Entrepreneurs blaze a trail in the city

September 29, 2022 | 16:00
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Die-hard entrepreneurs are re-inventing themselves to solve business problems and find their niches in Ho Chi Minh City.

Cruising along the many streets of Ho Chi Minh City’s most popular districts, more than a few new businesses are being formed. Backing up those new businesses are determined entrepreneurs who communicate through their hard work, serious commitment, expanding plans, and soaring ambitions.

Entrepreneurs blaze a trail in the city
Young startup entrepreneurs are determined to make the most of Ho Chi Minh City’s potential

Stepping inside the buzzing atmosphere of The Vintage Emporium Da Kao during lunchtime, it can be hard to imagine that the restaurant took many years for it to become a stable, successful business.

Having been trained in the hospitality industry and gained experience with the 5-star Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel, the husband and wife team of Linton Borthwick and Kalen Nguyen thought they had a solid plan.

“We chose Nguyen Van Thu street to open the first restaurant because we saw the traffic was high, but they were only passing by, and nobody would drop in,” said Thu. “My husband, who was then the executive assistant manager at Park Hyatt Saigon, advised me about the restaurant’s design and operation so we knew we had a welcoming Sydney-chic restaurant-cafe in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. But there were simply no customers.”

It took Nguyen four years to handle the startup culture shock as she went on a mission to re-learn everything, from kitchen and inventory management to accounting, sales, and marketing, and more besides.

Serving wholesome food and drinks, the couple’s first restaurant gradually gained a reputation as the best place to brunch in the city. Seven days a week, it is now filled with trendy customers who enjoy discussing business or pleasure in a laid-back atmosphere provided.

After the success of the first restaurant, the couple opened a second Vintage Emporium in District 2 in 2018 and Beach House City Garden in Binh Thanh district in 2021.

Through the stress of starting a business and then battling through the pandemic years, the owners realised that giving back to the community truly brings them happiness. With profit steady, Nguyen began to help employees during the difficult times, as well as a few chosen charities.

“The key to success is that you have to truly deeply love it. I still love organising many banquet set-ups myself,” she said.

Thanks to entrepreneurs like Nguyen and Borthwick, Ho Chi Minh City now boasts a thriving international foodie scene from Italian and French to Chinese and Korean, and from fusion to futuristic mashups, besides traditional Vietnamese offerings.

Trained professionalism

Brick-and-mortar businesses aside, technology-infused startups are also betting big. In January 2021, in the midst of the city’s pandemic restrictions, Filipino media producer Poppet Celdran came up with the idea for Zen, a mobile app that integrates AI technology and connects certified massage therapists to health and wellness clients for in-home and on-demand services.

“I have chronic back pain and usually need 2-3 massages a month, and the only way I could have my regular massages was to pay for very expensive service at luxury spas that could afford to remain open during lockdowns,” said Celdran. “Then I found out that so many therapists and masseurs were out of a job due to the lack of customers.”

Celdran decided to fill in the market gap by creating Zen Tech Asia and the Zen massage app with a team he formed from various networks. App users have to sign a detailed app user agreement and privacy policy in addition to using cashless payments and many other features to keep the app transparent to both therapists and customers. Ratings and reviews are also published.

Within a year, the Zen Tech Asia team had recruited service providers and tirelessly knocked on the doors of massage training centres and hotels to seek partnerships. Celdran estimates that with just 50 therapists working, the total monthly revenue could reach around $100,000, and he can scale the business model to other Southeast Asian countries and tourism hotspots aggressively.

“We can create demand from segments such as bankers, flight attendants, office workers, and more. I spoke to all segments to know what their pain points are and kept them in mind as we developed the product,” Celdran added.

Last year Zen Tech Asia was chosen as one of the top 60 startups in Vietnam by Startup Wheel 2021 and received mentorship and endorsement by the Business Startup Support Centre in Ho Chi Minh City. Celdran is rolling out the upgraded version of Zen Lite by the end of this month and is offering booking discounts to attract users.

Try and try again

Starting a business is always a risk for founders, who are likely to lose regular income and some degree of financial stability. Tran Viet Quan, founder of human resources software-as-a-service platform Tanca.io, took out a personal loan to get going with his idea. “I took a loan of VND60 million ($2,600) from the bank, and every month I paid more than VND3 million ($130). Often I barely had enough money for lunch,” said Quan. “We maintained my first company for 18 months and then closed it, but it was a valuable lesson to help me to understand business better.”

Quan owned his first business in 2009, selling imported flowers online. He then worked for a software company before quitting to start afresh with an agriculture sales idea. This also failed and, after trying various business models, he systemised requirements for business management and human resources, and created Tanca.io in 2018.

“At first I tried to find business solutions for just a coffee shop, then a chain of coffee shops. But then I said to myself, why not the entire food and beverage retail business nationwide? But business management is so broad, so I re-focused and chose to try and solve specific human resource matters as my experience is best placed there,” said Quan.

After around a year of development, Tanca.io started generating revenue. It now provides professional services and human resources solutions to roughly 57,000 users nationwide including Shopee, Vascara, and Vinamilk.

Quan is one of many entrepreneurs that say the road is tough, but the destination is worth it. “You get happy, sad, lonely, and frustrated but they all are emotions you need to go through on this journey. I have met many better people, learned many business models, and competed with thousands of other tech startups around the world. It is a precious journey that not everyone gets to experience,” he said.

Mary Tarnowka - Executive director American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam

Entrepreneurs blaze a trail in the city

I am a huge fan of Ho Chi Minh City. That’s why I stayed here after my term as US consul general in Ho Chi Minh City ended in 2019. I think Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City in particular have amazing potential. I believe there are incredible opportunities for US businesses in and around the city and throughout the country.

We value actions that Vietnamese leaders and Ho Chi Minh City leaders specifically have taken to promote economic recovery. We are optimistic about prospects for continued economic growth in 2022 and beyond.

Vietnam is now one of the top destinations for foreign investment, both as companies seek to diversify their manufacturing supply chains and as they seek to target its own population and growing consumer class. It is one of the fastest growing economies in the region if not the world. It has a stable political environment and a welcoming approach to investment. It has a strategic location near consumer markets. It is integrated into a network of free trade agreements and now is part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Ho Chi Minh City has all those advantages. It is a modern, dynamic city in the heart of Vietnam’s southern key economic region, with excellent universities and colleges. It has a long history of entrepreneurism. The city and the surrounding region is a top destination for multinationals seeking to diversify supply chains. It has a booming consumer market, with both a large and growing middle class and luxury market.

Plus, it attracts the best and brightest from Vietnam and increasingly the world who want to live in a place such fantastic economic opportunity, together with a range of high-quality housing options, top-quality Vietnamese and international schools, and access to high-quality services, including both Vietnamese and increasingly, an international foodie scene.

By Hong Nhung

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