Overhauling A Business Model To Help Women Entrepreneurs In Myanmar And Beyond

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Matt Wallace has changed his company a lot over the past ten years.

In 2012, while living in Myanmar, he set out to teach young women entrepreneurial skills through classroom instruction. Then, when he realized he was going about it the wrong way, he overhauled his delivery model to emphasize coaching. A few years later, after forming a separate company, ONOW, he determined that he needed more approaches for generating revenue. So he joined a cohort run by the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and refined his business model. Then the pandemic hit and he figured out how to expand his platform to reach more women remotely.

The result of all those changes: The company has supported more than 10,000 businesses and, according to Wallace, more than doubled the earnings of many of the entrepreneurs he’s served.

Wallace is now in the process of raising $650,000 to make it easier to add multiple nonprofit partners at a time to his technology platform, “to support our growth going forward,” he says. In October, he took part in the Miller Center’s In-Residence program, where he focused on, among other goals, getting ready to make investment pitches. Then that same week, he attended SOCAP and took part in a pitch session.

From Classroom to Coaches

Wallace moved to Myanmar in 2008 to teach English. (He didn’t like it). But as he learned about the plight of many poor women in the country, he decided he needed to find a way to give them more economic options. Starting their own businesses, he felt, was one answer. In 2012, he formed a consulting firm to work with international companies trying to enter the newly opened up country, with a subsidiary focused on teaching entrepreneurship to women. Four years later, he turned the unit into ONOW.

In 2012, the focus was on traditional classroom-based programs—15 students and one instructor. But early on Wallace realized that model wasn’t working. For one thing, it didn’t take into account the women’s circumstances. That is, classes took place in the center of Yangon, a major metropolis with about 7 million people, while most of the entrepreneurs lived on the outskirts of the city, working in factories. That meant they simply didn’t have the time or ability to travel to the city’s center and attend classes five days a week. Wallace had to change things up. “We wouldn’t make any progress if we didn’t relocate and change the model entirely,” he says.

But if Wallace was going to switch to working for just a few hours each weekend, closer to where students lived, he needed a more hands-on approach. He decided to team up with local organizations, like Buddhist monasteries and township offices, to host program activities. And he started sending coaches out to those areas to work with women as they launched their businesses, mostly small retail enterprises. “People didn’t need to come into our headquarters. We could go to them,” he says. “We turned our model upside down.”

There was still another problem: time. Coaches only met once a weekend with the women, who spent their weeks at their full-time day jobs. It wasn’t enough time to provide the financial literacy and business skills the students needed, however. At the same time, almost all the women had cell phones. “Many women move from villages to work in factories. And the first thing they buy with their first paycheck is a phone,” says Wallace. It was also a time when the country was adopting new technology at a fast rate.

Ramping Up a Tech Platform

So, by necessity, Wallace turned to technology, developing chatbots the women could access from their phones during the week to gain more foundational knowledge. That meant they could devote most of their weekend coaching sessions focusing on developing their business. In 2016, with that strategy firmly set, Wallace turned ONOW into a separate company.

Initially, the technology included what Wallace calls an “engagement portal” through which entrepreneurs could deliver information about their business to their coaches via software the company also developed in-house. Wallace says that the system also has the benefit of allowing coaches to spend more time advising the entrepreneurs, instead of addressing administrative and other paperwork duties. When the pandemic hit, the company expanded the system to allow coaches to work directly with entrepreneurs remotely.

The change ended up being fortuitous, because it allowed coaches to work with many more women. Especially because travelling is often difficult and time-consuming, coaches could only meet with two or three entrepreneurs a day. Now that number is much higher than the 300 businesses the company supported in 2019. And about 180,000 entrepreneurs use the platform without making use of coaching services. (Entrepreneurs meet with their advisees anywhere from every week to once a month, usually for about six months).

Partnerships and Revenue Sources

Over the past year or so, ONOW has expanded to Cambodia, the U.S. and Thailand. In the U.S. , a division of the nonprofit International Literacy and Development (ILAD), which works with refugees in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, delivers the coaching while using the company’s technology.

Such partnerships are an important source of business for ONOW. “The key for incubators is to have three or four different revenue streams,” says Wallace. With that in mind, in 2019, he worked with the Miller Center through its program focused on enterprises supporting refugees, migrants and human trafficking survivors to figure out how to create sources of business, in addition to fees from entrepreneurs for using the service.

Now, most of his revenues come from arrangements with nonprofit partners. He expects that recurring revenues from subscriptions paid by organizations to use the company’s technology will be more than half of revenues by next year.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Wallace has faced was the military coup in 2021. “The banking system shut down. It was difficult to pay the team. The foundation of everything was crumbling,” he says. “For about two weeks, I wasn’t sure we would make it.” Wallace was able to steer the company through, but still has to deal with a devalued currency and high inflation.

Now Wallace is aiming to raise money to expand his tech platform, “to support our growth going forward,” he says.

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