As her 40th birthday approached, Tin Zar Oo felt it was time for a change of pace. Having established a successful career as a proofreader in a top newspaper in Myanmar, she craved the challenge of running a business of her own. With her husband on-board, Tin Zar took brave steps away from the security of her job, and set up as an entrepreneur.
Taking its name from the postal code of her district, 14/Silk Screen Printing opened for business in 2017. While t-shirts are undoubtedly the biggest seller, 14/Silk produces a full range of custom promotional items, including clocks, mugs and keychains.
As a small business, 14/Silk only has two permanent staff: Tin Zar and her husband, supported by subcontractors for cutting and stitching. Their commitment to maintaining high quality products has made it hard for them to expand their business. “All too often, staff we have taken the time to train decide they want to go off and start their own businesses!” Tin Zar laughs.
Less than 35% of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Myanmar are owned by women, and they still face gender-related barriers. Men often perceive women as weak: if conflicts arise between a male customer and a female business owner, it can be tough to resolve. At 14/Silk, it is Tin Zar’s husband who steps forward to handle these situations. But Tin Zar always looks for the silver lining: as a woman, customers see her as more approachable and flexible. They find her easy to talk to and are more likely to trust her with their business.
Self-teaching technology to achieve success
The silk-screen printing industry has embraced technological advances, and digital tech is now an inextricable part of the design process. With basic computer skills from her days working with the newspaper, Tin Zar was determined to get up to speed. She immersed herself in books and videos about the programs she needed to make her business a success. From creating designs and watermarks, to editing and touching up photos, Tin Zar now relies on a host of software in her day-to-day work.
Social media also plays a big part in marketing and making contact with their customers. 14/Silk has two Facebook pages, one specifically for t-shirt orders and the other for general orders. They also partner with other Facebook pages to advertise their services. Around a third of their orders come through these pages, and their customers are more active on Facebook messenger than on phone calls. Viber has also proved useful for sending high-resolution images to customers.
Other types of social media have not been as effective for 14/Silk. They tried promoting their business through Instagram, but found it didn’t bring them new customers. They would like to sell through a website in the future, but need to develop more unique designs first. Much of their work involves custom logos or images sourced by their customers, which are copyright-protected. Setting up their own website would involve learning a new set of skills and incur additional financial costs for its maintenance. Tin Zar is hesitant to invest too heavily in this area, and is looking at e-commerce platforms such Myanmar’s rgo47 and shop.com as future outlets.
E-payment a catalyst for healthy cash-flows
The biggest challenge facing women entrepreneurs in Myanmar is access to start-up finances. For Tin Zar, the idea of borrowing money to finance 14/Silk was too risky. “There are a lot of people offering online loans, but I can’t bring myself to trust it because of fraud. Anyway, having a loan is a burden!” she says. Instead, Tin Zar’s strategy was first to start small and set up 14/Silk using a limited amount of capital from personal savings. Second, understood early on the importance of a healthy cash flow. In order to achieve that, Tin Zar requests down payments before processing orders. In Myanmar, e-payment solutions such as Wave Money and KBZ Money are now readily available for consumers to transfer money in a fast, convenient and safe way.
The economic effects of the pandemic were certainly felt by 14/Silk, which had to close for two months during the COVID-19 lockdown. But the business is open again and, with an election on the horizon, finds itself busy with orders for promotional materials once more.
Tin Zar believes mentoring and peer-to-peer support is key for new businesses. When setting up 14/Silk, she found invaluable support in online social media groups for printer-designers. She remembers asking questions all the time, on issues from printer to colour blends. Three years later, Tin Zar is still an active part of these forums, but in a different role. Now, she positions herself as a contributing member to help other entrepreneurs in earlier stages of their business.
Tin Zar’s advice to other women entrepreneurs is to just start, however small. “Starting your own business is important. Once you’ve made a start, you’ll find a way to overcome the challenges that turn up. But having the courage to take that first step is the key.”
- International Labor Organization: National Assessment of Women ‘s Entrepreneurship Development in Myanmar 2020.