Elijah Ferrian connects with a wide spectrum of voices within the startup economy in Vietnam, a country that is barreling toward a favourably projected future. Photos by Vinh Dao.
When Ho Chi Minh City authorities decided to invest VND1 trillion (US$44,830,000) to support the growth of entrepreneurship in the country last month, it helped cement evidence of what everyone has been seemingly racing into Vietnam’s economic capital to capture: a booming entrepreneurial environment encouraging massive growth potential across several industries.
Eddie Thai is no stranger to this story. The well-known startup maven is helping to lead the charge of investment into early-stage, technology-based startups in Vietnam with his shared $10 million venture fund, ‘500 Startups’.
“There’s wide agreement that promoting tech startups with strategic value will grow hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Thai chirps over our Skype call. “It will help improve the competitiveness of existing companies, and improve tax government revenue. It’s going to take time, but Vietnam now is in a very exciting time in the startup scene. More are starting than ever before, the founder quality is getting better, and the technical aspects are getting better.
Maths, Science, and Hustle
Vietnam, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, has some of the most effective talent in the world. According to an August article in The Economist, Vietnamese 15-year-olds beat both America and the United Kingdom in maths and science according to global rankings.
Vietnamese students are generally exposed to these subjects at a younger age than their Western counterparts, there’s a premium on studying technology related fields once advancing to higher education, and according to the Vietnam Information and Communication Technology White Book, there are well over 100,000 software developers and over 75,000 digital content producers currently in the Vietnamese IT industry, with over 40,000 new graduates from IT-related programmes each year. That’s not including the estimated 100,000 Vietnamese studying abroad in their respective programmes.
There’s an ‘x-factor’ here, though: hustle.
“Vietnam is used to an environment of limited resources. Right down to the street food stall, [or] the tailor,” Thai says. “There’s software developers graduating, making $250 a month, that are improving that number to $1,000 or $3,000 a month, faster than the population here has ever been able to.”
Moreover, there are more opportunities to work in Vietnam than ever. With the technological boom of the last decade, young people can start their own companies from their cell phones and laptops. Restaurants, delivery services, digital marketing firms, fitness gyms, web development startups – the list is virtually endless. The difference between those young American or British university grads, and the ones here in Vietnam, is the kids here are just going for it. They are working long hours, multiple jobs, providing for family, developing pet projects, and generally just outworking most everyone they are competing with. It’s not just locals that notice this, either.
Barbara Ximenez, Spanish co-founder of Shutta, a photo-from-video application based in Saigon, explains one of the primary reasons her British business partner, James Shimell, agreed on Vietnam as the perfect base to grow their company: “We had been here a couple of times on visits. One thing was obvious: how young the population is. It’s [currently] in a golden age for development. Over half of the working-age people are in that [25 to 35 years-old] range. They’re highly educated and incredibly ambitious. Our candidates always have a project on the go. One, two, three jobs and a personal project.”
She goes on to say that at this point, when they interview, they only hire people that are maintaining side projects in addition to a heavy workload. It’s become normal for an overachiever to be the standard employee hired.
“Vietnam inspired Shutta in the first place,” Shimell adds. “Vietnamese culture made me want to really start pushing on my own projects on top of my job.”
It’s not exactly been top secret that the startup market burgeoning out of the ‘Jewel of Southeast Asia’ has been brewing for years, but it’s not just the technology industry that is seeing unprecedented growth.
From Local to Foreign – Food to Fitness
“Saigon is ‘new’. Best of all, people in Vietnam love trying new things. It’s part of the culture here.” Tran Danh, owner of the Quan Bui restaurant brand, sips a glass of wine in between answering calls, my questions, and managing the restaurant operating around us.
He just opened his fifth restaurant in the fast-growing, ever-hip Thao Dien neighbourhood across the river in District 2. His establishments focus on Vietnamese cuisine, yet cater to both the foreign and local market. His brand has found a sweet spot. Enticing Saigon-lifers to bounce district-to-district to dine on family favourites, and luring eager travellers from across the globe to sample a wide array of Vietnamese cuisine in comfy, well designed spaces based in prime real estate.
“They say 50 restaurants open every day in Saigon, and in another 10 years street food probably won’t be as popular as it is now,” Danh says. “I would say Saigon is booming, yet it is still cheaper than other parts of Southeast Asia. A lot more people are investing in Vietnam, and it’s really becoming an international city. Money talks in Vietnam, and in restaurants it’s about good products. A lot of my competition have good ideas specifically adapted to expats. The thing is, I know local people. Expats will leave. Vietnamese don’t leave.”
Danh started his restaurants after a successful career in marketing, and because of this he knows people from all over the world. He credits a lot of the rapid growth in various industries here with the younger generations travelling and studying abroad, and bringing home trends and fashion gleaned from all over Europe, Australia and America.
There’s another, wholly different industry that is dealing with the same kind of balancing act of attracting locals and expats, and introducing new trends to an emerging market with no set guidelines, because it’s never been attempted before.
Matthew Heller is the operations manager of Saigon Sports Club. It’s a martial arts and fitness gym located on Huynh Tan Phat in District 7, and it’s blowing up.
“It’s an all-in-one stop for everything active,” he says. “We serve healthy, clean food here. We are at the forefront of so many new fitness trends. You can go to other gyms, but you won’t be able swing on monkey bars, train CrossFit, kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, yoga, swim and catch the latest mixed martial arts fights in a chill lounge with a ton of TVs. We are creating somewhere you can come and do everything you could possibly want, and help to build a community.”
Heller previously lived in Malaysia, where he worked as a strength and conditioning instructor previous to moving to Saigon to take on his current position, where he still trains clients as well as managing the business side of things at SSC.
“I see the direction of this place moving toward more and more westernisation, and people are taking advantage of the opportunities that come with that,” Heller explains. “The difference here compared to New York, where I’m from, is the amount of investment needed there to compete, compared to here, is huge. There are so many things in the West that haven’t hit here yet, and nobody is going to be able to make a facility like the one we have here, in the US.”
While most everyone seems to have a ‘sky’s the limit’ outlook on the potential of Vietnamese growth across so many industries, there are massive education and training programmes that must be put into practice before any of these entrepreneur-positive projections can come to fruition.
“Growth is Never by Mere Chance…”
While it may be easy to forget while in a sprawling metropolis filled with shiny new boutiques, restaurants, and skyscrapers, Vietnam is still very much a developing nation. Although it has been defined by the World Bank as “a development success story, [transforming] from one of the poorest in the world, to lower middle income status within a quarter of a century,” there is a ton of work to be done if expectations are to be met, and especially within a context that sits well with the local population.
Brian Cotter, an Innovation Specialist for UNICEF, and owner of soon-to-be released podcast startup Growth Tigers, is one of the people sowing the seeds for a still-impoverished youth class to rise up to the occasion of the projected economic growth slated for Vietnam.
“For UNICEF,” Cotter explains, “I work in the innovation unit, which is a specialty unit that focusses on emerging opportunities for us to make an impact on children’s lives globally. We look at ways of how to utilise emerging tech to create the best possibilities of finding ways to scale [technology] to the people that need it most. In Vietnam I focus on the application of things like Chatbox, Viber, Twitter, SMS, et cetera, to help improve citizen feedback, and improve the flow of info from rural areas to central databases.
“The second part of what I do is focussed on youth participation – leadership of young people in creating the change they want to see in their community. In Vietnam it looks like a social entrepreneurship program. We take the basics of entrepreneurship and teach them to those that have been traditionally excluded.”
Cotter helps put teams of young minds through a startup process. The programme is called UPSHIFT. It teaches teams of kids to create a sustainable project with a focus on equity and social impact, making sure that it applies to those most in need, and then to follow it all the way to incubation, and finally a pitch to a non-profit fund.
“One of the key components is we treat [the kids] as entrepreneurs, They have to show us that their visions have roots in reality. If they make an assumption, we teach them to validate it with data and information to prove its viability. One of our teams, led by a 16-year-old high school student, built a curriculum to transfer knowledge as to why you should wear a mask while driving, and how to take care of the respiratory system, all supported by a medical professional.”
Cotter’s podcast is focussed on entrepreneurship in Vietnam, and has an awesome format: Khoi Nghiep va Ca Phe, or ‘ Startup and Coffee’. He meets with movers and shakers in the startup community, publishes online the location of where it will be held, records a conversation with them over coffee, and welcomes people to show up to participate in the discussion.
The Globe’s Entrepreneurship Incubator
“Time is the main factor. We can’t jump from zero to one.” Eddie Thai closes our conversation. “It’s going to take founder education, and investor education as well. A lot of the people that have money in Vietnam made it through traditional business. They can see the economics of traditional businesses, but it’s difficult for them to turn around and assess tech companies. It’s very hard to determine why they should invest. Without the understanding of the importance for diversification, the wealthier people locally choose to invest in lower risk, familiar ventures. But if you do it right, it can be quite risk-mitigated.”
If projections for the coming years stay true, the entrepreneurial spirit of Vietnam seems to be gearing up for prime time. With estimates of approximately 1,000 new startups emerging each year, the hand-crafted gem of Southeast Asia rising once again has the whole world captivated.
Brian Cotter’s startup-centric, conversation-driven new podcast Growth Tigers will start picking up in October. Be sure to check out the website (growthtigers.com/podcast) in order to find out where the next conversation takes place.
James and Barbara want you to ask yourself how often have you come across the problem of trying to shoot the perfect moment, yet end up missing it by a fraction of a second? Shutta removes the need to decide between shooting video or taking photos, allowing you to have your visual cake and eat it. Shutta allows you to pull stills from any video taken with or stored on your iPhone –footage synced from a GoPro or drone camera can also be accessed – and save your favourite moments as photos without losing resolution. shutta.co
Started by two Vietnamese women, Van Dinh Hong Vu and Ngo Thuy Ngoc Tu, winners of SXSWedu 2016 Startup Launch competition, ELSA Speak is the world’s smartest English Language Speech Assistant. ELSA is an artificial intelligence coach who will help you perfect your English pronunciation, eventually developing your language skills to a native level. elsanow.io