughter in 2006 coincided with his enrolment in an EMBA program at Sasin, Bangkok’s Chulalangkorn University’s well respected business school. The move proved to be a turning point for the technologist. “Before going to Sasin I was ridiculously bad at the business side of things. I had no people skills and needed to speak the language of investors and the business community”. By his own admission he also became, “more mature and less aggressive”. 

While attending Sasin a visiting professor named Douglas Abrams encouraged him to move the company’s headquarters to Singapore and to think beyond Thailand. In 2008 2C2P was established and registered in Singapore. “People often think of PayPal when 2C2P is talked about”, says Aung. “The big difference is we only deal with business to business transactions, not the private customer. It’s very simple, when a business buys something online we settle the payments and deposit the money to the seller’s account, taking a cut from each transaction”.

The following years have seen the exponential rise of 2C2P in its bid to become the dominant online business to business payments system for Southeast Asia: retail conglomerates, airlines, hotels and just about any industry that trades online fall under the potential scope of 2C2P. 

So what next, world domination? “Definitely not. Around the world in every region they have their own established systems for online payments, except in our region. In Southeast Asia the pay and processing landscape is still developing. We are still solving problems and aim to be the number one pay processor in Southeast Asia”. 

Aung insists there’s plenty of cause for optimism, “The 10 countries of Southeast Asia comprise a huge and growing market. There are 600 million people in this region and overall the economy is growing at 3 to 4%. In Europe it’s growing at 1%, in the US, South America and Africa below 1%. Even China and India are slowing down right now”, he says before adding, “as we speak we’re processing between 300 to 500 transactions per minute, money is moving and our revenue has been doubling year on year”.

Future plans

It’s all a far cry from when the teenage Aung was working night shifts as a butler in Yangon’s colonial Strand Hotel to pay his way through college. “Every time I delivered a lobster it was US$35”, Aung recalls. “I didn’t know how the guy I was serving could pay for it. At the time my salary was US$7 a month, so for me I was scared of dropping the plate”. Was he angry at the wealth disparity? “No, I knew exactly how I felt, not anger but puzzlement, I really wanted to understand how this rich European guy staying in a room for US$300 a night and ordering lobster could afford it.” 

Today, Aung understands well both the nature of wealth creation and wealth disparity. He’s also passionate that everyone should get an equal chance to prove their abilities, with this his thoughts return to Myanmar.

“When I meet successful businessmen from Asia they always ask which (expensive) international school did I attended? When I tell them I didn’t, I went to a normal state school in Yangon they act surprised,” he says. 

“My dream is to open an international standard school in Myanmar, where kids from modest backgrounds get the same level of education as kids who go to expensive schools,” he says. “I want to prove that these kids can be just as successful as the wealthy if they’re given an equal chance. I’ll fund it myself, bringing in foreign teachers and creating the best education standards.”

More than a pipe dream, Aung plans to begin this project in five years or so, around the same time he predicts 2C2P will become the dominant online payment system throughout Southeast Asia.

The End Game

In his office Aung lays out a hand crafted teak-wood Burmese chess set and talks of how the theories of chess have helped him in his life as an entrepreneur, “Sometimes you have to move a few paces back to move forward, other times you sacrifice the pawn to get to the king.” He prefers to play the black pieces and admits to sympathy for the bad guys and the underdogs, the types of characters he plainly wants to reach out to and help. 

Setting out as an underdog himself, what would be his advice for those who’d also like to emerge from behind the chain of pawns and strike it big?

“Work hard, think big, be humble.”

Perhaps that’ll be the motto for his future school!

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