The Start Network: Building Ho Chi Minh City’s Entrepreneur Ecosystem


Chris, on the far left, pictured with members of the community and visitors from Ycombinator and via the Silicon Valley.

If you’re coming to Ho Chi Minh city and you want to learn about startups, the Start Center, a physical manifestation of the Start Network, is quickly becoming one of the gateways. Investors, startups, entrepreneurs, graduate students, and bloggers have all been through the Start Center since its opening in January 2012. Chris Zobrist, whose mother is Vietnamese and a professor in entrepreneurship at the Jon Von Neumann Institute and HCMC University of Technology, leads the project.

The space is the only co-working space in Saigon dedicated to entrepreneurs. It holds community events, provides meeting room and office space (with wifi) for individuals and startups, and even offers accomodation for visiting startups or investors. The cost is low for visitors and startups so as to encourage young people to stay and help build the community. The low cost means Chris has to take a financial hit in the beginning, so I was curious to find out more about why he began running the Start Center:

Six years ago, I was teaching entrepreneurship at RMIT University. I got the chance to talk to a lot of students about entrepreneurship but most of them didn’t end up becoming entrepreneurs. I realized that I needed to reach out to more mature individuals who actually wanted to be entrepreneurs. When I was young, I had a hard time starting my first company. I failed a lot. I want to make sure others don’t make the same mistakes. The Start Center is about giving startups the community they need and the space that is low cost to grow.

As of January 2013, the Start Center has already achieved the following:

  • Has been the venue for over 30 events
  • Hosted 1,500 people who use the space
  • 47 startups have used the space (over 200 entrepreneurs in all)
  • Boasts 50 paying members from a diverse assortment of startups

Chris also shared with me what kind of impact did he think the Start Center would have on the entrepreneur ecosystem in Vietnam:

Our goals are two-fold. First, we hope to create a self-sustainable environment at The Start Center which will support the formation and growth of startups, especially scalable startups which are of most interest to early-stage investors like our local angel investors and venture capital funds. Second, we hope to establish a good model that will inspire others in the Vietnam entrepreneurial ecosystem to collaborate with us in building a distributed network of support centers for entrepreneurs and early-stage investors.

The Start Center is only one place under the Start Network umbrella. Chris hopes to connect the dots between the spaces to help foster a healthy ecosystem. These spaces include the mLabs group in Saigon Hi-Tech Park, the Open Innovation Lab under the Masters in Entrepreneurship at the Jon Von Neumann Institute, and the HCMC University of Technology’s version of Stanford’s D-school. These three new spaces will go into full operation by the middle of 2013. Chris is also working on injecting money into the community.

We’ve already gotten a seed fund together with investments from Vietnam Startup Funding Network, Startup Labs, and several angel investors. The goal there is to invest in seed stage companies that we believe can go global.

He hopes that the Start Center will support both local and global startups who want to leverage potential markets in Vietnam. It’s centrally located and its got a growing community. So if you’re coming through Ho Chi Minh city, stop by and say hello. I’ll probably be there too.

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