Financial Times praised Vietnam tech entrepreneurs

Đăng bởi: Ban Biên Tập ngày: 20/03/2012 3:19 pm 0 Phản hồi

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When Le Hong Minh quit a blossoming career in finance in 2005 to pursue his passion for computer games, he had no vision of what would happen next. The 35-year-old, who studied business and finance at Monash University in Australia having grown up in Vietnam, had spent the previous four years working for PwC, the professional services firm, and VinaCapital, a Vietnam-focused fund manager. But founding Vinagame, an online gaming company, was the start of what he calls a “trial and error” process.

Le Hong Minh, the founder of VNG. Minh City to accept the risk that day seemed to bring me fruits.

Le Hong Minh, the founder of VNG. Minh City to accept the risk that day seemed to bring me fruits.

“I’m a risk-taker,” he says, leaning back on a sofa in his Silicon Valley-style open-plan office on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial capital. “You say: ‘Let’s just do this.’ You don’t think about the consequences.”

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Seven years later, the risk appears to have paid off. Having launched Vinagame at a time when there was barely any online business in Vietnam and almost no one with any experience of programming games, he has capitalised on the rapid spread of the internet to build the company.

Vinagame’s multiplayer internet-based games such as Swordsman Online, which was licensed from a Chinese software company, proved popular with Vietnamese teenagers and the company branched out, developing social networking, news and music websites, and rebranding as VNG Corporation.

Bullish but reticent about his privately owned company, Mr Minh says VNG’s revenues will exceed $100m this year, accounting for about half the total internet market in Vietnam. The company has attracted investment from Goldman Sachs.

With an outmoded education system, strict government censorship and Confucian values that favour experience and caution over youthful endeavour, Communist-ruled Vietnam is better known for rice and shoes than software developers or internet companies. But Mr Minh is one of a small group of tech entrepreneurs in their late 20s and early 30s who have tapped into the emergence of a young, tech-savvy population in Vietnam.

Just 10 years ago, few Vietnamese owned a mobile phone or personal computer. Now smartphones and iPads can seem as common on the bustling streets of Hanoi, the capital, or Ho Chi Minh City as in London or New York.

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Despite the potential, however, Vietnam’s tech pioneers had to overcome a number of obstacles. For a start, the country’s technical education system is very under-developed, so many of them are self-taught.

As a high-school student, Nguyen Hoa Binh saved his breakfast money to buy books on programming: last year the 31-year-old sold a 20 per cent stake in PeaceSoft, his online trading company, to Ebay.

Ho Minh Duc, who founded the country’s first Vietnamese-language search engine with four friends from primary school, studied IT at university but the softly spoken 29-year-old says he and his colleagues “learnt more from ourselves than our professors, who just teach theory”.

His company, Socbay (which means “flying squirrel”), is based in a typical narrow Vietnamese house on a busy road in suburban Hanoi. Mr Duc says the founders wanted to use their understanding of Vietnamese culture and the complicated, tonal language to produce a better search engine for Vietnamese consumers than those developed by international rivals.

In 2006 Google came knocking, Mr Duc says, offering the founders $5m for the company, as well as share options and jobs with salaries of $8,000 a month. “If we’d joined Google, we would have learnt a lot,” he says. However, they declined because “the price was too cheap and we want to develop our own Vietnamese technology to address the needs of Vietnamese people”.
But before they can give the people what they want, they need to keep the authoritarian government on side.

“In Vietnam, you need connections,” says Phung Tien Cong, a 32-year-old serial internet entrepreneur who has set up dating and music websites. More recently, he took up a job as deputy general manager of MV Corporation, which is developing mobile phone applications.

The Communist party rulers remain fearful about the impact of the internet on young people. As well as imposing strict rules on online content and service providers, they launch regular crackdowns on online gaming, and popular websites such as Facebook are sometimes blocked.

While young people pay little attention to the tightly controlled, dull state media, companies such as VNG have serious reach in Vietnam. It has attracted 18m users to its gaming, social networking and music and news websites – representing about 60 per cent of Vietnam’s active internet users. “We keep a good relationship and dialogue with the government,” says Mr Minh. “To some extent, it’s a sensitive industry. We need to make sure people understand us.”
Privately, some of the entrepreneurs admit feeling under pressure to self-censor and share fears that the government could close them on a whim and destroy years of hard work.

The requirement for “government buy-in” puts Vietnamese tech entrepreneurs at a disadvantage to overseas rivals, says Henry Nguyen, managing partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam, a Ho Chi Minh City-based venture capital firm that has invested in VNG and Socbay. “The laws as they exist now are extremely favourable to non-Vietnamese companies and probably severely unfair for local companies.”

Mr Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who previously worked on Wall Street, says his own personal connections help. His wife is Nguyen Thanh Phuong, daughter of Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, and a rising star in the financial sector.

The entrepreneurs also worry about the pace of change. “Technology is very fast-changing and local companies face a big disadvantage, with very limited resources,” says Mr Minh. “We don’t have enough people, experience or an ecosystem around us to help us grow and develop.”

Companies such as VNG, for example, need to innovate but they do not have access to enough skilled people. Although some of them sport pink slippers and ponytails, VNG employees do not have time to play table tennis, lie on couches or think of the next big thing.

Instead, says Mr Minh, “we have people working our arses off”.
Mr Cong, who is trying to bring his entrepreneurial spirit to his new employer, says it is also important to foster a mentality that accepts failure while trying new ideas.

“The key message when I first came here was that we’ll make double the number of mistakes as before, because we will work twice as hard,” he says. “It is OK for my staff to make mistakes so long as they don’t repeat them.”

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