During my travel to Silicon Valley, California, I got a chance to meet Rick Nguyen. He is co-founder of Spot Trender, a technology startup successfully disrupting a multi billion-dollar advertising testing industry in the United States. As a UC Berkeley alumnus and veteran startup founder, Rick Nguyen has been invited to speak about high-tech management, product development, and entrepreneurship at Microsoft, San Jose State University, and coding schools over across the United States. Vietnam Journal of Science (VJS) recently had an interview with him (http://www.vjsonline.org/science-technology-pulse/1463177507 ). This time, our talk concentrated on high-tech entrepreneurship.
Q : In your opinion, what are needed for a successful entrepreneur in the US, especially for an immigrant from Vietnam like yourself?
A : There are three essential things that I learned during my journey that I wished I had known before starting my company.
First, integration. Go outward to interact with different cultures instead of isolating yourself within your own ethnic group. American companies have tremendous advantage when they need to expand worldwide because they have access to other cultures right here at home: Indians, Chinese, Hispanics, Europeans etc. Access to other cultures and point-of-views allow companies to have deeper understanding of how different markets would react to their products or services. “Friends do deals with friends”, people do business with those they like and trust. Some cultural norms we have can alienate us from potential clients and partners. For instance, fish sauce, which is a delicious stable in many Vietnamese dishes, doesn’t smell good to Americans. While it is a huge part of our culture, eating fish sauce while having a non-Vietnamese guest over can break rapport.
Additionally, I’d like to emphasize that you need to be good at English. Invest in pronunciation coach and surround yourself daily with native English speakers to force yourself to use the language. This is extremely important because without the ability to express yourself clearly, people perceive you as less intelligent, less capable, less successful.
Sun Tzu said in the art of war: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” When you know not only yourself and your culture, but also other people’s way of life and thinking, you have a much better chance of success.
Second, you need to be willing to work ten times harder than the natives. Startup is a constant struggle for survival. You’ll have to compete with people who were born in America, with access to existing network, language, and capital. You have to be willing to work ten times harder and smarter than your competition. For example, let’s talk about networking. People who were born in the U.S. already have a much bigger network here than you. That means you have to go out much more often and networking in a much smarter fashion. By networking smarter I meant you’ll have to be much more focused in your networking, i.e. meet the right people. Network with people who have what you want to have, who achieved what you wanted to do. To have high-quality people wanting to be your friend and work with you, you have to work hard to be your BEST self: Imagine your ideal self, ask yourself what that person would do, then do it. In Vietnam we have a saying: “If you’re close to ink, you’ll be black. If you’re close to lamb, you’ll be bright.”
Third, persuasiveness. Practice persuasion, or “pitching”. As an entrepreneur, you’ll be pitching 24/7 – whether to get investors, persuade a star employee to join your company, or potential clients to try your product. Join a public speaking club, like Toastmasters International. Practice your presentation, negotiation, motivation, and persuasive skills.
Q : According to you, what are the gain and the loss for an entrepreneur ?
A : In my opinion, you gain three things. First, you have complete control of your destiny, the freedom to do what you wan to do. Running a startup opens up a world of wonders and possibilities. With high-tech startup, you can make massive impact on the world. Second, wealth (smiling). Third, you’ll be part of the exclusive CEO club: People who are relatively smart, motivated, successful. You’ll be able to relate to them because you’ve gone through hell and back!
But be warned: Sacrifices need to be made. The most noticeable aspect is financial stability. When you start out, you won’t be able to afford that vacation or concert ticket you want. You’re lucky if you can pay for necessities like food and shelter. I slept on my mom’s couch for 2 years when first started my company. Second, you won’t have time – so forget about working 9 to 5 and having nice weekend. Finally, it will be hard on your relationships –when your friends go out to the bar Saturday night you’ll be busy working on your company. Your startup is like a new-born child. It will cry, poop, and need to be fed at 3 AM.
Q : What is your recommendation to first-time founders?
A : Starting a company is tough a way of life, so you’ll need to deliberate very carefully before starting. Build a financial cushion to yourself at least 5 years to work on your startup, as most startup ideas take a while to become reality. You don’t have to quit your job right away, make sure you do your homework to see if your idea is useful, and if people are willing to pay/use it before massively focusing on it.
To the successful startup entrepreneurs: When you’re on top, send the elevator downstairs. Help the next generation of leaders through investments, mentorship, and opportunities. Not only you’ll gain tremendously powerful ally in the future, you’re making Vietnam a better place.