Rick Nguyen profile on Radio Free Asia (RFA)

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Below is an English translation of my interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA) by Thanh Truc in Vietnamese. 

Successful Vietnamese In The Silicon Valley – Radio Free Asia (RFA)

By Thanh Truc

Rick Nguyen in front of his office at Plug and Play Tech Center in the Silicon Valley

Spot Trender is an advertising analytics company that uses the latest technology to evaluate advertising campaigns. Spot Trender’s co-founder is a Vietnamese-American, Rick Nguyen. Rick graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Interdisciplinary Science; his co-founder Christopher South majored in mechanical engineering from San Jose State University.

Learning how start a tech company

Rick Nguyen shared his challenges and experiences as an Asian-American immigrant starting a tech company in Silicon Valley, where the advertising analytics company Spot Trender has been growing for nearly six years. 

My name is Rick Nguyen, 30 years old. I moved to Georgia from Vietnam around when I was thirteen. Growing up in the Bay Area, I went to Homestead High School, then UC Berkeley class 0f 2009. 

After graduating in 2009, Rick Nguyen returned to Vietnam, where he lived and worked for a time:

Right after college, I went back to Vietnam and worked for about six or seven months. My goal was to gain self-awareness and to understand my origins. When I returned to the US, I worked for a few technology companies to learn how tech startups work. Then, I was working to learn and not to earn. After a year, I felt confident enough to start my first company.

The first year was tough for Rick. He had to learn many new skills and learn to think like a founder, not an employee :

It didn’t have many connections when I started; it was tough. I had to work days and nights while learning new skills like attracting talents, raising capital, etc. While it was difficult, I thoroughly loved the experience. By the third year, we started making a profit. Profit makes everything better. 

During my first years, I failed much more often than I succeeded. Luckily, one thing that I did right was to talk to potential customers before building Spot Trender. We’d call up potential customers to ask them about their pain points and how much they’re willing to pay to solve these problems. Once we found out many potential customers would pay $100K-$200K a year to have better advertising insights, we started building the Spot Trender platform. 

Using innovative technologies to predict advertising success was a relatively new concept back then. Rick Nguyen continued his story:

Raising capital was challenging because I was a first-time tech founder. No one knew who I was and what I’ve done. Furthermore, I’m an immigrant, so I didn’t have many established connections. My co-founder Chris South and I ended up using our own money to develop the product. We managed to keep our startup alive and grow from there. 

Initial Failure

One of the biggest initial failures that Rick Nguyen mentioned was QR Pitch. QR Pitch was a video platform Rick and his co-founder Christopher South created before Spot Trender. With QR Pitch, entrepreneurs can upload their startup pitch and get feedback from mentors and investors. Moreover, they’re looking to grow it into a fundraising platform where investors can invest in companies they like based on those video pitches. There wasn’t a big market for this service then, QR Pitch had to close.

Rick Nguyen and Christopher South co-founded Spot Trender

Fortunately, they had interests from companies like Intuit to use their platform to test video commercials. Rick Nguyen and Chris South retooled the QR Pitch platform into an automated data gathering and advertising analysis platform. Spot Trender was born: 

Previously, advertising analysis took a long time. It can take three weeks or even longer – depending on how the sample size researchers want. We leverage new technologies such as Natural Language Processing and automated participant recruiting to speed up the research process dramatically. Instead of waiting for three weeks, Spot Trender can get the actionable insights our clients need at a 95% confidence level within 3 hours instead of 3 weeks. 

Our customer base is quite diverse. Initially, we designed Spot Trender for professional advertisers. However, we started seeing non-profit organizations and politicians using our platform to refine their messaging. 

Spot Trender is faster, provides better data, and costs half as much. With automation, we add a lot of value while saving money for our customers.  

Over the past two years, Spot Trender’s revenue has grown by about 200 to 300% per year. Rick Nguyen attributed most of his initial success to luck. 

My co-founder and I felt very lucky to choose the advertising analytics industry over more saturated, highly competitive ones like social media. 

As for Christopher South, currently CEO of Spot Trender:

I’m Christopher South, Rick and I met five years ago, and we co-founded Spot Trender. Working with Rick is a pleasure. Rick and I brought many different ideas and perspectives into the company. We make a fantastic team!

Rick Nguyen and Christopher South, co-founders at Spot Trender

Fortune Smiles On Us

According to Spot Trender’s co-founder Rick Nguyen, Spot Trender can compete against big advertising companies like Comscore, Nielsen, Ace Metrix, etc.

Rick Nguyen’s startup story caught VJS Vietnam Journal Of Science’s attention, a group that I wrote about previously. Vietnam Journal of Science is a publication by a group of scientists and researchers from Vietnam who are working and studying in America, funded by the prestigious Vietnam Education Fund (Vietnamese: Quĩ Giáo Dục Việt Nam).

Lam Thieu, an editor at the Vietnam Journal Of Science, told me why they featured Rick Nguyen and Spot Trender:  

First, we chose Rick Nguyen because he is a young immigrant from Vietnam. Second, he’s a Silicon Valley startup founder with a new and disruptive product in the advertising technology space. His story is compelling; he’s a young man who’s willing to give up everything to pursue this passion. I think young Vietnamese can learn from his entrepreneurial spirit and story. 

Rick Nguyen claims that he’s where he is today is mostly because of luck. He met the right people, in the right place, at the right time. I ask him what he thought about the startup movement in Vietnam: 

Vietnam’s startup ecosystem is growing massively. However, it’s more difficult for a Vietnamese startup to expand worldwide than a startup in Silicon Valley. If the Vietnamese government wants to support startups, I think it would be very beneficial to send new Vietnamese startup founders to Silicon Valley to observe, learn, and work for about six months. Additionally, passing transparent and fair intellectual property/commercial laws would help boost Vietnam’s startup ecosystem. 

Startup Tips

Finally, Rick has a startup tip for new entrepreneurs. Learning from his failure with QR Pitch – the predecessor of Spot Trender, Rick advises new startup founders to “do your homework”: 

Before building your product and business, verify your ideas. What problem are you solving? How are you solving it? Are people willing to pay you for your solution? Talk to 25-30 potential customers and make sure you’re solving a real pain point that people are eager to pay to solve. Don’t just start a company because everyone else’s doing it. It’s the path to pain. 

Willingness to learn and character are two essential components for a startup founder. Rick says:  

You become the people with whom you surround yourself. Invest your time to find and connect with people who are much better than you, people with character traits you admire, people who achieved what you’re looking to do. For instance, when I go to CEO events with executives from big companies, I might be the dumbest person there, but I learned so much from them. You don’t learn a lot being the smartest person in the room.
Last but not least, work on your character. Become someone people would follow. For instance, as a leader, practice complete dedication to your team and its success, and take 100% responsibility for your team’s failure. 

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