Seeing blue: Telenor Myanmar’s sales and distribution network built to last

Joslin Myrthong, Telenor Myanmar’s head of Sales & Distribution, tells us how he and his team have built a workforce of thousands to bring mobile connectivity to millions. It’s been the fastest and largest national network rollout in the world’s history.

Written: Sep 2015

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Five hundred and fifty Telenor Myanmar employees pay respects at the Shwedagon Pagoda in central Yangon as part of the first anniversary of being in business in booming Myanmar.
Five hundred and fifty Telenor Myanmar employees pay respects at the Shwedagon Pagoda in central Yangon as part of the first anniversary of being in business in booming Myanmar.

Nowhere on the planet has experienced a social, technological and economic evolution on par with that of Myanmar in the last four years. To sustain such change, international investment, local entrepreneurship and affordable, unobstructed access to the rest of the world are necessities, among others. Telenor is in the business of bringing Myanmar this third staple, but it’s not easy. To connect millions of people to the world via a mobile network that only a year ago did not exist, one has to approach things a bit differently. The man charged with finding a way to distribute SIM cards to millions in the span of a year, Joslin Myrthong, tells us his story:

Starting with nothing

Less than five years ago, as I was heading the distribution team for Uninor in India (now Telenor India), Telenor Group came to me with a proposition: move to Myanmar, draw on lessons learned setting up networks in India and Bangladesh, become part of a new Telenor Myanmar startup team and build a national sales and distribution network.

The challenge: I would begin with nothing.

At the time Telenor was in the running for an operating license to become one of the first private mobile service providers in the country. A half-century long military dictatorship had ended just months earlier, and Myanmar lacked any sort of private economy, a professional talent pool, and had only sparse and basic technological and physical infrastructure.

Without any guarantee that we would be awarded the right to operate (91 other operators were bidding for two licenses in Myanmar), we went in to examine this place. It was untouched by what we know as 21st century modernity and I needed to begin mapping out the basics in business: how we would create a working and reliable distributor-supplier ecosystem.

Josllin and teammates during one of their many market engagement activities. Visits to distributors and shop owners are conducted regularly to support them in driving their business forward.
Joslin and teammates during one of their many market engagement activities. Visits to distributors and shop owners are conducted regularly to support them in driving their business forward.

When I arrived in February 2013, I noticed that this was only a supply-driven market. There was a convoluted, multi-layered supplier system – for all industries – and it was totally driven by wholesale. All of the nation’s commerce was controlled by a handful of distributors that everyone depended on, for better or worse. There were no standard prices, no quality control.

People could sell whatever they wanted at whatever price they wanted.

Skill sets were also limited. There were few technical or professional competences at the time. Add to that the reality of how businesses operated in the economy. There were no standard ways of working, employer practices, basic organizational structures, transparency, earnings reporting, servicing… We had work to do.

Built to last

In the immediate term, we had to piece together a national distribution model. We could have gone with the big distributors – they were really the only players in the market. We could’ve divided the country into five or six regions and began building. This wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the first few months, but our experience from South Asia taught us that this might not be the best idea long-term.

We had to think in terms of sustainability and ‘cluster distribution models’ were the way to do this. This is how we did it:

We mapped out the entire market – the country of Myanmar – and divided it into 23 clusters. Where we drew these lines was based on population density, in terms of sales potential and how far people would be from potential sales points. From these 23, we cut the map up even more finely and ended up with 330 mini-clusters – based on existing townships. With clusters this granular, we could go grassroots with distributors. We just had to find them. Or create our own.

Cluster sales executives visit retailers at least once every alternate day to help them stock up, address concerns, or even to just have a cup of Myanmar tea.
Cluster sales executives visit retailers at least once every alternate day to help them stock up, address concerns, or even to just have a cup of Myanmar tea.

Seventy-one versus five

In a country dominated by just five or six big distributors, we found 71 underdogs during our months of on-ground sourcing and pre-launch preparation. Seventy-one distributors was how many we launched with.

Before us, they didn’t really exist as distributors. What we actually did was look for wholesalers who knew about distribution. We took their people and then trained them to be distributors on their own. Today, they’re bonafide Telenor distributors – with training programs for future employees of their own, employment structures, and strict health and safety standards.

The full Telenor Myanmar Sales & Distribution team that was responsible for the largest, fastest national mobile network distribution rollout the world has seen.
The full Telenor Myanmar Sales & Distribution team that was responsible for the largest, fastest national mobile network distribution rollout the world has seen.

Make them see blue

It’s important to us that our guys are always close to their customers and to their suppliers. The efficiency, reliability and quality of our network relies on their everyday contact with their communities, on what they know is happening on the streets, in the field. Today, we have 114 distribution companies and we will continue to scale up, keeping everything extremely local.

Keep that in mind when I say that our strategy for distribution is simple and three-fold. It’s to be everywhere. Anywhere there is a Telenor network signal, there should be a Telenor product available. We also want to be the recommended point of sale in the country. Our people across our 330 mini-clusters need to be educated, highly competent sales people. And lastly, people should see blue everywhere.

It's all about the blue! Visibility is key in a mass market environment like Myanmar, with a dizzying array of shops and brands on every street.
Visibility is key in a mass market environment like Myanmar, with a dizzying array of shops and brands on every street.

There’s no stopping

Across Myanmar, we have established 50,000 points of sale, or shops, where people see our Telenor blue – all within the span of one year. We aren’t stopping. Our people are out in the market now – continuing to educate and train our points of sales people about everything. What is the internet, what are smart phones, what services can one avail one’s self of from such technology, and so on. We tell them: Go out there, touch people’s lives, get feedback directly from the people, dirty your hands. This is what we do. Today we reach 1,000 people. Tomorrow we will reach 1,000 more. This is the kind of scale we’re trying to build in Myanmar.

Yangon partner impact
This woman is running a small general store close to one of our tower sites between Heho and Taungyi, selling everything in small sachets. The telecom business means an impact on her bottom line and her ability to build a better tomorrow for herself and her family.

What’s next?

To continue to go beyond the conventional. Our network of local tea shops as points of SIM card sales was once thought of as groundbreaking and unconventional. Now it’s a staple channel for us. Could other channels prove to be even bigger than our already 50+ thousand network of tea shops and mom-and-pop store sales points? In this country, anything is possible.