The Vietnamese startup community is in a crisis. New companies are struggling to scale, there’s a lack of mentors, no money for new startups, not enough investors, not enough early adopters, drama abounds, and the economy is tanking. At least, that’s what most startup people in Vietnam are chattering about these days. But that kind of talk isn’t helping. In fact, it’s generally just adolescent startup whining. Apple and Microsoft were both founded during a recession, and more than half of the Fortune 500 companies were founded during a recession. So, get over it.
We should be listening to Bruce Lee’s advice: “To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities”.
The discussions in Vietnam’s startup scene need to shift away from all the whining and into a proactive discussion of what we can do to foster the community. Forget about finding investment (it’s cliché to complain about investment anyway), start investing in the people.
I’ve distilled a list of 10 things that every person in Vietnam’s startup scene needs to be thinking about and definitely start doing today. If you’re reading this, and you’re not doing these things already, it’s time to start. ‘Ask not what your startup community can do for you, ask what you can do for your startup community’. And I know, most of this stuff is difficult and maybe impossible, but it all has to start somewhere, one person at a time.
1. Develop a “give before you get” mentality
In Vietnam, one of the things we suffer from is a “taking” philosophy. The mentality is almost always “what am I going to get out of it?” If there is a new event, or a product or an interesting company, people immediately want to know how they will benefit from it. This needs to change right away. People need to think how can I make it better? What can I do to contribute?
The problem with this for some Vietnamese people is, “What if I give but others just take? So I’ll just give them nothing!” This is exactly the kind of thinking we need to break, and it needs to start somewhere. Strong startup communities are built on the foundation of people who help each other. When Instagram’s founder Kevin Systrom called up friend and Quora co-founder Adam D’Angelo in the middle of the night, he helped him right away. What was Adam’s reward for this? Sometimes we never know. When we give, we shouldn’t expect some kind of concrete outcome. Something will come, we just don’t know what. Sometimes the real reward is being able to be a part of history, being a part of the history of a really cool startup. Don’t think about your own personal benefit – the best way to live is for others.
2. Be a mentor and be mentored
A giving mentality naturally leads to mentorship. Vietnam is suffering from a serious lack of mentors. Programs like Founder’s Institute do get experienced entrepreneurs out of the woodwork and contribute to the community but there aren’t enough mentors that are out there proactively meeting young startups and coaching them forward. Most of the time, the excuse is “Oh, I don’t have time to do that, I’m a very busy guy, I have to run my own startup.” I’m sorry, but this is bullshit. As Brad Feld, author of Startup Communities says, people who say these kinds of things “fundamentally miss the point of what a leader does.” People like this don’t know how to look long-term at their own startup community. They don’t realize that by mentoring, everybody benefits on broad and deep levels.
And the beauty of a community with many mentors is that mentors create new mentors. If you decide today that you are going to start mentoring, you need to remember that the founders, new leaders, and startups that you begin to mentor may eventually become your mentor. You can learn from them too. That’s how a startup community organically grows. Leaders create new leaders.
3. No more “Ném Đá”
Vietnamese people have this weird habit of “ném đá” (literally meaning “throwing rocks”). It means people like to criticize without giving any solid feedback, it means they complain just to complain. This is not constructive at all. And I know, it’s a part of modern Vietnamese culture, but this habit needs to break in order for everyone to grow. If you are reading this, it needs to start with you. When you try a new app, or learn some news about a startup, or encounter a new event, instead of just complaining about it, stand up and think about how the app could be better, share with the founders what they could do to improve their business, and tell the event organizers how they can make the event better.
Unfortunately, in Vietnam, the two most common reactions people have to things is either be totally quiet, or to ném đá. Now it’s time to add a third one to the mix: think hard about how things can be improved and share those thoughts with everyone.
4. Be inclusive
For outsiders, foreigners, and new young entrepreneurs, it’s always difficult to know how to get involved in a new startup community. In every startup community across the world, there are gatekeepers into a startup community. Good gatekeepers know this and they network with all of the leaders in a community and introduce new people to the right people. This needs to happen more often. There needs to be more gatekeepers in Vietnam, and it needs to be easier to get inside the community.
I often hear the same thing over and over from Singaporean and Western investors that Vietnam is “hard to penetrate because of the language and the way the community works”. The only way to defeat this is to become more inclusive. That means not only to be more friendly and inviting other local Vietnamese, but also inviting foreigners.
5. Connect your colleagues today
If you’re reading this right now, it means you care. If there is one thing you can do to support the community right now, it’s to grow the community. And the only way to grow the community is to introduce people to each other, making more connections and growing all the ties across the network. Communities are like torrents where everybody shares simultaneously, it’s not like Napster, where people share on a one-way street.
Now, go into your email and think of two people you think should meet each other and introduce them. Right now! Go!
If you don’t have anyone to connect, go through your list (or our list) of your favorite startups and email them right away and grab a coffee. Seriously, go out and invite them out for coffee, right now. Building personal relationships with fellow founders, entrepreneurs, and techies around you builds a really strong and awesome community that will survive and grow great startups.
6. Ignore the drama
Of course, the bigger the community gets, and the more money arrives, the more potential for drama comes. I’ve seen it in almost every community I have studied. Shit happens. But if you really believe in building community, you will learn to ignore it, move beyond it, and keep on focusing on what matters: building great startups, growing the community, strengthening the community, and developing leadership.
7. Play a non-zero-sum game
This is one of the cornerstones of building a great community. Stop thinking that “if one guy wants to win, then the other guy has to lose,” and start realizing what Brad Feld says:
If there is more startup activity, this will generate more attention to the startup community, which will generate even more activity.
Although some of us are competing with each other, we all need to realize that we’re all in this together as a community also. The community is the door into individual startups. If the community sucks, no one will open the door to the startups. Therefore, in order to have a strong community, startups need to be welcoming. When one guys fails, he can then be an advisor for another startup. If a woman fails, she can start another company with the support of the community. Everybody should see the success of individuals as part of the success of everyone. Learn from the soccer players, wear each other’s jerseys.
8. Think long-term
This is actually a theme throughout all of the points here. How many of you are dedicated to the long-term success of your startup and the startup community around you? Only the people who really plan to be here for 10 to 20 years down the line will really become the leaders in the community. Why that long? Because of the new generations, it takes years to build community and in just a few years the conditions will change drastically. Will you be able to see it through the hard and the bad times? If you can, that is the mark of a great leader and the platform for a great community.
9. Stop hiding
The problem with some leaders in the startup community in Vietnam is they’re in hiding. This doesn’t help anyone, and it is also cowardly. Towards the end of his life, Steve Jobs realized this too. At first, he didn’t want to meet with Larry Page and young entrepreneurs, but he realized that hiding from the spotlight didn’t help anyone. He remembered that when Hewlett Packard reached out to him when he was a teenager, it was fundamental to his growth as an entrepreneur. In Vietnam, it’s almost like the more successful you become, the more likely you will just disappear. This is sad. Leaders just disappear, and they take all of their wisdom and experience with them.
Sometimes it’s because they fear that people will look down on them, or people will ném đá at them, or because people will look at their money, or whatever. Whatever the reason is, they need to get out into the spotlight again, coach startups, be open, and evangelize the new generation.
If you’re a successful entrepreneur, and you’re reading this, come back out and be a leader. We need you.
10. Get connected outside the startup community
One of the problems that Vietnam startups face is that they’re so new and fresh that most older companies will look down on them. On the other side, consumers are also not generally jazzed on new products, it’s hard to get them to try them, so there’s two things every participant needs to do: evangelize and early adopt.
Evangelize: be a strong supporter and believer in startups in Vietnam. Research who are the hottest startups and promote them to your friends, family, and social media.
Early adopt: Try everyone’s products and give them feedback. Be serious about downloading their latest updates or try out their latest services. They need you!
The future of Vietnam’s startup community
The people who really care about building up the startup community know that thinking about the broad and long-term benefit of the community will reap exponential benefits to everyone. You never know what the results will be, but it’s the power of stronger networks that pay off in the long run. People that see the community as a nuisance, don’t realize that strong startups are built on strong people working together. People that complain about events being shitty or how the community sucks need to just get out there and contribute. Ignore the complaints and keep on doing what’s right. Don’t get tired. Don’t get scared. Just keep going.