Ruben Luong speaks with local Tech in Asia editor Anh-Minh Do on meditating on mountains, the perks of blogging, how technology can solve Vietnam’s problems and why Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is his personal hero. Photo by Vinh Dao.
What have you noticed the most about Vietnam’s tech scene?
I’ve been in the startup ecosystem, tech ecosystem, for maybe five years. In 2006, when I first came to Vietnam, it was three million people online and now it’s 37, maybe 40 million people online. It’s a dramatic change and it’s amplified things.
What were you doing before?
I lived for about a year-and-half in a meditation center in the mountains near Fresno and Northern California. I liked the extra questions it gave me rather than actual answers.
How did you decide to be a tech blogger?
I’ve been blogging since like Geocities. I got into it here because Malaysia had this bloggers’ conference funded by one of their Ministry of Communications or something, so they Google-searched something like ‘Vietnam blog’ and I came up as one of the top blogs here. At the time I was just blogging personally.
So they invited me to come to Malaysia as a speaker. I got a free ticket, five-star hotel and I shook the hand of the former and current prime minister of Malaysia. And I got a new Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Ever since then I was in the blogger Southeast Asia circuit. I just got lucky. It was ironic because I’m Vietnamese-American. I’m not even Vietnamese and I was representing Vietnam in the blogosphere.
Are there other advantages to being a tech blogger?
I kind of know everybody now. I am one degree of separation from every founder in the ecosystem and most of the top people. When I first arrived at Tech in Asia I spent three or four months meeting hundreds of people, about 15 people a week, just sitting down with them for coffee, learning about their story.
Is there anything special you’ve learned from meeting so many people?
When you talk more, people reveal more. I just met the author of The Spy Who Loved Us and he talks about Pham Xuan An the spy and how An would just talk and that’s how he got information. I heard that and I thought that was true. Sometimes when I ask questions of people they wouldn’t tell me anything but then when I started to reveal information about what I knew they started to tell me stuff.
How else do you stay connected?
I’m working on BarCamp, DesignCamp and agriculture hackathon, which is I guess the biggest project. I lived in An Giang for about three-and-a-half years before I moved to the city so I have a deep connection to agriculture. We’re working hard on how to innovate agriculture in Vietnam.
Hackathon is usually a 24- to 72-hour period in which people can create a new product in a short amount of time. They bring teams together that day. Whoever has the best project out of that event will get $1,000 or even $1 million for sales force hackathons.
The whole point of agriculture hackathon is to create new innovations that address real problems in agriculture using technology. For example, farmers don’t know what to plant, so how can technology solve that? Retailers don’t know what farmers have planted, so how do you solve that? Farmers don’t know what the pricing is, so how do you solve that?
In the US, it seems like Silicon Valley is where everyone wants to be right now. Can you compare Vietnam’s tech scene to the Valley?
It’s very relationship-based here. The Valley is also very relationship-based but here relationships will make or break you. Sometimes the Valley, if your product is good, you can still survive. Your users will love you.
In Vietnam, VNG [formerly VinaGame] and all these first generation companies have given birth to a lot of managers who have gone to become CEOs of their own companies. There’s a strong ecosystem, nothing compared to the Valley. The Valley is deeply incestuous, whereas not that much in Vietnam.
Many local start-ups are popping up. What do you believe is their main challenge?
Culturally, across Asia but especially in Vietnam, there’s the issue of losing face. So that produces a lot of companies that are ‘walking zombie’ companies. They don’t scale. They don’t grow big, but they don’t die. That is a way to save face. Most founders will not admit to this. They’ll never go big partly because they never dream big and that is a symptom across Asia and Vietnam as well. There aren’t many that are like I want to be the next Uber or something like that. That is generally what I see in the market.
What developments do you expect to see in the next year?
I anticipate that next year we will start to see more startups targeting specific industries that are not consumer necessarily. Gaming is very hard and time intensive. Ecommerce is money intensive and the margins are very low. In both of them there’s not that much innovation in Vietnam. I think that maybe startups will fail in that and they’ll look into other industries ideally. There was a construction startup that got funding recently. There’s also Ticketbox, which is an events startup. These are different industries that need help. I think it makes sense startups are entering these industries because they have real problems technology can solve.
You’ll definitely have lots to blog about.
I love technology and I love sci-fi. Technology is hope, you know? If I die tomorrow, I can’t see what we’re going to pioneer next. I’m from the Valley so I bought into the Valley dream a little bit so I look at Elon Musk and Steve Jobs like heroes. They changed the world. But actually I don’t like the whole changing-the-world thing. It’s a whole hokey, hipster thing the Valley has going on, but it’s something I’ve been contemplating a lot recently, especially when you look at climate change and things like that. To me Elon Musk is the new hero of the Valley and doing everything good for the planet. Ideally that’s how startups everywhere will end up.