Interview with Cong Thang Huynh, Serial Entrepreneur and Business Activist
Last week we sat down with budding serial entrepreneur, Cong Thang Huynh in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to discuss his entrepreneurial ambitions and the business culture in Vietnam. Thang earned a CPE (Certificate of Proficiency in English) from University of California Irvine and a BA in Business and Administration at the University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City. When he isn’t busy developing his five businesses, Thang works to promote Vietnamese entrepreneurship abroad. Representing Vietnamese startups, he presented in front of the Duke of York, Prince Andrew from the United Kingdom last year. He also attended the Startup Weekend ASEAN 2015 where he had the chance to meet United States Secretary of State, John Kerry to discuss the startup culture in South East Asia and how the United States can support innovation throughout the region. He is also an active member of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), United States President Barack Obama’s signature programme aiming to strengthen leadership, development and networking in Southeast Asia.
His current projects include:
- GetSpaces: an online event space booking platform in Vietnam which already features around 200 spaces in Ho Chi Minh City
- Combo Outfit: provides unique gifts for corporate employees and events in Vietnam
- Golden Express: import service from the United States to Vietnam
- Hoang Gia Investment: Property investment in HCMC and Dong Thap
- FabLab – a small-scale workshop offering fabrication space for personal use, intended to inspire youth to test ideas and innovate. FabLab offers coworking space, tools, workshops, networking opportunities and business development services.
Why did you start FabLab?
After years of working with a number of different companies and meeting many people, I noticed that a significant number of youth lacked problem-solving and teamwork skills. They disliked working in groups as they feared having their ideas stolen. I wanted FabLab to be a space where they could freely share their ideas and set up a structure that incentivised youth to develop these skills.
Rote learning and emphasis on theory rather than practical experience is common in Vietnamese public schools. At FabLab, it’s a hands-on workshop in which youth are given a task to build or repair something and they must figure out how to accomplish the task through trial and error. FabLab also encourages participants to work in groups to solve problems together.
What made you realize that teamwork and problem solving were essential skills?
When I first started at the University of Economics HCMC, I was a typical Vietnamese student that thought group discussions were about forcing others to follow your idea. While a student, I was an active volunteer and worked on many community projects. Although I could execute each aspect of the project on my own, it wasn’t perfect. I realised that I needed more people to work with me, each with their own skill sets, to maximise the product. Through this experience I began to value the ideas of others and saw group work as an opportunity for greater success rather than a competition. Through all of my entrepreneurial endeavours in Vietnam, I want to share this team-player mind-set with others.
What are the most difficult aspects of starting a business in Vietnam?
I find it most difficult to maintain customer loyalty, understand the market for product development and comply with legal regulations.
The consumer habits of Vietnamese customers is quite different from other countries. There isn’t the same level of brand loyalty that exists in other countries. It is easy to be undercut. Wealthy enterprises can invest a lot of resources into marketing, which increases the cost of entry for smaller businesses. Therefore, I put a considerable amount of effort into developing personal relationships with my clients. I want to give my customer my reputation, brand and promise, so that when they use my product they can be assured that it is high quality. Although following this business model means slower growth, my companies grow steadily, and I’m able to compete with larger enterprises.
There also isn’t much data available on the Vietnamese market so it takes a long time to understand what consumers want.
Regarding the legal aspects of doing business in Vietnam, what is written on paper is often interpreted in a variety of ways across government departments. The confusion and bureaucracy means that it can take years for businesses to receive the correct permits, deterring even the most audacious entrepreneur. However, Dinh La Thang, the new Secretary of the Communist Party in HCMC (the highest ranking government official in the municipality) wants to make the city an ideal investment location. He proved himself to be an action-oriented politician in his previous position as Minister of Transportation and I’m looking forward to the changes he will make as Secretary.
How is the business environment in Vietnam changing?
Many Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) are returning to Vietnam to live and work. They have been educated abroad and have very different ideas from the older generation. There is also a proliferation of foreign culture, both from immigration and Internet access. Most Vietnamese youth can speak English and can therefore reach foreign cultures and ideas on an unprecedented scale. These changing demographics lead to more transparency in business.
Infrastructure, both digital and physical is improving.
The government is also shifting its focus towards startups. VTV1, a state-run online news channel, now devotes a portion of airtime to covering new businesses.
Many of your ventures have co-founders. What traits do you look for in a business partner?
Having a cofounder is like marrying someone on a professional level. If I don’t understand my partner well, it will lead to many troubles later. I often choose to work with someone that I have known long enough to be able to judge their characteristics and competency. What’s more, I pick someone I love to spend time with, someone with integrity, and someone who can share my vision and challenge me if necessary.
What’s your opinion on the startup culture in Vietnam?
Actually, we are a startup nation, when you look around, you will see many restaurants, coffee stands, and bread stalls… we all want to start something and be our own boss. It is really good, but we sometimes don’t plan for the long term to ensure sustainability. This leads to many businesses closing within a year.
Do you ever use any startup services, such as incubators or accelerator programs?
Well, we received some training from the Innovation Partnership Programme (IPP), an Official Development Assistance (ODA) program financed jointly by the governments of Vietnam and Finland. Every month they have workshops, which one accelerator organises and invites experts in the field to support and mentor the participants. Our team from FabLab attended a couple of these workshops. They helped us improve our business plan, marketing strategies and team operation management.
What startup services do you think entrepreneurs need most in Vietnam?
Vietnam needs more legal services for founders. When us entrepreneurs first start a company, we don’t have time to think about the legal framework, regulations and what risks we will face. We need help creating legal documents governing the rights and responsibilities between founding members. We also need help designing and enforcing the contract with first-time customers.
Many entrepreneurs need assistance developing a strong business plan.
Most of us are able to build our own product, but how we earn a profit and make it sustainable is a different story. Therefore, it would be nice to receive support for long-term, such as 5-10 years, planning. We also need help making plans to raise funds.
Services that would improve our sales and marketing skills are necessary as well.