I recently interviewed with the Saigon Times (Thoi Bao Kinh Te Saigon). It’s like the Wall Street Journal of Vietnam. I talked about my experience as a first-generation Vietnamese-American founder. We also discussed mindsets and recommendations for first-time tech startup founders.
There’s an English translation below too. I’m not a professional translator so I took some liberties with the translation to optimize for clarity and readability. Enjoy!
Understanding People Leads to Sucess
By Minh Le
During my travel to Silicon Valley, California, I got a chance to meet Rick Nguyen – the co-founder at Spot Trender, a successful advertising tech startup. Rick shared with me his startup journey from zero to hero and the trade-off to be a startup founder.
Question: In your opinion, what would an entrepreneur need to be successful in the US? Especially for an immigrant from Vietnam like yourself?
Rick: There are three things I wished I had known before starting my company.
First, assimilate into the American melting pot.
Venture forth to interact with different cultures instead of isolating yourself within your ethnic group.
American companies have a tremendous advantage when they need to expand worldwide because they have access to other cultures right here: Indians, Chinese, Hispanics, Europeans, etc. This access allows companies to understand how different markets react to their products or services. “Friends do deals with friends,” people do business with those they like and trust.
As immigrants, some cultural norms we have can alienate potential business partners. For instance, I love fish sauce but it’s smelly to most Americans. You probably shouldn’t take out the fish sauce when having American friends over for dinner, else they’d run away!
Additionally, I’d like to emphasize that you need to be good at English. Invest in a pronunciation coach and surround yourself daily with native English speakers to force yourself to use the language. It doesn’t matter how great your ideas are; if you can’t explain them, they’re worthless.
Sun Tzu wrote:
“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, you will also suffer a defeat for every victory gained. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
When you know yourself and your culture, and other people’s way of life and thinking, you’re much more likely to succeed.
Second, work ten times as hard!
Startup life is a constant struggle for survival. You’ll need to compete with American-born entrepreneurs for capital and talents. You’re handicapped because they have more connections and money. You must 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 wider network here than you. That means you have to network more often and be more strategic about it. Maintain a list of amazing people, and consistently reach out to them. Network with people who have what you want to have, who achieved what you wanted to do, whom you want to be like.
To be friends with high-caliber people, you have to be your best self. Ask yourself this: Who do I want to become? Then start acting like that person.
Third, learn to be persuasive.
As an entrepreneur, you need to persuade investors, co-founders, employees, and clients. How do you get better? With a lot of practice. Don’t worry; you’ll have many opportunities to practice as a startup founder. Also, join a public speaking club, like Toastmasters International.
Question: What do you have to gain and lose as an entrepreneur?
Rick: In my opinion, you gain three things.
First, you have complete control of your destiny, the freedom to do what you want to do. Running a startup opens up a world of wonders and possibilities. With a high-tech startup, you can make a massive impact on the planet.
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: you will need to make sacrifices to the startup god.
The most noticeable aspect is financial instability. Initially, you often can’t 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 I first started my company.
Second, you won’t have time – so forget about working 9 to 5 and having a lovely 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.
Question: What is your recommendation to first-time founders?
Rick: 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 for at least five years to work on your startup, as most startup ideas take a while to become a 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 a tremendously powerful ally in the future, but you’re also making Vietnam a better place.