Interview with Tuan Le, Co-founder and Creative Director of WORK Saigon and The Lab
Tuan Le is the co-founder and creative director of two blossoming startups, WORK Saigon and The Lab. WORK Saigon is a coworking space, creativity school and cafe in the heart of Saigon. The Lab is a company of creatives that design interiors, products and brands. The two companies have partnered with international insurance company, AIA to bring residents an insurance office and cafe in HCMC’s Bitexco Financial Tower. This spring, the partnership has opened a second financial concept space/cafe in Hanoi. Tuan attributes much of his success to working with a great team, especially his co-founder and girlfriend Laure Chevallier. Tuan earned a BS in Management Science and Japanese Studies at the University of California, San Diego. After graduation he worked in California and Dubai, eventually returning to Vietnam in 2013 to execute his entrepreneurial ambitions.
Coworking spaces are a relatively new concept in Vietnam, how have people reacted the idea?
Two years ago it was a relatively novel concept. Some people, particularly freelancers, were curious to try it. Most have by now made up their minds about coworking. Either they love it or they don’t care for it. I don’t meet many inbetweeners.
The Lab is opening a second cafe bar in Hanoi, also inside Nest by AIA. How is opening a space in Hanoi different from HCMC? How do consumers and the business climate differ?
On one hand, it’s harder in Hanoi because we don’t have the same network there. So it’s more difficult to find suppliers and business partners. It’s also takes a toll on our core team, as they have to travel from Saigon to Hanoi to set up and manage. On the other hand, it’s easier because we’ve learned so much from Nest by AIA in HCMC. The feedback from the first week of operation was very encouraging. An interesting difference between the two markets is Hanoians eat many more pastries than their HCMC counterparts.
Could you walk us through one of the Creativity School workshops offered at WORK Saigon? Have any lasting business relationships or collaborative projects formed from these meetings?
We invite working professionals to teach their craft at our Creativity School. People hear about it through Facebook, their friends, and at our bulletin board. If you attended, you’d see 80% college students and about 20% professionals. We decide on topics from a pool of available instructors. Most classes focus on professional applications of creative skills. Each class almost always becomes a clique of friends and they come back to visit often. There have been some creative collaborations, like photoshoots, etc., but we have yet to track these post-course outcomes.
Other than providing food and beverage services at The Nest, is WORK Saigon involved in any other aspects of the business? Will it be a similar arrangement in the new Hanoi location?
The Lab also provides some creative services like photography, videography and graphic design for Nest Saigon. We expect the same arrangements in Hanoi.
In addition to workshops, what kind of events does WORK Saigon offer?
We do social events sometimes, such as BBQ’s, luncheons and meetups. We’ve also done one-off events like cook offs and movie nights.
Coworking spaces are difficult to sustain financially. How does WORK Saigon not only sustain itself, but grow? What innovative business model sets WORK Saigon apart from other coworking spaces?
It’s a combination of a few things. In Vietnam rent is relatively low as well as competition, in terms of coworking spaces. We host a lot of events at WORK Saigon and WORK Cafe that we cater for, and Catering is good business. Our classes also attract enough students to turn a profit. We charge a small premium over similar sized coworking spaces because of the additional services here. We’ve been fully booked for over a year.
What type of residents fit in particularly well at WORK Saigon? Have you ever had to ask someone to leave WORK Saigon against their will? If so, why and how did you deal with that?
Creative entrepreneurs and designers.are ideal candidates. Of course, everyone is welcome here, but a natural community has formed around creativity and design, as opposed to tech and developers. We asked a few residents to relocate when we changed our residency model of individual to start-ups. We ask nicely and they’re still hanging out with us.
Regarding your other company, The Lab Saigon, do your clients primarily come from Vietnam or abroad? What kind of design service is most popular?
Our clients come primarily from Vietnam. To date, we’ve worked with four clients abroad, two from Los Angeles, one from Washington D.C., one from Norway. Interior Design is our most popular service, followed closely by Branding.
Can you comment on the graphic design industry and market in Vietnam?
The market has picked up a lot over the last 3 years. I credit the young generation of designers, educated abroad or exposed to different influences, who showed brands what design can do for their business. Some of the best designers form studios and collectives that do really good work. I’d like to see us balance our appreciation for Vietnamese heritage with more forward-looking, experimental work though.
What do you think of the entrepreneurial climate in Ho Chi Minh City?
A lot has been said about Saigon’s potential for start-ups. I don’t have anything to add other than to say that I’m grateful for being here and now.
Can you tell us about a memory or experience that inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I’ll tell you about a person. My mother can turn 50 cents into a dollar. She has owned nail salons, restaurants, a donut shop, a fast food joint, a travel agency, real estate, a cigarette dealership, convenient stores, online businesses and studied board consultancy. Put her on a deserted island and she’ll turn it into a resort.
As an entrepreneur, have you used any startup support services, such as incubators, accelerators, coworking hubs or investment companies?
Sadly, no, but I regularly ask for advice from my friends in the startup ecosystem. I have nothing but respect for these guys.
Vietnam’s economy is still developing, what support services are most needed by entrepreneurs today?
They need streamlined and affordable law and accounting services. Many entrepreneurs are left fending for themselves in a shifting legal landscape.
If you could give one piece of advice to an entrepreneur starting a business in Vietnam, what would you say?
No matter what business you’re in, you’re in the people business. They make or break you in Vietnam. Be generous and nice. Reach out to help people and they’ll return the favour. Buy someone a coffee or a beer. Be genuinely interested in meeting people, not just contacts. It’ll all come back to you. Good luck!
Photo Credit: The Lab Saigon, Nest by AIA and Mike Pham